As I embark on my 15th year in public education, I’m baffled that it still happens to me. After all, this is my 15th “first day”!
I have my first-day handouts copied and I’ve spent the last two weeks of summer setting up my classroom. I’ve incorporated some new flexible seating options for student-choice reading time. I’ve personally purchased school supplies for kids who won’t have them, and I’ve persuaded my well-to-do family members to donate what they can for other random classroom needs as they arise throughout the school year.
I know the exact first-day talk I’m going to facilitate with my students and I’ve memorized the names and faces of all of the young adults who will be entrusted to me this semester. I’ve picked out my first-day outfit—something authoritative but also warm and inviting. My lunch is packed perfectly in my fridge, and I’ve set four different alarms to ensure that I wake up much earlier than I really need to for the very first day of school. I’m all good, right?
Wrong. Not even close.
Quite the opposite, actually. Although I’ve accomplished all of the aforementioned tasks, I am not anywhere close to “good.” In fact, my stomach aches and crippling anxiety is slowly creeping in.
The worst part? I can’t sleep, and it happens every year. On the night before the first day of school, I don’t get more than two hours of real sleep. I try, but each time I shut my eyes I envision a plethora of fictitious nightmare teacher scenarios, ones which typically involve running out of material before the dismissal bell rings.
Instead, on the night before the first day of school, I lay awake staring at my bedroom ceiling— should add “paint the ceiling” to the long list of things I didn’t get accomplished this summer—and my mind races at a pace which could rival the speed of Usain Bolt.
The following are the most formidable “what ifs” that rob me of my peaceful slumber:
What if my students don’t like me? Despite the thousands of meaningful relationships I’ve cultivated with former students who’ve passed through my classroom, this is undoubtedly my biggest fear. Students don’t learn from people whom they don’t like. And to be honest, I don’t just want them to like me. I want them to love me in the way that I know I’ll love them. And I know that I’ll have to work really, really hard to make them understand how much I care about them because—shockingly—11th and 12th graders are quite skeptical of adults. I’ll have to earn their trust, and this is no easy task.
What if I’m not enough? Despite having written about this time and time again, this is a fear that will forever rear its ugly head, especially at the start of each school year. I’ll never be completely rid of imposter syndrome. I’ll never not be overwhelmed by the weight of the enormous responsibility I hold in my classroom. And no matter how many awards I receive or how “decorated” my career becomes, I will always fear that I’m not doing enough to meet the ever-evolving needs of my students.
What if I’m too much? Coming on too strong and too passionate about my curriculum is a major no-no with high school students. Despite my absolute, undeniable love for literature, I’ll have to resist the urge to do cartwheels across the room when I divulge the new texts we’re going to read or I’ll get the dreaded, collective eye roll from my juniors and seniors. I have to remember to play it cool. There’s too much at stake.
After running through a never-ending list of painful hypotheticals, my husband eventually wakes and turns to interrupt my inner monologue of paranoia. “What are you doing awake? It’s 2 a.m.! You have school tomorrow!” Then he shakes his head and smiles—because he knows.
“Hon, they’re going to love you.”
I emit a loud sigh of relief. Although I won’t fall asleep for a few more hours, I feel comforted in the moment. Only time will tell, but I hope he’s right.
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach ...