Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Letter to a New(er) Teacher

I want in on this letter-writing business that folks are all blogging about. So here's my letter, from a newish teacher to a newer teacher:

Dear Person,

There are lots of people out there who will tell you things that are definitely true. I'm writing to tell you things that might be true. Or maybe they're wrong. So here are a bunch of things that (might) make you better at teaching:

1. Find a teacher who is mediocre, and try to be at least as good as that teacher as quickly as possible.

It's impossible to be creative when you're under pressure. You need to be at least as good as the boring, just OK teachers. Figure out what that low bar is, and clear it as quickly as possible so that you can focus on being good and interesting. For me, that happened at the end of my first year, I think. Hopefully it'll be sooner for you.

2. Write your own curriculum.

Broadly speaking, people get better at X by doing X, and by intensely improving certain aspects of X. Basketball players strengthen their legs and play scrimmages. Actors train their voices and rehearse. Astronauts do that whirly barf thing and go underwater to simulate low-gravity.

What do teachers do? How do teachers train and rehearse?

It's hard to think of things that teachers can do outside of the classroom to rehearse and train. A lot of people talk about the importance of observations, and that's because in teaching you need to turn every performance into a rehearsal. But what can you do outside the classroom?

The most effective thing that I can think of is writing your own curriculum. So find some sort of safety net that will allow you to spend the year writing curriculum from scratch.

3. Throw away large parts of your curriculum, every year.

If curriculum writing is what makes you sharp, then what happens after you've got a bunch of pretty good resources?

Louie CK knows. He spent 15 frustrating years perfecting his stand-up act, only to discover that he was stuck with it. He didn't become great until he threw it all away:

Put it like this: you get smarter as you keep on at this job. If you use old materials, you're using the stuff that the stupider version of you made.

Do you really trust that guy?

4. If the kids don't like you, then you're probably doing something wrong.

Your job isn't to make kids happy. It's not. But you desperately need them to be happy.

When kids aren't happy your job isn't fun. And when a hard job isn't fun, it's just miserable. Actors need a happy audience. Businesses need happy customers. Writers need happy readers.

Now, in all these fields there are times when it's OK to make the people who consume your work unhappy. You can write a disturbing scene in a novel; you can add a new, but annoying, security feature to your product; you can be ugly in character. But if you're going to pull any of these things off, you need credibility. And credibility means that folks trust that you're in control, and that you'll take them somewhere good.

You need credibility and a baseline of happiness in the classroom in order to push kids past where they're comfortable. So make sure kids are happy with you.

To sum things up: look at other jobs for models of professional growth

Teaching is not a very well-understood profession. Teachers aren't good at getting better, and schools aren't very good places for teachers to learn. The best thing to do is think about how great people become great in other fields, and then use the analogy to adopt the insight to teaching.

So, good luck! If you stick around long enough, maybe this profession will figure itself out.



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