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Maggie Dahn.

Small Perks: The Sunnyside Of Becoming A New Teacher

(Photo: cdell, flickr)

(Photo: cdell, flickr)

If you have friends who have been through their first year in the classroom you’ve likely heard it before: “My first year teaching was the worst year of my life.” You laugh. You think they’re being dramatic.

Yeah. You’re going to stop laughing when one of your students throws that first pencil at you in the middle of a lesson. You, yes you, the bright-eyed ’13 CM from Region X, are thrown to the wolves come September. At times, it will feel like a nightmare. But you can prevail! In fact, there are lots of reasons to love becoming a teacher, even on the hardest days.

So when you’re feeling down, or having one of those days think of these small perks of becoming a teacher:

“I Married My Institute Crush”

(Photo: Justin Barbin Photography)

(Photo: Justin Barbin Photography)

Our relationship did not follow a linear path. My husband and I didn’t meet at Institute, start dating, teach in the same city, fall in love, move-in together, and finally make the big leap. Instead, after scarcely speaking for two and a half years, we met eyes again at the TFA 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. where he said, “I think we could have a wonderful life together.” A few months later we started dating long-distance and said we would marry each other tomorrow if it weren’t such an insane idea.

We made it official a year later.

Yep, I married my Institute crush.

It was all very romantic. I think that somehow, cosmically, we were meant to be at the same school at Institute, we were meant to be in the same CMA group, and it was fate that kept us apart for years without much of a clue as to what the other one was doing. (Although the ease of Facebook stalking helped.)

When we were finally able to be together, we shared the memory of soggy Subway sandwiches we ate everyday for lunch. We remembered the handmade slip-n-slide his friend, Kevin, had put out on the lawn of the LMU campus one night. We tried to Google map a satellite view of the hand-painted U.S.A. we had created at our Institute site, 109th Street Elementary School in the Watts District of Los Angeles.  We remembered TFA Day (um, the best day ever) when we were told to go to the beach instead of class during the afternoon. He and I are both from the Midwest, and we laughed when we recalled how everyone freaked out during the earthquake and neither of us knew what to do.

My husband and I live on the beach, less than a mile from the Loyola Marymount  Campus in Los Angeles where our Institute was held (I think it was also fate that kept Chicago CMs in L.A. that year.). When we drive by that wild Mexican bar everyone used to go to or glance at where the buses picked us up each morning, we smile and remember fondly the time when we had no clue what we were doing and had no clue that one day we’d live minutes from this very place, together.

The point here is not that you will marry that “hot CM from Vegas” you admired from afar. But the relationships you make in these years and how you value these relationships may just change the course of your life.

At Teach For America it’s all about the kids, and rightfully so. But one of the best secrets of TFA is that upon joining, you will inherit a wealth of new people — new acquaintances, new co-workers, and new friends. You will work to build relationships with your students, their families, your own school staff, your fellow CMs, alumni, your regional staff, and maybe even your future husband/wife/best friend. You find ways to “get through” that first year. And hopefully, you find a way to have memorable experiences while doing it. At the end of it all, whether you stay in education or move into a different field, you will keep running into these people, even if it’s just on Facebook. (Side note: have you seen that you can now tell FB when you’re expecting a baby? How far is too far?!)

If you are a first year corps member, 8 months ago none of this existed. Maybe you were finishing your senior year of college or ready to make a career change. And now, you have an entirely different group of people with whom you will always have a shared experience. Yes, many of these relationships will fade as you move to different cities and pursue different paths. And maybe you don’t feel as much of a connection to your region as you’d like to. But as bewildering as Teach for America can be, very rarely in your life will you have as strong a network as you do in this movement of brilliant, passionate, brand-new educators.

By |February 14th, 2013|Corps Stories|1 Comment|

Managing Up: Tips to build a relationship with your school leader

Principal's Office

(Photo credit: ecastro)

During the two years I taught at my placement school in Chicago I probably had a grand total of 6 personal interactions with my principal. (And most of these were for evaluation purposes). She was in my classroom so rarely, I’m not even sure she knew I was a teacher at our school.

The big secret is that your principal is probably pretty savvy and if you’re lucky, pretty intelligent, too. And she shouldn’t be a stranger…especially if you aren’t feeling 100% fulfilled at work. It’s not too late. If the sight of your principal makes you want to run in the opposite direction, fear not. There’s plenty you can do to get closer.

By |February 4th, 2013|Teaching Tips|1 Comment|

Contemplating Life After the Corps

Frustrate

(Photo credit: James Delaney)

“So, what are you doing next year?”

Get used to it, second year corps members. If it hasn’t started already, you’re about to hear this question over and over again from your friends, family, and peers.

You’ll experience the surreal feeling you may recall from your senior year of college. But at least then you had an answer. “Oh, next year? I’m moving to (insert city name here) to teach (insert grade and subject here) with Teach For America.” Phew, crisis averted. But now you may be feeling a little directionless. What do you say when you don’t have an answer? What are your plans for next year?

Some of you already have this covered. You know you’re going to law/medical/business/fashion/clown school. You’re teaching abroad. You’re going to make like Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend and become an indie sensation. (Yep, he did TFA for a year.) Maybe you’ve already committed to staying a third year at your placement school. Whatever your plan, congratulations if you have one! If you don’t, keep reading for some advice on how to find an honest answer to this inevitable question.

Prep your first day back like the first day of school

school's cancelled

(Photo credit: almostincognito)

One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first year of teaching was neglecting to plan for that first day back to school. I figured that my students “already knew” the expectations and would “remember” classroom procedures. I thought perhaps they had matured over break and would come back with a renewed sense of responsibility.

In. my. dreams.

The only major difference between winter and summer break is that over winter break they’re expected to remember what happened before the new year. They come back to the same classroom with the same teacher (you). What they did in December has become a distant memory. Wait, I have to do my homework every night? What do you mean I have to raise my hand? And…who are you?

You can prepare yourself for the inevitable (second) first day. Treat the first few days back to school in January just like your first few days in September.

Here’s how I would do it:

By |December 21st, 2012|Teaching Tips|0 Comments|

Planning the Perfect Winter Break

A Christmas tradition in New York City is WPIX...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As long as we all make it through the end of the world on December 21st, you will soon have two weeks to yourself. Two weeks of freedom. Two weeks of holiday parties, delicious food, and endless Lifetime movie marathons.

There’s a downside. Those two weeks will go by faster than any two weeks you’ve ever experienced in your life.

As someone on her fifth round of winter vacation since becoming a teacher, let me offer some advice for how to break down your break so you don’t look back in January with recess regret and realize that all you did over break was eat cookies.

Keep the ratios simple. Spend…

75% of your time with family, friends, and food

25% of your time making yourself a better teacher

And don’t forget to sleep.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to make the most of your winter break:

By |December 18th, 2012|Your Best Self|3 Comments|

How I Hang In There When Things Get Tough

The time I experience the most joy—real, belly-aching joy—is when I work with children.”

When I’m at the end of my teaching rope, this one sentence puts me at ease and anchors me in my pre-teaching career idealism. It’s pulled right from my letter of intent written in the fall of my senior year at Northwestern. When I applied to Teach For America I thought it would be a great next step for me (what do you do with a degree in Performance Studies anyway?) and perhaps, just maybe, I could be a great teacher. It might take me a few months to get the hang of it, but after that I was sure I’d be a pro.

Boy, was I wrong. This job is tough.

By |October 30th, 2012|Your Best Self|1 Comment|

Stop Dreading Sunday: Make planning less like punishment

stress

Is this how you look on Sunday? (Photo credit: giuseppesavo)

A typical Saturday night in 2008. 11:30 P.M.: I’m having a wonderful time at a local Chicago bar with fellow first-year teachers. We’re sharing stories of our week as a sense of impending doom looms large over the group. I go home,  I pull the covers over my head and my heart begins to sink. Ugh. Tomorrow is Sunday.

Sunday for a first-year teacher means two things: work and dread. The optimism of Friday night is long past and the tortuous week ahead is only hours away from beginning. Oh, how you wish it were Friday. Oh, how you yearn for next weekend! Thanksgiving break, come to me now! But it won’t. You still have to get through Sunday. Then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and finally, Friday. But Sunday will come again. Sunday always comes.

Sunday doesn’t have to be a down-in-the-dumps kind of day. You can fight back.

By |September 27th, 2012|Your Best Self|73 Comments|