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Four Things I Want to Say to Novice Teachers

During the brouhaha over Nancie Atwell's remarks on CNN, my friend and 40-year teaching veteran Claudia Swisher remarked that when she'd first read Atwell's books, she questioned whether the techniques Atwell developed would work in traditional public schools. After fully absorbing Atwell's ideas, however, she began incorporating them--and found them not only useful, but transformative.

I hope this is what happens with all the novice teachers who are up in arms at being told that public schools no longer welcome the creativity and vitality of new classroom practitioners. If Atwell's honest comments left you angry, go deeper into the rich instructional ideas in her books. Turn your irritation into a learning experience.

If I were leading an organization of pre-service teachers, here's what I would tell them:     

 Welcome to a Changed Profession. Nobody is "discouraging" you from becoming a teacher. In fact, we want you to become career teachers--not tried-it-and-ran temps--so we're honoring you, by telling you the truth. Which is: this is not your mother's profession. Things have changed, even in the years since you graduated high school.

We warmly welcome your new ideas, energy and enthusiasm. But sticking with teaching these days will require more than grit and a tool bag of instructional strategies.  In order to re-shape teaching and learning, to become the innovative, dedicated, future-focused professional teacher in your personal vision, you need to see the big picture: What is the conventional wisdom around the future of public education in America? Is that conventional wisdom the truth? Plan on changing your mind a dozen times in your first year of independent practice. 

Beware of Media Oversell. Media campaigns are just that: what the public has been fed, by people whose job it is to promote certain programs and initiatives. I #loveteaching, too--but I've been paying careful attention to the evolution of public school teaching for more than forty years. We can't paper over the recent influx of top-down mandates--endless standardized everything, loss of teacher control over curriculum and instruction, evaluation by test data--with clever hashtags or faux outrage (like that directed at Nancie Atwell).  I genuinely love teaching too much to hand it over, lock, stock and whiteboard, to hired guns who are shaping MY work according to the dictates of funders.

Scrutinize the glossy websites of non-profit educational organizations. Analyze books and articles written by hot young (non-teacher) authors. Ask yourself: What ideas are they selling? Who will benefit? Another way of expressing this necessity of evaluating media soundbites around K-12 education (first popularized by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in their seminal, timeless book on change and leadership in education, Teaching as a Subversive Activity): Activate your crap detector.

Act on Your Beliefs--but Clarify Them, First. What is it that you are most committed to, as a novice teacher? Common (and great) answer: making an important difference for my students. Begin with your core beliefs and principles, and work backward from there. You may find current policies, programs and practices that don't actually support your personal commitment to your students, but get lots of airplay: Raising their test scores. Getting students into high-profile colleges. Pushing kindergartners into developmentally inappropriate literacy drills.

In my first year of teaching, my (unstated) goal was to become the world's greatest band director. I approached this through diligently incorporating all the techniques and strategies I had been taught, by observing my own excellent high school band director and in my undergraduate work in music education. I worked incredibly hard. I was going for results.

It took me ten years in the classroom, maybe more, to realize that my core mission was hollow, based on egotism.  I started thinking about what students would take away--for life-- from being part of a well-designed music program, not posting superior scores at the next contest.  It changed everything, for the better. How did I know? My students told me.

 Choose Your Heroes Carefully.  I once had the opportunity of working with a group of teaching fellows--some Teach for America "corps members" and some from similar programs--in a summer training and e-mentoring program for new teachers in a district in eastern North Carolina. Geographically, the district was comprised of country farmland that was once back-to-back tobacco plantations. The student population was overwhelmingly poor, rural, African-American and, according to the state of North Carolina, low-performing.

Most of the teachers in the district were locals--folks who had gone to school in this county, gone off to college to get a degree in education, then come back to serve as teachers in the district that launched their own academic aspirations. They were dignified, referring to colleagues as "Mrs. Jones" or "Dr. Smith." And they were completely used to the churn of having entire curricular departments (HS math, mostly) come and go, every year.

The novice teachers I was mentoring had little regard for twenty-year veterans who went to East Carolina University. They weren't interested in practices the veterans had worked out to engage students, break down difficult material in ways kids could understand, or maintain classroom control. They had been told, either overtly or by insinuation, that the teachers already in place in this high-poverty district were also low performers--not worth asking for advice.

Don't be like them. You'll find heroes everywhere. Perhaps, if you're lucky, in the classroom next door. You will learn, and become a stronger teacher, from every contrarian you meet.

Also: Ad hominem attacks on famous teachers (or the Secretary of Education, or Diane Ravitch) are a sign of weakness in your own arguments.

Welcome to teaching. We've been waiting for you.

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