A Guide for the Slightly Freaked-Out Family Members & Significant Others of New Teachers

An instructor’s rookie year is one of stress and high stakes – so much so that many teachers admit to crying in the car that at some point during their first year on the job. Ever since an NPR story about this phenomenon discussed my free, one-month series of emails meant to coach these teachers through the toughest month of their first year, I’ve been hearing from new teachers who — you guessed it — have been crying in their cars. But I’ve also heard from another group that I hadn’t anticipated: family members and significant others of new teachers.

These are people trying to be supportive, and rightfully wondering why their loved ones are snapping or breaking down at their innocent suggestions. In one email, a dismayed wife said she and her husband argued more in the past month than in the entire year before he started teaching. In another, a perplexed boyfriend wondered how he could keep his teacher girlfriend “upright” until the holidays.

With that in mind, here are five facts about new teachers for those of you who want to help but aren’t sure how, or who keep getting in trouble and aren’t sure why. (Or, if you’re the new teacher in this scenario, you can share this with the people who you know are just trying to help).

They’re exhausted.

This isn’t the kind of exhausted you get from staying up to finish a paper in college. It’s the kind of mental, physical, and emotional drain that comes from “being on” all day, preparing all evening, and worrying all night on an endless loop because both the success and behavior of children will depend on whether you bring your A-game. The teachers in your lives are making it through the week on nervous energy and caffeine. They’re collapsing on the couch in their work clothes on Friday afternoons and waking up Saturday mornings with their shoes still on. Unfortunately for you, supportive loved ones, everything becomes magnified and personal for an exhausted person. You may not be able to fix this, but you can try not to take it personally when a well-meaning remark leads to tears, anger, or a dejected series of uh-huh’s.

They care what you think.

This is especially true if you’re dating the teacher in question. Even if it’s a long-standing relationship, this is a time when teachers worry about whether you’re as impressed with them as you once were. Which creates a dilemma, because, on the one hand, they’d like to confide in you. On the other, if an 8-year old just told them they were boring (and that’s almost a given), the last thing they want is to come home and put that possibility in your head, or have you in any way reinforce that. And if students have been interrupting them all day (and, oh, how students have been interrupting them all day) and then they come home and you interrupt them… you see where this is going, right? Now filter this through the over-sensitivity that comes from being exhausted. Heaven forbid you tell this person about some friend of yours who’s also a beginning teacher but seems to be having a better time of it. (Don’t. Don’t do that.) The best thing you can do right now is remind this person of their specific characteristics that (a) you think are fantastic, and (b) will one day make them a great teacher even if they don’t feel like one at the moment.

They’re busier than they’ve ever been in their lives.

New teachers are on information overload, and they don’t just have a long to-do list — they have a long, do-this-tonight-or-tomorrow-is-gonna-bring-the-pain list. The treadmill is turned up as high as it can go. This is the kind of situation where if your “check engine” light goes on you just try to ignore it and hope teaching has earned you enough good karma to keep the car running. This was the time, during my own first year, when my bank charged me an overdraft fee for something that was theirmistake, and the thought of sitting on the phone with customer service was so overwhelming I just let them take the money out of my account. Take someone in that situation who is also exhausted, and who – again – cares what you think, and it’s easy for things to get distorted when you say, “You know your check engine light has been on for a while, right?” Not only is this something new on the to-do list, it drags out all kinds of other symbolism that might be attached to taking care of the car, or managing money, or keeping the house clean. With this in mind, you’ll rack up some relationship points if you leave the why-aren’t-you-better-at-this discussions for another time.

They’re doing a job that, in some ways, can only be learned by trial and error.

Teachers (new ones, especially) get lots of suggestions from non-teachers trying to be helpful. Some popular ones are “try making it fun,” “try to get through to the kids on a personal level,” and “try planning lessons on topics the kids are interested in!” All of which suggest, to a teacher’s exhausted, over-busy, still-cares-what-you-think mind that you think if you had this job, you wouldn’t have had to learn through trial and error… or at least you would have made fewer errors because you’re more (insert adjective that this teacher is currently insecure about). This is enough to get you in plenty of trouble on its own, but it also raises the questions, “What, you don’t think I’m trying to make it fun?!” “ What….you don’t think I’m trying to plan lessons on topics the kids are interested in?” If you’re not a teacher – maybe even if you are – direct classroom suggestions are almost always made at your own risk.

They want to be great at this job.

No one becomes a teacher to be just okay, or, “…not so bad, all things considered, since after all, these kids…” Even when the kids are acting crazy or seem aligned against us, we need to believe they’ll be better off because we were in that classroom with them. There are plenty of moments during the first year that cast this into doubt, and there is an extra layer of pressure for teachers working with kids who reallyneed a good teacher to overcome the odds. That comment you hoped would take some pressure off can sound more like an invitation to give up completely. Then, remember, we’re filtering all this through exhausted, over-busy, still-cares-what-you-think, and learning-through-trial-and-error, so your well meaning, “Don’t worry about it so much,” suddenly sounds like, “Don’t worry about being successful – or even competent — at your chosen career. Don’t worry about whether you’ve improved the lives of these third graders who are more likely to end up in prison if they’re not reading on grade level.”

That’s a lot to read into a statement that was never meant to turn into a whole big thing. You know that. I know that. And one day, sometime in early July, the teachers you care about will know that, too. For now, just let them sleep in this weekend.

And if you really want to help, take the car to the mechanic yourself.

A previous version of this piece appeared in the Hechinger Report, which covers inequality and innovation in education with in-depth journalism.

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