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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Letter to a New Teacher

By Peter DeWitt — December 19, 2011 5 min read
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Last week, as I got ready to end the week and begin the weekend, I said goodbye to the eight pre-service teachers who ended their student teaching experience in our building. They handed me thank you cards, and the classrooms where they spent their experience had parties to provide closure to the whole experience. Many of them would be graduating and looking for jobs in a market that can be challenging. Others made plans to continue their education to pursue a graduate degree.

Our school participated in a program with Sage College of Albany. We were considered a professional development school and agreed to take eight pre-service teachers in exchange for professional development for staff, as well as the opportunity to provide the real-life experience these young people need. Their student teaching supervisor spent at least one day a week in our school and provided a weekly seminar for them.

As they walked out of my office I began to think about all of the pre-service teachers who have come and gone, and wondered what their impact will be on our students. I also wondered whether they would have the opportunity to make an impact on students because many had specific choices about where they wanted to teach, and most of those choices were in a suburban school district, where there are not a great deal of job opportunities.

Advice from a Mid-Career Administrator
Do your best to have that positive influence. Hard work, when done correctly and respectfully, can take you far. It does not always matter how smart you are but it does matter how well you treat people. Whether you student teach, substitute teach or you are fortunate enough to find a job where you have a classroom of your own, make sure you always treat people with the respect they deserve, no matter whether they are the custodian, cafeteria worker, teacher or principal.

Over the past few years we have seen troubling times in education. There tends to be more of a conversation around unions than there are around good teaching and making a difference. As a teacher, there will always be positive and negative media conversations about education. Don’t let that weigh you down. Your job is to be concerned about making a difference in your classroom, school and community. However, joining organizations like Save Our Schools and being involved in the national conversation about education will help you further your career as well.

This is an exciting time in education because there is a strong grass roots effort to make teaching about students and learning and not about achieving AYP on high stakes testing. We are seeing a strong push toward 21st Century Skills that are going to make our students career and college ready. Don’t be fooled by terms like 21st Century Skills because when you get wrapped up by a term you do not always take it seriously. Our students need to work collaboratively and communicate in various ways. Always make sure that you are providing these opportunities to students.

Having students for seven hours of a day in one classroom with desks in tidy little rows is no longer going to be the norm. It may have been how you were taught but you need to change your thinking. Allow students to have a voice in your classroom, even if you do not always like what they are saying. If we want students to stand up against the inequalities of the world, then we must teach them how to stand up in our classrooms.

As much as I cared about getting a job and making ends meet because I put myself through college, I was also concerned about making a difference with kids and adults on a daily basis. I began my career as a part time teacher at a small private school for boys, and after a year and a half of working three jobs because the kids made more in their allowance than I did in my salary, I found a job teaching first grade in a city school.

After four years with the school district I moved to Albany and received a job in another small city school. The city school system not only appealed to me because it was a challenge, it taught me about life. Those kids deserve the same kind of education every rural, suburban and urban child deserves. If you have the goal to be a teacher in a suburban school, try to be open to teaching in a city school. It can be life changing.

You need to connect with students who struggle, both emotionally and academically, and you will meet parents who come from very diverse backgrounds, some of which you may never know existed. I met parents who were prostitutes, drug dealers, and many who just struggled to make ends meet. Although you may not agree with what some parents do, you are not there to judge, you are there to teach. Their children deserve more in life and it is our job to give them the tools necessary to succeed.

One of the best philosophies you can learn in education is that of servant leadership. It was introduced to us in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf. Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations and classrooms by giving attention to the needs of their colleagues, students and those they serve. In order to be a servant leader, one needs to listen, empathize, heal, be aware, believe in individual growth and help build a community. These are the qualities that we all look for in educators when we are hiring for our schools.

Being an educator is so much more than just teaching in a classroom, although that is where a majority of your energy should be channeled. Being an educator is also about making a difference in your school by creating opportunities for all students, not just the ones in your classroom. It is also about making a difference in your community.

Many school districts are looking at millions of dollars in cuts during this fiscal crisis, and some of those cuts come in the form of extra-curricular activities, which is the reason why many students come to school. I strongly believe that the extra-curricular activities offered to students are vitally important to their education. However, how do we make everything that happens during the school day the thing they come to school for? That will be your job. Give them something to come to school for and be the person they remember for all of the right reasons.

Never forget that all students deserve opportunities in life, no matter whether they have struggled or come from a home life that you cannot imagine exists. It is your job to make a difference for that child, and I hope you get the opportunity to do it because if you get to teach children your life will never be the same.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.