An Open Letter to Teachers: Leave Last Year in the Rearview Mirror and Start Fresh

As I write this, many of you are enjoying the last days of summer. While I hope you’re savoring the last weekdays sleeping late, hot coffee drinking, book reading, Netflix binging, and doing what you want, I know you aren’t fully present in those moments. Your brain is already spinning with all the back-to-school-must-dos. You’re feeling a pang of regret because you didn’t accomplish everything on your summer to-do list. What will this school year be like? Will it be a repeat of the last couple of years? Will it be worse? How could it be worse? STOP! You can’t go into a new school year with last year’s baggage and negative thoughts.

Picture this: you’re driving to school. Do you get there by looking through the windshield to see what’s in front of you or by looking in the rearview mirror? This may seem like a ridiculous question. Of course, your focus is on the windshield. We all know you’re bound to wreck if you aren’t watching where you’re going.

A rearview mirror is a great tool for backing up and checking what’s happening behind you. There’s a reason the windshield is so much bigger than the rearview mirror. Where you’re going is way more important than where you’ve been. When I focus on the past and the negative, I remind myself to look forward, and focus on the positive.

I know what you’re thinking. “This is easy for you to say, you’re not walking in my shoes.” Fair enough, but I have certainly been where you are. One thing I know for sure, in life and in the classroom, the most powerful decision you can make is to choose to be positive.

One of the most important things you can do to kick off the school year in a positive way is to focus on your WHY. This three-letter word is so important for you and your students. I believe you’re headed back into the classroom because you are determined to make a difference in the lives of children. You know that you probably won’t reach them all. Maybe you think you will only reach one or two students, but that’s enough reason to get in there and try!

My cousin is turning 90 in a few days. She taught school for over 30 years. My friends tell stories about what a tough, no-nonsense teacher she was. They loved her, and they learned from her. We can’t go anywhere in her small town where there isn’t someone she taught coming up to her, hugging her, and thanking her for believing in them. Some even thank her for “busting their chops” because they managed to be someone. Think about it: she hasn’t been in the classroom for 25 years. She has dementia and has difficulty remembering what day it is, but these people remember her and the impact she had on their lives. When the going gets tough, remember your WHY!

Everything doesn’t have to be perfect, not you, and especially not your classroom. The only person who expects an amazingly decorated classroom is YOU. You know I’m right. Make the focus of your decor your students. It’s important that your room is clean, organized and appealing, but let your students have some ownership. Leave space for them to add things. 

I have a little secret for you: if something isn’t up or done on the first day of school, the only person who knows that is YOU. The most important thing is that you are waiting for your students the first day with a smile and a special greeting that lets them feel that you are genuinely happy to see them and ready to go on an amazing learning journey with them. This is true from kindergarten to high school!

Set your sights on looking for the good in every day. You understand that every day might not be great, but you can find small wins. Look for the victories, someone in your Algebra class had a lightbulb moment, and the little guy in your kindergarten class learned to write his last name. Focus on the good – what went right vs. the things that didn’t go well.

Make it a priority to do what you can and let the rest go. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated with everything on your plate. Take a minute to breathe, and then decide what needs your attention and what doesn’t. I’m a big list maker. I write down EVERYTHING I can possibly think of that needs to be done. Then, I spin out at the size of the list and how I can get all of it done, so I just shut down. Raise your hand if this is you too. Be realistic with your expectations.

Remember to put yourself first. If you neglect taking care of yourself, you won’t be any good to anyone. I can’t say this enough! You need to find a work-life balance so you can be your best self, in and outside of the classroom. If you are tired, burned out, or frustrated, you won’t do your best teaching, and your students will adjust accordingly. Your students will be off task, unengaged, and you’ll start to see more negative behaviors. When you’re rested, you’ll have the energy to be more creative and engaging as you teach. You’ll be better equipped to cope with the challenges of the classroom and beyond.

I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you exactly how this upcoming school year will go, but I don’t. None of us do. But, I can tell you that you are in the driver’s seat and you can chart your own course for a positive, productive school year. So get ready, pack your bags and go! 

Teia Hoover Baker is an educator, published author, and entrepreneur. She is an innovative, devoted educator whose career has been dedicated to coordinating programs that support struggling learners. Her passion is meeting students where they are and guiding them to excel. Her main focus is always what is best for children. Teia holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s of Education. In her spare time, she enjoys being Lovie to her growing grandchildren.

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