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First Year of Teaching, First Year of Parenting

September 19, 2012

Last week I volunteered as a panelist for Swedish Hospital’s Preparing for Multiples class.  The instructor (who is fabulous) asks alumni from the class to come back and talk about their pregnancy and first few months’ experiences, and answer questions from the understandably shell-shocked and often terrified parents-to-be.

That same night, my cousin E stopped by on her way home from work (at 6:30 pm).  She is a first-year teacher at a local elementary school, and needed to decompress from the overwhelming first two days:  planning, teaching, assessing, guiding discipline, planning…and not eating.

Both interactions reminded me of how hard those first years are, and how glad I am to be on the “I survived” side, rather than approaching or being neck-deep in that year.

The hardest two things for both situations are that everything is new–there is no familiarity, no safety net to fall back on; everything is trial-and-error (and some days feels like mostly error); and I felt compelled to sacrifice everything–my health, my sanity, anything that did not relate to the “work”–for the greater good of the students or the babies.

Every teacher remembers (most with a mix of regret and relief) her first year, especially those of us who start fresh out of college, 22 or 23 and so fired up about changing students’ lives. The only person I’ve ever met who did not have an awful first year is my inimitable teacher friend Meredith.  Every time I saw her, I’d cautiously ask, “How’s it going?”  She would respond with her usual good cheer and I would wonder why she didn’t seem like she was falling apart, the way I felt during my first year.  (She continues to be an inspiration and one of the best teachers I’ve worked with.)

I have this clear memory of running my early sophomore classes like my college lit seminars:  we read, then discussed.  My freshmen gamely followed along.  My sophomores, bored out of their minds, used their class time to other ends:  throwing wadded-up paper balls at each other, poking the student in front of them, and otherwise being uninspired by the lessons and readings I had spent hours preparing.

I cried a lot.

I wondered what I had been smoking to believe that I was capable of teaching these students anything about literature or writing or discussions.  I couldn’t even keep their attention.

Student teaching prepared me for writing beautiful lesson plans.  It did not prepare me for “classroom management”–how to keep students focused and engaged, excited to learn.  It did not prepare me for the parent interactions I had:  a phone call to a mom who asked her son, while on the phone with me, if he was paying attention in class.  He said yes.  She wondered why I was calling.  Or the parent who was worried about my grading policy, so instead of calling me, she called my vice principal.

Having just moved across the country, I didn’t know many people, so I worked in my “free” time.  I planned on the weekends.  I graded while eating dinner.  I graded at my friend’s parents’ house.  I stayed at school until my car was locked into the parking lot (twice).

By the end of the year, I was exhausted and wondering if I had taught my freshmen and sophomores anything at all.  Then I got a note from Michelle.

She said I had been like a mentor to her.  I had given an assignment to develop students’ writing voice, which she had loved.  She said I had taught her to love writing.  Since she was so quiet all year, I had had no idea about any of this until I read her letter.

And cried more.

And resolved that maybe, just maybe, I could come back next year and do this again.

Parenting is a lot like this.  I spent day after day not knowing what the heck I was doing, having small moments of triumph and what felt like many more moments of failure.  I hated that uncertainty, that sense of being hit with a tidal wave every day of new decisions, new reactions, new experiences.

Everyone told me I had to “take care of myself”–and I had no idea how to do that when I had to nurse, then pump, squeeze in some time to bond with the babies before they slept again, and while they slept I had to eat, drink, figure out basic household tasks.  I showered every four days for months.

I have never liked feeling out of control.  I am a terrible skiier because in order to gain control, you have to go faster–and my mind could not will my body to do that.  I couldn’t let my dad help me learn how to ride a bike when I was young, because I knew eventually he would let go–and I didn’t trust him to do that before I was ready to be in control.

Then I took my mindfulness meditation class and learned how to be more gentle with myself.  That it was okay to be frustrated and feel out of control, but that I didn’t have to let those emotions control me.

Having children means relinquishing all kinds of control, real and imagined, over my own life and over the reality I live in.  Babies get reflux. They cry for no reason we can fathom.  They pass the point of exhaustion and can’t sleep.  Not only did I not have control over these things, I also had to let go of the feeling that I should have had control.  I was the mom, right?  I should have been able to fix all these things.  Just as, when I was the teacher with all the knowledge, I should have been able to hook my students with my enthusiasm and the glory of poetry.

I needed to expect something else of myself.  I needed the brokenness of discovering that I did not, in fact, know everything in order to become open to learning from my students and my children.  I needed to be comfortable with what I had to offer in my role instead of driving myself to some unreachable ideal.  I had to learn all these things the hard way.

E, my other cousin B (a first-year high school PE teacher), and their peers also need to learn these things the hard way, as do our friends who just had their first babies and all other new parents.  Experience is the hardest but also the best teacher.  I could not have read this post thirteen years ago before stepping into my newly postered classroom and been able to overcome my own ivory tower blindness, or have read this while on bedrest and sailed serenely through the grueling physical and emotional demands of those first months.

So we learn and grow.  And thank God we never have another first year.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. ebelinsk@bu.edu permalink
    September 19, 2012 7:28 pm

    The best thing I have read in weeks. Thank You. Beautifully and powerfully written too.

  2. Neal & BJ permalink
    September 19, 2012 12:04 pm

    You are amazing! I love you dearly!

    BJ

  3. Meredith permalink
    September 19, 2012 10:38 am

    YOU were always an inspiration to ME! I still admire your collaboration with Liz and what I always gleaned were very clear rationales for every single thing you taught… and your unruffled demeanor. I just invoked your name the other day (regarding collaboration)!

    And for the record, I did cry. Only once, and in October, of course (the lowest month). I took a mental health day and came back with new eyes. And I always appreciated your checking in with me. It made a difference.

    Also for the record, I read your blog all the time–it’s in my RSS feed! I am in awe of your parenting, spousing, writing, and especially of your honesty in what you write. Please keep it up–all of it!

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