Before he took the National Basketball Association (NBA)—and arguably, the rest of our sports-crazed world—by storm, New York Knick point guard Jeremy Lin was struggling through his rookie year at the end of the bench for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. During the 2010-2011 season, the man who would inspire cries of “Linsanity” a year later, was virtually invisible, a third-string point guard playing a paltry nine minutes a game and averaging under three points. During a recent interview, the man credited with “saving basketball in New York” told ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols that during his rookie year, “There were nights when I was just reduced to tears. I just couldn’t take it anymore…what really hurt was I felt like I had the ability to do it.”
What does the experience of Jeremy Lin have to do with making it through the first year of teaching at a middle school or high school? Quite a bit, actually. Just as Lin did first-year teachers can also have very challenging rookie years. And, like the Harvard graduate-turned basketball phenomenon, new teachers can bounce back and have very successful sophomore years.
Be Prepared to Start from Scratch
In Greek mythology, few characters—with the possible exception of Prometheus—have it as bad as King Sisyphus. As punishment for tricking the gods, the king is forced to roll (for eternity) a large boulder up a steep hill; each time the king nears the summit, though, he must watch helplessly as the rock rolls back down. This story may resonate for some new teachers, since they often find themselves starting anew each day.
“The most challenging part of being a first-year teacher is writing new lessons, tests, and activities every day,” said Susanne Strachota, who earned a master of arts in teaching (M.A.T.) from GSAS in 2011 and is a math teacher at Somerville High School in Massachusetts. “Veteran teachers have the option to reuse and refine lessons every year, but I am starting from scratch every day.”
Added GSAS classical archaeology alumna Jessica Pesce, G08, who taught Latin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for two years and is currently pursuing her doctorate. “Once you do all the work that first year, your second year will be that much easier. Although I still had grading to do, I was nowhere near as rushed or stressed in the second year. All my tests, worksheets, and lesson plans were made, so there was usually just minor tweaking to do. Keep this in mind, and make sure to save all your work.”
Don’t Forget…They Can Smell Fear
While few new teachers get the chilly reception that Michelle Pfeiffer does at the beginning of Dangerous Minds, classroom management can be a challenge for first-year educators. The key to controlling the classroom is simple: never let it get out of hand in the first place.
“Know your subject matter inside and out and always be prepared,” said history GSAS alumna Heather Schelhorn, G81, who teaches social studies at the Montgomery School in Chester Spring, Pennsylvania. “If you don’t, the kids will sniff it out immediately and the subversive elements in the room will feel that they have a green light for pandemonium. If you don’t have the answers to their questions or if there is an error in something you shared, do not try to bluff your way through. Admit you don’t know, research, and give them the correct answer. Also, the first cardinal rule you learn in ‘teacher school’ is that you shouldn’t try to be their friend. This is a true statement. Be certain to have standards and a handful of core principles from which you will not deviate, like honesty, integrity, and whatever else is personally important to you for running your classroom. Kids need guidelines, parameters, and firm expectations, and they truly want to respect you as well as please you.”
Lucia Mandelbaum, G11, took a vastly different approach to classroom management when she started out, choosing a much softer touch.
“In some areas of classroom management you can only move in one direction,” said Mandelbaum, a Spanish teacher at the Fenway High School in Boston, Massachusetts, who graduated with a master of arts in teaching from GSAS. “I always thought the ‘don’t let them see you smile until Christmas’ was a cliché. While there are elements in the cliché that are inappropriate, at its base, there is a kernel of wisdom to it. It’s much easier for students to see the warm side of your personality than it is for them to suddenly respect you. Students are acutely aware of institutional power and who in the building carries it. New teachers have zero perceived institutional power. Therefore, you have to rely completely on your personal strength to maintain an orderly and productive classroom. I am quite sure that the big educational thinkers of the past century like Howard Gardner and Horace Mann did most of their writing long after they had to worry about classroom management. While I find the philosophy of education to be intellectually stimulating, it would perhaps be more useful alongside the more mundane routines and strategies for in-class student achievement. I pursued many avenues to make the class run smoothly and to assure that the students were learning something and accomplishing their goals. Since I did my teaching internship at Fenway last year, my mentor teacher and coworkers were all available to help me strategize and come up with solutions. I rearranged seats; gave students credit for participation (good behavior); and had students write self-evaluations. Students reflected on their own attitudes and behaviors, and they gave me pointers as well. This written assignment truly changed the course of the class.”
Talk the Talk…with Fellow Teachers
When it comes to teaching, one of the perks of the job is the people. New teachers are surrounded by seasoned veterans who have not only seen everything, but can also provide valuable advice to first-year educators who are just starting out.
“Reach out to veteran teachers; they are a fantastic resource,” said Jennifer Lemkin Bouchard, a social studies teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, who earned an M.A.T. from GSAS in 2000. “Hopefully, you will be in a school that fosters collaboration. I really believe that working with other teachers, especially those with more experience, is a great way to develop your craft.”
Added Lucia Mandelbaum, G11, “You don’t have to go through it alone! If you’re in a good school, it means you can always ask your peers for help. Other teachers have much more experience; don’t be afraid to tap into that knowledge. Whether it’s how to approach an individual who is the source of your anxiety-driven, sleepless nights or how you can employ different kinds of assessments, your co-workers will be more than happy to lend some advice.”
Teachers should also take advantage of professional development opportunities.
Noted Heather Schelhorn, G81, “My first teaching position was a one-year appointment, so I left at the end of the school year to pursue a master of arts in history from Tufts’ GSAS; a great decision, by the way. In the process, I took coursework in learning differences and learning disabilities. My goal was to be well-versed in the issues that affected the population that I would teach in the future. I also did a practicum with a learning disabled student at the Lincoln Junior High School in Medford, Massachusetts, during the spring term. Now, even though I’m in my twenty-seventh year of teaching, I still take classes for my own professional development.”
Don’t Fret if You Don’t Look the Part
In March 2012, Sony Pictures released the film 21 Jump Street starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. The film—which was inspired by the television program of the same name—is about a pair of youngish-looking police offices who infiltrate a high school, posing as students, to foil a drug ring. While it takes some serious suspension of disbelief to buy Channing Tatum as a high schooler (he looks, at least, twenty-eight years old in the film), many new teachers often look closer in age to their students. This is usually not a good thing.
“I think it’s a challenge, at first, when you are young and inexperienced,” said Jennifer Lemkin Bouchard, G00. “You don’t have a reputation at your school yet, and if you look younger than many of your students, as I did, that can also be interesting! You have to work at building a culture of mutual respect with your students.”
Heather Schelhorn, G81, added, “I was twenty-one when I began my first year of teaching in a consolidated middle school-high school in central New York State. I taught three sections of ninth-grade world cultures and two sections of eighth-grade American history; each section had thirty students. One significant challenge was how close my ninth grade students were to my age, since in some instances, they were only five years younger, which led to a great deal of familiarity and a blurring of boundaries on their part. As a result, maintaining discipline and a positive, productive class was often difficult. On one occasion, I lost track of the fact that two of my students weren’t in class until I saw them walking outside the window, laughing at the kids still in class. On another occasion within that very same section, one kid began to sing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” until it spread throughout the class. Just try to get control of a group singing ‘we don’t need no education.’”
When proximity in age or appearance is an issue, Schelhorn suggests that new teachers should, “remain firm, remain in control, but also be willing at times to laugh at yourself. This will lessen the tension around the relationship, and it will cast you in a most sympathetic light, you will appear ‘human’ and then you’ll be able to incorporate flexibility into your routine and into the relationships you have with your students.”
Give A Little Bit More…of Yourself
Teachers are notorious (in a good way!) for the commitment they show to their students. The school day never ends with the last bell and teachers can often be found working with students after school; grading papers at night (and on the weekends); and volunteering for numerous school-related activities. For new teachers, this level of commitment can help a class find solid footing.
“I suggest finding ways to incorporate life experiences into the process of teaching,” said Pete Shungu, who graduated from Tufts with a bachelor of arts and a master of arts in teaching in 2003 and 2010, respectively, and taught at the Boston Arts Academy as a GSAS student. “Find activities which validate students’ own prior knowledge and life experiences. And be willing to share a little of your own story and personality. In my classroom, I shared some of my poetry as a way to connect with my students and encourage them to pursue their own creative and artistic interests. In addition, take the initiative to get to know each and every one of your students. Learn their names, learn their likes and dislikes, and treat them all as unique individuals. This can go a long way toward connecting with your students and avoiding some discipline issues before they start.”
“I spent a lot of time talking with the low-performing students in homeroom and lunch, and between classes or during free periods when I didn’t have other work to do,” said DiMatteo, who has taught at middle schools and high schools in both the United States and Japan. “I tried not to treat the students with Individualized Education Plan’s (IEP) any differently than the other students, so I offered everyone in the class the opportunity to use the same scaffolding and graphic organizers. One of the surprising results was that several of the IEP students demonstrably changed their attitudes from self-defeatist to more self-confident. They worked harder and took more pride in their work; they also began to rely less on the learning specialists and more on themselves.”
By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences
Are you a first-year teacher wh0 would like to share his or her thoughts? Are you a veteran teacher who would like to share other best practices? Are you preparing for your first year of teaching in middle school of high school and have lingering questions, concerns? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.