Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Manifesto for New Teachers

This is a call to action, and a call for help, for new teachers.

More than two hundred thousand brand-new teachers will walk into their very own classrooms in just a few short weeks.

Most of them have gone through some kind of teacher preparation; and some of them will have years of experience in schools or other professions. But all of them, trust me, will be nervous.

Teaching is a tough job, and being the new kid on the block adds to the stress. Indeed, novice teachers are, in general, saddled with the hardest classrooms, the toughest kids, the most difficult school systems, and, in turn, are the most likely to get burned out, disenfranchised, and leave the teaching profession. Two out of three new teachers report feeling "unprepared" for "classroom realities." In some urban school systems, forty percent of new teachers are gone by the second year. It is a sad outcome of what's known as the "Matthew effect": the teachers who need the most support are oftentimes the least able to get it.

But it is exactly such new teachers that we need the most, the ones who bring in new ideas and energy. So I want to raise the banner for new teachers, offer a manifesto of first principles that all of us in the education profession should remember. If new teachers had a unified voice, this is what I think they would say:

"I came into teaching to make a difference, one child at a time. Help me to understand, navigate, and make a difference in a system that is all too often one size fits all."

"Hold me accountable, but don't assume that teaching a child is simple to do. Anyone can teach poorly. It takes a master teacher years to learn how to teach well. Give me the tools, support, and respect to make that journey from novice to expert teacher."

"I am dedicated to increasing my students' academic success, to respecting parents' voices, to following my school's standards. But at the end of the day I truly and only work for a better world, because what I do has deep purpose outside of the covers of our exam books and walls of our classrooms. Remind me of that when I forget."

In the end, I would argue, new teachers need a combination of deeply practical support and very lofty idealism. For teaching is, to use the sociologist Max Weber's typology, both an occupation and a vocation.

It is a profession, a science, a place where "best practices" can indeed help to make you a better teacher. So we need to provide sustained guidance to new teachers on managing disruptive students, on dealing with crisis situations, on communicating with parents who know minimal English, on extending lesson plans to better meet some students' needs, on figuring out how to turn a roomful of silent and sullen twelve-year-olds into a group of engaged and excited youth.

At the same time, teaching is a calling, an art, an emotionally- and psychologically-wrenching and rewarding experience. So we need to help new teachers manage the "emotional work" of being in a roomful of kids all day, of developing good colleagues and finding strong mentors, of making sense of the fact that teachers are - within the span of a day or just even twenty minutes - cheerleaders, educators, babysitters, coaches, scholars, storytellers, counselors and judges.

I have been teaching teachers and conducting educational research for almost two decades and realize that of course all teachers deserve such support and respect. But let's start with those who have just started.

In fact, it's a sad reality that almost no teacher preparation program in the country continues to support their recent graduates as they go off to teach. That's why I'm leading a new initiative at my college to think through a new model of professional development for our new teachers.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Whether you're a teacher-in-training, new on the job, or wizened and experienced, what would be the first thing to help that new teacher?

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