Four boxes for a new teacher. (Photo by Melissa Wantz)

To my daughter, on the eve of her first day teaching

August 17, 2015

My Dear One,

It is the day before school starts in our city, and you have just texted me and Dad.

I wanna throw up.

You send us four “scrunched” faces. calls these faces Persevering Face Emoji, used “to show helplessness in a situation. May be (sic) on the verge of tears.”

You are a mile away in your very first classroom, and it’s the day before the first day of school. The countdown is on. You are beginning your teaching career in a matter of hours, and despite your master’s degree, your thesis, your teaching credential and nine months of student teaching, the panic is rising. You are not too proud to reach out to us for comfort.

I know that you have spent many days in your classroom already. I helped you move the furniture all around until it felt right. You showed me the huge bags from Lakeshore Learning. Your ocean-colored Fadeless Paper Rolls. Your bright Decorative Borders. Your Die-Cut Letters and Numbers. You paid for these out of your final student loan check — the one that’s your financial bridge to September’s first pay day.

I text you back some words that I hope are comforting:

It will be okay! You will get through it.

Followed by a lame attempt at humor:

What’s the worst that can happen? Your students just get up and walk out on you! You will survive that. haha

You text back: Haha ugh idk!!!

You don’t know, but I do. You are going to be a wonderful teacher! They are going to love you.

I decide to go out and buy you a card. Rawr! I want to write encouraging words, but realize the card is too small for what I have to tell you. I will need to type a letter, too.

The card I bought. Too small to hold my hopes for her. (Photo by Melissa Wantz)

I decide you need a special box to sit in a cupboard or on a shelf in your classroom, something to hold this card and this letter and all the notes of encouragement and thanks and congratulations you will receive this year and the next and I hope for many years to come. You won’t want to throw those away. Every teacher needs a box for compliments to pull out when times get tough. Just reading one from a former student or parent is enough to restore your confidence.

I stop at an “antique” store to look for something timeless. I search the entire store and see that the jewelry, cigar and doll boxes are too small or too dull or too fancy. You need whimsical and simple and just the right size. Career size.

Heading to a classroom near here. (Photo: Melissa Wantz)

I spot them. Four hand-painted boxes. Flour. Sugar. Coffee. Tea. Each smaller than the next. Maybe forty or fifty years old. You can start with the smallest, Tea, and use the others to hold things nine-year-olds need. Later you can fill up Coffee with compliments. Then Sugar. And so on.

I come home to write.

I want to comfort you, but I know from experience that there is nothing that can be articulated that will take away “teacher anxiety” on the night before school. It hits me every year, too, and this is my sixteenth.

Tonight you won’t sleep much. You may dream of students doing all sorts of horrible things as you try to control them and fail helplessly, usually while the principal is watching. This won’t actually happen, but your nerves anticipate it anyhow. You will toss and turn tonight. But tomorrow night will be better.

I can’t really comfort you, but I can try to encourage.

Let me remind you of the third-generation teacher blood running through your veins! Your Grammy. Your aunt. Me. Your dad (if professors count). And now you. You are practically teacher royalty. It wasn’t preordained that you teach, but it’s no surprise to anyone who knows you — and us — that you eventually stepped onto this path. You are a natural. You are a rock star. You are coming home. It will be fine.

I can’t resist offering you some unasked-for advice, too. Not for tomorrow. More for the road ahead, which I hope is long and rewarding for you.

You can’t control which students walk through your door, and this can be frustrating. You will get all kinds, the ones you will do anything for and the ones that will strain every nerve. Kids who have been cared for and kids who haven’t been. Sad kids. Happy kids. Angry kids. You need to find a way to reach them all. That’s your job now.

You can’t choose your students, but you can choose the adults you hang with. Avoid these types:

  • Adults who in August tell you how many teaching days are left until summer. Not acceptable. They are jaded, bored to death and should have gotten the courage to change careers a long time ago. Don’t spend more than a minute conversing with them or you will be tempted to become cynical and pretend it’s merely humor, too. The acceptable countdown to summer break starts in May, preferably June. By then, everyone is exhausted and hanging on by their fingernails. (Also avoid colleagues who on Monday volunteer the number of days until Friday).
  • Adults who cite the contract for why they won’t, aren’t able to, can’t do something that would help children or improve the school community. They are resentful or lazy or both, and they mask this sad state by bringing up legalities. Avoid them.
  • Adults who have stopped seeing the best in people and don’t even know it. These might be teachers, administrators, support staff. They may be polite, but their eyes have stopped lighting up. If they do befriend you, it may only be to get a new audience for their judgement and condemnations of other people. They don’t belong in a school but think they are entitled to stay. Conversations with them will leave you mildly depressed or nervous and not sure why.
  • Adults who have “figured it out.” These are people who have stopped innovating or experimenting in their jobs, who have stopped listening at trainings or meetings, who have stopped asking questions because they already know what works. Nobody knows what works in education right now with any certainty because the world is constantly changing, and you are supposed to teach for this particular world’s kids, not for last year’s or last decade’s. Stay away from these people because they are really dull.
  • Adults who blame the parents. Look, some parents are a little messed up, but nearly every single one you run across loves their child and wants their child to be successful. They show it in different ways, sometimes in defensive ways. Or offensive ways. But at the bottom of the distress is fear. Parents are anxious about a lot of things. That they aren’t good enough parents for their children or don’t know how best to help them. That their children aren’t good enough for this world that is changing so fast. That the world tomorrow is going to eat their kids up. From the day their kid is born they feel as if their own actual heart is walking around, getting into all kinds of situations. It’s confusing and frightening and teachers can take the brunt of it. You will understand when you have a child one day. It’s too easy to blame the parents for what isn’t working in teaching. Stay away from people at work who lack imagination and compassion for parents, or from those who just love to fight.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of great adults left to hang out with, colleagues who see the best in you and help you see it, too. Colleagues who are bursting with new ideas and can’t wait to ask your opinion. Colleagues who you probably saw last week working at school before the official start day. Colleagues who aren’t counting down the days until weekends or vacations because they like their work just like they like their free time. These are the people who live with purpose every day, whether at work or on holiday. Befriend them.

Finally, my darling, here are three pieces of hard-earned wisdom from my own teaching career. I can’t resist:

Teach like a pirate. (Photo by Melissa Wantz)
  1. Once every so often you will need to bend the rules. You will know when this is and you will need good judgement and courage because you and most other teachers are rule-followers. But there are times when the system isn’t working for kids and isn’t in their best interest and might even be damaging them, and you will need to do something about this without asking for approval. Do it. Apologize later if you have to. Never bend any rule that hurts your integrity or the integrity of your classroom or the integrity of your school community. Do no harm. But always put the kids in your care first before yourself, before the system.
Don’t fret over feeling like an ass. (Photo by Melissa Wantz)

2. You are going to feel like an ass sometimes. Like you do not know what just happened. Lessons are going to go wrong. You are going to screw up and even fail at something you carefully, deliberately planned. Your ears will burn. Your face will turn red. You will want to blame the kids. You might want to cry. (Don’t cry in front of the kids; it scares them. They will notice if your eyes water even a little.) And don’t blame the kids or yourself. Chalk it up, let it go, make adjustments and start again. The beauty of teaching is there are so many opportunities to start fresh. Competence will come.

Make music and other stuff. (Photo by Melissa Wantz)

3. Music is a balm. Play music. Make music. Sing and dance with those kids; they are little enough that they will want to do that with you. Include music and art and poetry. Make time for these even though they don’t have data points that matter to anyone outside the room. Create stuff together: your classroom will have personality and become a place of curiosity and life.

To symbolize these three pieces of wisdom, I am giving you:

  • A pirate doll
  • A donkey pin
  • A wooden flute

I hope you take these to your classroom and are cheered — think of them as totems for the year ahead.

Your dad, big brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and I are all so very proud of you tonight. You are beginning a noble profession, one that will send you places and show you people you can’t imagine. One the world desperately needs. It will take more than you ever thought to do it well, but it will feed your heart and soul like nothing else.

The thirty-one children who walk up the ramp into your classroom tomorrow have won the jackpot. You are their teacher! Believe it. And good luck.