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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Teacher Advice

Across the country, thousands of recent college grads and career changers are right now trying to prepare for their first year teaching, even if they don't know where it will be or what it will look like. If they're anything like I was, they've probably heard truckloads of advice on what they should and shouldn't do their first year.

Don't smile until Christmas.

Make sure the kids respect you. This is not about being liked.

Try to make the classroom fun. That's how you hook the kids, you know.

Don't try to grade everything.

And, if they're anything like me, most of that advice will go right out the window the first day they walk into their own classroom. Not because none of it was valuable, but because trying to keep up with it all is just too much. Teachers, friends, students: they all tell you things. But unless you're keeping a learning log to track it all and reflect on it later, there's a good chance you're not going to make use of most of it. Even more problematic, you're often not sure what is good advice and what's worthless.

But what if someone wrote all that advice down for you? Who in their right mind would take the time to do something like that? Not your neighbor Ned or your Aunt Estefanía or your Cousin Nghi (you have a very progressive family structure). And they wouldn't do anyway. None of them have ever taught anything in their lives.

What if there was some National Board Certified teacher out there who just happened to have enough time on her hands to interview hundreds of teachers from across the country looking for some of the best advice to give new teachers AND put it all in a book?

Well, if that were to happen, her name would be Roxanna Elden, and her book would be called See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. (Disclosure: If Ms. Elden were to do this, she would also send me a free copy of said book so I could review it here on my blog.)

Okay, okay, at this point I'll just come right out with it. The book is real, and you can read it. But first, you'll probably want to know why you should read this book. There are, after all, tons of how-to-be-a-teacher books out there. So what makes this the one worth your time? How about I tell you what's in it, and why someone might want to read it? Then you can decide for yourself.

Most how-to-be-a-teacher books I read when I was beginning were authored by a former teacher or professor of education. They generally recited most of the traditional advice I heard throughout graduate school and had maybe three or four novel pieces of insight. Elden's book is unique in that it includes the voices of practicing teachers. While the core of the book is driven by her experiences, she surrounds her advice by stories of success and failure from lots and lots of teachers. And many of those stories, apart from providing solace in some of your most frustrating moments as a new teacher, are pretty entertaining.

The majority of Elden's book targets what new teachers worry about most: classroom management. And she speaks from the background of having worked in big cities, where classroom management can be a lifelong endeavor. With the exception of maybe one or two chapters, I'd say the entire book aims at providing advice to the new teacher that will, in one way or another, improve their classroom management. This is not to say that the whole book is about seating charts and getting quiet techniques. Knowing how to organize your day, your mind, and your assignments prevents classroom managements disasters just as much as having the right teacher personality - and Elden covers all of it.

Part of the book I think is most unique is Elden's section on working with administrators and colleagues. These two things (in addition to really understanding the purpose of unions and how to interact with them - which a new teacher can find more information on in Urban Teaching by Lois Weiner) were never discussed in any of the materials I covered in preparing to be a teacher. And probably with good reason. You don't really get to a place where you can think about those things in depth until you start to feel more comfortable with management, planning, grading, and classroom systems. But Elden's book puts the new teacher in a place where s/he is at least aware of all the nuances that go into the teaching profession.

To be sure, it is unlikely any new teacher will read this book and consequently feel prepared to enter the classroom. As Elden notes (in the introduction I think), this book should be read in pieces as you move throughout your first few years of teaching. While you might read the whole thing all at once the summer before you begin, don't expect to get the same out of it as if you consult it piece by piece and compare the advice to your experiences.

Only one thing bothered me reading the book. Lots of the advice was offered with our antiquated school system in mind (read more of my thoughts on that here). I was not bothered that Elden sought to give advice for teaching in our industrial model of schooling, or that the advice often presumes teachers teach and students learn in classroom vacuums - because that's often how it is. This is the reality new teachers enter. It was just a reminder for me that things are in desperate need of change.

Some of the advice Elden gives, while practical and logical given our realities, would be detrimental in a more ideal school. For example, Elden recommends against allowing students to co-create rules for the classroom. Ahhhh - it makes me want to poke my eyes out. In the world of standardized testing, standardized teaching, bell-to-bell instruction, teachers-as-widgets; I can see her point. But in a world where teaching could be more creative, our behavior strategies more holistic and restorative (rather than punitive), I believe students should absolutely be involved in the creation of rules. It fosters democracy (part of our very important unwritten curriculum) and builds relationships. If only we could admit and be satisfied with the reality that we can't test everything we teach.

Alas, I digress. My complaints are not anything the new teacher has time to think about anyway, not when s/he is about to enter a profession that takes years of experience and reflection to master against the societal backdrop that assumes good teaching is rather based on your enthusiasm level - an idea that Ms. Elden combats in a presentation below on the Magical Teacher/Super Teacher myth (which my Colleague Derek Smith wrote about so fascinatingly on my blog a year ago, and who now has his own Magical Teaching website).




At the end of every year I find myself discovering how many pieces of advice I'd received years ago that were spot on. The problem was they weren't worth anything to me until I had the chance to learn them for myself. When you enter teaching, you barely know your ear from your elbow. You certainly don't know who's giving you advice worth listening to. And that's why the best advice I think I can give is to listen, listen, listen - but don't expect to really learn anything until you've tested what you heard against your own experiences. Elden's book is a great place to find things to test.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled upon your blog in the middle of a summer night in teacher land, where we think about next year sometimes in the middle of the night. I am really looking to kick up my management next year. This will be year 5 for me in a challenging urban school that is currently at risk for state takeover. My skills are in creating good student relationships and routines and it seems that is as far as anything goes, to put it simply (well maybe very overly simply). I'm looking to create the conscious classroom - where the routines, management and lesson flow as one. Sigh. And where I might go a week without someone throwing clay, pinching someone else's nipple, or threatening someone. So what do you think, is this the book that really looks at urban classroom management in a helpful way for a sort of experienced newbie teacher?

    I really appreciate your effort to document the craziness and joy of this work and look forward to back reading more of your blog.

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