Friday, July 6, 2018

The 1st Year Teacher Advice I Received

I just completed my first year of teaching. It was intense. This post is for the first-year teacher. I want to share with you all the most important pieces of advice I got going into my first year, both as a way of sharing them, but also as a way of reflecting on their own importance in my practice.
  • "Everything is going to be fine." -Sarah Langer, math coach, right before my final teaching assessment in grad school
    • This was a proficiency-based assessment. You teach your lesson, get feedback, and then if you don't demonstrate proficiency on all the rubric items, you have to do it again, this time focusing on all the rubric items you didn't get the first time. Many people needed 2-3 attempts. In an attempt to assuage my anxieties about the assessment, Sarah reassured me: "It's going to be fine. You'll do it, and maybe you won't pass everything. But it'll be fine. And you'll get to try again, and eventually you'll get it. But everything is going to be fine." (Side note, this was one of the many experiences I've had as a teacher/student that have led be to believe strongly in proficiency-based grading). Sarah was so calm, and it calmed me. And her words inspired a confidence in me--she knows what she's doing, I trust her, and if she says it's going to be fine, then it must be fine! In that quick moment, Sarah instilled in me the kind of unshakeable certainty that things will, eventually, be fine, and this has been a steady compass throughout a tumultuous first year.
  • "Get to good enough." - Julie Sloan (@julie63328227), Director of the BTR Early Career Teaching Network.
    • During my student teaching year I had two sections of Algebra II--one prep. Additionally, I had already accepted the idea that I am committing pretty much every waking minute of residency year to my teaching. Given that context, I would find myself staying up late, spending pretty much every waking minute building, tweaking, and planning for the lesson the next day. Work expanded to fill available time (Parkinson's Law), and did so with diminishing returns. I felt these diminishing returns and was frustrated by them. I tried to express myself using math, and  created a graph to share with my coach, in order to communicate what I felt to be the quality of my work over time (image below, link to calculator here). I felt the most frustrated in that "flat zone" between 3-6 hours. These are the "beating my head against the wall" hours that usually add little to the quality of the lesson.

    • This past year, I was teaching two sections each of Algebra I and Geometry, with one of them a Sheltered English Immersion class of first and second year language learners, for a total of ~2.75 preps. Out of necessity, I couldn't spend 6 hours a night lesson planning for one lesson. Granted, I usually ended up spending 1-2 hours for each prep, which added up to not much less than 6 hours, but I was getting better at finding that inflection point in my planning time, when the returns started to diminish. Importantly, I also got better at letting go once I got there. This is where the advice, "Get to good enough," really helped me. Julie's simple clear advice helped me to identify and respect my own "good enough for now" (which I guess is somewhere around 2, on the "Quality of lesson" axis, lol). Which brings me to my second piece of advice...
  • "You are enough." (Another one from Julie Sloan, and a mantra of the ECTN)
    • Teaching is really hard. No matter how you do it, especially if you are an early career teacher, managing and understanding ~100 other children every day is nothing short of demanding. It is the ultimate "high ceiling" task--you can always get better, you can always do more, you can always find somewhere else you can push barriers and grow. I think that is one of the things that we love about our profession--I know I do. There's something reassuring about knowing that 30+ year teachers are still pushing, advancing, and puzzling their way through things every day (albeit with much more skill, clarity, and understanding). It's a "glass is 10% full" kind of thing. Yes, it's equivalent to say 90% empty, but that is a taxing perspective! It requires a certain kind of calmness to recognize and observe the things you can't yet do, or won't do out of self-preservation. I could have spent more hours getting my lessons to a "3," but not all year long, and certainly not all throughout my (hopefully long) career as a professional--it would be unsustainable.
    • It's not that my students didn't deserve better than a "2." Would it have been better if all of my lessons were better planned and executed? Yes. Would they have learned more and become stronger mathematicians? Probably, yes. But we have to start somewhere--and the bottom is a very good place to start! I started out at 0/10 on the Teacher Quality Scale and if I want to get to 10/10, by the Intermediate Value Theorem, I have to work my way through the levels at some point or another. For a while I am going to be a 1/10, then I am going to be a 2/10, and so on. (This is of course assuming that teacher development is a continuous function, which I believe it is.) And wherever you are in your development, you need to be comfortable and confident that no matter where you are--you are worthy, and your work is worthy. We have to be patient with our own development. You are, essentially, an investment--you need time and input for optimal returns.
  • "You are an investment." - Not totally sure where this came from. Thank you to whoever shared it!
    • The education of teachers incurs costs. The most obvious cost is the one taken on by students when developing teachers do their student teaching. Any time a less experienced teacher is leading the class, it probably won't go as well as if a more experienced teacher was leading. If that wasn't true, then we wouldn't value teacher experience. The other big cost is incurred by the mentor teacher, who has to take huge amounts of time and energy away from teaching (already very demanding) and instead guide someone else. That's not to say there aren't benefits for the students and other adults, but in that first year, the costs are many. And we certainly can't send out teachers without this kind of mentoring and front-of-class experience. But as the process of educating teachers goes on through the years, eventually you start to earn back some of those costs. All the best teachers today started somewhere low, and are now teaching students a lot, leading within their schools, and advancing the profession as a whole. 
    • The time where you will need to remind yourself of this the most is probably in team meetings. The facilitator will be at the front of the room, and they'll reference Blooms, or LAB Clusters, or some school-specific routine that everyone else has been doing for years, and you'll have no idea what they are talking about. Maybe you don't want to ask, because it seems like everyone else already knows. But they've been doing this longer than you! And if you don't ask, you'll never know! And it's probably important stuff, or it wouldn't have come up. You are a professional and you deserve to know things. And the other teachers understand. My mentor teacher and I would always have some kind of notepad at meetings where I would scrawl quick notes and questions mid-meeting, and he would answer back. I have found that the other teachers in buildings, even the ones that don't get paid to mentor and coach me, are pretty patient with first year teachers and willing to teach. I mean...teaching is LITERALLY their profession--they're used to it! Every time the people around you answer your questions they are investing in you. They are contributing to your development because they believe in you! They know that you are going to pay it forward to hundreds of children over the years. You are worthy of investment!
  • "Do less [your first year]." - Sarah Langer
    • Maybe you have been a go-getter all throughout college and grad school. Maybe you are changing careers and were a shark in your previous job. Awesome, that's going to be a great instinct that will push you to develop and push yourself throughout your whole life...starting after Year 1. I felt pretty well prepared by my teacher education program (BTR), but I was still pretty surprised and consumed by all the big teaching things (planning, prepping, teaching, grading, etc.) and all the little teaching things (IEP meetings, calling home, PD, helping that one kid study for that one test, etc.). But taking on a regular teaching load, without the embellishments, is certain to give you more than enough to work on. I always thought of it like carrying a really big load of laundry to the laundry room. It's going to be too much, slow-moving, you're going to drop a sock here or there, and when you bend down to pick it up you'll drop another sock--or even two! The last thing you need is to get weighed down by more extracurriculars. There is one, incredibly important exception, however...
  • "Going out for drinks with colleagues is important." Joey Kelly (@joeykelly89), my mentor teacher
    • I'm pretty sure he was joking then, but I definitely agree with the principle he was trying to communicate. As a resident, we were out of the building on Fridays for our own classes. This brought us all together, and made it easy for us to sit down afterwards, have some delicious adult beverages*, and decompress and vent with each other. There was a bar down the street from where we took classes that made an important "second space." Importantly this second space was beyond the jurisdiction or purview of admin and students. This second space was a safe space for us to share our frustrations, needs, and joys, many of which are perhaps unprofessional but fundamentally human. In this space, we bonded, came to understand each other and connect with one another. The sense of community and belonging that we developed here was instrumental to our mental health and well-being, and helped us through a decidedly difficult residency year.
    • Participating in a second space with your colleagues is a powerful way of creating community with your fellow teachers, in a way that "just teaching with them" doesn't quite do. Personally, it wasn't until spring of this first year that I started to go out for Friday drinks with my colleagues. As soon as I started to participate, I wished that I had done so from the very beginning. Seeing your colleagues in a second space will help you to understand the human beneath the professional. This is not only great for building professional trust and understanding, but also just general human community. Teaching can be pretty isolating--you could very well go an entire day without seeing another adult. It's important to find and connect with the adults in your building. And drinks on a Friday afternoon are great for that.
    • Rest of the quote: "Going out for drinks with colleagues is important. It should probably be an item on the BTR Essentials of Teaching rubric, that you have to pass in order to graduate--'Can have a beer with a colleague without making an ass of yourself.'"
Being a first year teacher is difficult. It will be challenging, and confusing, and definitely interesting. I am excited that you are joining us and can't wait to hear about your experiences!

Bear St. Michael

*Your second space doesn't have to be a bar, but ours happens to be, likely due to the great American traditions of capitalism and alcoholism.

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