Saturday, January 14, 2012

For The New Teacher

Teaching is one of those professions where, as your salary is going up, it feels like your work is getting easier.  I’m not talking about the more you pay teachers, the lazier they get, although I’m sure you can find people who fit that description.  I’m talking about the huge difference in work loads between your early and later years teaching.

A friend of mine who is an engineer made the observation that in his field his first work assignments were quite easy.  He could have done most of his work with what he learned in high school math.  The more complex, challenging assignments were not given to him until he had some years of experience under his belt. 

In stark contrast is the experience of the first year teacher.  She is handed a classroom of 30 students and given the same teaching assignment that a 20 year veteran handles.  She is usually asked to take on several extra-duty jobs.  She is rewarded for her hard work with the lowest level of pay. 

I have yet to meet a teacher who would want to live their first year of teaching over again.  It is absolutely grueling.  You are desperately trying to learn and teach the curriculum because your students will be tested in the spring.  All of the students' scores will be scrutinized by the administration and parents.  On top of this you are trying to develop classroom management strategies that will support your teaching.  You are praying you don’t make any parents unhappy.  Your sleep is troubled with bad teaching dreams. 

My recurrent nightmare was that the wall between my classroom and the hall was suddenly glass.  All the other teachers stood in the hall looking in as I taught, and they were sadly shaking their heads at my ineptness.  Did you see the program following Tony Danza’s real-life first year of teaching?  One of the episodes showed the 58 year-old man sitting at his desk bawling like a baby.

The only light at the end of the first year tunnel is the promise of your fellow teachers that it will get better.  And it does.  In fact every year for me has gotten better.  You get very familiar with the curriculum and eventually you can devote more time to creativity rather than just covering material.  You can see most problems coming like a freight train, and you can figure out ways to stop them.  The blind side hits are pretty rare.  Tasks that took you ten moves to accomplish your first year, can eventually be done in two moves.  You might even have time to write a blog!  

Statistics show that if someone is going to leave the teaching profession, they do so within the first five years.  If you are a new teacher and are thinking of switching careers, here are my suggestions.

1.      Give teaching at least three years.  Is the discouragement and burden getting lighter each year?  If the work load is not lessening, something is very wrong.

2.      Consider switching grade levels, or schools, or even districts.  The difference can be dramatic.  There are amazing studies documenting the huge impact that the right leader has on a school environment.  Before you leave the whole profession, try working for a different “company” first.

I wish I could conclude with the great idea that would change the system so that the work/pay ratio wasn’t so upside down.  Unfortunately it is what it is.  But I have never heard a new teacher say she was bored.  (And I have heard that from new professionals in other fields!)  Maybe that’s one of the perks of the teaching profession.  Your first student is yourself.  You get the entire load dumped in your lap on your first day and you spend the rest of your career sculpting your classroom into the environment you dream it to be.

The mayhem of your first year is one of the greatest teaching opportunities you’ll ever have to take chaos and shape it into order and beauty.  Happy second semester, and Happy Teaching.

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