New Teacher

Time for Reflection, Reflection for Time

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose

This is part of a series for new teachers. See the other posts here

The other night I ran across this tweet from a first year teacher asking for some perspective

There is a lot of good advice in the thread, but I couldn’t help but notice the teachers who shared that this is a normal career thing.

Let me be very clear: it is not normal for the rest of your career.

Maybe let me clarify: Normal is what you choose it to be.

To answer Caroline’s actual question: yes. As a first year teacher you put in ridiculous hours. Full disclosure: every teacher is putting in ridiculous hours right now thanks to the pandemic. However, it is something that can and should get better as you gain experience.

I know plenty of teachers who work 10+ hours on the weekends. They wear it like a badge of honor, talking in the breakroom about how much work they put in over the weekend. My observations have lead me to understand that experienced teachers (5+ years) who put in this time fall into one of three camps, although I think the vast majority of teachers (and likely you, reader) fall into the last one:

The Aggressive Complainers: These teachers spend every valuable minute at school complaining about every aspect of their job. They rarely complete any work at school so it all comes home with them. Side-note: it’s really easy to get caught up in this, and often the complaints aren’t wrong. However, constant complaining is toxic and leads to burnout. If you find yourself caught in a word-vomit spiral, step out and away. Write down three things you are grateful for or appreciative of today. You need to find your own bright spots to avoid the death spiral.

The Chronic Obsessors: These teachers feel that every minute detail is of utmost importance. They struggle to see the bigger picture and feel that the only way their students will learn adequately is by meticulously offering feedback for each fraction of a point they award or remove.

The Compassionate Perfectionists: These teachers often have the biggest hearts. They want their students to succeed. Each and every one. They also want to ensure they are doing their absolute best work in every single aspect of teaching and learning. None of this is a bad thing! This was (is) me, and I think the overwhelming majority of over-worked teachers are in this camp. This is a really hard thing to reconcile. Many of us were “good students” in school and our perfectionism drove us in a positive way to excel in all of our classes. When you are good at the school game, doing well at everything is within grasp. Life is not like that though. We have to realize that being a teacher is being immersed in the lives of our students, our colleagues and teaching is only an aspect of our own life. We cannot be a perfect teacher in all ways at all times. It’s not reality, and it quickly leads to burn-out.

I know that the answer “it gets better” does nothing to help a new teacher right now. So instead I’m going to leave you with a few questions. Bear in mind that these questions are really part of a career-long journey and they will shift and change as your career progresses. As such I think these questions are important to circle around to each year.

  1. What is most important to you this year? This question really drives a lot of decision making. You cannot excel at all things, so you need to pick a single thing that you can really focus on. As a new teacher this might very simply be routines and reflection. I distinctively recall that feeling as a new teacher of needing and wanting to make everything about my teaching excellent now. Over time I have come to terms with the fact that in order to make anything excellent, I need to focus my efforts in a very specific place. In light of the pandemic this thing for me has been building relationships and forming science identities in my class. In other years I’ve focused on a specific prep or a skill for students. What is your one thing that you want to rock? Feedback is important, but are you giving students the kind of feedback that they are actually reflecting upon, or are they just looking at the number? How much of the grading you are doing is directly correlated to the demonstration and encouragement of student learning? What do you want your students to walk away from your class with more than anything else?
  2. What is absolutely critical for your students? I’ve had to give up a lot this year. In the past I frequently mix my student groups, I do a lot of collaboration and student-led discussions. I do the traditional homework and lab experiences, I have unit exams. With the pandemic, its critical that my students demonstrate evidence of learning and growth. I’ve significantly cut down the homework I normally assign. I’ve eliminated all late policies. I am ok with letting students skip assignments all together if they can demonstrate mastery of the learning objectives. At the same time if you were to ask what the most important thing students learn from me is, I would answer scientific thinking. I have made it a focus to continue to get students to observe, question and structure arguments based on evidence. I continue to emphasize structures for students to solve problems, pushing them a little closer to expert thinking every day.
  3. What is the specific learning outcome of (fill in the blank practice). If your answer to this question ultimately comes down to it was how you were taught, then you need to reevaluate its place in your work. Homework points, late policies, grading schemes, there is a lot that we often do without thinking critically about the practice. Is your practice helping or hurting your students? If it’s helping, how does it help? Does it help because it inspires growth and learning or because it instills fear of losing an A? If the practice is neither helping nor hurting then can you forgo it all together? Practices that hurt or have no purpose might as well be scrapped so you can expend your energy elsewhere.
  4. Who can you talk to? Start building your network. There are a lot of incredible people out there who want to mentor you and help you out. No one needs to reinvent the wheel and no one’s circumstances are so unique that you have to do this alone. Find your people. They might be at your school, but they might not be, and that’s ok. Find your professional organizations and tap into them. Find folks on Twitter and tap in to the conversations.

Somewhere there is a statistic that teachers make more decisions in a day than brain surgeons. It’s true that teaching is an incredibly dynamic, mentally-challenging art. As such, choosing to reflect and think critically on our practice feels like extra, unneeded work. However, in the long run, thinking critically about our practices makes us more efficient and more intentional in our work.

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