Surviving Year One of Teaching

by Erika Lai, First-Year Teacher

Guest Contributor Erika Lai graduated from the University of Houston with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in Leadership Studies. She teaches 9th and 10th grade English at YES Prep East End.

In early November, I found myself contemplating if I had made the right decision to become a teacher and was halfway through planning the new life I was going to start in a foreign country under a different name. My parents, friends, and colleagues thought I had lost my mind. I barely responded to anyone’s messages, stopped finding time to do the things I loved, and was drowning in a sea of papers and deadlines. Then one day a student wrote me a letter that said, “Ms. Lai, thank you for teaching us. You make us believe in ourselves even when we don’t think we can do it.” That’s when I realized I had to find ways to survive year one—for myself and for the amazing children who trust me enough to show up ready to learn. It’s March, my first year of teaching is coming to a close, and I want to share the lessons I learned with you.

YES Prep first-year teacherBe Yourself: Many people told me not to smile on the first day, so the students wouldn’t think I am “too nice.” My entire life, I’ve been outgoing and friendly, and it made me feel really awful to hear that I should shy away from being myself. On the first day of school, I smiled, laughed, and made the decision to be unafraid to show the students who I am. I did this fearlessly, because I wanted to show myself and my students that teaching and learning could go hand-in-hand with joy and warmth. I make corny jokes, I use silly memes and tools for my students to remember material, and more often than not– you can hear my obnoxious laughter from down the hallway. Being a teacher is embracing who you are and bringing your perspective to the classroom.

A few weeks ago, a student said, “Miss, I feel like I can be myself in your class.”

“That makes me really happy. Why is that?” I replied.

“Because I see that you are comfortable enough to be yourself, and it makes me feel like I can be too.”

We are the example, and that’s a heavy burden to carry, but it’s also one that can transform the way our students see themselves.

YES Prep studentTry your best to get to know the humans you teach: Understanding and recognizing that every single child you teach has a story of their own is a huge lever in student engagement, student success, and building transformative relationships. I have a student who faces a lot of behavioral and social obstacles. The student was put on my radar before school even started. I was told “[x] is really challenging,” “it’s really hard to teach [x] sometimes,” “it’s almost impossible to sit [x] next to other students.” While a lot of these things may be true, each child deserves a fair chance at succeeding. So I decided I would meet once a week with this student during lunch and do something [x] loved: puzzles. While putting together puzzles, [x] talked about all the things interesting to [x]– from dinosaurs, to Calvin and Hobbes, to “Miss, did you realize you spelled that word wrong on the board today?”—and those days were the best days of my week. I learned what made this student tick and what this student specifically needed to feel safe and happy in our classroom. [X]’s performance in our course astonished me. This student grew an entire AP point on our first common assessment and was willing to have hard conversations with me when behavior was a challenge. The reality is, each child we teach carries a weight that we may not know or understand and, as teachers, we must do work beyond the content to take our students to levels of success we hadn’t imagined.

Recognize that it’s totally normal to not know what you’re doing: “Wait, what?” is one of the most common phrases that has come out of my mouth so far this year. The day grades were due the first six weeks of school, both my Dean of Instruction AND Operations Manager contacted me wondering why there were no grades for my students online. To my horror–I realized I had no idea how to verify my grades in the first place even though they’d explained it multiple times during faculty meetings and had sent a detailed instruction sheet in our weekly email. I had been too busy trying to put in all of my copy requests and organizing my papers. The first year of teaching is HARD, and it’s not uncommon to be confused. The key to avoiding major issues is not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. There are many resources and people on campus who will be more than willing to help you when you need clarification.

YES Prep classroomWork smarter not harder: There were days I found myself at school until 7 P.M. trying to do ALL of the things. One evening I heard the sound of the trash being taken out and looked out of my classroom window to see that the sun had already set. I was spending 12 hours at school on a consistent basis. In other words, I was tired, unhappy, and overworked. I could no longer stay that long if I wanted to make it through the year. I realized the main cause was my lack of organization and poor use of time. I couldn’t do everything at once or wait until the last minute to grade my papers; it only led to me feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. I also realized that my students could help me. I have beautiful anchor charts up in my room that my students helped me create, and they felt more empowered because of it. Remember, there’s only one of you and a million things to do, so find ways to make your work load lighter and more efficient.

YES Prep classroomLet whatever you do each day be enough: My Dean of Instruction has been a huge lever in my success as a first-year teacher. She has also served as a voice of reason on some of my most anxiety-ridden days. During one of our debriefs, I found myself in tears, anxious, and beating myself up over what I perceived as my failures. The next day I walked into my classroom to see a motivational piece of décor sitting on my chair with the bold words “Let whatever you do each day be enough.” Every morning I wake up and see this before I leave for work. As educators, a lot of us strive for our idea of “perfection,” and we often forget to celebrate the small successes of the day. My Dean of Instruction encouraged me to plan days off just to enjoy myself. She told me, “Erika, this job is hard, but you have to celebrate the things you ARE doing well. The kids love you and they’re learning.” Give yourself grace, and forget about the lesson that didn’t go quite as planned. Let whatever you do each day be enough for your students, for you, and for your peace of mind.

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