10 Life Lessons Learned from 10 Years Teaching (That might not give you a better resume, but will make you better at life).

Hi friend. This September marks the beginning of my 11th year in education (uh, what? yeah) - in grades K- 5 in some form or another, in many schools and positions. This an ode to all my hard-working educators out there - teachers, admins, specialists, aides - who do more in your work day and work life than even you realize. I know people might think, “oh how cute,”or “oh summer’s off” when they ask, "What do you do for a living?"  But I know. I know the heart, struggle, and effort, on the clock and behind the scenes. Here are 10 life lessons I’ve learned from 10 years teaching that might not give you a better resume, but will make you better at life. 

*DisclaimerI say “sh*t” a lot (and yeah, I've accidentally said it in front of a classroom of kids, see #10), because reflecting on my time as a teacher wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t swear.  #sorrynotsorry. 

 I know the world likes to think teachers should be perfect, but you’re a person, just like everyone else...When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, do what you can to rectify it if necessary, learn from it, and forgive yourself. That’s the best any of us can do, in the classroom, and in life.

1. You can’t please everybody all the time.  Sometimes, you can’t please everybody even some of the time. The sooner you get over this, the better. Students, parents, colleagues, admins, aides, custodians, secretaries and cafeteria staff, there are so many players in this game that all want something and have their agenda, so many balls in the air, some of them are just. gonna. drop.  All you can do is your best. Someone will want something more/different/right now! Yes, with one email, you very well might make one person happy, and one person mad as hell. If you feel proud of your effort, if you are working with integrity, then rest easy at night and let the rest of that sh*t go. Big life lesson.

2. There will always be more to do. You pretty much can’t get it all done.  You have to learn to prioritize. What are the must-dos? What’s non-negotiable? What can you let slide or give minimal effort?  Because there is always more to do.  Figuring out that balance is key to your sanity and even your job performance.  As I became a health coach and entered this dual-career role, I knew that in order to make it through the year with my health and sanity intact, along with giving energy and effort to my new career, I had to establish boundaries and let some things go. The irony is that my best teaching came out of it.   I don't get so worked up about things. I'm more calm and level-headed. I enjoy my students more.  (And, I'm “highly effective” and get sh*t done!) You don’t have to do it all. You can’t do it all. Accept it and prioritize.

  That face! She used to bring me handfuls of ferrero rochers from her family's corner store. (She's a senior now?!) Brooklyn, 2005/2006

That face! She used to bring me handfuls of ferrero rochers from her family's corner store. (She's a senior now?!)
Brooklyn, 2005/2006

3. Organization.  Want to learn how to be organized? Try being an elementary school classroom teacher.  That’s ride or die, sink or swim.  I used to be somewhat of an organizational disaster. But teaching, I learned how to organize sh*t - my teaching materials, worksheets and resources, endless streams of communication, student notices and homework, and all the classroom materials and supplies for twenty-plus children.  (Middle/high school, oh yes, you have a million students and a million grades to track. You know a thing or two). Hell yes. I can organize. 

4. A sense of humor in stressful situations.  Is that poop on the field trip form on the floor? (Yes, it was, don’t ask me how it got there).   Did someone really just bite?  Did you just throw a book at my head?  Did you just tell me NO again?!  Did you just scribble all over your state test? Is this parent really going to hover while any number of absurd things are happening?  And oh, do I have an observation scheduled? Yes.  Yes. And Yes. Does laughing about all of it help? Hell yes.  In fact, the more absurd, the better the laugh. Applies to all in life.

5. How to breathe and keep your cool when sh*t gets crazy.  (See #4 above).  When I learned how to really breathe - deep, slow breaths from the diaphragm - and give myself a moment to a pause before responding, not only do I make better decisions, but I also save myself from going crazy.  You may have heard that stress wreaks havoc on your health? (It does).  This is a big one, and it took me a while to learn, but I’m really thankful for it.

6. Time management. Teachers, I don’t really need to explain this one to you.  Again, it’s a survival skill, and it’s pretty damn useful in life.

  This guy gave me a jewelry armoire filled with candy and fake flowers for Valentine's day that was bigger than he was. (I also got a shiny, neon pink vest from another boy. It was glorious).

This guy gave me a jewelry armoire filled with candy and fake flowers for Valentine's day that was bigger than he was. (I also got a shiny, neon pink vest from another boy. It was glorious).

7. Confidence & presence. When you’re a teacher, the classroom is your domain. We start as unsure newbies discovering our boundaries, being too permissive, being too strict, finding our voice. Eventually, we discover the middle ground, and own the space with a power that comes from an inner confidence.  You know those classrooms when you step into them.  This confidence, how to own a space with your presence without needing to exert your control, is priceless.  If you can do it with a classroom, you can extend it to other areas of your life.

8. It doesn’t matter what other people think about you, or about the profession, so let that sh*t go. One thing that I learned to let go of as a teacher, particularly an early elementary teacher, is that people think the job is “cute”, or that you’re cute for doing it. And usually, they haven't the slightest clue just how physically and mentally f'ing hard it is! Not that there's anything wrong with cute, but I am/we are so much more than cute, and the job is far from cute on most days.  A person can be smart and driven and have the option to be a _____ (doctor, lawyer, financial analyst, insert any respected job), and choose to be a teacher. (In fact, uh, isn't that who you want in the classroom?!) It’s a shame that teaching is a low respect profession in this country, because bright, creative and driven people make bright, creative and driven teachers. But if you are standing around waiting for people to say, "hey, you must be really smart because you became a teacher!" it ain’t gonna happen. Be happy with your choices in life, that’s all that really matters. And if you’re not happy with them, then work to change it. (Also see #9).

9. Affirm yourself. (See #8). Other people aren’t going to to do for you.  This took me a while to learn, and it’s still a struggle some  days, but teaching (and life) are so much better when you can do this. So learn to give yourself a pat on the back. Feel awesome about your successes, no matter how big or how small.  Own your hard work, own your awesome classroom set-up,  own the way you connected with that student who does everything in her/his power to build walls, own the way you redirected that lesson in the spur of the moment.  High-five yourself. You rock.

10. Forgive yourself.  (And others). You’ll screw up, you’ll make mistakes, you’ll forget things, some little, some big.  If you’re an elementary teacher, you spend more time with your students during the school day than their families do.  You have their little lives in your hands, and that’s a sh*t load of responsibility. You’re a walking, talking model in everything you do. But you’re also human, and as such sometimes you’ll respond with less than kindness, you’ll be unprepared, you’ll make a bad call.  I know the world likes to think teachers should be perfect, but you’re a person, just like everyone else. (It's also handy to remember this when your colleagues, admins, students' parents, significant other, etc screw up).  When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, do what you can to rectify it if necessary, learn from it, and forgive yourself. That’s the best any of us can do, in the classroom, and in life.

Much love and much gratitude to you and this profession!

 Tell me in the comments below: what part of this resonates with you? What do you have down, and what do you struggle with?  If you liked it, share it and tag a teacher!