Sunday, October 9, 2011

A note to new teachers...

Teaching is hard.
It might be the most difficult thing you ever do, and you probably won't get paid a lot for doing it. But, if you want to teach, I encourage you to stick with it.

Teaching is especially difficult for new teachers. I came to teaching in middle-age when I was accustomed to being treated with a reasonable degree of respect in my daily dealings with other people. I started the job without preparing much in the way of a discipline plan, thinking that mutual respect should get the job done.

But, I was new and unsure of myself in the role of teacher. As some young people will do, they probed for my weaknesses, and they and found them. Objectively, it was only a few students giving me grief - maybe four or five in a classroom of twenty-five - but when that handful was in full advance, it felt as though the entire class was on the attack. I was on the defensive, trying to maintain my composure in the face of the onslaught.

The next semester I adopted a comprehensive classroom management plan based on a system developed by my brother-in-law Greg Binsfeld, a veteran math teacher. It included incentives for good behavior as well as consequences for bad behavior. I think it is a good plan that I still use in modified form today (It is available on this website. See: "Class information packet.) This was an early example of a useful tool obtained from an experienced teacher, a concept that forms much of the rationale behind this website.

Now, I had rules to enforce, which I proceeded to do with grim determination. I knew it was necessary to maintain control of the classroom if I were ever to become an effective teacher. This is a teacher's first priority. Unfortunately, on some level, I perceived rule violations as disrespect and as challenges to my authority. I had confrontations with students that left me feeling miserable. Many days I went home in despair, thinking that I had made a huge mistake by going into teaching. I lost sleep.

Meanwhile, as a new teacher I was working long hours developing lesson plans and teaching materials for the first time, trying to figure out what I should be teaching and trying to stay one step ahead of the students. It was my job to keep a multitude of teenagers occupied and interested to a point short of mutiny for every minute of six hours a day, five days a week. I nurtured hopes that the students might also be learning something. And, of course, as a social studies teacher, my new first name was "Coach," another time-consuming responsibility. All in all, I was a typical new teacher. Is it any wonder that many new teachers give up before reaching their fourth year on the job?

But, you know what? Even then, occasionally, a student would tell me I was a good teacher, and that he or she was learning a lot in my class. Maybe I wasn't quite as bad as I thought. Things improved slowly - with relapses. Sometimes when I was feeling down, a student would say just the right words to renew my hope. I loved those kids. I came to realize that a bad day didn't mean the future was doomed. This, too, would pass. Bad days were followed by okay days and by good days.

Gradually I came to understand that the school district had given me the tools I needed to maintain the upper hand in my classroom. With the support of my principal, I knew I would prevail in any situation with a student. I didn't need to win a confrontation immediately, because I would win eventually. Winning often took the form a calm conversation the next day that left both the student and me feeling better about each other and about ourselves. I took rule violations less personally. Kids, too, have bad days, and sometimes they just act like teenagers.

My confidence grew, and the confrontations became fewer and fewer. I still enforce the same rules today, but I usually manage to do it with a genial attitude that is less onerous to the students. Students seem to respect me more because of what they perceive as my fairness, consistency and good will.

After five years, I am still a novice teacher. Being human, I still sometimes react with impatience or anger and may not handle a situation as well as I should. I still have the occasional sleepless night. Who doesn't? Most of the time, however, my judgment is sound. I still work long hours and still sometimes have days when I wonder if I was really cut out to be a teacher.

But most days are good, and some days are great. Being comfortable on the job has done more to improve my teaching than anything else. It gives me the spontaneity to feed off student thinking and engage students more with their learning. I enjoy the power I feel when I open a student's eyes to new ideas, and I revel in the joy of discovery I experience when they open mine.

I get to spend my days in the company of young people who are, for the most part, bright, positive, curious, funny, creative, stimulating, quirky and likable. It's fun. When everything clicks, this is the best I have ever felt doing a job. Besides, it is an important job to do. For these reasons, I encourage you to hang in there.

I think my experience as a new teacher might be fairly representative. It is not uncommon for a beginning teacher to cry in the classroom, or, at least, to feel like crying. Greg Binsfeld says he wasn't a very good teacher when he began. Frank McCourt, the high school English teacher who won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela's Ashes, said it took him something like fifteen years to really understand how to teach.

Maybe the process of becoming a teacher will be easier for you than it has been for me. Perhaps you are more socially adept than I am, smarter, more self-confident, more of a natural-born teacher, or younger and closer to the experience of young people. But, don't count on it.
I wish you perseverance, good fortune and all the joys of teaching.

Mike Maxwell
January, 2002

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