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Pep Talk For New Teachers

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As the new school year approaches, it occurs to me that there are a lot of new teachers heading out there.  This is my twentieth year in the classroom. It hardly feels possible, but if you were to check my Facebook page, it is peopled by former students from five different schools. Most of these folks now have children of their own!  I figured I’d share some things with new teachers that I’ve learned over the years. And I hope that parents will consider these things, too – especially if you hear your child has a new teacher. Before you start wringing your hands in despair, understand that new teachers bring enthusiasm to the classroom. They are eager to work, eager to get to the business of teaching. Help them; encourage them. They have to figure things out very quickly.

August. A new class arrives. Wide-eyed, unformed, brimming with enthusiasm, the youngest ones tinged with trepidation. They find their rooms, sit in desks which have held many before them, smile brightly, secretly thrilled, eager to ponder great books, study unfathomed formulas, devour complex theories, dream noble dreams. This is the ritual of August, right?

Sort of. I mean, maybe for the first week or two. But by the end of the first month, when that ho-hum routine is kicking in, and summer feels like past tense, students may become hauntingly silent, or worse, horribly restless. This is when a new teacher may begin to panic. Because  there are papers to be graded, charts to be updated, forms to be completed and returned to somebody’s office: It’s grueling and even more difficult when you are still trying to figure out whose office is where and which key opens what door.

When I was a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was on a Committee that helped to create a new faculty handbook filled with enough information to get a new teacher started, but not so much as to overwhelm.

New Teachers, see if any of these things help:

photo by Eric James Sarmiento @ flickr.com

1. Don’t take things too personally. You have to know this up front. Your students are going to talk about. If you are lucky, they will say nice things like, “I like Mr. X’s hair,” or “Ms. Q. is kinda cool.” More likely, you will overhear them in the halls: “(Insert your name here) is unfair. Not flexible. Boring. Biased. Unqualified.” Let’s face it. Not every student is going to die for your class. Not every student is going to find the Quadratic equation fascinating. Not every student is going to care about conjugating verbs. They won’t all be interested in Mendelian genetics. Some of them won’t like your unit on Lord of the Flies, or insects, or rain forests. Listen to their comments, glean from them what you will, and then let them go. This is especially true for teachers of older students when you receive your first batch of student evaluations.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Usually teachers are the nicest bunch of folks you can ever meet. (Except when there are budget cuts. When there are budget cuts, hide your construction paper and bolt down your stapler.) But generally speaking, if you need support, a new teacher can ask just about any other faculty member to explain how to un-jam the copier or for directions to the nearest bathroom. No matter what your problems might be, if you are in need, there is someone who can help you. Teachers like to be helpful.

3. Don’t forget to forgive yourself. One of the greatest advantages to teaching is the forgiving nature of children. That same characteristic which makes your students forget the complex theory which you masterfully presented to them just yesterday allows them to completely forget your prior day’s blunder. Even older students will be tolerant of your errors if you are honest about them and don’t try to pretend they didn’t happen. You should apply this same forgiveness to yourself. Some of your lessons are going to suck. But some will be brilliant.

photo by Nick J. Webb @ flickr.com

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is not in any  handbooks I’ve ever read on teaching, but it’s actually really important. If your new teaching experience is anything like mine was, in addition to your teaching responsibilities, you’ve probably already taken on extracurricular responsibilities. Whether you’ re working on a yearbook, organizing a dance or proctoring for SATs, helping to make costumes for the play or coaching a sport, no doubt you’ve got your new teacher hands full. And just as you are getting a grip, someone pops his head in and offers you another great “opportunity for growth.” Don’t be afraid to say no. It isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to take on additional responsibilities you don’t feel ready to handle. Because if you take on too many activities, you’ll get sick. This is because new teachers spend late nights planning, and grading, trying to stay one day ahead of their students. So while it sounds obvious, don’t forget to get enough sleep, eat right, and take lots of vitamins.

5. Don’t forget to laugh. If necessary, look for something funny! Just watching a group of kids at work or coming down the hallway is usually sufficient. There’s usually someone picking his nose, someone with an unzipped fly, someone with pants down around the knees, some girl wearing waaaay too much make-up — (and I’m pretty sure this applies from kindergarten all the way up to college level, folks!) And don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t appreciate the hilarity of the moment when you learn that you have chalk on your butt. It’s funny!

6. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. The most seasoned teachers will tell you that even fifteen or twenty years from now, you still won’t know everything – especially these days with the technology changing so quickly, the kids will, no doubt, be teaching you many things. Let them. If you don’t know something, don’t make something up. Tell the student you don’t know the answer to the question. Write. It. Down. Do some research, and get back to the student with the answer. That student will know that you care.

In May, when you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, more competent, you will walk from one end of the campus/quad/building to the other and each time experience something different — a burst of magnolias on the east side of the auditorium; on the terrace, a gathering of students, intense in their chatter; the sturdy dark wood of the dining room, inviting and scented with red sauce; in the middle school wing, you might see mouths devouring a snack. If it is a Thursday, maybe they might be eating donuts (*she said nostalgically*); outside, during recess, the littlest ones will swing and climb, jump and shout; and everywhere fluffy squirrels will scratch up the nearest trees. You will smile at a colleague while passing her and return a wave to a student who enjoys your class. You will remind someone to throw his plastic something-or-other in the garbage can. You will begin making plans for next year’s classes. You will feel calm. You will feel you belong. You will have survived your first year, the gauntlet.

I promise you, the following year will be a lot easier!

Seasoned teachers, how did I do? What did I forget?

76 thoughts on “Pep Talk For New Teachers

  1. Wonderful write up about schools… I work in one… I would just like to add- that usually it takes me about a week to forget that summer ever excisted…lol… here in the UK the pupils have been back for a week now…and its like they had never gone away…lol…

  2. Excellent post. I love reading posts like this… and hi from a New Orleanian! 🙂

    Take care and congrats on being freshly pressed!

  3. How weird that you mention Lord of the Flies, and this is exactly the book I remember people getting bored with when I was a teaching assistant! And once I couldn’t answer a student’s question, and I lost his focus forever. Good thing I wasn’t the one teaching them every day!

    1. LOTF is my all-time favorite book. I LOVE teaching it to Freshmen in high school. I think I find a way to mention it every day. Look, now I don’t have to do it in conversation! 🙂

  4. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed AND on being a teacher for 20 years. My mother, grandmother, and great grandmother are all teachers. Thank you for being a teacher!

  5. […] To Counteract last week’s depressing article on teaching: A pep talk for new teachers. […]

  6. You just made people understand how much of a creative art teaching is… so many teachers are going to benefit from this little nudge you’ve given them.

  7. Creative art? LOL!!! It is, truly. A young teacher has no idea how many Oscar-winning moments he or she will have to go through within the course of his or her career. The personality the student sees of the teacher is often not necessarily what the teacher really is. Over time, a teacher learns to show a “face” that is expected of a professional; but in private, and especially among close friends, a teacher can often be almost an entirely different person. We used to liken ourselves to actors; and the analogy may not be all that far-fetched, LOL!!!

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

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