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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

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 2nd year teacher and I teach 7th grade language arts. Last year, my first year, was challenging in that every day felt like the first day on the job. Each new procedure, event, assembly, regulated test, etc., was a first for me and I wasn't sure what to do. I didn't feel completely confortable with my content, and while I thought I knew classroom management techniques, I can look back now and see where I made some mistakes. If it weren't for the support of my principal, assistant principal and many colleagues, I think I would have drowned in all that responsibility. Now, a year later, things are easier. Last year was about survival, this year is about learning. I am in a master's program and now I am forced to move outside my comfort zone and learn all that I can. Last year, I couldn't see how I could possibly find time for my own growth while trying to teach, but now I see how they go hand-in-hand. Neito(2005)believes that expert teachers are continually learning, constantly seeking new ways to reach students. I don't believe I will ever be an expert but that I can become more than a novice. I wish to always be on the journey toward expert. As long as I am a teacher...I am a learner.

Emily Hancock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teaching 6th grade but my first year teaching reading. I feel as though I have started over again. There are new challenges everyday and countless hours of preparation time. I am an organized person, but it seems as though I am always two steps behind. I cannot seem to catch up.

I can relate to the long lists of things to do. There always seems to be something that I can improve on and add to my lesson.

I am passionate about what I do and enjoy going to work everyday. I teach because I love to learn and I want to share that love with my students. I am a teacher for my students. They are the sole reason as to why this job is challenging but also why I love my job so much. They are amazing individuals!

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my third year of teaching 7th Grade Language Arts. The biggest trials to overcome are that at this age your students are learning new things about themselves and are more interested in the social aspects of school and not in learning.

This brings a whole new meaning to classroom management. Any discussion erupts into a free-for-all of talk, every students wants to talk and usually it has little to actually do with the subject you were discussing and everything to do with the student's relationships (what is most important to them).

If I could learn new ways to integrate discussion without the "free-for-all" I would be so happy.

Christine Stockton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think your friend said it perfectly -"expert novice". That is exactly how I feel. I am in my twelfth year of teaching and last year I went from the classroom to working one on one with struggling first grade readers. I certainly felt like a complete novice then, but enjoyed the challenge of learning a new position. I am in teaching because it is one career where life long learning is a necessity and that is what makes it so rewarding. I too am working and learning my way towards being an excellent teacher.

Kimberly Stark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kimberly,
I also teach language arts to 7th graders. I only have one period of language arts because the rest of the day I am teaching math to grades 7 and 8. I agree with you that the students are very interested in learning new things about themselves, as well as, the social aspects of school. I have found that the class can take a different turn than what you may have planned for the day because the students are more interested in discussing items according to their own agenda. I have been teaching for 14 years, and this doesn't get easier. However, if you set some guidelines before a discussion begins this may help. I start off the school year with the students writing a personal narrative about something that has helped shape who they are as a person. We first talk about being unique and what makes us truly unique. The kids love this because they get to share things about themselves. From there, we move into stories that have helped shape who we are. I give examples from my own life. They love to listen. This gets them thinking then about their own life. Students brainstorm 3-5 life-changing events that have helped shape who they are and then share one of them in a personal narrative. It was great. Students talked about themselves through their writing. Topics included losing a family member to cancer, to learning about friendship, to divorce, and even about being adopted. I genuinely enjoyed reading their stories. I learned about each student while assessing their writing skills. We have moved on to write an "I AM" poem that celebrates who they are. This all ties into being unique or different and how we celebrate these. We discussed how important it is to treat others with respect no matter what differences there are. We are now ready to read a wonderful novel, "Freak the Mighty", which ties all of the discussions in together. Even though this is just one example, I have found that allowing the discussion to take place, and making sure it ties into something is very beneficial. The novel is about a boy that is very large and has a learning disability. He is befriended by a student is very smart, but very small. Have you read the book? It allows for students to share and discuss issues that are prevalent in their own lives- the social aspect. Set the guidelines for the discussion. Tell students that they need to be on topic about what is being discussed. Possibly give 5 points or even 10 pints for sharing in the discussion appropriately. This all a part of language arts- verbal communication. Good luck!

Kimberly Stark
Worthington City Schools
7/8 Math
7 Language Arts

Sati's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a relief to hear others having so much anxiety! I am in my third year of teaching and have been successful, but I just get so worked up all the time. Our school counselor told me that I am reacting as though I have post-tramuatic stress. I was shocked to hear that, but it made sense once I thought about it!

I have actually decided that next year I will look for a different school. I have been looking at the one I am in with a whole new set of eyes and have decided I need to make a switch to keep myself healthy or I won't last long in this field.

Elisa Sheffield's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I think of a novice teacher I think of a teacher right out of college with lots of ambition, but little experience. When I think of the term expert I think of a teacher with a plethora of knowledge and experiences that also embrace the changes that have come about in education. An expert is a life-long learner and willing to learn new methods and strategies to help better their students' education. I have worked with many veteran teachers who have resisted change and used the same lesson plans for over twenty years. I am currently entering my fifth year teaching; however, my career has taken me in several different directions from third grade long-term subbing, to a third and fourth grade literacy teacher, to a third grade teacher, to a fourth grade teacher, and now I am currently teaching third grade again. As other people have mentioned in their blogs, I feel that because of my changes in grade levels and assignments, I'm still on the novice side of the teaching spectrum. However, I do feel that I have made great growth as a teacher and I feel more confident in my abilities in the classroom and around my colleagues. Once I have a more stable grade-level position, I feel as if it will be easier for me to gain more knowledge and expertise in that area.

Michelle Woolery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been at home for seven years, raising my three children. As soon as my youngest went to second grade I began teaching full time once again. It was like my first year all over again! I was so nervous and unsure. I did experience some culture shock when I returned to the classroom! Things change when you're out for such a long period of time.
I have a wonderful principal and a terrific team to work with, thank goodness! They have made all the difference for me. I actually enjoy going to work most days and my kids are learning how to be so much more independent. I guess you could say that I'm an expert-novice teacher!

Keith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teaching 5th grade, but my first year at a new school. Adjusting to my new school has been difficult at times with all the additional work. I have learned to cope with the modifications to help me in becoming a successful teacher at this school. My colleagues are always there to give me advice that has helped me settle down inside my classroom. Being able to talk to them about the new technologies that I was not accustomed too at my old school, has been helpful. Without a great support group around me it would have been a difficult transition for me to make. As I look further into the school year, I see myself breaking away from my colleagues and providing them with some of my ideas. Getting back to my expert teaching status might take a little longer to reach, but with my dedication and determination I will achieve it!

Keith Perez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teaching 5th grade, but my first year at a new school. Adjusting to my new school has been difficult at times with all the additional work. I have learned to cope with the modifications to help me in becoming a successful teacher at this school. My colleagues are always there to give me advice that has helped me settle down inside my classroom. Being able to talk to them about the new technologies that I was not accustomed too at my old school, has been helpful. Without a great support group around me it would have been a difficult transition for me to make. As I look further into the school year, I see myself breaking away from my colleagues and providing them with some of my ideas. Getting back to my expert teaching status might take a little longer to reach, but with my dedication and determination I will achieve it!

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