Lessons Learned

Twelve years ago I sat, a timid college student, days away from completing my internship teaching seventh grade Science.  I prayed that the principal who agreed to interview me for the fourth grade teaching position at the school next door would fall for my confident façade. Apparently she did because a few days later I received the exciting phone call welcoming me aboard.

And now, just like every other year, I prepare to turn in my keys. But this time is different, because this time I may be turning them in for good.  The whole experience is bitter sweet. I’m looking forward to learning what it means to be the wife of an Army Chaplain, and I’m over the moon about having more time to spend with my children, but saying goodbye is never easy, and in this case I’m saying goodbye to a piece of myself.

I look back at the past 12 years (9 years teaching elementary students and 3 years teaching high school students) and realize that nothing happened by accident. Every situation, every emotional high and low has helped shape me into the person I am today, and each moment has played a part in preparing me for what lies ahead. From sneaking some crackers to a child who comes in hungry to crying with a child on the last day of school because she doesn’t want to say goodbye. From helping that senior finish an assignment for another class, moments before it’s due so that he can graduate on time, to pushing a student harder than she has been pushed, helping her accomplish more than she knew she could accomplish.

I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned about teaching and about life through my students and through all of those who I’ve had the privilege to work with over the past few years, and I can’t help but reflect on where I started and how far I’ve come. If I were to have a conversation with the 22 year old me and offer some advice, what would I say? I’ve sat in classes and learned about best practices. I have a degree in elementary education and a minor in Spanish along with a Master of Education in Divergent Learning, so surely I would offer advice about reading strategies and differentiated instruction, right? Well, maybe. But what I’ve come to recognize is that teaching is so much more than ensuring that students can conjugate a verb or solve an equation. If I could offer my younger self some advice, it would be this:

  1. Your students will remember how you treat them over what you teach them. The content is important, but your students will be so much more receptive to what you have to teach them if they know that you truly care about them. Time taken to get to know them and to let them get to know you is not wasted time. It’s a valuable investment.
  2. Prioritize. While spending 10+ hours at school each day and taking work home every night may seem like the only way to get everything accomplished, it’s not. You will get burnt out and quickly lose your patience, your effectiveness, and possibly your mind. What will really matter in the long run? Do those things, and do them well. If it takes you hours to make something that looks impressive, but it doesn’t add a lot of value, let it go. Save time and energy for your family, your friends, and yourself. You’ll be a better teacher and person.
  3. You won’t be able to connect with every student, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. One of the greatest opportunities you’ll have as a teacher is the opportunity to walk through your classroom at the wee hours of the morning and pray over each empty desk, each one representing a child (or teenager) who will occupy it that day. 1 John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Some of those children don’t have anyone else praying for them or cheering them on. Use that opportunity and don’t take it for granted, because it could make a difference in the trajectory of their life. Pray that God will prepare you to help that child carry whatever “baggage” they bring with them to class that day. Whether they steal your heart from day one or are as tough as nails, each individual is worth getting to know, and a little kindness goes a long way.
  4. Forgive yourself. You will mess up daily. You just will. When you say the wrong thing or have a day—or year—when you can’t seem to get anything right, learn from it and then move on. Forgiving yourself isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary in order to move forward and continue growing.
  5. Forgive others. Expect a lot out of your students and peers, and you’ll be amazed to see how they rise to the occasion. However, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes there will be things going on that you don’t see or understand, and sometimes they will act like they’ve completely lost their minds. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” What an amazing example to set for young minds to absorb! Holding a grudge is agonizing and uncomfortable. Always make things right and give them a safe place where they know they belong, even after they’ve messed up. This will completely change the climate of your classroom.
  6. It’s okay to have fun. Everything in life can’t be fun, nor should it be, but great things can happen while having fun! If you enjoy the ride, others are more likely to enjoy it with you.
  7. Stay emotionally engaged. The emotional highs and lows of teaching can be draining, and sometimes it would be easier to grow emotionally numb. Don’t allow your emotions to control you, but never stop feeling for those around you. Pray that God will give you a heart that loves others and be willing to do whatever He asks to help those in need.

My time in the classroom has come to a close, but these lessons will go with me. I’ve come a long way since that first interview, but I have a long way to go, which brings me to lesson 8–keep growing. I’m so thankful for everything the past 12 years have taught me, but I know the next chapter of my life is going to bring just as many opportunities. I can’t help but wonder what advice the “me” in 2028 would offer to me now? I guess I’ll have to weather the journey to find out.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned

  1. Jen, I hope you don’t mind but I want to share this with some brand new teachers in Honduras, first time missionary teachers at that. Teaching is a non-stop job that goes with out a thank you but you nailed it on the head with everything you stated in this post. Praying teachers all over the world on the mission field or just doing a job will get what God has given you in this post. Love ya girl and I want to be like you when I grow older as a missionary teacher=)

    • That’s awesome, Paula! Thank you for what you’re doing in Honduras. It blesses me that you want to share this with others and I hope it will be an encouragement to them. Love you!

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