20 things I have learned as I enter my 20th year of teaching

by Jason Kim-Seda

As I start my 20th year in the classroom, I want to commemorate this milestone by sharing some things I have learned along the way. Twenty tips — some for teachers, both new and experienced, some for leaders, some for mentors — that I try to follow in my own teaching life so I can feel more human and less robotic and avoid being sucked into the vortex of exhaustion as I follow my “calling.” These are not in any particular order. Some are quotidian, some are silly, some are personal, and some probably sound obvious, but they all resonate with me at this stage in my career. I hope you may find one or two that resonate with you.

  1. It is OK to say “I don’t know.” If kids are anything, they are curious, and there will be questions that stump you in the moment. Don’t “fake the funk” and give a bogus answer, because if kids are anything else, they are detectors of fecal matter of the bovine nature.
  2. It is OK to say “I don’t like what you just said/did.” Out of the mouths of babes come some crazy stuff — words or phrases they mimic, mean-spirited comments based on nascent -isms or -phobias, or boundary testing nonsense to see how much they can push the envelope. Sometimes we have a dozen things running through our heads as we walk through the hallways and we hear a slur. No one said the teachable moment and possible consequence needs to happen right then and there. But kids need to know that you heard and you are bothered — just make sure you follow up later that day.
  3. Since your students are always watching you, make sure you comport yourself in a manner that is befitting of a role model. In particular, they see how you interact with colleagues and possibly overhear a complaint about an administrator/parent/mandate, so be mindful. They also take your cues — so treat all staff and all visitors to campus with respect. Lastly, check your privacy settings on social media platforms — kids will search for you, and you don’t want them to find that one photo or that one post.
  4. Be present during unstructured times. Be available and accessible at recess, lunch, study hall, carpool. This doesn’t need to be every day, but make it a regular part of your work. Calendar it if necessary. Not only are these great times to say hello and check in with kids, but your presence creates an atmosphere of safety and support.
  5. Go to your students’ extracurricular events. Find out what your kids do outside of school. Attend a concert, cheer them on at a game, watch a play. Then follow up the next day — good job or great game. They may not say, “I know you are busy, so I really appreciate the sacrifice you made to come to my game.” But they feel the love, and it pays off.
  6. Drink coffee out of a real mug, not a travel mug. Treat yourself to a few minutes of hot coffee. Pro-tip: just pour yourself ½ a mug — because you know you won’t have time to finish a whole mug and microwaved coffee tastes bitter like a hastily planned lesson.
  7. Take time to eat you lunch like a human. A hangry teacher can’t get the job done. We like to think we are super humans, but we are not. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t care for others.
  8. Exercise a few times/week. Schedule it. Don’t let this slip. We need breaks from the breakneck pace of our profession, and exercise can be that outlet. A colleague once told me that “running was his therapist,” and running has been a consistent outlet for me to meditate upon my day and clear my mind. And it’s much cheaper than an actual therapist in Los Angeles.
  9. Schedule a phantom meeting. If you calendar is public for others, this may work — planning time, meeting with so and so. The concept here is protect your time to recharge or do your own work. Protect it like the goblins protected Gringotts. People will always ask you for more and more. Don’t let someone else set your calendar. On a related note….
  10. It is OK to say “no.” This is not related to the kids or emergencies, but more so with your colleagues and bosses. Only you can set your boundaries, and more will be asked of you, especially if you show skill or talent in a particular area. You can say “no” or say “can I think about it and get back to you.” As you progress in your career, you need time and space to figure out how you want to help your school community and develop as a teacher-leader. (Now, don’t say “no” to everything — use your discernment, understand your relationships. Also, realize that sometimes you need to say “yes” a few times to build up the social capital to say “no” when it might really matter to you.)
  11. Take a 24 hour Sabbath from your electronic devices and your work email. No one in waiting in the Operating Room for us. “It” can wait. You need time to recharge and focus on you and your life outside of school, for teaching does not make us complete. On a related note, don’t take piles of paper/tests home just to make you feel better. Ask yourself, “Am I. really going to do this tonight?” Relieve yourself of that psychological burden and leave it on your desk. That leads to…
  12. Be intentional and “chunk” your time. I am often reminded by my partner that I can’t multi-task (that’s another column). And it’s true. So I need to be realistic and chunk out blocks of time to grade essays, prepare lessons, organize PD opportunities, plan for faculty meetings. Chunk your calendar (8:30–9 Grade 5 essays; 9–9:30 Co-plan writing lesson; 3–3:30 Send emails about student progress to parents) and stick to it. Lastly, minimize the pull of your shiny, colorful fun, cell phone — consider gray-scaling during the day.
  13. Be an authority figure not an authoritarian. Some may not agree with this, but I am not there to be my students’ friend. I am there to be a friendly, trustworthy, approachable authority figure and role model. The kids need this from you. That stated…
  14. Have fun, crack jokes, dance, laugh, and let students see your goofy side. You don’t want to let them in too soon, but they do want to see that you are human. And if you can laugh at yourself, then it gives students the freedom to let their guards down.
  15. Stay up-to-date with pop culture and teen culture. This is not so you seem cool or to stave off the out-of-touch stereotype of any teacher over 30, but it is to show some interest in their lives and to understand a smidgen of what they are doing/consuming outside of school, esp. since many of our classes can’t compete with Netflix. It helps that I like pop, hip-hop, basketball and binge-worthy shows (at least one from the CW), but I don’t know everything. Just pay attention, ask questions, and see what they do during unstructured times.
  16. “Perfect is the enemy of good.” I can be a workaholic and perfectionist. Early on in my career, if I was not uber-prepared for a class or meeting, it might paralyze me. Now, I have learned to let go… most of the time. Perfectionism can paralyze. One can overthink, overwork, perseverate. One can hold onto something too tightly, miss opportunities for constructive feedback, and lose perspective. Sometimes a class doesn’t go as planned or you are stumped or frustrated. Take a step back — literally step away from the work or school. Ask for help. Do some self-care. Then come back to it the next day. The beauty of our profession is the next day. That stated…
  17. Always get better and keep on learning. Always be reading a book for your own personal enjoyment — not another required text about pedagogy. Start or end the day with a podcast that inspires or makes you laugh. Stay up to date with the news. Set short-, mid- and long-term goals. Learn one new application or tech tool per semester. Research PD opportunities and ask for support. Join Twitter and develop your Professional Learning Network — educators are all over Twitter sharing resources and encouraging one another.
  18. Boost morale and be part of the solution. No school is perfect. There will be policies and decisions (and people) you don’t like, but try to keep an open mind and understand that none of us know everything that is happening behind the scenes or all of the factors that go into a decision. If you are frustrated, don’t triangulate — go to the source, offer solutions, listen. Sometimes we are so busy focusing on the students that we forget to be positive and encourage one another.
  19. Take a moral stance. In my classes, we regularly talk about current events and politics, but I don’t share my opinions or voting choices. I present multiple sides and put students in a position to make informed choices as they develop into compassionate citizens. That stated, I will share my moral and ethical stances on issues of the day. In an age-appropriate manner, I will take the time to explain my beliefs and to discuss it with my students. In the current morass of social media, peer pressure and partisan politics, I think students are craving to learn about what is right and wrong and how they can use their power to make our society a respectful, inclusive and truly democratic place.
  20. It’s people over programs. This list is less about teaching and more about workflow, self-care, and making connections. It is about nurturing yourself so that you can nurture others. It is about finding a work-life balance. If there is no “you” because you are running around trying to be everything for everyone, then there is no connection. At the end of the day, we all crave relationships. We were built for it. And my colleagues are the main source of my happiness at work. Only through learning to follow these tips (sometimes the hard way) have I been able to make it to year 20.