My Letter to a New Teacher

Bowman Dickson is doing a solid for some friends who’ll be new to teaching this coming school year and put out this call:

“Please help the first year teachers in the world by writing a letter to a new teacher.”

Over twenty educators chimed in with their letters.

Here’s mine:

Dear New Teacher,

You’ve chosen a challenging and noble profession. I’ve distilled some thoughts into six   categories you might find useful.

The content will be the least of your worries.

Hard to believe, but your subject matter won’t consume your creative energies. More than likely you have a degree in the subject or have passed through the gauntlet of nasty state tests to prove your mettle. You’ll be fine with the challenge of teaching the content.  Your daily battles will be with how to motivate the unmotivated, how to satisfy the billion add-on requirements of new teachers that your department, district and state deem necessary, and how to deal with the human issues inherent to a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of students. Suicide, fights, gossip, hunger, poverty, and other distracting “real” issues will show up from time to time, unannounced, and beg for your time and talents.

 Don’t take things personally.

(This might sound like break-up talk, it’s not. )

When a student doesn’t do her homework, it’s not you.

When a student doesn’t want to share his answer out loud, it’s not you.

When a student is habitually tardy to class, it’s not you.

When a student drops out of school, it’s not you.

When a student is quarrelsome, it’s not you.

When a student graffitis your new poster, it’s not you.

These behaviors are usually the symptoms of an aversion to school. There’s probably something much deeper going on in his life than keeping on top of the demands of your class. Your class is just another item to check off in the daily drudgery that is his schedule. If it weren’t you, it’d be some other teacher receiving the same apathy, poor behavior, or mean looks. I haven’t met a teacher yet who can rally all students to do all things asked of them, and I’m in the company of some amazing teachers. It’s not you. Don’t take it personally.

Build a network of support.

3-D people: Seek out at least one member in your department who has your back, who you can go to with questions large and small, who won’t judge you. Be sure to let them know that they are a valuable resource to you.  It’ll fill their cup too. If the whole department is like that, then stay in that department for a long time! Equally important, seek out colleagues outside of your discipline.  Conversations that are not necessarily about your content area help you maintain balance.

2-D people: Locate a pocket of like-minded colleagues online as well. You have to initiate this. Start with the educators who took the time to write these letters.  See who they follow and interact with on Twitter and who’s linked to on their sites.  Chances are that’s another hotbed of proactive teachers who can offer guidance. Remember, these are the teachers who enjoy professional development as a hobby! You’re only a click away.

Focus on the learner.

There will be many tug-o-wars for your brain power. You must prioritize. If you keep your focus on what’s best for the student, many of the non-essential tuggings will dissolve away.  One hundred and eighty days (or whatever your schedule) of doing the same thing can get monotonous if you look at each day as a series of do A, then B, then on to C.  Boring. Allow your students to connect with your passion for the subject. You are sometimes the very last salesperson a student will hear on your subject. Make the pitch resonate.

Age doesn’t mean better.

Age means less experience. When you’re just starting out, you’ll be in a sea of veteran teachers. They are not who you think they are. They might look like they know it all. They don’t. Resist the temptation to view yourself at the bottom of the ladder. Chronologically you are, but not pedagogically.  You’re awesome! Just because they’ve been at the craft longer than you does not mean they’re a better teacher than you. They just have had more experience and more opportunity to fail. Fail faster to succeed sooner is a motto to live by. Often times the old cronies are reinvigorated by the fresh ideas of new blood in a school. They might’ve plateaued themselves and are looking for the spark you can provide.

Take time to renew yourself.

Want to burn yourself out? Make school your life. While your union may define what your “work day” consists of, a seasoned teacher can tell you that there is an ebb and flow to the school year. All days are not created equal. Some days you’re slammed, maybe even ready to turn in your classroom keys, and some days you feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.  You have to pace yourself. While school life can be unpredictable, you can offer yourself the predictability of being fair to yourself.  You owe it to yourself! If you’re not treating yourself fairly, then you won’t be the best “you” to give your students. They want and need the best “you.”

Renewing yourself includes forcing yourself to take breaks, go running, get yogurt, leave papers at school occasionally, have reasonable hours, go to a non-school event on a weeknight, attend social gatherings with friends and family. This list is infinite of course, but it so often can only be found at the bottom of our unfinished to-do lists. You have to schedule the time to renew yourself.

Good luck on your journey!

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3 thoughts on “My Letter to a New Teacher

    • Thanks, Belle. I’m glad you liked it. Every new teacher should have access to such advice, or better still, be offered the link. One never knows when it’ll help to read these letters.

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