Blog Post by PTAC Vice-President, Mike Soskil
Today I embark on my twenty-third school year journey. Each one has been exciting, difficult, rewarding, and unique.
As I look forward to this school year, I can’t help but reflect on the incredible challenges I faced during my first year teaching. There were times it felt like I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and others when I didn’t think I’d make it. When I look back, though, I realize that it was the greatest year of professional growth of my career.
Most importantly, despite all of the difficulties, I know I made a positive impact on my students that year.
Three days before the 1997-98 school year began, and less than 24 hours after arriving in the Sonoran Desert after a cross-country drive, I met the Program Director of the Mesa, Arizona school in which I had landed my first teaching position.
She welcomed me. She laughed at me because I was wearing khakis, long sleeves, and a tie on a 115 degree day (I was trying to look professional and make a good impression). She showed me my classroom.
Then, she handed me three photocopied teachers manuals: an old math book, a phonics book, and a spelling primer with a copyright date of 1898 (really). These were to be my only curriculum or teaching guidance for that entire school year.
I was terrified. But at the same time, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. Finally, after all of my university courses, my student teaching, and my dreams of making a positive impact on the world through teaching, I was going to get the opportunity.
I made a lot of mistakes that year. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and talk some sense into the relatively clueless first-year teacher version of myself. I learned a lot, though. And, with each mistake, each new experience, each new challenge, each colleague that I connected with out of necessity, I grew as a professional and a person.
In a strange way, I was blessed at the time with the humility that comes from knowing I was clueless. As a first year teacher, I didn’t expect to have it all figured out. I did my best, all the while knowing that my best was going to continue to get better.
I’ve come to understand that the incredible challenges that I faced that first year were the groundwork for the innovation and experimentation that has allowed me to be successful in my career. If I could figure out a way to find resources and to teach with almost no guidance or mentorship provided by my school, I could figure out a way to teach anything to anyone.
Now, like many of you, I’m right back here at the beginning. As I begin this year, I’m once again clueless. I’ve never taught concurrently - online and in-person at the same time. I’ve never had to worry about the physical, mental, and emotional health of my students, my colleagues, or my family in the ways that will be necessary this year. It’s harder because I know now - much better than I did back then - what effective teaching looks like.
So, I’m giving myself permission to make mistakes, learn, and grow this year. I’m not going to be as effective at first - because none of us are. Our students’ needs are different, our challenges are different, and our restraints are different. But, with each new challenge comes and opportunity to grow, and an opportunity to model for our children how to learn from mistakes.
I’m giving myself permission to focus on the social-emotional health of my students more this year, and to be at peace with the fact that it might mean there is less time for academic content. After all, all of us have been impacted by this pandemic, and we can’t Bloom unless we Maslow first.
I’m giving myself permission to innovate and experiment, because the only way to the other side of this pandemic is through it.
And, for those of you who need someone else to tell you, I’m giving you permission to make mistakes, to focus on your students’ holistic needs, and to innovate as well. This school year will be different than any other you’ve ever experienced. As teachers, we tend to be perfectionists, believing that our value is measured by our ability to teach the curriculum.
When we have quiet moments of reflection, however, we all know that our value as educators is much more closely tied to our ability to connect with our students and help them see their value.
As the inevitable uncertainty unfolds this year, carve time and space for you to remember, honor, and focus on that. Surround yourself with other educators (virtually if needed) who inspire you and help you do that.
You aren’t alone. PTAC’s network of outstanding, inspiring teachers will be working with you to ensure narratives from our classrooms are informing the decisions in Pennsylvania that impact our students. Experience tells me that they will also be coming together to help each other, me, and you build networks of support and collaboration.
The challenges may be new, but the solution in education remains the same. Relationships will get us through this school year. With colleagues, and with the students that we love. Teachers have a capacity to empathize and show compassion on a level found in few other professions. It’s never been more important for our students or our fellow educators.
If we get those relationships right, at the end of this year you and I will look back at all of the struggles and know that we had a positive impact on our students.
Decades from now, our current students will be asked by their grandchildren, “What was it like to live through the Pandemic of 2020-2021?”
My hope, for my students and for yours, is that they begin telling that story by saying, “There was this incredible teacher…”
Fox Chapel Area High School Music Department students welcome faculty, staff and administration back to a new year!
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee