This essay is part of our back-to-school series. See the full collection here.
In my years of teaching and instructional coaching, I noticed an odd but consistent pattern in both myself and my colleagues.
As they prepare for their first year, brand-new teachers often focus on educational theory, idealism, and policy. More experienced teachers, on the other hand, tend to take their methodologies and philosophical assumptions for granted. They spend the last weeks of summer break on the practical elements: setting up classrooms, making copies, and ensuring their previous years’ lesson plans are within easy reach.
But it seems to me that just the opposite approach is needed. Brand-new teachers need to focus far more on the practical day-to-day logistics, whereas veteran teachers need to spend more time reflecting on their experience and re-evaluating their philosophies of education.
Struggles of a New Teacher
Although my teaching preparation program emphasized the importance of classroom management and careful planning, I still found myself (somewhat hubristically) envisioning my first days of teaching with images from Dead Poet’s Society, Freedom Writers, and my own high school sophomore English class. As a result, I scrambled during those first weeks of school, encountering the oft-cited “decision-fatigue” of teaching for the first time. I lacked the practical knowledge necessary to respond confidently to moment-to-moment questions ranging from the minute to the existential: “Where do I turn this in?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” “I don’t have a pencil!” “Why do I need to read poems anyway?”
New teachers, especially those fresh from college and graduate programs, are usually armed with educational theories, research studies, and thousand-foot views of policy controversies. Those starting their careers in private schools, which don’t require the same kinds of certifications their public-school counterparts do, are sometimes more prone to idealistic conceptions of the daily demands of teaching. Some classical school administrators actually prefer hiring applicants who have little formal educational training but who have strong liberal arts backgrounds, as they believe typical educational training is at odds with the classical model.
The result, in my experience, is a plethora of new teachers eager to discuss the issues and ideas that drew them to education but lacking the practical wisdom necessary to get them through the first weeks of school and help their students learn.
The following are some strategies that might help.
Suggestions for New Teachers
Step 1: Watch great teachers teach and analyze their choices.
Aristotle thought imitation (mimesis) was central to the way human beings learn. Just as our students need examples of exemplary work, teachers also need examples of good teaching. Here are some particularly helpful resources:
- Tyler Hester has a series of videos from the first few days of school from his fourth year as a teacher. You can watch the entire classes—from how he greets students at the door to how he gets them to ignore the bell and wait for his dismissal. His thoughtfulness, creativity, and obvious love for his students will give you concrete ideas for your first few days.
- The Teaching Channel is another valuable resource. You can browse shorter clips by content or by grade level, and you can learn from the expertise of a wide variety of educators.
- Paideia Academies also has short videos of techniques drawn from Doug Lemov’s famous Teach Like a Champion
Step 2: Develop the two key classroom management techniques.
As a new teacher, you may be overwhelmed by all of the “procedures” your education program told you to implement, practice, and perfect with your students. I am here to set your mind at ease. During the first week of school, there are just two key procedures you need to implement: an entrance routine and an attention routine. If you can obtain your students’ attention from the moment they come to your door, and if you can regain that attention whenever it is diverted, you can teach.
Your particular version of these strategies will depend greatly on the age and maturity level of your students. To see examples of what these strategies might look like in high school, see the resources in Step 1. For elementary school students, see Conscious Teaching’s attention procedures here.
Step 3: Practice your lessons with another teacher.
Once you have observed different teachers tackling the first few days of school, design your own lesson and develop the necessary handouts and materials you will need (Hester’s examples for secondary school are here). Then, ask a more experienced colleague not only to read through, but walk through, these plans with you. Go to your new classroom and practice delivering your lesson for your colleague. Have your colleague pretend to be a docile student the first time through, and eventually a more vexing one. Once you feel more comfortable after a few run-throughs, try your lesson with multiple colleagues. They can point out strategies that may not work, and some of them are likely to know the students you will be teaching and how they might receive your approach.
If you do not know anyone at your new school or you feel too shy to ask them, try this strategy with friends and family members. Very soon you will be in front of a live audience, and the best way to prepare is to practice in front of one.
Step 4: Schedule—and stick to—time for your own well-being.
New teachers, motivated by extraordinary generosity as well as perfectionism, can very easily become overwhelmed and burnt out by the demands of first-year teaching. Make a list of the activities and practices that nourish you physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Then, schedule specific times during the week when you will firmly set aside work to embrace those practices. Find a friend or family member who will hold you accountable to maintaining these practices.
Step 5: Expect and welcome failure.
Many new teachers have learned in their education classes about the importance of cultivating growth mindsets in their students and normalizing error in their classrooms. Yet, very frequently, they forget that they themselves are learners. Teaching is both an art and a craft, and it is new to you. You are going to make lots of mistakes.
In fact, this applies to experienced teachers as well. Every year brings new challenges for which no amount of experience can completely account. If we are committed to the belief that embracing mistakes, understanding them, and responding appropriately helps our students learn, we must foster that same resilience in ourselves. What really counts—and what matters to your students—is how you handle your mistakes: with humility, honesty, and grace.
Struggles of Experienced Teachers
Veteran teachers are uniquely poised to shape and influence the cultures of their schools, districts, dioceses, or networks. Yet they can do this only if they can clearly articulate what education really is, and should be.
Teachers with five or more years of experience have usually discovered “what works” for them, but such success can lead to a kind of stagnation. If you have managed to develop strong lessons, handle the grading load, and maintain your personal life, it may be difficult to see a reason to reexamine your practices.
I have also seen experienced teachers (myself included) who are stuck in quite a different way: they are so committed to refining their craft with practical changes that they do not spend enough time on the bigger picture.
Suggestions for Experienced Teachers
Step 1: Articulate your current philosophy of education.
If you were applying for a new teaching position and your potential employer asked you about your philosophy of education, how would you describe it? Would it be challenging for you to do so? Why?
Write it down. Share it with a trusted colleague or friend. Better yet, invite other colleagues to write down their own philosophies of education, and share them with one another. Ask questions, provoke discussion, and clarify your own ideas.
It may be challenging to articulate the beliefs that inform your decisions if you have never been asked to do so before, but it is an essential practice. All teachers are making decisions based on some underlying view of what teaching and learning are. If you have not examined yours, it’s time to do so.
Step 2: Reconsider your most cherished practices.
Do you have a favorite project you always assign every October? Is there an approach to reading instruction or classroom management you have used for years? Why? What reasons do you have for thinking this practice has been helpful for your students?
Consider the relationship between what you have said your philosophy of education is and what you actually do. Do your favorite projects, assignments, units, and works actually align with your philosophy?
Step 3: Consider your students.
Now reflect on your students from this past year. How would they describe you? What are you known for? “She’s really tough.” “He gives a lot of homework.” “She always tells these funny stories.” “He always makes us do that Senior Project.” “Mr. Robbins really cares about us.”
Imagine what some of your strongest students would say. Imagine what your most challenging students would say. Or, better yet, ask them. But don’t stop there. Ask yourself, why would your students say those things? Are they correct?
What are your reasons for “being tough” or “giving a lot of homework” or telling “funny stories”? How are these practices related to your philosophy of education—are they related at all?
Step 4: Consider your students’ parents.
How would your students’ parents describe you? Would they even be able to? Do they have a sense of what your approach to teaching is? To what extent do you have a relationship with them, and why?
Be brutally honest with yourself. Given the primacy of the home in the formation of children, is it time to find more specific ways to partner with your students’ parents?
Step 5: Get philosophical and historical.
Where have your ideas about education come from? How familiar are you with the history of public, private, and religious education in the United States—and beyond? Where does your school fit into that story?
How—and why—has education changed since when you were in school? If you are teaching largely from a sense that “this worked for me when I was their age”—why? What evidence do you have that suggests your current practices are working for your students?
Step 6: Revise and share your philosophy of education.
After doing this work, take out your written philosophy of education again. Is it clear? Is it true? Does your school have a clear philosophy of education? What beliefs about the human person are driving the decision-making at your school, your district, or your diocese? It’s time to get that conversation started, if it isn’t happening already.
Administrators are often seeking ways to provide more meaningful professional development for their teachers. Talk to your principal or dean about starting a series of discussions on this topic. Or, you can start your own book club. Below are a few suggestions to provoke thought:
- The Risk of Education, by Luigi Guissani. (See Margarita Mooney’s piece here at Public Discourse for a brief introduction to this work.)
- Poetic Knowledge, by James Taylor.
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck.
- Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education, by Stratford Caldecott.
- The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler.
Growth in Wisdom and Pursuit of the Truth
New teachers need concrete examples from their teaching communities to help them manage their classrooms well and begin building experience and expertise. Returning teachers need opportunities for discussion within their communities to help them reflect on the experience and expertise they have already gained.
We all have views of the human person and of the meaning of education that deeply influence our practice—it’s time we articulate those clearly to ourselves and to our colleagues so we, and our students, can further grow in wisdom and pursuit of the truth.