Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What to Expect: The First Year (of Teaching)

Welcome back to Schooled! I took the summer off to travel, sleep, and work on some special projects. I also created a Facebook page for this blog (https://www.facebook.com/schooledteacher) and read, read, read. Here’s my back-to-school post on how to help new teachers navigate the treacherous waters of perception vs. reality. I’m pumped and ready for educational action!

I can be as much of a know-it-all as anybody else, but, at this age, I refrain from giving advice in one area of life unless I am directly asked for it: pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. I nod and smile during most of those discussions because of my fundamental thesis regarding child-rearing (“There is no one right way to do any of it”). So I stand back. As long as you show me pictures of your kids (I love that), tell me cute stories about them, and let me hold the baby while you eat and/or use the restroom, it’s all good. Ask me a direct question, and I’ll give you a direct answer, but otherwise, you’re learning (as we all do), and you’ll figure it out.

At work, I often approach new teachers in the same way. There is no one way to do this job, and each of us gets to figure out how we manage all of its competing demands. I believe strongly in supporting and mentoring new teachers, but I don’t believe that advice-giving is as critical as listening and—most importantly—navigating expectations.

Young and enthusiastic people enter the teaching profession because they typically share one or more of these characteristics:
  • They love kids.
  • They love school.
  • They love what they teach.

As the day-to-day pressures of the job begin to mount (and they mount with a vengeance in the first week), teachers can become distracted by those pressures in ways that can distort their original reasons for seeking these jobs in the first place.
  • “I love kids, but I didn’t know I was going to teach these kids. These kids aren’t like I was. What has happened to this new generation?”
  • “I loved school, but this school is a mess! They dump kids into classes they don’t want, they don’t punish discipline referrals harshly enough, and they don’t understand my lessons, as you can see from my evaluation.”
  • “I love teaching [insert: English/math/social studies/science/art/music/physical education/business/technology/world languages/special education/all of the above], but I don’t like these [insert: content standards/curricula/texts/recommended activities] from the school system.”

These perceptions are not the result of the Common Core State Standards or the millennial generation or allowing cell phones in schools or any other occurrence of the last 10 years. I have heard these same perceptions from new teachers every year since I first entered a public school as a student teacher back in 1989. They will be the same initial perceptions that new teachers have 25 years from now as well because, fundamentally, they result from the clash between the way we perceived school as children and the way we perceive it as adults.

Teachers can quickly become jaded by the realities of their adult experience in schools,
  • which leads to disillusionment,
  • which leads to a martyr complex,
  • which leads to seeing everything as an attack,
  • which leads to burnout,
  • which leads to leaving the profession.

This clash in perception is, in my experience, the most critical issue in new teacher support. Often, new teacher support involves brass-tacks advice on lesson planning, classroom management, and classroom setup. Those issues are, of course, important, but the central issue of expectations is the one I see playing the greatest role in whether new teachers last long enough to become veterans and certainly in whether they remain committed to those three original motivators.

Addressing the expectations issue head-on is the area I now focus on with new teachers. I see these negative perceptions dominate so many professional discussions with teachers of all ages: in the faculty lounge, in professional development sessions, in teacher posts on social media—it’s everywhere, and it’s toxic. Here’s how I try to detox the situation to keep new teachers enthusiastic, focused, and remaining true to those reasons that brought them in the door.

Motivation #1: They love kids.

The distortion: “I love kids, but I didn’t know I was going to teach these kids. These kids aren’t like I was. What has happened to this new generation?”

The mentor’s navigation: “Most kids struggle in school to varying extents in various areas. You, the teacher, probably picked your content area to teach because you have always loved it and have done well in it. Most of the kids you teach are not like you, and in school, you likely weren’t in the same classes with kids like them because you excelled in this stuff. That does not make kids who struggle ‘bad’ or ‘dumb.’ It makes them learners with needs, and your job as the teacher is to figure what those needs are. So let’s talk about their needs. Let’s look at their work and their behavior and see what we can do to help them and motivate them. This is the hardest part of teaching, and I am going to help you with it as much as you want me to help.”

Motivation #2: They loved school.

The distortion: “I loved school, but this school is a mess! They dump kids into classes they don’t want, they don’t punish discipline referrals harshly enough, and they don’t understand my lessons, as you can see from my evaluations.”

The mentor’s navigation: “Running a school is incredibly difficult, as difficult as managing a classroom. Everyone in this building got into this profession to make a difference with kids, so never assume that decisions are made out of laziness or bad priorities. School leaders have to make a million decisions a day, and you’re not going to like all of them. They sometimes have to make decisions on the fly and without all of the facts, just as we have to do in the classroom, so cut them a break. They also sometimes have more information than we have, so you need to trust their judgment in those cases. Advocate for the decisions you care about the most, let go of the ones that are not a big deal, and don’t view any of them as a conspiracy.

“I saw an immediate improvement in my dealings with my building and system leadership when I sought them out directly for advice and to ask questions. If you are a teacher who does not deal honestly and professionally with your leaders but then goes and talks trash about them with colleagues, you will always see your supervisors in a negative light, and you will always be unhappy in this job. Your relationship with your bosses is your responsibility. Make that relationship positive and productive, and come to them with solutions to problems, not complaints. And, let’s say you actually do work for an incompetent leader who behaves badly or unethically. Candor, tough as it is, is your only recourse then, too. But for now, which issue bothers you the most? Let’s figure out how you can approach our leaders about it professionally. I’ll help you as you much as you want me to help.”

Motivation #3: They love what they teach.

The distortion: “I love teaching [insert: English/math/social studies/science/art/music/physical education/business/technology/world languages/special education/all of the above], but I don’t like these [insert: content standards/curricula/texts/recommended activities].”

The mentor’s navigation: “Which of these instructional issues that trouble you is actually required of you to implement? What is it that bothers you? Does the requirement not meet your students’ needs? How do you know? Is the requirement new and makes you feel overwhelmed? Is it not the way you were taught or learned to teach? What’s the root of your discomfort? If you do not like the requirement because it involves change or contradicts what you thought you knew, then let’s get to the heart of it—maybe there’s merit to it that we don’t readily see. Maybe it is more valuable in some situations than others, or maybe it's total garbage, but let’s find out by really digging into it. If, however, the requirement is not meeting your students’ needs, and you have student work and other evidence that shows that, then let’s talk about how you can address that issue with your school or system leadership.

“Or, maybe you have a plan for instruction that does not fit the system model but that you think could make a difference. Let’s figure out to whom and how you should propose that idea. From my experience, new ideas with evidence supporting them are typically welcomed by most educators. You can’t lose by asking to try something new and being honest about it. Leaders may not go for it, and it may not work, but trying to do the right thing is always the right thing to do. Being sneaky, trying to undermine the system program, or sitting in your room feeling persecuted will rarely meet any professional objective that you have for your students and will always leave you feeling miserable. So let’s avoid those options in favor of open action one way or another. I’ll help you with that as much as you want me to help.”

I am on record in believing that remaining positive in a tough job is 100% my responsibility and my choice, but that is not the pervasive attitude among the members of my profession or any other profession. Most folks—in the name of being supportive—empathize with negative attitudes without showing people who are new to the profession how to navigate them. This inadvertently fosters negative attitudes throughout the work environment and promotes a toxic professional culture. Day-to-day, pragmatic support concerning grades and parent contacts and faculty meetings and such is appropriate and fairly easy to do, but it doesn’t address the perception issue that is our biggest problem with turnover.

I’ve seen some destructive approaches to new teacher mentorship over the years:
  • The “Here’s how to do everything the way I did it” mentor
  • The “Here’s how not to get fired” mentor
  • The “Here’s how to be sneaky and subvert authority” mentor
  • The "No, seriously, kid--get out while you can" mentor

All of those models are flawed because, as with those new parents, new teachers deserve the respect of having time and space to learn. More importantly, these approaches do not address our key issues in teacher retention: perception and resiliency.

It’s a new school year. We can enter it with dread and feeling persecuted and whining about it, or we can view it as a chance to remember what brought us into the profession in the first place:
  • We love kids.
  • We love school.
  • We love what we teach.

Both whiny dread and focused positivity take equal amounts of energy to implement, but only one will sustain not only new teachers but also veterans ourselves. Perception is reality for most folks, and we have the power to change our perception each day and, thus, change our reality.

This is a tough job, but we are just as tough when we choose to be. Helping teachers to feel a sense of control over that job is our most critical role as mentors but is also the kindest thing we can do for ourselves. Like those sweet young parents, we’re all learning, and we’ll figure it out. We need more than advice and a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, we need help steering; we need to get back home; we need a perception GPS. 

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