The first day of school for a teacher is a lot more stressful than the first day for a student, though maybe my middle school self would disagree. Remember when you had time between classes to catch up with friends or thirty minutes during lunch to talk about your morning? Teachers don’t have that. I’m collecting materials between classes, chatting with students during lunch, and doing my best just to remember where my classes are and when they begin and end. Today was a whirlwind of what-is-happening.
And the things is, as the teacher, you have to at least seem like you know what’s going on. I have to create a safe, organized space and be the adult in the room. This was fairly simple when I was working with my youngest group of students. They were happy to be there and seemed eager to please. I was surprised by how excited I was to meet them. After so much planning, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from my students, and I’m not usually much of a people-person, so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to connect with them. I realized that the fact that I like them means that I also want them to like me, which is trickier, since I can’t be their friend.
I was talking to my instructional coach, Holly, today about her first year teaching. Holly is awesome–she worked in the Peace Corps, and from the way she gives us positive but constructive feedback, I can tell she’s a great teacher. She explained that she had a really difficult class her first year, and for a while, she was afraid to discipline them because she wanted them to like her. It worked–they liked her–but she didn’t have as much control as she needed. In her experience, walking that fine line between being liked and being an authority is a constant struggle when teaching.
My core classes (with the seventh graders) went fairly well (all things considered). However, my elective didn’t go well at all. I was struggling to find that line. I care a lot about slam poetry, but my students didn’t seem to want anything to do with it They told me they didn’t know that was what the class was about. I wanted them to like me and like the class, so I tried doing an improv activity to get them out of their seats. The plan backfired. Students didn’t want to participate, and when they did, they made inappropriate jokes. My students didn’t take the class any more seriously, and I didn’t create a safe, organized space for them.
When I was standing in front of that classroom, I felt what it must’ve been like to be my choir teacher in middle school, to care about something and want to share it with people but not know how to get people as excited about it as you are. I also felt how it must feel to care about students who don’t seem to like you, because it’s not cool to like you. It was like being in high school, but the cool kids didn’t want to talk to me. Except I wasn’t supposed to be the cool kid. I was supposed to be the authority.
At the end of the day, I shared my disappointment with the director. I felt like I needed to create a whole new class. She told me to try not to worry too much about my students’ attitudes. At this time in their lives, it can be difficult to admit that they like something that doesn’t seem cool, something like slam poetry. However, if I try to keep that from rattling me and keep them engaged (and if I set clear ground rules about what is and isn’t appropriate in class), maybe they’ll still get something out of the elective. I hope so, but mainly, I just hope that I can figure out how to keep caring about them without needing them to like me.
A lot of us experienced some kind of disappointment today. One of the other teaching fellows told me she was starting to think maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, because she cared too much about what other people think. “It’s only the first day, though,” she added.
It is only the first day. And it’s not too late for me to take back control of the classroom and encourage my students to learn. But according to Holly, teaching is always going to be difficult. That’s what she thinks is so great about it.