Recently, I was asked by my undergraduate School of Education to be the ‘featured’ speaker at the Teacher Induction ceremony, an event officially welcoming the teacher candidates into the School of Education. I thought for awhile about what I would speak about, and decided to, as one of my former professors (and now dear friend) suggested, “speak from the heart.” I have posted my speech to the incoming teacher candidates below. Enjoy!
Teacher: a person or thing that teaches something; a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects.
Now, I don’t know if Webster himself was a teacher, but if experience has taught me anything, it’s this: to be a teacher is to do far more than simply, as Webster says, “teach something.” For me, being a teacher isn’t one big thing; it’s a million little things. Since graduating from college, the past few years have been challenging and rewarding, exhilarating and exhausting – but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. To be a teacher is to have the ability to make a difference everyday – in the life of a child, in the life of a teenager, in the life of a parent.
Having come through this School of Education and now being in the classroom, I can assure you that you – every last one of you – that you are in good hands. Your cohort, your professors, and your advisors – they are going above and beyond to prepare you for the next step. When you’re part of such a strong program, it’s hard to imagine that any other one exists. The classes you’ve taken, the books you’ve had to read, the presentations you’ve had to make – they are NOT in vain. This program will not let you down; you will leave here more prepared than you ever thought you could be.
Student teaching is such an exciting chapter in your life – it will be difficult, certainly, but it will also be more rewarding than you ever could imagine. Some things will change – in your schedule, in your social life, in your sleeping habits – but I challenge you, I ask you, I implore you to make the most of this time. Soak up everything there is to know in your classroom. Ask your cooperating teacher questions, take time to talk to your assistants, get to know your kids inside and out – because the kids in that room – your cooperating teacher’s kids – are now YOUR kids too. Work hard for them, do your best for them, give them everything you’ve got… because, when all is said and done, they deserve nothing less.
As a teacher, I have learned countless lessons from experience, from my students, and from my colleagues and realized, along the way, that in teaching, learning never stops. The day I wake up and think “I’ve got it all figured out now” is the day that I will walk out of the classroom. To be a teacher is to be a lifelong learner, to be constantly in pursuit of a better way to teach, a new practice to try, or the best way to do something. Though I have much more to learn, there are some things that I can say, with confidence, that teaching has taught me.
- Embrace the mess. This is a concept that is easier for some than others. As a self-proclaimed ‘organizer,’ (let’s be honest, I color code my sticky notes) there are times when I struggle with the concept of embracing the mess. In education, you’ll come to find there are lots of messes; they just come with the territory. There are going to be times when students make a mess – a pencil box drops, a water bottle spills, papers fly everywhere. There are going to be times when you make a mess – you forget about a meeting, you miss a conference, you drop paperclips everywhere. And trust me, there are going to be times when your classroom is a mess – the floor littered with forgotten papers and abandoned pencils. In these times, as hard as it may be, embrace the mess. Laugh when your paperclips spill everywhere, smile and reassure the student who dropped his binder yet another time during class. Show your students that mistakes are part of life, that it’s okay to mess up, that it happens, that there’s a chance to try again. As difficult as it may be, mess is a given in education. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher, a perfect student, a perfect classroom – accept that. Embrace that.
- Keep calm and pretend it’s on the lesson plan. Sounds silly, but oh is this one true. During my first year of teaching, I was engrossed in explaining phases of the moon to my fourth grade class. I was feeling confident about how the lesson was going – the students seemed engaged, the activity was flowing smoothly, things were great. One of my students raised his hand to ask a question. Feeling somewhat invincible, I called on him. “Ms. McKee,” he said “if the moon reflects the light from the sun, how long would it take a single ray of sun to bounce off the moon and reach the Earth?” Now, I don’t know if that’s exactly the way he phrased it, but whatever that question was, I knew then and there that I didn’t have the answer. I remember the split second moment of ‘ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh what do I do?’ before I took a deep breath and simply said “that’s a great question and, honestly, I don’t know.” I realized in that moment that though my lesson plan had effectively derailed, it was okay to simply say “I don’t know.” In that moment, I like to think that my students saw it was okay to not know the answer, to ask for help, to admit that there’s still more to learn. That moment shaped one of the most common phrases I still say to my students: “It’s okay to not know, it’s never okay to not try.”
- The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways. Over the past few years of teaching, I have met my fair share of ‘tough kids.’ This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn as an educator. The students today are up against odds we never were, are facing challenges and obstacles that many of us have never encountered. Students today can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, burdened by a slew of problems – bad home life, low self-esteem, lack of stability… Every student that walks through your door – every last one – needs AND deserves your attention, your encouragement, your patience, and your understanding. It’s human nature to get wrapped up in our own problems, our own stress, and our own lives – and certainly, it’s important to look out for you. But when you encounter that student that blatantly disrespects you, or is always late, or sleeps in class, remember, teaching is more than just teaching academics, it’s teaching patience and kindness, too.
- Remember to take care of yourself. My first year of teaching, I would be in the parking lot when school would be unlocked and stay until the night custodians left. I found myself constantly drained and stressed, worrying about lesson plans, grading, and the growing pile of papers on my desk. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that if I left the pile of grading on my desk one afternoon, it would still be there the next day. Now, I’m not saying that your lesson plans or learning targets aren’t important. I’m not saying that you should let all deadlines fall by the wayside. No, what I’m saying is that you should strive for balance – remember to take time for you! Spend time with friends, go on a run, read a book, just relax – unwind and take a break from the fervor of everyday life. In the words of Robert Fulghum, “Learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.”
To be a teacher is to celebrate the victories great and small: an improved test score, a winning soccer game, a loose tooth at lunch – and to console the defeats – misplaced homework, family problems, the worry of where the next meal may come from. I’ll be honest with you – teaching can be a tumultuous roller coaster of emotion; you will experience the highest highs and the lowest lows – and sometimes in the span of a school day. “So, why teach?” some people ask. I can speak from experience that I’m not in it for the glamour, the fame, or the money. Teaching is not rich in any of those respects – those are not the reasons I do what I do. The students that pour into my classroom class after class, day after day, year after year – THESE are the reasons I do what I do. I teach to help people, I teach to see the light bulb moments, I teach to inspire the next group of today’s learners and tomorrow’s leaders. I teach to give students structure, to provide opportunities, to promote self-reliance. I teach to empower students with the knowledge that every one of them – EVERY SINGLE ONE can make a difference. You see, when I’m teaching, I know in my heart of hearts that I’m making a difference – and there’s nothing in this world that I’d rather do.