I was a professional educator for 34 years. I was an amateur educator for many years before that as I cared for countless children in my own family and elsewhere. I wanted to be a teacher from my very first days as a student at the local Natural History Museum preschool, and I am not unhappy that I chose teaching as my career. Yet, looking back and knowing what I know now, I would have made a few different choices during my teaching career.
Understand your job expectations and meet those expectations with strength
I came into teaching wanting to change every aspect of education. As a young girl, I watched how outdated, dehumanizing education trends greatly harmed people in my life and hurt me too. While my educational experiences were mostly positive, I did experience some negative events, and for my brother, the way education was executed was mostly negative and harmful. I knew there was great room for change in teaching and learning, and I wanted to promote that change right away.
That wasn't a positive way to start my career. While it's great to have big dreams for your career path, it's best to do the job you're expected to do well first. I wish I had given more attention to the job expectations I had rather than trying to change the entire school right away.
Don't trust too quickly
Growing up in a mostly supportive atmosphere, I was a very trusting individual. I shared too readily with colleagues and administrators when I should have spent more time observing, listening, and getting to know the work environment. I never imagined that some would not have your best interests in mind. It's best not to trust too quickly, and take on a more reserved attitude as you start your career. Gain a good understanding of the environment you're in as this will help you to navigate that environment with success.
Develop your skill and knowledge
Take a strategic approach to developing your skill and knowledge. While doing the job you're assigned well, also develop your skills and credentials through reputable programs. Rather than taking countless courses in all kinds of education-related disciplines, I suggest building an expertise in a specific area such as math education, counseling, reading, or leadership.
Leading up is perhaps a too-great challenge
I tried to make change from the position of educator, and while I believe there should be more teacher leaders in schools, the reality is that administrators have the greatest ability to make good change. Therefore if you're a visionary educator, I recommend that you do a great job in the classroom for a few years, and then get your credentials to become an administrator who can more easily make the kinds of changes that improve schools.
You can't be all things to all people
Schools are complex places with lots of people and goals. You can't be all things to all people, so instead, nurture your relationships with close colleagues, and while you should be respectful and friendly to everyone in the community, you can't be close to all of them--there's simply too many people in the teaching/learning community to be close to everyone.
Establish a wonderful personal life
Try to keep your professional life and personal life separate. When your personal life seeps into your professional life, you lose the chance to have a reprieve from the tough work of teaching and learning. Create a good schedule for yourself that includes good time for work and good time for personal connections, interests, and good living.
Your boss is not your friend
I trusted administrators to be my friend and learned at last that no matter how wonderful your boss is, he or she is not your friend. Only share with your administrator that which is professional and related to the work environment. Keep your personal life separate unless it's a situation where your personal situation will have an impact on your work such as illness or a big life change. I suggest that all teachers have outside counseling to help them navigate the many issues that will arise during their professional life--it's best to share those issues with an outside consultant than administrators or most colleagues.
Partner with students and families
Recognize that parents know their children well, and that every child and family has a story to tell. Typically when parents and students are upset, they need to tell their story. Listen carefully and seek ways to work together as a team to help the child have as much success as possible. Never hesitate to say to a parent or child, "I am here to help you learn and be successful in any way that I can. Let's team together to make this a successful year."
Keep a daily log
It's good to keep a daily log of events that chart the success, challenges, and room for growth. This daily log will help you to complete evaluations, pinpoint problems, communicate issues, and work on positive change. Often in schools, one of the greatest challenges for classroom teachers is that the help that is supposed to be there doesn't arrive. Specialists are often not available when they are supposed to be there--keeping a chart of when people come and when they don't come will be helpful in this regard. A daily log will also help you to identify trends in your work and trends with your students too.
Join the union and read the union literature
I joined the union right away, but was late to read the literature and know what the union offered with regard to professional learning and development. Union membership protects your rights to speak up and do the job well. Too often teachers are compromised in the work environment when it comes to serving their students well, and union membership protects those rights. Union leadership in every school system will differ--some will be right there for you and others may work more for the administration. It's good to get to know your union, but again, not trust too quickly.
Teaching is much like parenting. The profession continually challenges you in countless ways. Taking a reserved and professional attitude and action towards your career will serve you well in the long run. I wish someone had told me this when I started my career. Onward.