In August of 2013, I interviewed for a 0.3 FTE (full time employment) English Teacher position and got the job. During workshop week, it was bumped up to 0.5 FTE, and the day before school started, it was bumped to a 0.9 FTE with a new prep altogether. I was 22 years old, newly married, eager as ever, and honestly pretty desperate for a job in education. Coming from Colorado, I had really no connections or networking I could fall back on, paired with the fact that I still could easily pass for an incoming freshman. It took me nine interviews at all sorts of schools before I got a yes, for a job of 0.3. My 0.9 starting salary for the 2013-2014 school year averaged around $27,000.
I wasn’t given a classroom, but rather sought out a cart from my equity coach, Arika, which was honestly one of the nicest things that happened to me in that first year of teaching. By the end of that year, I had taught 9 classes and 2 study halls in seven different classrooms over two semesters. I also hid my pregnancy with Zadie (as best as I could) from January to May 2014, when I was five months pregnant, hobbling around with my cart, looking like a very dedicated ninth grader with no friends. Everyone’s first year of teaching is survival, and by some miracle, I survived.
My job didn’t necessarily survive. I was cut during 7th hour one day when I was teaching a class of 10th graders in a math room when my principal walked in, handed me an envelope containing information on my non-renewal, and I kept teaching until the bell rang, and then I broke down in tears. Did she want me to leave at that very moment? Did she realize I had literally carted myself through the hallways of this building to give every ounce I had to 150 students? Did she know how reflective and open to feedback I was? I was devastated.
Long story short, that summer, at 7 months pregnant, I came in and interviewed for my same job when I saw it posted. The principal who had cut me had been cut herself, and I was re-hired by a new interim principal. Even though I was beyond tired and pretty whiplashed from how impossible the first year in that building had felt, I somehow managed to not only get re-hired but be given my very own classroom too. Compared to the cart, this was heaven.
Years 2, 3, and 4 came and went, and I taught a combination of 9th grade reading support classes, 10th grade English, 11th grade English, and became the school’s first literacy coach last year.
This week completes my fifth full year of teaching in my building. It feels like a pretty decent accomplishment because I know I’m returning next year, and feel like I’m crossing a magical teacher burnout statistic. Five years is both short and long. I’m sure there are many professions where people stay fewer or longer than five years. The sacrifices are real for an educator every year, but they feel more costly at the beginning because there is so much to learn.
So, for what it’s worth, here are some lessons learned these last five years:
- My sister Alli once typed up a message that I borrowed. I have black construction paper in my classroom with this exact same message in white chalk. It says, “You are: alive, important, meant for amazing things, enough, beautiful, loved, capable of working hard, and you matter.” I hope that when my students daze off into space or look at the ceiling, they see it. But, sometimes that message is for me.
- Stash of Encouragement: During my first year of teaching, I started keeping any positive notes I received in a binder. The cover says “Read on the hard days”, and there have been stretches of weeks, yes weeks, where I have pulled it out daily because it felt like every day was a hard day. I am proud to say the binder is overflowing. These messages would be swept off into the trash if I hadn’t intentionally held onto them.
- Cart to classroom to coaching: I have come a long way. My school doesn’t really have mentors for new teachers. I think they did at one point before I worked there, but I didn’t have one, and new teachers after me have struggled too. It’s hard to invest in other teachers when you are living the exhausting job of teaching yourself. But new teachers who are assigned mentors are much more likely to stay in teaching than new teachers without. I feel like I did a decent job of seeking out help when I needed it, but it was still hard. And I want to make sure that I reach out to new colleagues in case they don’t feel confident enough to ask for help.
- Leave work at work: I was forced to learn how to leave paperwork at work once Zadie was born. Not only was I in graduate school those years, so I already had work at home, I just couldn’t actually do it all. I finished grad school in 2016, but I have really tried to stick to reasonable amounts of work to bring home. I don’t assign more work to my students than I would be doing, and I give myself the same deadlines as them. If I give them one week to write a paper, I get at least a week to give feedback. I started bringing more of what I would do outside of school into the classroom by meeting with students and giving them oral feedback instead of marking up papers with pens. If I was feeling overwhelmed, then I figured students must be too.
- There is no formula: Each teacher is a human being with equal and unique intrinsic worth. So is each student. Every hour can be so different. What works with one set of students might not work with the next. While I still aim to implement solid rhythms in our classroom, flexibility is key. I am constantly reminded to teach who is in front of me rather than a subject, book, unit, or method.
- I’m too creative to ever “be done” with a unit: I have come to accept it. The work will never be finished. I’m a one on the enneagram, okay. I look at the world through a lens of “How can I make this better?” It’s a blessing and a curse.
- Paint: As my grandma says, $30 can change a room. Last summer, I conveniently asked forgiveness for painting two of the walls in my classroom “Peaceful Blue.” Many former students have returned to comment on how cozy it feels. Some current students have said it’s one of the only times of the day they feel like they aren’t surrounded by peeling white walls. My all-time favorite: “Ms. Noble, I feel like I’m in a Caribou.” I don’t know about you, but I do some of my best learning at Caribou.
- You teach people how to treat you: My teaching style leans pretty casual in the sense that I maybe “put up” with certain things more than I should. I’m honest with students when I don’t feel I have earned their respect and try my best to approach it out of curiosity. On the other hand, I am also realizing that if I treat my students like they are smart, a lot of them actually act smart.
And last but not least, I am truly holding on to this one:
- Students won’t remember the books we read or tests we took, but they will remember how I made them feel. And I can interrupt the busyness, stress, undervalued pay, and fatigue of this job to help students feel alive, important, meant for amazing things, enough, beautiful, loved, capable of working hard, and that they matter.
If you know a teacher, celebrate them. This profession has a lot against us, but there are some real champions for kids in every single school building across the nation. As for me, here’s to summer, and then to the next five!