Thursday, June 20, 2013

List: Advice for New Teachers

It's been a week now since I made the decision to take on the role of principal at our high school, and the past few weeks have been a whirlwind of mixed emotions.  The end of June, with students and most staff gone from our site, is a surreal time anyway, with a few of us rattling around the office finishing up projects, hiring new staff, and planning for next year.  I'm straddling two roles for now, anticipating the official change in my title on July 1.  I am hoping to be through most of the mental transition by then.

Last Wednesday, on the day I met with the superintendent to confirm my decision, I was scheduled to take some new San Diego Teach for America teachers to dinner as part of a TFA mentoring program for new corps members.  The fact that I would be encouraging some of the newest members of our profession at the same time I accepted a new role myself made the evening more poignant.  I was reminded to listen to myself, too, as I spoke to the nervous, excited, curious teachers before me. 

Some encouraging thoughts for new educators:

1.  Be Real:  One of the new teachers asked me if she should admit to her students that she was nervous--or if that would undermine her authority in the classroom.  Every teacher brings his/her personality, with areas of strength and vulnerability, into the classroom.  I learned early on in teaching, and again when I left the classroom to become assistant principal, that I could only be myself, and to capitalize on the parts of me that helped me relate well with others in my role.  Attempting to adopt a false persona would be too much work and lead to mistrust and wariness among students.  Being real means showing your human side to your students and colleagues.  Acknowledging vulnerability is an invitation for students to embrace their own, a key component of an exciting learning environment. All of that said, balance sharing your personality with getting down to business.  Students know--and don't approve--when teachers make it all about them.  You are not the point; they are.

2.  Ask for Help:  No one expects you to know everything.  A most reassuring response from someone who is in charge and lacking an answer is an honest "I don't know but I will find out."  Rely on colleagues and beg, borrow, and steal ideas and strategies that make sense to you.  Ask questions--you won't appear weak or clueless, just invested.  Your students know a lot too about how things work at your new school; rely on them.

3.  Throw Them a Bone:  My best teaching and lesson-planning advice boils down to this:  students are excited by a classroom which offers intriguing stimuli and opportunities to interact.  Your daily lessons should include offering something for students to chew on, explore, investigate, discuss, question, probe, analyze.  With proper planning and support, you are then in the enviable position of observing brains in action and hearing insights as you wander the room answering questions and providing guidance.  Resist the urge to make learning a transaction between you, teacher-body, and them, whole-class body.  Make it more dynamic by removing yourself one degree.  Example: you can stand in front of the class and analyze a poem with their input,  or you can hand them the poem and see what they do individually and collaboratively.  Offer additional support or challenging questions in summary.  I mean, you wouldn't lead them on a scavenger hunt, right?  You'd send them off with hints.

4.  You Can't Stay on Top of It All:  Own it.  While you owe it to your students to return work and provide feedback in a timely fashion, balancing grading and planning is tricky business and you're likely to try to do too much at first.  Remember you don't need to grade everything.  We don't get credit for everything in life; some exercises are for practice or for us to understand ourselves better.  From time to time you won't have the essays graded when you promised them; they won't have their homework.  Model for students the importance of honesty and no excuses:  I had another priority.  I didn't finish grading last night.  It's not the end of the world.  Don't make it a habit.  Be smart about your time.

5.  Remain an Interesting Person:  Maintain balance in your life by investing in your hobbies (and sharing them with students).  Mine knew I loved running, writing poetry, and Africa.  I know teachers who bring in homemade food to share, talk about the books they're reading, recommend hiking sites, and play guitar for students.  Demonstrate your own passion for your subject and pursuits.  It's inspiring to students.

6.  Earn Classroom Respect Your Way:  Capitalize on your strengths.  As a new teacher I heard everything from "Don't smile till Christmas" to "Kick the trash can across the room on the first day to show them who's boss."  Yeah, no.  Those strategies were never going to work for me, and nevertheless, I even became a vice principal.  Respect is the foundation for a safe and well-functioning community.  Establish it, demonstrate it, and insist on it, with clear boundaries and expectations.  Each teacher does this differently.  When you encounter a community breakdown or have the need to make adjustments, don't feel it's ever too late.  Honest dialogue and student feedback can help you recalibrate.  Humble yourself.

7.  Delight in the Joy and Magic of the Classroom:  You've Committed to an Amazing Profession.  As an administrator I know if I want to have a good day, the trick is visiting a few classrooms, where wise and inspiring teachers are creating exciting moments for students.  Students and teachers alike share brilliant, funny, deep, insightful, problem-solving, and provocative nuggets all day long, and you are part of the action every day.  Relationships with students and your discipline will enrich your life in ways you haven't imagined.  It's a tough, often heartbreaking profession, but it's a privilege.


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