First Person

Letter to an Aspiring Teacher

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Dear Aspiring Teacher,

I understand that you have decided to make teaching your career. You have taken all the educational classes and you are ready to mold young minds. I hope you will allow me to share with you what teaching is really like. I would like to do this not to dissuade you from teaching or convince you that it is right for you. I would just like to share with you some of the daily facts that come with a teaching life.

I hope you have learned all the modifications possible for students with special needs because every class you have will be filled with a variety of students. You will need strategies for students with attention deficit, handwriting issues, behavior problems, and dysfunctional homes. Of course, the students who are not struggling will be too distracted by the students who are struggling to perform up to their potential.

When you enter the class ready to impart your pearls of wisdom, you have to understand that there are about a million things that are more important to your students than what you have to tell them. Just when you think you have a lesson plan that will capture their attention, you realize that their attention is only yours for two minutes. And that is on a good day.

You will try your best to give clear instructions, but the interactions will unfold like this:

Teacher: Put the paper in your folder.
Student 1: Where do we put the paper?
Teacher: Put the paper in your folder.
Student 2: Do we give you the paper?
Teacher: Put the paper in your folder.
Student 3: Do we throw away the paper?
Teacher: Put the paper in your folder.

You get the idea. Teaching something on a deeper level suddenly seems like an insurmountable task. You will try to give each student as much attention as possible, but while you are helping one child the other eighteen children will start calling your name. Yes, even when they see you actively trying to help someone else. By the end of the day you won’t want to hear your name for a very long time. (I have had days when I lingered in the staff bathroom just because the peace and quiet was so exquisite.) You will have students give you more information about their personal life than you are prepared for.

Be prepared for the parents who e-mail you two page e-mails daily about their children and expect instant replies even though you have not stopped since 8 o’clock that morning.

You will write the assignment on the board, hand out an assignment sheet, and post it on the class Web site, and students will enter your class saying, “I didn’t know we had homework.”

On the other hand, you can be the one stabilizing force in the life of a child with a chaotic home. You can be the one to make a child feel special. You can convince a child that she can do or be anything. You can watch countless student faces light up when they realize that they really do understand. You can connect with a child and make a difference. All of this outweighs the stress and strain of teaching.

On a good day teaching is stressful, tiring, demanding, and amazingly rewarding. Although there are days when you feel like tearing out your hair, there is one major reason to teach: The children need you. It makes a huge difference if you can see the humor when you are struggling. Laughter is strong medicine for just about anything. Keep a sense of humor about all the other stuff, and realize that you can make a difference.

Good luck!


A veteran teacher still aspiring to make a difference

P.S. If I had to come up with a list of tips for a new teacher, this is what it would be:

• Never be afraid to ask questions of veteran teachers.
• Discipline with a sense of humor, never sarcasm.
• Document your interactions with students.
• Try not to be pulled into negativity. This includes mindless griping about colleagues or school policy.
• Understand you can be a student’s advocate, but not their buddy.
• Over plan for class and always have a plan-b. Be flexible and realize that sometimes you have to change your plans to fit the moment.
• Keep teaching outside of the class; be a good role model.
• Be organized. Use notebooks.
• Always expect a little more from your students than they expect from themselves.
• Show your students the same respect that you would want them to show you. Make sure they show the same respect to each other. When my students say something disrespectful, I say “cancel.” This is their signal to stop.
• Fulfill the same expectations that you demand of your students. Hand back homework in a timely way and be on time for class.
• Make your classroom user friendly. Decorate it with subject-related materials. Display student work.
• Do not let work consume every minute of your day. Make time to follow other passions and get enough rest.
• Find time to brainstorm with colleagues or just to listen to what they are doing in their classes.
• Realize that you always have something to learn and improve.
• Know your students and become good at reading emotions. Some of our students are coping with more than we can imagine. Meet your students at the door and let them know that you care and are there to listen.
• When you speak with students or colleagues, give them your full attention. Stop doing e-mail. Put away the cell phone. Interact fully with another human being.
• When you make mistakes, admit it, apologize, forgive yourself, and move on.

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