A Decade of Shifts in Thinking

As we close out one decade and enter a new one, I’ve found myself reflecting on my teaching career quite a bit these days. When I think about who I was then, I am reminded of how much in the education world has changed, but also how much my own beliefs have shifted since I walked into my first classroom. So, I thought I’d try to compile a list of some of the things I used to think about teaching that no longer hold true in 2020.

When I Started Teaching I Believed:

1. You can be a well-liked teacher or an effective teacher, but you cannot be both.  

I probably listened too closely when someone uttered the tired old phrase, “Don’t let them see you smile until Christmas.” There was a period in my early career where I thought the only way to command respect (note the use of “command” instead of “earn”) was to be all-business, all the time. If the kids liked me, it’d only be because they recognized how serious I was about the work of high school English. What I was missing was that the only serious thing about any of it was that I was taking myself too seriously.  

I don’t begrudge new teachers who feel this way; I recognize now that in the absence of experience, I leaned hard on rules, procedures, and a freshly-starched shirt and tie to convey some sense of effectiveness. What I had forgotten was that most of the teachers I still remembered fondly (and the ones who  inspired me to be a teacher myself) were ones I genuinely liked as people. I also falsely assumed that students only liked teachers who had low expectations (the “easy” teacher, or the one who only shows movies) or ones who were warm and fuzzy. I was not (and still am not) those things.

I wish I knew then what I think I know now—I think students mostly just want to know that you care about them. Relationships are integral to teaching, and often the reason someone can be an effective teacher. I still don’t hate a shirt and tie, though.

2. When it comes to teaching English there is a canon and kids should read it

    I am sure that I am not the only one to see this shift in his thinking, and in fact, there is nothing revolutionary about the fact that I believe the opposite of this now; this has been an argument made by people long before I set foot in a classroom. The only real change, I think, has been that this belief in challenging the canon has become more mainstream. This is a sad thing, in some ways, because we’ve had students who needed diverse books for as long as we’ve been reading in schools, and it may seem like only recently ELA educators have made this a large priority. That said, I also see it as an opportunity for us to show our diverse populations of students more characters who look like them, as well as characters who do not share our students’ experiences. 

    When I started teaching, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe our students shouldn’t be reading YA fiction, graphic novels, diverse voices/texts, or living poets/authors. But, I thought part of our job as English teachers was to expose students to the “great works of literature” so that they could be a part of the larger cultural narrative. What I never stopped to think about was “whose cultural narrative?”or “what makes a ‘great book’?” At this year’s NCTE in Baltimore, Julia Torres of #DisruptTexts made the excellent point that rapper Kendrick Lamar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musician, and yet how many of our students see his work on a standardized test? Challenging our notions of what students should be reading is one of the most vital conversations teachers and school leaders should be having right now. 

    I’ve worked with and for people who were vehemently against using YA in the high school classroom, because it isn’t “challenging” enough. As I’ve made an effort to read more YA, I recently thought to myself that while I enjoyed a lot of the titles, it was true that I felt more connected and challenged by literary fiction written for adults. But, there’s a perfectly good reason for that—these books are not written for me! So, something we may want to remind ourselves before we defend teaching our time-honored classics is that we teach these books to students, many of whom are young adults. Shouldn’t they get to read books written for them and not for us?

3. Technology, more often than not, gets in the way of real learning.

    When my school began piloting 1:1 devices at the beginning of the decade, I was pretty skeptical about it. I liked having a computer myself so that I could keep an up-to-date class website, and sure, PowerPoint was great. Every so often, when I assigned a project in class, it seemed like a good time for students to use the wide variety of technology at their fingertips. But, at the end of the day, I was an English teacher, and the main thing we needed to be doing in class was reading books and writing essays. I saw technology as a distraction.

    Enter: Google’s G-Suite. For the first time, I saw ways that technology could transform the English classroom. Collaboration was a real, possible thing, when in the past, students always seemed to be going through the motions. The number of ed-tech companies/websites/tools exploded, and suddenly we had things like Actively Learn or Common Lit—technology designed specifically for English classrooms that allowed teachers to really look at data on how well kids read. When it came to student writing, I could finally get a good sense of how much and how effectively students revised their work. Where I started as a bit of a cynic, now I serve my district as one of four technology mentors, working with teachers in my building to come up with ways of effectively integrating technology in their lessons. And yet…

    I’d say my thinking on technology in the English classroom this decade has perhaps had a circular arc. In the last year or two, I’ve become acutely aware of how distracted many of our students can be when they have screens in front of them all day. I think back to the start of my career and the times I struggled with getting students to meaningfully collaborate, and now I have to take special care to teach students that not all tasks are meant to be worked on in pairs, and that sometimes what they believe is collaboration is actually verging on outright plagiarism. 

    While I still think that technology has transformed my writing instruction (my students do most of their writing in class and Google docs allows me to be in there with them, coaching them as they write), in the end, I still think I’d rather students read from a physical text. Studies have suggested that it is better for us than reading digitally. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but there’s just something about opening a physical book.

4. You don’t need to collaborate with others to be an effective teacher.

    Maybe this early belief of mine is true. Certainly, there are lots of very smart, passionate teachers who are reflective and adaptive in their practices. They may even keep up on all the professional literature for their discipline. Maybe they take webinars, or attend local professional learning. Their students consistently do well when you look at traditional metrics. Sure, I think you could pretty much be a lone wolf, shut your classroom door, and be a good teacher. But imagine if that person did all of those things and was willing to work collaboratively with others?

    No doubt about it, some of my most rewarding moments in teaching have been ones where I was working alongside and exchanging ideas with others. The first six years of my career, I worked in a collaborative pair with different special education teachers. While some partnerships may have been more effective than others, each one of these experiences introduced me to different teaching styles, but also different perspectives on what was and wasn’t working in our classes.

    If I could do it all over again, I’d have joined Twitter much earlier. Through Twitter, I have connected with so many other passionate teachers. I connected with Kate Baker, another NJ high school English teacher, which led to our serendipitous meeting at ISTE 2016. After Kate and my wife, Shari Krapels connected, the three of us collaborated on a number of presentations at various local and national conferences. Through this one connection, I have found a professional home and countless new friends in CEL, and if I can help it, I won’t ever miss another NCTE or CEL conference. All of this is personally fulfilling, but I get to bring everything I learn back to my students. No doubt about it, joining Twitter has made me a better teacher.

    This year, my supervisor allowed Kelley Kulick and I to co-teach our journalism class. In addition to getting to teach alongside one of my good friends, our student newspaper, The Lance, has never been better, in my opinion. The quality of the newspaper is because of the students who write for it, no questions asked. But because Kelley and I get to design this course from two different perspectives, and bounce ideas off of each other (as well as share the grading), I believe our students are getting us at our best. 

    I really thought, when I started teaching, that doing things my way and on my own would make me a happier and more effective teacher, but time and time again, that’s not been the case. If you don’t already have a meaningful professional partnership, go get one. Make it your New Year’s Teacher Resolution.

5. New teachers should keep their heads down, work, and wait for tenure before getting involved in anything.

    I have a feeling that many people may identify with this one. I remember that besides getting my lesson plans and grading done, my main priority as a new teacher was to survive. Survive to the end of the day, to the end of the week, to the end of each year, to the first day of tenure. Then I could breathe. Sure, I had questions. Of course I had opinions, but those could wait until I had job security. Fake it until you make it, right?

    What I didn’t foresee was that I’d work a string of maternity-leaves and that when the time came that I “could breathe,” I was already teaching for six years. And because I lived under a strict mantra of “keep your head down” or “don’t rock the boat,” I missed out on a lot of opportunities to grow as an educator. More importantly, my students missed out on lots of opportunities to have a better teacher.

    We all know that the teacher shortage and teacher burn-out are very real things. With more and more teachers leaving the profession, often early on, it’s clear that we could do more to engage those at the start of their careers. New teachers should feel like they are contributing as much to the school and their profession as experienced teachers are. There are lots of ways to get this kind of buy-in–more intentional coaching and on-boarding of new staff, meaningful mentor/mentee relationships, co-teaching models. One thing that I really suggest, and something that would have made a huge difference for me at the start of my career: attending a national conference.

    I am always most hopeful about our profession when I see in-service students and early career teachers at national conferences like NCTE and ISTE. There is definitely some faction of our profession that would decidedly eye-roll at the sight of young people engaging professionally before amassing a certain number of years of experiences, but so often, this is the problem. By setting up these arbitrary (and imaginary) barriers of “when you’re enough of a teacher” we further isolate those that will be the future of our profession. So often, it is these new teachers who have most energy and imagination to try profeessive new approaches in their classrooms. Why punish that? 

    Do what you can to nurture and encourage your new staff, because in the end it will be better for your school and your students.

So, as we enter a new decade that promises to bring with it even more changes and shifts, I challenge you to confront them head on. This doesn’t mean accepting everything that is thrown at you wholesale; you should still be a savvy consumer. But, if you find yourself resistant to a new idea, initiative, or philosophy this decade, ask yourself the following: do I resist this because I don’t want to think/do a new thing or because it doesn’t align with my current philosophy? Whatever your answer to that question, make sure to follow it up with why?

An Ode to New Teachers

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Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

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.