Honestly, I’m Just Glad Those Kids Survived My First Year of Teaching

As I mark my first quarter century of working in schools, I can’t help but reflect back.

Sure, I think about my recent wins and misses as a principal, and how our staff and students fared in 2016-17. But to be honest, what I think about at the end of every school year are the tons of mistakes I made during my first year of teaching.

As educators, we often wonder how our first students survived our teaching. And I’m no different. I always breathe the deepest sigh of relief when I see former students (especially those I taught in the early 90s) doing well.

And when I hear anything negative has befallen a former student, like a parent I wonder what I could have done differently to help. How could I have been a better educator? It’s stressful, but for me it is a necessary layer of perpetual accountability.

And believe me, I made some real mistakes. I learned many lessons and scrambled to incorporate them.

For instance, my first and only classroom fight was during my first year. I had no idea it was about to happen and I thought calmly asking my students to stop from across the room was a reasonable intervention. Let’s just say, it wasn’t.

There was the time I traveled to Detroit on a whim. I swear I planned to call the school’s roster chair early in the morning and let him know. But I fell asleep and forgot to call out. No one at my school knew where I was. Not good.

I left my lesson plans at home one day during my first year too. I learned something: Failing to have a plan in my hand was planning to fail my students. I was embarrassed to no end when the secretary, who collected the weekly lesson plans, called me asking me for my plans. The sheepish feeling of telling her that I left them home was something I never wanted to feel again.

More importantly, forgetting my plans taught me the hard way that the if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  It’s not that i hadn’t planned for my students, but leaving my plans at home (way before internet) caused me unnecessary headaches and lost opportunities to facilitate deep learning.

Then there was my most disastrous parent meeting, which also happened during my first year. A parent wanted to see evidence of their child’s progress. I only had my grade book. I sent home everything else. I wasn’t prepared to show their daughter’s growth or struggles besides scrawled marks in my gradebook. My student’s parents gave me biting feedback that I used to improve my practice. It taught me that preparation was respect, and I never wanted to come across as disrespectful again. It pushed me to maintain constant communication with my students’ families so that when a student was struggling, I found ways to proactively partner with their families.

Forgive But Don’t Forget

Patience in Islam means perseverance, endurance, forbearance, diligence and restraint. As I look back, I feel particularly grateful to my students, their parents and my colleagues for demonstrating these traits. I think they rewarded me with their patience because of how determined I was to improve.

And now, after all of these years, one thing I know is that we will all make mistakes. Whether teachers come from traditional training programs or alternative certification programs, making mistakes and learning from them is simply a necessary part of developing into a better teacher.

So, to my fellow educators, I say forgive yourself and embrace your fallibility, but remain steadfast on the path of continuous improvement.

And be grateful for your community’s patience and support. It will get better. For you…and for your students.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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