Background:As I look towards the end of my 20th year as a teacher, thinking about this journey happens almost every single day. Each day I'm in the classroom, each conversation I have with a student, each lesson that inspires, each lesson that fails - - I'm reminded of moments I've experienced in my classroom. I'm a big fan of the Player's Tribune and their series of "Letters to My Younger Self". I love reading about these sports stars and their journeys, but I've often wondered what if teachers had the opportunity to share their journey?
This was one of the hardest posts I've ever written. I modeled it after several letters and found that helpful with the writing process, but what made this hard was thinking about those moments that defined me. So many moments happened in my classroom that shaped me as a person and left a mark on my heart that it's impossible for me to include them all. Each of these moments, stories, incidents I included are real. There is no exaggeration. They are told from my memory and from my heart.
Letter to My Younger (Teacher) Self:
TEACHER / MIDDLE SCHOOL
Hey kid...yeah you....the one with all the energy, big smile, raising your hand at meetings, and filled with so much passion you can't wait to get to school.
Twenty years in the future. Twenty years of being a teacher later.
You're probably looking at me like "That can't be me...twenty pounds heavier, lot less hair...and man, those bags under your eyes? Are you getting any sleep?! What happened to me?"
Well... let me tell you. Teaching happened. That’s what...you sure you want to do this? You sure you want to be a teacher?
I know what you're thinking. "There's no way teaching is that hard. " You're ready to go get 'em. Get that classroom set-up. Learn your kids' names. Come up with those fun and exciting lessons. Let me tell you, there's so much more to it than that. You're going to soon realize that it's about the relationships you develop with those kids and families and they will mean so much more to you than any lesson plan you ever write.
Your first year will fly by. Teaching 5th grade was your dream and you got to do it. Some of the days in that class will be great. You'll think you're making an impact every single day. September of your first year will be a blur and you plan the ultimate welcome for your kids' parents. You'll get your suit on, put that awesome powerpoint presentation together, set-up the desks with notes from the kids to their parents and you will practice in front of the mirror for your first ever Back-to-School night. You'll wait at the door to greet parents. When the first parent shows up at your door and doesn't speak English you think that's okay, you can make this work.
Only it doesn't work. No more parents show up from your class. Not one. This will hit you hard, but it will make you work even harder. You sit down that night and write a note to each of your fifth graders and realize you're an even bigger part of their lives.
The year flies. You won't remember all the late nights you spent in your class planning and setting up lessons, or the countless weeknights and weekends planning and grading. You won't remember the names of some of the teachers you worked with or even the principal's name, but you will remember the first "real" conversation you have with a kid. The first time a student tells you they aren't safe at their home, that they don't want to go home. Good thing you're friends with the head of the Children and Youth division in your town. The next day, she's not in your class and you begin to worry. She doesn't show up for a few days and your heart is torn up... I just want to warn you, it's not the last time this will happen. It's not the last time you'll lose sleep over a kid that's not yours.
You will never see that kid again. But to give you the fuel to keep going, let me tell you she's okay. That head from C&Y runs into you several years later and lets you know how thankful that kid was for you. But I also want to keep it real - not all of your stories will have happy endings and I want to just remind you, don't quit. Don't stop giving your heart to these kids. There will be many more who need you.
You will teach 5th grade like you are never going to leave, but on the last day of school, the principal will tell you that the teacher you're filling in for is coming back. Your heart breaks a little again -what will happen to these kids? You'll only get to say goodbye to the few that show up to your wedding that summer, but you will never forget these kids. You'll be looking in the newspaper to see their names at graduation and your heart will swell when you see their names, but you will always wonder about the names you didn't see.
Your life will take a direction you never thought you'd be heading...to middle school. You'll spend the next twenty years of your life teaching in a middle school and man, what an experience it will be for you. You will come to love middle school - especially the kids. So much so, you can't see yourself doing anything differently. Sixth grade will be where you make your home first, but it's not where you'll end it.
Middle school will be your first experience working with a "team" of teachers and it will be something you should cherish. Sadly, it won't be around for your entire career. Your team over the few years will change and you will make life-long friends working alongside some of the best teachers and people you'll ever meet. You will do some really fun and engaging lessons with those people. Understand that the support and relationships with teachers who care as much as you are just as important as the ones you develop with the kids. Make time to connect with them - eat lunch with them, get together for breakfast, connect on social media...enjoy the adults around you who are also giving their hearts to kids.
That first year in your classroom will be amazing. You will meet the first group of kids from a community that you will become a part of, and you will never forget any of them. There will be kids from this class that you connect with deeply. You will form bonds with them because they are the first group of kids you teach at a place you’re going to spend a long time at. Take all the coaching jobs they ask you, teach those lessons that others will question, and leave your door open to the kids before and after school. There will be many early mornings and late nights.
The crazy thing is you'll be doing this while you try to raise a family. Teaching will take a toll on you - your blood pressure will be up, your diet won’t exactly be the best, and you will always be thinking about those kids, but remember your family comes first. Your kids will thank you for helping them chase and achieve their dreams. You will also be lucky to have a wife who will be there to listen to your stories about the day and understand your passion. It won't be easy being a parent, a husband, and a teacher, but it will be worth it.
The teaching years will fly by. You’ll make a promise to each class that you will remember each and every one of their names, but the years blend together and you won’t remember what year you taught them. But I’ll tell you this, you will not forget the kids that you taught.
You will have names and faces that are burned in your mind forever. There will be moments that make you look at sunny days in the spring a little differently. Like the sunny afternoon in the spring when you were out in your backyard and your wife hands you the phone. Time slowed as you heard the phone chain message beginning with “we have terrible news…”
Time will stop when you hear the name. The name of a kid who’d said goodbye to you Friday afternoon. A kid who visited your room every day after school. A kid you’d never hear say goodbye again It’s the first time you ever experienced a kid you knew taking their own life. That moment will stay with you and shape the rest of your career. It will be a driving force in your career. You will always do your best to read a kid’s face and really see what they are feeling. No matter what, you will make time to listen to kids
That student won’t be the first you’ll lose - there will be car accidents - kids like Chris and Larissa; drug overdoses - kids like Katey and Jose. And there will be more tough conversations with kids about abuse, drugs, eating disorders, and self-harm and you will find a way to listen and be there. You will have kids that go off to serve our country and not come back the same. These kids will stay in your heart and you’ll remember their twelve-year-old smiles forever.
Those days and moments won’t be easy…
Doesn’t sound like what they tell you in college, does it? None of those undergrad classes prepared you for that, huh?
Keep your head up. It will cross your mind many times about what you are doing. Is it worth it? Am I really making a difference? Can I be the change these kids need in their lives? You can and you will. I promise you.
You will go through many changes as a teacher. You will begin to understand that there is a lot that needs to be fixed with our education system. Keep trying to fix it, change it, and be that teacher that you needed when you were in middle school. Find the support you need to make it through. You will connect with amazing teachers across the world. These teachers will inspire you, motivate you and challenge you
You will attend graduations, birthday parties, and even be the DJ at one of your student’s wedding (and no, you won’t get much sleep the night before that). You will be there to offer encouraging words reminding a kid to keep chasing their dream of being a vet, even after almost quitting twice - she’ll learn that the third time is the charm. You will attend sporting events, plays, and dance recitals. Those kids will become your kids.
You will question whether or not the kids even care? Believe me, the kids will find ways to show you they care. Some will eat lunch with you every day for two years straight. Some will make you cards and pictures - make sure you hang on to those, and some will cry on the last day of school. Other kids will do it in the most “uncaring” of ways, but those are the kids that will need you the most. Always remember that.
You will get to know a lot of kids and their families. You will come to be part of a community that you don’t even live in. You will always hope that all the work you’re putting in is helping this community.
When you get that notification on Facebook from a face that looks familiar to you but seems all grown up, accept it. Social media will allow you into their lives, like you allowed them into yours. You will look at the pictures of these “kids” (they’ll always be kids to you) and realize you had a part in their lives. And all over again, you’ll be there to experience the highs and lows with your kids. Don’t be afraid to comment, congratulate, offer condolences...let them know you still care.
1998 will turn into 2018 in the blink of an eye.
When you walk through the door on a cold winter day of your twentieth year, you’ll comment to your wife, “I’m tired, so tired...it’s so hard this year. I can’t believe what my kids are telling me and going through.”
To help you try and feel better your wife will reply, “You’re not going to save every kid.”
No, no I’m not, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to think back to you. I’m going to think back to why I became a teacher.