Moving beyond September: First month discoveries for first-year teachers

T. S. Eliot had it wrong— for new teachers it’s September that’s the cruelest month. This is my fourth year at my school, and each year my classroom is more stable and the bar is higher for what my students and I can accomplish together. But I remember my formative first September in the classroom, and I’m seeing similar patterns play out with new colleagues.

Based on my experience and recent conversations with the newbies, here are the discoveries of September:

  • What’s in a name? Everything.

Learning students’ names ASAP is critical. It rubs me the wrong way when people who I’ve met multiple times before don’t remember my name; students feel the same way. Dropping a kid’s name early on, especially when she doesn’t expect it, can launch the all-important teacher-student relationship on a note of personal respect.

  • Failure cuts deep.

When I first became a teacher at 22, I was emerging from a consistently successful career as a student. If I gave my best effort, I’d virtually always achieve my academic goals. With teaching, it doesn’t work that way. When you’re new, the inescapable learning curve deals you some harsh failures. It stings. And then you regroup, adapt, and scratch out some successes. And then you fail again.

  • Make allies with veterans early.

Not every colleague is an ally. Figuring out who can actually help you survive, improve your craft, and have a laugh is crucial. These bonds grow throughout the marathon year and often stick for a career. If an unofficial mentor lets you down, try to find out if he’s actually negligent or just swamped with his own workload.

  • Problems with lessons are fixable.

Your technical teaching isn’t perfect. Plenty of kids still don’t know what’s going on, and some of them that you think are getting the skills/content actually only understand it on a superficial level. It’s not the end of the world. You have a whole year to build them up. Coverage of a ton of material is far less important than building their capacity to solve problems and communicate successfully. You should constantly be taking baby steps towards those broader goals— give yourself a break if the “Do Now” was flat.

  • Students’ misbehavior isn’t personal.

It’s not about you. That doesn’t make it acceptable, but maybe it can mitigate the downward-spiraling mindset of “They don’t listen to me. I can’t get through to anybody. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally and I’m still going backwards. I’m not adding any value here. I hate them. I hate myself…” And so on. It may be cold comfort, but after several months of your consistent attendance, attention, and effort, the students will internalize that you care about them and will try to screw with you less.

  • Reading and writing pose more significant challenges than expected.

An alarming number of kids just don’t read very much in their young lives and the collateral damage is staggering. New teachers are often shocked by students’ poor reading and writing skills. Get past it. Model each step of how you read and how you write for a variety of genres. Pick high-interest texts. Don’t force Hawthorne. Allow space for Tupac.

  • Don’t get mad at the parents.

They’re all you’ve got.

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