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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.)

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Moniqe Knibb's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena,

I too have begun my first year of teaching as you did, with over sized classes and in need of an abundance of support. Oddly enough, I think this novice empathy that I have for your blog is what has captivated me. Blogging has never been one of the resources that I've called upon for additional help, but now, I am beginning to see the importance of technological collaboration. I should be thanking Graduate School for introducing me to educational blogging.

Your article reminded me--like my own thoughts do--that the first few years of teaching are tough. Reading your words help me to realize that I'm not as crazy as I think I am and that other novice teachers are experiencing the same situations. Not only are you helping the new teachers at your school, but you are helping the green educators like me who are silently seeking for help.

Your words are encouraging and thoughtful!

Hyacinth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my ninth year teaching Business Education classes at my high school. I feel that I am an expert on teaching the basics in my subject area. However, technology changes at such a rapid pace that I must continue to attend staff development sessions, business conferences and read literature on my subject area on a regular basis. I teach a Multimedia class and due to the lack of funds I have limited access to needed software and equipment. If anyone has any great multimedia websites for projects or exercises that I can use in this class please let me know. We do anything from finance and job search projects to PowerPoint and Publisher projects.

Hyacinth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I get that same feeling at the end of Summer break. The unknown.....meeting new students with new attitudes and new learning capabilites can always be scary and little stressful. However, once I get back in the swing of things and after a week or so I feel like I've known the students forever.

Phil's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is the first blog that I have participated in and I think that I would have loved to do this in the past. You can get so many different opinions and thoughts from others all around the country. Whether you are a novice or expert teacher, you can post your troubles or concerns on here.

How can one define an expert teacher? Does that teacher have the ability to reach all of the students that are taught under their supervision? I don't think that all can become expert teachers, but many will have the adaptations that bring them close. Knowing all that can be known is not really possible I feel. The teacher may know all that the book talks about or knows what they have been teaching over the years, but to know everything else is quite a foolish thing. An expert teacher is one who will reach out for the students that they teach and help them with problems that may arise. Caring and mentoring is what students need. Not for you to just tell them what they need to know and present them the information.

Learning will take place on both ends if you are willing to let the material have a little bit of influence on it. Trying to get all of the lesson done with nobody understanding what is going on is not helping the students learn. Having tangents to the lesson sometimes helps to engage the students into paying attention or help them learn. Teaching is a two way door, they learn and you learn.

Raymond's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is interesting to read the posts from other teachers and see myself in them. I am in my eighth year of teaching and still stress every time a new school year starts. The stress is getting less, but it is still there. Part of my stress is because of what I teach. I teach music appreciation and there is no curriculum available for the middle school classroom. So, every year I must "re-create the wheel" in order to fill the day. I take a little from here, a little from there, to teach my subject. It has gotten a little easier because the school created an "elective wheel" that rotates every quarter. Now I only have to come up with a nine or ten week lesson plan. I hope I can aleviate the stress altogether by writing a book for middle school music appreciation.

Maureen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Kate
I am taking a graduate course and one area we focused on is the novice/expert teacher.
I agree that an expert teacher realizes through experience that they do not know everything and finds the resources needed to be adapted to each new situation.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I was reading this, I thought about my first-year teaching experience. I was hired by my school system less than a week before the school year began. I was hired to fill the position of a 2nd grade teacher that had been teaching for 25+ years and was in bad health. Unlike you, I had more "stuff" than I knew what to do with. The teacher that I was filling in for was known around my school as being one who hoarded things, so I spent much of the time before school started weeding through the materials she had left behind. It was an absolute nightmare to say the least. When I got finished sorting everything, I had almost nothing that was usable. I was so overwhelmed by all the "stuff" that I had no idea what I was supposed to be using, and what I wasn't. The ONLY thing that saved me that year was having a wonderful mentor. She took me under her wing and led me in the right direction.
I always get nervous before the beginning of the school year, so I was able to relate with you a lot on this topic. I want to get off to a good start so that I will have a successful year. Although I have been teaching for 8 years, ever year is a new adventure, and I feel like I go back to being a novice teacher each time a new school year begins. After the school year progresses a little, and I learn what makes each of my students 'tick', I start feeling less anxious. According to Robert Garmston (1998), expert teachers need knowledge in six areas. One of the areas he mentions is students and how they learn. He states that expert teachers must know their students well, and must be sensitive to their developmental stages, cultural factors, gender differences, and style preferences. Each year brings in a new group dynamic, so it is important for me as a teacher to get to know my students personally and take into account these things.

Mary J. Bailey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my third year of teaching and in some areas I still consider myself a novice and in other areas I feel like I have progressed a few notches from the novice scale. Frequently, I feel that I don't have enough time to prepare myself and my students for what we need to be successful. One of my former colleagues once told me that being in the teaching profession meant that one would always be a professional student for life because there will always be information to learn which makes one stay abreast in ones discipline. Teachers can also learn from their students if they take the time to listen and comprehend what their students are saying and analyze their performances on tests and other assignments. Being a positive role model for our students is also very important in today's society and of course we must always remember why we are educators and that our students are our top priority and our future leaders.

Lisa McCormack's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Even though I have been teaching 3rd grade for 21 years I feel like a novice teacher at times. The reason I have these feelings is due to technology in the classroom. I am not comfortable nor familiar with the latest ways to teach with the computers, blogging, and all that computers have to offer in the classroom. I have to gain confidence and skills in these areas. I am a terrific teacher when it comes to the basics but feel very much behind the times. Reading and writing on a blog is a new thing for me and a step in the right direction.

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.

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