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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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Evan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand all that you have written. I am in my 20th year. I teach special ed science middle school - HS. Emotionally disturbed people in a residential program. the school is part of the NYC dept of ed. I have taught this subject for the past 10 years and it is always horrible getting back to the routing after taking off the summer. i am combating insomnia and anxiety. When will it end? Retirement cannot come too soon but i am only 44 and I don't want to rush life. the lessons are planned and the management is fine. It just happens every September.

Evan

Amy C Risch Loveland, Ohio 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I still consider myself very much a novice teacher. Each year gets a little easier, but I am still learning so much from other teachers and my students each year. The stress and a little bit of depression always comes right before school starts. But, when I get back into school, I start remembering how important teaching is to me. I start organizing and planning new and exciting lessons, and know that every year is going to be even better than the last. I would like tips on differentiation if anyone has any good ideas!!

Nicollee Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am just starting my second year teaching and already I feel so much more confident than I did last year. I still feel I am a novice teacher with a lot of growing to do, but I am growing. Each day I learn more about my students and more about myself. My first year was very difficult and I almost quit several times, but I had a great support system in my colleagues and friends that helped me through. I am glad I did not give up. When I have a stressful day I remember that nothing compares to some of the horrible days my first year and it motivates me to move on.

HIlary 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Last year, my first year of teaching, I was constantly amazed when I would find myself not asleep anymore. It was subtle. It was not like I woke up with a start. I would just all of the sudden be conscious of trying to work out all the issues at school in my head. I think it is key to leave notes about why we are teachers. I mean this is the most important thing I have ever done. I care deeply about giving to my students the best I can. Oftentimes it breaks my heart because it never feels like I can do enough to even the odds. My students are so amazing and brilliant. They are why I teach.
Thanks for your wisdom Elena. You are always an inspiration.

Jennifer Lehon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I moved to a brand new school site last year after eight years at the same site, and it was like my first year all over again. I had to get to know the new staff, students, and adminstration. There were no rules, no procedures, not enough materials and supplies. Nobody knew what anybody was supposed to do and it took me back to my first year. I didn't have a credential, any curriculum, and 20 little children staring up at me wide-eyed. I welcomed the change of my new school site at the beginning of the year, but as the year progressed I missed the familiarity and the relationships I had built at my other school site, not only with the teachers but with the students. Then I remembered that because I had made it through my first year eight years earlier, I could definately make it through this. I did make it through that year and although things are still not running smoothly, I'm glad I got the opportunity to experience another "first year" teaching.

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for this comment, Hilary! It's true--about the heartbreak. It is perhaps one of the greatest challenges I've had to deal with--how to manage having my heart break over and over again. One way is by recognizing all the ways it is repaired and strengthened, by connecting with others who are doing this work. And that's why I thank you -- because knowing that you're in a classroom somewhere loving kids and giving them what they deserve mends my heart, strengthens my spirit, makes me convinced without doubt that we CAN transform this system. Onward!

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.

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