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Five Things to Think About for New (and Not-So-New) Teachers

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Embedded Bonus: The Five TED Talks that Keep Me Going

I started my career in Advertising and eventually became a copywriter. The only entry-level jobs available for women in advertising in 1983 clerical, even though I had just earned a Bachelor of Science in Advertising degree from the University of Florida. My new colleagues scoffed at my degree saying things like, “No one learns anything worthwhile until they start doing it for real.” I remembered this when I became the Director of Student Teaching for a Master of Art in Teaching (MAT) program, which brings me to my first “thing to think about”:

1 — Realize Teacher Preparation is Essential, but Cannot Fully Prepare You to Lead Your Own Classroom - and that’s OK

There’s a tendency for brand new teachers to feel they must create a façade to appear as if they have it all together. They may feel that they must portray confidence that they may not always feel. And they do — with students. When I served as the Director of Student Teaching for a college MAT program, I joked that teaching interns are expected to instantly display cool, calm confidence in the place to which they have come to learn to do so. It’s a paradox alright! The safety net of a mentor teacher helps to navigate that space, but then comes the transition to the first year. Here’s how to be prepared for feeling unprepared:

New teachers, find one or two colleagues in whom you can confide. You can do this work — you can — but do not fear seeking out mentors. They are there and want to help you. Many schools provide formal mentoring but stay open to seeking out those experienced teachers with whom you resonate. The whole school staff, regardless of content area or role, should stand ready to nurture new teachers (and those new to the school) and welcome them into the school community. If you’re an experienced teacher, consider offering your mentorship and counsel formally and informally to the new teachers in your school. Whatever you do, please do not feed or perpetuate the idea that an anxiety-filled first year of teaching is some kind of rite-of-passage or initiation. I believe that unnecessarily stressful first years create feelings that do not diminish and ultimately contribute to teacher attrition.

The persistent belief I have encountered through the years is that the first year of teaching is always nothing short of torture. The problem with this pervasive belief is the fact that one’s mental state while learning something new is associated forever with that learning-- a new teacher’s mindset while learning to teach can impact their developing professional identity. The school community is only as strong as those willing to help each other and change the common narratives new teachers hear-- too often from other teachers. Therefore, this single story of what the first year of teaching is must be examined, questioned, and reframed. Watch Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s stunning TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” in which she states: The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. Adiche will inspire you to reflect on the concept of the single story, notice single stories you may need to challenge, and infuse your instruction with opportunities for your students to do the same.

2 — Think About the Marketing Concept of Branding for Your Classroom Practice

I’ll start by returning to my advertising roots. It’s funny, because I once thought that my two careers, advertising and education, could not possibly intersect. I learned quickly just how much the principles of marketing come into play when trying to motivate students or show them the relevance and value of what they are learning. I very consciously and deliberately began to apply the principles of marketing and branding in my classroom culture and instructional practices.

Be conscious of the power of group identity and spot every opportunity to facilitate the development of your class brand. We all know that the Tide orange swirl represents clean clothes and dependability; and the Nike swish represents fitness and self-motivation. I use the bluebird cut-out my mom gave me as a logo of sorts to represent a classroom culture of acceptance, curiosity, and persistence. But more than that, I consistently speak about things in terms of who we are as a class. I remember one year, over a decade ago, my class was taking a field trip. Rather than lecture the class about behavior expectations on the bus, I had them greet the bus driver by name as they boarded one by one. (I had boarded first to ask the driver’s name. He gave me his first name, but I asked for his last and had the students greet him as, “Mr. Jones.”) Before we departed, I told the seated students that Mr. Jones was going to be focusing on getting us to our destination safely, and when we arrived, I wanted them to be sure to remember to thank Mr. Jones by name.

Not only did students do this, but they behaved the same way on the way back to the school building — without being asked. After the last student said, “thank you for keeping us safe,” Mr. Jones told me that mine was the very best group of students he had transported in his entire time as a driver. I didn’t have to “make” the students do anything. I just had to carefully facilitate their construction of a class identity. Seize every opportunity — you’ll notice more and more when you are actively aware and looking. One of the most inspiring TED Talks I have ever seen that shows the power of an intentional teacher is “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” by Rita Pierson. If you’re a teacher you’ve probably already seen it. Watch it again whenever you need a reminder about the power of seemingly small moments.

3 — Infuse as Many Layers and Types of Learning into Your Instruction as

Possible — Every Lesson, Every Day

Most teachers are very instinctive about the idea of planning for “layers” of learning in instruction, such as the presentation of concepts along with higher order thinking development and socio-emotional learning (SEL). That said, it’s also important to take some time once in a while to be metacognitive about this idea and consider the multiple facets that can be planned into a single lesson. For teachers just starting out, this intentionality can form habits of mind that persist throughout one’s entire career. For experienced teachers, thinking explicitly about the many outcomes possible from a single activity can be energizing and rejuvenate the joy in planning instruction.

The more types of learning a teacher can infuse into a single lesson or activity, the more productive and rewarding the time becomes. Students also perceive more value because life experiences are usually complex and interconnected — authentic learning is, too. My high school English students read “The House on Mango Street,” by Sandra Cisneros. The curriculum standards involved analyzing theme, structure, and literary devices, as well as applying what they learned in their own creative writing. My students’ assignment was to write their own mini-book of fictionalized vignettes inspired by their own lives (self-reflection). They brainstormed in groups (collaboration, communication skills, listening, helping, nurturing, encouraging) and were allowed multiple formats for developing their work (self-selection, creative expression). I asked them to select a metaphor to include in their title (transference of Cisneros’ “house” as well as synthesis and evaluation skills) and be able to identify how the vignettes are thematically related (analysis).

Once the “books” were created, we had a “Book Signing” open house in the classroom for parents and administrators to come by as students presented their work (ownership, pride, presentation skills). Visitors received a packet of sticky notes upon which they could write comments and place them directly on the books for the students who were not in class at that time. When students received their comments the following day, most beamed with pride at their accomplishment (authentic way to instill self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-motivation). Daniel Pink’s TED Talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation” expands on these ideas and also addresses the pros and cons of incentives.

4 — Stay Focused on Your Legacy

Some may say that younger people do not consider legacy — they think it’s something that one begins to ponder toward the end of one’s career. I could not disagree more. I have found that, once the meaning is explained, people of all ages (including students) get excited about the idea of a meaningful, purpose-driven life. The concept of “legacy” ties in quite nicely with seeing the relevance of what one is teaching and learning. The important thing to recognize is that a legacy is a culmination. It does not, nor should it, happen overnight.

Nurture your sense of purpose, remember that a legacy is built slowly — day by day, and that one’s legacy is not a house of cards. Occasional mistakes and “bad days” cannot destroy a legacy. I remember explaining this idea to middle school students one year. I asked them if they had ever seen the patterns and pictures made by an array of dominoes that appeared as if by magic once the first domino had been tipped. Almost every student was familiar. (This conversation took place in the

pre-Smartboard days — videos of domino competitions are available on YouTube for students (or any reader of this blog post) who have never seen dominos creating pictures can take a look.) We discussed how one has to have a creative vision (or purpose), the patience to set up the dominoes, and the courage to set them in motion. I gave each student a domino as a symbol of the discussion. Years later, after I had moved to teach at the high school level, a student who had been in that middle school class showed me the domino that he kept in his backpack.

A very short, yet incredibly powerful TEDx Perth Australia TED Talk that reminds me to stay awake and alert to opportunities to build a legacy is “Wake Up!” by Jesse Oliver. Give yourself just two-and-a-half minutes to watch this spoken word poetry performance — be sure to turn subtitles on so you don’t miss a word. If you happen to be an English or Language Arts teacher (or if you just love language) this talk contains virtually every literary device woven beautifully into a spoken tapestry you’ll want to revisit again and again. In fact, I share Oliver’s talk with my students at the beginning of the year and at the beginning of each quarter.

5 — Take Care of Yourself By Advocating for Our Profession

Here at the end of this blog post, I want to say something very important to all, but especially new, teachers. There are burdens placed on teachers that should not be on our shoulders. There are expectations that are not rational and pressures that can be unbearable. Nothing I have said in this post is intended to further burden readers by sending any message that it is up to teachers to sacrifice and that they must grin and bear things that are neither funny nor bearable.

The best way to truly take care of yourself is to advocate for rational education policy changes that empower teachers as well as improvements in teachers’ work conditions. You can offer ideas to your union or association, to your school administration as part of the school improvement team, or through your team lead or department chair if that is more comfortable. The inevitable question arises: Who has time to advocate or join committees? I understand this concern, particularly as it pertains to teachers at the beginning of their careers, but too many teachers are lost to the profession due to burnout to the detriment of many students and communities. Learning how to advocate for yourself and your ideas early in your teaching career will make the profession better for all teachers. If you do not feel comfortable discussing concerns with administrators or even your team lead, you can always reach out to your union representative (in a unionized system) or a mentor that you trust. My goal, apart from developing the Bluebird Teaching to help teachers save time and stress by offering organization, resource sharing, and professional connections, is to strengthen our profession through our community advocacy to give teachers the conditions, autonomy, and professional respect we have earned.

The thing that bugs me when someone suggests self-care is the fact that I rarely have time left for myself after taking care of what must be done. But I do like to make time to laugh. Shawn Achor’s TED Talk, “The Happy Secret to Better Work,” is both hilarious and inspiring. There are suggestions at the end for improving one’s happiness level. Whether you are able to implement Achor’s suggestions or not, you’ll enjoy the humor and come away with a new perspective on happiness.

A Final Thought

I hope all readers found something valuable to think about (or watch!) in this post. As the teaching profession becomes more complex, navigating the issues and demands together can truly make a difference in our daily teaching lives.

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