When I began my career as a high school teacher, I don’t remember being showered with much learned wisdom from veteran teachers other than the proverbial “Don’t smile until after Christmas break”: a bit of advice not without some merit.
When it comes to collegiality, most teachers, especially on the high school level, tend to be of the “teach and let teach” mindset. Like infants tossed into deep water with the expectation that they will either sink or quickly figure out how to swim, first-year teachers are still more-or-less thrown into their classrooms with the hope that they’ll keep their heads above the water and the belief that, if they drown in the expectations and demands of the classroom, they probably weren’t cut out for it in the first place. I think some of us veterans even gain a small bit of perverse pleasure in watching those first-years thrashing about while remembering our own struggles as nascent teachers. At the same time, however, I’ve never been turned away by a colleague or administrator from whom I sought help or advice. You just need to ask, or we’ll assume you’re doing just fine. Believe it or not, we veterans are often like those ducks that seem so calm and relaxed on the surface, but underneath, we’re paddling like crazy to make it look so. Just keep paddling.
Although there are certainly improvements that could be made in preparing future teachers for the exigencies of the classroom, teaching remains, like most, a profession best learned by doing. One’s first classroom is the crucible that either confirms one’s choice in entering the profession or sends a rookie scurrying into a career more amenable to their personality and less populated by often needy, rambunctious, and worst-of-all indifferent to whatever it is you’re trying to teach children and young adults.
I, however, believe a teacher’s approach to their career should mirror that of a wise investor. Just as investment portfolios rise and fall, there are good years in teaching and not-so-good years. (Notice I didn’t say “bad” years.). In recent years, I’ve witnessed too many gifted teachers give up on what was their well-chosen career path too soon. Wise investors stay the course, and when the time is right, they are rewarded. Wise teachers don’t overreact to a not-so-good year; instead, they ride it out with stubborn determination to make whatever positive difference in the lives of their students they can, and in the end, they typically find their investment paying off to an inestimable degree of student improvement and personal job satisfaction.
The offshoot of all of this is I thought I’d share just a nugget or two of the most important survival tips I’ve learned in my career.
The typical school year in Ohio includes 180 days of classroom instruction. Allowing for the few days I’ve missed for sick or personal days, that means in my thirty-seven years as a classroom teacher I’ve been in front of students responsible for their behavior and learning approximately 6,600 times. How many individual class periods that amounts to is anyone’s guess as I’ve taught on master schedules ranging anywhere from three instructional periods a day to eight. It’s important to remember that, if you let it, one crappy period will utterly destroy an otherwise wonderful day, but sadly, the reverse is rarely the case. Anyway, I can assure you that not on a single morning of those 6,600 days did I wake up without butterflies in my belly in nervous anticipation of facing those students, but, brother, when that first bell sounds, I somehow transform into Mike Tyson entering the ring (at least on most days).
In his song, “It Gets Easier,” Jason Isbell advises that “It gets easier, but it never gets easy.” Isbell’s admonition is directed toward recovering alcoholics; however, I think his words also reveal a truism that every teacher, especially those new to the profession, should embrace. If the preparation, instruction, and asssessment required of an effective teacher does get easy, let me suggest that either you’ve gotten a bit lazy or you may be in the wrong profession. The job is what the job is. Either do it to the best of your abilities or go sell insurance or something. As Isbell sings, it will get easier but it will never get easy.
One of the most frustrating yet simultneously exciting aspects of being a classroom teacher is its unpredictability. Go ahead and plan meticulously. In fact, the best teachers I know actually overplan, knowing that the most disruptive, even dangerous, thing to allow students to possess in the classroom isn’t a cell phone but free time. However, I can count on two hands the number of class sessions that went exactly the way I pictured or planned they would. My best class sessions are often the ones in which I never even get to my actual lesson plan, or they’re the ones that went spiraling away from my original plan when my and/or my students’ imagination(s) were piqued by something only indirectly related to the lesson but of high interest to us and relevant to life outside of the classroom.
One of the lessons it took me the longest to learn was that of humility. I had to learn that it wasn’t my but our classroom. I had to learn to deescalate potential discipline issues, knowing that my next response would have repercussions, for the better or worse, that would impact the remainder of not only my relationship with that misbehaving student but with the entire class for the rest of the school year and even beyond. I had to learn to enforce the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. Most importantly, I’ve had to learn that whatever is causing a student to act out or to be disengaged, it probably has nothing to do with me. I don’t need to feel insulted or disrespected.
With that said, it’s important that as a classroom instructor you have that one thing on which you never compromise. For me, that one thing is I never allow or tolerate a student putting their head down while I’m providing instruction. I establish that line in the sand early, and I never compromise. I think that, by extension, my students know not to push me on other minor violations of classroom etiquette as well.
Finally, it’s vital that teachers are demonstrably passionate about what/who they teaching. I’ve never taught elementary school, but I have mad appreciation for the job they do. I know I could not do their job. From my inexpert viewpoint, I feel that elementary teachers must love two things the most and model that love to the children in their charge: the love for the children themselves and a love for learning in general. Meanwhile high school teachers must be enthusiastic lovers and promoters of the material they teach. In my case, I don’t read and write because I’m a teacher; I teach because I love to read and write. I think my students sense my intense interest in my subject matter, which, at least for some, sparks their interest in discovering the reason for my interest. Middle school teachers may have the most difficult job of all as they must be the best of both school worlds between which they are sandwiched.
Feel free to file all of this away in the “For What It’s Worth” drawer. I wish good luck and good teaching to all of my fellow teachers. We are members of a truly honorable and vital profession. At the start of each day, chase away those butterlies and dive into your classroom loving who and what you teach.
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4 thoughts on “To New Teachers”
Gosh, when I read this Pink Floyd started playing in my mind. Ohio? Batshit crazy? Golly, I am so thankful I don’t teach in the US.
It was a joke. My apologies if it didn’t come off as such. Thanks for the read and reply.
Thx for your reply, sorry mine is tardy, I rarely look here as I rarely comment. Probably be another 6 months ’till I am back again, if ever. My days and time are limited. So this is my verbose explanation.
We do it seems, live in 2 different worlds though. And I’m still glad mine isn’t the US. I grew up and eventually taught in the UK system.
A long way from perfect, especially in my day when teachers or masters were little Kings (or Queens) in their classroom.
I was born in Wales, grew up bilingual in a UK school.
If I slipped up and accidentally answered in Welsh I was rewarded with a rap over the knuckles with a cane. Eventually I lost my Welsh language.
I taught a variety of classes – and ages – from when I was circa 30 to 66 when I finally hung up my chalk. That was 6 and a bit years ago. The last decade in China. I can honestly say there was never I time when I felt like Mike Tyson ( not sure who he is but I’m assuming some action hero) or had butterflies in my stomach.
Sure, some classes are more challenging than others, some s/s can be more challenging also. But for me, the beauty was that no 2 classes, even the same grade, were ever the same.
Like you, I agree, the classroom is not the t/t domain, it is a shared area. I also agree, the best class is the one the s/s run, even if it is nothing like your plan. In fact, to disagree somewhat, I eventually only prepared a bare bones plan. I strived for a s/s centric, s/s led class – not always successfully I admit. Especially new classes who were used to a t/t driven class – it took a while.
For me, my over arching goal was to gain and maintain s/s interest.
We humans learn best when it is something that interests us. If that meant sacrificing part of my plan to the s/s, then so be it as long as my base: “by the end of this lesson s/s will….” was achieved. It usually involved a lot of thinking on my feet, balancing the direction of the class against what I was aiming for.
With due respect, I content that t/t who over prepare and run to a minutely detailed pan – and I know many do – risk it become a sterile, boring environment which is not conducive to learning.
My first job when taking up a new post was to shift that ruddy great, imposing desk from the front of the class to the window. (maybe they never had in it US schools?) I spent most of my time walking around the room, engaging, teaching from the side, the back and of course, the board up front.
I saw that desk as a barrier, a them and me division. Of course the advent of an A/V console and E-whiteboard tended to muck things up a bit. But I learnt I could easily delegate operation of those to the s/s, again empowering them in their learning.
I know it has been widely discredited these days, but I still believe in different learning styles for different people. Mostly as I learn better from doing and watching than I do from listening or reading.
In my twilight years I used to address t/t workshops and would ask them how many had an issue with the (usually) guy at the back who just did nothing and ended up failing most tests. Unsurprisingly, many hands raised in recognition.
I would then explain that although it seemed they had spent the whole year and had taught him nothing they were wrong.
They had taught him their class was boring.
Having read a bit of your blog and other’s comments, I can see I am wildly out of line and realise I have been extremely fortunate to work in environments that fostered creativity and spontaneity.
I used to think that was the norm these days, now I see it isn’t necessarily so.
So I wasn’t necessarily complaining or being sarcastic, just genuinely surprised, and as I said, I thought: “Just another brick in the wall.”
Live every day as if it were your last, because it very well might be.
Ty, as always you hit the nail on the head. Not sure if they still have new teacher meetings, but if they do, you should be the main speaker!! Crazy admission…even after all these years being retired, I still get butterflies when I see the buses driving down the road for the first day of school! Have a great year!