There is always something special about the first...of anything. Yesterday I was tagged in my first class photo as a teacher, twenty some years ago at St. Anne’s Primary School. I barely recognized myself in the photo but boy, I recognized and could name every kid on the photo, because they were my first students, and as such, they were, and will always remain, special. Being tagged allowed me to connect with some of those students after all this time and the last twenty four hours have been simply wonderful, chatting, catching up and learning that now, their children attend St. Anne’s. As I prepare for my twenty fourth first day of school as a teacher, I have been consumed with thoughts of my first one, all those years ago.
I thought I had hit the jackpot when I got hired at St. Anne’s, a small, single form entry elementary school in a leafy suburb of Liverpool. I couldn't wait to get into the building and start setting up my classroom. I was greeted by the principal, a formidable force of nature: a spinster, a forty year veteran dedicated educator who commanded respect and frankly, scared the life out of me. As we walked she described upcoming renovation plans and we stopped in a space that was basically a corridor connecting the infant department to the junior department. She explained that this was to be my “classroom” and left me alone to ponder how on earth I was to create a safe, secure learning environment from this strange, desolate place.
And then I met Diane, who very quickly became my first friend, mentor and savior at St. Anne’s. Diane recognized the fact that I was reeling and immediately offered her help and advice. Together we scavenged tables, chairs, bookshelves and resources from around the building. She spent hours with me dragging furniture into one position after another as we tried to craft a classroom. Over the next few days she helped me cover the walls with welcoming displays, stock the shelves with engaging books and transform the space into a “room” that ultimately became the place where I began to learn my chosen profession.
During that first year Diane was my go to person whenever I needed anything and she never let me down. When I needed another pair of hands she volunteered hers, when I needed a sympathetic ear she listened, when I floundered she reassured me, and when I despaired she made me laugh. Oh, she made me laugh. I believe she was one of the most important factors in getting me through that first year intact and over the course of the next ten years I spent there, her role in my life, both professionally and personally only grew in significance. Two years in, my colleagues, despite my objections, decided I was ready to host my first whole school assembly and tried to trick me into being left alone with all of the children. When I caught wind of their scheme in panic I ran to Diane and she locked me in a cupboard to keep me safe! Some of my fondest memories of St. Anne’s stem from weekends we spent away with the kids at an outdoor activity camp. These treasured weekends were only possible because Diane offered to be a chaperone and together with kids we canoed, zip lined, rock climbed, sang our hearts out, built character and made indelible memories.
Diane was the school custodian. She taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned, that the education of our children is a community affair. She loved that school and those kids and they loved her. She made sure that every square inch of that school was spotless for them every day, she took pride in her work, and she demonstrated unwavering perseverance, kindness and dedication. She submerged herself in every aspect of school life and was just as much an integral part of educating the students as I was. Indeed, she educated me. She was also one of very few people who ever spoke to our formidable principal candidly and I was in awe of her. She was my hero!
Today I learned that Diane passed away last week.The timing of connecting with my first students yesterday and hearing this sad news about my first friend and mentor today simply must be significant. My advice to first year teachers as they embark on this incredible journey is to know that preparing goes beyond your classroom. Make a determined effort to get out of the room, explore every hallway, office and corridor. Introduce yourself to every member of your learning community and start to build connections with the people who are going to guide and help you through your first year. Be open, ask for help and it will come, you are not alone. Most importantly embrace every second of this, your first year. Learn from mistakes, laugh often and care deeply, because twenty years from now a kid is going to contact you and let you know that you were their favorite teacher ever!