Monday, August 11, 2008

Where's My Soapbox? My Own Advice for New Teachers

I spent my first day at my new school today. Classes begin tomorrow and when I left this afternoon the maintenance crew still hadn't moved an enormous amount of AV equipment out of my room and I didn't have a functional desk. Also, half the lights in the room were burnt out... I'm going to trust that those things will be fixed when I arrive tomorrow.

The coworkers I met today were extremely nice and helpful. Several of them babysat me and helped me figure out where I was supposed to be throughout the day. I'm excited about the new friends I will make at this job. Here's something that really bothered me though: I had no less than three separate teachers tell me that in order to succeed at this school I have to "be mean" to the students. This keeps rolling around in my mind because I can't think of a worse thing to tell a new teacher. I don't believe being a b*tch will help anyone truly succeed in life. I certainly have my less-than-rational moments on accident sometimes, but it's not something you should strive to do. If you want your students to act respectfully toward you, to talk to you in a rational tone, then why on earth would you set out to treat them in a sarcastic and "mean" way?

The most valuable life lesson I took away from my last position was the merit of going out of your way to treat others with respect. When I consciously took a few deep breaths, lowered my voice, and took steps to help students feel they were being asked to "practice" a different way of doing things instead of being cornered and forced to defend themselves, I was amazed at the improvements I saw happen. In my experience, the quickest way to escalate a minor situation is to trigger a student's fight-or-flight instinct by making them feel they're being confronted. Whereas people like me who grew up in a Montessori environment might be cowed into submission by a threatening tone, children who have been raised in difficult family situations or tough neighborhoods have almost always honed their verbal and physical fighting skills.

I'm not someone who gets angry easily. I was shocked in my first year of teaching, however, to find how quickly my middle school students could make me erupt. I had never known before that it was actually literally possible to see red. Students have ways of finding your buttons really fast and mine succeeded in record time. When you combine that with the position of power you're in as a teacher, it can be a ruinous combination. I know. I've been there. Figuring out how to refuse the bait and keep my composure took awhile, but it was the single best thing I have ever learned to do in the classroom. (Don't get me wrong - I still need practice sometimes.)

Therefore, here's my own advice to new teachers: Be fair. Be consistent. Be firm in your consistency. Model respect for your students. It may not win you friends among your students, but it will make a positive difference in your classroom environment. I'm not a perfect person or a perfect teacher, so I hope I can live by my own advice. I also hope I can find the teachers' lounge tomorrow, figure out how to print documents, and remember how to use all the buttons on my new classroom equipment. I'll keep you updated.


Christina said...

Good luck, Betsy! And as someone who's been there, done that, I say "Amen!" to the rest of your post!

Alexandra said...

That is really good advice and one that I've seen in my classes as well (although it is definitely tough to model). Good luck with your class tomorrow.

Nutmeg Reports... said...

I hope all is going well now! I was always told that you very rarely remember the activities that you did with a certain teacher, but you always remember how they made you feel. I hope that your coworkers turn their attitudes around.

John Gensic said...

I can't stop picturing Juan and Chris throughout your writing.