I would be remiss if I didn’t take some time to reflect on my first year in the classroom. I see meaning, miracles, and magic in most things. Or as my sister and I put it, I’m “touched.”
Well, this school year had a lot of meaning, miracles, and magic for me. So much so that I actually have been struggling to write this post for a month. My fingers stumbled over the keys because I couldn’t quite find the words to do the experience justice. But I’m going to try.
It was around the beginning of September when I first felt a lump in my throat because of my job. I was working from home as a news reporter — something I loved doing just a year before (I took a year off to go to grad school). But the second time around, it didn’t feel right. I felt like my creative well for writing interesting news stories had dried up. It was a struggle to wake up and turn my computer on. My stomach was a washing machine during working hours. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I knew I had to make a change. But to what? I had just spent a whole year in grad school studying journalism. How can I switch it up now? Thoughts like that played over and over in my head as I wrestled with what my next move would be. All the while, my anxiety was intensifying.
My stomach was a washing machine during working hours. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.
“Maybe I should be a teacher,” I told my sister one day as I was 11 pages deep on Indeed. I considered working at a grocery store, an Amazon warehouse, and even as a construction worker. But the thought of teaching kept coming back.
My sister, who had worked in education for a decade, reached out to a handful of school leaders in town, asking if they had any open positions. We knew it was on a hope and a prayer, as the school year had already started and I had no classroom experience and no training. She sent a dozen emails and got two responses. One informed her that there were no open positions, wishing me the best of luck in my search. The other was from the last person she emailed. One she had almost forgotten about, but thought about at the last minute. It was about an open 8th grade English Language Arts position at a school called Veritas College Prep.
A week later, I waited in the Veritas lobby to speak with the school director about that open position. Not knowing this unfamiliar place would soon become a home for me, I sat with sweaty hands and a racing heart. He came out to greet me, and led me into his office where we chatted about my intentions for the classroom for about 20 minutes.
“You must be our new teacher, Ms. Smith?” one of them asked. It was too late to back out now, I thought.
That was on a Friday. Three days later on Monday, I resigned from my reporting job. Without securing another job, unsure of what the future would hold, I still had to take the step that was best for my mental health.
The next afternoon, I got an email from the Veritas school director. It was an offer letter. Instantly, I felt a sense of relief and excitement. I told a couple of friends and my family. They shared my excitement, but also told me to think it over before accepting. They questioned me, challenging me to consider if I “really wanted to be a teacher.” I usually go with my gut and my gut told me I did. So I accepted the offer that day and the rest is history. Well sort of…
Two days after I took the job, my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. Then two days after that, before we could find out how bad it was, she died. My mom had been my rock, my biggest cheerleader, and more than ever in her last year here, my best friend. Her death was not a surprise, but still it was heart wrenching.
I then questioned whether I would have the emotional strength to start a teaching career the next week, as I was set to do. Teaching is already going to be hard, I thought, can I really still do it? But, knowing myself, and all the mental battles I had already fought and won, I said “hell yeah, I can.” And I did.
Four days after we buried my mom, I nervously walked to the school’s front door on my first day. Standing there were two girls who would become students I’m quite fond of. “You must be our new teacher Ms. Smith?” one of them asked. It was too late to back out now, I thought.
The first day was the hardest for many reasons. I missed that midday text from my mom asking me how my first day was going. It was very, very loud (teenagers reach a decibel level I didn’t know existed). There were lots of moving parts and unfamiliar acronyms. The day was long and by noon I was already exhausted. I didn’t really even do much other than shadow another teacher, but by the end of the day, I was more tired than I had been in a long time. When I got home that evening, I collapsed on the couch rethinking if I have what it takes to do it. I heard my mom’s voice telling me I can do hard things. I also heard the voices of the students who I would be letting down and walking away from if I decided I couldn’t do it. I often let self doubt hold me back in the past, but that day I told myself no matter how hard it gets, I’m going to finish out the school year. Little did I know, on the last day of school, I wouldn’t be ready for it to end.
The next day was my birthday. That’s when things got weird (in the best way possible). I was met with a happy birthday chant that involved clapping, other hand gestures, and made up words during the morning staff meeting. And then showered with gifts and balloons and cards with sweet notes from my new coworkers. These people don’t even know me, but they are already so kind and welcoming, I thought. That was only a taste of what was to come.
As the days and weeks went on, I felt that feeling I felt on my birthday more and more. It was a feeling of warmth and love and joy and acceptance. I felt it from my coworkers and I felt it from my students. It was like the wound left by my mother’s death was being tended to by this new family I was a part of. Staff meetings were never onerous; instead they felt like gatherings with friends. There was never a meeting without laughter. I remember walking away from weekly PD many times feeling refreshed and fulfilled. The work was taxing and time-consuming, but I know that doing it surrounded by who I was surrounded by made it a joyful challenge.
At the end of the first semester I got the “most likely to stay at school late” staff superlative award. My staying late was partially because I’m a perfectionist and wanted to produce the best possible lesson plans, but mainly because I simply enjoyed being in the building. I didn’t grasp it then, but it was becoming a place of healing for me. Being around my coworkers and my students was exactly what my heart needed.
The love and gratitude I have for my first group of students is something I’ve never felt before. They filled my heart in a special way. They were such a unique group of kids. They’re real, funny, joyful, thoughtful, creative and talented. Showing up for them every day didn’t feel like a job most days. Although they challenged me at every turn, and grayed my hair, it felt like a gift. I enjoyed their company. I loved learning about them and their lives. They told me many unfiltered things (a lot of TMI) and I was happy to be a listening ear. They taught me all the latest slang. They tried to teach me TikTok dances, but I never mastered them. They told me I needed to learn how to “lay my edges” and up my shoe game. They never shied away from speaking the truth, or “keeping it a buck,” as they say. They made my heart smile daily. They made me laugh (and some days cry — since we are keeping it a buck).
Somehow, I feel like they helped me be my authentic self. Kids see right through any type of facade or pretention. Mine didn’t last long before they met the real me — a person I, myself, had not really come to know and love until recently.
I didn’t grasp it then, but it was becoming a place of healing for me.
In a way, they also helped me to feel alive again. For the past 12 years, I’ve struggled with depression. I spent most of that time void of ranging emotions other than unfounded despair and sadness. There were moments of happiness, but mostly my life felt as if I was going through the motions in a colorless world. About five months into teaching, I woke up and my world was in color again for the first time in over a decade — something I thought I might never experience again. The long days at school were filled with so much color and I could finally feel and appreciate all the hues of life. From joy to sadness, pride to gratitude, anger to passion, exhaustion to exhilaration. I felt it all in the classroom. And for the first time, I welcomed all those emotions and realized this is what it feels like to be fully alive.
Veritas helped bring color back to my life. It’s a place of peace and healing. A place of joy and laughter. It has become a place of so much meaning, magic, and miracles for me.