Jonathan LaPoma is the author of the Stargazer Literary Prize-winning novel, Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story, published by Laughing Fire Press
To all of the teachers stepping to the head of classrooms for the first time, good luck. You’ve entered one of the world’s most difficult professions and you are likely not yet equipped with many of the tools that the vets use to make the transition into a new year a little easier (rest assured that a lot of those vets are also feeling quite nervous beginning a new year). Prepare yourself. You will be disrespected by students, parents, and administrators. You’ll receive little pay for the countless hours you put in, but will still be told by “experts” that even that paltry sum is too much.
But congratulations are in order. You are embarking on a journey that, according to the evidence I’ve gathered through my nearly ten years in the profession, can be extremely positive. It’s no big secret that teaching can suck. A lot. Soon, you will likely question why you’ve entered the profession, as that green, I’m-gonna-take-the-world-by-storm energy begins to wane and gets replaced by a near-constant inner newsfeed of negativity. You will likely be filled with self-doubt and often drive home cursing out people who are not present in your automobile. But, if you find the humanity, it can get better.
What does that mean? There are few things more terrifying than hearing that door slam shut as you walk to the front of a classroom and address your students for the first time. A sudden rush of self-doubt: What did I do? Who am I to be standing here? And, once the more general teacher-related fears start to fade, a new series crop up that are more personal and specific: Holy crap, if I stand here long enough, these kids are gonna know. They’re gonna somehow find out I was a loser in high school. They’re gonna somehow find out Kathy Jenkins rejected me in eighth grade. Somehow know daddy used to use me as a punching bag and mommy would knock herself out with booze to cope.
Something about teaching—standing there in front of children—has a way of bringing all of our deepest fears out from that repressed center and placing them back on the surface for public viewing and a new round of shaming. Something about it makes us feel as though we’ll never be whole. Which brings me back to my point: Find the humanity. What I mean is that when you start to notice these feelings creeping up, don’t run from them, but rather, run to them. Say hello. Invite them out to dinner to get to know them better.
No matter how much crap they give you, kids absolutely want you to be in control. They need a leader. And they’ll strip you down in a desperate attempt to either make a leader out of you or run you the hell outta there so someone else with the stones can take over. At first, this process may seem terrifying—and it is. But there’s a hidden beauty in it.
If you let these kids break you down and listen to why their words hurt so much, you can find a way to address some of your own issues. You can find a way to forgive yourself, allow yourself to heal, allow yourself to live and grow and feel love for yourself. And in this process, you’ll find your own humanity. (And if you feel the need to speak with a therapist to help you deal with these issues, then you’re in good company. You’d be surprised to find out how many of your co-workers do the same). You likely got into this profession because you have a big, beautiful heart, and an overwhelming need to inspire others. Your heart and soul are already in the right spot. Use this as a time to get your head right.
The beauty about finding your own humanity is that, when you do, you begin to see it in others too in spite of their posturing and defiance. You’ll start to see that the kid in fourth period is calling you a cow because his mother at home is eating herself to death. You’ll start to see that the brat in your seventh period gives you the evil eye every time you look at her because you look like the boyfriend that comes over and beats on her mom every night. You’ll start to see the humanity behind the terror, and as a result, you’ll stop reacting emotionally to disrespect, and start acting with the wisdom and compassion necessary to not only neutralize the behavior, but to find a way to inspire positive behavior in the future (eh, not always, but sometimes).
I know I’m making all of this sound easy, but it’s not. Even after years of employing this same strategy, I still find myself with fears and doubts. But even when I know I can’t win a battle, I try to win an inner one by telling myself that it’s not me who’s crazy—that sometimes I just need to play along with the system even though it goes against my natural instincts, because if I do, I can keep my job and continue to fight those battles I can win in the future.
Again, I congratulate you on beginning your path on one of the world’s most difficult professions. You’re going to have a lot of people who don’t ever know what they’re talking about try to convince you that the job is easy. Forget them. You’ll remember why you got into this job when you’re able to emotionally detach from these jokers and put your effort into actual teaching. You will have breakthroughs with kids. They will tell you things they’ve never told anyone else. They will come to you crying and in need of support, and somehow you’ll find a way to console them even if you fumble with your words (just the fact that you’re listening may do the trick), and you’ll remember why you’re doing this. If you can find the humanity in yourself and others, you will become a rock. You will become a leader. You will become an inspirational powerhouse, and this energy will ripple throughout the classroom and leak out into the world.
Find the humanity. As the months pass, you may find that teaching isn’t right for you. It might not be. If not, go easy on yourself. You could always do something simpler like become a NASA scientist or a brain surgeon . . . Allow yourself to make this change free of shame and self-doubt. You are the master of your life (and you’re damned good-lookin’ too). Find the humanity in yourself, in your kids, your husbands, wives, friends, strangers on the street . . .
It can get better.