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Preparing New Teachers in Frustrating Times

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Middle grades language arts teacher Sarah Henchey reflected on her decision to accept the first student teacher into her classroom in a September article for Education Week Teacher. This is her mid-year update.

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." — William Arthur Ward

During the first weeks with my student teacher, I found myself consciously aware of her presence. As she became my shadow once a week, I tried to build her background knowledge of the students, school, and community to paint a realistic view of the profession. I was careful to share information that might shed light upon that day’s lesson, a colleague’s comment, or a school-wide policy; however, while I aimed to provide an accurate portrayal, I also wanted to leave room for optimism and novelty. There were definite times when I withheld professional grievances to avoid negativity or spreading of my own bias.

As we enter into our second semester together, I’ve noticed a gradual reduction in my compulsion to cushion reality. I continue to try to add helpful information to our discussions, but I’m less cautious about shielding her from the annoyances and frustrations of teaching. Part of this shift is a conscious choice. I must credit the remainder to the wear and tear of the school year.

Nevertheless, after a particularly stressful day, I can’t help but put myself in her shoes. Within eight hours of observation, my student teacher has witnessed tense conversations about concerns over the quality of scripted lessons, pointed discussions among professional learning community members of differing philosophies, challenges from parents on grading policies, and critical comments of a student’s behavior and attitude offered in an inappropriate setting. After a day like this, how confident and excited could she feel about her future career choice? If I were in her shoes, what would my impression be?

While I respectfully recognize that this day is not representative of all days as a teacher, I must admit that this school year seems to hold more of these "challenging" days. I’ve struggled with whether to share this observation with my student teacher. I really want to provide an experience that prepares her to fly solo, equipped with the necessary enthusiasm and excitement to sustain her first year of teaching. Yet, as my own frustration with the current culture grows, I find it difficult to present a balanced view by filtering out some of my own commentary.

I recognize there are a number of policy issues and other factors beyond my control contributing to my current frame of mind, and I’ve been searching for more productive ways to vent my feelings. In an effort to be part of the solution, I have vowed to be more forthcoming with my ideas and put them before those who can make the change. Too often, I find myself sharing my thoughts for reform with a sympathetic colleague rather than administration, central office, and legislators. While these ideas may not always be accepted by those in power, there’s hope for productive conversations and progress. Getting proactive will not only boost my own mental well-being but, hopefully, serve as an effective model for my student teacher.

As we work together to prepare the next generation of teachers, we must consider what skills they will need to face the present and future challenges in education. As veteran teachers, how can we help our initial and pre-service colleagues find their roles as leaders and change agents? What skills will they need to continue the fight for reforms that respect both learning and teaching?

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