How does a teacher early in her career decide who she’s going to be? My first year I had grand ideas of changing the world, but quickly learned it took all of my time just to keep my head above water. I kept telling myself, “It’s ok. I’m only a first year teacher.” And later, “It’s alright, this is only my second year.” But by the third year, I was really beginning to doubt myself, and definitely by the fourth year I was pretty sure I was irreparably damaging the tiny souls in my care. “What’s wrong with me?” I’d silently scream to myself. “It’s already my fourth year and I still don’t know what I’m doing!”
Fortunately, sometime during that fourth year, an experienced teacher at a county-level meeting reassured me this was completely normal. No one else had bothered to explain that self-doubt comes with the job. Instead, when I looked around me I saw what appeared to be confident, organized, experienced teachers who never doubted their next steps and always had their plans ready for next week. Granted, their plans involved basal texts and grammar worksheets, but at least they left on time on Fridays and could joke around with the principal. “Maybe I should just be the kind of teacher who pulls the same Leprechaun file out for March each year,” I thought. “Just go ahead and buy the polyester pantsuit and a pack of red pens."
After recently talking with young teacher also caught in the 4th-year slump, I’m beginning to think this is a natural stage creative teachers must go through. Perhaps it’s an identity crisis, a search for your true self, which occurs when you realize that it’s not easy to become the larger-than-life teacher you’d set out to be when you were a wide-eyed undergrad. You wonder: if that remarkable teacher you intended to become hasn’t arrived yet, maybe it won’t ever happen, and instead you should begin to look around to find another model to settle for.
I’m not sure what brought me out of that slump – it’s been too many years ago to remember the details – but I do think it might have had to do with a change of scenery. I moved schools and separated from my more traditional teammate. I also joined some county-level committees that gave me a wider perspective, but more importantly allowed me to see even experienced teachers were still struggling to nail down this profession. And probably most importantly, I found an unofficial mentor, a neighboring teacher who was ten times more creative than me. Sherry gave me someone to emulate and motivated me to become more than who I was. She served as my “mentor text” and reaffirmed my budding beliefs in student choice and active learning that had almost gotten squashed during my earlier years.
Perhaps you’re a new teacher hitting that identity slump, wondering if you’ll ever be the teacher you’d aspired to. Or maybe you have passed that rough patch and feel fully vested in the identity you’ve carved out for yourself in this difficult profession. In either case, reach out to each other. Lord knows we all need support.