Education Opinion

Against All Odds

By Susan Graham — October 26, 2011 3 min read
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I spent Sunday afternoon talking to a new teacher, Anne Morgan. Anyone who has worked with new teachers is probably familiar with the Phases of First Year Teachers.

True to form, this new teacher feels she is reaching the end of her resources in the survival phase and is careening down the hill into the disillusionment phase. She is in her second month of teaching and is suffering from what mentors sometimes refer to as Black October. I’ve seen it so many times before and it didn’t surprise me. But this was a new experience for a lot of reasons.

I’ve mentored on-line before, but I have never had a mentoring conversation on Skype. I could see the exhaustion in the slump of her shoulders and the near tears in her eyes. I could hear the weary sighs and the tremor in her voice. I kept wishing I could hug the monitor.

It was the first time I had ever mentored an international teacher. She is an American citizen who has world travel experience, and is is fluent in French and functional in Spanish. She had never been in South America before signing up to teach third graders in an English immersion classroom on the coast of Chile.

Most new teachers I work with come through a traditional teacher preparation program. A few are career switchers who went through alternative programs with abbreviated field experiences. Anne did summer session of introductory teacher prep courses; her field experience consisted of babysitting and sporadic substitute teaching.

Like many of the new teachers, Anne is young and just out of college. She is dealing with those experiences associated with a first full-time “grown up” job. In her case, those are complicated with immersion into a new culture. She’s had to deal with immigration regulations and work permits. The job came with housing, but the housing came with two new roommates that she had never met. She has to figure out how get along, how to get around, where to buy things, how to use new currency, and a million other little everyday issues that go with adapting to an unfamiliar country.

Anne didn’t have the luxury of the anticipation phase of first year teaching. She was offered the job on a Monday. She left for Chile the next Saturday. She reported to work the following Monday morning. Why the rush? Because she is a “replacement” teacher. Her Chilean students are beginning their 3rd quarter. Taking on a class mid-year is a challenge for a seasoned veteran--it’s a staggeringly difficult job for a rookie.

Anne’s worried about classroom management. She says they talk too much, but she also says that after a month they are listening more. She is sometimes overwhelmed by parents with high expectations and small concerns, but she makes herself available even when communication is difficult. She says that she struggles to meet the needs of all learners, but she was proud of developing differentiated activities that are beginning to engage her struggling learners. She’s exhausted, but she stays up late trying to planning with lessons and grading papers. She tells me that she wants to scream most days, but that she loves her kids.

So talked about what works and what doesn’t. We identified the issues had a real impact student learning. We explored ways to motivate those reluctant learners. We analyzed which classroom management issues were priorities and which ones might not matter so very much. We enumerated and celebrated her successes--because sometimes new teachers are so concerned about what went wrong that they forget how often it went right. We managed to laugh a little.

She told me that she felt better. I told her how much I love her. No, that’s not standard mentor communication, but there’s one more unique thing about this mentor/mentee relationship. This new teacher, Anne Morgan, isn’t just a new teacher. Annie is my god daughter. I am so proud that she is committed to becoming a teacher who makes a difference and I can only imagine what a challenge this must be. Teaching is such demanding physical, emotional and intellectual work; and it may be the most important and gratifying work there is. Surviving that first year is hard for any teacher. Surviving it against these odds is a Herculean task, but I think she can do it. I hope so, because the the world needs teachers who are willing to make a difference.

A Note to Readers:
In 2007, Teacher Magazine gave me a public voice with A Place at the Table. I’ve retired from my classroom and now it is time to step away from this space and make room for other voices to be heard. I’ve invested a great deal of time an energy as an educator in the pursuing knowledge. Now, in retirement, I think I’m ready to expand that quest. If you have the time and inclination, you are invited to join me In Pursuit of Wisdom.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.