How Do We Treat New Teachers?

bambi2I’m new to teaching. Sometimes I wonder if it’s obvious to others in ways other than my optimistic smile and twinkling eyes. Talking with veteran educators every day is one way I test the waters, and feel out their perceptions of me. No matter the level of experience over me, rank, or area of specialty, I’m always treated delicately. They handle their conversation with me as a one might a small child who’s holding up a “picture of you” scribbled in abstract crayon shapes. Compliments and encouragement pour over the work, but I’m not sure they represent the efforts I’ve put forth. I defend what I’ve done and try to explain things, but after a while the kid gloves they hold me with are simply chaffing. That being said, there’s no way I can thank those people around me enough for their support.

ddaylewis_yellingNot everyone tries to baby new teachers though. The other camp of veteran educators is more founded in reality (none of that touchy-feely crap!). They walk me to the edge of a cliff and point down. “See that river? It’s full of hungry sharks and crocodiles waiting for a meal.” I don’t get the impression they want me to fail, just that they know I will. They know I’m in for it this year, that I’ll be burnt, scarred, tried, tribulated, and most likely that I will quit in the next five years. They’re only here of course because they coach a sport or maybe their spouse is the “successful” one.

Sheesh! What’s the new kid on the block supposed to think?

Over the past nine weeks, I’ve made at least one thing clear in my mind: the only way to survive is to figure it out for myself. As amusing and true as they are, I’ve got to put all of the optimistic platitudes and pejorative perspectives aside and focus on what is happening in my own classroom first. I certainly don’t plan on turning away the advice and kinds words or warnings of others, but I need to rededicate my focus to my own actions rather than worry about becoming the teacher my neighbor is (or isn’t).

This is about as stark a contrast as it gets!
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I can’t change who my fellow teachers are or what they say to me, but listening to them is like looking into the future. It makes me ask myself, “where will I be in five years? what will I say to new teachers in ten years?” What they can teach me is invaluable, I know I won’t find their specific experience anywhere else. What I hope is that I will be open and ready to accept what I’m given. I hope not to have chips festering on my shoulder, hoping to spread the promise of tissue damage to the other limbs of my profession. I hope, but I also realize that I have to take action; hope is not enough on its own, however vital a component it is. How are you affecting those around you at school?

Bare-Knuckled Optimism

Before the first week of school I wondered about my sense of excitement. Was it unwarranted and naïve? Was I ignoring something important that I should be dong?

There is a small part of me that makes me wonder if my confidence will melt into bravado when that first bell rings, the first bags hit my floor, and I choose whether or not to smile. For now, I will keep grinning and planning for this sure-to-be exciting and challenging year.

The excitement hasn’t died down by any means, but the challenge has certainly been amped up! As a new teacher, I’m trying to do somewhere on the order of one book-study a month for various groups in school and in my region of Missouri. I’m preparing for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference by reading the authors I hope to meet. I’ve been enlisted in a reading cohort study group by my curriculum director, and our English department is reinventing itself every week as we embark on a long journey of self-evaluation.

All of these are good things, which I enjoy and benefit from as a new teacher.

My last post featured all of the bad and the ugly. Now, I hope to highlight something better.

AlamoGoodBadUgly

Okay, okay, so I’d like nothing more than to post the last sequence from Sergio Leone’s classic western masterpiece, but I don’t own the rights, so I’d better just stick to my guns<–knee slapper! and tell you we all need something very specific to succeed in this business:

inspiration.

I’d crow on and on about hope, but I’m afraid of conflating some obscure social and political ideal that has nothing to do with my message for education. Hope is important, but what’s been vital to my fight against instructional fatigue?

Optimism. Bare-Knuckled and Unapologetic Optimism.

You have to know you’re good. You have to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and dress yourself in cliches sometimes! The attitude, I’m finding out, is your strongest weapon against sucking as a teacher. Just as actors need to stay in character using whatever method necessary, we as teachers need to do mental and emotional prep work before we go on stage. Students are smart, they know what teachers hate their jobs, who doesn’t care, and who let’s kids get by with less than their best. Engendering a sense of collaborative challenge in a classroom is a daunting task, but it’s one we are all called to each day.

I think Marcus Aurelius said it best, “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” 383px-Marcus_Aurelius_Glyptothek_MunichThis meditation shows me the way through more dark alleys of life than almost anything else (maybe my wife’s cookies help too). You can’t stop the world from changing as a whole, but you can control how you react to whatever changes come your way. This has been my operative philosophy of life for a long time, and it has never steered me wrong. Maybe you’re not one to “think positive!” or “put your bright side out!” Some of us do just find getting dressed each morning without our smiles, but how can you really expect to see any kind of shift in what comes your way, if you are working constantly to convince yourself that you are, in fact, doomed to be where you are.

Too many of my fellow teachers are mired in a negative frame of mind, and I don’t always blame them for being there. Many are truly overworked and underpaid, but I’m there too.  I could celebrate my stresses too if I chose to, but I’d rather be happy than publish my strife most times (even though sometimes it’s important to let others know you’re human!). I vent to a few close friends about what irks me, but publicly I try very hard to exercise the thoughts that uplift me and encourage me because when I see people doing that, it helps me in return.

I’ll Show YOU the Meaning of a Grawlix!

grawlizHow many of you had bets on about me? What were the odds for burning out at what week, what would my reaction be… I’ll tell you now, the smile on my face has faded slightly. I’m tired, behind in my grading, frustrated with my colleagues, and don’t even ask me how much I’ve been neglecting my fantasy football teams (poor Plunderbuss and The Frumious Bandersnatch)! For the first six weeks of teaching, I kept up my blog each week, was always a week ahead, graded only at school, and had no trouble with my six graduate hours of class after school.

The past two weeks I’ve been a shell of my former self at best: a coffee-driven, alarm-clock-snooze-hittin’, meeting-missin’ machine! It’s been a little rough to say the least. Now, there have been periodic bright spots. After a horrific Tuesday last week, I took advantage of the strangely sunny weather and played nine holes of golf alone so I was free to throw my clubs without fear of scorn. That helped a bit, I got to smash things, smell the fresh air, scream occasionally and, to paraphrase the great Mark Twain, ruined a good walk. That was as bad as it got last week, and I was okay with that. I had a better day after a good night’s sleep, kids were better behaved the next day, and generally my spirits were lifted.

School starts at 8:05 Tuesday-Friday where I teach and last Thursday was no exception. I woke up feeling very rested after having played another round of golf (this time with friends) the night before. I stretched and looked at the clock:

It was 8:10.

For the next 5 minutes my dog cowered under the blankets on my bed shivering in fear as I ran screaming and cursing around my bedroom trying frantically to form logical thoughts. “HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN!? WHAT THE !$%# IS WRONG WITH ME! WHY IS THE !@#% OFFICE NOT ANSWERING MY  !@#$^ CALLS!

FINALLY I GOT–sorry, <Caps Lock: off> Finally I got ahold of the librarian to cover my class until I could get there. I was partially relieved, enough to think anyway. Of course it was raining too; I couldn’t speed any faster without worrying about tearing off-road into some serious Missouri mud rivers. I had a low tire too. My steering wheel was shaking like Shakira, and NPR was doing a pledge drive. Worst of all, I had no time for breakfast or coffee.

By some divine act of grace, my parking space was still empty when I arrived. I ran to the door just in time to see one of the assistant principals walk by. “Oh! If I just wait another five seconds, he’ll pass by and never know,” I thought gleefully. As he ducked into another door, I snuck in quietly and rounded the corner to my room. I hadn’t even thought about the students yet.

“How was your beauty sleep?” One asked. My suck-up students were just sitting there aghast in disbelief, horrified that I had slipped up and not knowing quite how to respond except with silence. The room was empty besides the students, so I asked them where the librarian was. They had no idea, she had never been in. At that moment the same assistant principal whom I had evaded previously stepped through the door, greeting me with a smile.

He came in peace, but I read every kind gesture of his as an attack on my character. I was mortified, I’d been found out in the worst way. I was unshaven, hungry, hardly awake, and late to work for the first time in my adult life.

My week was turning back into darkness. I left my kids again on Friday for a cooperative learning training session for new teachers. The weekend didn’t bring much peace as I spent most of it writing research papers for my thesis and dodging people I knew with the swine flu. Still no grading done.  Lesson planning? Oh I was flying by the seat of my pants; remember that post on improvisation a few weeks ago? I was there, but in a less exciting way.

Today didn’t start the way I wanted it to either, but things can’t be worse than before (I’m past the point of caring if that kind of statement will jinx me). Week one of teaching was exciting, new, and very fast. Week nine is cold, rainy, and stressful, but I’m starting to find more ways to keep warm, dry, and level-headed.

For those of you who are curious, please check out Grammar Girl’s Swear Words in Text for an explanation of the grawlix. I highly recommend her podcast for any writers and teachers.

Titles Escape Me, Friends Don’t

As much of a tech-minded, Twitter-using, blog-reading, RSS-feeding kind of guy I am, I still have trouble calling people I’ve connected with online “friends.” There needs to be a word (besides the giggle-inducing “tweeps”) for our net connections–this is my cue to all of you out there to tell me if there is one I’m not mentioning.  Titles aside, over the past year or so since I’ve been actively building my PLN, I have connected with many great educators around the country and quite a few outside of it. One in particular, Connecticut-based middle school history teacher Paul Bogush, has made an impact on me consistently first through his blog and then on Twitter.

As a pre-service teacher, I felt continually frustrated by being cut-off from the profession for which I was preparing to enter. Yes, there were practicum requirements that got me into a classroom for a few hours every other semester, but largely my only experiences were with college professors and my peers. My real “education” was developing through correspondence with teachers whom I had met along the way. Some of my older friends were already teaching; I could sense their collective fear, exasperation, and occasional joy through their emails and Facebook statuses. It was nice to have my ear to the hive even distantly, but I felt that something was missing.

I didn’t know what it meant to be a teacher. When I was a chemistry student, It only took one day of lab on my own to understand the substance of what being a chemist involved. Education was proving to be more nebulous. What did teachers really do all day–or all Summer for that matter? What did teachers talk about when they were unsure of their plans? What I was missing was the connection to a community. The Education corpus academia was not exactly cohesive at Missouri State. We were scattered singles rather than a connected collective. I wish I would have found out earlier that

Teaching is all about community.

I believe learning is, as I’ve written many times on this site before, socially constructed. It takes other people to help build knowledge. Making connections with other people, therefore, is a vital step to learning. In my classroom, I try to encourage a relationship-building atmosphere, but I also need to connect to other teachers just as students need one another. I have good rapport with my fellow teachers because we’ve shared stories of success and failure with each other. The more ways that teachers can find to build community, the more powerful their knowledge base will be.

What aspects of community I don’t get in my school building and district meetings, I can find online through my PLN. Not all teachers are comfortable with the concept–some mistakenly think of it as only a trendy excuse to use expensive toys or waste of time “looking busy” in the guise of productivity. Twitter is very popular right now. The name buzzes around in our ears from our television and radio speakers, it jumps out from web pages and profile sidebars. Tweet tweet TWEET! I’m sure many of you are users, but I know there are just as many reading this that don’t “get it” and don’t care–that’s okay.

The most important thing you non-tweeters need to understand is this: regardless of what athletes and celebrities “tweet” about (I don’t care what Shaq and MC Hammer ate for lunch either), you can be assured there is a community of educators online at your beck-and-call if you choose to join in. After you’ve connected with a few people, typing a question into Twitter becomes like shouting out a window over a field where a bunch of teachers are eating lunch and playing kickball: you never know what will fly your way!

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Sharing stories, commiserating, encouraging, suggesting new ideas, following conversation threads in new directions–these are all things you can do online through Twitter. Aren’t those all things you do with friends, colleagues? Titles escape me and I refuse to say “tweeps” out-loud, but I’ve read Paul‘s personal thoughts just about every day for nearly a year now and It sort of feels wrong to call him anything but “friend.”

Take a step out onto the ledge. Follow me. Find a friend.

Take Two, Call Me in the Morning

Question meets Answer

Question meets Answer

Ibuprofen, Advil, Tylenol, Asprin, Excedrin… Mainstays of a first-year teacher you ask? Before the semester started, I was predicting scores of headaches from lack of sleep, staring at papers and computer screens, and stress in general (I still hadn’t been paid yet when I started writing this). However, with the exception of copious amounts of coffee–limited only by the fact that I am very very far from the closest bathroom–I have been very short on needing relief. I have popped a few ‘profen, but I’m happy with saying it’s been fewer than 10 for the first six weeks.

Once again, I want to give credit to my Personal Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter. There is no end to the benefits I have experienced from the many teachers participating in conversations. Through the web I’ve been able to connect with administrators, researchers, and authors directly in a way that no other medium can offer. I’ve used the metaphor of a coffee shop before; Twitter has provided a place where I can casually mingle with other educators from around the globe and share opinions, stories, and advice. Without the experiences I have had online over the past year or so, I know I would be teaching differently.

Most of all, my attitude and energy have been buffered by the support of other teachers and leaders in education: those here in my building are wonderful, but I have to count those of you from Twitter equally! Whenever I have a doubt, a question, a concern, or a joy to share I can count on getting at least one response back quickly from a peer. Sometimes, it’s just that one that I need. Other times, I find great comfort in the multiplicity of opinions and experiences that my PLN offers me.

Would I be staring down at the bottom of an empty bottle of Excedrin right now without my PLN? It’s possible, but not entirely certain. Twitter made it so easy to access other teachers, I can’t help but wonder what my classroom, my lesson plans, my grading, and my teaching would look like if that part of me were missing. I don’t want to discount those here in my building either though. I think without real human contact, teaching can’t develop fully. The men and women in my building have shared so much with me, and I owe them all many thanks.

PLN and PLC (Personal Learning Community) are buzzwords first I think–and I hate the use of such words simply for their own sake. I’ve used the term “alphabet soup” before to refer to the murky waters of scholastic semantics, because I truly feel like meaning can be lost whilst fishing for the right acronym with one’s spoon. That being said, these two concepts are very important to me; they stress something that is central to cultivating learning amongst students: community.

If knowledge is truly socially constructed, rather than drawn from within a person or placed into a person by an authority, than actively participating in a community should be at the center of every educator’s philosophy. To answer the question my superintendents always ask, sharing our successes– as teachers–is always what’s best for kids.

What can you find at the bottom of a bottle of Excedrin? The bottom of a pot of coffee? It may be some form of peace, a temporary solution to the sum of your stresses, but compared to the power of a supportive community it is static. Those solutions are one-way fixes. The coffee gives me what I expect from it every time, as does the headache pill. A community gives to me and asks that I share in return as a part of the growth process. Solutions to the complex and emotional task of teaching are not simple switches to be toggled on or off. I have truly found that sharing in a two-way with my peers is as important for me as a teacher as it is for my students.

You don’t need to call me in the morning, but I would challenge you to take these two steps:

1.) Ask yourself how connected you really are to a community.

2.) Find someone new to share with today.