Recently, I was given a new position at my school and will be moving into an administrative role this summer. Part of that job will be to guide our newest teachers in the building toward, hopefully, amazing careers in education. Thinking back to my own experiences in the classroom over the last thirteen years, I thought it might be interesting to write a letter to myself at the beginning of my teaching career. Of course, after writing this, I realized that most of these suggestions will be important to me in my new role as I take on new responsibilities.
Dear Chris (2004),
I know you have great ideas. Unfortunately, you don’t yet know how to execute all of them. I also know you want to change the world. Keep believing it, but realize that it will be incredibly difficult to do right now. Give yourself time, but use all of the time you have to make your work better. If you believe in your work and improve every day, soon enough you will start to make a real impact.
For now, let’s focus on something a bit more practical. When your supervisor or colleague tells you that they are unsure of your idea, they do not hate you, they do not hate your idea, they simply think that it isn’t going to work. When you reach one of these standstills, you essentially have two choices. (The third choice – don’t try it at all, ever – doesn’t seem worthwhile.)
One: if you think you can make it work and it is worth it, try it anyway. Take your idea, give it to your students and see how far you can take it. My guess is that it will fail. And there is nothing wrong with that. Just realize that if you try out a new idea and it fails, it might be your fault. Again, failing can be an incredible learning experience.
If it fails, be sure to reflect on your work. Where did the idea fall apart? Was it in the execution? Did you plan it out enough? What was different about this than other lessons that have been successful? Did the resources make it difficult for the students to complete the task? How can you get more or better resources? Did your explanation leave your students more confused than ready for the activity? Ask them. Do you still think the idea is valuable? I hope so. If you do, who can help you make it work the next time you try.
If it succeeds, because, like I said, some of your ideas are great, reflect on your work, too. What made it work? What made the students connect to this lesson/unit/activity? What made it easier for them to complete the work? Ask them. What was different about this lesson compared to those that have failed?
Whether it fails or succeeds, don’t think that this one piece of work exemplifies all of your work. It is just one stepping stone on a long journey to becoming a great teacher. You have a lot to learn. You also have a lot to share with others. Don’t discount the advice of the older teachers. Don’t assume that their dismissal of your idea is simply because you are young or because they are ‘stuck in their old ways.’ They might have really good reasons to question your ideas. Ask them.
Which brings me to option number two: ask for help. Find time to sit down with a more experienced teacher, someone you trust and you think will be open to your ideas. Share your thinking and show them what you’ve planned already. Ask them what they think. Ask them where the plan might fall apart. Ask them how they would make it better. Value their input and use it. Ask them to come observe your lesson if possible so they can give you meaningful feedback afterwards. What do you do with an idea? Give it time and let it grow.
Developing a relationship with your colleagues will benefit you and your students. First, you will become a better teacher. You will learn which questions to ask of yourself when planning in the future. You will learn tricks of how to execute your ideas. Second, you will earn trust with that teacher and the next time you bring a ‘brilliant’ idea, they might be more willing to listen. They might even try it out with you.
This leads me to my last point. Teaching is scary. Sometimes it is so scary, that we like to stay in our classroom with our students and avoid the critical eyes of our colleagues and supervisors. But you need them. Your classroom will feel like a box at times and you definitely need to be comfortable in that space while you are alone with your students. But don’t get too comfortable. You need those colleagues. They will be your greatest resources. Ask and you shall receive. Ask for their support before you try out a crazy new idea. Ask for their feedback after you try out a crazy new idea. What do you do with a problem? Let it be an opportunity, learn from it, and grow.
Like I said, your ideas are great. But they are not nearly as good as the ideas you can create with the support and guidance of others. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have to let these ideas grown in your mind, completely on your own at times. But it will be hard to make it what you want on your own. The relationships you build with other teachers will be invaluable. They will improve your teaching and take it to places you never even imagined. If you want to change the world, you aren’t going to do it alone. Ask your colleagues to join you, or join them for their journey. Share your triumphs, share your failures.
Remember the book you got for graduation, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Dr. Seuss forgot to mention all the people that you need along the way to get to all of those amazing places. Know that it is a journey and you will need to face challenges on your own, but you also have people around you to guide you where you’re going.