Advice to New(er) Teachers, and Older Ones Also, Build Teams, Trust Colleagues and Never Blame the Kids.

Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
Satchel Paige
Some years ago the union sent me up to Edmonton, Alberta, the home of school-based budgeting, to attend a conference. We visited a number of schools and asked many questions: teachers and supervisors were in the same union, supervisors evaluated teachers,  teachers evaluated supervisors and parents evaluated everyone, and the results were all online on a public website.  It was a totally different teaching culture.
I was visiting one of the Edmonton schools, kids were released early one day a week for staff development. The principal explained the PD was teacher designed and invited me to sit in. He wandered in and reminded the staff that their “personal wellness plan” was mandatory and due the next day. I was baffled.
He explained to me that teaching was an extremely stressful job. He required every staff member to submit  a “personal wellness plan:” what are they doing to take care of themselves. They could come early and jog with the principal, one grade had a yoga group, some meditated, everyone took it seriously. An exemplary school leader!
1. Forget all those checklists: Draw up your own personal wellness plan.
The distance from Obama/Duncan/Bloomberg/Klein policy screeds to the classroom teachers is that of Earth to Alpha Centauri.
How many times have I heard: “I’m from the District Office, I’m here to help you.” 
Superintendents, Chancellors, Principal and Assistant Principals come and go … the constant is your colleagues and, of course, the kids.  We shared lesson plans, sipped a few on Friday afternoons, played touch football on Saturday mornings, banded together and worked as a team.
A skilled school leader can lead and be part of a team of inquiring, collegial teacher-colleagues, the results can be miraculous … and all too rare.
2. Trust and Depend Upon Your Colleagues
I never saved my lesson plans, kids changed, I changed, the world changed, and I enjoyed the intellectual exercise of creating that one act play that we call a lesson. When a teacher tells me they have no life because they spend every spare minute marking papers and planning I tell them they’re doing something wrong. The inspiration that results in that creative lesson may come from listening to a symphony, or the latest hip-hopper, reading poetry, reading a novel: jumbling those neurons.
One day the class explodes with student to student interactions and the next, a dud. Go home, think about it, and create that next one-acter.
3. Never Blame the Kids
Yes, that sweet looking girl in the third seat, second row may be the “bad seed,” she is what she is.  Kids can be a pain in the ass, insolent, nasty, rebellious and absolutely and totally frustrating. So what?  They may live in a gang infested housing project, have parents with substance abuse issues, be plagued with medical and emotional issues, come from a college educated, upper middle class home, they are what they are and we can’t change what happens outside of school.
To change kids behavior we have to change our behavior. We have to seek out that lever that motivates each individual kid. Some days the light bulb goes off, that “ah-ha’ moment, and on others we confront that angry kid who hates everything and everybody. What happens? We try again with something new the next day. Blaming kids is a cop-out.
4. You’re a Role Model, Accept it and Act Accordingly.
A  professor in an elite university called an inner city principal and asked if he could bring his class to her school, sit in on some classes and talk to some kids. The college kids showed up in ripped dungarees and tie-dyed t-shirts. The principal asked them if they would dress the same way if they were visiting a school in Scarsdale, the kids said,  “no,” they would wear shirts and ties and dresses. The principal told the elite, college kids that they were disrespecting her school and her students, and one could consider their attitude racist, and told the professor and his students to leave.
Whether we like it or not we are role models. What we say and what we do is scrutinized by kids and parents. Our kids may live in poor neighborhoods of color, their parents may not speak English and they may use hip-hog lingo, it is our job to provide the level of instruction necessary to bring our kids to a college entry level. If we don’t respect kids and their families why should they respect us?
5. Are You a Good Teacher? How Do You Know? Become a Reflective Practitioner.
Teacher after teacher on blog comments avers “I am a good teacher.” Who determines whether you are a good teacher? The data? Your supervisor? Your parents and your kids? Your colleagues? Yourself? It’s not any easy question to answer. When you adjust data for external influences (student attendance, etc.), in my experience teachers fall within the “average” range. When I see some kids rushing to class and other dawdling, and ask them why, they respond, “Mr. Smith doesn’t allow us to be late to class.”  Kids may be late to school, late to class, they’re never to basketball practice, “If we’re late coach sends us home.”
Demand excellence in every teacher-student interaction.
In almost every classroom I see teachers working hard, however, too often I see disinterested students. I hear teachers object to going into the hall during class changes, “I’m a teacher, it’s not my job.”  The “it’s not my job attitude” is unfortunate, and characterizes mediocre and failing schools.
There is a huge difference between working hard and working smart. If you don’t “connect” with your students it’s not their fault.
I frequently hear, “just let me close the door and teach.”  If you are “teaching” and the kids are not learning are you an effective teacher? And, if not, why not?
Teachers have a professional and moral obligation to get better, each week, each month, each year, whether a first year, a second year or a twenty year veteran.
And Satchel Paige was right … these days there are plenty of aspiring teachers … you gotta keep getting better.

3 responses to “Advice to New(er) Teachers, and Older Ones Also, Build Teams, Trust Colleagues and Never Blame the Kids.

  1. Woow, what a suprise! This is the first time I have read your blog and to my amazement the first sentence is about my school district here in Edmonton! Now do not get me wrong, I know our system has a very different set up than most in the USA but it is not utopia. We have our issues and problems but I do love teaching here (24 years) and want you to know that it continues to be quite a great place to teach. I teach in an inner city K-9 school with mostly immigrant and refugee children and have no intention of ever returning to suburbia!


  2. Pingback: Remainders: Obama’s back-to-school speech igniting conflict | GothamSchools

  3. An excellent post…every year is different because the world is different and our teaching has to be, too.
    One of the wonders of the internet is the ability to trade and learn new approaches to old problems.
    Tuesday, the President will speak to the American student-how many NYC principals have changed their plans to include that in their school-wide ‘welcome back’ assembly?


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