Five Survival Tips for New Teachers

When my school requested new mentors for resident educators, I signed on, and I am so glad that I did. I thoroughly enjoyed mentoring “my” resident educator, Jessica Kirsch, an eager and truly caring young teacher with boundless energy and the genuine sparkle that only comes from loving her class. A mentor’s duties include assisting a new teacher with putting their “book learning” into practice. However, I was more effective in giving advice in the areas that are not taught in college, and here they are, my five survival tips for new teachers.

1.) Communication, part one--Be proactive.

Inform parents first (via email) of any major tests, upcoming projects, group activities, or need to bring in special items. Giving parents plenty of lead time on a project allows them to find time in their extremely busy schedules to make that trip to Michael’s for supplies, to allow students to get together, or to inform you that the major group project just happens to be due the week of their family reunion in Fiji.

2.) Communication, part two--When an assessment goes awry

Should your class experience difficulty with an assessment, email the parents to let them know that the assessment went poorly, and let them know how you, they, and their children can work together to ameliorate the situation. Do you plan to reteach the subject and retest? Can the students correct their answers to earn points back? Is there a website or a reference the students can use at home to review the concepts? Being frank with parents before they get the chance to dig through the kids' book bags and freak out over a bum assessment not only empowers parents, but it also prevents much misunderstanding.

 

3.) Communication, part three-How to answer a sticky email.

We all know how tempting it can be to fire off an email in the heat of frustration, and we also all know that those emails may not accurately represent our feelings once we have had a few hours to process. Keep that in mind when you receive an email that is less than kind. Perhaps the parent was just upset. Also, remember not to answer emails when you are angry enough that you hear your pulse pounding in your ears. What you say in that circumstance may be neither prudent nor professional.

The most important thing to remember is that both you and the parents are united in wanting the very best for the student. Both of you invest time, energy, emotion, creativity and money into providing the child with a positive learning experience which will help the young person to reach not only full academic potential, but also to find happiness. When you email parents, especially in sticky situations, I have always found it helpful to approach the situation as, "We are partners with a common goal."

 

4.) Communication, part four-Use your manners--thank, acknowledge, apologize.

Life gives you many chances to be the bigger person. As a teacher, our actions teach so much more than our words. Thus, we must discipline ourselves to use our manners, even when we think the other party might not deserve it. If a student draws you a picture, thank the kid. Acknowledge the student’s effort by keeping a spot in the classroom where you display things the kids have made for you. Also, and this one is harder, if you need to apologize to a student, do so. If you thought a student did not turn in a paper, only to find it stuck to the back of another kid’s paper, you need to apologize. . .not grovel, not pander, just say, “I’m sorry. It was stuck to the paper in front of it.” So often, adults feel that apologizing to kids will undermine authority, but it often does the opposite, showing the student that your classroom is an environment where mutual respect is expected.


5.) Communication, part five-You don’t teach at Target, or Wal-Mart, or the city pool.

All seasoned teachers have horror stories of parents chasing them down in the most embarrassing aisle of the grocery store and attempting to have an impromptu conference.

Practice this speech: “I appreciate your concern, Mr. _____.  Please call or email me at school, and I will be glad to discuss this issue during school hours.” Then, turn and flee, abandoning whatever you were planning to get in that aisle. Seriously, you are under no obligation to discuss a student outside of school, and you have every right to invite the parent to use the correct professional channels. You also have the right to purchase your hygiene products or to enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks in peace.

Bullying, Censorship and Blubber

I am an unabashed scavenger, always on the lookout for the next great lesson. www.readwritethink.org proves an Aladdin’s cave including this favorite, studying banned books.

Most books I teach have been banned, burned, defenestrated--To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Flowers for Algernon, A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, A Wrinkle in Time. 

The lesson includes these steps:

1.) Students choose a novel from a list of banned books, including The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Blubber, The Westing Game, and The Giver.

2.) Students research the rationale for censorship. My kids were shocked to find the bogus reasons why some books are censored. For example, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory receives censure because the “Oompa Loompas” are slaves, and the “Oompa Loompa” song mocks an African war chant.  Charlotte’s Web shows a spider-considered by some to be an “evil” creature-in a good light, talking to a talking pig. Many folks, it turns out, object to talking animals as young children might think that the animals are on an equal footing with humans, subverting the “natural order” and causing young folks everywhere to eschew bacon. Don’t even get me started on The Lorax and the lumber industry.

3.) Students do a close reading of their book, writing down quotes and examples of the censor's objections.

4.) Based on their findings, the students write a persuasive essay explaining the objections, determining whether the criticisms were legitimate, and as a result, recommending whether this book should be A.) included in our K-8 school library, B.) allowed with age restrictions for access, or C.) whether it should be banned outright.

Most of the books received high recommendations from the reviewers, however, one result shocked me.

Enter Blubber-the book by Judy Blume which I devoured and re-devoured as a kid. 40-something Americans know how mean kids can be to the “fat girl” and what it means to be flensed. I loved that book. It reflected my feelings about being chubby and weird. I knew every kid in that story-the popular bullies as well as the “middle group” of kids who would pick on me just to go along with the others.

Imagine my surprise when my students harshly condemn the novel, almost to the point of bringing their own kerosene and matches. Why?

My students trash the book for showing bad parenting, bad teaching, and for lacking a good moral message.

  • The bullies win. They are not punished for their actions.

  • The parents do not intervene. They advise their daughter to ignore the bullies.

  • The teacher does not intervene to stop the bullies.

  • The victim remains the victim, and she does not triumph over the bullies.

 

So, I am left to ask, has parenting and teaching changed, or has bullying changed? I posit both.

When I was young, my parents would never have intervened in the social aspect of my school life. I was advised to “ignore” bullies. My teachers often took the position that being bullied is a rite of passage, and when a victim learns to stand up to a bully, then that victim is “toughened up” and no longer vulnerable.  Now, parents and teachers fight daily against bullying, from bringing special programs into the schools to monitoring the children’s social relationships. Adults encourage kids to “tell,” and then the adults take an active role in finding a solution.

Bullying, too, has changed. As a kid, the 40 minutes between boarding the afternoon bus and getting off said bus would be torture. I would dodge spit balls and whacks from “unbreakable” combs. But then, I would have 23 hours away from the hell bus. Today, with social media, the bullies can reach right into their victims’ homes. Moreover, unkind words can spread to hundreds of people at the speed of a tweet.

This observation raises more questions than answers. Should kids be allowed to read books where the bullies win? Should kids be protected from novels with undesirable outcomes? Or, should we all use these stories as a springboard for critical dialogue?