Ten Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self about Teaching

When I first began teaching, I taught eighth-grade English at a small private school on the East Coast. I started each class with a speed-journal question in which students were asked to respond in writing to a question posed on the whiteboard before a set amount of time had expired.

Here’s a speed-journal question for the teacher.

Journal Entry #14: If you could speak to your younger self on your first day of teaching, what would you tell yourself?

1. The hardest part of teaching a group of students is recognizing that each group, each class, has its own group identity. Each class is its own complex ecosystem. You will not recognize how your least attentive student impacts your most gifted; you will instead see fires that need to be put out, inattention, and distraction. You will attend to each as a thousand unrelated actions, not understanding how to first identify the group as a whole, how it thinks, what interests it; and the group must be befriended, understood, and made a partner in its own education. Only then can you begin to understand the parts — the students — adjusting to how each relates to the group.

2. There are only two questions that matter: how and why. Everything else is just the stuff of quizzes and tests. There will be teachers who will applaud their favorite parrots and parade them around, believing borrowed insight is an education. But know that the highest-performing students can rarely think for themselves, trading their own voice for praise, left susceptible to failure later in life. You must always remember that you are not teaching them what to think but how to think. Stop listening for the right answer. Make them explain how they reached their conclusion. If you learn their tendencies and learn which steps preceded the next, you can teach them to find their own way out of the darkness. A real education means that a student no longer needs you after the conclusion of the course.

3. Stop talking so much. The more you speak, the less they learn. They must do. They must experiment. They must learn to fail and try again and again. Just giving them the right answer is selfishness, ego; it’s the easiest path for the popular instructor, but not for the great teacher. Their learned response to failure is the most important and necessary component to learning — and probably to life for that matter. Creating an environment in which the answer to failure is anxiety, or fear, or tears intended to pry the answer from your lips is failure on your part. If you do not commit yourself to impart enough confidence to your students to risk their own fear of failure, then you will spend the year combating aggression or indifference.

4. Forgive yourself. Ask the same of yourself that you ask of your students: be better than you were yesterday. Model this behavior. And when you do not, apologize, make amends to those you have failed (especially to your students), and then let it go. Dragging all that pain around will poison every relationship you have and will punish you more than those who have harmed you. Forgive others, not because they deserve it but because you are only punishing yourself.

5. Students learn by what you do, not by what you say.

6. There is comfort in consistency, which is not to say that everything must always be the same — by no means. Change things up, give lots of choice and options, but maintain a structure that allows students to expect a predictable outcome. Allow your expectations to be consistent so that your students will value your praise and accept your criticism. Watch your tone carefully. Students will translate frustration and annoyance as hate and condemnation, and you will lose them. Applaud the good, provide a way out of the bad, and don’t ever let them linger in self-loathing.

7. Let them see the passion that drew you to works of literature. Open up, and reconnect with your younger self, remembering what it was like to struggle with all that insecurity and self-doubt. Share those stories. Be a person. Be a fool for 18th century poets. Dance. Jump. Sing. Be unafraid. Be the hope for them that things will not always be like they are now.

8. When talking to a parent, realize that they would willingly give up their lives for their child, without pause, without question, and this dynamic is the undercurrent of all conversations, all fears, all hopes. Nothing you do is more important to them than what you do for their child. Reassure them that everything is going to be all right, and then do your damnedest to make that sentence true. Understand that a parent has agreed to share with you the growth and development of their most precious love; this is the unspoken covenant between teachers and parents. Honor that trust. When the years have passed, when you are just an anecdote over dinner, no one will be able to remember your clever lessons and units – college and time will blur that for them, but what will be remembered is how a student felt in your classroom, and whether you will be ultimately judged as excellent or poor, authentic or flawed, will be found in the experience of your classroom.

9. If your students don’t believe that you believe in them, they will not learn from you, they will not engage, they will be lost to you. And all the negative behavior that follows and the consequences issued in response to that behavior will poison your classroom and will ultimately steal an education from your students. And this will haunt you years later, not just for the education lost but for your complicity in it. You would handle things so much better now. But their names will not fade like the others; guilt and responsibility will make sure of that. And for this, too, you must find forgiveness and time for yourself, because tomorrow will come, and the bell will ring, and a new class will need you to be better than you were before.

10. Remember that you are not a high school student. You just work there. It seems simple enough, but you must remember that you spend more time with teenagers than you do with adults. And if you let them, homework, dances, and soccer games will consume your life until your friends no longer recognize you, until your life is not your own. I wish I could tell you that it was worth it, all those hours cheering students across this finish line or that; but the journey back, finding yourself again, and building a private life again, will be brutal. And all those hours spent volunteering, while well-intentioned, will be hours not spent with loved ones, not spent with friends, and not spent finding someone who will love you back. I guess, as hard as this is to imagine saying, I would tell you that you confused dedication with obsession, love with sacrifice. If I could go back, I would tell you that we got lost somewhere back there, and it took years to find our way back home again.