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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

Kerri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello!
I am currently taking graduate level courses, and one of our assignments was to discuss the range of a novice to an expert and how things change in between, and where I felt I fit in. Well, this is my fifth year teaching, and every year gets better and better, but I think I will always have that "first day" jitters! It makes me wonder what an expert teacher is. I mean, is there such a thing? Every year the students change, every so many years the curriculum changes, along with many, many other changes every year. I am a Hearing Impairment Specialist for my school district, I travel to different schools each week. I look back on my years and I do not think that I have had the "same year twice". Every year is different.
I think there are teachers who may be more competent and knowledgeable, but maybe not an expert. As teachers, we are constantly learning. I do like the term of "expert novice"; I think that can be very fitting to someone with a lot of knowledge and experience.

Jenna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kimberly we have a lot in common. This is my third year teaching. My first two years I taught sixth and eighth grade language arts and seventh grade social studies. This year I am teaching seventh and eighth grade language and reading and seventh grade social studies.

I have the same issue with this age group. They are much more focused on their personal lives than on their education. It is frustrating, especially this year because I can not get my eighth graders motivated at all. Nothing excites them except when our class discussion veers off topic.

I wish I had some advice, but I don't. I can just say it feels good to know that I'm not the only one trying to tackle this issue.

TuLisha Haynes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching for the last six years and each year, no matter how successful the one before, I feel that I go back to being a novice teacher. The students I had the previous year had their own learning styles and home issues. Now I am attempting to learn the new ones. This never fails to also keep me up at night. I also get butterflies and a case of insomnia. Unfortuanately this happens after an assessment where the students didn't do so well.
How do I tackle this anxiety? Pep talks only last for so long. It usually takes me a long time to adjust lessons to the variety of student abilities and learning styles.

TuLisha

Jenna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unfortunately my school has gone through some changes that have made this year unpleasant for myself. This is my third year teaching. I actually did my student teaching at my school. I teach 7th and 8th grade reading, language, and social studies. Our principal retired last year and our assistant principal took over, and unfortunately she is not the supportive administrator I remember.

The negative changes our school is going through is not in our students favor. In fact, I was pulled into a meeting that in more words than this came down to: lower your expectations and inflate your grades. I am very discouraged and looking to move to a new school next year.

I hope there aren't any other teachers receiving this kind of "support" from their administration.

TuLisha Haynes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must be in the same class as you! I ave blogged before, but only on MySpace and usually about my frustrations stemming from students thoughts toward education.

I think that some teachers become an expert at one situation only to have that situation removed or turned upside down. I like you idea of no such thing as an expert teacher. Teaching is a lifelong learning experience and I actually cherish the fact that it is. I am also working toward being and excellent and more dedicated teacher. I am looking for ways to avoid burnout to keep me on this journey.

Holly McTaggart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I am in my third year of teaching, I still feel very much like a novice at times. This is mainly due to the fact that I have been placed in 3 very different teaching assignments. Since each year has been so different, I almost feel like I keep starting over. I am very lucky to have the support of my veteran colleagues. They have made the transition fairly smooth and are always there to help me in any way that they can. In the past three years I have made huge gains in my teaching practices, yet there is so much left for me to learn and to perfect.

When does one become an expert teacher? I believe this is different for everyone. Some might even argue that because the education field is everchanging, the expert status is hard to reach. An expert teacher evolves through experience and reflection. In addition, an expert teacher has a strong knowledge base, the desire to make a positive impact on students and the school community as a whole, and is committed to growing as an educator. An expert teacher is what we all should strive to be.

Kristen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my fourth year teaching, and I also get a case of the "first day jitters" every time I begin a new year. I like to share this with my students on the first day of school by reading the book First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg. This book is about a "girl" who does not want to go to school because she is filled with anxiety. In the end, the reader finds out that the nervous "girl" is actually a teacher. Students may find it reassuring that they are not alone in their anxieties about new situations, especially the first day of school. Even teachers get butterflies.

I also believe that every year is different, making it hard to define and/or differentiate an expert from a novice. With a different set of students, parents, and changes in text and materials every year, I am constantly modifying and learning new things. I like the term "expert novice" as well. It is a perfect description for a teacher with knowledge and experience who is constantly learning every year.

Jaclyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just completed my first full year of teaching. It is also the first time I taught American history and so there is a lot that I am learning in the process. I teach 16-20 year old males at a jail and everyday can seem like the first because of the turnover of students. I think every teacher remains a novice in some sort of way because we are constantly learning new ideas and material(s) to incorporate in our classroom. I work with colleagues who are learning for the first time how to use SmartBoards. If you did not know any better, I would be mistaken for an expert teacher because of the knowledge I possess in using Smart Technology. Do you find that the veteran teacher who still uses the material he or she had twenty years ago is effective? I work with a teacher who is like that and the students dread the time they spend with her. She fails to make class fun and unfortunately, she is "out-dated". I really think her method is keeping the kids back rather than helping each of them grow.
I think it is great that you have taught many levels and subject areas. I think it makes you a well-rounded individual. Plus, you are broadening your experience. Is there really a difference in children in both 3rd and 4th grade? I am sure the curriculum you cover is different, but are the behaviors and attitudes any different? I feel that if you are not an effective teacher, it will not matter how much experience in years you have. Also, if education is constantly evolving, how can anyone be an expert if we are always in the state of learning?

Jaclyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just completed my first full year of teaching. It is also the first time I taught American history and so there is a lot that I am learning in the process. I teach 16-20 year old males at a jail and everyday can seem like the first because of the turnover of students. I think every teacher remains a novice in some sort of way because we are constantly learning new ideas and material(s) to incorporate in our classroom. I work with colleagues who are learning for the first time how to use SmartBoards. If you did not know any better, I would be mistaken for an expert teacher because of the knowledge I possess in using Smart Technology. Do you find that the veteran teacher who still uses the material he or she had twenty years ago is effective? I work with a teacher who is like that and the students dread the time they spend with her. She fails to make class fun and unfortunately, she is "out-dated". I really think her method is keeping the kids back rather than helping each of them grow.
I think it is great that you have taught many levels and subject areas. I think it makes you a well-rounded individual. Plus, you are broadening your experience. Is there really a difference in children in both 3rd and 4th grade? I am sure the curriculum you cover is different, but are the behaviors and attitudes any different? I feel that if you are not an effective teacher, it will not matter how much experience in years you have. Also, if education is constantly evolving, how can anyone be an expert if we are always in the state of learning?

Jamie Oliver's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, everyone. I have enjoyed reading your blogs and wanted to join in. I to am enrolled in a master's program and one assigments was novice to expert teachers.

I do not believe anyone is ever an expert teacher. I do believe we all strive to be. I have been teaching head start for fourteen years, and I never really thought about it but every new year does make you say what am I doing? With each passing year students, parents and the world in general have changed. So I have decieded to be a life long learner. This way I can work towards being an expert. Although I know I will never be an expert!

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