Politics Aside--For New Teachers, It's Still November
Note: Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She is a National Board Certified high school teacher currently teaching in Miami.
November is the month I most often hear from new teachers. This month also brings an uptick in speaking and writing requests from organizations that recruit, train, and support new teachers.
The most common concern from organizations is how to reinvest recruits in their overall mission: The achievement gap can't wait. The future is in your hands. This is the most important job in the world, and the kids can't afford for you to fail.
The most common concern from individual teachers is that they've already spent the last few months failing at the most important job in the world.
It's not for lack of effort.
Many rookies hit the ground running when they should really hit the ground walking at a brisk pace they can maintain. They overpromise things like pizza parties, constant parent contact, and behavior management systems that require hours of afterschool paper work. They are so afraid of what will happen if they stop moving that they can't sit down long enough to take attendance.
Meanwhile, they're learning that the achievement gap--this source of both outrage and motivation--sometimes manifests itself in the form of 7-year-olds who curse at teachers, or bullies who torment special education students, or any of the many other idealism-meets-reality, non-mission-statement-matching moments that happen in beginning teachers' classrooms. They are learning hard life lessons in front of kids who are supposed to be learning from them.
On top of this, today's rookies know their every move is being monitored for effectiveness data, which creates pressure to not only become successful teachers, but to be successful from day one.
November is also a tough time for organizations. On one hand, they have to generate funding and positive PR from those who want to back great teachers. On the other, they must offer support to rookies who feel anything but great. The suggestions below may help organizations walk this thin, fuzzy line. They are distilled from rookie concerns that have surfaced during my workshops and in emails I typically get from beginning teachers around this time of year.
1. Find a low-key way to congratulate your superstars. If one of your new teachers has managed to start a championship soccer team, single-handedly staff the school clinic, bring student achievement up two grade levels, and get a masters degree in public policy by Halloween, it is tempting to update other recruits with constant reminders of his or her success. This is about as inspiring to struggling rookies as being a bridesmaid the day after getting dumped. New teachers are especially sensitive right now to messages that can be interpreted as, "We don't understand why you suck when everyone else is so good."
2. Acknowledge that some teaching assignments are harder than others. Teaching in a high-needs school doesn't mean the same thing in every case, and teaching conditions can vary wildly even within the same school. Acknowledging this reality is important. The battle cry of "No Excuses! The teacher is the most important factor in student achievement!" is a half-truth at best, mostly used by people who wouldn't dream of skimping on the out-of-school inputs that affect their own children's achievement. Insisting that the teacher controls every factor in the classroom doesn't help kids nearly as much as it demoralizes the teachers with the hardest assignments. Teaching is tough, but it's not supposed to be masochistic.
3. Encourage humility. Traditionally, experienced teachers have provided lifelines for new teachers at their schools, but changes in education politics have complicated this relationship. New teachers aren't just struggling colleagues anymore. They are cheaper, younger, often non-union-joining competition in an increasingly zero-sum game of you-bet-your-career. Many of the organizations that send teachers into schools for short-term commitments have also set their sights on proving experience doesn't matter much. Beginners who take this inherent tension into account and try to build relationships with coworkers are more likely to get help when they need it. Those who don't may alienate would-be mentors.
4. Lighten up on the data-mining requirements. Maybe there was a time when schools didn't focus enough on collecting data and this was something organizations needed to push on their own. That time has passed. Schools and districts have gotten the memo on the importance of collecting data every second of the day and keeping it in a binder for a constant stream of data-obsessed visitors. The last thing rookies need in November is an additional person pushing investigation of data-driven solutions based on the most recent benchmark assessment. Instead, they need concrete answers about how to get kids to stop interrupting them with loud, off-topic questions, or what to do with kids who say, "I don't have to pass this class - I'm going to summer school anyway," or whether requesting an aide for an autistic student will make administrators hate them.
5. Treat teacher time and energy as finite resources. Programs often play up their recruits' willingness to put in long hours, but at some point it becomes counterproductive to stay up another hour cutting paper pepperoni for the next morning's fraction-pizza lesson. Yes, our nation's most vulnerable kids deserve a teacher who will work tirelessly to close the achievement gap. They also deserve a mentally healthy teacher who wants to be in the room with them and has the emotional reserves to show compassion when they need it. Rookies propping themselves on energy drinks are more likely to commit cringe-worthy, regrettable teaching mistakes.
6. Give all that good advice some time to sink in. At some point between Halloween and Thanksgiving, new teachers question what they learn in training. This is not necessarily cause for panic. They spend much more time questioning the parts of their own character that they thought would make them good at teaching. As tempting as it is to reinforce the validity of your training or reinvest recruits in your mission, this month might be better used to reassure rookies that they're up to this demanding job.
In November, the treadmill has been turned up high for nearly three months. Rookies don't need the speed turned up higher.
They need to catch their breath.