Before I became a Realtor I taught 6th grade social studies in Colts Neck, NJ. This was my first job post grad school and in the two short years that I spent teaching, I learned a ton about my students, myself and life in general. Here are a few of my thoughts on everything teaching.
1. Be yourself. No really.
If you take anything out of this article, take this. Be yourself. No shut up, I mean it. This is the number one thing I learned from teaching that I’ve applied to all of my interactions in my post teaching life. Whatever you love, whatever your passions are, be completely up front and passionate about them. For whatever reason, I happened to open up to my students about my love for nachos one day. It was so bizarre for these sixth graders to hear their teacher describe his passion for nachos in detail. I’d slip images of nachos into my PowerPoint presentations and tell my students whenever I had a plate of nachos for dinner the night before. They thought it was really weird. But guess what? It broke down barriers. Kids saw me expose myself in a way that was goofy and also in a sense, vulnerable. The fact that I made myself vulnerable by just being my weird self made them feel like it was okay to do so as well.
The result was getting to know these kids in a very real way, and being able to be myself in a way that I had never really been before.
For a really long time, well into my 20s, I was always afraid of coming across as weird. For most of my life I reduced my vivacious personality into a tepid, agreeable nicety that no one found strange but no one really appreciated either. Being unapologetically yourself is something that will earn you respect, admiration and maybe a few strange looks. But the strange looks come with an unparalleled sense of freedom, creativity and audacity. When you embrace this level of authenticity in your social encounters, you start connecting with people in a very real way, whether it’s with a waiter, a cashier, or anyone else you might encounter. Always be you. Always be real. You’ll see that the fear of being yourself is silly. And besides, life is way more fun when you’re keepin’ it real.
2. Have faith that you’re making a difference.
Teachers struggle with this daily. As a teacher, you commit massive amounts of your time toward grading, preparing lessons and fielding paperwork that reminds you of renewing your license at the DMV. You might be like me, having racked your brain to think of a more fitting metaphor, a more engaging story or a funnier way of getting across that concept. Teachers work hard! All that teachers ask in return is to be appreciated by parents, administration and most of all, students. But it’s not always apparent that your efforts are valued.
Like the knowledge-artist you are, you care about your craft. You probably spend more hours in meetings and workshops than Kobe spends in the gym. And at the end of the day you are always asked, “What could you have done better?” At the end of the year you’re asked, “How much have your students grown?” “Could they have grown more?” “Why should we value you?”
It’s easy to feel apathetic when today your value is reduced to a number from 1-4, and the social art you love so much is so ardently reduced to numbers, percentiles and forms.
But here’s the thing: even though students might talk over you in class, your administrators forget to tell you “good job in that lesson,” and parents always assume it’s your fault, the truth is this: you’ve chosen a noble profession, one that is difficult, time consuming and emotionally draining. But whether you feel it or not, you’re making a difference. You’re doing a job that could be left to someone who doesn’t care as much as you do. So keep your chin up, look in the mirror and say it: “I am a teacher, and I am proud!” Even if it feels like no one else is.
3. Vent about your students and know you still love them
You’ve probably complained about a student, students, or all of your students to someone else at some point. Maybe you’ve felt guilty about it. Well don’t! All teachers complain about their students in the same way that parents complain about their kids, and even the way kids complain about their parents. Complaining feels great! And in a job that is as stressful as teaching, you better be doing a lot of complaining! So don’t think that you don’t love your kids just because your faculty room sounds like the Maury Povich show. Love manifests itself in a variety of ways, and you wouldn’t be so fired up about them not doing their homework if you didn’t love and care about them deeply and want to see them succeed in the future. So cut yourself some slack and just say it: “I can’t even. I can’t.” And then cowboy up and get back to changing lives.
4. Don’t label students and keep an open mind
When I was in 11th grade, I used to sleep during English class every day. Second period was naptime for the first half of the year. About half of the days I was asleep, my teacher, Mrs. Catanzaro, would wake me up and plead with me to pay attention. Truth is, I wasn’t interested in what we were learning, partly because I believed I was bad at English. I hated the books we read and the year before I received low marks on most of my papers, most likely due to my status as a [cl]ass-clown. But one day, something kept me awake. It was a talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This topic ignited me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. When I handed in my essay on the chapter, she pulled me aside and sang my praises even though she probably hated me for sleeping through the first half of the year. She was the first person to ever tell me that what I had to say was important and had value.
She believed in me, and eventually I followed suit.
The fact that she praised my essay led me to pursue philosophy as one of my majors in college, and to this day it’s a huge love of mine. Shelly Catanzaro could have written me off as just another one of those lazy, disrespectful juniors. But she never gave up on me. I can look back at her confidence in me as a turning point in the way I thought of my overall value as a person. Never give up on a student. It’ll pay off for them in the end. It did for me.
5. Be a part of their world
So often, teachers separate themselves from students. We stand in front of the room and they sit facing us: two opposing forces on the battlefield. You might be thinking, “that’s ridiculous, I offer them help every day, and I put my heart and soul into teaching.” While that may be true, students might not see your nagging as love and care, but rather you just being annoying.
Your language is teaching, but what is their language?
For some of my students it was fantasy novels, for others, anime. Some were basketball fans. Others loved Justin Bieber. You may care about their success and future marketability in the job market, but sometimes you have to connect with them on their terms first. Start listening to Justin Bieber. Ask them about the concert tour shirt they’re wearing. Find out their favorite anime or favorite basketball player and Google it during lunch. When you show an interest in kids, your return on investment will be tenfold in the form of increased engagement, deeper bonds, and improved performance in general. Connect with them on their own terms and reap the many benefits. It’s a lot like that Dale Carnegie book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Everyone’s favorite topic is themselves and their own interests. But don’t placate. Take a genuine interest and you may find yourself hooked on that anime, rooting for their favorite basketball team and singing Justin Bieber in the shower. Best part about this is that when you take an interest in your students’ passions, you make genuine connections that will define your career and your life as a teacher.