The first day on the job is always hard. It offers equal scoops of excitement and fear. Two first day experiences helped shape the five lessons that I learned and now humbly share.
I was hired to teach History at what was then called a vocational school. It was designed for teenagers who had learning disabilities, had recently arrived in Canada from schools that left them woefully unprepared, and others who were waiting to go to jail or just out, and more who were too bored, angry, or damaged to fit in elsewhere.
On the day before classes began, I was told that I would not be teaching History but Grades 10 and 12 Mathematics. I protested that I had not studied Math in university and was awful at it in high school. I was told I’d be fine. My classroom contained two big stacks of text books; one blue, one yellow. The yellow one had stuff that looked harder so I made it the grade 12 book. I noticed that all my class lists had around 30 kids each but the room only had 26 desks. I was told not to worry, they would never all show up.
On my first day I was told to fuck off twice. The second time was in a marvelous Jamaican accent so it was actually, fuck off, mon. No matter what I did or said in one class, they just ignored me. Bob Hope and Jimmy Carter, I swear, were in another class. I had them sit together, it only seemed right. After lunch another teacher and I broke up a hallway fight. The boy I pulled off another spun and tried to kick me between the pockets – I jumped, he ran.
That evening I told my wife that I had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job and moving us to this city where we knew not a soul. We discussed options. But the next morning, I affixed another of my brand new ties, and went back into the lion’s den.
Several years and three schools later I walked into my first day at one of Canada’s premier independent boarding schools. It’s a school for kids of the upper middle class and rich who can buy their children’s peers and an education and environment that all schools, if properly funded, led, and staffed, could and should provide.
We gathered for the first morning chapel, held in the theatre because the chapel was under reconstruction. I was stopped by the athletic director and told I was the senior soccer coach. I confessed that I had never coached soccer. In fact, I had never played soccer. “Don’t worry”, I heard him say, as if it was a sixteen-year old echo, “You’ll be fine.” The first practice was that afternoon.
The school’s new academic building was also under construction and so I was among several teachers in rented, old and smelly portables. Wex and Alasdair were the first students to arrive for the first period class. They both shook my hand and welcomed me. Wow, I thought, they’re adults. Because each boy weighed well over 200 pounds, they laughed at the tiny desks. They wedged, wiggled and stuffed themselves between the chair and the tiny affixed table. As if on cue, they hopped – all four desk legs left the floor. Wow, I thought, they’re children.
The rest of the students arrived, saw the two hopping about and, of course, joined in. I soon had us lined up for a race. That did it. We were one. The chemistry was among the best of the hundreds of classes I have taught in my career.
That afternoon I was given a mesh bag of soccer balls and met my team. We began practice with a run. I stretched it out as long possible while deciding what I could possibly do next to kill the hour. I put them through a number of hockey drills until it was mercifully over. That evening I took notes as my daughter taught me how many players are on the field, the names of the positions, and the basics of the game. The next practices were marginally better. There were six teams in our league and that season we came second – second in every game we played.
Top Five First Day Lessons I Learned:
- It Gets Better: The most underpaid worker is the one struggling through their first day, or week, or month. Things will never get easy but they get easier. I learned to note the good moments and accept the bad as rude instruction.
- Character Matters: A good boss hires not a resume but a person. That person’s most important asset is character. I learned to have faith. You will pick up what you need to know soon enough but until then your character is your guide.
- Laughter Matters: It is important to always take the job seriously but never yourself. I learned that even the most titanic of stressful, embarrassing situations quickly shrivel to funny little stories.
- Client Service: Concentrate on the clients; in my case the students. Overwhelm them with your dedication to their needs. I learned that it is only by impressing clients that anyone ever impresses the boss.
- Don’t Water the Rocks: Every workplace has folks eager to sink a sabre into a colleague’s back for some perceived advantage. Ignore them. They trade their souls for ephemeral victories and realize too late that real grown-ups left school yard intrigues long ago and that, in the end, there’s no one keeping score. I learned to waste no time on sycophants or saboteurs.
It all sounds easy. The toughest things always do. I wish I understood the lessons on my first day back at the vocational school. It was my toughest day. I’m glad I had learned them by my first day at the independent school. It was among my best days. While I still dedicate myself and whatever talents I possess to doing the best I can, I have never let my job, title, or employer define me. Work is not life. Work is what I do to have a life. That alone makes any first day, or any day after that for that matter, what it should be, just another day at work.
“If you liked this column, please share it with others. Please consider following my blog where I post every Monday morning at johnboyko.com”