It is hard to answer the question: "What advice would you give a new teacher?" The problem is that all teachers, even those of us who are most passionate about teaching, have a love-hate relationship with our jobs. We love the children and the look of pride on a child's face when they master a topic. We treasure those times we can engage and challenge some of the children despite the roadblocks of today's educational system and debilitating mandates.
But we are so deeply frustrated by all the mandates that prevent teaching and force us to dumb-down instruction, and by the atmosphere of cronyism and intimidation by administrators, that most of the joy of teaching has been sucked out of the process. That is why 46 percent of new teachers now quit the profession within five years, and overall we are losing a staggering 20 percent of our teachers each year to all causes -- including new teachers quitting, early retirements, career changes, movement to private schools and normal retirements.
Still, if your passion really is for children and teaching, as is mine, then you must go for it! There really is no choice when your heart is in teaching. Just be forewarned that you will have to work very hard to maintain the passion and initial joy you will feel when you first enter your classroom.
Essentials for today's teachers
Here are the six things rarely discussed in college education courses that will be the key to your ability to engage and reach children despite the system, and to get the most satisfaction possible out of your career. The first three are absolute requirements to be a great teacher, and the final three are for your own mental health during the process!
Vital for all "great" teachers:
• You must have a passion for teaching that is clear to children
• You must have the knack for challenging and engaging children in the learning process
• You must genuinely like children, and enjoy them -- even those horrible teenagers!
For your mental health:
• You need a sense of humor
• You cannot take yourself too seriously
• You must be able to compartmentalize -- separating the joy of being with the children from the frustration of mandates and cronyism
Today's children only learn from teachers they like and respect
Children are street smart. They can tell whether you are going through the motions, or you really care. If you don't care, they will tune you out. When they figure out that you do care, they start to listen and believe in you. The teaching environment is so bad today that you can no longer get through to all the children. But with genuine passion and engagement, you will succeed with many.
I cannot overstate this: without that passion, engagement, and caring you will fail as a teacher, no matter what training you have and no matter how skilled you are.
If you are uncomfortable with loud and rebellious children, you won't last
Children today are a whole different breed of cat from when we were young. The f-word is sprinkled on sentences like candy. The average teenage student already has more street experience than we saw by our forties -- we never even heard terms like "lockdown" or "sexting." Many homes are in disarray. One result: feisty, independent, rebellious children are the norm.
So humor and self-confidence are for your mental health. Teenagers are still teenagers. They do dumb stuff. They say completely inappropriate and whacko things. They talk back. If your natural reaction is going to be anger or "discipline" rather than a smile and quiet laugh, you will burn out quickly as a teacher. And more importantly, you will never earn the ability to change those views and statements. Since teasing and "insult humor" are the nature of the teenage beast, if you have a thin skin you are doomed. Only if you can learn that such teasing is an act of affection (even though it sometimes crosses the line and must be reined back) can you connect with the children in your class.
But maintaining your passion for teaching will not be easy
If you pass the above tests, then you have a chance to be a good teacher. There is just one final question for you before you decide: "Is this absolutely the passion that drives you?" If so, then go for it. If not, make a different choice, because what you likely expect no longer exists in today's classrooms. We now have to live with dumbed-down teaching, a numerical minority of very difficult parents, bullying by school administrators, and inept non-teaching mandates that tie up so many days out of the school year it is the equivalent of more than a half hour out of every class.
We routinely inherit children who failed the prior year, but an administrator changed the grade to "pass" so the school would look good -- sending the child to an even harder course without the necessary fundamentals. The child is almost certain to fail again this year because of the administrator's forced promotion. But the teacher who inherits that child is the one who will be held accountable for their performance.
The single fact that destroys the most joy in teaching is that we know we can no longer expect to reach all the children in our classes with all the curriculum. Inept mandates and the environment in today's schools prevent it.
Just 10 years ago:
• We expected to engage 100 percent of the children
• Almost all children would pass and master the topics
• We would cover nearly 100 percent of the planned curriculum
• We try hard to reach 75 percent of the children
• Almost all will "pass," but few will master the topics
• We cover 60 percent of the planned curriculum
So, bottom line -- it will be a love-hate relationship for you, as it has been for all those of us who went before you during the education disaster of the last 10 years. The wins, when you get through to children and see pride on their faces, will have to carry you through all the losses when you have to deal with the career DoE bureaucrats and their destructive mandates, and with administrators who raise cronyism and intimidation of teachers to an art form.
For me, those smiles and pride make the rest bearable -- even on those many nights I drive home muttering and clenching my teeth at the system!