In this season of university graduations, I thought about the advice I’d give to new teachers embarking on their careers:
1) Nothing you learned in education school will prepare you for this. No matter where you did your M. Ed. (or your B.A. if you had an education major at your college), the only experience that will truly prepare you for standing in front of a classroom of kids is...standing in front of a classroom of kids. Doing academic course-work alone isn’t sufficient to make a good teacher, and alas, most education programs are too heavy on theory and too light on practice. Completing your degree isn’t the end of your education--it’s the beginning.
2) Find yourself a mentor teacher. One of the favorite ideas of anti-teacher rhetoric is that somehow all the “old teachers” are burnt out losers who just come to school to collect a paycheck. Wrong. Experienced teachers are the best people to know. They can help you figure out why your lesson isn’t working, maybe even give you their tried-and-true lessons if you’re really gracious, and run interference for you when administrators are out for blood--or when some kid isn’t cooperating. (They’ve probably taught that kid before, and they know his mom’s secret cell phone number. Or better yet, his football coach’s cell phone number.)
3) Find yourself a friend. You need a friend in school: someone to be sympathetic when you come crying because your entire lesson went up in flames during some administrator’s visit to your class (you will have days like that--trust me), to go out for drinks with on the last day before a break, or to text late at night if it suddenly dawned on you that you have professional development the next morning and you can’t remember what time it starts. Some might argue that you shouldn’t socialize with your co-workers, and everyone has their own boundaries, but I’ve found having a network of supportive work-friends to be invaluable in terms of keeping up my morale up and making work enjoyable.
4) Get organized. Something I’ve noticed is that the best teachers tend also to be the most organized. They plan lessons ahead of time, have clear processes and routines in place for their students, and keep up to date on grading so that they can give students updates on their progress. Your life will be easier if you can keep ahead of the curve, and the kids will appreciate it. No matter what, they’ll tell you that you’re giving them too much work, or that it’s boring--but then the one day you DON’T give them “scaffolded notes” to fill in (because the Xerox was broken!), or forget to pass out their work folders at the beginning of class, they’ll say urgently, “Miss! What is wrong with you today? Did you forget that we need our portfolios?” They’ll never admit it, but they love structure and routines.
5) Be yourself. At the beginning of my career, I was told never to smile at the kids until the 3rd week of school. I took this advice to heart, and tried not to smile--and lasted about a minute. Perhaps I’d have been scarier (and a better disciplinarian) if I were able to not smile, but that simply wasn’t me. The kids can sense disingenuousness a mile away, and do not appreciate it. They do appreciate nerdy hilarity: Every morning they come in and make a point of showing me some sort of bright-red processed cheese snacks, I tell them that this color doesn’t occur in nature, they tell me I’m too “obsessed with vegetables,” and I tell them their chips are from the Fisher Price pretend food factory. And they crack up laughing. Every day. Be unapologetically yourself, and find a way to make that work as your “classroom personality.”
6) Don’t listen to haters. Right now, being a teacher is difficult--it seems everyone from the politicians in Washington to the filmmakers in Los Angeles wants to tell us we’re “doing it wrong.” And really, Davis Guggenheim isn’t in your classroom. The kids are. So if you can tell that--by whatever measure you use--they’re meeting learning objectives, and if you’re managing to inject a sense of fun into your class, you’re probably doing just fine.
The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.