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A Letter to New Teachers, 2013

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In a very few weeks school will be starting, and you will be starting a wonderful new career.

You are probably excited, and probably scared. A dozen large questions loom in your consciousness, trading places with one another in the Anxiety Gavotte that troubles the dreams (and waking thoughts, too) even of experienced teachers: Will I know my subject matter? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my new colleagues? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too? Will my school be a good fit for me?

You're entering the profession at an exciting time, as I'm sure you have been told. Technology really is transforming everything, and even the methods used by your very best teachers, perhaps just five or six years go, are undergoing some major changes. Thought leaders in our world call these changes "disruptive," and many of them are just that--and they will be disrupting some of your expectations. It's likely that your school, although they may not have said this in so many words, will be looking to you, who are probably younger and more adept at seeing the world through a digital lens, to quietly set an example for your more senior colleagues.

Speaking of more senior colleagues, there are a couple of things I want to alert you about, but these are things that can really help you grow as a teacher if you handle them the right way.

All this change, this "disruption," is making school unsettling and even uncomfortable for some experienced teachers; they're being asked to assemble a whole new toolkit after years of developing their own ways of doing things. They see their schools--their working homes for many years--changing. Some of them are grumpy about this, and sometimes there is cynicism.

Don't stick around to listen or participate; you'll have plenty of other things to do, anyhow. Just walk away--you don't have to chime in or argue, as you'll soon figure out who and what is worth listening to.

But here's something that you can do to help: When you see a real reason to do so, ask one of the grumps for help or maybe even advice. They won't necessarily make it easy, but in the end they will most likely offer you what you're looking for. After all, what's bothering them is the fear that amid all this change what they do know isn't going to be valued any more.

What they know that is of real value, if they're good enough to have been kept on for a while, is that teaching isn't about content and it's not about technology. It's about kids, about building relationships with them, about believing in them, about finding out what they can do and then providing opportunities for them to do it. And it's about seeing them goof up and giving them chances to try again.

In the end it may not matter so much if the curriculum you are being handed is Old School--memorize the formula, do grammar exercises 1 through 13, odd--or all about a New Culture of Learning that grows around guiding and inquiry and coaching. Know your students, have faith in their capacities, and magical things will happen. Inquiry, guiding, and coaching can occur in any kind of classroom--it's what happens when people try to learn new things together. Change also comes more easily to the engaged, collaborative classroom, and so you'll be ready enough if you try.

It isn't going to be easy, but you already suspect that. You might get lucky and have most everything fall into place quickly, but there are probably going to be things you struggle with--perhaps as much as anything you've ever done or even imagined doing.

Here's the thing: You're not as alone--all, all alone--as you will feel. Be the master of what you can, but when things get really hard, be forthright in taking your worries and concerns to a simpatico colleague or an administrator whom you trust (Who did you click with the best when you were being interviewed? Start there). Ask someone to sit in on and observe your unruly section or to help you organize your assignments and assessments so that you can actually finish your own homework each night. Whatever it is, you owe it to your students and your school to seek the assistance you need, pronto. And of course your school owes it to you to help you. It's a problem to be solved, and it can be and will be.

I have three last things to offer.

First, you're a professional now, and with that come some responsibilities. Think of doctors, who spend their lives learning even as they practice. The best teachers do the same, and you should try to emulate that--if for no other reason than to stay on the right side of all the disruptive change that's coming along.

Another responsibility involves being a grown-up. You can like your students, and they can adore you--but you're their teacher, not their best buddy, their secret-sharer, or their guru. If you need to score points off the adulation of kids, you might want to quit teaching and become a celebrity. Otherwise, earn your students' trust and their respect, which will serve you, and them, a whole lot better in the long run.

Second, parents. Yup, lots of them are hovering these days, and they can be kind of hard to take sometimes.

The deal is, parents are the way they are because they love their kids. I'm afraid that most of us parents screw it up pretty regularly, and I'm sure I've made my own kids' teachers' eyes roll. But in the end the strongest teachers are very good at gently, and sometimes not so gently, reminding parents that we're all on the same side here. So plan on spending some time figuring out how to help parents and guardians understand your shared purpose. And it helps to remember that sometimes teachers are actually wrong.

Lastly, before your orientation begins and the whirlwind of opening weeks sucks all the idealistic notions out of your head for a while, go to your school's website and re-read the mission statement. If there are sections on values and history, read these, too.

Because this is a profession of ideals. Somebody started your school because they believed in something worthy, and the school has evolved in certain ways because of these beliefs. Sometimes the beliefs get lost, sometimes they get transmogrified, and occasionally a school has had to stop and then start all over again in a new direction. But believe me, these worthy beliefs are fundamental to the enterprise.

You're about to become a living exemplar of these beliefs. Whenever you rise to your best in the classroom, at lunch, on the field, in the dorm, or in the faculty room, you are in some way going to embody the mission of your school. Sometimes you may have to squint to see it, and you may have to take a leap of faith every now and then, but don't forget it--or let others forget it, either.

So: Believe in kids, soften up your crusty colleagues, be a grown-up, be patient with parents, and, to paraphrase a much better man than I, be the mission you wish to see in the world.

Also: Don't forget to breathe. And have fun, lots of it.

(Note: A version of this letter was first published on my personal blog, Not Your Father's School, in July 2011. It's migrating season for that blog, but it should be up again in August.)

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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