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Teaching Secrets: Hallway Hints

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It’s the first week of school. Buses arrive early tomorrow morning and hundreds of chattering students will disembark, signaling the true end of summer. You’re a veteran teacher who’s rushing toward your classroom with the last armload of materials from your car. You spy an impossibly young adult, apparently frozen in place in the hallway. Your quick diagnosis: NTSS (new teacher shock syndrome). Your stomach remembers the anxiety of that day so many years ago. Your heart reaches out. But your head says you can spare only two minutes right now. What’s your best advice?

As part of a partnership, publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

We recently put this scenario before members of the Teacher Leaders Network. Here’s a sample of what we heard.

Remember the Two P’s—Patience and Pace

Someone once said, “Your goal as a first-year teacher is to be a second year teacher." The surest route to Year Two is patiently pacing yourself.

Focus on one thing at a time, says veteran Los Angeles teacher Jane Fung. Teaching is complex and you cannot master everything in a single day, week, month, or year. Be reflective, choose something you want to work on, and do it. Less is more sometimes. Your students will be OK. They will grow and progress as you grow and develop as an educator. “Teaching is a journey that is never-ending,” Fung says. “I am still learning after 20 years, and I have a long way to go, too.”

Indiana teacher-mentor Karen Molter assures new teachers that “it takes three years for the job to become what you dreamed it would be.” In the first year, work to stay ahead of the kids by building the best lessons you can and mastering the fundamentals of classroom management. The second year, address those lessons that reflection tells you need adjustment — look for ways to make them better and continue building your support systems. In the third year, the basics for teaching are in place, and you can begin devoting more of your time to creative strategies that require management finesse but will engage your students at the highest levels.

Patience is something novice teachers must consciously practice, says Virginia veteran Jon Hanbury. Patience with the children, patience with your colleagues, patience with yourself. “There is so much to learn that first year—so many demands that you can easily become overwhelmed by expecting perfection,” she says. “Reflect constantly, but don't beat yourself up.”

Don't try to do everything you’re asked to do during your first year, recommends Renee Moore, a former Mississippi Teacher of the Year. Don't volunteer for every committee, event, or assignment. “Just because you're the new teacher does not mean you have to say yes to everything people try to dump on you.” Teaching your students is your first priority. “Sometimes we try to impress our employers and co-workers with how hard we are willing to work and end up overextended,” says Moore. “But as one janitor so eloquently explained it to me: ‘If the mule dies, they'll buy another mule.’”

Michelle Capen, a curriculum coach in North Carolina, agrees. Leave the building at a reasonable time and try to have a life outside of work. There is always something else to do in your classroom. “You can't be a good teacher,” says Capen, “if you don't give yourself an opportunity to live a well-rounded life.”

Don’t Go It Alone

“Don't isolate yourself,” says Fung, who is also a Milken Award winner. Find a buddy to go to when you have questions about the school, students, instruction, payroll, or just need a shoulder to cry on. “There is always someone who will open their door and their experience to you. Accept it!”

Look for a really good teacher with the 4 C's (caring, compassionate, confident, and competent) in your building and build that relationship, advises Virginia teacher mentor Joanie Hovatter. “Twenty four years after I entered my first classroom, my mentor is still someone I tap for advice.”

Linda Emm, a learning-community coach in Miami-Dade, encourages new teachers to look for at least one or two allies “who have your same beliefs about teaching and learning.” Within that allied group, keep focused on those things you can actually do something about. So much of what frustrates us is outside of our control, and when we put all of our attention there, it’s not only fruitless and time consuming, it can end up making us feel powerless. “If we keep the majority of our focus on what we can do in our classrooms with our students,” Emm has learned, “we set ourselves up to see results, and that energizes and sustains us.”

Soak Up the School Culture

Over a 20-year career, Florida teacher Pam Davis has often found herself “the new kid on the block” after transferring to a new school. “I learned that listening to the school community was essential.” Network with the entire school staff, not just the teachers, she says. Paraprofessionals and custodial workers are often the adults who greet students upon arrival and dismiss them from after-care. “They know the families and are key to learning more about your students and the school climate. They know the history, rules, resources, how-to's, and when-not-to’s. Just listen and keep asking.”

South Carolina teacher Louisa Jane Fleming makes a point to contact parents early and establish a relationship “that leads to their being open to listening, and supportive of your efforts on their child's behalf.” In a high school, parents most often show up at athletic events or concerts, so Fleming makes an effort to attend and volunteer. She’s also quick to e-mail or phone when there’s something to celebrate, a question to be answered, or a small problem that could get worse. Fleming surveys parents at the beginning of the year, asking questions like: "What have previous teachers done that you and your child appreciated?" and "Is there anything about your child that you'd like me to know?" She’s discovered many important facts in the process, from overlooked medical conditions to favorite subjects, what the childs likes to read, or successes in previous classes. “It’s all incredibly useful.”

Take the time to ride through the neighborhoods that send students to your school, says Barbara Thomson, recalling a tip she got from a college teacher many years ago. Get an early idea of the communities you serve. “It’s often very eye-opening,” says Thomson, a 45-year veteran from Columbia, S.C. “Guard against preconceptions, but see where your kids live and where they spend their time when they are not with you.”

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