The Hardest Things About First-Year Teaching

It has been said: “Calm first-year teachers are like magical unicorns. They are rarely found in the wild.” And to that I say, “Duh. They’re at school lesson planning.” The teachers, I mean. Not the unicorns.

At the end of my first year of teaching junior high and high school English, I decided to come up with a list some of the hardest things that first-year teachers face. Some difficult things about a first-year teacher’s lifestyle include:

School Dayz

Getting used to school culture.
Day trips to Chicago? Thanksgiving lunch exchanges? Formal Christmas banquets for junior high students? Regional spelling bees?
Are you kidding me? We never did anything like that in school. Well, that’s not true. We had Dress-Like-A-Book-Character Day. And we saved up money to go to the Spruce Lake Outdoor School in the Poconos for a week. So I guess we had our fun too.

It can be difficult to adjust to a new school culture. Beware. These cultures exist. Students, teachers, and school administrators plan with happy fondness these annual events. However, to new teachers, these events seem like Another Abominable Addition to the Abiding To-Do List. New teachers: the events aren’t that bad. Try to embrace New Ways of Doing Things.

Realizing you aren’t hip anymore.
If you are a twenty-something jumping into the junior high and high school classroom, it might be a little jolting to embrace your new identity of an authority figure. Teaching high school makes the school memories come flooding back. Only something’s different. You aren’t part of the crowd. Things have changed. You’re an authority figure now. And you aren’t hip anymore. You probably mention the 90s. You probably talk about things from five years ago. You probably wear flats that were bought in 2012. Sadly, new teacher, in your students’ eyes, you are now a part of that homogenous clueless adultness. Also, you’re really old. If you don’t figure that out, your students will remind you, eyes bulging, when you tell them how old you are.

Getting up at 5:00 a.m.
First-year teachers work incredibly long hours. We put in twelve hour days several times a week. And that doesn’t count the grading we take home for “homework”. So, perhaps you’re one of those Type A persons who has always enjoyed getting up at the crack of dawn. (And in the winter, getting up when it’s dark and going home when it’s dark.) I, for one, am not that kind of person.

Perhaps this is one of those “You’re not in college anymore” moments or a “Now you’re a responsible adult” thing. I mean, I’m coming off a college lifestyle where 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. are perfectly acceptable bedtimes. And three and four hours is an acceptable night of sleep. (You know what they say about college. Homework, sleep, friends—pick two.) I happened to be one of those students who went to school full time and worked part time. You do the math for a sleep schedule. Anyway, in college, when you’re only taking care of yourself, you can get away with less sleep. Nobody notices if you are a zombie in statistics class every now and then, or if you get a little dizzy on the university sidewalk. Sleep would have been nice, you think. But that all-nighter was totally worth the GREAT essay I just turned in! Must find caffeine. Must have Americano!

But when, as a teacher, you are required to be on top of your game every single day, and when you are required to respond patiently to all the fifth graders’ questions (there are many; they wonder about all the things), it is essential to have adequate rest. In other words, first-year teachers: grow up. You’re an adult now. Start sleeping like one.

Getting sick.
When I started my first year, I was totally unaware of the fact that first-year teachers catch virtually every flu bug. It was August, week two, and I was out with strep throat. This year, I contracted a total of three cases of strep throat. Vitamins (and extra sleep, as we have learned) became my best friends.

First-year teaching, with its schedules and germ-carrying little dears, doesn’t have to make you sick, but it can certainly do you in (quite quickly) if you combine it with any other sort of immune system stress. For example, during my first year of teaching, I decided to train for a half marathon. However, long distance running can weaken your immune system. Also, healthy runners also need to get extra sleep. So mixing the stress of first year teaching with half marathon training was, in some ways, a recipe for disaster. Which is why I spent race day on my bed at home in Ohio, wailing to my mother about three months of “wasted” training, while she wiped my feverish brow.

So what habits would I recommend for first-year teachers to start developing? Check back next week for “Survival Tips for First-Year Teachers”.

Why Matt Redman’s “Never Once” Should Be a New Hymn

The term “new hymn” may sound like an oxymoron. Certainly, an a capella hymn-singing tradition is uncommon in contemporary Christian church services. However, in conservative Mennonite churches today, four-part acapella hymn singing persists as the prominent music style of choice. You might ask: how does this tradition continue?

Mennonite churches seek to celebrate and to further this special tradition though the use of hymns in weekly services or in annual “hymn-sings,” which build in singing practice and promote familiarity with canonical hymn texts.

The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches
The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches

One important factor of this tradition is the careful selection of which hymn books will be placed in the church pews. Currently, a newly-published purple hymnal is popping up in conservative Mennonite churches (to include certain northern Indiana Mennonite congregations and schools). John D. Martin spent twenty years compiling the new Hymns of the Church, which features 65 Anabaptist composers. What sets this hymnal apart is that it features hymns that specifically cover Anabaptist themes: the Lordship of Christ, discipleship, obedience, cross-bearing, separation from the world, nonresistance, and the present Kingdom of God.

The a capella hymn-singing tradition is also promoted to Mennonite young people through choral singing opportunities at winter Bible schools. After high school, many Mennonite young people attend Bible Schools before starting a full-time job, starting college, or getting married. Most Mennonite Bible Schools have choirs in which young people practice and memorize a capella choral pieces. These newly-formed choirs then embark on tours across the U.S., visiting various Mennonite communities, churches, nursing homes, or even state prisons. It may seem unlikely, but most Mennonite young people have sung with some sort of touring choir, whether it was a church youth chorus or a Bible School choir.

(This is not to say that conservative Mennonites solely prefer acapella hymn-singing, but it is an unmistakable part of the conservative Anabaptist experience. What I mean is: my young Mennonite students still like their mainstream Christian pop and, gasp, even a little bit of country.)

Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010
Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010

Another way that Mennonites promote hymn-singing is through music education. Within conservative Anabaptist communities, there is a renewed interest in music education, and this is seen through the recently formed Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, which is held annually in Virginia and Ohio. Conservative Anabaptist music enthusiasts, song-leaders, worship leaders, and youth having been attending these summer camps since 2006. The camps feature classes in musical development, choral conducting, congregational music, and composition. Conservative Mennonites are beginning to see the need for education in order for this tradition to continue.

A capella hymn-singing is also promoted through the composition of new hymns. For one example, for the past several years, the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp has been commissioning new hymns through its annual hymn contest. The camp accepts submitted poetic texts and chooses a winning text. Then, conservative Anabaptist composers (amateur and trained alike) go to work. These composers submit their own musical version of the text, and another winning selection is made. The new hymn is sung at both the Ohio and Virginia camps.

Recently, the idea of new hymns has been on my mind, and I have thought: is it possible to arrange Christian pop songs into sing-able a capella arrangements? It’s been done before. Larry Nickel, a Canadian Mennonite composer, beautifully and effectively re-arranged the Christian worship song “In Christ Alone” to a choral acapella setting. (And where did I first hear that arrangement? Last month at a service in Nappanee featuring a Mennonite Bible school choir.)

It worked wonderfully, so I have decided that I want someone to re-set Matt Redman’s “Never Once.” Matt Redman, a Grammy-award-winning British Christian song-writer wrote the Christian pop song “Never Once” in 2011. This anthemic song is a Christian declaration of the presence and the faithfulness of God to humankind even in life’s toughest moments.

Why did I choose “Never Once” to be a new hymn?

First, it’s anthemic, musically.
Its simple tune and repetitiveness qualify it for the serious tone and chant-like treatment of anthems in contemporary classical music. (Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli and all that.) Personally, I think there’s tons of room for Eric Whitacre cluster chords. (Don’t laugh. It will work.) Its declaration of an aspect of Christian belief (the existence of God) defines it as a credo and also qualifies it as an anthem. Mixing all these elements means that “Never Once” qualifies for new hymn material.

Second, it’s accessible (textually).
One of the problems of hymn texts can be accessibility. The antiquated language and difficult (culturally irrelevant?) metaphors are obstacles to enjoying beautiful hymn poetry. (For instance, in old hymns, there are a lot of “anchors,” “billows,” and “stormy seas”. Personally, as a Midwesterner who happens not to own a yacht, these aquatic word pictures are a little vague as best. But as Emily Dickinson would say: a good imagination can fix that: “I never saw a moor / I never saw the sea; / Yet know I how the heather looks, /And what a wave must be.”) What I’m arguing: unless a congregation is filled with singularly imaginative folk, hymn texts can be hard to relate to. I run into this problem with my junior high students during hymn-singing time. (Oh, that’s another place that Mennonites sing. Elementary school.) Sometimes, these students lack the critical thinking skills to access the complex poetry. However, this would never be a problem with adults because we all learned to love the study of poetry in high school, right? (Ahem.) Understanding poetry, then, is necessary for the accessibility of hymns. However, while “Never Once” uses poetic metaphor, the metaphors are not obscure. Life is compared to a mountaintop and a battleground, and those metaphors are accepted generally. Thus, the “Never Once” text is accessible and congregation-friendly.

And finally, it’s communal (textually).
The diction of the personal pronouns is communal. “Never once did we ever walk alone.” This communal diction works for an a cappela choral arrangement; a hymn is meant to be sung in community. Redman’s piece, then, once rearranged, is conducive to be sung in a group, at least textually.

And perhaps that is why Mennonites prefer hymn-singing in the first place. A capella hymn-singing is community. And in our swipe-screen, social-networking solitariness, isn’t community what we all long for?