Teaching can be a tough job. To wind down 2011, we asked some first-year public school teachers to tell us what they've learned now that they have some experience in the classroom. Some of them are traditionally trained with advanced degrees in education. Others have taken an alternate route, including Teach for America or via the New Teacher Center. Thanks to my work with Jane Williams, host and producer of Bloomberg EDU, we asked new teachers to describe their daily routines and greatest challenges. What unites all of them is their commitment to their students, long working hours and a conviction that, over time, their skills will continue to improve. With about four months of student instruction, classroom management and on-the-job training behind them, in their own words, here are some of the things they learned.
PUBLIC EDUCATION IS COMPLICATED
For every different student in a struggling school, there is a different challenge. I've learned two major lessons in the four months that I have been in the classroom: first, that the challenges facing our country's education system are much more complicated and layered than I ever could have anticipated; and second, that despite the challenges, all students are capable of achieving at the highest levels.
Before beginning to teach, I worked for a couple of years in national politics, and our approach to education there was necessarily broad. We cared passionately about closing the achievement gap, but we talked about it on grand scales. The focus was always on failing schools or districts -- close the worst ones and replicate the best. But I have learned this year, now that I am actually in the classroom, that for every different student in a struggling school, there is a different challenge. I have students in my high school math class who can't afford a $9 calculator, students who come to school hungry, students who squint at the board and don't know how to get glasses. One grand solution will never cut it; we need multifaceted approaches.
And while the first lesson has helped me come to more thoroughly understand the scope of the challenges facing our students, the second lesson I have learned continuously gives me hope. My students have proven to me that anyone can perform at the highest levels. The same students who have all kinds of challenges going on at home come into school and impress me daily. It's exciting. They remind me that no matter how complicated the problems facing public education are, it is absolutely possible to improve our system and close the achievement gap. Real progress won't happen quickly, and it won't happen simply. But if we keep working, I firmly believe that it will happen.
-- George Stern, 24, Harrison High School, Colorado Springs, Colo., Math Teacher, TFA Corps Member
I learned that great teachers not only provide one of the greatest services to our country, but are very thoughtful smart professionals and deeply satisfied people. I learned that I want to be a great teacher. I also learned that the road to becoming a great teacher is long and hard. Teaching is complex. Teachers often feel unsupported and don't have the resources they need. Teachers do administrative work that takes away from serving their students to the best of their ability. This job has been the most challenging thing I have ever done, but I can see a day in the future when my students will learn at a high level every day and I will feel a sense of pride and fulfillment that few other jobs can provide.
-- Hannah Clements, 23, Kramer Middle School, Washington, D.C., 7th Grade Math, TFA Corps Member
HARDEST JOB EVER
I knew that teaching was going to be hard, but I had no idea it would be this hard. There is no clock or schedule telling you it is time to start or end your day. In fact, you could work all day and all night and you would still have something to do for school. There are many layers to this job. Not only is there planning, teaching and grading, but there is communicating with parents, communicating with guidance counselors, attending meetings, meeting deadlines for lesson plans, progress reports, report cards, classroom management, getting evaluated for the first time, reflecting on lessons, getting acquainted with the school policies, and making the materials that go behind the lesson plans.
It is scary to know that there are so many people depending on me and trusting me to work hard so that I can provide part of the quality education that every child deserves.
In brief, I've learned to:
1. Be consistent when it comes to behavior -- this is harder than what it sounds, but it is possible.
2. Remember the non-teaching things you love to do -- hobbies and interests add color to the classroom.
3. Get a normal night's sleep.
4. Manage time wisely. Every second of the day is precious.
5. Seek support from work friends, non-work friends, and family. You cannot get through this alone.
6. My mentor, coworkers, department head, administration, and family have all contributed and continue to contribute to helping me transition into teaching full time and being the best teacher that I can be.
-- Ashley Mirabile, 23, Brockton High School, Brockton, Mass., formation TK English grades 9 and 12
A quick list of from a first year teacher inundated with lists. :-)
1. Take it one day at a time. Literally. Close your computer when you're ready for tomorrow. It will still be 7 pm.
2. Don't talk to those who have never taught about problems -- it simply doesn't translate They feed off you.
4. Plan something at night once during the week. Make it force you to stop working.
5. Find at least ONE other new teacher to befriend. Take the time to talk with them weekly.
7. Do not try and reinvent the wheel with every lesson. It will wear you out.
8. Think about grading before assigning. Will it be a timely turnaround?
9. Talk with parents! Call them for the good things. They are facing the same issues, good or bad, with their kids only in a different capacity. Level with them and work together.
10. Understand that you will not feel prepared... ever, no matter how much you prepare.
11. Never make a list more than ten items long.
-- Adam Wolf, 28, Goethe Elementary School, Chicago, Il., 8th Grade - Language Arts and Social Studies, New Teacher Center
BE PREPARED - TO SCRAP YOUR PLANS
As a new teacher, I've learned to be prepared every day, but also to be ready to scrap that preparation at a moment's notice; I never know when my best laid plans will be disrupted by an assembly, or a fire drill, or a last-minute call to put on a Santa suit. I've learned that in addition to the big decisions, like what to teach and how to teach it, I make a hundred small decisions every day that matter almost as much. And I've learned that the first weeks of school really do set the tone for the year, even if September feels like a lifetime ago. I'm working harder than I ever have before and I absolutely love it. After a few career false starts, I've learned that I am, in fact, a teacher.
-- Dan Tobin, 35, The Andrew Peabody School, Cambridge, Mass., 6th grade Language Arts, M.A. Lesley University
So far, I've learned that you have to recognize the person up in front of the classroom; you have to bring your own personality and be yourself. You have to bring a part of yourself up there and share it with your students. If you try to be what you think a great teacher is you will not be one, and you won't make any meaningful relationships with the students. If you are yourself, your kids will love you for it.
-- Benjamin Bauer, 23, KIPP TULSA, Tulsa, Okla., 7th Grade English, TFA Corps Member
YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY BABY
I learned that once you get your students into a routine then they know what to expect and you do not feel like you are all over the place. At the beginning of the school year I started to get them into a routine starting day one. Since I have kept that routine now I do not even have to remind them what they are supposed to do in the morning. I feel that the year has gotten much easier and now I am enjoying myself instead of worrying that the lessons were not planned correctly and that my students are not getting a good education. I feel that the school year is going by so fast and my students are now enjoying themselves as am I.
-- Stephanie Simms, 24, 4th Grade Teacher, Twinbrook Elementary School, Rockville, Md.,
I have learned that teaching isn't for wimps; it's not for the faint of heart. Teaching takes three key things: determination, inspiration, and passion. Many days, it's difficult to find those three things since a large number of students are apathetic. However, it is rewarding to see those who are invested in themselves and their future growth. To know that I've played a role in bettering someone's future makes it all worth it.
-- Josué Galvan, 23, 7th Grade Science Teacher, Lorenzo de Zavala Middle School, La Joya, Texas, TFA Corps Member