Thursday, September 6, 2007

The First Day

For years, I have associated the First Day of School with a sleepless night - or possibly a sleepless weekend.

Thinking about it now, I wish that I had kept a better journal about my days in a classroom. I was going to be teaching high school juniors and seniors - American Literature and Expository Writing (whatever that was). I was not that far removed from being an adolescent myself, in my early 20's but just barely. I approached the First Day with a mix of mild anxiety and narcissism. Yes, I was nervous. Of course I was. But still, I harbored a perception - now identified as an acutely savvy coping strategy - that, as a recent adolescent myself, I understood them. I even clung to a small dose of contempt for the older, more seasoned teachers in the building, thinking that they were most likely out of step with their students and that only someone with my credibility would be able to truly reach them.

In the end, it was all a harmless but revealing naivite, but it got me through those first few days. I had to be somewhat arrogant and overly self-confident to think that the definition of the word supercilious or bivouac, or the interpersonal dynamics of Janie and Teacake in Their Eyes Were Watching God, or figuring out when to use a semi-colon were somehow relevant to their lives. But I convinced myself that they were, that in fact they could not possibly leave the classroom without knowing these things.

I remember feeling like the only thing that kept me going was the adrenaline. I remember toasting a bagel for breakfast and finding the mere thought of food nauseating. I remember sleeping for three hours and then tossing and turning for the rest of the night, just waiting for the alarm. I remember the fluorescent lights of the windowless classroom, four rows of contemptuous and skeptical 17 year-olds, the way that Robert refused to take notes and how charming Elizabeth thought that was, the sound of Shondra sucking her teeth at me when I tried to set some "ground rules" for our class, how grateful (and shocked) I was that Gillian at least seemed to be paying attention, thinking that my multi-colored chalk and inspirational quote were just props and made me look even more foolish than I felt, the realization that tomorrow's lesson plan was going to have to look a lot different from today's.

And yet, I also remember feeling energized and hopeful and determined. I came back the next day. Every morning, I used my colored chalk to put a new quote on the board. Every night, I read more and wrote more notes. And within weeks, I was sleeping all the way through the night (except on Sundays).

For those of us new to teaching and schools, these are among the most trying - and most invigorating days - of what we hope is a career. What are the things going through your head these days? What questions do you have that seem unanswerable? What are the things preoccupying your thoughts these days?

And for those of us who have been there before, what wisdom can you share? What was your First Day like? How did you approach it - your first relationships with your students and your colleagues - and how did your approach evolve over the year? What would you do differently? How did you sustain yourself?