Now that I have scoffed at your youthful enthusiasm and use of university lingo the customary fifty-four times, it falls to me to welcome you officially into the fellowship. I know you are still running on adrenaline and trying to keep your head above the administrative floodwaters, but spare me some time. There are a few things you should know.
Firstly, you need to figure out why you are here, doing what you do. And please make it more specific and detailed than ‘change the world’ or ‘make a difference’. If your overarching goal is too vague you will never reach it, no matter how hard you try. (Mine is to motivate kids to think more clearly, independently, critically and creatively than they did before arriving in my class.) Oh, and if your goal is to help kids get good marks so that they can become successful, you really need to have a rethink. There isn’t a simple correlation between these two things. Aim a little higher.
If you don’t have moments where you are the happiest you’ve ever been, you will know you’re in the wrong job. Do it right and you will have more and more of these moments. Do it wrong and it will be drudgery.
The best thing you can possibly do is to get to know the people who really make a school work. Make friends with the cleaners, drivers, receptionists, secretaries, bursars and most especially the lady who works in the photocopy dungeon. It’s phenomenal how much more smoothly things will go for you if you get these people on your side.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask more experienced teachers for help and advice. Listen to them. It’s incredible what you can learn. Do be careful and discriminating about whom you choose to help and advise you, though, and which bits of advice you listen to. Some experienced teachers have some very old-fashioned and very silly ideas. Unless it is me talking. I’m on your side.
Beware of the psychic vampires. They will moan and complain so incessantly that they will begin to drain you of your energy and enthusiasm. Worse, they may infect you with their darkness. And don’t try to change their minds or make things better. They will be negative and sulky no matter what you say or do, and if you engage with them too often, you will find yourself on the dark side.
There are also always a few bullies in every staffroom. These are people who got into teaching because they are too insecure to function in the real world, and need to bully children in order to feel a sense of worth. They will also often bully fellow staff members given half the opportunity, for the same reason they pick on kids. Don’t allow yourself to be picked on and pushed around in any way by one of these. Be the professional.
Oh, and stay away from staffroom politics and petty rumor-mongering. Seriously, grow a backbone and walk away. No good will come of your involvement in matters that either don’t concern you, or which are probably untrue anyway.
Take on more than you think you can do. Get involved in after-school activities, coach a team, go on school tours, watch the kids playing, speaking and performing against other schools. Attend conferences, engage with other teachers on social media. Work long hours to create engaging, interesting and relevant lessons. All of these things provide rich experiences and they allow you to get a glimpse of what you can really do once you settle in properly.
Try different systems for running your admin duties and don’t be afraid if they fail. Aim for quick, easy and effective.
And for goodness sake, if you’re not using a daily planner and a calendar, how on earth do you expect to cope? Use these things to plan ahead as well as to record significant moments in your teaching; including the good, the bad, the ugly… and the exceptional.
Talk to the parents of the children you teach. They can be invaluable allies. Be constructive and polite and understanding with them no matter what.
Be wary of devoting yourself religiously to Bloom’s. But do find a taxonomy to guide your teaching and assessment. You must know the importance of developing higher order cognitive skills and make this a habit in everything you do.
Oh, and know that you don’t necessarily have to build up to the more demanding skills – often you can start with the skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation and generation and get kids to acquire the simpler stuff in an integrated way.
Stay current on the latest pedagogical and neurological research.
Don’t be afraid to make your subject challenging. Yes, you often need to simplify complex concepts for your class, but do allow them to grapple with difficult subject matter, ideas, problems and issues independently. If you encourage an atmosphere of determination, independent reasoning and a positive attitude towards learning from failure, you will be amazed at what young minds can do.
Teach your kids to question: the textbook, your assessments, the syllabus, and any facts they come across both in your class and on the internet. Then teach them the value of generating alternatives to things they don’t agree with. As part of all of this, teach kids the value of building a well-reasoned and well supported argument.
Have high expectations, but be ready to support those students who aren’t yet confident enough to reach them.
Be kind to your students, but know that kids can be manipulative.
Be honest. Kids can detect a fraud a mile away.
Never ever issue false praise as a way to motivate students. You will only come across as insincere.
Try to take on 3 to 4 ‘projects’ per term. That is: focus on three or four students who need your guidance and mentorship. Don’t neglect the others, of course, but make these students your focus.
Know that half the battle in teaching is building engagement. Technology is a wonderful way to do this. Experiment with software and apps which can make your lessons fun and interesting. Know that the best use of technology is aligned with 21st century pedagogy – which mostly means getting kids to discover independently in a personalized way.
Be an actor. Most teachers have only one teaching persona. It’s incredible how useful it is to have a few to draw on.
You don’t have to always be exuberant, but a sense of humor always helps.
You’ve chosen a wonderful career that is potentially the most rewarding of all. Many things will go wrong for you, but learn from these episodes. Stay positive and keep working to hone your skills every day.
Welcome to teaching.
You’re going to like it here.
PS: Be sure check out this list of 50 things every teacher needs.
*Note: I tried to write this post in the style of my favorite Friskies advert, ‘Dear Kitten’. I don’t know that I succeeded. But here’s the video for you to watch as a consolation: