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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 (97)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ali's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would describe a novice teacher as one who is obviously new to teaching and has not yet found their comfort zone in the classroom, at parent teacher conferences and among colleagues. The expert teacher would be the one who has confidence, control, and is effectively teaching. I often commented during my first year of teaching that I was being paid more than I was worth. I felt as if I was drowning in a sea of paperwork, permanent folders, grades, and meetings. I was fortunate to be teaching at the same school where I had once been a student. I was teaching among those who had taught me and I even had the same principal. Rules and procedures of the school had not changed, but now I was on the other end. I wore a path from my room to the room across the hall asking one of my former teachers questions constantly! The next year was better, and the next was even better. Teaching is so much more than teaching content. The entire school environment plays a role in what teachers do. As my knowledge of all the extra things grew, I became better at teaching content. Once I knew how to do all the extra things that came with teaching, I could concentrate on the content more effectively. Thirteen years later, I do not feel that I am an expert. There are so many things I can do to improve myself. I've moved to two different states in the past four years. At each new school I've felt like a novice teacher all over again, however, it has gotten easier. I think experience can be a positive, but it's important to not become complacent. Teachers should continue to learn and try new things. Today I would put myself a little closer to the expert level than the novice. I learn something new everyday.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The university in which I attended for my undergraduate degree had a five year program for Education students, four years of undergraduate work and one year long internship while taking masters courses. During this internship, I started teaching on day one. I would describe myself as a novice at this time. I really had no idea what to expect. I had to figure out how to manage a classroom, teach the curriculum, and interact with the students. I had a lot to learn!

I was new to being the actual "teacher" and was trying to follow in my mentor teacher's lead. After a year internship and taking master's classes on Fridays, I felt a step above the rest of teachers who only had a half year internship. As I took my first teaching job, I realized there was still a lot to learn, especially about the school district. At this point, on the novice-expert continuum I would be somewhere in the middle, but closer to the novice end. There were still things to learn, how I was going to decorate my room, how I was going to set up my interactive notebook, the change of working with middle school aged students instead of high school aged students, etc. I looked to my mentor teacher at my school for help. She was amazing at guiding me a long and helping me, any way she could. I learned a lot from her that first year. I also learned a lot about the ins and outs of school politics from my team members.

Now that I am in my second year, I feel that I am still in the middle on the novice-expert continuum, but now I am closer to the expert end. I still have a ways to go to becoming an expert; however, I have learned so much during my first year and from every year from now on will get a little closer to the expert side. I am not sure if I believe that anyone ever truly becomes an expert. I believe there is always something to learn.

Ali's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would describe a novice teacher as one who is obviously new to teaching and has not yet found their comfort zone in the classroom, at parent teacher conferences and among colleagues. The expert teacher would be the one who has confidence, control, and is effectively teaching. I often commented during my first year of teaching that I was being paid more than I was worth. I felt as if I was drowning in a sea of paperwork, permanent folders, grades, and meetings. I was fortunate to be teaching at the same school where I had once been a student. I was teaching among those who had taught me and I even had the same principal. Rules and procedures of the school had not changed, but now I was on the other end. I wore a path from my room to the room across the hall asking one of my former teachers questions constantly! The next year was better, and the next was even better. Teaching is so much more than teaching content. The entire school environment plays a role in what teachers do. As my knowledge of all the extra things grew, I became better at teaching content. Once I knew how to do all the extra things that came with teaching, I could concentrate on the content more effectively. Thirteen years later, I do not feel that I am an expert. There are so many things I can do to improve myself. I've moved to two different states in the past four years. At each new school I've felt like a novice teacher all over again, however, it has gotten easier. I think experience can be a positive, but it's important to not become complacent. Teachers should continue to learn and try new things. Today I would put myself a little closer to the expert level than the novice. I learn something new everyday.

kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi!

I teach science as well. I have an inclusion class that includes students that are ED. I am in my second year of teaching and I was afraid to come back! I guess I thought I would have forgotten what to do. I didn't! It was fun coming back and seeing last years students. I never have had a problem with sleeping! If I ever have too much to do, I can always put it aside and go to bed! I guess I just don't let myself stress out about it. There is always tomorrow. I'm in my second year and the idea of retirement has even crossed my mind!

Thanks!
Kelly

Ali's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think you have the same feelings as any other teacher. Most of us hate to see summer end. Keep getting ideas from your colleagues, they are your best resources. I teach Language Arts and I differentiate by grouping m students. They don't realize I'm even doing it. One example- I have a fiction lesson that I group the students according to their abbilities. Every group goes to 3 different stations. All the stations have the same activities. The only difference is the book I choose for each group. I choose a more challenging book for the higher level learners and an easier book for the slower learners.

Dawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Salutations,
I have been teaching 3rd grade for the last 7 years and I still see myself as a novice teacher. Granted my room is established with all of its different areas. I have pre-made lesson plans I can pull ideas from. My first of the year jitters have dissipated a little. But each year when those doors open for the first day school I am looking at 28 brand new kids all with unique personalities and learning styles. Sometimes I can see past students in them and know how to reach them, but there is always one or two that will challenge my abilities and make me feel like I'm starting over. I learn new things each year from my colleagues as well as my students.

Christin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Greetings fellow bloggers! I am currently taking a masters course that has required up to explore blogs. I have to say, this is my first time blogging and I think it's going to be addicting!

I was interested in these posts because in the masters course we just did an assignment on the continuum from novice to expert teachers. I have taught first grade for eight years and have just started my first year teaching all-day kindergarten. I find it hard to evaluate exactly where I am on the continuum of novice to expert. Reflecting on my years of teaching, I'm definitely not a new (novice) teacher but in no way do I feel as though I am an expert, especially as I begin teaching a new grade.
One of my fellow students in the masters course classified herself as an "expert novice", a term I instantly loved and could see myself fitting into. I'm not sure there should ever be an "expert" teacher. Teaching is a profession of lifelong learning. With the profession constantly changing (students in your class, expectations, programs, etc) how could we ever call ourselves expert? We should continually be learning and altering our teaching to meet the varying needs of our students, the changes of our profession and the changes in our society. With so many changes constantly happening (our student needs, society, expectations, tests, programs, etc), how could we ever feel expert? Perhaps we should all work towards being "excellent" teachers in contrast to striving to call ourselves "expert" teachers. I am not a novice teacher, and I'm working and learning my way towards being an excellent teacher, but in no way am I an expert teacher.

Iliana Arguelles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Iliana Arguelles. I teach kindergarten at Mains Elementary School in Calexico,CA. This is my ninth year teaching. I have taught five years in first grade and four in kinder. I remember my first year teaching. It was totally different than the courses I had taken at university. Luckily I had a great mentor at my same grade level who helped me by sharing ideas, with teacher made resources, classroom management, and discipline procedures. With these in hand I was able to start my first year going. I was also fortunate to have my school district send me to BTSA, which is a state program for new teachers. This program assigns an experienced teacher from your school to aide you in a particular area that is challenging for you. The experienced teacher will assist you with ideas and recommendations of things that you can implement on a weekly basis through a semester to improve that specific challenge. From all of these help what I think was most powerful in learning was observing my reading coach teach a lesson to my students. As a new teacher, it would be good to have a reading coach demonstrate a lesson you feel uncomfortable with. If you are not so lucky to have a reading coach at your site you might ask permission to your principal to observe your grade level colleagues to write down ideas and strategies on how to teach a lesson. It is important to help each other out and keep in mind what we teachers went through our first year. That is why I always make novice teachers feel welcome to our school site even though they are not at my grade level.

Rachel Noll-Schueller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading your comments about heartbreak, and the emotional toll we as teachers place on ourselves, I am reminded of a passage from "On Being A Teacher, The Human Dimension" by: Kottler, Zhem, & Kottler (2005) that I have been reading for my master classes. I too would lose sleep with some of my student's struggles and whether or not I was doing enough for them. The book discusses a teacher talking to his supervisor about worrying so much. This supervisor replies, "How is that helping them?. . .I asked you what the connections was between you worrying about these kids and it being in any way helpful to them. When you stay up late at night, thinking about some student who is failing or having trouble at home, does it make a difference to them?" The author discusses his point as, "There is only so much you can do; the rest is up to others."
As teachers, there is only so much we can do, but there are others out there (counselor, principal, etc.) who can also help.

Rachel Noll-Schueller
2nd grade
Hoover Elementary
Dubuque Iowa

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.

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