He was kind, patient, energetic, generous, funny, a great listener. He looked like a cross between Superman and Captain America. Then he became a teacher.
Suddenly, he was distracted, sulky, and enervated. In the first two months, he lost 25 pounds. His superhero build deflated beneath my hands. He was either too tired or too busy to eat. Every weekend, he would come visit me at the college I was attending. A weekly cycle quickly developed: he arrived on Friday night, relieved and exhausted. On Saturday, I dragged him out of bed and tried to do something fun. On Sunday, we woke up and before we finished breakfast, he faded away in anticipation of the week to come. On Monday morning, we woke up at 5AM so that he could drive back to his personal purgatory.
It turns out middle schoolers are not only mean to each other, but to their teachers as well. I found there was little I could do to ease his suffering. I looked back on the year my sister began her teaching career with similar suffering. She called home in tears every day for an entire year.
Everyone involved in the field of education knows the woes of the first-year teacher. There are four stages of a teaching career — fantasy, survival, mastery, and impact. The survival stage starts with the first year of teaching, and often lasts three to four years. Most teachers agree that the first year on the job is the worst of their careers. Teachers must learn to go home and shut off their teacher-minds in order to not be consumed by the challenges of the job. It took months before he could sleep through the night, and even so he had dreams about school all the way until the end of the year. The man I had fallen in love with had transformed, and although I had tried to brace myself for this change in our relationship, I had my own trials throughout his impossible year. Four weeks after the last day of school, he is making a slow return to normalcy. This is what I learned as he taught.
1. Don’t take it personally when they’re inattentive, too tired to do things they love to do, or is just mopey. Their day is filled with children constantly vying for his attention, often complaining about his class or criticizing their methods. They need to recharge, and sometimes they need to just relax.
2. Be positive even when they’re not. It is a heavy burden to wake up each morning and know that the day will be a constant struggle.
3. Be patient when they want to tell you about all of the kids they had to yell at in every one of their classes. Even when it gets boring to listen to them having the same problems every day, don’t forget that they’re having to deal with those problems, which is a lot worse than just listening to their sometimes-awful stories.
4. Remind them that their life really isn’t that bad. They have a job, they’re getting experience, and the first year is always the worst. Remind them that many people teach for 30 or more years, and it take time to learn how to be an effective teacher. It’s normal to feel uncertain the first time around.
5. Cut them some slack when you have to repeat things five times because they keep thinking about school. They’re asking you to repeat your words because they really do want to hear them. It takes a while to learn how to come home and let go of the problems faced during the day.
6. Don’t let them drag you down. It can take a lot out of you to be supportive every day and to be patient and positive and do all of these other things. Make sure that your needs are met. If they’re not supporting you, or if their negativity is impacting you, speak up. While they need your support, the two of you need to take care of your relationship.
And most of all,
7. Love them. Sometimes that’s all you need.