Education Opinion

‘I Don’t Want To Look Dumb’

By Virginia S. Wilson — April 01, 1990 4 min read

“Why won’t those first-year teachers ask for some help or take advice?” Thanks to a chain of circumstances that began with the birth of my child, I learned the answer to that question. Let me explain.

After teaching for six years, I stopped when my child arrived. When I returned four years later, I was the new kid on the block in a high school that was very different from the one I left. At my former school I had taught students who were highly motivated and college bound. In the new one, many of my students seemed almost moribund. To complicate things even more, I arrived in midyear, unsure of where the students had been and where I was going.

Luckily, my re-entry was made easier by an experienced colleague who shared both ideas and materials. She helped me realize that my previously successful emphasis on lecture and discussion was simply inadequate for reaching students in this new setting. I would need high-interest activities to make the study of history relevant and more alive.

This young teacher and I began what could best be described as both dialogue and dialectic. As she presented ideas that worked for her, and I talked about what had worked for me, we realized that we could learn from each other, and together we generated new ideas and methods. I became aware of how much I enjoyed having an adult colleague to talk with and to help me broaden my perspective beyond that of my own classroom.

The next year, when I became chair of the social studies department at the school, I was determined to provide that sharing experience to new teachers so that they, too, could enjoy and profit from collaboration with experienced colleagues. The school was near several major research universities, so we were able to attract some outstanding young teachers whose vigor and innovation complemented the veteran teachers’ sense of reality and know-how.

To my surprise, first-year teachers were not always as eager to receive help as I was to give it. My offers to share ideas and lesson plans were sometimes politely, but almost always firmly, rebuffed. In an effort to understand this phenomenon, I sought out a colleague who had refused help his first year but who willingly accepted suggestions from me and others in his second. He was very enlightening.

He explained that a first-year teacher, in the midst of preparing several brand-new courses and trying to bridge the gap between being a student and being a teacher, does not want to appear inexperienced and unknowledgeable. In fact, the first-year teacher often does not even know what questions to ask. As I reflected on these comments, I realized that they applied to both the “best” and the “lightest” first-year teachers.

After talking to other teachers and thinking more about the problem, I realized there was an additional reason why first-year teachers often refused help: Some considered themselves current in educational theory and on the “cutting edge” of innovative ways to teach, and they sometimes saw veteran teachers as too strict, too structured, and too stale.

Interestingly enough, I also found that a shift in attitude seemed to occur for many new teachers during the summer between the first and second years of teaching. Second-year teachers seemed to realize that a teacher is a perpetual learner who cannot solve all of education’s problems and become the savior of education singlehandedly.

I decided that I had two choices in dealing with first-year teachers: wait for them to become second-year teachers, or prime the pump. I chose the latter, and this pump priming took four forms. First, in department meetings the more experienced teachers, not entirely spontaneously, raised questions about content, teaching strategies, homework, extracurricular responsibilities, and professional-development opportunities. In this setting, the right questions led to a free and lively exchange of ideas between experienced teachers and first-year teachers. Conversely, at other designated meetings, the discussion centered around “cutting edge” issues, with the new teachers being invited to make informal presentations. A third way to break down the barriers was to have new and old teachers work together on projects such as grants or a common syllabus. Finally, we had department members attend professional meetings together and, when appropriate, present workshops.

Because of our sharing experiences, a bond and a closeness developed among many of us that has not been forgotten. Many an afternoon we sat and tossed around innovative and exciting ways to teach history. Those years were some of my happiest in teaching--and some of the most rewarding. Many of the teachers moved on, as I did, but the helpfulness of the experience at that school eventually led me and one of the other teachers to write articles, publish materials, and conduct workshops, sharing our knowledge with others.

Teaching as a shared endeavor can appear to be a threat to first-year teachers. But with some care and planning, new and veteran teachers can sit down together and pool both their ignorance and their wisdom. The result can be a quantum leap in the teaching abilities of all.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as ‘I Don’t Want To Look Dumb’