I spent fourteen years as a classroom educator before recently switching to writing full time. I was very green when I began in this field, and I had never intended to become an educator. Instead, I had studied Music and Theater and dreamt of being on Broadway. Yet there I was at the age of 26, embarking on a new career in which I only had passive, marginal, and informal training and experience.
Since I spent 14 years teaching, I will share 14 lessons I learned during my time “behind the desk.”
You are going to make mistakes, lots of them.
It’s OK. It’s part of the human experience is messing up. We all do it. Whether we forget a friend’s birthday, sent the email to the wrong person, or become distracted and cause a fender bender. Mistakes come in all sizes and shapes, and you are 100% going to make them as a teacher. Probably daily. Probably several times a day. There are so many times when I forgot the book I needed for a lesson, assumed I had the supplies I needed for a project in my closet, or said something more harshly than I should have. When working as an educator and with young children, we need to set the example and own our mistakes so they can learn that it happens and it is entirely OK.
You Can’t Win Them All
You will create some of the most fantastic lesson plans and activities that this earth has ever been graced with. You are also going to have ideas that flop so severely they should be featured on Rotten Tomatoes. These failed activities will leave you standing in a haze of confusion and smoke as you try to figure out how this fantastic idea fell short. Use this as a time for reflection. Once the dust settles, take your time to go through why it failed methodically. Was it beyond your student’s abilities? Did it not hold their interest? Did you purchase the wrong ingredients or supplies? Did you lack in your presentation? Self-reflection is a powerful tool when teaching.
There Will be Children You Can’t Reach
As much as you will want to help every child that passes through your classroom, there will be some you won’t be able to help. The obstacle may be your lack of knowledge in a particular area. The parents don’t want to see the issue you may be seeing, or the child may have personal or developmental problems beyond your professional scope. Again, I recommend this as a time to self reflect. Then, go out and learn more. Take a continuing education class, attend a webinar, or read up on related situations. Maybe next time a similar child passes your way, you will be more equipped. You still may not be able to help them, but there is truth in the saying Knowledge is Power.
Never Stop Learning
This tip goes along with what I mentioned above. Take continuing ed classes (beyond what is required), read articles, subscribe to educational newsletters or journals. When you encounter a situation, child, or topic you aren’t familiar with, take it upon yourself to learn more. Learn from those more experienced than you and from those who come from a different walk of life. Talk to those who have been through similar situations before. Fellow teachers can be one of your best resources. The more you can learn, the better teacher you will be.
Don’t Pigeon Hole Yourself
Just because you went to school and studied Elementary Education, or American Literature, or Earth and Space Science, it doesn’t mean those are the only things you can teach. I earned two degrees, one in English/Theater and one in Music. I wound up with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and a TEFL certification. I was able to use the skills I learned as an actor and musician and translate them to teaching. You may have a degree in science but have spent years writing books and literature reviews as a hobby. Use what you have. There are certifications galore out there that can boost your resume without costing a ton of money.
You Will Not be Liked by Everyone
It’s ugly, but it’s true. You will have co-workers that, despite your best intentions, find you annoying, or eccentric, or boring, or too loud, or strange, etc. It’s just the way life is. You will also have parents that don’t like you, They will think you’re not doing enough for their child, or they won’t care for your personality, or they may not enjoy hearing that their child is struggling in your class because of course their child is perfect.. Develop a thick skin, read up on how to deal with conflict and challenging personalities, and buckle down. And again, I say, self-reflect. There will be reason beyond you that people don’t like you, you cannot change that, but you change change how you deal with that.
Some Parents Will Love You!
To some parents, you will be the greatest thing that has ever happened to their child, and this time, believe it because it’s true. You will find the most amazing connections with some of the families that pass through your walls. Embrace those, enjoy the love and respect that comes with that relationship. Those are the experiences you will draw on when things are rough when you feel challenged, and when you think you don’t want to do this anymore.
You Will Not Like Every Child
You just won’t. Children are people, and never has there been a person who has liked everyone they’ve met. It’s OK. I struggled with this at first. I thought, how can I not like a little kid? The answer was because they were annoying to me. Again I say, it’s OK. You are not required to like every child who walks into your classroom, you ARE required to treat them all with the same level of respect and care.
You Will Never Feel So Loved
Young children have a never-ending supply of love, and they are happy to bestow that love heavily on those who care for them. Hugs from kids can be one of the highest parts of the day, especially when you are feeling off. They will make you all kinds of gifts and cards that are guaranteed to make you smile!
Engage in Self Care
Do not deprive yourself. Teaching can be a demanding job, so do not allow it to take over your life. Engage in whatever forms of self-care are most meaningful to you. I always enjoyed walks with music on my breaks, power naps, and on really rough days an extra caramel drizzle caramel Frappucino from Starbucks. Carve out time for yourself every day to unwind and do something you find relaxing.
Maintain A Sense of Humor
I have had children throw up on me, pee on me, and bite me. I have cleaned up poop of the floor and poop off of children. I have stood by while children have thrown epic tantrums smiling at as parents dropped off their children, quoting Olaf, “This is fine.” Children will say the most astounding things, and you will have to keep a straight face because they are deadly serious. They will say funny things that will have you laughing until tears are coming out of your eyes. The good, the bad, and the ugly come with teaching young children. The ability to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself will come in handy.
You, Will Be Underpaid, Over-stressed and ALWAYS have to Pee
You will never make enough money teaching Early Childhood. It is a sad truth that needs systematic changes in this country, but this is not a job you do for the money. If you are lucky enough to work this job and not have to work a second or third job, consider yourself lucky. The more educated you are, the more you will make, but the difference is marginal. There is little to no room for career advancement in this field. It is a high-stress job and, as a result, has a lot of turnover. People do not appreciate early childhood educators in this country. You will often be referred to as “daycare’ or “baby sitter.”
You Will be Mary Poppins, The Punisher, Mom, Physician, Psychiatrist, and Best Friend
You will play every role in your students’ lives, usually all in one day. That rash that popped up? You will have to determine if it might be an allergic reaction or possibly viral or just a skin irritation. You will have to dish out consequences and pull magical tea sets out of your bag. You will sit and listen to their disagreements and problems and dispense out wisdom help. You will be their confidant and the one they run to when they need a hug or have something exciting to share.
You Can and You Will
Even on the days, you think to yourself, I cannot listen to that child scream all day again. I cannot spend another day in the cycle of potty-training and diapering. I cannot have so-and-so’s parents complain again about something they don’t like. I cannot struggle through circle time with this group that doesn’t seem interested, no matter what. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot…. you will. And when and if the time comes, as it did for me, you have to make the bittersweet decision to move in another direction with your career. You will look back on your time as an educator and be grateful for all that you learned.