I’ve been holding regular e-mail correspondence with a colleague who just started teaching at a new school this year. We’re in similar places right now: both of us are trying to find our way among new students, new colleagues, new bosses, new families, new curriculum. If you have teaching experience, many people assume that you can walk right into a new position without much effort. In reality, starting at a new school is only slightly less stressful than your first year of teaching, and it’s harder in the sense that people expect you to know a buncha stuff you don’t know.
In writing to my friend, I find myself typing out a lot of things that I realize I need to be reminded of daily. It’s been incredibly cathartic for me to tell her truths about the teaching-learning process that I need to also be telling myself. So I decided I would revise and edit a few of those emails into a more generic blog post that I can read and reread on the “long days.”
Dear New Teacher,
Teaching English doesn’t seem too difficult to the outside world, does it? You read some books with the students, have them write a couple papers, give a few tests, watch an educational film or two, go on a field trip to a Shakespeare play, and call it a year. There’s a sliver of truth to that perception. English is one of the easiest classes to fake your way through, and one of the hardest classes to teach really well. We can’t give multiple choice tests and expect a fair and accurate assessment of student performance. That leaves papers. If you are doing your job right and giving students the feedback they need, you will start your year under a mountain of papers, and you will not come out from under that stack until the end of May. It’s utter misery, because you didn’t become a teacher so you could sit alone in a room and grade. You love people. You cherish good dialogue. You live for those moments of deep discussion when you feel you’ve reached the pulsing heart of a text. That’s a far cry from sitting at a desk by yourself reading repetitive papers with a red pen in hand. As the old saying goes, you don’t have to pay me to teach, but you do have to pay me to grade.
Grading is costly in terms of time, effort, and sanity, so make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Don’t be an editor. We became English teachers because we get a kick out of correcting people’s grammar, but when you write ‘VT’ or ‘RO’ on a student’s paper you have done absolutely nothing to make him or her a better writer. Students read your comments like they’re divine revelation, but they couldn’t care less about your editor’s marks. All they see is a bleeding paper, awash in discouraging red ink. Force students to search their own papers for mistakes. That is how they will improve. High school students typically know the difference between a fragment and a complete sentence, but they won’t stop writing in fragments until we make them identify and then correct the problem.
Teaching requires a special kind of courage that often involves distancing yourself from strong emotions. You and you alone set the tone for your classroom, so you get to choose every day what that tone is going to be. It may seem like some of your kids with dominant personalities are in charge (and in some ill-managed classrooms that may be close to true), but most of the time, the kids are looking to you to figure out how to act and how to feel about Beowulf or The Scarlet Letter. Have you ever had a teacher say to you “Oh, so-and-so never acts that way in my class”? That’s because the teacher sets the tone. You must carefully manage your emotions at all times. While you won’t always be in complete control, you have to monitor yourself as closely as you monitor your study halls. You have to act mad without actually being mad. You have to show love before you feel it. You must not show favoritism. And above all, you must never see class as your personal group therapy time. Leave your baggage at the door, even the worst kinds of baggage like an argument with your spouse or your mom’s cancer. They are kids, and they cannot handle your issues. This may seem like a call to be fake, but it isn’t. It’s a call to be a consummate professional. There’s a time and a place for transparency, but it is not at the front of the classroom.
That being said, the other side of the coin is that you must show your humanity to your students. You have to take a personal interest in their lives and be open (to a point). You cannot walk into a classroom wearing emotional plated armor; you have to put yourself in a place where students can, and sometimes will, disappoint you and hurt you deeply. You are not merely a teacher, you are also a mentor, and you can model wisdom and grace for them. Sharing pieces of your life story at opportune moments can have a powerful impact on the choices students make in their own lives.
The way I start my first year at a new school is by having lunch with all of the students in groups of three or four. Yes, it means that you have to miss out on sometimes much-needed adult conversation in the teacher’s lounge for several weeks, but the reward is well worth the small sacrifice. I spend the whole lunch time asking the students questions and getting to know them. This helps them understand that I don’t see them as banks into which I make deposits of knowledge which I withdraw on a test. I see them as people created in the image of God and deserving of compassion and respect. Teenagers often feel misunderstood, in part because adults can be poor listeners. Even if I have to tell a teenager something he doesn’t want to hear, if he feels that I have truly listened to him, he will be more willing to trust that I know best.
Guess I’ve written enough for now. Stay strong and teach well.