(I first wrote this ten years ago this summer for my personal blog, several lifetimes ago in the history of schools and our ravaged world. It was later updated for Education Week and has been republished elsewhere. I’ve tweaked it a bit to bring it up to date.)
In a very few weeks school will be starting, and you will be starting a wonderful new career.
You are probably excited, and you are probably scared. A dozen giant questions loom in your consciousness, trading places with one another in the Anxiety Gavotte that troubles the pre-school-year dreams (and waking thoughts, too) even of experienced teachers: Will I know my subject matter well enough? How are my curriculum skills? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my 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. Independent schools are reckoning with history. Many were founded to be exclusive and elitist, in direct conflict with the words and principles expressed in their modern missions and values. Schools have recognized that building communities that are truly inclusive, where every member feels as though they belong, must be their essential goal. And then there is the project of decolonizing the curriculum and the imperative to make what we teach and students learn be true and relevant to their lives and world—against a societal backdrop in which there is a visible conflict in which educators are faced with powerful forces working to deny voice suppress truth.
Teaching is a profession of ideals, and working in a mission-driven school lays that out very clearly. It’s probable that some educator founded your school because they believed in something, and the school has evolved in certain ways because of those beliefs. Sometimes the beliefs get lost, sometimes they are transmogrified, and occasionally a school has had to stop and then start all over again in a new direction. But believe me, high-minded beliefs are fundamental to the enterprise.
Technology has also been changing everything, and even methods used by the very best teachers just half a dozen years ago are undergoing some major developments. Thought leaders in our world have called 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 may be younger and putatively more adept at thinking about things through a digital lens, to quietly guide and 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,” has been making school unsettling for some experienced teachers. They’ve been asked to assemble whole new toolkits 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 for these conversations; 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, amid all this change, that what they DO know isn’t going to be valued any more. They may be, on their own, brilliant teachers beloved of generations of alums who still return to your school just to see them.
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 also about seeing them goof up and giving them chances to try again.
In the end the approach may be more traditional—memorize the formula, do grammar exercises 1 through 13, odd—or all about some New Culture of Learning. In any case, 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 (With whom did you click 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 work on becoming an internet 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—and when that happens to you, own it.
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.
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 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.
Don't miss our weekly blog posts by joining our newsletter mailing list below:
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)