From a young age, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. As I got older, however, I began to get the impression that becoming a teacher wouldn’t be challenging enough for me or wouldn’t be reaching high enough to match my academic performance.
Perhaps this was because in high school, when my classmates and I began talking about what we wanted for our futures, I’d hear someone say, “I’m not sure what I’ll do, I want to coach football, so maybe I’ll teach or something.” Or something…was teaching so unimportant that it was a way into something better? Perhaps it was learning the difference in a teacher’s salary and doctor’s salary that told me that educators weren’t valued as much as other professionals. Along the way, the image I’d had of a teacher challenging students and igniting curiosity was replaced by a teacher asking students to copy definitions from a textbook. I began to believe that teaching was not a competitive, respected, or prestigious profession. My high-achieving friends dreamed of being lawyers, scientists, and engineers; teacher was not what the “best” would boast to pursue.
Even as I entered the profession, I continued to believe that teaching was easy. How hard can it be? My education fit the standard model of textbooks, papers, class discussions, and tests. What else was there? After college, I decided to spend some time in the classroom before graduate school. I learned about alternative teacher certification programs that supported underserved students and was motivated to make a difference and return to my childhood dream of teaching. I thought, of course I can do this.
My “Aha! Moment” as an educator came not at once, but all throughout my first year in the classroom. My simplistic understanding of the teaching profession could not have been more inaccurate. My appreciation of what it takes to be an effective teacher now came from experience, something that often goes unrecognized.
I learned that teaching one lesson was not enough. During my first year in a Nashville middle school, I quickly found that one approach to any lesson would not be nearly enough to serve my students well. My eighth graders ranged from elementary to high school level in math. This was not unique to my students — in all classes, there are ranges of student needs and abilities that teachers constantly try to address. Many of my English Language Learner students needed vocabulary support, and my students with IEP goals needed modification on assignments big and small. I learned strategies to differentiate my lessons, but learning how to personalize learning for students takes years of practice, and a deep knowledge of each student’s abilities and learning style.
I learned there are different ways to teach a class. My own education consisted of sitting in assigned seats, in rows of desks, where we took notes, and received graded homework. When I began teaching, my default approach was similar to what I had experienced. I soon learned that not only did I want to include different kinds of instructional strategies, but that it was necessary if I was going to make learning more engaging for all. Later, I discovered small group instruction, blended learning, exploratory learning and other strategies to serve different learning modalities. Though challenging, this is how my teaching improved and my students grew. I saw how teaching is truly an art and a science.
I learned that good teaching goes beyond content. As a new teacher, I was thrilled to teach a subject that I loved. To prepare, I taught summer school in the Mississippi Delta. Riding through town to school, I first noticed the boarded-up businesses and lack of activity. Meeting my students and coming to town, I knew that I’d need to understand more than my lessons to teach them well. I needed to know my students and where they came from before my lessons on decimals would be relevant and make a lasting impact.
I learned that at any given time, teachers juggle many things. Even my best days with my students in that first year felt like I was balancing 10 spinning plates overhead. Lesson plans, questioning, behavior management, differentiation, pacing, and assessments were tasks that required my constant attention. Teachers must be both resourceful and strategic, well-planned and flexible. Effective teachers will excel at many different tasks because they problem-solve their way through work daily.
I learned how many hours teachers actually work. Teacher responsibility is never limited to the hours within the school day. Planning, grading, meeting, calling families, after-school activities, and graduate courses are the norm for hours after last period. I struggled to maintain a work-life balance to start and found from other educators that this was not unique to my experience. I dreamed about the educator summer vacation, then learned that teachers use this time to plan with colleagues, attend professional development summits, and begin scoping out the next school year.
I also learned why teachers begin to refer to their students as “their kids.”
During my first week in the classroom, my students and I spent time learning about each other. To build relationships for deeper learning, I wrote my students a letter, sharing my background and promising I’d do whatever it took to support their learning. In return, I asked the students to write me a letter about themselves. My students’ honesty, optimism, and promises to try their hardest were humbling and eye-opening. I knew from then that teaching would be so much more complicated than I had planned.
As a teacher, I had the privilege of helping struggling students after class and see them smile for the first time, understanding a difficult concept. I was invited by students’ parents for family dinners, quinceañera birthday parties, and soccer team cookouts. I was introduced to parents as a student’s “second mom,” and surprised with a “We missed you!” card when I was away. Hearing “thank you” from students meant more than any bonus check I could have ever received. I never knew that I would learn so much from them, as I’d prepared for them to learn from me. When someone asks about my teaching experience, I feel an overwhelming range of emotions. Teaching brought me the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. Teaching was a prestigious privilege, hopefully helping young people prepare for future successes.
Teaching is not easy. It takes a significant amount of mental, emotional, and physical strength to get you through. Teachers are some of the most resilient professionals. Seeing my students faces motivated me to go back to school when I was most tired. The authentic relationships with them motivated me to bring my best every single day. In turn, when I would lose my voice, they would teach for me, when I was having a rough day, they were patient with me, and after they graduated, they came back to visit.
My misconception of the profession has been forever changed, especially now as I support educators with Kiddom. Teachers need help and teaching requires better tools. The idea that teaching is easy is something we must dispel. Today’s teachers will shape the next generation of learners and carry immense responsibility. That’s why at Kiddom, we build technology to unburden teachers with the number of tasks they shoulder so they can support all their students’ needs. Providing the best for teachers is the least we can do after what they do for students. We want teachers to experience “Aha! Moments” with their students and have more moments of joy and inspiration.