Esther Swartzentruber is a newcomer to Elkhart County who teaches English grammar and literature at a small Mennonite school in Nappanee. You can read more of her work on her community blog for The Elkhart Truth, Shasta’s Fog.
Last week I talked about some of the hardest lifestyle adjustments first-year teachers make. This week I’m providing a few survival tips for first-year teachers in regards to relationships.
Make friends with other teachers (for the students’ sake).
Engaging other teachers in constructive conversation reduces stress by challenging your one-dimensional views of students. I was sitting at a basketball game this year, cheering for my boys, and I leaned over to another teacher: “I kind of forget that they do things other than English.”
And I don’t need to tell you that that’s a problem.
Certainly, having chosen the field of language and literature, I obviously see the English classroom as a very important part of development on the part of a student and an individual, but I need to remember their performances in my class do not represent their entire beings. You might only see students in the context of your class, and your class might not be their best subject. What happens is you begin to make a little box and put the student in it. Talking to other teachers can help round out a student.
Here’s a near-verbatim conversation I had this year:
“Jake is doing poorly in my English class. He’s very quiet, he hardly says anything and he doesn’t perform on tests and quizzes the way I’d like him to. How is he doing in science?”
“Oh, he’s doing very well in science! He participates so well in class! I can always count on him to raise his hand to answer questions. He’s so interested by biology!”
Having these conversations can help round out a student because you can begin to pinpoint the his or her strengths, weaknesses and preferences. You can share the triumphs of students who excel, but you can also gain helpful information in understanding where your struggling students’ strengths and interests lie. These cross-discipline conversations are very important.
For example, they can lead you to ask the questions: What would happen for Jake in English class if we wrote English research papers on biology topics? What if we discussed a controversial bioethics issue for the speech class debate? These constructive conversations can actually make you more hopeful about a struggling student’s future performance.
(A note: these conversations also lead to discussions about social dynamics among the students. For example, one student may be quieter in one class because of a certain peer group but be much more engaged in another class. Noticing those peer group patterns and discussing them are insightful.)
Make friends with other teachers (for the teachers’ sakes)
It is a good idea to try to serve your fellow teachers.
“ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME. I’M DOING COSTUMES FOR THE SCHOOL PLAY, MAKING BROWNIES FOR PARENT’S NIGHT AND CHANGING BULLETIN BOARDS THIS WEEKEND. YEAH AND REPORT CARDS ARE DUE.”
Cringe. Pat pat. It’s going to be oooookay.
Certainly, the little things pile up. But you might think of finding ways to be available to your fellow teachers.
If you hear a teacher complaining about a task that comes very easily to you, you might offer to help. (Little, little tasks here. Not school-play-costume-sized tasks.) Think instead of things like: “I can bring back those copies for you,” “I can make that announcement for you,” or “I’d love to brainstorm with you about the hallway behavior problem you’re having.”
Showing other teachers that you are human (that you are available and that you care) builds a positive atmosphere and might just work in your favor down the road. Like when, after your emotional wailing about the rented costumes getting ripped, a helpful co-teacher (who happens to sew) offers to mend the ripped costumes. And she acts like it’s no big deal at all.
Find a way to connect (to the students)
I’m not sure how to put this. If you have not seen the movie Frozen, you are NOTHING.
I’m suggesting that it’s important to stay marginally informed of kid culture. No, perhaps you’d rather not watch The Hunger Games or another Duck Dynasty episode. You don’t like country music, and you think One Direction has terrible lyrics. Maybe you don’t even have a smart phone yet.
However, my advice is: Get in the know. Try every now and then to be relatable. Otherwise, you might end up having an awkward conversation with a carload of eighth graders, where, when asked about a cool movie you recently watched, you do a comparative analysis of the French government’s round up of 8,000 Jews in Paris in 1942 to America’s modern-day abortion genocide. As for the eighth graders, they will probably stare at you like you are from Mars. A better response might be: Despicable Me.
Find a way to disconnect (from the students)
A fair warning to new teachers: You will get very wrapped up in your students’ lives. You will spend outrageous amounts of time thinking about your kids. (Even if you are a content teacher, or one who teaches because he or she “loves science!” rather than because he or she “love kids!” Content teachers still care a lot about their students and their success as individuals.)
However, this involvement can be a source of stress. Teachers can stress themselves out by thinking that they are the child saviors. This year, I would periodically get overwhelmed because I would feel like a child needed so much, and I need to give them more, but I realized I couldn’t give them everything they needed. And that was true.
I’ve heard it explained like this: We, as teachers, have both responsibilities and opportunities. We have the responsibility to teach grammar and lit, to test for comprehension and to lock the classroom at night. We also have opportunities. We have the opportunity to encourage a failing student. We have the opportunity to reach out to a child who is struggling at home. We have the opportunity to love a child unconditionally and to teach children to spread their wings and fly.
However, we cannot get our responsibilities and opportunities mixed up. For first-year teachers, I think that responsibilities must come first. The first year of teaching is about mastering the content, simplifying the busy work and honestly, just surviving. From my own experience, I would encourage first-year teachers to prioritize immediate responsibilities rather than spending too much time trying to change the world. (But we feel the pressure to, because there are so many haters of the mistakes of first-year teaching. Why must all seasoned teachers and popular teacher/authors continually disparage what goes on in your first year? It is really discouraging!)
The days will come where you look at you bulletin boards and realize they needed to be changed two weeks ago and report cards are due and also those 30 research papers and you will burst into years. Because you will remember your sick neighbor (who probably deserves a casserole), your filthy kitchen at home and those bills that need to be paid. But on top of all this, you will find that you cannot stop thinking about that undisciplined student who is failing, who said today, “I’m not smart enough to go to college.”
It is at this moment that you need to remember: Do the responsibilities first. The opportunities will be there tomorrow. You have a lifetime of teaching. Changing the world tomorrow might mean taking the sticky-tack off the wall today. Opportunities are sweet. But they should not be contrived.
Strangely, the survival tip here is: Get away. Take a weekend off. Go visit family. Play a game of soccer. Go out for coffee (with non-teachers). Get a hobby. Do absolutely no school work. You will be amazed at how clear your mind will be when you return. I especially encourage the weekend thing. In late winter. To a place with lots of sunshine. Give yourself a sanity break. You (and your students) deserve it.
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