While I was helping an older gentlemen clean out his house after Hurricane Harvey, he asked me a poignant question, “Do you know what it feels like to have everything under control, not worrying about a thing, when suddenly you’re dealing with a hurricane?” I comforted him as best I could. Later, I reflected on that question. I thought about my life struggles, including those very tough few years as a beginning teacher way back when. I’m quick to admit that I made plenty of mistakes along the way to becoming what I am now, a veteran teacher.
When things go sideways these days with a lesson or student behavior, I have strategic ways of handing the issue quickly and effectively—approaches I’ve developed through much trial and error and reflection. But there are still challenges that I don’t foresee and that I’m not prepared for. When these occur, I try (though it’s not necessarily easy) to commit to having an open mind and remaining proactive.
Three Common Challenges
Here’s how I managed three significant and unexpected changes experienced teachers may face.
Change 1: Demographic changes in the community. For many years, I taught in a large public school district in Southern California. When I began, I was teaching Spanish to primarily monolingual kids. A handful of years later, the demographics had shifted in the school community, and I realized that my students had changed. I was now teaching a large percentage of students who were Latino and bilingual, and many of my tried-and-true teaching tools were not working.
The first thing I had to do was to find out how much they knew already. I began to use pretests to assess skills before each new unit. I discovered that students responded to learning activities better if I designed them to match their interests, skills, and needs. This new group of students required me to get out of my comfort zone and engage them with group projects, games, and real-life opportunities for them to show what they know. I also communicated frequently with the parents and family members of my students to help me better understand the new community of students I was serving.
Change 2: Teaching courses you have not taught before, or didn’t prepare to teach. This year, I had planned to teach beginning and intermediate Spanish. Just after the school year began, my assignment was changed, and I was called on to teach advanced Spanish. I was prepared to teach the beginning class, but I had to scramble to prepare materials and lessons for the three new classes. We know that students, regardless of age, pick up on a teacher’s attitude right away, so I was careful to not display my frustrations. (Old teacher trick—go with it and seem like you know what you’re doing even when you’re scrambling behind the scenes). Having never taught these classes, often I was only one step ahead of the students.
As an experienced teacher, I found that I had to do something I rarely need these days—I had to get help. I called on other teachers and the district specialists to help me understand the courses and design the syllabi. I scoured the book rooms for resources, and put out the word that I needed books. The other teachers in my department helped me find what I needed. I think most of all, the thing that helped me over the rough beginning of the school year was focusing on what I needed to do for the students and not on my frustrations.
Challenge 3: Changes in curriculum. Added to the surprise additional classes, this year marked the adoption of new textbooks for our department. As we listened to the textbook representatives during trainings, my constant question was, “How is there enough time to do all this?” There are so many resources that accompany the text that it takes considerable effort to master the online menus, programs, and ancillaries. I had to deliberately fight my natural instinct to reject the newfangled as superfluous, and I decided to follow the example of the enthusiastic new teachers. I needed to be a good student like them.
At first, this attitude helped me focus on figuring out how to do in the new system those things I already knew, and then I started adding new stuff like interactive blogs and flipping the classroom with homework tutors, online quizzes, and electronic flashcards. Way back when I began teaching, technology consisted of ditto copies and overhead transparencies. I realized that I had come a long way. Perhaps the thing that helped me most was accepting that I did not know, and simply asking questions (something that many experienced teachers like myself tend to avoid).
A Beginner’s Mind
The changes or minor “storms” teachers are challenged with are in no way comparable to the magnitude of what I saw the older gentleman endure during and after Hurricane Harvey. But change—grand or small—is hard for anyone, particularly if we feel we have everything under control. We veteran teachers can sometimes struggle with change. If something new is coming your way, I invite you to adopt a beginner’s mind and accept the challenge with a fresh perspective and enthusiasm.