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Letter to new teachers

June 19, 2012

So Bowman had this awesome idea to have teachers write letters of advice advice to new faculty. Here’s my contribution:

Dear Teaching Padawan:

Congratulations—you’ve chosen an excellent career that will ensure that no two days are ever alike for you, that you won’t die from sitting on your your butt all day long in font of a screen, and that you’ll spend most of your day interacting with people who you can have a tremendous positive influence over. You will also be constantly stretching your brain to learn new things—how to teach a particular concept, how connect with a withdrawn student, how to learn some new technology to add to your repertoire, and sometimes how to just survive to the end of the day.

Here are a few more concrete suggestions I’d like to offer.

  • Get to know your kids: this is huge. Knowing your kids well, and having them know you well, can make your life tremendously easier as a teacher. They will be much more forgiving when a lesson bombs when they know you as something more than a homework assigning, grade giving automaton. And when you know them as more than just warm body in a seat, you’ll find new ways of motivating them, and often be astounded by the things you learn about their lives in the world beyond your classroom—this is where the real joy of teaching lies. Really investing in understanding your student’s thinking will pay huge dividends in your own teaching. You’ll see there is a huge difference between having the “right” answer and understanding it, and this might push you get past labeling student ideas as right or wrong, and instead work on how they develop their own understanding, helping them to find “positive places for their misconceptions to go.
  • Get outside your current paradigm: Too often, we teachers get to thinking there’s only one way to do something. For many of us, that’s teach exactly how we were taught. Or maybe it’s marching exactly in lock step with a textbook, or some particular curriculum guide, the lesson plan your principal says you must follow, or even some new-fangled teaching pedagogy. If you’ve read Jason’s great advice letter, Life in the Gray, you should now see that teaching is about understanding the gray. So if you’re totally locked in to a particular way of doing things and can’t see any other way of doing it, that is a good sign you need to seek out the opposite of whatever you’re doing. Even if you don’t find yourself changing one iota of your practice, it will help you tremendously to seek out a different viewpoint in order to help you better justify the things thins you choose to keep doing. But doing this is hard. When I started teaching, I barely realized that different textbooks had different points of view. I just thought they were all the same. This brings me to my next point:
  • Build a really diverse network: The easiest way I know to stretch your thinking and get a better perspective on what you are doing is to build a diverse network of colleagues. Start with the people you work with every day like the co-teacher teaching the same class as you, or your department chair, but you will get even more benefit by seeking out connections with people with really different backgrounds from your own—the teacher who teaches a subject completely different (you think) from your own, or, if you’re in a private school, find the teacher who spent most of his/her career teaching in public school. The connection can start small—chatting over lunch, but you’ll be amazed by what you can learn from stepping into his/her classroom and observing a class or two. All of this can be amplified tremendously by stepping on to twitter and the blogosphere, where you can connect with teachers from all across the globe.
  • Lean on your network-hard: a network is no good if all it gives you is some halfway decent lunchtime conversation, or a link to a bunch of readymade worksheets. The great things about the the Teaching Twitter-Blogosphere is that we really help each other. I’m writing this because some dude I’ve never met asked me to. A bunch of people are helping me to write a custom problem solving database from scratch this summer. Every week, 20 physics teachers get together to learn about the latest ideas in physics teaching, and huge superstars of Physics Education Research show up just because we ask them to. Sam keeps a virtual filing cabinet stocked with awesome math lessons. You’ll be amazed at how willing people will be to help you if you ask or tweet. And if you say you’re a first year teacher, we’ll help even move.
  • Don’t sweat the details: As a new teacher, you want to have all of the details right. You want to know what all the acronyms mean, the various special schedules, where you should be sitting in assembly and a million other little things. A small number of these details are critically important, but far more of them aren’t, and if you spend your first year trying to stress yourself out to master every one of them, you’re likely to miss one of the truly important big things, like really getting to know your kids. So make sure you find a veteran teacher to help you in distinguishing truly important details from the noise.

That’s it. You’re going to do great. Be sure to take some time to enjoy it, and I really hope you’ll find at least some time to join us on the blog-o-twitterverse from time to time.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 10:32 pm

    love your first paragraph – I describe the idea that no two days are ever alike (no two classes even) as the “gift and curse” of a career in education

  2. June 20, 2012 8:30 am

    Best advice ever. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and I think I need to print this off to keep in my desk when I need grounding.

    PS The ad at the bottom is for vodka. Is that advice as well? 😉

    • June 20, 2012 9:51 am

      Thanks. I don’t have any control over the ads WordPress choses to place on the blog, but it seems that their algorithms are getting smarter. 🙂

  3. June 21, 2012 5:35 am

    “I’m writing this because some dude I’ve never met asked me to” hahaha, love it! but it’s so true, i’ve been really amazed since i’ve really gotten involved in the twitter-blogosphere how awesome everyone is at collaborating when there is really no reason for us to care at all about each other. i love your advice, and i’m pumped you are teaching math next year so i can see what you do with the grand ol’ subject.

  4. July 22, 2012 12:51 pm

    I love how you point out that you are writing this because “some dude” you never met asked you to. I’ve received much more relevant advice from dudes and ladies I’ve never met than from the busy people around me.

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