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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

For the first few years that I taught, my stomach hurt constantly in the weeks before school started. The anxiety was a mixture of dread and excitement and anticipation. Every year, I mourned the end of summer, but I'd also get revved up, ready to start and get my hands messy with learning.

Now I have insomnia. In 2007, after teaching in the school district in Oakland, California, for twelve years, I stepped out of the classroom and into the role of instructional coach at one of its middle schools. During the weeks before school starts, I often spend 3-5 a.m. making mental to-do lists and solving issues. Last night, I brainstormed about how to get furniture donations for one of our brand-new teachers. Today, I will give her a tour of the school, but when I open the door to her portable, she'll see an empty room.

I'm particularly sensitive to this scenario. To be honest, it triggers my teacher posttraumatic stress disorder. My first year of teaching was in an overcrowded, underresourced elementary school in East Oakland. They led me to a carpeted space and told me to teach bilingual second graders to read. There were no desks, chairs, or books -- or walls.

Back in the 1970s, some people who had never spent time with children promoted "open classrooms." Imagine a long, wide corridor, and add 200 kids but no dividers or doors or sound barriers. Then, lump 30 (or 36) kids with each teacher, and include a teacher who teaches everything by singing and chanting.

Next, consider that this is a school with a rapidly growing population, so that when new classes are created, everyone has to squeeze closer together. Also note that this school does not purchase furniture, and that your fellow teachers hoard supplies and books (which were published twenty years ago), but if you teach a bilingual class, none of that matters, because no one knows what teaching a bilingual class means or when or how the students should learn English.

Now, stick a young, uncredentialed teacher in that room, one who doesn't know anything about how kids learn to read and can't remember her own year in second grade, but who quickly finds herself caring deeply about her students.

But this blog is supposed to be about you, the novice teacher. It's not a place where I plan on processing my own teaching traumas. I do hope that these posts might make a tiny dent in the agony and confusion beginning teachers often feel.

Though there is never enough support for beginning teachers (or any educator), I'm hoping I can enlist the community of Edutopia.org visitors to engage in a discussion with new members of our profession and dish out some practical tips and a few morsels of advice, consolation, and encouragement. I hope that new teachers will find this to be a forum where they can ask any and all questions and brainstorm about any problems. I'm going for a peppery blend of logistical and emotional support.

On a side note, my definition of "new teacher" is very broad. After teaching elementary school for five years, I became a middle school teacher, and I felt very much like a beginner again. Some aspects of teaching will be (and should be) new every year. So, I hope this blog can be a place where we pull back and zoom in and take a close and scary -- and sometimes anonymous -- look at what's going on in our schools and classrooms.

Back to the pre-school-year anxiety. I have insomnia because there's so much to be done. I want to do this year right. I am overwhelmed and afraid I'll fail. I want to sleep more and exercise more and spend leisurely afternoons in the park with my son, but it's all about to start, and it'll be a year before I can read another novel. Is anyone else experiencing this?

I'm learning how to deal with this without the help of pharmaceuticals. I often get up and do the work I'm lying in bed thinking about. I make long lists and plot when and how I'm going to do them. I ask for help and know that not everything will get done. And I constantly remind myself of why I do this job.

And that's my number-one piece of advice to any teacher: Know why you're an educator. Remind yourself about it regularly. Write it up and post it in a prominent place in your classroom. Ask yourself many times throughout the year, particularly when things are hard, "Why am I a teacher? Why do I do this?"

And after a few years, if those reasons aren't loud and compelling, don't do it. When the reasons are really strong, teaching is much, much easier. It becomes enjoyable about 90 percent of the time. As challenging as my job is, I can't imagine doing anything else.

So, why do you -- new, or veteran, educator -- teach? Please share your stories.

In my next post, I'll share my own reasons, and I'll give some practical tips on getting ready for the school year. In the meantime, let me point you in the direction of some recently written blog posts by experienced teachers on Teacher magazine's Web site. Check out Jane Fung's "Teaching Secrets: The First Days of School" and Cindi Rigsbee's "Teaching Secrets: Five Tips for the New Teacher." (Free registration is required.)

Comments (96)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Chris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I see several of the bloggers mention that they are in graduate school and submitting to a blog is one of their assignments. I too am working toward my masters and completing this assignment. I don't think I could have found a better blog than this one to discuss the subject of novice to expert teachers.

I'm current not in the classroom as I just finished my bachelors this spring so I greatly appreciate all of the information and tips everyone is providing. I'm also glad to know that everyone feels that at one point or another they were a novice and still believe there is always more to learn. I'm looking forward to getting my one classroom and trying out some of these suggestions.

Lisa S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find that each year is almost like starting over because of the many changes in education. While many things have become easier after having taught for 12 years in 4th grade, there are always new challenges to meet. Though not a novice, I do not consider myself an expert because there is always something to learn. I am excited to get back and try out some of the things I explored over the summer, and to meet my new students. The night before school starts ,though, is always a sleepless one for me, with the same nightmare of not being ready for my students recurring. Each class is different, each child is unique, but when things get tough, I remind myself of why I chose and continue to choose the teaching profession. The reason for continuing my education is to prepare myself to be more successful in addressing the increasingly diverse needs of my students. I am learning a great deal from the course readings and it is great to be able to connect with others who share a similar goal.

Sheryl N.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been in education for some 25 years. I have only been teaching for four years. It has been my experience that each year is different. When a teacher does not know what ideas to use, a teacher should turn to a veteran teacher for proven ideas that work with each new situation.

Sheryl N.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Special Education teacher. Each year I have new students and some old students. Every year I try to find different ways to teach the students I have had the last year. Each student has his/her own learning style and sometimes the new ideas don't work which can sometimes gets depressing but then I talk with veteran teachers to see what has worked and what has not worked. I also remind myself of why I went into the teaching profession which is to help as many children to read and write as I possibly can. I continue to be in the teaching profession for the children.

D. Stanley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently taking a course and our focus is novice teachers and expert teachers. I agree it is a hard year that novice year, lack of classroom supplies, room that was raided for furniture and manipulatives before you arrived. A teacher desk from storage that has a broken drawer that doesn't lock anymore. Yet, it was also one of the greatest years of my life. Figuring out what worked and what did not, everything was new, creating a class community of your own for the first time. I wouldn't trade it for anything. My advice to Novice teachers is that you are only a novice for a short period of time, then you become a proficient teacher. Enjoy the novice time.

Jessica C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the advice you gave, "Ask yourself, particularly when things are hard, 'Why am I a teacher? Why do I do this?'" is valuable advice for all teachers, from the novice to expert. Teaching is a tough profession and it is important to stay positive and as you suggested, focus on why you like teaching and what drew you to the profession. For myself, besides the love I have for working with children, I enjoy the creative part of being a teacher. I enjoy creating lessons and projects where students are able to tap into their creative side and explore new ideas through various arts-based activities.
Equally as important, is to keep in mind that we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Try not to beat yourself up over your "failures." Ask yourself, "Did I do my best? What will I do differently next time?" Reflecting on your teaching and student's learning is imperative but don't put yourself through the ringer and allow yourself to get too stressed out.

Kimberly D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a novice teacher it is interesting to read what all of the other teachers are saying. I hope that in the years to come I will have a handle on my classroom, and my content just as many of you seem to have. I know that we are not expected to know everything in out second year of teaching, but it would be much easier to plan my lessons and think of creative, novel things to do in my class if I had more content knowledge. By my fifth year of teaching, my wish is that I will have a handle on all of the different content that I teach.

Joanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that you make a great point...expert teachers become more experienced and with that experience comes the acceptance to being open to new ideas/suggestions.

Joanna 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just started my teaching career. I too hope that as the years go on, I can become more experienced and learn from the "expert" teachers. After I read everyone comments, I did some searching on some databases. I found some information on novice and expert teachers. "Educational research has supported the view that expert teachers' knowledge is superior to that of novices in both content and pedagogy" (Winter, 2005). It goes on to explain about expert teachers. "Teachers' expert knowledge base has been developed over time, and consists of an accumulation of concrete experiences and when this knowledge is not articulated for
novices, Brown and McIntyre (1995) state, 'the wheels of teaching have to be reinvented by each new generation' (p. 14)" (Winter, 2005). This just shows that all of our thoughts are true and normal. Becoming an expert teacher takes time and lots of experience. It is not something that can necessarily be taught in undergraduate studies. It comes with time. This is something that we, as new teachers, must realize and accept. We should not be afraid of making mistakes. I'm sure all of those "expert" teachers did at some point!

Joanna 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Another piece of information that I forgot to share was from an article I read. "David Berliner speculates that the novice stage might last for the first year of teaching and that most teachers would reach the third stage (competence) within three or four years" (Garmston, 1998). This shows that all teachers need to go through that novice stage in order to become an expert teacher.

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