Surviving the first year of teaching.
With fear and trepidation, wondering what had possessed me to jump into the teaching profession, I began my first year as a math teacher at a local high school in August of 2002. Who could blame me for the knot I felt in my stomach? The well had been adequately poisoned: tales of new teachers crying themselves to sleep every night; the American public bemoaning the erosion of classroom discipline; media coverage of rampant disrespect on the part of students, matched by callous indifference on the part of parents. The accepted “fact” about education had become that students just aren’t being taught in schools anymore. The entire public school system was, in short, on its way to hell in a hand basket.
Yep, being able to read can be a double-edged sword, and I had read it all. What had I gotten myself into?
With that first year now in the rear-view mirror, I can happily relate that there were no tears on my part. Neither were there any meltdowns with students or pitched combat with parents. My students were engaged, and even learned some math. Gee, did I miss something? Were there really any students in my classroom? What made my ride such a smooth one? It was certainly not my svelte presentations, my deep grasp of subject matter, my charm, or my after-shave lotion. The difference, I believe, came from the following supports and balances:
A strong mentor program. Our county school system has an effective mentoring system in place. A seasoned teacher saddles up alongside a tenderfoot and works with the new teacher to explain the nuances of the profession, from sharing good ideas to alerting him or her to potential land mines. The district provides both mentors and “mentees” with booklets of monthly checksheets to ensure that the plethora of mechanics, policies, procedures, and programs is reviewed and understood. Administration at the county level is keenly aware that you don’t get what you expect, but what you inspect. Each member of the teaching duo is required to complete his or her own checksheet, much as a pilot completes a preflight check, then sign and submit this review of topics being discussed that month to the county office. Many businesses could benefit from emulating such a program in their orientation for new employees.
- A strong mentor. Even the best mentor program would, if poorly executed, be just a travesty. I was fortunate that my own mentor, in her approach to me, modeled much of what I needed to know about how to deal with the students in my classroom. She showered me with genuine concern for my well-being, regular “how goes it” checks, as well as her in-depth knowledge of the profession, mastery of the subject matter, and great sense of humor. By properly second-guessing a course of action I might take concerning an incident in class or a discipline problem, she provided great counsel on a range of options I had perhaps not considered. Her mentoring was as a peer, based on mutual respect, and never as a superior deigning to help a mere mortal. And she set the bar high for me, holding me ultimately accountable for my actions.
- A supportive department. Not once did I hear from my fellow teachers, “Hey, if you need anything, just ask.” And this is good? Sure, because their approach was proactive, not reactive. During my first “prep days” before school started, a stream of experienced math teachers walked into my room, handed me a piece of paper with a diskette, and said: “This is what I use for (whatever). ... Feel free to adapt it, adopt it, or chuck it. It might give you something to go on.” Now that’s support, that’s teamwork. I was so new, that I didn’t even know what to ask for. Teachers “bequeathed” me months’ worth of lesson plans, pacing guides, worksheets, and transparencies. Believe me, it’s often easier to modify a plan than to create one from scratch.
There were many pieces in place, working in consonance, to make my first year as a newbie teacher a tearless one.
As I continued into my teaching year, this same cadre of professionals was filling my inexperience gaps with oral traditions, cameos of discipline incidents, and outcomes and projections of certain policy issues, adding to my reservoir of basic teacher “stuff.” The catty, petty, “teachers’ lounge” gossip portrayed in cheap movies and nightmares was not to be found. Instead, plenty of great jokes, good food, camaraderie, and deepening of professional and subject-matter knowledge were the norm.
- A supportive administration. An awesome teaching team at any school needs great coaching, visionary leaders, good managers, and fair-minded disciplinarians. The front-office staff contributed to freedom of expression, support of innovative ideas, direction of focus and goal-setting, and unreserved commitment to the support of their teachers. Leadership calls for energy, intellect, the ability to listen to others, and a strong sense of purpose. That coalesced in the administrative group leading our team.
- Supportive parents. Education is not a two-dimensional dance between teacher and students. Effective learning by students requires a delicate balance of teacher-student-parent or guardian input and action. From the outset of each semester, I contacted every household as a form of introduction and parental or guardian contact. The reaction was unanimously positive; up-front support by parents and guardians made it clear to students that not only were there to be effective engagements in the classroom, but also equally effective monitoring and support on the homefront.
So, there were many pieces in place, working in consonance, to make my first year as a “newbie teacher” a tearless one. If this pattern could become the norm in public schools across the country, I’m willing to bet that the handbasket bound for the netherworld could be turned around pretty quickly.
No, Virginia, all is not lost.
Robert Kirk is a high school mathematics teacher in Concord, N.C.