real life

"The huge mistake I made in my first year as a teacher."

Five years ago, I had just finished my HSC, got that hard-earned ATAR and had been accepted into my dream course at university: teaching. People – including teachers – questioned why I wouldn’t pursue a higher-paid, more “noble” career in medicine or law, when I had the marks to be ‘so much more than a teacher.’

They failed to realise that it wasn’t my marks, the money or the status that made me passionate about teaching. There was a fire in my belly that many people take a lifetime of job-hopping to find. Teaching was what I was born to do.

While my four years at uni came with their own personal challenges, I flew through my degree with great marks, prestigious awards and offers for post-graduate study. Teaching was going to be a breeze – or so I thought.

In late December 2015, I was one of only 30 per cent of graduate teachers to be offered a permanent position in a government school straight out of uni. I was so grateful, knowing many teachers wait their whole careers for a look-in at permanency. I packed up everything I had and moved away from everyone I loved to start my career in the country.

I spent weeks categorising cool lesson ideas on Pinterest boards and meticulously cutting, pasting, folding and hanging classroom decorations. I spent hundreds of dollars from my casual summer job on books, pens, folders, scissors and glue. I moved the desks on my classroom about 12 times before a student even sat in them. I spent hours upon hours planning for the year ahead, completely overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of me.

By the time I started school, I was nervous, tired, but most of all, excited. I threw myself in the deep end and rode the high of first day adrenaline for as long as I possibly could.

"I threw myself in the deep end and rode the high of first day adrenaline for as long as I possibly could." (Image provided)

I was the first to school and the last to leave, working more hours than I thought were humanly possible. I watched my colleagues in awe, trying to figure out how they managed to find time for a husband, wife or child, when I barely had time to keep a plant alive. I had nightmares about being late to class or letting my students down. I worked hard at building rapport with those around me and prided myself on flashy PowerPoints and home-made worksheets. I spent hours in airports, travelling to courses and conferences on a monthly basis, coming back to school filled with fresh ideas and grand plans for positive change. I was determined to make a difference. But it came at a cost.

I became so preoccupied with my job that I forgot to look after myself.

I didn't have any friends outside the gates of school. I often settled for a menial cup of tea for dinner because I had 'too much work to do' and 'didn't have time' to cook a proper meal. I passed up exercise/sunshine/contact with humans to type up programs and download resources. I couldn't watch a movie or read a book without deconstructing it. I couldn't look through Instagram without screenshotting lesson ideas, or scroll through Facebook without seeing posts that reminded me of my students.

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And weekends? They didn't exist.

I became consumed. And I didn't even notice.

LISTEN: This Glorious Mess on what teachers really think behind the scenes. (Post continues...) 

With every pair of scissors that disappeared, every poster that was destroyed and every worksheet I found in the bin, I became more and more disenchanted with teaching. I was pouring my heart and soul into a thankless job, and it was exhausting.

By the end of Term Two, I had burnt myself out. I was on the verge of a breakdown and very honestly considered resigning from a job, that only 20 weeks earlier, filled me with hope and passion. I knew something had to change - or my dream career would be over before the year was out.

I realised that I had to make myself a priority. I had to look after Tegan, The Person before I could be Tegan, The Teacher. It was the most important lesson I learnt in my first year of teaching.

I put my mental and physical wellbeing first. I let go of my guilt. I realised that I could leave work at school and WOULD YOU BELIEVE it would still be there the next day?! I made time for myself outside of school. I joined a gym. I ate well. I took up a hobby and did more of the things I enjoyed.

I finally achieved a balance.

"I finally achieved a balance." (Image provided)

While I was putting in less hours at the photocopier, in front of a computer or making worksheets on my lounge room floor, the hours I spent where it mattered most - in the classroom - were so much more rewarding.

I started teaching better than I ever had before. We smiled, laughed, joked, sang, played, and most importantly, we all learned. My students noticed a difference in my teaching and I noticed a difference in my students. My passion was back.

I was happier, healthier and an all round better person. Although I thought I was doing what was best for my students - selflessly dedicating myself to the job - I was an even better teacher when I put myself first.

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