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Are First-Year Teachers Ever Proficient?

I was enormously impressed with a recent blog by Tim Walker (Taught By Finland), an American teacher currently working in Finland. In this piece--a must-read, especially for novice teachers and policy-makers--Walker confesses to being something of a mess in his first year of teaching:

I would wake up seven or eight times a night, feeling so anxious and dreading the next day. There were several times when I would throw up before school. Teaching a lesson - something that I love to do now - felt like the worst thing I could do, it felt torturous. I saw myself deteriorating and really I just felt: "what is going on?" I had been really interested in teaching and thought I loved the profession - now it was making me sick.

I ended up taking time off, which was so embarrassing, but sealed the deal in hitting rock bottom. I knew that everyone was aware that I was having a hard time, and that enabled me to get the support that I needed. I took a month off and returned in a different capacity as an assistant teacher. Before, I hadn't had a model of a great first grade teacher, I didn't have observation hours or experience. I felt kind of lost.

Walker's realization that he wasn't ready--hadn't been properly trained, and didn't have the support system he needed--was a turning point. Fortunately for Walker, his students, past and present, and the profession, he was able to step back and start over in building a genuine career. His experience should be a revelation for anyone who thinks teaching is simply a matter of being smart and "with-it."

And it made me wonder how many potentially wonderful teachers have been lost to a range of early-career blunders: entering the classroom without adequate preparation or field experience, weak or nonexistent induction procedures, lack of mentoring or nurturing in the newbie years--or being forced to pursue the wrong goals under threat of losing one's job.

All teachers struggle, to some extent, in the first year. It matters greatly what you bring to the table in terms of content knowledge, familiarity with students' culture and development levels, length of hands-on experience with similar children (in similar numbers) and the quantity of viable strategies in your bag of teacher tricks. Some folks do acclimate quickly and are able to call on mental models and friendly colleagues to do a very credible job in year one.

In my experience, it's often Year Two that stymies talented novice teachers, as the next set of kids and problems comes through the door accompanied by the depressing realization that teaching is nothing but a series of new challenges and surprises. Just when you think you've mastered pedagogical technique and applied content--whoops. Not so much, with the next bunch. You harvest what you can from your first experience, and then begin the trial-and-error grind all over again. Lather, rinse, creatively repeat. Until you retire.

Paying attention to your mistakes is the best possible advice for first-year teachers. Except--that feedback loop, the only way to build mastery in teaching, has been (horrible word) disrupted, in favor of short-career teaching. The key phrase in Walker's description of his failure--everyone was aware that I was having a hard time, and that enabled me to get the support I needed--doesn't apply to teachers who plan to use teaching as a stepping stone to another career.

There really isn't any substitute for experience or short cut to proficiency. This shouldn't be surprising. All jobs and professions involve craft knowledge. You can't be a good bartender, minister, welder or surgeon without practice and learning from your screw-ups. Why should teaching be any different?

What worries me is our current interlocking iron framework of standards, benchmarked curriculum, standardized tests and teacher evaluation. Could a teacher who's having difficulties, like Tim Walker, ever say--hey, look, I know I'm not ready, so could I have some more time and assistance? In Walker's case, it was certainly worth that investment. Lately, we seem ready to dismiss those conscientious, curious and courageous teachers, in it for the long haul, in favor of cheap, disposable adventure teachers.

I don't remember much about my first year of teaching, in a secondary band classroom, although I'm certain I had far more confidence than was warranted. Content-wise, I remember being well-prepared. Pedagogically, less so.

This was echoed 30 years later, in my last year of teaching, when I taught K-4 general music, after a career teaching high school and middle school band. I could plan content-rich, creative lessons. It was knowing how to deal with kindergarteners and first graders that threw me. Fortunately, I was in a building filled with expert veterans, who generously shared all the real stuff I needed to know (while suppressing their friendly smiles).

From them, I learned that there is a "sheep" stage for kids experiencing their first days of formal schooling. I learned to refresh the learning process by getting elementary schoolchildren up and moving around, waving their arms and taking deep breaths. In the tight, 48-minute seconday periods with five minutes passing time I was used to, every minute was accounted for, instructionally. Given a moment to stretch, eighth graders take ten--or twenty. If you don't give first graders authorized wiggle time, however, it doesn't matter how much focused teaching you're doing--nothing sinks in, especially in the mid-afternoon lull.

That's what I learned on Day One. And I was supposed to be a good teacher already.

I wasn't worried about following a prescribed curriculum. I already knew how to chunk content and create multiple paths to learning. My students would not be tested in music, unless I was developing the assessments. Most important, I could freely express my weaknesses, gaps and insecurities without worrying about them showing up in my evaluation. I could say "I need help." So I did.

Tim Walker and I were extremely lucky. Developing or improving a teaching practice over time has been re-labeled a luxury, something we "can't afford" in public education. Relishing the challenge of continuous growth as an educator has been dismissed as long-term teaching careers become rare.  And that's a terrible shame.

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