The first day of school always leaves me breathless, heart pounding, with palms just a bit dampened. After more than a few first days, I’ve learned that each year speaks with a unique voice. You can’t duplicate a school year. Weather changes. The learners change. Life changes. The narrative we write each year emerges from new stories, new images, and new perspectives. Over time, we evolve from that narrative, always learning from each new line we write during our career.
The very first, first day …
The room was ready. I was ready. The snake in the pillowcase was ready. All I needed were the kids to make my very first day of teaching real. It didn’t take long after they filed through the door for me to create chaos out of my first, first day. There I stood, kids screaming; me with a snake attached to my hand. When the principal slanted an eye through a cracked door, I thought, “I’ll surely get fired over this.” It didn’t happen. Instead, what I received was a lesson of a lifetime in what it means to be a teacher. I formed a lifelong learning bond in the moment when the principal answered my question, “Am I fired?’ “Fire you?” he said, “Now, how would that help you become a teacher?”
He was committed to teaching: anyone, anytime. He never gave up on any of us. He believed in his own power to learn. He also believed in the learning power of everyone else in his sphere of influence. He taught me to focus on the strength each person brings to our work, not what needs improving. I remember him saying, “Kids nor adults get better from constant focus on what they’re doing wrong or need to improve. They just get pushed away from their potential.” He taught me to ask questions about everything we take for granted in our field of work. I became the educator I am today because he thought why always was a more important question than what or how.
The first, first day as elementary principal …
I’d spent a lot of time working in middle school as a teacher and administrator, some time teaching in high school, and a bit of time doing one-shot science event teaching in elementary classes. Then, I became an elementary principal. I remember that first day as clearly as if it happened yesterday. The teachers and secretary warned me that taking care of entering kindergarteners would be different. I had no idea. I’d built liter bottle terrariums, set up aquatic tanks, gone on nature trail expeditions, shared my snakes, and created kitchen drawer “simple machines” with four-and five-year olds.
On this first day of what turned into a ten-year long elementary principal tour of duty, the wee ones struggled out of cars and buses overloaded with Little Mermaid and Power Ranger lunchboxes and backpacks. They froze. I froze. They didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do.
Then, I remembered. I was the mom of a two year-old. I did know what to do. I walked over to a little girl with her mother’s skirt balled into her tiny hand. She stood there clinging to her mother and I realized she was not going to be peeled away. So, I kneeled, eyes level with hers, smiled and asked her to show me her lunchbox. Shy as only a five-year old can be, she gingerly pushed it forward for me to admire. After a few minutes, all three of us walked down the sidewalk to where the master teachers of the kindergarten universe took over.
Over my years in elementary school, I learned the age of a child doesn’t matter as much as we think it does if we choose to build relationships with learners. When we put ourselves at a child’s eye level, we can see worth in any young person. It’s just a matter of learning to unfreeze our selves and look in their eyes. If we do, we’ll find ourselves smiling back.
The first, first day as superintendent …
My first day as superintendent, I remember driving down a narrow country road early in the morning. It’s my favorite time of the day when the dew sits high on the roadside switch grass and the sun creeps above the Southwest Mountains. I was listening to Blowin’ in the Wind. It seemed we’re always seeking an answer in education that’s always one breeze away.
It didn’t take long that morning for my path to intersect with that of a school bus heading out to pick up a first load of children. When the bus slowed to a stop to make a turn, I realized that I now owned a kind of responsibility different from any other in my career. I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of aloneness as I considered what it means to keep over 11,000 children safe each day. My entire career was defined anew in that moment as one in which we must always create safe spaces for learners so that they can take the risks to pursue their own dreams, not ours.
Why I’m Committed to this Profession…
Since that first day as superintendent, I’ve used every lesson I’ve learned as a teacher, principal, and parent to keep children at the center of every decision. When I began my career, our need to keep children safe was much less of a conversation than it is today. Today, I think about safety as being about pedagogy, learning spaces, technology, and learning work – not just about the bus, playground equipment, or discipline.
Life isn’t fair to children. They come to us from homes that vary in ways that are almost indescribable, economically, socially, and culturally. Children themselves vary as they always have – in temperament, capability, and phenotype. Some are easy to like. For others we find that more difficult. However, every child is worthy of our time, no matter the challenge to us.
The child who might become a doctor one day can challenge us as educators, just as we find a challenge in the child for whom we may be the last educator in her corner. All young people should be sources of joy. For all children, we should be the source of removing barriers to their success in school rather than creating them.
We’ve got to find our way each year to be on the side of all our children, regardless of what they bring through the door. That’s our job as educators. It’s why I cherish each first day of school. Every year, we get the chance to be in the corner of children who challenge, and need, us the most.
That’s what keeps bringing me back for more first days.