Advice to Rookies

“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.

29 Responses to “Advice to Rookies”

  1. Parker J. Palmer 23. Apr, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    John, I like this advice a lot. As one who gets asked the same question from time to time, I’m going to steal your answer, lock, stock, and barrel! I’d add only this: Mentors and allies are the key and, as you say, “…there’s now a long history of resentment between (some) rookies and (some) veterans.” I’ve known of a few schools where that history runs so deep that rookies who reached out have been slapped down time after time. If that happens, it’s always possible to seek and find mentors and allies elsewhere; e.g., in neighboring schools, or among retired teachers. It only takes one or two to make a big difference. Thanks so much for this, and for your tireless and exhaustive reporting on the Michelle Rhee situation. From micro to macro, you’ve got range! I’m one of many who’s very grateful that you use it to support what’s best for kids in public education.

    • john merrow 24. Apr, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

      You have made my day, Parker. Please feel free to steal and improve. The Rhee story keeps unfolding. Stay tuned for more on this blog

  2. Norm Colb 23. Apr, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    Excellent advice!

    I might go just a bit further and explicitly alert new teachers that the work is complex, demanding and depleting.

    -Complex because of the backgrounds, aptitudes and assumptions that shape students’ readiness to engage in learning.
    -Demanding because students need as much from us as we can possibly provide; and many need even more than that.
    -Depleting because new teachers, typically fresh from their own positive school experiences, now must support their many dozens of students without themselves being supported and appreciated.

    And then I’d add one final note: that the profession can be enormously gratifying for those who stay the course, and that it is worth all it takes to become good at it.

  3. Grant Wiggins 23. Apr, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    John, this is sound advice. But I would offer something focused to go along with it. Look for good lessons, not ‘teachers’. Many teachers -especially in tough settings, as many TFA grads will face – conflate discipline issues with pedagogical issues. Many teachers think that kids failing to attend or being off task is a discipline problem not an instructional problem. They need to see this play out in a good teacher-designer”s room: hey, same kids but they don’t act out here; why? Oh: more interesting, better paced work, clear directions, clear goals, etc. Rule of thumb: if more than 1-2 kids are off task it is likely the work, not the kids.

    • john merrow 24. Apr, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

      That’s a good edit. thanks

    • Luciano D'Orazio 29. Apr, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

      I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Yes, there are many teachers who lack good practices and thus creates so-called discipline problems. Yet to imply that the lesson makes the classroom simply discounts the effect of the personalities and quirks of individual teachers. There are intangibles that make many teachers great that cannot be placed on any chart. The same kids may not act out in the other class not because the work is any better or worse, but because they simply don’t like their teacher. It’s messy, it’s hard to quantify, but those intangibles of personality go a long way in defining a teacher, just as much as what’s written in that planbook.

    • Randal Hendee 29. Apr, 2013 at 11:48 pm #

      “Many teachers -especially in tough settings, as many TFA grads will face – conflate discipline issues with pedagogical issues.”

      Yeah. And it looks like some promoters of questionable pedagogical systems give arrogant and condescending advice.

      “Rule of thumb: if more than 1-2 kids are off task it is likely the work, not the kids.”

      There are tons of classroom variables that influence student behavior that have nothing to do with instructional design. For rookie teachers, the most likely reason for students to be “off task” is that the teacher is a rookie.

  4. Guy Brandenburg 23. Apr, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    My advice is DON’T!

    Don’t do TFA if you want to help kids and teach them information and skills that they need.

    Only join TFA if you cynically want to pad your resume.

    (The 5-week indoctrination with about 1 hour a day of practice tutoring that you are given in TFA is essentially worthless in terms of actually teaching. My young cousin, who did TFA for a year before giving up, said that beginning school after that ‘training’ was like being ‘a lamb thrown to the wolves’.)

    The last thing underprivileged kids need is somebody who doesn’t know jack about teaching to come in, fail, and leave in a year or two. They need somebody who’s actually studied pedagogy and theories of education and has at least six months of practice teaching under a good, veteran teacher — and who plans to stick around in the profession for a long time.

    Just as you wouldn’t want a nurse, physician, therapist, attorney, or architect who had only had five weeks of training, you wouldn’t want a teacher who had only trained for a little over a month. Not for yourself, not for your kids. It’s not fair to inflict that on poor, black, or brown kids.

    Instead, make a long-term commitment: take some education courses towards a master’s in education in a subject that you love, and make sure you get good practice-teaching for at least a semester.

    And when you are hired, make sure you follow John Merrow’s suggestion: ask around and find out who’s a really good teacher, and ask to sit in the back and watch. You will learn a lot.

    If you are interested in teaching math and have a good background with math or math-related courses such as economics or physics, then there is an organization that does all this. It’s called Math for America, and there are branches in several cities. They pay for a full year of practical and theoretical training before you apply to work, as well as a living stipend. They also expect a five- or six-year commitment to teach in the city after your first year.

  5. Anne Foster 23. Apr, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    Parents for Public Schools (PPS) is a national organization of community-based chapters working to mobilize, engage and educate parents, to support and improve public schools. PPS believes that authentic parent engagement is one of several components that impact student achievement favorably.

    PPS PEP (Parent Engagement Programs) is a program available nationally that helps parents become transformational leaders and advocates in their communities on behalf of local public schools and of public education.

    Websites:

    http://www.parents4publicschools.org

    http://www.PPSparentprograms.com

    PPS works with parents on how to work with teachers, and also we work with teachers on how to work with parents. We would offer positive tips to new teachers. We would ask them to recognize that parent engagement is a key strategy for student success — and that they should be clear in their own minds about why they want parents to be engaged, and then be specific with parents about what they want parents to do. Help parents understand what they expect of our students. Call us with good news, not just the bad! Involve more parents in planning at the school and district levels. And there are many, many more …. PPS PEP: When parents and schools work together, everyone wins,.

  6. anthony Cody 23. Apr, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    I think it is wise to seek out experienced teachers. I would have been lost my first few years without the guidance of some kind colleagues down the hall. And while lessons are of value, the wisdom and modeling of experienced colleagues is not to be dismissed.

    In my experience, the ideal for a school faculty is a blend of veterans and newer teachers. Each has something of value to offer. However, in many districts, high turnover is being aided by the rotating door of interns from TFA and other programs.

    In recent discussions about intern qualifications, a representative from Los Angeles Unified noted the following:

    “They come, they get trained, they move on to schools in better neighborhoods or high-paying districts, leaving students with one intern after another.”
    “Those students unfortunately are experiencing a churning year after year of interns,” Janet Davis, director of a Los Angeles Unified School District committee that provides access to professional development classes, told the Commission. “We had a strand of kids who actually had an entire elementary experience with only intern teachers. And those students suffered.”

    To this I would add my experience in Oakland, where in some schools the “veteran teacher” is one with three years of experience. That does not leave very many seasoned veterans to observe or seek advice from. I created a mentoring program for science teachers to try to address this, but we still have to fight a very high turnover rate, especially for people from programs like TFA, where there is often not a commitment to stay beyond two years.

  7. Renee @TeachMoore 23. Apr, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    Back in 2010, I wrote a blog on this topic for Education Week. Although I was addressing specifically new English teachers, much of the advice applies to other teachers as well. Here’s the link: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2010/09/01/tln_moore_tipsforenglishteachers.html?r=783278169

  8. Rey Bacchetti 23. Apr, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

    All good advice, John. Maybe add to it–what made the best teacher you ever had so good? Some other suggestions: Ask the TFA recruiters what it takes to be a really good teacher and how will TFA help you get there. Figure out how you’ll keep growing at all the points on the crucial triangle of subject matter competence, pedagogy, and child and adolescent development. Find out if your school will be a genuine learning community committed to your learning as well as your students’.

  9. Jodie Pozo-Olano 23. Apr, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    John – I always save your columns for a quiet time in the day because how carefully you think through sensitive issues. I would be interested to hear your advise to the veteran teachers when the new recruits come with suggestions on how to do things differently. Perhaps they will have new ideas for more experienced teachers on how to use some of today’s modern technologies to engage or motivate students. Can the teachers – as a unit within the school – pull together and increase the overall teaching and learning productivity for all students??

    • john merrow 24. Apr, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

      My wife, a veteran and talented educator, believes that it’s essential that everyone approach meetings, connecting, et cetera by assuming good will. Assuming that everyone wants the best for children, and that this is not a gotcha game.
      So that’s one piece of advice: assume good will
      Second suggestion: Smile….a lot.
      Taken together, these two approaches will make it harder to be defensive

  10. Claire Mead 24. Apr, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    Join a professional organization in your field, or, if you’re an elementary teacher, in a field you want support in. Groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (nctm.org) offer wonderful resource materials, journals, and conferences at the national, regional and state levels where you can learn more about content and pedagogy from practicing professionals.

    Others include:
    International Reading Association (reading.org)
    National Science Teachers Association (nsta.org)
    International Society for Technology in Education (iste.org)

    • john merrow 24. Apr, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

      The National Council of Teachers of English (I think that’s the name) was so incredibly helpful to me when I was a new English teacher. I think this advice is terrific. There’s so much help out there now, instantly available. Back in the day, we had to wait for the monthly magazine!

  11. Mark O'Keefe 24. Apr, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    Great advice, John. Unfortuntately, here in Michigan the legislature is creating incentives for veteran teachers to refrain from helping new teachers. Evaluations, pay, and the ability to keep a teaching position are now based primarily on student performance. With no seniority protections, the adminstration has an incentive to keep the newer, lower-paid teachers. Veteran teachers have a better chance of keeping their jobs if the new teachers fail.

  12. TC 24. Apr, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    I understand why TFA started with a five week training model back in 1990? But now that they have more than 20 years, and they have a 10 to 1 applicant rate, why haven’t they increased the training course to a year or so?

    What’s their excuse? Are they cheap, or dumb?

  13. susan Landmann 24. Apr, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Believe it or not, there are schools that assign new teachers to mentor teachers and require new teachers to sit in on veteran teachers’ lessons.
    For a time all teachers at my elementary school in DC were required to observe in other classrooms. It made the faculty much more cohesive!

  14. Don Nielsen 24. Apr, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    John:
    Very sound advice. My only other thought would be to encourage them to
    avoid those teachers who try to turn off their enthusiasm. Each school
    has some of them as well. In secondary school, the students can help you
    determine who the great teachers are and those are the ones you want to
    emulate.
    Don

  15. Concerned 24. Apr, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    I seem to see this idea that the veteran teachers are the problems, and that the newer, younger, more passionate teachers should stay away from them. (I don’t have any scientific evidence. I just have my experience as a newer teacher and conversations I have with other newer teachers.) But this type of thinking seems naive and arrogant. I’m sure there are veteran teachers who aren’t that great, but I’m more sure there are terrific veteran teachers. Why not learn from them and be mentored like them, like every other profession out there? I don’t think all TFA folks think like this, but I do know a lot of them do based on my conversations and their philosophical stances. Many teach for two years, then think to themselves that the veterans are the problem, so they go into ed policy to “change the status quo.” Let’s have some humility here.

    • john merrow 24. Apr, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

      That’s why I wrote this…

    • Chi-Town Res 11. May, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

      “Let’s have some humility here.”

      Yes, humility is a very important characteristic of novices. I think it should be instilled by TFA, too, as well as by the parents of TFAers. I was in a somewhat similar situation, at the start of my career in education, and I think that I was very fortunate to have had the grounding of my family preventing me from becoming too full of myself.

      I began my career in 1968 working in Head Start, at a Chicago Public School (CPS) in a low-income neighborhood. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, even then, there was a belief that young, enthusiastic people could breathe new life into the system and make significant differences in the lives of low-income children at-risk for school failure. Consequently, although I had CPS supervisors, Head Start monitors and professionals from the University of Chicago providing guidance and oversight, I was given a lot of freedom and responsibility.

      For example, in those days, if older siblings had high needs, they were also accepted in our program and it was decided that I would be given the more challenging students to manage, which included a mix of ages. I was fine with that and I really loved my work with those kids.

      At the time, reporting child abuse and neglect was not yet mandated by law, so when I suspected that one of my school-age students was being abused, but not her younger brother, I was told to write up a report and make a recommendation as to whether the family should be referred to the community mental health center for counseling.

      This was not my first job working with children, but I was only 16 years old then. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school and I was working there full time over the summer as a volunteer. I struggled with the task at hand. I consulted with supervisors and co-workers, did research at the library, attempted to find out what services the family could receive, and considered the impact my recommendation might have on the child, her little brother and their parents.

      I was indeed humbled, though I was also clear-headed. I wrote up and submitted my report. In it, I described my observations and what the children had reported to me. I carefully weighed the options and pointed out what the possible ramifications could be for each family member and I made my recommendation. I concluded by lambasting the powers that be for expecting a 16 year old to make such an important, potentially life-changing decision for other children. I thought the story ended there, with the adults in charge making the final determination, based on the best interests of my students and their parents, all of whom would, in fact, be referred for counseling. I continued to work closely with them and felt that each family member was making a lot of gains.

      The story didn’t end there though. Suddenly, my parents were bombarded with requests from a reporter at a city newspaper who wanted to write about me and my work in Head Start. Somehow, the reporter had gotten wind of this story. Ultimately, my parents decided not to give permission for the write-up. As my mom put it, “I didn’t want you to get a big head from it.” In fact, I wasn’t even told about the reporter until years later.

      I’m very glad that my parents made those decisions, because instead of growing a huge ego as the result of a lot of undue attention, I was able to maintain my humility. There is nothing wrong with being a novice and acknowledging it.

      TFA would be wise to learn the stages that people progress through as they develop expertise:

      Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, Expert

      Research has demonstrated that it takes about 10 years to become an expert in virtually any field, and this is provided that a concerted effort is made towards self-improvement throughout that time (or most adults would be cooking like Julia Child by now). First year TFAers with 5 weeks training are novices. If they seek to improve and work continuously on honing their skills, in their second year, they may have progressed to advanced beginner. If they continue to grow, they might be competent by the third year. However, it is highly unlikely that anyone who leaves the classroom after two or three years is an expert in education, including Michelle Rhee et al.

  16. John Thompson 25. Apr, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    I tell young teachers that in teaching, as in all of life, “all is politics.” Teaching is leadership and leadership is politics. Embrace an inclusive “Happy Warrior” politics in your nine month campaign to win win with your students.

    At least on the inner city high school level which I know, one reason for learning politics is carving out space for “To your own self be true.” Teach in a way that is true to your temperment and strenghts; after all you have got to be sharing yourslef with your kids.

    If you are comfortable with the TFA approach, go for it. If you think your job is “teach the subject,” great.

    I prefer, “teach the student.” I think the better approach would be for young teachers to seek out the teachers who are most effusive in hugging students and constantly refraining, “I love you.” Frankly, I was jealous of those who were the most natural in the nonstop expressions of love. I was more comfortable with chest bumps, fist bumps, punches to the shoulder, and ragging on each other.

    I worked hard, but I’d suggest to TFA and others who take a more subject-oriented approach that the hard work is effective for a different reason. Working your tail off is a way of saying, “I love you.”

  17. Cmccall 29. Apr, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    I wouldn’t have made it my first few years of teaching without the veterans who helped me out, and assisted me in navigating the difficulties of teaching in a large urban system. I try to be one of teachers there for my student teachers and the young teachers in my building. I’ve often thought that some young teachers appear arrogant because they realize they have been thrown into the deep end and overcompensate. Some because they are on fire and want to be the best teachers ever. It’s all ok though because their reasons are natural for young idealists. What I can’t take is the older folks, those teaching these young teachers ( TFA I’m talking about you!) who try to disparage the veteran teachers to the newbies. It’s ugly and it makes the new teacher feel competition and isolation is the only way to be a good teacher. This a wrong-headed and puts the young teacher in a tough spot. I suspect this is what TFA wants, to me, it is are more like a cult than anything else.

  18. Demian 30. Apr, 2013 at 1:47 am #

    Great advice from John and in the comments. For a teacher starting out, TFA or not, John’s advice is clearly invaluable. Guy and Anthony’s comments provide especially valuable insight for prospective TFA recruits in particular. Do you want to perpetuate the high churn of inexperienced teachers that low income students too often get? Are you helping strengthen the profession? For more reasons to reconsider TFA, check out http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/

    • Concerned 04. May, 2013 at 4:15 am #

      This is a good blog by a former advocate of TFA and TFA trainer. He’s highly critical of the program now. I don’t mean to blast TFA, but for anyone considering the program, it’s good to hear all perspectives.

      http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/

  19. Cosmic Tinker 01. May, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    People would be wise to read this BBC article before entering TFA and similar programs, as it is just as applicable to Americans and their missions to serve both here and abroad: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22294205.

  20. susan Landmann 04. May, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    There are indeed veteran teachers who are great teachers and still passionate about their jobs.
    People in the school community can tell you who they are.
    It is not all gloom and doom out there!

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