Advice to New Teachers from a 20-Year Veteran (Notice)
This school year marks my 20th year as a teacher. Looking back, I learned some important lessons in my teaching career that I would offer any new teacher. These lessons are especially important during the continuing upheaval of the pandemic, but they will continue to serve you throughout your career.
- Take care of yourself first. In teaching, most of our instincts tell us to be altruistic, altruistic, generous. And while this is a noble set of impulses, burnout is a real danger to good teachers, especially during this late phase of a pandemic that has injected so much uncertainty. You can’t give your best work and your students if you barely hold on. If you are sleep deprived or overworked, it is much more difficult to have patience and understanding. The best teachers are those who take the time to be filled with joy and curiosity outside of the classroom so that they can bring it back to their students.
- Find a mentor. There is no better way to navigate the world of education than with a guide. The best way to find a good mentor is to observe. See what other teachers are doing in their classes. Which have significant links with the students? Who are still energized by work and can still find humor in any situation but are not cynical? What class would you like to be in when you were a student? This is the teacher you want to ask to be your mentor. The sooner you can forge a relationship with a positive role model, the better able you will be to meet the day-to-day challenges of first-grade teaching.
- Consider your reputation. Your professionalism, your teaching methodology, your spirit of collaboration and your willingness to form meaningful relationships are all assets for your teaching career. A colleague always refers to his four math sections saying that it is “four live broadcasts per day”. Students are always watching you closely, they are responding to your energy. Students can sense when you are dishonest, and they can sense if you care. If you are open and honest, you will earn a reputation as someone that other teachers can turn to for help and advice. If you work hard to build relationships with your students, your colleagues and the community will know it too.
- Mental health is physical health. Teaching can be a draining effort, and not in the way a good night’s sleep can heal. Working with children is fun, rewarding and meaningful. But it also means having students who make impulsive decisions, students who have unstable family lives, or a student whose parent may have cancer. After a year and a half of uncertainty created by the pandemic, teachers are facing mental health challenges like never before. The most important part of mental wellness is creating space to process the way you do, feel and react. Just as teachers work on the social and emotional aspects of student development, we also need to make sure that we also model good mental health hygiene.
- Know your administrators. Teaching can sometimes feel like you are isolated in a crowd. For most of my school day, I am the only person over the age of 12 in my class. This is why I make it a point of honor to have lunch with my colleagues from the 6th grade team. This is also why I make it a point of honor to develop solid relationships with the administrators of my building, my department and the central office. Administrators are not a distant force behind a curtain. Keeping lines of communication clear means that you can have an open dialogue with your supervisors and ask them to be clear with you about their expectations.
- Know your students and their community. COVID-19 has shown us that schools are often the heart of a local community. They provide education, yes, but also meals for many students, a place for civic engagement, extracurricular activities, town halls and polling stations. Many families have suffered the trauma of illness and even death, coupled with job losses, a deportation crisis and the slow pace of the pandemic’s hardships. Knowing the challenges and celebrations of the community you teach is an important aspect of knowing your students.
- Make yourself known to your students. This is sometimes the most difficult advice to follow. Early in my career, older teachers told me things like, “Don’t let them see you smile until November”. Obviously, this advice is stupid. And it doesn’t work. Instead, the students want to know what you are doing. They care about you when you talk about your hobbies, your travels, or even your own experience as a student. I have a photo of myself, my dad and the 2011 Stanley Cup on a bulletin board surrounded by Boston Bruins memorabilia, and this little display has sparked so many interesting conversations with the kids. I like to tell them about my trips to Greece and Italy and about my archaeological digs. I’m talking about my husband and how he finds museums boring when I want to spend hours in one gallery. I told my students about my grade 7 Latin teacher who taught each class like he was a great actor on stage and how he sparked my great love for ancient history. You will find that if you give your students a glimpse of who you are, they will return the favor.
I hope that my fellow teachers, and especially those who are new to the profession, will be able to find the right balance between excellent teaching and self-reliance. But I also want to be clear: we seasoned teachers are also struggling. This pandemic has really rocked us, but we’ve also seen the work get harder and more complex. As of March 2020, nothing has been clearer to me than the fact that we are really all in the same boat, in our classrooms, in our schools and in our communities. I wish you much joy and success this school year, but I want you to also allow growth and setbacks. Over time, all of them make you stronger.