To New Teachers

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.

The look of veteran teachers. Photo by Petr Ganaj on Pexels.com

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).

Bring on the day! Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

3 thoughts on “To New Teachers

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

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