Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thoughts on the Approaching School Year

Last year was not one of my best. Teaching was wonderful and I loved my students, but there were certain barriers blocking my self-confidence, enhancing my self-doubt, and causing me to spend the majority of my after school days working alone in my classroom. I felt disconnected and self-conscious. I will not bore you with the details of how these emotions came into play, but the point is that I was unhappy, stressed, tired, and lonely. I had no idea just how lonely I had been until I began preparing for  school earlier this month.

I taught kindergarten for three years (one year I was an intern, so I suppose it doesn't "count" in many eyes, but I know how much of my time, energy, sweat, and tears I devoted that year, so I say it is still considered a year of experience). Last year, my principal and vice principal indicated that I would be moving to first grade in the upcoming school year. To say I was ecstatic at this news is an understatement. For a few years, I have witnessed how the first grade team works. They are always smiling, happy, and supportive of their members. As I have watched them, I ached for that sort of closeness and wished I could be a part of a team as close-knit and caring as they always seemed to be. I loved my kindergarten team, but I definitely felt ready to take on a new challenge and free myself from the depressing life I had been leading. I accepted the offer and began packing.

As soon as August rolled around, I started getting the "first day of school blues." As summer vacation comes to an end, most educators feel a bit of anxiety at the thought of coming back to school. Our classrooms are not left, as many of you may believe, in pristine condition. At the end of the school year, we clean up, put materials away, stack chairs, erase boards, and remove former student names from our bulletin boards. When we come back, our rooms are completely flipped upside down; nothing is left in the same location and it becomes a scavenger hunt to see how quickly you can find an item you once prized. This year was no different. I walked into my room to see a stack of fifty or more boxes from my kindergarten classroom, desks flipped on top of each other, chairs stacked haphazardly around the room, a few cabinets gone, and a new (heavy) bookshelf sitting in the corner.

 I wasn't exaggerating.

I was a bit stressed at the sight of my classroom. I knew I needed to get started with my unpacking, so I did what I could and tried to keep everything as familiar as possible. After several days of sorting, tossing, and organizing, the boxes were finally emptied. I felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment followed immediately by dread. Now that my room was together, I had to worry about  teaching an entirely different grade level. I didn't even know where to start.

Many of you are probably thinking that since I am coming up from kindergarten, the difference in curriculum won't be too different. Everyone keeps telling me, "Oh you'll be fine! You have the same students you had last year." This is pretty unhelpful. I am so happy that my colleagues, friends, and family have so much faith in me, but I lost a lot of faith in myself last year. All of my anxiety and sadness was starting to resurface and I wasn't sure what to do to make it go away.

I started working with my new first grade team (they are the best, by the way). They have been so supportive of everything I have done in my classroom and have done their utmost to make sure I feel at least slightly more at ease by the time school starts. First grade standards are much more challenging than kindergarten standards. Students go from needing to know their numbers from 1-30 to needing to know their numbers from 1-100; they must be able to read and write contractions, tell time to the nearest half hour, recognize common vowel diphthongs, and so much more. I have not been this nervous since I started my first year of teaching kindergarten. That year, I had a difficult class both academically and emotionally; I received virtually no help and had very little guidance from those who were supposed to be checking in on me. I felt lost, alone, insecure, and afraid I would lose my job.

As I have been preparing for teaching first grade, I realize that my fears are stemming from that first year of teaching. That first year of teaching I had no one to turn to, I cried myself to sleep almost every night, and I had three of the most challenging students I have ever met. I never want to feel as helpless as I did my first year teaching. I have been panicking that my first year of teaching first grade will be just as stressful; the thought of it is terrifying.

The more I have fixated on this, the more I have realized that there is no way this year will ever be like my first year of teaching. My first year, I had no one to advocate for me; this year, I have six other first grade teachers who are supportive and encouraging. My first year, I had no help; this year, I will not be afraid to ask for it. This will be my third year as an "official" teacher, so I have learned when to speak up for myself. My first year, I had so many behavior problems that I felt I would go mad by the end of the school day; this year, I know my students and I love them with all my heart (despite their mischievous personalities). I may be teaching first grade for the first time ever, but this is not my first time teaching.

Yesterday, the class lists were posted at school around 4:00. Most of us hid in our classrooms, not wanting to see any children until Monday. At around 6:00 (yes, I was still there), I opened my classroom door to let in some fresh air. As I was working at one of the student desks and stressing about the next thing I hadn't done yet, I saw a tiny face peek into the classroom. One of my former kindergarten students, Amanda, smiled at me and quickly dashed away. When I walked outside to greet her, she ran to me as fast as her legs could carry her and gave me the squishiest bear hug I have ever received. I talked to her and her family for a while and then we said our goodbyes.

As soon as I got back into my classroom, I couldn't help but smile. This entire month, people have been telling me "not to stress" and that "everything will work out." None of these words meant as much to me as Amanda coming in for a visit yesterday. As soon as I saw her little face and listened to her talk about all the fun things she did over the summer, I knew I would be ready. I would be ready to teach on Monday. I would be ready for first grade.