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New Teachers: Welcome to the Profession

August 6, 2014

All across Oklahoma, teachers are finishing their vacations, earning some last-minute professional development points, and putting their classrooms together. They may not be on contract, but many are already putting in the time. Their commitment may not be completely visible to parents, students, and those who never set foot in schools, but their colleagues and administrators surely notice.

There is another group getting ready for the school year right now: new teachers. Yes, there are still college graduates in their early 20s entering the profession, just as there are people transitioning careers later in life and becoming educators. This group needs our respect and support as well.

I don’t know if I’d be the best person to stand up in front of a group of new teachers and motivate them, but if I had that opportunity, I’d dig deep into my memory and try to remember how I felt, at age 22, when I started teaching. Actually, I’d dig into a file that I’ve carried around since the end of my student teaching semester. Inside is a two-page paper I wrote a long time ago titled, “My Educational Philosophy.”

I probably shouldn’t include the whole dot-matrix thing for two key reasons:

  1. Some of what I wrote would be too revealing. At that point, I would basically be holding my hands in front of my eyes and yelling, “You can’t see me!”
  2. I have a much better command of language now. Some is definitely better than all.

Instead, I’ll include a few excerpts of younger blogger with some commentary from today. Bear with me; I’m trying something new here.

Students and teachers alike rarely take the time to reflect on the purpose of education. “Why are we here?” Presumably, school prepares its students for life – all aspects of it. To better prepare students for the world beyond school, the education process should teach students the learning process, effectively model communication skills, and promote a sense of self-awareness.

That’s how I perceived school at 22. I thought I was the only reflective person around. I now know differently. Yes, on a given day, we all may be caught up in the details of our lives, suffocating under pressure and demands. We may even have long stretches of times when our jobs don’t exactly look like we pictured them. Still, we must take the time to consider the impact we have in our jobs. For some reason though, we keep coming back. Most first-year teachers become second-year teachers. (And yes, I used the word process twice in the same sentence. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that.) Oh, and apparently, I was thinking in terms of College and Career Readiness decades ago. I should have trademarked it way back when.

Not to be overlooked is the importance of analysis on a job. An employee with the ability to take apart a situation and understand it is likely to advance in his/her workplace. Without this ability, the worker stays running in place for forty years without a promotion.

Maybe what I was trying to describe then, without exactly having the life experience to explain it well, was initiative. Just as we don’t want students to hit their peak in high school, we don’t want adults to top out their first year in whatever careers they choose. There’s nothing in the world wrong with being content, but most of us want more. And when you feel stalled, you want to have options. That’s the power that a good education provides. You should be prepared for more than one thing. Sometimes your dreams change. Sometimes your circumstances change.

Teachers should show students that they can hear as well as speak. One of the largest gaps in communication is between people who do not listen to others. Sometimes teachers are even guilty of this. When this is the case, students observe the behavior and may adopt it for themselves. A teacher who does not listen to the students does not give them a model to encourage them to listen to each other. Listening to each other will produce cooperation, which is a communication skill in and of itself. By showing the students that their input is valuable, the teacher will receive more of it and be more credible in the students’ eyes.

This was far more important to me at the end of my student teaching experience than it was at the beginning. I actually had thought the entire room was just going to be in awe of my decision to be there. I quickly learned otherwise. During those four months, and every year that has passed since then, I have learned new ways to show children and adults that I value their opinion. I don’t necessarily know what each child needs. I do know some things that they don’t know, and I do know that there are some parts of their future they haven’t even considered yet. I also understand that it’s okay to wonder. It’s even ok to wander. No six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen year-old needs to have the future entirely planned out. At 22, I thought I did, and it’s safe to say that my career has been a very different journey than I what I thought it would be.

Most importantly, schools should encourage students to get to know themselves better. A young mind is creative (not that older minds are not). Sometimes, teachers force students to put this aspect of themselves away. Assignments are often too rigid to allow for the students’ curiosity and creativity. If this natural ability to stand apart from a crowd is stunted, students lose a critical tool for all of life.

I think what I was trying to say in this word salad was that too often, we put kids in a box. We put our whole class in a box. We don’t think about the work we assign students and why it might not interest them. And this was before the age of hyper-standardization and high-stakes testing.

Confidence and self-esteem are traits of leaders – people who are secure enough in themselves to follow their own desires and not be pressured into the traps of the world. Life has plenty of obstacles and school can’t point them all out. It can prepare students to face them on their own and wisely.

As a new teacher, you’re going to be faced with decisions you’ve never had before. It will be a year of firsts, and at times, this may overwhelm you. When you do stop to reflect, however, ask yourself if you’re helping the students you see gain or lose confidence. I would never suggest sugar-coating the truth or minimizing the importance of standards. However, every teacher, every school, and every district should be all about building leaders. We do that by finding out what interests our students and running our schools with that in mind.

Ideally, a school would do all of these things and much more. As a future teaching professional, I plan to see that any student who sits in my classroom has the analytical, communication, and self-awareness skills to get through life. That isn’t to say I will always succeed, but if I can know myself as well as I try to teach my students to know themselves, I’ll do my share. I chose this career because I wanted to have a hand in the preparation of the next generations of leaders, workers, parents, and citizens. School only has a role in preparing students for life, but that role has to be played to its potential for students to achieve theirs.

Can you tell I wanted my students to be self-aware? It’s subtle. After years in the classroom and following trend after trend of education policy, my advice now to new teachers is quite simple.

Make. Lives. Better.

Work hard and contribute something. Be the first teacher that some student has ever liked. Don’t try to measure everything. Take pictures of the first group of students you teach and look at them from time to time. Make friends at work and defend your profession fiercely. Treasure your mentors. Cherish what you do. Most importantly, if you ever get to the point that you don’t love working for the children every day, leave. And if that’s the path you choose, leave on the highest note possible.

All you can do right now is work hard and make a difference. Somebody must have done that in your life, or you wouldn’t be here now. If it’s possible, thank that person. Teachers never get tired of that.

Bart Simpson

Oh, and don’t worry about that first paycheck. It gets better.

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  1. Bec
    August 7, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Welcome to education, New Teachers! When you become overwhelmed, remember why you became a teacher. I am starting my thirty-second year and I still love my students; I still look forward to every day. I hope every one of you feel this way in 32 years.

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  2. Bill Guy
    August 7, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Such excellent advice. I wish I had kept more photos and journal notes of my early teaching days. I sometimes cringe at things I remember from those early years, though. Thankfully, I think I have learned many valuable lessons along the way myself. And I guess that’s how it is . . . you do the best you can at the time with what you have. Here’s hoping I made lives better. And it’s never too late to work on it.

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  1. August 9, 2015 at 9:39 pm
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