“My child/grandchild/sister/brother is joining Teach for America. What should she/he do?” I’ve been asked that question about a half dozen times every year for the past few years by friends, acquaintances or strangers.
So how do I respond?
First of all, I do not say, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” because that’s just plain stupid. Smiles are good.
Nor do I say “Remember that you are their teacher and not their friend,” because that equally stupid cliché implies the roles are incompatible. You are teachers first, of course, but friendships sometimes follow, and that’s good.
No, my advice to new teachers has nothing to do with students and everything to do with their relationships with their new colleagues, the veteran teachers in their school. “Figure out which teachers are generally recognized as being at the top of their profession and seek them out,” I say. “Ask them if you can come to them for help when you screw up–because you will screw up, and more than once.”
“Then go an extra step,” I advise. “Ask those same veterans if they will let you sit in the back of their class during your free period, so you can watch and learn.” (Left unsaid: there’s a lot to learn.)
This may be hard advice for some TFA corps members to follow/swallow, because some of them arrive at their new school on a mission, determined to save the students. But whom do these young idealists think they are saving the kids from? While it’s not necessarily thought through or spoken aloud, the bad guys in that scenario are the veteran teachers and administrators who, by this logic, have not been helping the kids all these years.
I probably felt that way when I began my high school teaching back in the fall of 1964. A bunch of us new teachers instinctively bonded, because, after all, we were going to change the school, save the kids, and so forth. But we got lucky. Somehow Paul, Sandy and I connected with a couple of veteran teachers, who overlooked our arrogance and helped us become better teachers.
So, new teachers, the veterans are your allies. Make the best of them your mentors. You may have to take the first step, because there’s now a long history of resentment between (some) rookies and (some) veterans.
Please take that step. You have a lot to learn, and–trust me–you won’t learn it from other rookies. If you really want to help children (and I have no doubt you do), this is the fastest and most reliable pathway.