Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

A Letter to New Teachers

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In a very few weeks school will be starting, and you will be starting a wonderful new career.

You are probably excited, and probably scared. A dozen large questions loom in your consciousness, trading places with one another in the Anxiety Gavotte that troubles the dreams (and waking thoughts, too) even of experienced teachers: Will I know my subject matter? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my new colleagues? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too? Will my school be a good fit for me?

You’re entering the profession at an exciting time, as I’m sure you have been told. Technology really is changing everything, and even the methods used by your very best teachers, perhaps just five or six years go, are undergoing some major changes. Thought leaders in our world call these changes “disruptive,” and many of them are just that. It’s likely that your school, although they may not have said this in so many words, will be looking to you, who are probably younger and casually adept at thinking about things through a Web 2.0-kind of lens, to quietly set an example for your more senior colleagues.

Speaking of more senior colleagues, there are a couple of things I want to warn you about, but these are things that can really help you grow as a teacher if you handle them the right way.

All this change, this “disruption,” is going to make school unsettling for some experienced teachers; they’re being asked to assemble a whole new toolkit after years of developing their own ways of doing things. They see their schools–their working homes–changing. Some of them are grumpy about this, and sometimes there is cynicism.

Don’t stick around to listen or participate; you’ll have plenty of other things to do, anyhow. Just walk away—you don’t have to chime in or argue, as you’ll soon figure out who is worth listening to.

But here’s something that you can do to help: When you see a real reason to do so, ask one of the grumps for help or maybe even advice. They won’t necessarily make it easy, but in the end they will most likely offer you what you’re looking for. After all, what’s bothering them is the fear that amid all this change what they DO know isn’t going to be valued any more.

What they know that is of value, if they’re good enough to have been kept on for a while, is that teaching isn’t about content and it’s not about technology. It’s about kids, about building relationships with them, about believing in them, about finding out what they can do and then providing opportunities for them to do it. And it’s about seeing them goof up and giving them chances to try again.

In the end it doesn’t matter so much if the approach is Old School—memorize the formula, do grammar exercises 1 through 13, odd—or all about a New Culture of Learning that grows around not-teaching. Know your students, have faith in their capacities, and magical things will happen.

It isn’t going to be easy, you know. You might get lucky and have most everything fall into place quickly, but there are probably going to be things you struggle with—perhaps as much as anything you’ve ever done or even imagined doing.

Here’s the thing: You’re not as alone—all, all alone—as you will feel. Be the master of what you can, but when things get really hard, be forthright in taking your worries and concerns to a simpatico colleague or an administrator that you trust (Who did you click with the best when you were being interviewed? Start there). Ask someone to sit in on and observe your unruly section or to help you organize your assignments and assessments so that you can actually finish your own homework each night. Whatever it is, you owe it to your students and your school to seek the assistance you need, pronto. And of course your school owes it to you to help you. It’s a problem to be solved, and it can be and will be.

I have three last things to offer.

First, you’re a professional now, and with that comes some responsibilities. Think of doctors, who spend their lives learning even as they practice. The best teachers do the same, and you should try to emulate that—if for no other reason than to stay on the right side of all the disruptive change that’s coming along.

Another responsibility involves being a grown-up. You can like your students, and they can adore you—but you’re their teacher, not their best buddy, their secret-sharer, or their guru. If you need to score points off the adulation of kids, you might want to quit teaching and become a celebrity. Otherwise, earn your students’ trust and their respect, which will serve you, and them, a whole lot better in the long run.

Second, parents. Yup, lots of them are hovering these days, and they can be kind of hard to take sometimes.

The deal is, parents are the way they are because they love their kids. I’m afraid that most of us parents screw it up pretty regularly, and I’m sure I’ve made my kids’ teachers’ eyes roll. But in the end the strongest teachers are very good at gently, and sometimes not so gently, reminding parents that we’re all on the same side here. So plan on spending some time figuring out how to help parents and guardians understand the common purpose. And it helps to remember that sometimes teachers are actually wrong.

Lastly, before your orientation begins and the whirlwind of opening weeks sucks all the idealistic notions out of your head for a while, go to your school’s website and re-read the mission statement. If there are sections on values, and history, read those, too.

Because this is a profession of ideals. Somebody started your school because they believed in something worthy, and the school has evolved in certain ways because of those beliefs. Sometimes the beliefs get lost, sometimes they get transmogrified, and occasionally a school has had to stop and then start all over again in a new direction. But believe me, those worthy beliefs are fundamental to the enterprise.

You’re about to become a living exemplar of those beliefs. Whenever you rise to your best in the classroom, at lunch, on the field, in the dorm, or in the faculty room, you are in some way going to embody the mission of your school. Sometimes you may have to squint to see the it, and you may have to take a leap of faith every now and then, but don’t forget it—or let others forget it, either.

So: Believe in kids, soften up your crusty colleagues, be patient with parents, be a grown-up, and, to paraphrase a much better man than I, be the mission you wish to see in the world.

Also: Don’t forget to breathe. And have fun, lots of it.

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8 Comments
  1. […] As I’m sitting in my office, writing to our new teachers in anticipation of our Teachers Institute this month, I thought of Peter Gow’s lovely blog post, “A Letter to New Teachers.” […]

  2. @John

    That’s a fine and generous addition, and as true for me as for you. Thanks!

  3. I would add: try to understand those colleagues, and they can be veterans or novices, with whom you do not share the same ideas. I have spent a career in international schools working with colleagues from different countries and different educational philosophies. By discussing with them the different beliefs and practices we follow, I have learned (or hope I have) so much that has enriched my practice. This can happen in any school, whether international or not, since you will always find colleagues working from different starting points than yours.

  4. @TracyF

    Good points! I was trying to keep focus particularly on those veteran teachers for whom change–often tech-related–has been especially difficult; these are the ones who tend to become cynical and, well, crusty. Newer colleagues and older ones (and school administrations, of course) should always be on the lookout for ways to help, but it’s not always easy. Understanding and some validation can work small wonders, though.

    And the world of PLNs/PLCs can be rich and helpful for teachers at all stages–right on!

    I’ve stopped adding to it for now, but you might want to check out my older Admirable Faculties blog for more thoughts on professional development, professional culture, and individual professional growth–PG

  5. Not all of us crusty old teachers (ouch, btw) are tech-fobic. Educators new to the profession need to know that, too. Good advice overall. I would also add to find a professional community online that will support you – may I suggest Plurk.com? I’ve found it to be invaluable in terms of resources, as well as a friendly place.

  6. As a year five, 27-year-old teacher, I appreciated this wisdom immensely. Some of these lessons I have learned the hard way,and others I have had the privilege of great mentors (both physical colleagues and online collaborators like yourself). Thanks for writing this snippet of wisdom and insight.

  7. This is brilliant. I’m entering my fourteenth year of teaching, and I still needed this.

  8. P.S. If you’re interested in more thoughts for and on teachers–new and experienced–check out my THE INTENTIONAL TEACHER: FORGING A GREAT CAREER IN THE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL CLASSROOM (Avocus, 2009) and AN ADMIRABLE FACULTY: RECRUITING, HIRING, TRAINING, AND RETAINING THE BEST INDEPENDENT SCHOOL TEACHERS (NAIS, 2005). Both are available through Amazon.com or from the publisher. I’m also happy to speak to teachers and schools about the joys and challenges of teaching–PG

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