Education Teacher Leaders Network

Advice for New High School Teachers

By Kenneth J. Bernstein — September 23, 2009 3 min read

Congratulations. And commiserations. Whether the task upon which you now embark will be a great exploration or a Mission Impossible is not entirely within your control. Because teaching, especially of the adolescents you will encounter within the high school classroom, is a series of overlapping relationships in which you are only one of the players.

Perhaps it is arrogant of me to offer advice. After all, my perspective is shaped by my personal experience. I am probably a very different person than are you. How then can I presume to offer advice to someone I have never met, whose school may have very different characteristics than mine, and, most of all, who brings to her classroom a different life experience than that which I bring to mine? That question contains the seeds of its own answer, and is key to the advice I offer.

High school students are often very much in search of identity. That includes how they relate to other people. They need points of reference. They need situations they can trust, particularly as they are challenged to grow, emotionally as well as intellectually.

I hope you are passionate about your subject. Yes, you may have been given classes that focus on something that would not be your first choice. Yet if you cannot find something exciting about it, how will you engage your students? Why should they exert themselves?

But let me caution—you cannot fake that passion, because adolescents have highly refined B(aloney) S(licing) detectors. If you are not willing to be genuine with them, they may well decide that you do not trust them. Remember that one of your key relationships is between you and each student, and another is between you and the collective of the students in the class, who have another set of relationships with each other.

All of that is independent of the relationships they have with the curricular material—the learning of which is the reason you and they come together. If they decide you do not trust them, why should they take the kinds of risk necessary for maximizing intellectual growth? The risk of being willing to admit when they don’t know, or to take a chance on being wrong? I’m speaking here of the kinds of risk that enable one to recognize the limits of one’s ability and knowledge—something that’s necessary in order to overcome those limits.

And if you want them to admit when they don‘t know, are you willing to model that for them? Because if you want students to respect and trust you, you have to offer them trust and respect— and honesty.

“This above all, to thine own self be true.” So says Polonius to Laertes. Be a real person. A real person cares about those she or he encounters. If you want students to respect you, start by respecting them. Recognize that they have lives and interests beyond your subject, your class. Take the time to find out about those lives and interests, and be willing to acknowledge the success a student has on the stage, in the concert hall, in the community, on the athletic field.

Expect that students will want to know about you. And if you have any kind of life outside of school, they will find out about it via Google—or Facebook if you have a page (I don’t). Decide what you want to share, but be willing to draw some lines. You are, after all, not there to be their friend—at least not until they have left your care, and perhaps not until they leave school for college or work. When all is said and done, you have a responsibility for them that they do not have to have for you.

Most of all, enjoy the opportunity you have been given. You can learn more from them than they do from you. And that will make you a better teacher, and maybe even a better human being.

Ken Bernstein is a National Board-certified teacher in social studies, now beginning his 15th year in this, his final career (at 63). A member of the Teacher Leaders Network, he is also a nationally known blogger on education, politics, and other topics at DailyKos, under the name “teacherken.”