Yesterday I went to a barbecue for the new Teach For America. I got to talk to a handful of the new South Bay 2007 Corps before they went off to Institute. I remember very well the tremendous swirl of confusion and anticipation that marked this week. Everything seemed so strange and so important, ---trips to the district office and the county office; introductions to teachers, parents, principals and our new colleagues; the occasional, breath-taking glimpse of a real live student.
The new corps members wanted advice. (As though advice could help them! Ha!) In the moment, I didn’t do a very good job of giving it to them. Drawing on what I’ve heard and remembered from great TFA personnel, other teachers, principals, and lay people, here’s what I should have said. I want to say at the outset, that I, even at the start of my fourth year of teaching, am far from mastery of any of this.
Accept your inevitable failure. No matter how smart/high-achieving/supremely-well-meaning you are and no matter how great the edu-boot-camp of Institute has become, you are going to make mistakes in the classroom. Big mistakes. Mistakes that will make you thankful your children’s parents aren’t there. Anticipate and accept this. Not because it is okay, ---precisely the opposite, it has never been less okay--- but because the more willing you are to accept your blundering, the faster you will be at correcting those blunders (good for your kids), and the less tortured your soul will be (good for you).
Realize that it’s not all about you. College is all about you. The harder you study, generally, the better your grades. The same equation is not true for teaching. You will work your tail off, foolishly staying up all night to prepare the most beautiful five-step lesson ever conceived. You’ll have full color overheads, individually prescribed problem sets, and an MTV-quality video hook. Some of your students will learn next to nothing. Why? Because their uncle was stabbed a day ago, or they stayed up all night watching a movie, or they spent the whole time wondering what’s for lunch. You were great, but it is not all about you.
Invest your time wisely. Time will become far more precious than money. When deciding how to spend that time remember the tremendous difference between teaching and learning. Spend your time on what will maximize student learning, not necessarily the same things as what will make you look or feel like the best teacher. My personal rules are as follows: time for students (tutoring, intervention, etc.) is first, time for parents is next (home visits, phone calls home, etc.), time for planning is third (analyzing data, resequencing LTPs), and time for prep (posters, overheads, finding the perfect literature link) is last. Time for professional commitments is squeezed in as possible and necessary. Copies don’t teach children, you do.
Set limits. I realize that you think these two years should be all-out for the kids. They should be. Your mental health, however, is a big part of your quality as an instructor. The happier you are, the more the children will want to engage in your lessons. Children are deeply empathic and they will know if you are glad to be there. Further, the more satisfied you are with your life, the more able you will be to competently deal with frustrating inanities of classroom and school. Read my first year of blogging and see how I learned this the hard way. If all you live and breathe is your classroom, you will be less able to handle it when things go wrong. Things will go wrong. So do what you need to do to walk in to school each morning ready to laugh off your principal’s most ill-timed public announcement or your worst student’s biggest prank.
Be flexible. When you’re ten minutes away from a pinnacle lesson in a key unit and a parent walks in with a note telling you to come early for picture day, be flexible. Don’t think twice, ---grab some flashcards, go to picture day, and make the best of it by practicing the times tables. When that third new student in three weeks shows up at your door, devastating your classroom community with her ADHD, be flexible. Hold class meetings and read relevant stories. When a crazed dog runs into your classroom at 10:30 but is out by 10:37, leaving you with an hour and a half before lunch and a 36 rightfully hyped-up 10-year olds, be flexible. Talk about the dog, draw the dog, write about the dog, and read about dogs. Don’t tell the kids, “We’re such a great class, we’re just going to pretend like that didn’t happen and go on with math!” Weren’t you ever 10?
While fighting the battle, mind the war. What’s the point of getting kids on grade level if they don’t get to see the use of it? Force your grade level to unite in carving out meaningful time for science, social studies and independent reading. What’s the point of getting kids on grade level if they don’t realize they can go to college? Put college into your daily, nay, hourly rhetoric. What’s the point of getting kids on grade level if they go to prison? Keep character education and classroom community in your schedule. What’s the point of getting kids on grade level if they die at 36 of diabetes? Teach about nutrition, model good nutrition, and don’t be afraid to play, outside, with your kids.
Belie the myths. Some other teachers, even other great teachers, will hold many bad assumptions about Teach For America. The TFA who came before you will often have made very poor impressions, especially in professional development settings. Other teachers will expect you to be an arrogant and naive know-it-all "Teach For Awhile" who always has one eye on the door to policy school. Prove all those assumptions wrong. Constantly show your humility at being a zero-year teacher. Constantly show that you are eager to learn from anyone. Constantly show your respect for the community you serve, no matter what sort of students it produces.
Finally, constantly remember that the privilege is yours, even if you deferred a dual program at Oxford and the Sorbonne to come here. No matter who you are, if you are TFA, you are unprepared. The teaching profession is not privileged to have you. You are privileged to be a teacher.
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