I croaked on my first day of teaching. Literally croaked.
It is the stuff of nightmares that teachers dread coming true. The first day of school already brings out spectra of emotions, from excitement to frustration to elation to angst. It is the day teachers are able to set the tone of their classrooms, to lay down rules and expectations, to redirect summer-addled minds back to purposeful learning. It is also the annual bootcamp period, testing every educator’s ability to present a veneer of perfect working order whilst running triage behind the scenes.
We talk about avoiding information overload when it comes to our students, but teachers aren’t immune to mentally crashing after barrages of new policies and procedures. It takes a toll on us, and unlike computers, our bodies do not reboot instantly at 100pc. The stress of entirely new frameworks and directives, all of it while starting my tenure year, resulted in my immune system shutting down, and I reported to work severely ill. The nurse likes to tell us to stay home when we’re not well, but no teacher wants to start their first classes with a substitute. You only make one first impression, and ours had to be made on the 5th of September.
I already suffered a loss when I realised my classroom was missing years of accumulated materials. Gone were books, posters, spare pens, project materials, bulletin trims, personal artefacts, all thrown away. During the summer, our building has maintenance staff take our belongings and dump them in the halls to sweep and buff the floors. Students are regularly hired as temporary cleaning crews. As long as everything was boxed and labelled, we usually came back to our rooms with everything intact, with a shiny room to boot! But this summer had the maintenance staff working hard to install air-conditioners in every room (blessings!), as well as partitioning spaces into new classrooms, all of which required gutting ceilings for wiring and rushing the cleanup schedule. In the process, my belongings were thrown away, and I felt like a first year teacher, stripped to a bare-bones classroom, starting from scratch.
Then came another scratch, clawing from my throat. You can imagine my mortification as I greeted my students and heard my voice suddenly break in the middle of calling attendance. I was already proper gutted at having lost so many personal items.
And if there’s one thing to shred what little confidence you have left, it’s suddenly having to talk like you’ve just hit puberty. My voice was shaking, and I squeaked through six class periods thinking this was it. I had lost my chance to assert authority in the classroom. I may as well have donned an apron and applied at a Kwik-E-Mart.
The next day hadn’t been any better, nor the next, nor even the one after that. I’d gone through this entire week with severe pharyngitis. Even now, as I type this post, I’m in bed with a large cup of tea and a concoction of pills that I consume like sweets.
This week was an awful reminder that, try as we might, we aren’t superhuman. Our students may think we’re perfect avatars of composure and knowledge, and we’re very good at keeping that illusion.
But I’ve learnt that showing vulnerability was not a death knell, even for someone like me—a short, skinny bloke who could still pass for a freshman despite being 27. In this first week, in all six periods, not once did I lose control of my students. I got a few chuckles here and there, especially since my voice couldn’t seem to muster the word ‘rules’ without breaking or disappearing into a whisper. There were moments where I could not finish my sentences and had to resort to typing my directions live on a PowerPoint slide. But there was a level of respect that remained as steady as my voice would quiver. Students know when teachers are condescending, disdainful, burnt out, or unprepared. They also know when teachers are supportive, demanding of excellence, and respectful. We talk about building rapport and building a positive school climate, and there isn’t one set method to achieve them. But one thing that does work is showing authenticity, or in the words of a former student, ‘You mad real, Mr S. You keep doing you.’
This week, I could not raise my voice if my life depended on it. But I am grateful to have students that did not require me to.