“While Neil Armstrong no doubt experienced some fear and loneliness as the first person to set foot on the moon, many educators say it couldn’t compare to the feeling on day one of a teaching career, when you close the classroom door and are alone with your first class — and your self-doubts. Often, young teachers struggle so much in the beginning of their careers they wonder if they have what it takes to be educators at all.”
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To help quell some of those new-teacher self-doubts, and to provide practical advice for everyday problems, former rookie teacher Roxanna Elden wrote See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Elden interviewed hundreds of teachers to get tips for making it through the first year, including suggestions for “damage control.”
Elden talked with Education World about her book and how she hopes it will reassure new teachers and rejuvenate experienced teachers.
Education World: What prompted you to write this book?
Roxanna Elden: This was the book I needed my first year. I had good training and great intentions, and stayed at school every day until the custodian kicked me out. Yet there were a lot of days when I still felt like the worst teacher in the school. I was frustrated by how much I didn’t know, and by how my inexperienced mistakes affected the kids I hoped to inspire. The only books available were guidebooks that made the job sound simple, and “inspirational” stories about teachers who seemed to have it all together from the first day. Both types of books just made me feel worse. What got me through my first year were colleagues generous enough to share stories of their own mistakes. They let me know I wasn’t alone, and gave me practical suggestions I wished I had known earlier. I wanted every teacher to have that.
EW: What message do you most want teachers to take from your book?
Elden: You won’t be perfect your first day on the job, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become a great teacher. The skills teachers need are important, they are complicated, and they are way more than anyone can learn in one year. First-year teachers have to lay the tracks as they drive the train, and they’re constantly hearing about what they should have done yesterday. In my first month of teaching, I received more than 2,000 pages of suggested reading material. That was in addition to stacks of essays I thought I had to cover with comments, plus a binder of state standards to translate into lesson plans. I got to a point where I just wanted to lie on my back in the school hallway and scream, “This is all the time and energy I have! Can someone tell me what I should really spend it on?”
I didn’t have the presence of mind to read 2,000 pages on how to run literature circles or make grading more meaningful. I was having panic attacks about what to teach the next day. All I wanted was some practical advice I could use right away—and some comic relief. That’s what I tried to provide in See Me After Class. I’d like teachers who had a bad week to pick up this book and know they’re not alone, but I also want them to feel as though they could finish the book over the weekend and come in Monday a better teacher. Not perfect, but genuinely improved.
EW: How did you collect the stories for the book?
Elden: I started by approaching teachers I knew and asking them to put me in touch with other teachers. Then as the idea grew, I set up a Web site to collect stories and tips from teachers around the country. The more stories I heard, the more I realized that teachers have a lot in common, especially the challenges and self-doubt we faced early in our careers.
I used the most common advice as a starting point. Certain pieces of wisdom surfaced over and over — such teacher classics as “Be consistent,” and “Set high expectations.” We’ve all heard those, and most of us would agree they are great advice. The problem new teachers run into is that those suggestions are easier said than done. Being consistent, for example, would be easy if your students behaved in a consistent way, and you had time to deal with each situation before the next issue presented itself.
In reality, you are exhausted from lesson planning all night and your feet hurt. Things slip under your radar. You worry about showing favoritism. You make desperation moves to keep things under control. With the help of the contributors, I was able to address the reasons why standard advice often falls short, and provide practical suggestions for damage control. Contributors also shared lessons they learned the hard way. Everything is anonymous, but the stories give a clear picture of what it’s like to learn through trial and error in front of a class full of students.
EW: Why do you think it’s often difficult for teachers to help other teachers?… Or is it?
Elden: It is hard, but it’s also necessary. The biggest challenge is setting the bar high while anticipating questions rookies don’t want to ask. For example, we all want to reinforce the need to prepare good lesson plans, so some teachers shy away from tips on how to keep kids busy when a lesson ends too early. As a result, rookies who spent all night planning what they thought was a good lesson might end up in front of a class with a half-hour until the bell and no idea what to do. We’ve all been there, so we know that a half-hour with no lesson plan is like two weeks in new-teacher time. New teachers, however, might hesitate to ask for help because they don’t want to admit they taught the kids nothing for half an hour. There is so much pressure to be great at this job from the beginning. New teachers don’t want to be targets of teachers’ lounge gossip, or seem like the weak links at their schools.
EW: What one piece of advice would have made your job as a beginning teacher easier?
“There is so much pressure to be great at this job from the beginning. New teachers don’t want to be targets of teachers’ lounge gossip or seem like the weak links at their schools.”
Elden: The day of my first principal observation, I planned a great hands-on lesson, and started it at the scheduled time. The kids behaved beautifully, and the lesson went exactly as planned, except for one thing — my principal never showed up. An emergency had come up, so she walked in one minute after my lesson ended. Strangely enough, the 45-minute lesson I taught while I was waiting for her seemed to go much more quickly than the next 45 minutes, during which my principal was sitting at my desk with a clipboard. At the end of the day, a colleague told me it was okay to work on something else and wait until the principal walked in to start an observation-day lesson. Needless to say, I wish I had known that a little earlier.
EW: What should be done to better prepare teachers for everyday classroom life?
Elden: There’s a chapter in the book that addresses do’s and don’t’s for mentor teachers and principals. Administrators should assign discreet, reliable mentors who teach subjects similar to those of their mentees. Mentor teachers should share ready-to-use materials and avoid responding to problems with the phrase, “That would never happen in my class.” Those are just a few examples, but most of the advice in the chapter boils down to one understanding: The new teachers at any school are not as great as they will be one day. It’s to everyone’s benefit to offer the support they need to get there.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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