The other day I was looking through my file cabinet and stumbled across an old newspaper article from my first year teaching. It was about me, just out of college, receiving the Sally Mae First Class Teacher Award, a state award given to an outstanding first year teacher. My very supportive principal, Dave Hilborne, had nominated me for this and told me that I would have to write an essay as part of the application reflecting on my experiences as a first year teacher.
I remember feeling tremendously honored that he had nominated me for the award. Still, I didn't feel particularly worthy despite the fact that I was working 60-80 hours a week on my teaching. Even then I knew that I wasn't very good.
Like most first year teachers, I tried to make up for my lack of experience with an abundance of enthusiasm and energy. For the most part, I muddled through that first year and the students, parents, and obviously my principal seemed satisfied with the job I had done.
Curious to read what I wrote in the essay for the award, I tried to find the document on my computer. It was typed as a Clarisworks file that is now so ancient that I don't even have a word processing application that will open it any more. Nonetheless, I vaguely remember the theme the essay. I wrote of the exhaustion, both mental and physical of teaching each day. I wrote about the many "hats" that teachers wear throught each day - coach, cheerleader, nurse, counselor, disciplinarian, parent, etc... In all, I think it summed up my first year experience pretty well.
Now, twenty years later and still teaching fourth grade, I look back at my 22 year old self and just think how terrible I was. I know that sounds harsh, but its not meant to be. There are very few first year teaching prodigies. I certainly was not a natural myself. The first three years of teaching for any teacher can be brutal. I think my newly married wife questioned her decision to marry me after several years of staying at school so late and still working on grading papers late into the evening. Those years were exhausting and trying for us both. Its no wonder that, statistically, almost half of all teachers change careers by their fifth year. It's a really tough job.
It took many years for me to develop the materials, routines, lessons, and discipline strategies that worked for me. Fortunately, I had many, many great teachers that I worked with who I watched carefully and learned so much from. They shared ideas willingly and guided me simply by observing their interactions with the students. I have always tried in my career to take the best from each teacher I met. I am fortunate to work in a district with so many great teachers who have given me this opportunity to learn from them.
As I think about my early teaching, I think about something that Dave Grohl, musician from Nirvana said about becoming a great artist. I'm paraphrasing and heavily censoring profanity here, but the gist of what he said was that musicians today think that all you have to do is wait in line for 8 hours and then go up on stage and sing and everyone will tell you how great you are. Instant stardom. But, the reality is that if you want to be great, you need to go into your garage with your drum set and suck. Really suck. And then you invite your friends in your garage to play with you and then they suck, too. And you all keep sucking, but eventually you suck less and less and have a best time ever with your friends and suddenly you're Nirvana.
Along those lines, here's a cool graphic I found after reading an article on Quora, that demonstrates a true "learning curve." The idea of this is that, when you learn something new, whether it is math, or playing the piano, or learning a new language, or learning to teach, it is hard work and everyone learns at their own pace. Importantly, this graph also shows how typically our improvement and confidence is fast to increase early on but has a tendency to wane over time. Its in this phase of our learning that most people lose motivation and quit. This idea could also apply to exercise programs or diets, I suppose as well.
So, the way I look at it, the first year I taught, I really sucked. But, every day and every year I have taught, I have hopefully sucked less and less. Who knows, maybe someday I can become the Nirvana of teaching. One can only dream.