I have a soft spot for new teachers. I see them on the first day of school, and despite their content areas, their ages, their work experiences, or any of the other myriad qualities that make people unique individuals, somehow, they all do a number of similar things.
They immediately stick close to the few people they know. These people are often other new hires, met in the new staff orientation a week prior. In a school like mine that hires a fair amount of graduates, you’ll sometimes see new teachers sit with their own former teachers, or an older acquaintance that already works there. This is smart. There’s safety in numbers.
The new teacher also asks a lot of questions. To anyone who will answer them. Or the opposite–they avoid asking questions because they’re afraid of appearing unprepared. Either way, the anxiety can be tremendous.
When the full staff comes together for opening meetings, exchanging “how was your summers” and “I can’t believe we’re backs,” the new teacher is often quiet, either because he’s nervous, or because he’s trying to determine the pecking order. Who are the movers and shakers? What “cliques” exist here? The new teacher either stares blankly, or laughs without really knowing why when the rest of the staff chuckles at a principal’s inside joke, funny to them because they understand the context for the quip.
And yet, amidst the nerves and reticence, the assessing and evaluating of their surroundings, new teachers tend to have that unmistakable quality that unfortunately, some veteran teachers forget to embrace: excitement. There is a verve that new teachers possess that I love to see at the start of a school year. You see it in the way that they diligently prepare exciting lesson plans, full of the shiny new best practices they learned about months prior in their teacher training programs. Have you ever had the opportunity to see a new teacher’s classroom? You’ll rarely find another room in the building more impeccably decorated. New teachers, more often than veteran teachers, are unspoilt. They see the possibility in this profession. While many experienced teachers still feel the same way, it is the new educator who dreams of helping kids learn and is incapable of spotting the hurdles that often get in the way. This is a good thing.
I have a soft spot for new teachers because even eleven years in, I still vividly remember being one. I was an alternate route candidate, which meant that unlike my other new teacher colleagues, I had no formal teacher training. No student teaching. No educational theory. No observations. Nada. Zip. Nothing. I had an extraordinarily brief stint in the private sector as a recruiter, and I realized almost as soon as I started that I should have followed my gut years earlier and gone into teaching. And yet, in my private sector job, what did I do for the first two weeks? Watched training videos. Hours and hours of training videos. It made no difference that I had no background in recruiting because these tutorials walked me through every possible scenario and situation I would ever face in this line of work. Have a question? Consult the videos. Want more information? Open the binder that accompanies the videos.
In teaching, though, there was no equivalent. Sure, you can find great resources online, and now you have Twitter, but the only tutorial in teaching was going to come from actually doing the job. I remember that this excited me, though. It was the career equivalent of taking off the training wheels, or driving your car without your parents for the first time. It was exciting. It was fun. That is, until I hit my first roadblock, and it absolutely wasn’t.
I love my job and most people would tell you that a large part of my identity is defined by the fact that I am a teacher. What most of those people probably don’t know is that I seriously wondered if I could keep doing it after my second year. I failed a lot–I had a tough time forming good relationships with my students, and was usually convinced that I was mucking it up–that these students were better off with anyone else. But, I also had the support of a talented and compassionate department, who helped me realize that what I was going through was normal and appropriate for someone new to the job (especially someone like me, with no formal teaching preparation).
Teaching is a trial and error job. There are best practices, and certainly there are “do nots,” but like our students, we learn through failing and doing better the next time. The best teachers are the ones who can reflect on their practice and can take criticism in stride. But, when you’re new, it doesn’t matter how smart, poised, or prepared you are. This is hard, and even the most excited new teacher will feel like a failure no fewer than a million times his first year (and maybe half a million times his second year, third year, and on and on and on…).
That’s why, in a field that by some estimates sees 8% of its teachers leave the profession a year, it is extremely important that seasoned teachers and administrators nurture their new hires. We owe it to the many new teachers in our schools to shepherd them into this profession. We should be sounding boards and, when asked for it, offer advice. We should encourage our new teachers to persevere, but also reassure them that while the job itself doesn’t necessarily get easier, the confidence that you bring to it does increase. But even more so, we should remember that when we support new teachers, we help them become better teachers, which in the end, is in the best interest of our students.