Recently, I shared with a colleague that I was about to start my new job as an assistant professor of education, assisting first-year teachers as they embark on on their careers, and she asked me an interesting question that I’ve been sitting with ever since. “Who do you want your teachers to be?” It’s a fascinating question, one that can, and has, filled many a book. As such, the ideas below barely scratch the surface, but they’re a start.
1. When a student demonstrates skill deficits, remember that it’s not their fault; it’s your responsibility. As teachers, we are charged with providing high-quality education to every single student on our rosters, without exception. Some of our students will be highly skilled, thoughtful, mature, and on grade level. Most won’t. Indeed, I’ve taught entire classes where students have been significantly behind in their reading and writing skills. But while this can be difficult and frustrating, the fault cannot be laid at the feet of our students. If a child is behind in their ability to read, that is in all likelihood symptomatic of the injustice done to them, particularly given America’s education system that links one’s wealth with one’s access to quality education. It is our charge as educators to support our students by closing those educational gaps. If a teacher begins to blame their students for their educational shortcomings, which can often take the shape of stigmatizing a school community or by lowering expectations for achievement, two things are likely to happen—one, little learning will occur and two, that teacher will likely soon be seeking new employment.
2. Remember your 16-year-old self. Our students are kids. It’s amazing how many times we have to remind ourselves of this fact, but it’s true. Kids screw up. It’s their job. Whether it’s the 2-year-old who spills their juice so they can learn how best to hold their sippy cup, the 10-year-old who got caught lying about their homework so as to learn the value of integrity, or the 17-year-old who cut class so as to learn the power of consequences, the fact is that kids will make poor choices, often times exasperatingly so. Before we throw the hammer down and irrevocably assign kids designations as “bad” or “trouble,” let’s just pause to think about the mistakes we made in our younger years. I, for one, am immensely grateful that I am not stuck with the label I rightly earned from the choices I made as a 16-year-old. We must remember that we are here to empower students to learn from mistakes, not to simply get off on a power trip with punishment and discipline.
3. The best classroom management is an engaging lesson. I’ve never been a fan of that teacher adage that advised teachers not to smile until October, thus creating a stern demeanor in the classroom. To me, there are two things wrong with that idea. One, it’s inauthentic. Classrooms need to be built on honesty, trust, respect and rapport, none of which can exist when a teacher wears a fear-induced mask. But in addition, it presumes that in order for a classroom to be managed, a teacher must rely on strict discipline. This is false. Discipline, routines, expectations, rigor, all have their place in the classroom management handbook and are all vital parts of an effective teacher’s arsenal. But there is one thing that outstrips them all. A teacher who relies on discipline to hold their classroom together is putting the cart before the horse. Simply put, if you want on-task learners, build engaging lessons and deliver them engagingly. A student who is engaged doesn’t disrupt, act out, sleep, or do any of the problem behaviors that strict mask is meant to stave off. Instead of planning that disciplinary consequence for that one student who hasn’t been engaged all year, plan a lesson for them. Show them you care enough to not give up, and they’ll break their backs for you.
4. Teaching is hard, like really, truly, insanely, and appropriately hard. And finally, don’t get it twisted, classroom teaching is, I believe, the single most difficult job on the planet. Nothing comes close to being onstage in front of young people for more than six hours a day, every day, 180 days a year, not to mention the lesson planning, assessment grading, parent contacting, PD attending, and dance chaperoning. But the difficulty of teaching is in direct accordance with its importance. It’s difficult as only the things that matter most in this world can be. So lace up those boots, new teachers, and get ready for the ride of your life.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...