It Gets Better

My tardy comments to a guest article placed on the Thoughts on Public Education website run by John Festerwald follow.  The article was posted in December 2011.

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In the toughest time of year for new teachers, encouragement helps

Posted on 12/12/11 • Categorized as EvaluationsTeacher DevelopmentUncategorized

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Ms. Moir’s “Phases of First Year Teaching” model does a great job depicting a first year teacher’s attitude through the first six months.

Since I am a first year teacher, I can only attest to the August – January portion of the curve. As a former engineer, I must add that the real curve is much noisier with many of the phases of the year-long cycle occurring daily, sometimes multiple times, reflecting the frenetic experience of this first year teacher. However, her smoothed curve makes it easier to see the underlying, longer term trend over the first year, which effectively conveys her ultimate message: it gets better. And at this juncture in the academic year, I now believe it!

For those of you who have not taught in a primary or secondary school setting, please think twice before you cast stones in a teacher’s direction. Teaching is the most challenging job I have ever held in my thirty years working, and I am no slouch having worked for start-ups and sleeping on my office floor, or commuting via regional jet multiple times in a week for years in a row (a three-hour commute each way, with a full work day sandwiched in between). Much of my challenge teaching is a result of the newness of the role, however, a significant amount is also due to public education’s arcane structure, systems, processes, and roles, some of which rests squarely on the teaching profession itself.  As an example, I was chastised twice in my first two weeks for not following the proper procedure when requesting a couple of pens and a white board eraser. Needless to say, I have rarely requested anything since.

Also, as someone who teaches algebra 1, I naïvely thought that there might be a tried and true “course in a box” available to me that contained daily lesson plans, activity worksheets, assessments, etc. which was honed after decades of use. No such resource existed. Although, I am most appreciative of the algebra 1 teacher edition textbook and the student workbook, without which I would be even further stressed each day as I envision what needs to be covered in the next day or two. As someone who spent most of three decades in high-tech, I felt as if I traveled through both time and space when I started teaching, landing in an environment reminiscent of a visit to a circa 1970’s DMV on one hand, and like a new start-up with one employee, you, and success rests solely on your ingenuity, commitment, and desire. And while many of the individuals within a district care tremendously, and help when and where they can, they are also stretched very thin, and hamstrung by a century-old architecture for educating our youth.

By the way, Ms. Moir’s comment about mentor teachers and induction programs is directionally correct, in my experience. Having someone to talk to about your challenges, or to stop by and offer an unsolicited, encouraging word can be powerful. At the same time, I question the descriptor “high-quality” for mentoring and induction programs. I do not question most of the people involved with these programs, mind you; they can be terrific, of the highest quality, and with the sincerest intent. However, the induction program itself is more of a loadstone around, than a load off of, a first year teacher’s shoulders with nonsensical requirements to collect dispersed, disparate information which should be provided to first year teachers on or before their first day teaching rather than compiled by an overburdened first year teacher as if the act itself provides a deeper appreciation for the content.

While I understand that many of these requirements are part of an induction program due to the many stakeholders involved in, and concerned with, the induction process to include federal, state, and local departments of education, districts, boards of education, schools of education, community groups, teachers unions, elected officials, education pundits, the public writ large, and etcetera, it nonetheless is an ineffective, and grossly inefficient, instrument for its purpose, at least when coupled with the sink or swim rite, through which new teachers must pass. In a scene that reminded me of a World War II movie, a colleague told me recently they did not bother learning the names of new teachers like myself until they made it past their first two years. Nothing oozes encouragement like that!

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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4 Responses to It Gets Better

  1. Jack says:

    Dave, I am so glad to hear that you are on an upward trajectory. I liked the way you parsed the challenges: newness of the role, arcane systems, teaching itself. In teacher education, we seem to focus on the third, and so many new teacher are blind-sided by the other two. I also agree with you about the additional requirements of most induction programs as feeling like an “add-on.” I would be very curious about what kind of mentoring would have been more supportive to you? Thanks for tracking your development over this year.

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    • Thanks, Jack. Ed schools have an inherent conflict of interest regarding telling students the truth about the level of challenge in the first years of teaching. They are not alone in this regard. Most schools have the same issue, as do most other enterprises in life; ironically, few students consider the reality of applying what they learn, regardless of their age.

      At the same time, ed schools must not imply that it is possible to satisfy all of the standards for the teaching profession simultaneously and continuously. Even Superman could not deliver that level of performance. I fear that in an attempt to protect the teaching profession from complete annihilation by those who have little to no appreciation or understanding of the complexities of the role, ed schools have created programs like PACT for use in certifying credential candidates, which provide superb insight into the enormity of the tasks in teaching, but mislead candidates and all others into believing it is possible to satisfy all of the standards all of the time. PACT then gets promoted as a “best in class” model for induction programs, and is adopted by many districts, without a true appreciation of the reasonableness of its measures. Once the ball is rolling, it becomes the standard for evaluating teacher effectiveness. And in the desire to quantify everything, we will likely end up showing that few, if any, teachers satisfy these standards, irrespective of whether they can be satisfied or not, thereby leading to the unintended consequence of widespread labeling of teachers as ineffective, when they might be extremely effective in ways that count significantly more than any of the agreed upon measures. That will not matter, however, as the assessment will have been adopted, and likely codified into law, requiring teachers to meet the unrealistic standards, and those that do not are cast adrift, after attempts at remediation fail to show improvement. In the extreme, all teachers fail this assessment, and the profession as we know it is annihilated. Is that irony or what?

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  2. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    Re-blogging as I noticed a fellow math teacher / blogger penned a similar post recently partway through their first year teaching…small world.

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  3. CA Maestra says:

    “Although, I am most appreciative of the algebra 1 teacher edition textbook and the student workbook, without which I would be even further stressed each day as I envision what needs to be covered in the next day or two.”

    Just be glad Algebra is a fairly linear subject to teach! My degree is in English, and I’ve been teaching HS English for 13 years now. I have two siblings, both teachers. My sister’s degree is also in English, but she taught middle school social science for three years before switching to middle school English. About six weeks into the school year, she called me in tears of overwhelmed panic–she was so used to a linear subject (start at the beginning of the history book and work forward) that she had no idea how to plan or prepare a decidedly non-linear class like English, especially with all of the moving parts it entails: literature! reading comprehension skills! writing! grammar! research!

    I’ve for years maintained that the typical high school English class needs to be separated into at least two classes: one for literature, and one for writing. It’s not that they can’t go hand-in-hand, but it’s ridiculous to expect any teacher to cover both to any depth with the limited time we’re allotted, especially when you factor in periodic benchmark assessments that take most or all of a class period!

    It’ll never happen, but hey, a teacher can dream, right?

    Like

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