Letter to a New Teacher

A little over a month ago, I read a blog post “Call for Advice for New Teachers” that I thought was a really good idea; I’ve learned more from actually teaching and the math-blog community than I ever could have in four years of teacher preparation courses. I’m not saying that my undergraduate courses in education were pointless/useless/meaningless; I do remember some good advice and have probably forgotten more (and had to relearn it for myself).  At the time, I wanted to participate, but I hadn’t put my own blog together yet. I got busy with other things and delayed crafting my own response, but I enjoyed and agreed with a lot of the other submissions (you can also find quite a few here). Fortunately, I accept late work …

 


Dear Teacher,

If you haven’t already, learn to listen to others – there’s a reason why you’ve found yourself reading this open letter and probably other similar posts. In fact, you may have already read several of these letters and will notice that I am largely repeating the advice of others.  Also, please forgive me if I indulge in a little hindsight advice to my previous self.

Why are you going to be a teacher?

Are you a content-expert? Hopefully, you won’t be surprised that most students will not share your enthusiasm and passion but you probably are still overestimating how many students love your subject. I’ve told many students that my job isn’t to make them love math; I want them to realize they can ‘do math’ even if they dislike it.  Are you a motivator? Try not to take personally when a student seems to not be returning your efforts to create a positive relationship as the lack of reciprocity doesn’t mean that they’re not noticing and appreciating everything you’re trying to do for them. Are you an altruist? I admire that you just want to help others or had an amazing teacher who inspired you to ‘pay it forward.’ However, I like to say that almost every teacher was at least pretty good at school; each one of us has a reason that we chose to come back to school. Many of your students will be indifferent to or even dislike school; go ahead and try to positively impact their lives anyway. A few will even thank you – I cannot describe the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from a simple expressions of gratitude that you did not expect.

Maybe you shouldn’t start teaching yet?

This might be initially seem like horrible advice to someone getting ready to start a career but give me a moment to explain what I mean before you move on – I’m not encouraging or advocating against teaching as a career in general or specifically against ‘young teachers.’ I started teaching fresh out of college – one of my first classes included seniors many of whom had older siblings my age or older. Assuming you’re a traditional graduating student with an education major, you’re 22 or 23 years old and fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree.  If you have the means, consider doing another year and a half or two years of college right now.  You’ll start your career with a master’s degree which is a nice salary upgrade in many districts and a little more  maturity/wisdom/knowledge/experience. While we’re at it, you should also consider graduate work in a non-education major; for example, my master’s degree is in mathematics not math education. Teacher burnout still happens to people with good intentions of being a career teacher; you’ll have a little more flexibility and increased opportunities in the event that you do decide teaching is not for you. You’ll possibly avoid some of the stress incurred by working full-time during the day and also trying to cobble together a graduate degree using evenings, weekends, and summers. I waited a couple years before starting graduate classes and it ended up taking about four years to complete; I was juggling teaching, graduate work, and family (wife, kid, and another on the way) by the end. I’m not trying to get you to doubt your life-plan or short-term goals but hopefully given you some things to consider in terms of delaying the start of your career.

Listen and lurk at first

Don’t come in as the hot-shot, know-it-all fresh out of the ivory tower.  I hate to come off as jaded, cynical, pessimistic, or too much of a realist, but you were hired because you had some potential and credentials in many cases. The building and faculty/staff that you are joining may be used to a carousel of new teachers – hire a few, let attrition take its toll, see who sticks around. For example, suppose a topic comes up at a faculty meeting during the first few months of school that you have a strong opinion, promise me you’ll consider sharing any suggestions or opinions with an individual you’ve established a relationship with such as a mentor teacher (oh yeah, try to find a mentor if you’re not assigned one) or perhaps a small group like your department before you wade into the issue with a principal or at a faculty meeting. In many cases, there’s a lot of back-story you will not be aware of as the newbie. School culture and internal politicking can be tricky business. Now don’t assume that the cranky mid-career guy in the corner (like me in this paragraph) is apathetic – some of us have learned to ‘pick our battles.’ Also, learn to listen to the old crank too; go into teaching with he assumption that every other teacher is there to help students.

Time is Relative

You’ll be asked to do a lot of things besides teach your classes; learn to say NO. You may have enjoyed being a member of the club when you were a teen and helping with prom doesn’t sound like very much work, but the first year (or two) is hectic enough as it is. I’m not saying be impolite just don’t provide an immediate knee-jerk ‘uh sure.’ Ask for an opportunity to think about it (and then actually consider if you really have the time available) or tell them to get back to you if they still need more help after asking others. Most people will understand that you want to be cautious about overextending or spreading yourself too thin. By the way, you’ll eventually think about all the time you wasted and squandered during your first few years of teaching – and that’s okay. Somewhere three to five years into this career, you might finally feel a little more comfortable and start to settle into a routine – congratulations! you’re no longer in ‘survival mode.’ Seize the opportunity to take a deep breath, reflect on your teaching career to that point, and start to make the additional improvements necessary to reach more of your students or push them further. Focus on getting better at one specific thing per year – I wish I had followed this tidbit back in the day. I’ve reached the point in my career  where I’m starting to feel like I have to scramble again (the routine that was working for me and seemed to be working okay for most of my students five years ago is not working nearly as well now). I’m sure it’s partially that ‘okay’ isn’t good enough for me anymore and that teaching students who have grown up in the midst of an explosion of technology really are wired to learn differently. You may go through similar stages in your career; one of the easiest ways to realize how far you’ve really progressed is to take an interest in helping a new teacher or allow student-teachers into your classroom even.

In the end, maybe your experience will be completely different than mine has been so far. Thanks to the math blogotwittosphere maybe you’ll be able to leapfrog some of the struggles and issues I’ve referenced. I hope you flourish,

Aaron C.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Letter to a New Teacher

  1. I especially like the paragraph entitled “maybe you shouldn’t be teaching yet.” I had a terrible time as a 22 year old student teacher in a rough high school where many of my students were 18, 19 or even 20 years old. I did take some time off after that and I’m grateful that I did because I returned a much stronger, more experienced and more confident teacher than I started. Now though, I’m wishing that I’d spent my time off learning a little more about how math is used outside of the academic world. I find that I have trouble helping students understand how to use math outside of school when I’ve never needed to. I spent my time off teaching English in Japan and tutoring students in the US at schools that were not meeting NCLB standards. Sure I use it for fun in my every day life, but I don’t know how much math doctors need to know on the spot (dosages, but how much of that is memorized/computerized?) or how often engineers have to whip out integral tables. The extra maturity gained from time off was invaluable, but I also wish I’d gained real world working knowledge about my subject.

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