No One Starts Out Awesome: Advice for New Teachers
There is no single strategy for success. But positivity, flexibility, a desire to keep improving, and empathy will help along the way.
As we begin to explore what the postpandemic world looks like, I think about the challenges teachers have faced this year and the obstacles that may be ahead. My mind returns to 2007, when I began my teaching career.
While this brief reflection is hardly comprehensive, here are some of the points I wish I could go back and make to myself. I share them with you not as a recipe for all success but as starting points for a rich journey of growth.
Seek Positive Voices
If you are anything like me, you are entering the teaching profession because of a desire to help others. It is perhaps cliché, but the phrase “make the world a better place” comes to mind. This desire to help comes at an important time. When my undergraduate and graduate students ask me about the single point I wish I had known when I started, it is this: Seek positive voices in your life and mentors who work from a positive stance.
Are there negative voices in the world of education? Such perspectives can be found in any path in life, but rather than focus on a deficit framework, I recommend seeking out voices in professional relationships that are also interested in helping others—those who see the beauty in the mess, and those who are willing to take time to work with new teachers.
Focusing on the moments of success can help us negotiate and better understand moments when we still have room to grow. Save the positive letters you get from students and families. Remember the moments of beauty from the day. Listen to those who see possibilities in students, and explore energized collaboration.
Keep Refining Your Practices
The first time I ever guest-lectured in a college course, a student asked me, “Have you ever known anyone who was awesome at teaching from the beginning?” I believe we all have room to refine. I would venture to guess that no one starts out with all the right notes in all the right places.
A good dose of humility goes a long way in this vulnerable profession of ours. Teaching is essentially human and is a complicated balance of personal interaction, pedagogical implementation, and content area knowledge. The balance takes time. Next week marks my 15th year in education—and I keep finding room to grow. I still reflect at the end of a lesson and think about ways I can make the next version better.
Normalizing growth (for us and our students) is a healthy step. Self-doubts are normal, and so are teacher dreams—those moments in the nighttime when we envision a classroom that we have not yet anticipated. Yet, the progress we make is so worth the time and effort.
Maintain Your Flexibility
When asked about the most important quality for teachers and teachers in training, the word flexibility comes to mind.
In-person, hybrid, and virtual instruction have worn on the nerves of many teachers and students. Unstable internet connections and distance create difficulties and punctuate the need to address issues of equity and access. My hope, at the time I am writing this, is that the world ahead looks more like 2019, but with improvements.
Even in nonpandemic times, I found flexibility to be necessary. Rain days, snow days, early dismissals, illnesses, missing work—the list goes on for the ways that any typical week might be disrupted by the unexpected. This is to say nothing of those traumatic moments that truly catch us off guard and call for changes in planning, or of those moments when the lesson we thought out carefully does not go exactly as planned.
It is completely normal to have a plan B or C.
Position Story as Central in Your Teaching
The final reflection I have been contemplating centers around the student side of this equation, but it also speaks to the teacher. In the past year, we have seen a more prominent awareness of the disparities in America come to the forefront of the news and daily life. Stepping into this world as an educator is delicate and often uncomfortable work. These are not easy times.
Perhaps one of the first places I might turn to in these tenuous times is story, including narratives that are sometimes hidden and need to be shared. Encountering a range of stories and lived experiences is central to teaching language arts, certainly, and the challenges of notable figures throughout time are important for understanding any content area.
I’d also turn to writing as a new teacher. Sharing stories, expressing thoughts, and asking questions—the written or digital page is a place to get to know our students and for us to process difficult moments. I would be sharing my own stories and providing students with opportunities where they could encounter authentic voices.
Honoring narratives is the essential work of empathy and compassion, and it also allows students to have opportunities to explore their lives alongside new experiences in text.