The firsts

I have been reflecting on my first year of teaching recently, mainly because I have just spent the past couple of months helping to prepare a fresh bunch of teacher graduates to enter the profession. Watching their excitement, wonder and anticipation has been refreshing for me, and from many of our classes, I have left feeling inspired and uplifted — my reward.

My first year of teaching was seventeen years ago, and in some ways, it seems lost among a collection of hazy memories, but in other ways, it is as vivid as yesterday. It was a year of firsts. The first time I flew solo in a classroom. The first time I had to plan and present a school assembly. The first time I was responsible for assessing and monitoring an entire grade of children’s learning. The first time I organised a camp. The first time a child told me that he really didn’t like me and that he wanted to be in another class. The list could go on.

Now, the camp was located a couple of hours drive from the school and it was hard work. In the aftermath, a sleep-in took on a whole new meaning, but it was also fantastic. I felt a great sense of achievement getting to and from camp with all children accounted for, after having had a great many laughs with my students. All of the firsts come with a sense of pride because the first time you do anything carries you into the realm of the unknown, which, like Bandura suggests, can be perceived as a threat that may defeat you, or a challenge that you shall overcome. If an experience was ‘a first’ then the person experiencing it has met the challenge one way or another. I lived through all of my firsts and while sometimes I felt like a fumbled — like in organising my first school assembly where my students had no idea where they were meant to be on stage, what they were meant to say and barely uttered the lyrics to the song they were meant to sing — there were other times when I triumphed — like how the little boy that really didn’t want to be in my class at the start of the year grew rather fond of me by the end. I could tell by the few tears we shared together at the end of the year when we said our goodbyes.

Teaching is a heartfelt job. At times the emotion can feel overwhelming, but it is the same heartfelt aspect of the job that is also its greatest reward. Recently, I was talking to a colleague and friend about this story, who is also a seasoned teacher. She told me that she is often asked by pre-service teachers, ‘does it get easier?’ After some discussion, we decided, yes and no. No, because the work always remains boundless and because the uncertainty is ceaseless. In a way, the firsts keep coming. You get through your first year to find that you are in your second year with a whole new set of firsts. To this day, I often feel like I am back in that first year navigating new challenges. What does get easier is, knowing what requires your mental and emotional energy and what does not, and, as one of my research participants beautifully put it: ‘making uncertainty my friend’.

Teaching requires a compromise between give and take. You give as much of yourself as is needed to realise the reward, which teaching offers in abundance, so long as you keep yourself well. So, to the newly arrived beginning teachers, I wish you well in your endeavours and hope you savour the firsts.

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