Sunday, September 26, 2021

Letter to a new teacher

 Dear New Teacher, 

First of all, thank you for your choice to teach. The world needs awesome teachers. I truly believe that teachers are nation builders and people builders. You have the great potential to make people's lives better and make our world better too. We need you. I applaud you. 

Next, you have chosen a BIG, limitless job, and looking back at my 34-year career as an elementary school teacher, I have some suggestions you may want to consider. These suggestions come from my experience both positive and challenging as well as advice I got from dedicated colleagues who worked with me. I hope this helps you a lot. 

Teaching is a limitless proposition, so choose your priorities

The teaching stage is a limitless proposition which means that what you can do has no end. This can be overwhelming which means you have to choose your priorities. Make the time to think deeply about your position and choose your top three priorities for the year ahead. For example, a new teacher may decide her top three priorities are to make a good connection with the students, teach reading well, and take one related professional development course to build her repertoire for teaching reading. No teacher is superhuman or can do it all, by prioritizing and focusing your time on your priorities you will begin to build a solid, overall professional foundation. Also, it is important to match your priorities with the overarching themes and goals of your school and system leadership--to do this is a win-win because you are reaching your goals while helping the greater school team reach their goals too. 

A little for today and a little for tomorrow

"A little for today and a little for tomorrow" was my dad's sage advice to me which meant spend time doing the job in front of you while also building your skills, knowledge, and capacity for the years ahead. That's why professional learning via books, conferences, courses and more is so important. Plus that professional learning or "little for tomorrow" invigorates your daily teaching with new ideas that will engage you and your students with meaningful learning endeavor. 

Understand the context in which you work, and make decisions about your work habits based on that

Too often, I didn't give myself time to truly observe and think about the context I was working in, and that was a mistake. For example, I worked in a tightly knit, populated environment filled with good, hard working people. I wanted to be friends with all of them, but honestly, that was impossible given the scheduled time-on-task, work expectations and my personal commitments. To be friends with all your colleagues in an unrealistic expectation. Instead, I recommend keeping most of your friendships outside of the work environment--save your personal life and endeavor, for the most part, for your own time. That gives you something to look forward to and prevents you from being "all school" which can be dangerous and make you dull. You will make some good friends in your school, and rather than trying to befriend everyone, nurture the few good relationships you have. Professionally make sure you nurture the professional relationships with your closest teammates--those you work with everyday to serve the needs of the children. Those professional relationships are critical to doing the work necessary. 

At first, take time to listen to the conversations, observe your colleagues, and get a feel for the climate of the work place. Avoid negative, unprofessional cliques and conversations. It is easy to be drawn into that culture, but not positive. Don't overcommit or overpromise--school life as one writer defined is like a little city, complex and difficult to navigate--make decisions about how you will simplify that to ensure success. 

Be professional

At times, schools can lose the professionalism that is so important. At all times be professional, and always remember that those you work with will be writing the references for your next job. If you are in doubt about what is professional, do some research and consult experts preferably outside of your school environment to understand that. 

Work for positive change

There is limitless opportunity for positively changing, updating and developing the school environment in a positive way. It is good to work for change, but you have to be savvy about how you work for change. I started my career awkwardly and unsuccessfully trying to change the entire environment all at once. That doesn't work. Instead prioritize one or two areas for change, find colleagues who also support that change, and join or create a team to work for that change. Use good change and development strategies such as doing your research, finding support for the change outside and inside the school environment, making an evidenced-based case to administration, trying out the change, collecting data on the success rate, and sharing that data with decision makers. Too often I tried to make change without the needed steps of good strategy and team. Later in my career, I was able to do that better. 

Join the union and know your union

Teacher's unions have a lot to offer teachers by way of professional development and support. Join the union, know the union, and take advantage of what they have to offer. I did this late in my career, but profited greatly from the union's benefits and professional learning. I wish I did this earlier. 

Develop your professional reputation and work

It is important to continually develop your professional reputation and work. The more you know and better you get, the more satisfying the job is and the greater impact you have on your students and their families. It's best to match your professional growth with salary increment steps so that while you gain expertise, you also increase your salary and benefits. Study the salary structure and contracts in your system so you can make this work for you. Additionally, if you truly want to make change in schools, work your way up to an administrative position. Currently the expectations for classroom educators make it difficult for those educators to have the time or capacity to make significant change while administrators typically have greater time and capacity for that work. 

Plan for the future

Early on in your career, put some of your salary in a retirement account and make sure that your paycheck and other benefits are working the way they should be. As a young teacher, you have all the energy and time in the world, but later on, if you have a family and as you age, your energy and time will be more taxed and it will be important to have a good retirement account and substantial benefits. Take some time out to understand this and begin planning for your future. You won't regret that. 

Use a servant leadership focus

Once I learned about servant leadership and took on the focus of serving my students and their families, my relationships with students and families as well as my teaching work improved substantially. Working as a team with colleagues, families, and students is the best way to teach well. 

Teach the child first, not the subject

When you teach, teach the whole child with a focus on their happy, successful future. Teach children how to learn, make the projects meaningful and personal, and never lose focus on the fact that confident, skilled, positive students who believe in their ability to create good futures for themselves and those they love is the number one aim of teaching.

Make time for yourself

All school and no play makes a teacher dull and frustrated. Carve out a good teaching/learning routine for yourself and your students that includes time for meaning and fun in your life. I always put my family first as an educator and I never regretted that decision. I also carved out time for fun during most weekends. Like most teachers, I sometimes worked too-long hours making myself tired and less effective, and as mentioned before, I should have prioritized more because no teacher is superhuman and when you try to do too much, you often fall short with the most important priorities. 

Smile at the children

When in doubt, smile. Smiles are magic in a classroom. 

When frustrated, take time out

Teaching can be very frustrating. When you are frustrated, take time out rather than yelling or doing something you regret. You can always ask someone to cover your classroom, while you take a break in the restroom. 

Take care of your health

Many teachers are not as healthy as they can be. This, I believe, is due to many factors. Many teachers are teachers because schools are where they were nurtured and cared for, and they want to do the same for students. Those kinds of teachers often grew up in situations that were less positive for their health and may bring to the profession some challenging issues and unhealthy practices. Teachers like that should seek counseling to deal with personal issues and health challenges as that will require new learning and dedicated support. 

Other teachers simply work too hard at the job leaving little time for their own healthy eating, sleeping and activity. Those teachers have to realistically look at their schedule and expectations, and make time for healthy living. Teachers, in general, have to work together to lobby for more realistic and healthy teaching schedules and environments. Too often schools are unhealthy places to work and this has to change. 

Teaching is a BIG job and a very important job for society. I wish every new teacher a great year ahead. I hope these suggestions help you to teach with happiness and success.