Supporting New Teachers and Principals
Sustaining the Verve
“Teacher, teacher,” someone is calling out from his desk. It takes a few seconds for me to realize that the title of teacher belongs to me. I look up to see a boy waving his hands. I read his name tag, smile kindly, and respond. “Luke, my name is Mrs. Maple, not teacher. How can I help you?”
This exchange on my first day of school lasted all of thirty seconds, but it is cemented in my memory forever. I was a real teacher. I had my own class. In those thirty seconds, I felt complete panic—and euphoria.
Sadly, panic is the emotion that seems to stick with many teachers; their sense of exhilaration can fade quickly in light of the demands of the classroom. As a result, many teachers leave the profession after the first few years.
Keeping fresh and motivated is not easy. With my 20 years in the classroom, however, I have seen how teachers sustain their verve. Here are six critical points I share with new teachers to help them in their transition from a brand-new, overwhelmed teacher to a brand-new, confident teacher.
- Acknowledge your own limitations and accept being new:
This is hard for new teachers because no one wants to feel that he can’t do his job. An excellent first-year teacher said a parent had complained that she didn’t give enough homework. She humbly explained to the parent that this was her first year of teaching, that she was still figuring things out, and that she would appreciate any helpful comments. It takes a lot of courage to admit you don’t know it all, but it’s what the wisest people do.
- Choose one subject area in which to focus:
My cousin, who was a 4th grade teacher when I entered my first year of teaching, told me to choose one subject area on which to focus my professional development. I chose language arts to build depth in my teaching. I felt guilty teaching math and other subject areas straight from the curriculum guides. I knew there was more to good teaching. But in my first year, I simply had no time to do more. The following year, I chose to improve my curriculum knowledge in math.
- Observe the culture and climate of the school and listen:
A neighbor of mine started teaching 2nd grade after first teaching kindergarten. She said it was like starting over. Not wanting to “rock the boat” by questioning a well established team of teachers’ methods and activities, she wisely realized that she needed to observe the teachers with their 2nd grade students before offering comments or suggestions. Teachers can gain considerable insight by being quiet and listening to others.
- Set routines in classroom and homework:
For classroom management—and your sanity—you must schedule set times to cover certain subjects. Most elementary schools have language arts in the first two hours of the morning. Math, social studies, and science are then taught in the afternoon. Establish a similar calendar for your students. And remember, if library, computer lab, or an assembly is canceled, independent reading—often left out of the schedule—is an instructionally sound activity that you can use at anytime. As for homework, I have found that designating certain days for homework in different curricular areas saves time. For example, I give reading and summarizing (language arts) on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday is social studies or science homework. Thursday is math and I don’t generally give homework on Fridays. The simplicity in the routine in no way makes for simple homework. Be thoughtful about the work you assign. Homework should parallel the instruction of the classroom, and the students should be able to work independently to complete the assignments.
- Stay open and be reflective:
I know many well-organized and competent teachers who sometimes seem so busy teaching curriculum that they forget the child. It’s understandable. I know when I am rushed and cover content quickly, I feel like I really haven’t taught; I just delivered. How do I know the students really learned?
Don’t rely solely on the results of end-of-the-unit-tests—those are just one way to measure student growth. Take time to observe your students. Keep anecdotal records to determine student development in a non-threatening environment.
All teachers should stay open to suggestions. I have heard teachers mock parents when they question them about giving too much homework or not enough. Listen carefully to all comments and try not to get offended. Although you may believe that the opinions of parents are uninformed, their comments are another source of data you can use to improve your instruction.
- Stay positive:
Take your career seriously—not yourself. After a few years, some teachers become bitter, but how you conduct yourself is a choice. Teaching can be a rewarding career and, after 20 years in the field, I still can’t imagine working in any other profession. I’ve maintained my enthusiasm by reading professional journals and new publications. The more I learn and read about what other people are doing, the more I grow as an educator. Surprising as it may sound, not many teachers keep up professionally, and I think it builds insecurity in their craft. The more you study the research, the more you will find information to help support your teaching practices. Finally, keep a sense of humor. So much joy lies in the hard work of teaching. Try to remember the children in your classroom haven’t been on the planet that long. Don’t lose sight that they are acting like children because they are children. Try to remember your first-day euphoria—and have fun.