“Remember that you chose to teach middle schoolers.”

Gabe, one of my students from student teaching, couldn’t have known how this small note would have me laughing, then sobbing, all sniffling nose and leaky tears, one year later. This was the sentiment he chose to leave with me at the end of my student teaching, back when I had the glow of someone who was not solely responsible for report card grades, parent contacts, and certification requirements. Back when I prayed daily for my future students, when I got teary-eyed thinking about how they were already out there–my students, just waiting on me.

I chose them with first-year fire, and here’s the painful lesson I learned: they don’t always choose you back. 

Countless reflections on my teaching philosophy and in-class movies of life-changing teachers primed my heart to expect everything I had dreamed of and more. Sure, lesson plans would be demanding. After-school duties would certainly kill my feet. I might not drive out of the parking lot until seven o’clock most days. But it would all be worth it because of the hours I got to spend teaching

I was mentally preparing scrapbook pages for the montages of amazing moments to come. And some of my first year would end up fitting right in: learning about argument by writing to local legislators who then wrote us back; holding a courtroom case for characters from Rikki-tikki-tavi; coaching a powderpuff team; taking selfies during spirit week. 

However, much of my year wouldn’t have made the cut. A collection of well-written-yet-disastrous lessons, discipline notes, and classroom management drafts seemed much more fit for the shredder than anything paste-worthy. I made a million mistakes; crying in my car became a regular routine. With tears in my eyes, I told myself that my students deserved a better teacher. That maybe the year wouldn’t have been such a mess if someone else had been hired in my place. 

So why am I still here?

Reclaiming my first year took sitting in the middle of all my mess and deciding this: there was still something solid to cling to–the very thing that I thought I had failed so miserably at–my choices. 

First year teacher, there is as much room to grow as there is to fail, and most of the time, they’re not mutually exclusive. I began the year with starry-eyed classroom “rules” that were so vague, they belonged on an inspirational poster instead. (“Work until you’re proud?” Why should they want to work? What does it mean to be proud? Exactly how many pages does she want?) These “rules” did nothing to drive engagement and expectations in my room.

In the midst of my mid-semester crisis, I turned to my CarolinaTIP coach, from the University of South Carolina’s College of Education, whose advice became the catalyst for reclaiming the year. The year began to pivot when we sat down over Winter Break and I got a crash course in rules versus expectations. With my coach’s guidance, I created a revitalized management plan that set clear expectations, established rules with equitable consequences, and gave us all the structure we needed to breathe and focus on learning.

I greeted students in January as if it was the first week of school. They received a new syllabus, and we practiced for two weeks how to sharpen our pencils, when to raise our hands, where to get materials, and what felt like a hundred other things until our classroom machine became a bit more oiled. We laughed more, relaxed our shoulders, and spent more time excited about reading.

Of course, with all of the improvements in learning that this led to, it wasn’t a fix-all solution. For some students, it was going to take them showing up for eighth grade the next year and still seeing my name on a tag in the hallway to hear the mantra I was repeating over and over to my heart: I refuse to give up on you.

Now with my third year of teaching behind me, I have something more to say: I refuse to give up on myself. I am here for a reason. I can only get better at loving them. They will look back one day and see how much I cared.

They are so important. There is more to them than drama and social media and one-week relationships. We need each other. Do not underestimate their spirits or potential.

If you’re feeling helpless, hopeless, or homeless, know that you have not failed. Your first year doesn’t have to look like a made-for-television event to prove you can be a great teacher (neither does your second or your third or your fourth). You are making an impact now, and that impact will expand and grow as you teach and teach and teach.

Please, keep choosing your students.