Posted by Paul Barnwell on Wednesday, 04/16/2014
Dear Mr. Barnwell (version 2004),
You’re about to embark on one of the toughest things you’ll ever do, but I’m not sure you realize it yet. Being a first-year teacher, no matter the school or situation, will challenge you in ways you could never imagine. Now, I know you’re used to being successful at nearly everything you do, but trust me: you will be battling to stay afloat during your first year. After nearly 10 years in the classroom, I’ve learned a few things; the passage of time has allowed me to realize that certain dispositions, actions, and perspectives are crucial to keep in mind as you embark on becoming the teacher of record.
Don’t Get Caught Up in Things You Can’t Change
While there are plenty of great things about the public education system, you’re going to run into systems and situations that drive you bonkers. Flaws in mandated testing implementation and design, meetings, school discipline policies, and even professional development could make you feel like you’ve chosen the wrong career path. It’ll seem like there are obstacles at every corner from preventing you from doing your job. But the sooner your focus on what you can control, like improving your lesson planning, establishing classroom routines, and continuing to build positive relationships with students, the less irritated and helpless you’ll feel regarding all that needs reform.
You Won’t Be an Effective Teacher (For a While)
As I stated above, it doesn’t matter if you’re facing a classroom full of students in poverty, English language learners, or advanced students in a wealthy suburb: you’re not going to be good at your job…for a while. You may find you have a knack for building relationships with students. You may find you have a knack for establishing classroom routines (probably not at first). You may find you have a knack for writing assessments. But to be skilled at the myriad demands facing teachers will take a while. Build on your strengths and, over time, you’ll round out your teaching skill set. For me, I truly hit a comfort zone in year four. Be patient and don't be too hard on yourself.
Take Care of Yourself
If you aren’t healthy in mind, body, and spirit, your chance for a reasonably low-stress teaching assignment is almost nonexistent. Your teaching--and ultimately your students--will suffer as a result of feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Throughout your first year, It’ll seem like you need to grade papers, design lessons, and answer e-mails, but what you must do first is schedule a routine for stress-reducing activities to keep you sane. I know you like to play pickup basketball and lift weights. Don’t push these things aside. Heck, you might even consider yoga or jogging. Also remember to maintain your hobbies or start a new one.
Seek Veteran Advice
You’ll soon know which teachers in your building seem to “get it.” Hopefully your administrators will encourage you to observe master teachers. Once you spend some time with some helpful veteran teachers, you’ll discover that they know a lot more than you do, even managing to balance successful professional lives with roles as mothers, fathers, parents, and spouses--this will blow your mind. There’s a reason why many veteran teachers don’t seemed as stressed out as beginners. They know a lot more than you do. Most of it comes down to classroom management expertise and maintaining positive relationships with students, and you’ll want to soak in as much know-how as possible.
Alternative Certification Is Really Tough
It’s too late to change this decision, of course, as you’re enrolled in a alternative teacher certification program at the local university. You’ll have the dual challenge of taking graduate courses while you plunge into your teaching career. This will make all my other advice all the more important. In general, I’ve noticed that some of my older colleagues who have participated in alternative certification have the advantage of possessing more wisdom and trying life experiences. You’re young, and you’re taking on a lot. It can be done. Stick with it.
Lastly, It’s not your fault that you’ll be placed in a tough school, or that you’re expected to teach a full schedule--even encouraged to coach--when you should be working an 80% salary and assigned mentor teachers in the building. But please take my advice: it will get better. If you stay in the education game long enough, you might even realize that you’ve found your calling.
-Mr. Barnwell (version 2014)