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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Autonomy is often touted as the big reward in independent school teaching—no rigid state standards or testing, no iron hand of arbitrary coverage expectations. One might still teach to a test or to some other external standard, but it’s the school’s choice to let the teacher do this.
But autonomy comes with its unfortunate side, too. When pressed, many independent school teachers—including me—will confess that being left purposely alone in one’s early career was isolating and professionally unhelpful; some direction and some feedback might have served us and our students well. I’d even call this very common scenario neglectful. It can certainly be isolating, building cultural walls between teachers and their colleagues and too often between faculties and professional learning.
Isolation and neglect aren’t really much of a reward. If some teachers compensate by becoming professorial caricatures or petty tyrants, or by dismissing “professional development” or evolving school policies and practices as an imposition, it is understandable.
In the Covid Spring of 2020 teachers were sent home to figure out how to run their classes online. The preparatory training many received may have been dismissed or ignored in the name of autonomy; guidance offered in practice or tech tools may have fallen on unhearing ears. As problems in communication and presentation emerged, what happened to the confidence of these autonomous teachers? And how have the next couple of years, fraught with one disruptive crisis after another, played out in their lives?
And who has been there to help them, beyond technical issues—much less with any issues of self-doubt and anxiety? Not leaders whose hands-off policies were born not so much of principle but of fear of meddling with cultures of autonomy.
Since that time we have heard and had many conversations about teachers and their stresses—and how to care for them and help them care for themselves. We have learned from experience the reality that the glue holding independent schools together and the fuel powering them are the same: relationships—being known, honestly cared about, and meaningfully supported. We have talked about this for years in the context of students and admission, and we have liked to throw it around when we’re hiring. Now we know that it’s realio trulio real and true, and we understand the need to live it, fully and authentically.
But what relationships exist to support the dispirited, exhausted teacher shielded by their self-imposed and school-sanctioned autonomy and its tired message? More or less, Do your job and all will be well; we’ll not interfere with your work or inflict on you our perhaps well-meaning but (we understand) unwanted support and guidance. You are autonomous!
Autonomous, like a Mars rover, millions of miles from home and connected to any chance of support and repair only by a tenuous radio link.
It’s time to scrap cultures of autonomy. If school leaders are timid about confronting this, start by going relational. Your autonomous teachers are probably still feeling pretty rattled after the past few years, and they need personal, emotional support. What can you offer? Not further isolation and neglect. Not gift certificates or even cookies. Counseling? Mentoring?
You might start with a confession: “We inherited and sustained a culture of autonomy that didn’t support you in being your teacherly best through this avalanche of world and national crises. It’s gone on way longer than we could possibly have imagined, and we have to do more for you. We’re offering you tools that are designed to be helpful, but it’s even more important that we know and care for you better as people and professionals. We have left you autonomous and alone when there was way too much alone-ness. That stops now. We’re in this together, and we need to support one another, as a unit and with the love and caring that characterizes this school.”
Alone in their Zoom spaces or plexiglass pods or their steel-doored classrooms, will your autonomous teachers burst into unheard applause? Probably not. But you will have laid out your case for supporting them and for welding them into a team and not a display of miscellaneous tin soldiers on a shelf.
Have you the courage needed to make this plan stick? Only you know that.
A Letter to Experienced Teachers
Dear Experienced Teacher:
We know it’s important to pay attention to and support the men and women joining our faculties for the first time, and we always have lots of good advice for them.
But sometimes we know that the experienced teachers in our midst are overlooked or taken for granted. We casually accept one another’s quiet, competent work and maybe even quiet struggles. It’s easy for school communities to grow almost too comfortable with colleagues whose daily behaviors are familiar and whose work (we assume) goes smoothly and attracts little untoward notice.
Of course it’s not always that way for any of us, veteran or new, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are always things we can do to make our own work more effective and our own lives more satisfying. We have stayed with this profession, sometimes through thick and thin, because we believe in kids and love things about our work—and because we believe in the old promise and old premise that teachers can make the world a better place.
With summer waning and the coming year gradually transforming from a puzzling mental abstraction into a concrete set of tasks, challenges, and opportunities, I have been trying to riffle through the pages of my own career and my understanding of some of the issues facing schools and teachers in this time of pandemic and war. My goal is to remind myself of things that we as educators can do—that we all can do—to make the year go well. Here’s my short list:
We need to be faculty communities characterized by a rich flow and exchange of ideas and opinions—and by mutual respect. We need to be faculties in which castes and layers, based on seniority, who teaches what, who lives in what dorm, or who has whose ear, are gone, gone, gone. In 1968, when I was a senior in an independent school and Peter Prescott was working on A World of Our Own, faculty room stratification, posturing, and politics hadn’t much changed since Owen Johnson’s Lawrenceville Stories of more than a century ago (and at least those tales were funny). But it’s decades later, and we have to recognize that each of us has something valuable to learn about our craft and our calling from each of our colleagues, no matter how young and how “inexperienced.”
David Mallery called us veteran teachers “experienced pros,” and we can support our schools, our colleagues, and our students best by reflecting on and appreciating fully for ourselves what we have to offer; and then we have to make a point of offering it. We’re doing good work, and it can be a very good life; happily we share today’s “world of our own” ever so much more widely and joyfully than was done a half-century ago.
We honor our profession, our schools, and our students by our determination to do our best, and we give full meaning to our lives by our resolution to keep making the kinds of difference that we idealized when we entered this profession in the first place.
Savor the last weeks of summer, and have the best year ever.
Who minds the new faculty? Is there someone in the academic administration, not just H.R., whose responsibilities are understood to include regularly checking in on new faculty, looking after them not just as new employees but as new members of the school community. This responsibility goes beyond making sure they have markers, erasers, and email accounts. It’s about making sure that they can breathe. We tell new teachers that they are not alone, and so we have to show that we mean it.
I hope every school’s induction or orientation program really inducts and orients. New teachers need to understand the culture of their new school as quickly as possible. Is there a guidebook to culture and practice for teachers, something beyond the official handbook spelling out the legal and contractual elements of employment? Does this “other” document cover the little things that can be embarrassing not to know as well as the big things? A great guidebook gets at everything that someone can remember to write down—including a “walk through the year” (what to expect and plan for from month to month and season to season) and a glossary of those idiosyncratic words, phrases, and usages that serve as the argot of the school. (I immodestly link to this template for such a “Teacher’s Guide to Life and Works at _____”; we make it available to schools in editable form so that they can make the actual content their own. Take it, please, and do with it what you can to make your teachers’ lives easier.)
The few days that new teachers have together and with school folks before full faculty meetings begin and everyone is off to the races are critical. A re-tour of important places (offices, bathrooms) and opportunities to put faces with names and functions are key, as are serious mini-workshops in the things that matter most at your school—advising, ongoing strategic work, living and working in the community in all its diversity, understanding what those job responsibilities on the contract really mean, standards and grading norms and policies. Give the new folks time with supervisors and/or colleagues to plan the first few weeks of classes, to get a sense of the trajectory of weeks, units, and academic terms as they play out in real life. If there are chances to meet a few parents/guardians or students, all the better—try to set up some circumstances so the pre-start-of-school buzz about your new faculty members is warm and positive.
Ideally, in those awkward, scary minutes before the first full faculty meeting is called to order, your new folks should be able to look around and know a critical mass of friendly faces—people they have chatted with and worked with enough in preceding weeks to regard as allies.
In the first weeks of classes the people overseeing new teachers need to be alert, present, and helpful—without hovering. Some brief classroom drop-ins by smiling supervisors can be really helpful—and watch your body language, even if there are things you may want to discuss later. Plan some check-in times in each of the first few weeks—and this means plan, as in, get them (and some walk-around time to stop in on classes) on your calendar. We all know what happens when you don’t.
I haven’t talked about mentoring here, which is a whole other topic. If you assign mentors and have what you think of as a program, make sure your approach is as serious as possible, and put the time on the calendar for whatever kinds of interactions you expect mentors and their charges to have. If you call it a program, make it truly be one.
A great support program for new teachers includes regular times through the year to work on things, individually and sometimes as a group. Prepare new teachers for ongoing success with workshops (perhaps over dinner) on comment-writing, parent/guardian conferences, and expanding professional knowledge in areas specific to school aims (teaching with technology, social justice education, child and adolescent development, differentiated instruction…). Perhaps you have some second- and third-year teachers who can be especially helpful, as they will have a good sense of stumbling blocks the “old pros” take for granted.
As the year goes on there should be multiple opportunities for new teachers to receive feedback on their performance, but make sure the feedback is based on real observations. Sometimes there will be hard conversations, but do your new teachers the honor of basing what you must talk about on observed evidence (not on phone calls or emails), and give them a chance to explain their own aims and express their own concerns. Many schools claim to be all about “letting kids make mistakes” these days, and we have to have the same kind of patience—even though the stakes seem higher—with new teachers.
In the end most of it boils down to relationships, which are the stock-in-trade of independent schools. We really mustn’t let new teachers feel alone, or confused, or (certainly) hung out to dry. Even if things do not in the end work out, we owe it to our students as well as to our faculties and communities—I would say we owe it to our values—to make new teachers’ experiences as successful as we would have wanted our own to be. This doesn’t mean all smooth sailing, but it means treating them with respect and treating their struggles with concern and with the same confident optimism we offer our students.
Great schools, I think, can even expect to bask in the reflected glory of their new teachers’ successes. And they do this by setting each new teacher up not just to make it through but truly to thrive. Especially in this year of turmoil and lingering uncertainty, schools must do everything they can to ease the transition of new faculty members into every part of the lives and work of their communities.
Towards a Pedagogy of Kindness
The article’s author, Megan Easton, summarizes Dr. Rawle’s pedagogy of kindness as “a teaching approach rooted in care, mutual respect[,] and inclusion that research has shown enhances students’ learning and well-being.” In Dr. Rawle’s formulation, a pedagogy of kindness is pretty much just what it says: an effort to treat students and their experiences in classrooms as an opportunity to exercise, along with all of our other teacherly chops, an intentionally empathetic and emotionally generous approach that recognizes that students—especially students in this moment, but it’s eternal and universal—are bringing to class not just their notebooks and laptops but also worlds of experience, some traumatic and deeply embedded, some ephemeral, many unknowable and often unrecognized, even by the student. These experiences shape the perspective and even the character of each student, and they must be respected as their realities and accommodated as best we educators can do this—accommodated with kindness.
None of this is new, but I want to make a case here for the term itself: A pedagogy of kindness.
This is not, it needs to be stated lest the concept be misunderstood, either a call to random, isolated acts of kindness (those are fine, to be sure) nor about making things easier for students. In Professor Rawle’s classes, it is more about pathways, what we might call personalized learning. Students have choices, but the aggregate workload doesn’t change—students can simply adjust some things to fit their lives. Rawle also emphasizes that “demonstrating genuine curiosity about students’ lives—inside and outside the classroom and creating opportunities for student feedback are also key to a pedagogy of kindness.” A classroom tradition is a question of the day, like “What is your muddiest point from last week?” or “What gives you hope?” In the next class she shares their responses, along with her own, creating a community of feeling and reflection.
Rawle also takes issue with “what she calls ‘wellness theatre,’ where faculty might send emails to students urging them to practice self-care…. Rather than being an add-on, a pedagogy of kindness should be the cornerstone of course design and teaching practice.” Amen.
Again, none of this is new, and readers may have stocks of examples of a pedagogy of kindness from their own and from colleagues’ practice. But I worry that many current and important conversations about the emotional health of teachers and students are destined to be only artifacts of the pandemic. I can imagine a world in which when, and if, Covid either subsides or becomes so “normal” that we “move on” from pandemic-inspired efforts at emotional accessibility, we will only “remember” our current interest in concepts like mindfulness and self-care.
I spent about 40 years working in schools whose heritage was “progressive” but who have often dared not speak that word. I have been in a room where experts in marketing and communication told the leaders of one of these schools to stop using the “P” word and to strike such words as “nurturing” and “caring” from its institutional vocabulary—lest prospective families and whoever else might hear “academically soft” and “lax” instead; in fact, to start dropping words like “rigorous” and “challenging” more frequently into its public representations. So much for kindness; present ourselves as grinding the little demons into learning machines and toughening them. Paths toward this dreadful goal included competition (we were told that a tiered honor roll—with very few names at the top, of course—was a mark of a school’s academic credibility) and just plain hard work. Proclaim that empathy is weakness and that failure is, well, just plain failure. Fortunately, we quickly got over that phase and soon began to promulgate the idea that empathy is a basic element of learning.
I think that to proclaim a pedagogy of kindness—not in random acts but in intentional work we can do in classrooms and school communities everywhere, all the time—and then to immerse ourselves in pondering such a concept and how it might be enacted, all the time, would be a worthy goal for all members of the teaching profession. Let us, please, reject and discard forever our obsession with words and phrases chosen to instill anxiety and inspire compliance—“rigor” could go first, IMHO—and embrace the idea that true kindness, empathy plus love plus respect plus seeing and hearing others, ought to lie at the heart of meaningful learning.
A pedagogy of kindness, anyone? (And please click the link in paragraph 1 and check out the article.)
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)