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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

Allyson Coco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elana
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I remember my first year teaching first grade (moving down from teaching sixth grade) I would have these dreams that would wake me up in the middle of the night. In my dreams the children entered the classroom as normal sized first graders and by the end of the dream they had grown into giants and were towering over me. I can tell you my first graders had little bodies but huge personalities. But I can relate so well to what you said about waking in the middle of the night brainstorming. I don't know what triggers it but all of a sudden I will wake up and have a great idea for the next day and somehow I get back to sleep while figuring out the details of how to implement this new activity.
I been working with children in the classroom and as a social worker and the reason I do it is because I care about the future of our society. I believe we can make change happen by teaching our children the right way to treat one another, and to respect knowledge and to be critical thinkers. It's worth a couple of sleepless nights.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is a lot of stress for beginning teachers. I remember in my first few years of teaching, I did not think I would make it. I have now been teaching for 16 years, and at times I still get stressed out. Today, teachers are so overwhelmed with so much to do with so little time. It seems like the pile on my desk keeps getting bigger and bigger. I never get to the bottom of my to-do-list. I believe your job as a teacher does get easier over the years. It does not matter how long you have been teaching, the pile of work will never go away, but your stress level will go down. Hang in there!!!!

Candace Parr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm very happy to be able to participate in this blog, as it is my first experience in reaching outside of my graduate education classes for advice and expertise. I was recently given an assignment about my opinion of the differences between a novice and expert teacher.

Robert J. Garmston asserts that there are six main areas of knowledge involved in becoming an expert teacher. The first that he mentions is knowledge of content. He states, "Expert teachers have deep knowledge about the disciplines they teach. The greater the subject matter knowledge, the more flexible and student oriented they are in their teaching" (Garmston, 1998).

I'm not sure if I like where some of the students in my graduate education classes are taking this seemingly harmless idea. For example, one of the students in my class recently posted that any expert teacher is defined as someone who knows all that can be known about his or her content area. I find this goal both daunting and impossible.

I'm not sure if I agree that in order to be an expert you must know all that there is to know about your subject area. If our goal is to know everything, then it seems that we won't be expecting to learn from our students. Parker asserts, "[our conventional pedagogy]...assumes that the teacher has all the knowledge and the students have little or none, that the teacher must give and the students must take, that the teacher sets all the standards and the students must measure up" (p. 116).

I'm not trying to say that knowledge is the enemy by any means. Certainly it's admirable to want to continue to acquire as much knowledge as we can about our art, but it's perfectly fine to admit that we won't ever know it all. Nieto asserts, "We need to celebrate teachers who are as excited about their own learning as they are about the learning of their students" (p. 129).

If we're honest with ourselves and our students, we can say without shame that we're both on a journey to learn together what we can about a subject.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this issue

Candace Parr
Masters in Education Candidate
Brooklyn, NY

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1). Copyright 1998 by National Staff Development Council. Reproduced with permission of National Staff Development Council in the format electronic usage via Copyright Clearance Center.

Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco:: Jossey-Bass.

Abby Kunkle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello:
I am a third year teacher myself and I too am enrolled in a master's program. This week we are discussing moving from a novice teacher to an expert teacher and I have really found this concept interesting. I feel that education is always changing and in order to 'keep up with the times' we must be learners ourselves and be able to reflect on our learning. I don't know that I will ever reach the expert status as I feel there is always something new to learn or adapt to. I do feel that as we learn through our experiences we are able to move away from a novice and work towards becoming an expert. I think in order to move in that direction we as educators need to be communicative with our students, colleagues, student's families and ourselves. In one of our readings this week the authors (Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler 2005) provide five basic principles to help promote communication that is effective in our classrooms: Provide a base of genuine caring, All students can be effective communicators, Plan for effective classroom communication, Make classroom communications realistic,and Provide regular practice for effective communications. I found this information to be very useful, because often the way we communicate in our classroom affects our effectiveness as teachers.

Kottler, J., Zehm, S., & Kottler, E. (2005). On Being A Teacher: The Human Dimension. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Jenna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kimberly,
I'm very interested in the book you mentioned, "Freak the Mighty." I always have a novel that I read aloud to the students and we journal/discuss as a class. I think this book sounds perfect for my 8th graders who are experiencing some bullying issues. Thank you for the great suggestions.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching 3 years, my first year I taught 5th-8th grade working with the language arts teachers to ensure full understanding of the lesson that was being taught. This experience was very trying due to the fact that I did not have my own classroom or desk to sit and plan on. I floated from class to class being the second teacher in L.A. classes because the classes were oversized and the resources minimal. The past two years I have been teaching first grade which is where I found my nook. I teach in a private school that is located on a river. The class size is very manageable and the resources are always available and improving. Transitioning from a public school to a private school was very difficult for the reason that I had to establish new teaching techniques in my classroom and implement new strategies to continuously engage learning.
After three years of teaching and taking my master's course and learning about the novice to expert continuum I have pin pointed what novice and expert teachers are. Novice, to me, means new at something and willing to put in the time and effort to become better. An expert, to me, means that you are all knowing and can not expand your knowledge on a subject or skill. This is my experience of a novice teacher and an expert teacher.
When a new class walks into my room in September they are not used to my routine and my teaching techniques.I then have to (in a sense) train them and get them used to how I teach and the daily routines that I have established in my classroom. They also (in a sense) train me and get me to understand them as people and as students who have certain needs. Both myself and my students are novices. In June when my students walk out of my room they are experts in my classroom and know the daily routines and know my strategies and teaching techniques. As I watch them walk out I can tell anyone every students strength, weakness, favorite subject, least favorite subject, and their favorite teaching technique. Once they walk out my door in June to advance to the next grade level there is nothing I can do for them anymore. Throughout the year I make sure that when they leave they will not need me, that I have taught them the necessary foundation they will need in second grade. I become an expert of that years class. When a new class comes in we start at novice and work up to becoming experts.
This is how I see my first grade community. To watch them grow throughout the year, learn, and explore new outlooks of education is priceless. When my students leave my classroom they are confident and excited about moving up. In the beginning we are all scared and anxious by the end we are skilled and certain that we can accomplish any task given to us. This is my outlook on novice to expert teachers.

Jenna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

TuLisha,
I share in your frustrations about students' attitudes towards their education. Their thoughts as well as many parents' thoughts confuse me. I grew up in a house that placed education at the top of the priority list. Now-a-days I can't get a parent to worry about their student's struggles unless it affects their eligibility for sports; then all of a sudden their concerned.

I remember being that age, school was a place to hang out with your friends. I was in no way an avid studier that worried about getting straight "A"s. I only wanted to do well so my butt wasn't in big trouble at home, but that isn't even a concern for many of my students because they don't have consequences at home.

Teresa Larios's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Michelle, I was relieved to read your post, because I will be following in your footsteps soon! I've been home raising my six children for many years and will be re-entering the field of classroom teaching soon. I'm nervous and excited about both going back to work and about how my children will do without me being home full time. It's reassuring to read that your children are learning to be more independent and that you are enjoying being back in the classroom. Do you have any tips for making the transition easier?

Laura D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my 2nd year teaching but my 1st year with first grade. I love it, but it feels like my very first year all over again. I remember all the teachers saying, "You poor thing," but I didn't know what they were talking about. I mean I'd worked with kids before, but never professionally. Now I know EXACTLY what they meant. It was a nightmare. The whole time I was thinking, "No one prepared me for this. Why didn't I know all of this before I walked into this room?" I felt like I was letting my children down, but now I realize that I was doing the best that I could and I still am. I love the children I teach, and I know I always will. This is my specialty whether I'm an expert at it or not. I can put up with them, love them, and teach them all at the same time. It is so encouraging to know that it does get easier with experience. I'm still planning the lesson by lesson, day by day routines. One day I want to know exactly what I've taught and whether it works or not.

Kate 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello everyone. I too have been reflecting on the difference between a novice and expert teacher. Perhaps we are being too literal when we claim that there are no expert teachers because that would mean you know everything. The exact opposite may be true. You have become closer to the expert level when you realize that you do not know everything but are open to and are compelled to keep seeking the solutions and can adapt your experience and knowledge to any situation. I have seen many master teachers over the years and I am learning from many experts in my readings.

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