Have you ever had the feeling that time is flexible?
You know what I mean – the time between hitting the snooze button and the next alarm in the morning is practically nonexistent, whereas ten minutes on a treadmill seems like hours. If you’re a teacher, a free hour feels about five minutes, and a lesson with a challenging class can last approximately forever.
Sometimes, though, this notion of the flexibility of time is challenged when a time in your life seems to simultaneously have taken a matter of moments and an absolute age. Usually this happens when you have had to go through a challenging experience. You know the kind of thing I mean – something significant like studying for exams in your final year at university, awaiting the birth of a child or training for a marathon. My second year in teaching is a perfect example of this, no doubt because it was actually the hardest year of my life so far.
In the summer break between my first and second year as a teacher, everything changed. My husband and I relocated from a small seaside town to one of the biggest cities in England, hundreds of miles away from our family and friends. We survived on friends’ sofas for a while and then found ourselves a new home. My husband got a job and I had already secured a job in a new school. So far, so good, I thought. And then September rolled around.
My teacher training went smoothly and my first year as a qualified teacher was fairly routine. After two years training and working in a couple of different schools I felt confident that I knew what I was doing and that I was doing a pretty good job. But my new school was a world away from anything I had experienced before. Hundreds of miles away from my sleepy coastal hometown I was at an absolute loss as to how to relate to the children I taught. It took me weeks to understand their accents, I didn’t understand their slang and I definitely didn’t know how to deal with their behaviour. As brilliant as the school was, these were children raised in a very different context to my own. It was like being on another planet.
There were many firsts. For the first time, I broke up fights between boys who towered above me. I rescued the vomit-soaked coursework of kids who seemed to subsist on a diet of caffeine. I spoke to parents and carers and heard stories you wouldn’t believe. And I cried, a lot. I shouted at countless children and they shouted back at me. I threatened them and they threatened me back. I said things I shouldn’t have and so did they. And then I tried the alternative approach of being relentlessly positive. This lasted about two weeks before I no longer had the energy to force a smile all day. I know what you are thinking and yes, I admit this makes a depressing read. Living it was even worse! I am not the swearing kind but I could think of a number of expletives to describe my second year in teaching.
However, there is a positive side to the story. For a start, it has – I am pretty sure – a happy ending. I am still at that same school and despite threatening my husband and our bank account with quitting multiple times I did not and no longer have any intention of leaving in the near future. I no longer have to fake positivity because the kids I teach make me smile every day. I’ve learned the slang and have even caught myself using it now and then. So what’s different? The kids haven’t changed; they are still as awkward, infuriating and lovable as ever. But I have.
I am a better teacher now than I was a year ago. I believe I am also a better wife and friend. I am more patient and more forgiving of myself and others. Do I still make mistakes? Every day. Am I still hopelessly far from perfect? You can bet on it. And if you are reading this and know me personally, yes I am fully aware that I am a pain in the neck now, but you should have seen me before!
You see, this is the beauty of teaching. There are few professions which force you to develop as a person as much as being a teacher does. You can’t fake interest in a child’s life, you can’t build relationships on pleases and thank yous alone and I don’t believe you can be a great teacher without a genuine concern for the little lives in your classroom and a desire to be their friends, guides and champions. I couldn’t suddenly get on brilliantly with the children I taught and expect them to do what I asked because I had to teach them to trust me first. I had to be humble, apologise when necessary and be ready to start over again every day. And perhaps most importantly, I had to ask for help. I am so grateful for the amazing support of my long-suffering friends, my wise and loving husband and my talented colleagues. So if you are a teacher and you are finding it tough, I can sympathise. And here’s my advice to you:
- Please learn, if you haven’t already, to truly forgive yourself. We need to forgive ourselves for making mistakes, for struggling to keep a healthy work-life balance, for not being the teachers we’ve seen in movies. Others may expect you to live up to impossibly high standards but you cannot expect it of yourself.
- Get all the help you can. Share your thoughts and unburden yourself on those who care about you – that is partly what they are there for! Talk to your colleagues and explain what you are going through. You might find that they understand exactly where you are coming from and know how to help you get through it. Get inspired on social media, but only if it makes you feel uplifted and excited about going into work rather than inadequate by comparison. Try to focus on things that remind you why you picked teaching as your career in the first place.3. Be patient. It will take time, but provided you keep consistently doing the right things, things will get better. You will start to teach lessons in which you find yourself smiling more than frowning. You will suddenly realise that you actually enjoy spending time with (at least some of) the children you teach. And you will find yourself feeling excitement more often than dread at the thought of going into work. So just keep swimming!If you are a teacher and you feel you’ve reached the end of yourself, I can relate. I hope that this time next year, you will be able to look back as I do now on a year that seemed simultaneously to go by in a flash and to last forever. And that you will be as proud and happy as I am to have got through it and learned so much. Things can get better, if you want them to. And you can do it.
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