You won’t be a master teacher on your first day, or your first week, or even your first year. You will have moments that are masterful, but true mastery is consistent and seamless. It takes time to get there.
Don’t let that discourage you.
You were probably a good student yourself and are used to “getting” things right away. You got good grades in your classes and were excited about finally getting to implement everything you learned in your own classroom. You spent weeks preparing, anticipating your students and the cool things you would help them learn.
But on your first day, or your first week, or your first month, things deviated from your plans. You hit a snag or encountered a challenge they didn’t teach you in school. You make a mistake or two, or maybe ten. You felt awkward and unprepared, maybe even a little overwhelmed. Back in your teacher prep program you had no idea how much you didn’t know.
It may feel like you’ll never be a master teacher, never walk into a classroom and instantly sense exactly what you have to do to help students learn. It may feel like you will never get your classroom completely organized and all your students learning at the exact same time. But if you put in the work, it will happen. It just may not happen on your schedule.
Like I said, mastery takes time. Don’t worry; I’m not going to go into a “you’ve gotta pay your dues” speech here. I’m simply sharing a truth that took me a while to learn. You see, I thought I was pretty good when I first started teaching. Sure, I had my challenges, but my first year wasn’t entirely awful. In fact, there were even a few moments of brilliance if I say so myself. My first year wasn’t half bad.
But my second year of teaching presented new challenges. All the classroom management issues that typically characterize the first year happened to me during my second year of teaching. I don’t really know why, either. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I came in during the middle of the school year when much of the classroom culture was already established. My second year, I had to establish the culture myself and I struggled.
What made it worse was that I thought that I was through all the first-year struggles. I thought that I had things down pat and was on my way to mastery. To struggle at that point made me question myself and, for a while, lose confidence in my ability to master teaching.
What I learned is that everyone’s path to mastery looks a little different. Some of you will struggle mightily your first few months, start to figure things out around January or February, and emerge from your first year triumphant. Others of you will fly through your first year but hit roadblocks during your second or third year and want to leave the profession altogether. Others of you will make steady, incremental growth towards mastery. And still others of you will struggle your first few years, try several different approaches until you find one that works for you.
Each of us has our own path and our own timing but I can promise you this: Those who don’t reach mastery fail not because they didn’t choose the right path, but because they gave up too soon.
Mastery, real mastery, takes time. You can’t give up or get frustrated because you aren’t getting better on your schedule or in the way that you imagined. Keep investing, keep trusting, and keep working.
If you put in the work, if you never stop learning, it will happen.
But I need to warn you. Teaching isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to decide whether the joys of teaching are really worth the nonsense we often have to put up with to be here.
Should the choice have to be that stark? No. But this is neither a political call to action nor a soothing chicken soup for the teacher’s soul. Because I’m a realist and a pragmatist, this is something much more simple. Teaching has its challenges. But it also has its benefits. You have to decide if the benefits make it worth dealing with the challenges.
But if you DO decide to be here, be amazing. Don’t settle for anything less. Some teachers are content to be mediocre. They have rationalized the fact that they don’t reach every student every year and have learned to live with helping most children, just not all of them. They’ve become complacent by choice or circumstance. It’s tragic, really. They no longer believe that they can become master teachers so they talk themselves into being merely okay. Competent, even. Maybe they blame the kids or perhaps they point to circumstances as their excuse. But the truth is, they’ve learned to settle. They don’t believe that mastery is possible so they stop reaching.
Don’t you settle. Don’t let anyone who has given up on their dreams of mastery rob you of yours. Mastery isn’t easy, but it’s possible if you reach for it. Not only is it possible, it’s necessary – for your students, for their families, and for your own happiness. It will make the difference, all the difference, between merely teaching students how to decode and utilize text features and inspiring in them a life-long love for reading and learning. It will make the difference between showing students how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and helping them become effective problem solvers. It will make the difference between showing students how to conduct experiments and instilling in them a true wonder for the world and all that is in it. It will make the difference between requiring students to recite dates, and facts, and completing timelines and understanding their place in history and the connections between the past and their future. It will make the difference between teaching art, and music, and computer science, and physical education and helping students build rich, interesting, meaningful lives.
You don’t have to settle.
You can be a master teacher.
You can do this.