Saturday, September 1, 2007

Advice for New Teachers

I was recently honored to become a SCIP (Sarasota County Induction Program) mentor for our middle school, and our homework was to compose a letter to a new teacher. This welcome letter (with some help of Bill Bryson - the opening paragraph is from his book A Short History of Nearly Everything) could have taken many shapes and many forms, but I decided to write some good advice to help a newly hired teacher feel a little more aware of what they were getting themselves into. Your first year of teaching will be forever imprinted on your brain and no matter what, you will never experience a true first year again.

Please note, I have only been in this profession for a short time, and I am by no means claiming to "know it all". I am a life-long learner and I will be the first to admit that I have a lot more learning ahead of me when it comes to being an effective teacher. And one of these days, I just might know what I am doing.

Dear New Teacher,

Welcome, and congratulations. I am delighted that you have made it here, and getting here wasn’t easy. I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now, hundreds of experiences have come together in an intricate and coincidental manner for you to have become an educator. Thousands of dollars have been spent on your education, not to mention the years that have been consumed with homework, research and soul searching to lead you to your desired place in the societal cosmos. For the next many years (we hope!) there will be plenty of more positive experiences necessary to fuel your passion and drive to continue on in this profession.

Why people choose to become a teacher has always been a cause of puzzlement for most who are not in this line of work. Why would anyone want to subject themselves to working late on the weekends, dealing with defiant and rude children all day long and fulfilling a state mandated curriculum within 180 days of school for a salary that seems to be minimal at best? The truth is, teaching is nothing compared to how others people assume it would be. It is a constantly evolving occupation that is exasperating, fulfilling, exhausting, noble, and oh-so-rewarding! I am elated that you have chosen such a valuable line of work and will begin your journey on your very first day, in your very own classroom.

With all of that being said, I want to share some words of wisdom that I have learned and received from the wise sages and fervent gurus of this worthwhile profession.

Know your students. Ask them questions, sit with them at lunch, have students fill out questionnaires or ask them to complete a personal reflection form. You have no idea how much your students “carry with them” everyday – many of your students may have parents going through a divorce, may have a parent in jail or are simply homeless. You have to be sympathetic to what is going on in your students’ lives because school may be the only safe place they have.

Choose your words carefully. Harsh words and degrading remarks can cut a child down with a slip of the tongue or raise them up to the heavens with a kind compliment and a smile. You honestly have no idea how what you say can affect a child for a lifetime. Try talking to students one-on-one when they are being rude or disruptive as opposed to raising your voice and humiliating them. If you are calm, not only will it catch your students off guard and keep you in control by managing your own emotions, but most importantly it demonstrates that you respect them. Many students have had countless negative experiences with other teachers before you, and sometimes, they may feel as if they have never been respected by an adult… ever. According to Henry Brooks Adams, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

Surround yourself with positive people. In every profession there will be individuals who will drag you down with their negative commentary on their students, the other teachers, and even the school in general. John Wooden once said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” Don’t allow those people to influence your attitude and remind you that you are a “young teacher” because you are a valuable asset to the school and are just as important as the teacher who has been teaching for 25 years. Choose educators who love their profession to be your guides, and ask them for advice when things just aren’t going the way you planned. Seek out the positive people in your school and they will listen while providing you with guidance you need most.

Not all children learn the same. Teachers tend to think too much about effective methods of teaching and not enough about effective methods of learning. Since each child is of a different mold, they do not all learn the same way and need to be taught with a variety of methods. If the child is not learning the way you are teaching, then you must teach in the way the child learns.

Reflect on why you are here. Think back to the 3 teachers who had the greatest impact on you as a student, regardless of the grade level in your school experience. Was it a positive or negative experience that affected you? What did they do that made you learn from them? What can you take from those personal learning experiences and apply it to your classroom? Who do you want to be remembered as?

There will be days where you feel as if you aren’t cut out for this demanding job and you question why you even thought you could become an educator. When that self doubt creeps into your mind, I beg you to remind yourself that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that there is an immense amount of opportunity for you to be successful within the education system. Never, ever give up because if this job were easy, everybody could do it! To think that you will be a proficient teacher creating valid assessments and meaningful lessons that fulfill state standards in such a short amount of time would be to insult this demanding and gratifying profession. You will have days that you will crash and burn, but you will find a way to learn from those experiences and continue on because those students need you. Just remember this: You haven’t failed until you have stopped trying.

You have been chosen, by fate or providence or whatever you wish to call it and as far as we can tell, to be employed in the best profession there is. If this letter were to have an objective, it would be that you are lucky to have an opportunity for such a large number of triumphs through teaching the future leaders, doctors, lawyers, police officers and teachers of this country. I wish you the very best of luck as you begin your journey of a thousand success stories, a thousand memories and a thousand friendships.


Suzi said...

I am glad you published this. Reading this letter will be invaluable for teaching colleagues you mentor, those with whom you wish to share your very insightful and respectful core beliefs...and I would also hold this aside for yourself to read again and again.

A professor in my undergraduate program asked us to write a letter explaining our beliefs (but to a hypothetical hiring principal). I refer to it every now and again. It is very comforting to read it and remember from where I came...and where I still want to go. Amazingly, I think, I was pretty smart back then.

I am glad you were chosen to be a SCIP mentor. Beginning teachers need to have positive role models. Without guidance, it is far too easy to "turn to the dark side" due to frustration. It's apparently easy to get sidetracked and lose your way.

I've watched it happen again and again. But I can't imagine it happening to anyone who had the pleasure of working with or around you.


Life long learner's profile said...

I really can't add much to what Suzi said about this wonderful letter you've written. Like Suzi, I too have seen teachers turn to the "dark side." I can't say for sure what exists inside the teachers who chose to seek the light, but whatever it is, you have it. I know you will illuminate a bright path forward for the many teachers you mentor. Our profession is blessed to have you.

Debbie S.