A Letter to New Teachers
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: How are my skills? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my colleagues? Have I the energy and patience to face another year likely to be fraught with unforeseen challenges in the school, in my community, and in the world? And, uh, will my new school be a good ﬁt for me? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too?
You’re entering the profession at a difficult time. Independent schools are reckoning with history. Schools have recognized that building communities that are truly inclusive, where every member feels as though they belong, must be their essential goal. And we face the challenging project of decolonizing the curriculum and the critical imperative to make what we teach and students learn be true and relevant to their lives and world—against a societal backdrop in which powerful forces are working to deny and suppress truth at every turn.
We are in a renaissance in curriculum and assessment design that has been a long time coming. Thought leaders in our world have called these changes “disruptive,” and many of them are just that—but so are wars and pandemics disruptive, so we’re all adapting. It’s likely that your school, although they may not have said this in so many words, will be looking to you to bring new ideas, methods, and perspectives into its culture. You may become a thought leader in your school yourself.
There are a couple of things about which I want to caution you, 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 of your more experienced colleagues. Like you, they may have lost friends and family members to the coronavirus. In their practice they’ve been asked to assemble whole new toolkits after years of developing their own ways of doing things, and even the content of what they must teach has been evolving as education gropes for ways to make it more authentic and relevant. Some 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 those querulous colleagues for help or just advice. They won’t necessarily make it easy for you to find an opening, 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 is losing its value.
What they know that is precious, if they’re good enough to have been kept on for a while, is that teaching isn’t about content. It’s about kids, about building relationships with them, about believing in them, about ﬁnding out what they can do and then creating 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 some New Culture of Learning. Know your students, have faith in their capacities, understand that they occupy a world that you may not fully understand but that is their reality and must be respected as such, and magical things will happen.
It isn’t going to be easy. 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 an amiable colleague or to an administrator 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. Most of all, you owe this to yourself, and of course your school owes it to you to help. It’s a problem to be solved, and it can be and will be.
Three last things to offer:
First, you’re a professional now, and with that come some responsibilities. Think of dedicated doctors, who must 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 in which you are immersed.
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. Beware the trap of your own charisma, should you have that. You want your students’ attention, respect, trust, and sometimes empathy, but not their adulation; you are not an internet star, you’re an educator. Earn the things of value, which will serve you and your students far better than empty celebrity.
Second, parents/guardians (they come in both these and other flavors, and please don’t always assume that every adult caretaker is a parent in the classical sense). Yup, lots of them are hovering these days, and they can be kind of hard to take sometimes.
Parents/guardians are the way they are because they love their kids. I’m afraid that most of us (and I’ve been in both categories) screw it up pretty regularly, and I’m sure I’ve made my own kids’ teachers’ eyes roll. But in the end the strongest teachers are very good at gently, and sometimes not so gently, reminding household members that we’re all on the same side here. So plan on spending some time ﬁguring out how to help these well-meaning folks understand the common purpose. And it helps to remember that sometimes teachers—even you (I have been, plenty of times)—are actually wrong. Give yourself permission to acknowledge and fix what you might unintentionally have broken.
Lastly, before 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 and every word you can find about its values and its history. If there are handbooks for students and families—and of course faculty—read these, too, and try to tease out what you can about the whys behind every program, rule, policy, and practice.
This is the deep cultural material in which the ideals of your school are embedded, and teaching is a profession of ideals. It’s probable that someone 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 (and sometimes this is a good thing), 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, beliefs are fundamental to the enterprise.
You’re about to become a living avatar of the mission and values of your school. Whenever you rise to your best in the classroom, at lunch, on the ﬁeld, in the dorm, in the faculty room, or anywhere else—even chatting with someone you run into in the grocery store—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 crusty colleagues, be patient with families, 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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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)