The Common Sense community of educators recently posed the following question to their Facebook group: "What advice would you give your first-year self?" I could probably write a book, but there are a few points that quickly came to mind as I think back to that adventurous year.
I always say that I didn't find my calling, but rather it was my calling that found me. I embarked on my teaching career in 1996 as a Lateral Entry Business Education teacher in the small, rural town of Sparta, North Carolina - population 10,000. Two months prior, I lived in Miami, Florida - population 2 million - where I had lived from the age of 18 months and never left until my husband and I had this romantic idea of moving to a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My first degree is in Business Administration and I worked in sales and marketing for a commercial health insurance company. I had not stepped foot in a high school classroom since I graduated in the 1980s. Shortly after arriving in Sparta, I decided to substitute teach until I found a permanent job in the insurance field. That "permanent" job ended up being my vocation. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a teacher and now I can't imagine doing anything else.
That first year was almost a blur. Because I came in mid-year, I wasn't assigned an official mentor until my second year. Thankfully, there were a few angels God sent to help me survive as I was flying off the seat of my pants most of the time, especially the first couple of months. Reflecting back, because I drew from my corporate experience, I not only survived but thrived. Furthermore, since I regularly presented in front of large groups, I was comfortable presenting to my new "clients". Nonetheless, if it wasn't for my unofficial mentors, I'm not sure I would have lived to tell this story.
If I could go back and talk to my first-year self, this is what I would tell her:
- One size does not fit all. Differentiation may appear monumental but it's crucial to ensuring that all students learn and it's really very doable. School is not about you, it's about your students. Remain flexible and find what works so that students meet their learning objectives. It's more than fair to modify a strategy, assignment, or even deadlines. For some students, differentiation is required, but you may find that others simply need a little grace. So long as the students are meeting the learning targets, it's important to remain flexible. In doing so, you will find that you are not only capturing their minds but also their hearts.
- A.S.K. (Always Seek Knowledge). Listen more than speak and ask lots and lots of questions. Seek knowledge from colleagues and also from students. Fellow teachers may seem busy but we all remember that first year and no one will deny you a helping hand, but you will usually have to ask. Students, especially teenagers, may seem uninterested in talking to their teachers, but give them a listening ear and they will tell you all you need to know (and often more than you want to hear). It's imperative that you know your students, so you best know how to reach them.
- Teach, don't just give grades. With ever-increasing class sizes, teaching duties can be quite overwhelming, but remember that our primary duty is to help young people learn. Our mission is to empower, edify and prepare young people for a lifetime of learning and growing. We are so much more than grade givers. When students don't submit work, find out why before entering a zero in the grade book. Chances are they need help and are too afraid to ask. What may appear as laziness or apathy, may actually be a cry for help.
- View mistakes as stepping stones not as stumbling blocks. Remember that failure is not an end but merely a beginning. We are all works in progress. And don't be afraid to share this message with students. They really need to hear it, especially if you teach at the secondary level.