June 02, 2006

Teachers Matter?

What is the heart of a teacher? What are the elements that constitute a teacher? What is the essence of teaching? What does it mean to teach? In the last few months I’ve written just about everything I can think of (so far) on these topics. I’ve used “Teachers Matter” as a subtitle for this blog because I truly believe that teachers not only matter but they are also crucial to our society and our future. If you are embarking on a teaching career then read this carefully.

If you choose to become a teacher my first suggestion is to read this and as many other teachers’ blogs as you can find. Why? Because this blog format that is taking over the Internet gives a voice to anyone willing to sit down and take the time to write. Are all blogs worth reading? No. You need to pick and choose. However, within the lines of a teacher's blog is the reality of teaching, and what teaching is really all about: working from your heart and soul and giving up your self to improve others. Teaching is about service, just like medicine, law enforcement, fire fighting, and other jobs that require those who choose them to sacrifice their time and energy to help others survive life.

My second suggestion is to start substitute teaching right now, before you pay any money into a teacher credential program. Credentialing programs are necessary and useful, but a collection of university courses cannot give you the same experience as you will get standing in front of a classroom full of up to 35 students who do not know who you are, or why they should care. Learning how to use your lasso to rope and tie that steer and bring it down to a level that you can manage for a day must be learned first hand, not simply discussed in theory.

When you student teach (assuming you can afford to work for free) pay close attention to your master teacher. True, there are some rodeo clowns out there, but the odds are in favor of you being placed with an individual who “knows the ropes.” I would not suggest soloing right away, but waiting until you have a very clear understanding of how your master teacher conducts business in his or her classroom; and make sure that you chose a lesson that incorporates content you know backwards and forwards. I taught part of Julius Caesar during my student teaching experience. I thought I had Shakespeare down… There’s never anything wrong with saying, “that’s a good question, let me get back to you on that one.”

Once you have your preliminary credential in your back pocket apply for jobs everywhere you might want to teach. Go to every interview, and DO NOT ACCEPT YOUR FIRST JOB OFFER! Unless of course it is your dream job at your dream campus in your dream community. Of course you need to get your foot in the door somewhere, but be very selective about where that somewhere is. Why? Burnout. Working in some districts is like “battle pay.” Many young inexperienced teachers are literally thrown to the wolfs or tossed into a pool of hungry sharks by being given classes they are not prepared to teach. Don’t be a statistic.

Yes, somebody has to work in these districts and teach these kids, but those teachers should only be the ones who are willing, well equipped, and ready for the assignment. That may not be you. I once visited a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that was in the center of gangland. The teachers there were brilliant. All of them were veterans who had chosen to teach in at this school because they wanted to help these kids. However, I would not want to be a first year teacher in this environment.

If you find yourself drowning from day one, it may not be because you are not a “good teacher.” It may be that you just aren’t ready for that difficult of an assignment yet. Unfortunately, its fairly typical for the “new guy” to get slammed with the worst class assignments. My first year of teaching English at my current school I taught 4 preps! That means out of 5 classes I taught during the day, 4 of the courses were different. I survived, but it wasn’t easy; it wasn’t my first year teaching either.

Sometimes it’s the teacher that is the problem; and sometimes it’s the assignment that is the problem. The best way to survive your first few years in the classroom (until you’re offered tenure) is to befriend a veteran who is teaching like subject matter and willing to share. Our Social Studies department does a fantastic job of helping new teachers along. They have written curriculum that can be quickly learned and easily taught to high school students. New teachers have an advantage in the Social Studies department because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

But not all new teachers are so lucky. Sometimes you will be faced with a blank white board and no idea of what to write. Good luck. It gets better over time for most of us. Do your best to draw a single prep to teach all day. If you are loaded up with multiple preps, see if a compassionate veteran is willing to trade (yes you can do that.) New teachers should be babied into their departments and given a more manageable class load so that they can work up to the more difficult challenges. But veteran teachers feel that their tenure gives them the right to “have it their way,” so at course assignment time (this time of year) the new guys get to pick up the leftovers.

Some teachers love the end of the school year. I hate it. I hate it because the end of the school year means that I will be saying goodbye to people with whom I have spent, in some cases, every working day of the last three years of my life. I’ve watched them grow, mature, learn, and become amazing young adults, (well, at least older teenagers). Saying goodbye is difficult. Sure, many will come back to check in, but we will no longer be working together, and I always miss that.

My favorite time of the school year is the beginning. Of course, that’s the time most teachers and students dread. While everyone else is moping around, lamenting the loss of summer, I am smiling and happy. I’m weird that way. I love the opening of the school year because it means that I will have up to 210 new people to get to know, to teach, and most importantly, to learn from. Teaching is a blast and a great reason to be optimistic about the future. When I go to bed every night I know that my efforts during the day have been worthwhile because teachers matter.

Please post your comments below.

Administrative Update
Thanks for all your support on the administrative question. However, I've decided to wait a while longer before I take that leap. I am going to pursue teaching at our local University, and focus my attention on working with fellow teachers in their classrooms at my campus.


  1. Great advice there. I especially like the recommendation to sub for a while. One can learn a lot about classroom management as a sub. It is often harder to manage a class as a sub, though that depends a lot on the standards set by the regular teacher, and so you can learn how to handle a wide variety of students as a sub. That will pay dividends later.

  2. We had something of a mind meld with this post. I both look forward to and hate the end of the year. I hate it for the 'missing them' part. I hope it gets easier. But maybe I don't want it to really. If I ever stop missing them, will that mean I've stopped caring? If so, then it would be time to retire. Or be an administrator -she said with a smile.

  3. Wow! Some great insights, and there's about sixteen things I could comment on, but I want to focus on one. My son, who is 30 years old, completed his elementary ed. degree last winter. He did his student teaching after completing a career as a professional hockey player in the minor leagues. I talked to him just about every night by telephone, and his cooperating teacher was incredible. I keep hearing about how public education and teachers aren't as good as they used to be in the "good old days." I don't think I ever had a teacher nearly as good as the gentleman my son got to work with, and the strategies and methods he was learning were far superior to anything I learned back when I was first starting. Despite what the media says about people coming into the teaching profession today, I think they just keep getting better and better.

  4. Thank you for these words of wisdom to new teachers. I'm going to save them (hope you don't mind--you'll get full credit!)and pass them along to those I'll be mentoring in the future.

  5. I think this is wonderful. I would've loved to have something like this before I began teaching. I have several friends now who are beginning their student teaching experience in the fall, and I will pass this on to them.

    I have one comment about what you said: While it is better to have a good cooperating teacher during the student teaching experience, I think just as much can be learned from a bad one. I had an awful teacher during my student teaching (wonderful woman...lazy teacher), and I saw firsthand what not to do and why. Seeing the results of her bad teaching taught me a lot. Just like we can learn from our own failures, we can also learn from the failures of others.

  6. Great! I´ve just started looking for a blog for teachers and found yours. I do agree. It is difficult to say goodbye but at the same time your head neends rest, doesn´t it? I also have a feeling that teachers mean a lot in the life of many kids. I teach teenagers, 13 - 16 years old. I live and work in Sweden.