My first year teaching 

Soon beginning 

I eagerly anticipated what was to come. 

Hard not to crack a smile, thinking of 

How grand it would be. 

A decorated classroom bursting with color. 

Collaborative, Creative. 

Engaging lessons that would get students moving, 

Working together. 

Procedures and expectations set in place to keep the year 

Running smoothly. 

Greeting my students at the door with a smile. 

A smile they can see. 

A first-year teacher. I felt ready to conquer the world. 

Little did I know 

What the world had in store.

 Beginning my teaching career during a global pandemic altered every expectation I had for my first year in my own classroom. I knew that my purpose for teaching was deeply rooted within me–and I hope that it always will be–but as the first day of school approached, I quickly realized that how I would live out and achieve that purpose was shifting each and every day with the spread of COVID-19. 

A vision flipped upside down. 

Seats in rows 

D i s t a n c e d.

Unable to move desks into groups 

Greeting half of my students at the door with a smile

A smile they cannot see.

The other half joining from a Google Meet,

Black boxes staring back at me. 

Long nights converting methods and ideas I had learned and studied 

into digital platforms.

Hand sanitizer, soap, quarantines, nurse calls, questions, concerns, 


One particular day, as I looked onto the computer screen at the masked faces of my students joining class on a Google Meet, my teacher-heart was hurting more than it had all school year. I wanted to be with them. I wanted things to be normal. I was tired. I was trying my hardest. And more than anything, I didn’t feel like myself. 

I felt as if the craziness of the world and the unpredictability of the virus – on top of the uncertainties and pressures of a first-year teacher – were starting to take a toll on my positivity, creativity, and drive. And on that particularly challenging day, feeling heavy with disappointment and worry, I realized that I had to do whatever I could to protect my love for this profession from the craziness, the loudness, and the never ending surprises of the pandemic.

I thought back to myself in high school, when I was the age of my students. I had been a TeacherCadet, and I soaked up every minute of that class, learning about the hard work, innovation, and compassion that it takes to be a teacher. I remembered how that class confirmed the desire I had always had to go into education and the excitement and confidence that the Teacher Cadet program instilled in me. I thought of the young me sitting in that class, understanding that teaching would be difficult but also believing that there could not be a more rewarding and important job. 

Reflecting on those memories, I felt a sense of gratitude that I truly had followed through and entered the teaching profession. I knew that the love I had for my students and for teaching was worth fighting for, and as I walked into school the next day, I had one mission in mind — a simple mission –but one that required commitment. 

Find the joy. 

The next day at school, 

I tried it out. 

What is my joy? 

Today, I woke up and made it to school. 

I’m here with my students. 

Mentally, physically, emotionally, 

I showed up. 

A small-sounding feat. 

But today, it’s enough. 

A tiny victory, a tiny joy. 

But today, I celebrate it. 

Time goes on. 

Day by day, 

Noticing the joy becomes easier and more natural. 

One day, my joy is a class with no quarantines. 

All being together in person seems small, 

But we celebrate. 

The next day, my joy is, 

“Ms. Gardiner, this is the first book I’ve read all the way through. I couldn’t put it down.” 

He and I celebrate. 

Joy is the shocked faces when the bell rings. 

“Class is already over? That flew by!” 

My joy one day: “I finally get it!” 

A lesson that worked. 

A quiet student who boldly spoke up. 

A department meeting full of laughs. 

Rachel’s writing conference, 

Quay’s job hunting updates, 

Tristen volunteering to be Romeo, 

Carly Mae’s creative presentation, 

Andrew’s subtle smile at the end of the class.

Finding the joy. 

“Finding the joy” changed the trajectory of my year. It rekindled my teacher’s heart and fueled mypassion for showing up each day with a positive outlook, a passion for my content, and a renewedenergy to serve my students as best I can. The funny thing about joy, though, is that it’s contagious. Ibegan to ask, “Can I help my students do the same?” 


It cannot be contained. When found by one, 

It grows, 

And grows, 

And grows. 

Until it is shouting to be shared with others. 

When my students’ major essays were due for their last unit, we spent a day celebrating each other’s work. As we went outside and made a circle in the grass, students traded papers and read each other’s writing. Then, we went around the circle and shared something brilliant that we noticed in someone else’s writing. I sat back and watched the proud faces of my students as someone else spoke of the beauty and growth that they saw. I watched them walk back into the classroom feeling proud of themselves for accomplishing such a feat even in the midst of quarantines, ever-changing schedules, and the weight of our current world. They were encouraged and motivated to continue pushing themselves to do better. They left the classroom that day celebrating the big and small victories. They saw themselves as true writers, as learners, as a family. They found joy. 

This story is published as part of a storytelling retreat hosted by the Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP) housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. CEP partners nominated practicing educators, administrators, and system leaders to share their stories. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), a CEP partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @CEP_UofSC and @teachingquality.