First, thank you for joining the profession. You could have chosen a more lucrative field. But, instead, you chose to join a field that does live up to much of the romanticism it projects. We get an opportunity each day, in a single moment, to make a difference in a kid’s life.
That last sentence may sound like hyperbole or teacher rhetoric; it’s not. While romanticism tends to camouflage the daily struggles that are inherent with the teaching profession—struggles that a 20 year veteran still feels—there is no better job. There is no job that offers such a unique list of challenges.
You will find days when nothing can go wrong. You planned a flawless lesson; the kids were into it and everything went according to plan. One may even say “thank you” for teaching them that. You are Michelle Pfeiffer in cowboy boots. Those are the moments that teachers live for. Those moments fuel you.
They have to fuel you because those moments are rare. There will be plenty of days when your flawless plan doesn’t make sense to many of your students. There will be days when students resist work, even if they like you. But, this is the real part of teaching. This is why, even though you may not know it now, you got into this gig in the first place. You will come to love the challenge of getting all kids, all with different needs and learning styles, to learn a concept. You will love the challenge to get them to find their voice, both on paper and in life.
There will be moments you will feel like you are the best teacher in the world. There will be even more moments when you feel like you want to run out of the classroom as fast as you can and never come back. We all go through it; you’ll be no different.
But, if I could pass on some words of advice, I would offer the following. I don’t offer it as someone who has all the answers. I offer it as someone who still likes this gig some 20 years later.
Remember Why They Were Your Favorite
Most likely, you are in this profession because you had a great teacher at some point in your life. Most likely, you had a few, but there was that one special teacher. Think about what made him/her special and so memorable all these years later.
For me, it was Mr. Carulli, my ninth and tenth grade English Teacher. Mr. Carulli was the English Teacher who actually talked to us. Every story we read, there was a conversation. Every piece of writing was discussed too. He always talked to us in the hallway. He actually asked us about our weekends and what was going on in our lives. He was the teacher who first told me that I could be a good writer.
And, when I went to 11th grade, he was still the teacher who checked in with me and the rest of our group. And, senior year, he was the one teacher who vouched for me going into an AP class. The man cared about us. We knew that. We worked hard for him because we knew he gave even more back to us.
This year, during our first English Department Meeting, I, in my role as English Department Coordinator, asked the 30+ teachers in the room to write about their favorite teacher. Now, getting a group of English Teachers to all do the same thing is usually difficult, but this was easy. They wrote and then shared with partners. Afterwards, many of us shared our memories of our favorite teachers. Let’s just say that it may have gotten a little dusty in that room.
The thing that you, my English Department colleagues, and I have in common is that the reasons why “that” teacher holds a special place in our heart has nothing to do with the curricular lessons taught. Not one of my colleagues said anything about a specific academic lesson when they talked about their teacher. Surely, our favorite teachers taught great lessons. That’s a given. It is, however, difficult to remember one without trying really hard. But, it’s easy to remember the time he told me I should write. It was easy for them to talk about how that teacher believed in them and made them feel that they mattered.
It’s pretty simple, actually. Good teachers can teach curriculum. The great teachers make connections beyond that. Those special ones made us better people; they inspired us.
Be that for your students. Be the one teacher who kids want to see every day. Be the one teacher who will care about them, no matter what they do. Be the one teacher who, even on his worst day, will be open, honest, and willing to do whatever it takes to make a kid’s day better than before he/she came into the classroom.
Be Honest…Teaching Is Learning
One of the most liberating things a teacher can do is drop the air of authority. When a lesson doesn’t work, the insecure teacher will utter a phrase that usually begins with “these kids don’t…” as the reason why something didn’t work. It’s best to use the coaching philosophy with this; when it works, the kids did well. When it fails, the teacher failed. If you want your class to continue with something difficult, you have to be willing to have this mindset.
Instead of blaming or stressing, the best thing to do is to come in the next day and tell the class that your lesson didn’t cut it. Kids will respect you for that as long as you continue to teach the skill. Kids will actually buy in because you are showing them that the art of teaching is always a work in progress and is imperfect. Learning follows the same pattern. You are, if you want to get technical, modeling learning for them.
As a young teacher, this might scare you; it scared me at the start. You might feel that this is showing weakness. It’s the opposite. You show strength and you lead by being honest. You are only weak when you blame.
This year, I teach a 10th grade AP class, a first for me. These are motivated kids who want to do well. The idea of them not wanting to achieve doesn’t exist (it doesn’t exist with any kid, really). I thought I taught this great lesson on evaluating source credibility. Seriously, if I just wrote about the lesson, people would take it and use it. It had a great article that read like an objective piece, but when we dug deeper, the absence of data, even written by a PHD, completely knocked out source credibility. There was whole group instruction, small group work, independent work, and a wrap up. It looked great.
Until I saw the wrap up answers…
The lesson didn’t work. I was so sure I had it all covered. But, the results spoke. They didn’t get it. So, I decided on a different approach for the next day.
Before starting that lesson, I started class with the admission of guilt. I told them that my lesson was really bad (I was a little more blunt) and if they were confused, it was my fault for not realizing it during the lesson. They were shocked that I took the blame, which I completely deserved. They also looked relieved that I was going to approach it differently.
Honesty allowed me to get them to want to learn a complicated skill, even after we spent time on it the day before. Honesty helped me keep my credibility as a teacher, showing them that I was willing to keep working at something. How could I ask them to keep learning if I wasn’t willing to do the same thing?
There are those who are beholden to the curriculum and charge through it with precision, never stopping; those aren’t the good teachers. The good ones are beholden to the kids. If the curriculum being taught is any good, a student has to learn concepts that will build upon each other. So, if a student doesn’t understand the skill, how is it educationally sound to move forward?
Being honest with kids is important, but that will only go as far as your willingness to keep at it. Going back and reteaching a lesson in a different way has to happen. And, if a student or a group of students still isn’t quite ready to move on, then those students need small group instruction while the rest of the groups are working on a task relating to the skill being taught.
Sure, that messes up a planner and may muddle the nice and tidy curriculum map, but it is definitely better for kids.
Kids don’t want teachers who know all the answers. They want teachers who are willing to be all in, even if that takes admitting that they don’t know everything.
It sounds simple, but the most overlooked group of people in a school in terms of curriculum design and delivery is the students.
You may have noticed the pattern with this piece is the idea of building a relationship with kids in order to be a more effective teacher and make an impact on kids’ lives. This is another opportunity. Kids should have a say in their learning.
Going back to my 10th graders, I asked them to review our research unit that we completed. It was a research project in which they had to develop their own question, research a perspective of the topic, write an individual paper, and then put together a group presentation.
They did this in about two to three weeks. During that time, I did my usual thing: a whole lot of individual writing conferences, some mini-lessons, and a lot of one on one conversations. And, for their first time through the complete process, they did well.
Once the unit was done, I gave them my review of my performance. I told them that I didn’t teach certain things as well and that I should’ve refocused them more often. They agreed.
Then I asked them. They were a bit surprised. Finally, answers came in; while they appreciated the low stress of the class, one group preferred mini due dates along the way to keep them in line. Others wanted more whole group mini-lessons on certain skills needed in the process.
And, the next time, I will incorporate those in. Some groups will have those due dates. I’ll do more explicit whole group lessons before they research.
By asking them, I am now changing my practices to meet their needs. By asking them and acting on their suggestions, I am showing them that they have a voice in the room. Most students will be able to tell you what type of help they would need. You just have to ask.
For “Those Days”, Keep In Mind: You’re Good
Remember that part at the beginning about romanticism camouflaging those daily struggles that are inherent with the profession?
Well, yeah, that’s real.
The challenge for any teacher is to fight “Those Days” when your lesson falls flat or your students just don’t get what you taught. Or, it could be that the students are dealing with something else. Or, you could be human and have a really “off day”.
“Those Days” aren’t shown in movies or even written about in pieces about finding your teaching voice because they don’t make for good stories. But, without those days of struggling, you won’t get to those moments that carry a teacher; the time a kid “gets it”, the time you spark an interest for a kid, the time your group all passes the state test and the jump up and down when the Principal announces it on the PA, or the times you get a “thank you” years later for something small that you did. “Those Days” force you to innovate, force you to focus on kids more, and drive you towards finding your teaching voice.
As wise woman once told me, “You have to be here to get there.” After all these years, I think I finally get what that means. You have to fight through “Those Days” in order to make yourself, and more importantly, others better. “Those Days” get you there.
Hold on to this: You’re good.
In my role as the English Department Coordinator, this is something I tell to many teachers who come to me frustrated. Every good teacher has bad days. Every good teacher leaves work frustrated a lot of the time. Every good teacher goes through their lessons and thinks, “I didn’t do that well” or “I should’ve done this.”
When fellow teachers come to me with their frustrations, I tell them “You’re good at what you do.”
It’s not a line.
The teachers who care about poor lessons, who obsess over not reaching that one kid in the room, and who are so hard on themselves are the good ones. It’s the ones who never have these thoughts that don’t belong in the profession.
A few weeks back, a colleague came to my office to talk about his writing unit. Now, this is a Teacher whose class I would put my own daughter in; he’s that good. He sat down, exasperated, and went through his entire writing unit, talking about how he conferenced with each kid every day, modeled when needed, and threw everything he could think of at them. He was beating himself up over things he thought he should’ve done better during that day’s revision work as he still senses a struggle in them.
I know for a fact that he is a teacher who is giving everything. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. And, here he was beating himself up because he just had one of “Those Days”. He’s less than 10 years from retirement and he is still constantly looking to improve. And, he is still experiencing “Those Days”.
Hold on to that. We all have them, from the master teachers like him to guys like me.
The fact that you are thinking about improving and reaching more kids, makes you good.
It’s a privilege of a lifetime to make a difference in the lives of others.
–Rick Peterson, Former Major League Baseball Pitching Coach
When I first met Rick Peterson and told him that I was a teacher, he said that to me. Here was a guy who spent a lifetime in Major League Baseball working for Oakland A’s, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, and Baltimore Orioles and he was telling me that about my job.
It’s the truth. And, you chose to be here. We are grateful for that. Now, go make that difference.