As school revs up for another year, the press is filled with advice on how to get your little one ready for his or her first day of school, but I’ve seen practically nothing on how to prepare the teacher . . . most notably the first-year teacher.
When I entered the blue and white halls of Triopia in the fall of 1971, I was eager and nervous and totally clueless as to what the next 35 years in this place would entail. Sure, I had a game plan and thought I could predict what a teaching career would be like and in nearly every respect I was completely wrong. So in case there are any young men or women taking on the mantel of teacher for the first time this fall, let me help you avoid a few pitfalls and lay my mistakes out for the world to see.
Mistake Number One: I thought that my most important first task was to get to know my fellow teachers. Wrong. I quickly learned that the secretaries and janitors were the ones who made the school operate and allying myself with them was crucial if I wanted to get along. You offend a secretary or custodian and you’d might as well start looking for a new job.
Wrong Call Number Two: I’d convinced myself that mastery of my subject matter was the key to being a good teacher. This was probably my biggest goof. My 12-year-olds didn’t much care what I knew about English grammar or the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. What I really needed to know was how a 7th-grader’s mind works.
Dumb Mistake Number Three: I was sure that it was the job of a teacher to tell students what I knew. Wrong, wrong, double-wrong. After a wild first year of stumbling around I learned that the job of a teacher is to find out what my kids knew. For a long nine months I bumbled around like a park ranger trying to guide a group of tourists when in fact I didn’t know where to find the travelers.
Flub Four: Teaching English is easy. Teaching adolescents is hard. Again and again I was confronted with a classroom of nice kids who I assumed knew the importance of learning how to use the English language well. They didn’t. Until I figured out how to sell my product, my cabbage was getting stale. It’s simple: kids want to learn what interests them, and if you don’t stimulate that interest, then you’d might as well do like the teacher down the hall and show videos.
Error Five: a student who doesn’t feel good about who he is has absolutely no interest in knowing why he needs to use an adjective to modify a noun. The art of building self-esteem has taken some wicked knocks in recent years since it can’t be tested and therefore confirmed, but the need to feel self worth is the necessary first step in all learning. I need it . . . don’t you?
Bonehead Idea Six: We learn by hearing. Nope. I’m not the first to discover this gem of pedagogy, but an amazing number of veteran teachers still think that kids learning by listening. If they don’t get on their feet and actually do something then you’d might as well be giving the weather forecast.
Slip-up Seven: If I just plan my work carefully then I’ll get everything done. Nope, nope and nope. You won’t. I didn’t. A teacher must wear too many hats to keep them all balanced on his head at one time. If one falls the ground, that’s the way it goes. If you can look at your class or yourself at the end of a school day and simply say that we made a little progress, that’s called victory in American education.
Boo-boo Number Eight: kids need a reason to learn. I realize I’m repeating myself here, but since I made the mistake at least a hundred times then I’ll allow myself to say it right twice. If you don’t start by convincing young learners why they need to know what you’re about to teach them then only handful of teacher-pleasers will pay any attention. And if you can’t think of a convincing reason to give them then perhaps you’re teaching the wrong thing.
No-No Number Nine: Spending time in the faculty lounge.
Screw-Up Number Ten: Giving up. I don’t think I actually made this mistake but I observed enough teachers who did . . . simply settling for a controlled classroom without caring about making a difference in kids’ lives, doing the same tired things year after year, letting mediocre be good enough.
So . . . there you are, first year teacher. I’ve identified a few land mines. Step carefully. Kids’ lives are at stake.