First Day of School Anxiety

I never intended to be a teacher; I was going to be a famous novelist. But the one time I sent a manuscript to the Random House writer’s contest availed nothing, so I graduated with a degree in English and a boyfriend who would graduate a year after me. I just needed money…I just needed a job. My aunt got me an interview at a Christian school, and I got my first teaching job. I walked into my classroom to get it set up for a bunch of little kids, couldn’t figure out how to turn the air conditioner on, became immediately confused by the curriculum and books, forgot to eat, and fainted in my parents’ kitchen, freaking out my dad. I was…overwhelmed. 

I’ve been getting ready for another year of school, and there’s a lot to do. Class lists, full of names known and unknown, get finalized. We hear all the things we need to know about safety and procedures and how to get kids to listen—every school has their own jargon. We tack and pin and tape things to the wall. We make changes to last year’s plans. We clean the floor mats and the whiteboards. The office hums with a constant sound of copies being made and signs being laminated. Tomorrow we get started.

I don’t have a lot to say tonight, because I know most of you have school tomorrow (or soon, anyway), and you’ve got your own worries. Your kids are nervous and excited, in some combination. Clothes are laid out and lunches are made. New backpacks are packed. Tomorrow, it starts.

This blog is all about stuff I don’t know how to do. But I know a little bit about how to teach…my abilities are what they are, but I’ve had plenty of practice. Teaching kids is all I’ve ever done. And I have taught every age, from pre-k to high school, and I’ve taught lots of subjects. And there isn’t a huge difference in what it takes. 

There are teacher blogs out there that can tell you what you need to know and answer your questions, if you want to teach. But the thing I’ve discovered is that every first day feels like my FIRST day teaching. The rush of adrenaline when your kids are coming down the hall, the nerves about losing control of the class all of a sudden (and everything catching on fire or something), the rapid observations where you try to “figure someone out” in one look or one sentence. And the fear that you forgot something, and now the whole year is toast. That one is tough.

There’s this one moment where all the kids are in the room and it’s time to shut the door. There’s about a half-second of silence that feels like stage fright. In that moment you realize that you’re in charge.

I don’t want to be a CEO, or a principal, or anything like that. I never wanted to be in charge. But you can’t escape responsibility, and if you’re the teacher, then those minors you barely know are your responsibility from eight to four. It’s slightly less scary than parenting, but I was a teacher before I was a parent. In fact, the night before my first day teaching, my dad took me and my siblings out for milkshakes like we were all ten. On the way home, I told him I was really nervous.

“It’ll be really hard until like…October,” he said. “By then it’ll be second nature.”

He was right about the routine…grading and keeping order and planning WERE easier by October. But if I thought it would be EASY, I was wrong. It’s never been easy to start the year.

The new school year is nine months’ worth of unknowns. Kids are unpredictable, and I’m not perfect. I’ve cried in the bathroom lots of times. I’ve watched kids walk out at the end of the day and thought, “I just don’t know how to reach you.” I’ve prayed for kids on the way to school and on the way home. I’ve asked for advice from so many teachers—I’ve read so many teaching books and blogs. 

I thought that by the time I hit nine years teaching (that sounds like a crazy long time), I’d be gliding through each day like one of those skateboard guys—doing all sorts of cool flips and such. I thought I’d look at myself in the mirror and say, “you, my friend, are awesome at this.” It doesn’t really happen that way, it turns out.

Why am I saying all this mere HOURS from the start of another year? I guess because I want to let those of you who are teachers know that, if you’re anxious, you’re not alone. If it makes you feel better, none of you SEEM anxious to me. You all seem like you know what you’re doing.

I also want to let you know, if you have kids starting a new school, or getting a new teacher, or just sauntering through those doors another year older, that we don’t take this lightly. Not only is teaching a profession that takes itself just as seriously as any other, it is a lifelong pursuit of perfection. And I only know one perfect teacher, and that’s my sister Ginni, so…the rest of us just sort of do our best.

But this is what I do—the moment the door closes and everything seems to come to a halt in my mind (it doesn’t come to an actual halt—kids never really stop moving), I pray to God…just a quick sort of “Here we go…” And none of my years teaching school was a waste of time—at least not to me.

All the kids I’ve ever taught have taught me back. They taught me about tenacity and about friendship—about compassion and respect. And sometimes they taught me how to put up with someone who was really annoying or boring…because I could see in their innocent little eyes that my lecture style was bugging them to death.

Anyway, happy first day of school to everyone in the south. Those of you up north get to wait until Labor Day, but whatever. I’ll be deep into the year by then.

Thanks, team 🙂 

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