Several years ago, my nephew, Jake, changed his major from journalism to education. We went out to dinner to discuss his decision. I told him teaching was not for the weak. Teaching will break your heart, I said. I told him many of his students would be poor, have few resources at home and find education alienating, even dangerous. But, I told him, teaching is one of the only profession where you can actually change the direction of a child’s life by arming her with tools to better her life.
As I am preparing to go back to school for my year twenty, I thought about the advice I gave to Jake and the advice I would give to any new teachers who will be stepping into a high school classroom for the first time. Here’s my list, in no particular order:
- You can change the world if your goal is lofty, and your scope is small.
- Never, ever, ever make a student feel stupid. You will be the lesser for it.
- Have high expectations, but don’t be crushed when students can’t or won’t live up to them. Keep them high anyway.
- You must have capacity to detect bull crap and call kids on it. Most kids lie to teachers. It doesn’t make them evil; they are just kids. Love them over the top of it.
- Focus on each student individually; teach every student, every day.
- Do not live at the school. Go home at a reasonable hour every day and do something that refreshes you – tennis, gardening, reading, writing, cooking. Remember who you are.
- Be prepared every day. And if you come to school unprepared,which will eventually happen, don’t sweat it. Have a really great writing prompt waiting in the wings.
- Your divorce, bankruptcy, or drinking problems are not classroom appropriate. Find a counselor or a good friend.
- Remember, you are there to teach them something, not to be cool and relive your own high school years — really, there’s nothing more pathetic.
- Know the difference between motivating a student and bullying him.
- Humor is the best.
- Being able to tell a story well is essential.
- Consistency, respect, and fairness are attitudes you must practice every day. Cultivate them to a high art.
- Meaningful assignments and real world connections will give you tremendous returns.
- Getting a reputation for being completely insane about your subject is the best that you can hope for.
- Be real.
- Your students will love you if you respect them enough to do your job well.
- The best teaching tool is questioning – not telling the student what he wants to know, but asking the right kind of question, so he’ll figure it out on his own.
- Some teachers will not be as committed as you. Encourage those miserable souls to find their true calling in retail.
- A full moon or a cafeteria fight makes kids go really crazy. Tell them to rise above the drama.
- High stakes testing corrupts everyone. Teach your students to think — they will spank any test.
- New standards roll around every decade or so. Rise above the turbulence and carry on.
- Every single day, go into your classroom and shut your door and stand in front of a group of kids, and help them discover something– how to write a brilliant sentence, how to creatively solve a math problem, how to fail and keep on trying.
- Kindness never fails. Practice it from the first day to the last.
Good Luck! Fall break will be here before you know it!