My first year of teaching was exactly what I was told it would be: the single most difficult year of my life. Dread-filled mornings. Sleepless, nightmare filled nights. Drastic, un-counseled culture shock. Pervasive feelings of incompetence matched only by the reality of my teaching inefficacy. And tears. Lots and lots of tears. I doubt any student of mine learned anything that year, certainly nothing even close to the accelerated achievement I would, years later, expect and rely on as a more seasoned educator. I think back on those days, back to 36th and Filbert in West Philadelphia (don’t go looking for the school, it’s not there, having been torn down several years ago, replaced with the slick, glass-fronted edifices of ever spreading college campuses). I think back on those days with shame and dread. Even now, when I hear the ringtone that was my alarm clock back in those days, I feel a cold chill come over me. Get any number of teachers together and you’ll hear these stories. We take for granted, expect, and tolerate that this is the reality of being a first year teacher. But what if it didn’t actually have to be?
3 Things That Could Have Helped
Nearly 15 years after walking into a classroom for the first time, from the perspective of not only a seasoned and effective classroom teacher, but now as a novice teacher educator, I see how unnecessary my first year teaching experience had to be. Briefly, here are some things that would have made me not just a better teacher during my first year, but even just a passable one.
1. A teacher education program that taught me one thing, literally just one thing, that I could have applied to my daily classroom practice. I am not being hyperbolic here. I learned literally nothing that I could take from the beautiful suburban college campus where I earned my instructional certificate and apply directly into my West Philadelphia classroom. Nothing. I learned Vygotsky, Skinner, Piaget, Dewey, and Montessori. I learned Pavlov and Milgram. I learned the stages of childhood development, as well as zones of proximal development. What I didn’t learn was how to stand and deliver instructions. I didn’t learn how to use proximity while circulating my classroom. I didn’t learn to distribute class handouts in caddies placed on tables before class to save time and maintain class momentum. I didn’t learn to collect data during independent practice.
I didn’t learn strategies to craft authentic relationships with students. I didn’t learn to reflect on the inherently problematic reality of being a privileged White man teaching a classroom of students who didn’t look like me. I learned theory that I’m sure has merit. But since that was all I was taught, I had zero practical application for that theory. That, to me, is what made theory not just useless, but actually an impediment to becoming an effective educator.
2. A coach who saw me teach, identified action steps to improve my practice, and then had me practice them over and over. I don’t think I had a teacher coach until more than four years into my career, but once I did, my effectiveness skyrocketed. And no, I’m not just measuring my effectiveness in standardized assessments, although those metrics went through the roof. My students reported feeling heard and supported once my coach pushed me to widen my impact by refusing to rely solely on those students who raised their hands. My students reported feeling cared for and respected once my coach pushed me to up the rigor in my classroom by shifting the cognitive load from myself as a teacher with answers, back onto my students as a community of learners. This shouldn’t be surprising in the slightest. No expert practitioner of anything becomes an expert without a coach. So it goes with teaching.
3. A teacher residency program that trained me in the school and community I was to serve. Now, granted, this would have been the largest leap, but in an ideal world, or perhaps just even a sane one, I as a new teacher would be educated and prepared for schools in much the same way our society prepares its doctors for hospitals. I would have been assigned a community in which I was to serve as a resident. I would have felt the shared experience of a cohort. I would have been immersed in the school’s larger neighborhood community I would have had a mentor teacher whom I observed and learned from. I would have honed the specific skills I would use the next year in a classroom of my very own.
I wouldn’t have had to be yet another horrendous, White first-year teacher thrown into an under-resourced school in one of America’s largest cities. We need to take our first year teaching commiserations one step further. Yes, it was horrible for us, and it was violence put upon those unlucky students who drew the short straw of having me as their teacher. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
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 ...