Ever since I left teaching, I have been wanting to go back into teaching in some capacity, and recently, a perfect opportunity presented itself. I signed up as a volunteer with the TEALS organization (https://www.tealsk12.org/) that places engineers in classrooms, and today, I finally went back into teaching.
As I was walking on campus reminiscing my teaching days, I ran into this one teacher. After a short conversation, I found out that she is a first-year teacher, just about to teach her first lesson.
Her composure amazed me, because I remembered how scared I was going into my first lesson. I didn’t sleep a single minute the night before my first day (and this actually continued year after year, I could never sleep before the first day of the school year). Now that I think back, it’s kind of miraculous that I chose this profession, because one of my biggest fears is public speaking. Anyway, this new teacher asked if I had any advice for the first-year teacher.
Here are the things I would tell my younger self, and any other person who is about to embark on this difficult but amazing journey called teaching.
1. Don’t teach. At least not in the traditional sense. Don’t be that teacher who stands in front of the class and talks. As much as teaching has become synonymous with lecturing, good teaching is so much more than that. Think back to your own life. What are you good at now, and how did you become that way? Anyone who is exceptional in any field knows that they got that way through struggle. And although I love to sit back and listen to a good lecture sometimes (who doesn’t like TED Talks?), how much have you really learned from watching TED talks? They are very well-prepared presentations for sure, but do you remember anything from them? The truth is, people do not learn by watching others. It’s deceiving because you even feel like you’re learning when you watch some passionate person talk about their experiences and what they’ve learned. But if you could really gain a skill by watching another person, then I should be a phenomenal Olympic diver with all the terrific jumps I saw tonight. But of course that’s not how it works. If I wished to improve at anything, I must do, not watch. So good teaching, then, is to create a classroom experience in which the students must actively engage in the material. They must be encouraged to struggle. It is so tempting to just give them the answer, or show them some shortcut. Resist the urge. If your student tells you “you make learning so easy!” then you have failed as an educator.
2. Don’t beat yourself up. You work in a broken system called American education, and not everything that goes wrong in your classroom is your fault. There are forces outside the classroom that you cannot control, so focus on what you can. There are millions of kids not getting the education they deserve all over the nation. A majority of your students will come to you with below-grade-level skills. I know, it hurts me too when I think about it. America should be ashamed for not having the political will to do anything about it. But look, you do have the opportunity to provide the most amazing education to the thirty kids in front of you, right here, right now. So while you’re in the classroom, forget politics, and seize the moment. These students need you.
3. Once you’re in the classroom, all the things you’ve read in the teacher preparation program will go out the window. Well not exactly, they are very good things to keep in mind, but when you are faced with a situation, you do not have the time to come up with the best solutions, because you have to keep the lesson moving. This is why teaching is so much harder than other professions. Inevitably, you will make wrong decisions at times, and that is okay. Reflect on them so that when a similar situation comes up again you will be prepared, but just because you made a mistake does not mean that you are a bad teacher. As with anything in life, you get better with time and practice. Actively seek to improve, but when results don’t immediately show, be patient.
4. And most importantly, believe in your students. Every student has the potential to do amazing things in life, but often, it takes a teacher who believes to bring out that potential. There are so many forces in society that constantly put these kids down. They are told over and over again that they are not good enough, and pretty soon, they buy into this lie. “Maybe I don’t have what it takes,” they say. Fucking bullshit. You know it’s a lie, otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen this profession. But your students don’t know yet just how much they are capable of. So believe in them, even when nobody else does.