Dear young teacher,
I am retired from schools, after 42 years in the classroom, grades K-12. In the second half of my career, I ended up mentoring a number of young first-year teachers. In general, that went very well, so I thought I would share some ideas about what made it work. Also, I participated in and led a retreat for beginning teachers for fifteen years. That gave me a chance to hear from and interact with hundreds of youths who were new to the profession, so I am familiar with some of the issues they often face.
That said, I am well aware that every teacher is different, every school is different, every community is different. So, as you read this post, discard anything that does not apply to your situation. (In fact, that is always a good policy when reading about teaching!)
The first thing I need to say is how much it lifts the spirits of your older colleagues to have you join our profession. To us, you represent the future, and we can’t wait to see what you bring to your students, and to all of us. Unfortunately, as you enter this system, you are the victim of a basic flaw in its design: from day one, you are expected to do the same job as those of us with ten, twenty, or thirty years of experience. No wonder you’re swamped! This job never gets easy, but it does get a lot easier than it is in the first year or two. You will never have to struggle as much as you’re struggling now. Your main goal is to survive your first year or two in the classroom.
Manage Your Time
As you no doubt have noticed, being a teacher requires you to work well past the end of the school day. That is inevitable. But you need to stay healthy, and develop habits that make the job sustainable in the long run. Here are some suggestions:
- Organize the week. If you take some time on Sunday to draft a plan for all five days, your evenings will be much more manageable, as all you’ll have to do is tweak the plan you sketched on Sunday, based on what actually happens in the classroom. You’ll also save time because planning all five days forces you to spend less time on each day. All this will add up to less stress overall.
- Do no school work at all on Saturday, ever.
- Schedule a sufficient amount of sleep and exercise. Don’t go to work if you’re sick. Your students need you to get better.
Naturally, these are just guidelines. The underlying principle is that you are just as important as your students, and you need to take care of yourself.
Grading and Standardized Tests
Do not let grading destroy you. Some things to think about, within what your school allows:
- Not everything needs to be graded!
- If you must grade something, be efficient.
- You might assess homework with a quick look (0 = not done. 1 = some work. 2 = great job. Or some other system, as long as it does not take an inordinate amount of time).
- On quizzes and tests, you could just circle mistakes, without writing anything. (Will students read what you write? Will they heed it? Often, the answer is no.) Find ways to support individual students in learning from their mistakes, and adjust your lesson plans and future assessments to address common misconceptions.
Remember: When you’re grading, you’re working for one student at a time. When you’re planning, you’re working for the whole class. Plan your time accordingly.
As for standardized tests: stressing about those will tend to undermine actual learning. If you must engage in test prep, do not let it take over everything. There is no way you or any single teacher can compensate for social inequalities or for students’ past experiences. As much as possible, stick to your beliefs and values.
Be the Adult
If you recently graduated from college, high school students will love that about you: you are young! There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s probably unavoidable. Still, you must absolutely avoid the temptation to be “friends” with your students. You need to be the adult. Your job is to make sure they learn, not to make sure they perceive you as cool.
This does not require you to be mean! Never use humiliation or sarcasm when addressing students. But you do need to be consistent and fair about establishing and enforcing classroom norms —those benefit all students, even if they make you worry about being unpopular. If a student is out of line, take appropriate action — avoid issuing warnings. (Those come across as empty threats, and they end up undermining your authority.)
A few years down the line, you’ll see that students come and go. You should have a warm relationship with them, or at any rate a professional relationship — and you may well in some cases make a deeper connection. In any case, you should be sure to also value the relationships with other adults in your community.
You are who you are. That is a crucial gift to your students. Let your enthusiasm for your discipline show, at the risk of seeming nerdy. Let your values show, without attempting to indoctrinate your students. Outside of class, you can share your passions: sports, movies, music, but do not talk about your social or home life with students.
You are who you are. You do not know everything. No teacher does. It’s OK to say “I don’t know. I’ll look into it.” It is even a good thing to be wrong, sometimes, and admit it. “Oops. I was wrong. It happens.” Your classroom should be a place where anyone can be wrong, teacher or student — it is a necessary stage on the path to being right!
You will learn a lot in coming years, about your discipline, about teaching, about how kids learn. That is what makes the job interesting over the long run. But it cannot be rushed.
When a student or a group goes off task, instead of berating them, I find it works best to just remind them to “focus!”. The same advice applies to teachers: we are pulled in many directions. We can best address the challenges we face if we focus and prioritize. This is even more true for a beginning teacher, but it applies to all of us. Here are some suggestions:
- Set attainable goals, and forgive yourself if you don’t reach them.
- If at all possible, concentrate on improving one course at a time.
- Add one teaching technique at a time to your repertoire.
- This year, do not volunteer for more tasks beyond teaching your classes. If possible, say no when asked to do such things.
There’ll be plenty of time to continue your growth in future years. Every once in a while, think about why you got into this line of work. Remind yourself that you’ll get to start over with new students next term, or next year, and every year. Everything you learn now will help all your future students, and you are learning more than you realize. If you have the energy for that, make some notes about today’s classes: what worked, what didn’t. Those will be handy next time you teach that material. If you don’t have the energy for that, don’t worry, you can start doing it next year.
Finally, in spite of the fact that every day you stand alone in front of your students, remember that collaboration with other adults is what will help you grow. Visit other teachers’ classes if you can arrange that. You’ll get lots of ideas that way. Seek out buddies (other young teachers) and mentors (any experienced teachers willing to help you.) Talk to them frequently: they know the school, they know the culture, they know the administrators — and they are there every day. They are best placed to support you. They can help you prioritize: what are the big ideas in this unit? How does it connect to what the students have seen before? To what they will see later?
As time passes, you can expand your horizons and learn from books, conferences, professional development workshops, and the internet: you have joined not just a school, but a profession.
Not unrelated: Mentoring Young Teachers
1 thought on “Dear Young Teacher”
A correspondent writes:
I agree with so much of what you wrote, especially the idea that new colleagues are a source of joy and hope and renewal. I always feel grateful to be able to watch beginning teachers grow and flourish, and I learn so much from their ideas – thank you!
I also appreciated your notion that bringing our authentic selves to our classrooms is a gift to students. Treating kids with authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability is a way to show them how much we trust and respect them.
I’d also like to share some thoughts about being the adult. I agree with your advice: We have the absolute moral responsibility to do whatever we can, with reason, to help each student learn – and also to grow in their personal and academic identities. We can’t do that if we don’t take responsibility as adults.
But after that, I think you lost me. The “friends” option feels like a straw man to me. I don’t think students want us to pretend to be their peers. I think students want us to connect with them, but also to be the person educating them. But the deeper the connection (without ever losing my identity as their teacher), the more academic good I think I can do.
The last paragraph struck a note that left me sad. The idea of students coming and going is clearly right (although social media means I am in regular contact with students now in their 40s), and my relationships with adults have become essential to me, but I don’t stay in teaching because of them. I stay because I have grown to a point where I know my power to help students find new narratives about themselves as scholars and as people.
We all have students we fail with, those we do enough for, and those whose lives we impact in ways we might never fully know. The latter comes not from a mere warm relationship. And knowing I have a steady stream of them is more sustaining than the power of all the wonderful colleagues I have had, at least in terms of staying in the profession.