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Taking New-Teacher Advice Beyond Platitudes

By Ben Owens — May 31, 2016 4 min read
"Crazy School of Ed Students"

Have you ever lost an audience? You are speaking passionately about a topic, and all of a sudden you notice that everyone has the “deer in headlights” look? That’s what happened when I was giving a speech recently to a group of graduating teachers. Only it was on purpose.

My speech, “10 Ways to be a Great Teacher ... Leader,” was intended to give a group of pre-service teachers a confidence boost so they might enter their new vocation with the clear-eyed purpose of making an impact, not just in their classrooms, but within the entire education ecosystem. So after engaging the audience with the best motivational tactics I knew, my first recommendation, made with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, was to get some comfy shoes. Based on the underwhelming and confusing response I got, I had clearly succeeded in making my point.

That point was that all teachers, regardless of experience, have a personal responsibility to go beyond conventional wisdom and to elevate our profession by being a leader in everything we do.

I had done a considerable amount of research to prepare for this speech and found dozens of websites devoted to practical tips for new teachers. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority centered on how one needed to be prepared for a difficult first year. There were the standard suggestions about communicating early with parents, scheduling time to plan, being friendly to support staff, and yes, owning a pair of comfortable shoes. And there were other recommendations that caused me to cringe, including never letting students see your weaknesses and not smiling until after December.

Teacher Leaders on Day One

What I began to notice was that while well intended, such advice was primarily centered in a traditional mindset and focused almost exclusively on things within one’s classroom. As someone who came to teaching from a different profession, I also found much of the advice to be unappreciative of the capacity these new educators had to offer. In some cases, the tone was simply patronizing.

What was conspicuously missing, apart from a few notable exceptions, was advice on how these new teachers could be teacher leaders from their first day on the job. I also found that the guidance for new employees in other professions (medicine, law, engineering, etc.) was the expectation to “bring it” by making a notable impact from day one. It should be noted that I did not find footwear included as part of any advice given to employees new to these professions.

Let me reiterate that I am not trying to diminish the value of the advice veteran teachers offer to those new to our profession. Much of it, even when traditional in nature, is from hard-earned experience and helps new teachers handle the pressures of their first few years in the classroom. But advice to new educators must also recognize and leverage the fresh perspective and unique expertise this new workforce brings to the table. In addition to tips on how to make nice bulletin boards, we need to enable this generation of teachers to lead with the same kind of innovative excellence a high-tech company would expect from a new software engineer.

Beyond the Traditional Mindset

What were the teacher-leadership examples I suggested in my speech? In summary, they included building a vibrant face-to-face and virtual network of peers, being an unpretentious expert of one’s content, being willing to fail forward in front of students, recognizing how to connect content to things each student cares about in the real world, knowing and using teaching and technology best practices, focusing on reflective continuous improvement in everything you do, being a model of true and visible professionalism for your school, and most important, letting your voice be heard in your school, community, and at the policy table. Based on the enthusiastic response I got, my message seemed to have struck a nerve. I list my 10 strategies in detail in my blog post “10 Keys to Being a Great New Teacher … Leader!”

It was never my intent to offer an exhaustive list of things pre-service teachers can do to be teacher leaders. My desire was for this audience to leave with a sense of liberation from a traditional mindset that can directly or indirectly undervalue what they have to offer, so they could enter their new schools with a confident moral authority to be true leaders in their classrooms and beyond.

If we want an educational system that is nimble and responsive to the needs of all students, especially in today’s global, information-rich environment, then we must give equal voice to the unique thinking new teachers have to offer. More than lip service, we must empower them to challenge the status quo and use their ideas to counter the “we’ve always done it that way” approach to what we do. It is my firm belief that when teachers—seasoned veterans to those in their first day on the job—are bold leaders who model excellence in everything they do, we tap into the true capacity to make our educational system the best it can possibly be for each student we serve. All teachers, including this year’s graduating class of new teachers, need to be fully committed to making this change a reality—with or without comfy shoes.

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