Esther Swartzentruber is a newcomer to Elkhart County. She recently graduated from Ohio State University and teaches English grammar and literature at a small Mennonite school in Nappanee. You can read more of her work on her blog, Shasta’s Fog.
It has been said: “Calm first-year teachers are like magical unicorns. They are rarely found in the wild.” And to that I say, “Duh. They’re at school lesson planning.” The teachers, I mean. Not the unicorns.
At the end of my first year of teaching junior high and high school English, I decided to come up with a list some of the hardest things that first-year teachers face. Some difficult things about a first-year teacher’s lifestyle include:
Getting used to school culture.
Day trips to Chicago? Thanksgiving lunch exchanges? Formal Christmas banquets for junior high students? Regional spelling bees? Are you kidding me? We never did anything like that in school. Well, that’s not true. We had Dress-Like-A-Book-Character Day. And we saved up money to go to the Spruce Lake Outdoor School in the Poconos for a week. So I guess we had our fun too.
It can be difficult to adjust to a new school culture. Beware. These cultures exist. Students, teachers and school administrators plan with happy fondness these annual events. However, to new teachers, these events seem like Another Abominable Addition to the Abiding To-Do List. New teachers: The events aren’t that bad. Try to embrace New Ways of Doing Things.
Realizing you aren’t hip anymore.
If you are a twenty-something jumping into the junior high and high school classroom, it might be a little jolting to embrace your new identity as an authority figure. Teaching high school makes the school memories come flooding back. Only something’s different. You aren’t part of the crowd. Things have changed. You’re an authority figure now. And you aren’t hip anymore. You probably mention the 90s. You probably talk about things from five years ago. You probably wear flats that were bought in 2012. Sadly, new teacher, in your students’ eyes, you are now a part of that homogenous clueless adultness. Also, you’re really old. If you don’t figure that out, your students will remind you, eyes bulging, when you tell them how old you are.
Getting up at 5 a.m.
First-year teachers work incredibly long hours. We put in 12 hour days several times a week. And that doesn’t count the grading we take home for “homework.” So, perhaps you’re one of those Type A persons who has always enjoyed getting up at the crack of dawn. (And in the winter, getting up when it’s dark and going home when it’s dark.) I, for one, am not that kind of person.
Perhaps this is one of those, “You’re not in college anymore” moments or a, “Now you’re a responsible adult” thing. I mean, I’m coming off a college lifestyle where 2 and 3 a.m. are perfectly acceptable bedtimes. And three and four hours is an acceptable night of sleep. (You know what they say about college. Homework, sleep, friends—pick two.) I happened to be one of those students who went to school full time and worked part time. You do the math for a sleep schedule. Anyway, in college, when you’re only taking care of yourself, you can get away with less sleep. Nobody notices if you are a zombie in statistics class every now and then, or if you get a little dizzy on the university sidewalk. Sleep would have been nice, you think. But that all-nighter was totally worth the GREAT essay I just turned in! Must find caffeine. Must have Americano!
But when, as a teacher, you are required to be on top of your game every single day, and when you are required to respond patiently to all the fifth graders’ questions (there are many; they wonder about all the things), it is essential to have adequate rest. In other words, first-year teachers: Grow up. You’re an adult now. Start sleeping like one.
When I started my first year, I was totally unaware of the fact that first-year teachers catch virtually every flu bug. It was August, week two, and I was out with strep throat. This year, I contracted a total of three cases of strep throat. Vitamins (and extra sleep, as we have learned) became my best friends.
First-year teaching, with its schedules and germ-carrying little dears, doesn’t have to make you sick, but it can certainly do you in (quite quickly) if you combine it with any other sort of immune system stress. For example, during my first year of teaching, I decided to train for a half marathon. However, long distance running can weaken your immune system. Also, healthy runners also need to get extra sleep. So mixing the stress of first year teaching with half marathon training was, in some ways, a recipe for disaster. Which is why I spent race day on my bed at home in Ohio, wailing to my mother about three months of “wasted” training, as she wiped my feverish brow.
So what habits would I recommend for first-year teachers to start developing? Check back next week for “Survival Tips for First-Year Teachers.”
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