What I Would Tell My Younger Teacher Self
By English Teacher Susan Barber
Dear Younger Teacher Self,
Looking back always puts things into proper perspective, but sometimes that perspective is missed because we don’t slow down long enough to reflect. Today I am slowing down, reflecting, and hoping to encourage myself and others in the process. If I could go back to my early years of teaching, this is what I would tell myself.
You don’t have to know all of the answers. I thought not knowing an answer would be seen as a sign of weakness, but instead I have come to realize that it is a sign of strength. Saying “I don’t know but let’s find the answer together” models vulnerability to students which can set the tone for a community of learners. Admitting to not knowing things that our students think we know — or maybe we should know — doesn’t mean we are not good teachers; it simply means we are admitting to ourselves and others that we are human. Be human in the classroom.
Laughing and learning can go hand in hand. I grew up in a school and time period when students sat in rows, read and wrote in silence, and didn’t laugh much during school. Now I know that learning can be noisy, chaotic, and downright fun. Don’t be afraid to be that class — the one that other teachers walk by and look at with a raised eyebrow. Embrace the chaos of learning.
Relationships matter just as much as content. Armed with content knowledge, I assumed my students would respect my degree and show up eager to learn about Chaucer, commas, and coordinating conjunctions. Now I realize that I am teaching kids not just content. I have a sign on my desk as a reminder so I never lose sight of this. Get to know your students.
There will be more work to do than there are hours in the day. I wish I could say that I have figured this out, but I still struggle with blending my work and life. What I can say though is that you will never be caught up; there will always be more work to do. I am now much more forgiving to myself if I don’t grade every paper, spruce up every lesson plan, or go the extra mile with a school club. I refuse to feel guilty about taking time for myself, for I have realized the hard way that a burned out teacher is not an effective teacher. Stop teacher guilt.
Collaboration is good for teachers. I went far too many years planning and problem solving on my own. What I have learned though is that groups of teachers working together are far better than one teacher working alone. Even if you cannot find a like minded teacher in your building, technology makes teacher learning and connection easy. Be a part of a group to share inspiration, resources, encouragement, and ideas. Find your tribe.
Students are depending on us to speak up for them. Sadly, too many things that we do in education today are not in the best interest of students. For far too many years, I shook my head and acted like I could not change problems in education. Over time, however, I found that if I don’t speak up on behalf of my students, no one else may. Sometimes this makes for difficult conversations with administrators or fellow teachers, but I refuse to be silent when the future of my students is at stake. Always do right by your students.
Teaching is a journey. This letter sounds like I have “arrived” but the reality is that I could write another letter this time next year and have more lessons to share. Teachers should always be learning, growing, and improving in the art of teaching. Enjoy your teaching journey.
Keep influencing the next generation.
Keep making a difference.
Susan Barber is a high school English teacher in Newnan, GA where she works hard to make a difference in students’ lives in Room 128, her school, community, and education as a whole.
To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.