Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Okay teachers, how many times have you heard this?
“You teachers are so lucky. You never have to work weekends. You get all summer off. You get spring break, fall break, and two weeks off at Christmas. You never have to work on holidays, and if the weather is bad, you don’t have to go to work then either. And to top it off, you get paid during the summer for not working at all! Amazing!”
I’ve endured this good-natured ribbing for many years –from high school and college friends, from the guy who services my car, and the cashier at the grocery store. From the family doctor and from the men who delivered my washing machine. From the tree trimmer, the convenience store clerk, and the attorney. Seems like everybody has an opinion about teacher work schedules and teacher pay. Typically, that opinion is “you’ve got it easy.”
I’m not sure why they feel a need to express this. I mean, one of my friends is a truck driver, and I’ve never said to him, “Man, you get to sit all day long.” I don’t cajole my friend the accountant, who gets to work in his office all day and solve problems uninterrupted. Another friend is an attorney, and I don’t bring to his attention the fact that he can wear a nice suit every day without worrying about snagging his jacket on a 30-year old desk, or having a kindergartener sneeze on his trousers.
I guess I’d have to ask them to know for sure, but I don’t and I won’t. Whatever the reason, they feel a need to point-out the benefits of my chosen career, based on the unlikely assumption that I don’t realize that I made a great career choice over 30 years ago.
And what’s the teacher’s natural reaction to the accusation of a great schedule and undeserved pay? We get defensive. I’ll admit, that was my reaction several years ago. But lately I’ve taken a new approach, and in this TeacherScope blog post I’ll share my response with you.
First, I’ll respond to the claim that teachers get paid during the summer for not working. This statement is particularly irksome because it implies that somehow I’m scamming all taxpayers by collecting a salary for work I never performed.
Of course, teachers know this isn’t true, but based on conversations I’ve had with reasonably intelligent people, I’m not sure the public gets it. So – here’s what I tell them…
Teachers sign a one-year contract. The school district agrees to pay each teacher a certain amount of money – based on college degree and years of experience – to complete a task. That task is teaching school for a certain number of days, with the schedule prescribed by the district.
The general public needs to understand that teachers get paid on a yearly basis – not by the hour, by the day, by the week or by the month. Then why do we collect money during the summer months when school is not in session? Simple. We agree to take that yearly salary in 12 monthly payments.
When I explain the concept of teacher pay to people, I use an analogy that most people can relate to: sports. A professional baseball player is a good example. Each player on the baseball team signs a contract to play that year. The season includes games (school days) and practices (teacher workdays, workshops, etc.) For the baseball player, the first practice of the season is in February, and the last game is in October. Baseball players get November, December, and January off. During that time they rest, spend time with their families, work on their skills and prepare for next season. If the team wants them to play next season, they offer a new contract. If not, the player needs to find a new team that can use his skills. And at that point, I lighten the mood by reminding my friend that we don’t quite make a professional athlete’s salary, but I remain hopeful!
I also share that good teachers are continuously building their content knowledge and improving their teaching skills. Those tasks usually take place during the summer, off the clock. I also gently remind them that I don’t set the work schedule – the school district does. So I really don’t have any control over the number of days I work each year.
Which brings us to the next point: a teacher’s schedule.
And the schedule is marvelous! It’s time for us teachers to stop apologizing for one of the most attractive aspects of our jobs.
Sure, I work on my lesson plans on the weekends. But it’s nothing like the plumber, the doctor, and the electric company lineman who are on-call for emergencies. I’ve never received a phone call from my principal at night because a student needed an emergency proofread of an essay. And I’ve never taught on the graveyard shift. We’ve never had school on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day.
Sure, I take classes and workshops over the summer. Sometimes. But it’s not like I’m standing on my feet for 8 hours running a cash register at Wal-mart. And if I take enough college classes I get a new degree – and a pay raise.
Yes, we work a lot at school after hours. Often that work is optional work with supplemental pay. Yes, teachers across the country stay after school – for no additional pay – to help their students. But in 34 years I’ve never had my principal come into my classroom and tell me I had to work a double shift because another teacher was sick.
I need to accept the fact: compared to many jobs, my teaching job has a great schedule. I’m not going to make excuses for it, or explain it away. A teacher’s schedule is sweet. Oh, it’s work alright – sometimes exhausting and often challenging. But the schedule is predictable.
When discussing our schedules with our friends and acquaintances, we should certainly mention the flip-side of that predictable schedule – its rigidity. In other words, we have very little flexibility within that schedule.
If we have to be absent for any reason – say it with me friends – they have school anyway! I have to find a sub and create assignments that will keep the children busy when I’m not there. And any teacher can tell you that constructing good sub plans is one of the most difficult teacher tasks.
Can we arrive at work an hour late to take our child to an orthodontist appointment? Can we extend our lunch an extra hour to take care of business at the bank? Can we leave work early to spend time with a family member from out of town? Nope, nope, and nope. (Yes, we have a couple of “personal” days – but see the above paragraph about sub plans!)
During the summer we take our vacations, we catch-up on home repair and maintenance, and we schedule those doctor and dentists appointments we’ve delayed for several months. We pursue our hobbies, work on our side-jobs, and catch-up on our professional reading. We spend quality-time and quantity-time with our families because, quite frankly, during the past ten months we’ve spent more time with your kids than our own.
And most importantly, we rest. We rejuvenate. We reflect on the successes and difficulties of the previous year, and begin thinking about next year – the best school year ever! That’s what our students deserve. Smart parents want their child to have a healthy, well-rested teacher as the marathon school year begins.
As I write this blog post, we’re about two weeks from the start of a new school year – my 35th as a teacher. And I’m sure I’ll hear the half-joking comments about how lucky I was to have the whole summer off while still drawing a paycheck – just as I have since I began this journey as a 22-year old university graduate. I’ve had years to perfect my friendly responses, and perhaps I’ve given you some new ideas for those conversations. But remember, never apologize for your good fortune.
We’ve got the best job in the world!
In my 34-year teaching career I have had a wide variety of experiences. I have taught middle school and high school required classes and electives. I have also served as a library media specialist at the elementary and middle school levels. I have provided inservice workshops and conference sessions for my fellow professionals, and even taught community college classes as an adjunct instructor.
I’m not bragging. I really didn’t intend my career to work out that way. Maybe I just have a short attention span.
I will tell you that working in so many diverse settings has given me a “birds-eye view” of education. Better stated, it’s like watching a parade from a helicopter. I can see the beginning. I can see the end. And I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get from one place to another.
And I can tell you that the transition from elementary school to middle school is the most difficult transition in education. Middle school requires a skill set that is new to most 6th graders. In this TeacherScope blog post, I’ll list five of the most important skills, and offer my advice on how to teach them.
Before we begin, let’s make sure that we’re not blaming anyone – teachers, students, or parents – for the lack of beginning middle school skills. It’s nobody’s fault. The distinction lies in the organizational patterns and the nature of the requirements. It’s like the difference between running and swimming. Both of those activities demand physical exertion to get you from point A to point B. But the locomotion requires a different set of skills. Just like elementary school and middle school.
And if you work with upper-elementary and middle school students, I’d like to suggest my most recent book, This Is Middle School! (Third Stream Press, 2016.) It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can learn more by visiting the web-site (click here.)
New Middle Schoolers Need to Learn…
#1 - How to Move Independently Throughout the School
Most new middle schoolers are excited to receive their first class schedules. But of course, these class changes require walking throughout the school with minimal supervision. Sure, students change classrooms in elementary school, but typically those changes are completed by large groups of students walking down the hall in a straight line, supervised by their teacher. “Okay class – line up…it’s time to go to music.”
Of course middle school is very different. When the bell rings at the end of the class period, twenty-five students go in twenty-five different directions. There’s no line-up, there’s no common destination, and there’s no teacher leading the way and monitoring student behavior. In middle school students can visit the restroom between classes and access their lockers. They can take various routes, say “hi” to their friends, and stop-by the library to quickly return a book. But when the next bell rings, students are expected to be in their classes, ready for instruction. This happens five or six times each day.
New middle schoolers also need to learn how to conduct themselves in the hallway. The temptation to run or engage in horseplay is too much for some of the less-mature students. Other students want to stand around in the hallway and talk until the tardy bell rings – then they dash-off to class.
The solution: planning and supervision. During the first week of school, teachers of new middle schoolers should take a few minutes at the end of each class period to talk with their students about traveling to their next classrooms. Help students plan the best routes, and point-out the restroom stops along the route. Also, it’s important for teachers and administrators to supervise the hallways in between classes to keep everyone moving along. Parent volunteers can help during the first week of school. Some schools forgive tardies during the first week of school, but it’s probably best not to publicize this policy. Most students will quickly learn how to walk around school. Those who still aren’t making it after the first week should get friendly one-on-one assistance.
#2 - How to Adjust to Diverse Learning Environments
Upper-level elementary school students have one or two teachers during the school day. Sure, they go to art and music, but those classes are much less frequent, and different in format. Basically, elementary students must function in a couple of learning environments that are probably remarkably similar.
Not so in middle school, where students will have five or six different teachers every day – emphasis on different. Middle school classrooms are more diverse, with some classes meeting in the gym, the music room, or the computer lab. Teachers also have different styles. Some teachers are energetic and others are low-key. Some teachers rely heavily on technology, while others use handouts and textbooks. Some teachers accept late work, and others don’t.
The solution: thinking about it, and accepting the differences. Teachers, school counselors, and parents should talk to new middle schoolers about different teaching styles. Remind them that their least-favorite teacher is probably someone else’s favorite. Use the opportunity to teach about preferences, and how the world won’t always be exactly like they want. (One year a parent requested a conference with me and my principal. Her child’s complaint: I didn’t show movies on Friday.)
And correct students when they use words like “mean” (i.e. “That teacher is so mean!”) when it’s not appropriate. Giving a pop quiz on Friday, or requiring that all students bring a pencil to class doesn’t make a teacher “mean.” Rather than complain about their least favorite teachers, students should ask themselves, “What do I need to do to be successful in this class?”
#3 - How to Manage Assignments and Information
Does the phrase “Week in a Peek” mean anything to you? That’s a common name for the elementary classroom newsletter that can be found in the take-home folder that goes home every night. The classroom newsletter contains announcements (field trips, fundraisers, class activities), weekly spelling words, homework assignments, after-school activity notices, homework assignments, and reading goals. Sometimes the teacher posts the newsletter on her web-page, and e-mails a copy to the parents, just in case.
Classroom newletter? Take-home folder? Parent e-mails? Week in a Peek? Join me middle school teachers: Huh?
In middle school, students are expected to write down important information, and follow-up on announcements. Soccer tryouts will be announced over the intercom. The coach many mention it in P.E. class, and there will probably be a poster in the cafeteria. It’s up to the student to get the details and follow through if they want to join the soccer team. Of course, the same holds true for classroom assignments. The teacher will probably write the assignments on the white board. It’s up to the student to complete the work and turn it in by the due date.
The solution: gradual responsibility, and the planner. Here’s a way that elementary teachers can help: gradually wean your students off of the parent/student newsletter in their final semester before middle school. Guide them through the process. Instead of providing the spelling words on a handout, have them write them in their notebooks. Make a few announcements orally – let the students decide if the content pertains to them, and how and where to record it. (We don’t write things down so we can remember them. We write things down so we can forget them!) Turn it into a fun, educational activity. Reward those who “get it” and keep working with those who need a little help.
The planner – a calendar/spiral notebook with plenty of room to write down assignments – is required in most middle schools. Elementary teachers can introduce the planner to their 5th graders . Blank planner pages for “practice” can be downloaded from the Internet. Get students used to the idea of writing down assignments and announcements. And middle school teachers – don’t hesitate to require planner completion. If you make it optional, the students who need it most will probably choose not to participate.
#4 - How to Store and Retrieve School and Personal Items
Elementary storage spaces for personal items are plentiful and varied. Books, pencils, and papers are stored in the student desk. Rulers, crayons, and calculators are found in a plastic tote nearby. Jackets and sweaters are hung on hooks in the back of the room. Many classrooms feature “cubby-holes” where students can store additional gear. In elementary school, everything is within arm’s reach, or at least in the same room.
In middle school, students need to be responsible for their educational supplies as well as their personal belongings. Sure, the student has a desk in every classroom, but they can’t expect to store their stuff there. The locker provides private storage space, but most students don’t have time to visit their lockers between every class. Most middle schools allow bookbags for carrying materials and personal items. It’s up to the middle school student to bring the required items to each class, and to secure their personal belongings.
The solution: planning and good judgement. Earlier in this blog post, I suggested that teachers help students determine the best routes from classroom to classroom. Locker stops should also be part of that planning. The bookbag and locker are complimentary pieces of the storage puzzle. A student using a bookbag correctly shouldn’t need to go to his locker after every class. And a student who uses his locker properly shouldn’t have a 30-pound bookbag.
And that’s where the good judgment comes in. For several years I was a 6th grade homeroom teacher. I would conduct random bookbag “dump-outs” during homeroom; the students emptied the contents of their bookbags on a table. After a few “dump-outs” most students quickly learned what they did and didn’t need. Of course, an important lesson: leave your toys at home! Teach students to distinguish between “what I will need” and “what I can possibly cram into my bookbag.” (If we don’t, they turn into adults who need more than 4 ounces of shampoo for a 2-hour airline flight and hold-up the TSA line!)
#5 - How to Budget Time
Time management isn’t a big concern for elementary students. Sure, there’s homework, but not nearly as much as middle school students are assigned. There may be a handful of clubs and activities at the elementary level, but they probably don’t require the commitment of middle school athletic teams and musical groups.
In middle school clubs and activities and plentiful and demanding. Middle school athletic teams may practice every day until suppertime. That leaves two or three hours for homework, and maybe no time for television or social media. Band and chorus may require after school rehearsals and performances. And middle school students who sign-up for these activities are expected to participate – or drop out. There aren’t any “casual” members of the middle school cheerleading squad, soccer team, or band.
The biggest transition issue is usually encountered by the elementary school high-flyers who are used to participating in every activity offered. They’re on the elementary track team (with one track meet), they’re on the student council (that meets once a month in the library before school) and they’re on the yearbook staff (they take a couple of photos in the cafeteria.) Many new middle schoolers are surprised to find that they don’t have time to participate in every club, activity, and sport. The important lesson: you have to pick and choose.
The solution: prioritize and choose wisely. The good news is that most middle schools have entry-level sports teams for 6th graders, and there are usually several clubs with open enrollment. Students can attend a few practices, meetings, or rehearsals to see if the activity is right for them. Teachers can talk to students about the differences between elementary and middle school activities. Coaches, directors, and club sponsors should clearly communicate the time requirement their activity demands. And parents should vigilantly monitor their child’s time schedule and stress level. When an activity hampers completion of school work, or becomes more stressful than enjoyable, the parent should step in. Adults are skilled in balancing work, hobbies, and home commitments. New middle schoolers still need to develop those skills.
Well, those are my top five things new middle schoolers need to learn. Here’s a bonus…
Bonus: How to Quickly “Take it Down a Notch”
This is more of a personality/social skill, and the need will vary among individuals – but it’s still important. Many elementary students get wound-up (excited, boisterous) and have difficulty calming-down. This skill is very important when students are changing classes 5 or 6 times each day in middle school. Middle school hallways and lunchrooms can be noisy, crowded, and stimulating. Middle school teachers like to begin class when the tardy bell rings – they don’t budget five minutes of “settle down” time.
The solution: teaching and reinforcement in the elementary and middle school classrooms. Ideally, instruction should begin when the tardy bell rings. Teachers – begin class with a question, an assignment, or a concept. In other words, don’t start the class with “Okay – settle down. Okay – settle down. We need to start. Okay?” Instead, just start teaching. By the second or third day, most of your students will understand. The first few minutes of class are the most important because they set the tone for the remaining class period. You may need to speak with some students privately if they can’t learn to “take it down a notch” when they enter your classroom. Here’s what I tell them: “Look around. See how the other students are acting? That’s what I expect from you. Do you think you can do that? Good!”
Success in middle school carries a unique set of expectations, and requires skills not necessarily taught and reinforced in elementary school. Fortunately, these skills are quite teachable. Think of it as a “mini-curriculum.” Wise elementary and middle school teachers spend a few hours helping their students in this endeavor. The time spent will pay dividends throughout the year.
If you enjoyed this article, and you're interested in helping upper-elementary students make a smooth transition to middle school, you'll want to pick-up a copy of This Is Middle School! (click here for link.) You can read a sample chapter online.
How many new teachers will you have at your school this year? Two? Five? More? One year I worked at a school where 17 of the 35 classroom teachers were new to the school – and many of those teachers were new to the teaching profession. That’s certainly an extreme situation, but most schools have at least a few new teachers each year. Some of those teachers have never had their own classrooms before; perhaps they’re recent college graduates. Other “new” teachers may have years of experience, but they are new to your school, your district, or your state. And of course, every school – whether across the country or down the block – does things a little bit differently.
If you’re a teacher, you’ll have the opportunity to welcome your new colleagues to your school, and perhaps to the teaching profession. In this TeacherScope blogpost, I’ll list my suggestions for welcoming new teachers to your school.
Helping with Supplies
Experienced teachers will probably arrive at your school with tools of the trade: a stapler, a three-hole punch, dry erase markers, etc. However, teachers new to the field may have none of these essentials. You can help the new teachers by providing them with office supplies to start the new year. Most teachers make a Wal-mart or Target run in August, when school supplies are ridiculously cheap. Pick up a few packs of pens, some markers, and a couple of reams of colored paper for your new-teacher neighbor. Your PTO or grade-level/department could even have a teacher shower (like a wedding shower or baby shower) to help the new teacher. What a great tradition to start at your school!
Maybe your school already provides a “welcome” box of supplies for new teachers. In that case, you can help with posters and room decorations. That extra filing cabinet in your room and the reading group carpet in your closet could also make great gifts. Whatever your contribution, realize that new teachers may be several weeks away from their first paycheck, and they’ve recently had new household expenses (utility deposits, apartment security deposits, etc.) What may seem like a small token to you could be a big boost for a new teacher.
And I hate to write this, but I know it happens: resist the urge to pilfer items from a retiring teacher’s classroom. On more than one occasion I have begun at a new school where teachers had removed items from my classroom – file cabinets, computer speakers, and desks. At one school a teacher had unscrewed the pencil sharpener from the wall! Principals, you can make sure that this looting mentality is replaced with a spirit of helpfulness and generosity.
Helping with First Day Preparations
As a veteran teacher, there are many ways you can help your new colleague get ready for the first day of school. These tasks can include helping with room set-up, making photocopies, and demonstrating classroom technology (projector, interactive whiteboard, etc.) Simple tasks like making take-home folders, hanging posters, or demonstrating the use of classroom iPads can make a contribution to the new teacher’s early success.
Be a Lesson Plan Buddy
As far as I know, there’s no law that says lesson plans have to be original or unique. Casually ask the new teacher on your grade level, or in your department what they’re teaching during the first week. They may confidently tell you about their first unit of study, complete with formative and summative evaluations and a culminating project. Or they make break-down in tears and confess that they have no idea what they’re going to do once the kids arrive. (Teacher internships never begin on the first day of school, do they? Student teachers typically begin with a fully-functional classroom.)
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your lesson plans for the first few weeks of school. You’ll be doing the new teacher – and her students – a huge favor. As the days turn into weeks, you can expect the new teacher to reduce dependence on your plans, and begin to create her own.
And I can speak from experience on this topic. Many years ago I was hired to teach a popular elective at a brand new high school. Because enrollment shifted daily, I was assigned to teach an additional class of 11th grade American Literature less than a week before school began. To make matters worse, an ordering snafu meant no teachers in the school had literature textbooks or class novels. I’ll always remember the kind, experienced teacher next door who was also teaching American Lit. She said, “Follow me.” And I did. I stayed one day behind her, and followed her lesson plans for the first three weeks. Then the textbooks came in, and I planned my own units of study.
Become a Mentor
Does your school have a formal mentoring program for new teachers? Teacher mentoring programs can be critical to the development of new teachers. New teachers can learn curriculum requirements, teaching strategies, and professional practices from their more experienced colleagues.
Here are a few suggestions I would make about a mentoring program. Number one – the more similar the teaching assignments of the mentor and new teacher, the better. Ideally, the mentor should teach on the same grade level and/or department as the new teacher (and definitely in the same school.) Secondly, make sure the mentoring is specific and relevant. Resist the urge to introduce generic skills and techniques that may not be relevant to the new teachers’ needs. Finally, I would suggest scheduled mentoring sessions of 30 minutes each month. Bring a snack and keep it casual, but provide the opportunity for the new teacher to learn from your experience. Don’t wait for the new teacher to cry out for help. By then, it may be too late.
Be a Lifeboat Buddy
Even if you’ve been teaching only a year or two and you don’t feel qualified to serve as a mentor, you still have a lot of useful information to share with the new teacher. You can be their “lifeboat buddy.” The next-door neighbor is in the best position to do this.
“When we have a fire drill, follow my class down the hall – we’ll take a left and go out the double doors.”
“It’s 8 o’clock – you turned-in your lunch count, right?”
“The principal expects us to walk our kids to music class in a straight line, and we stay to the right.”
“Hey, let me show you how to work the copy machine.”
“We’ve got bus duty this week – you knew that, right?”
To be a good lifeboat buddy, you have to think like a new teacher. That’s why teachers with only one or two years of experience make great lifeboat buddies. Those procedural tasks are second-nature to teachers who have been at the school for several years.
Invite Them to Lunch (and Pay)
Being the new teacher can be lonely. Make sure to invite the new teacher to lunch during pre-planning days. And if that new teacher is a recent college graduate, insist on paying. Take-up a collection if you need to. A ten dollar lunch at Applebees may not seem like much to you, but it’s pretty expensive for a recent college grad. In other words, treat your new colleague like you’d expect your students to treat the new kid in your classroom.
New Teachers – Accept and Pay it Forward
If you’re a new teacher, you might feel hesitant to “take” so much from your new colleagues. After all, you’re new to the profession. How could you possibly pay them back?
The answer: you can’t. Instead, pay it forward. Graciously accept all of your experienced colleagues’ assistance. Next year become a “lifeboat buddy” for a new teacher at your school, and become a mentor when you feel qualified. Pay it forward, and contribute to the profession.
Suggestions for Administrators
Before I end this blog posting, I’d like to offer some suggestions for administrators to help make your new teachers’ first weeks of school pleasant and productive.
Keep pre-planning commitments to a minimum. If you think about it, meetings that involve every teacher on your faculty are pretty general in nature, and new teachers need specific guidance. They also need time to build their classrooms, plan lessons, and familiarize themselves with the school’s technology. All of those tasks take time. Some districts have flexible pre-planning schedules that allow new teachers to work before the school year begins. Other districts host useful district-wide orientation sessions for new teachers, where important procedural tasks are covered.
Stick to procedural basics. When you’re making a list of procedural tasks to explain to your new teachers, ask yourself this question: Do they need to know this during the first month of school, or can it wait? You can always schedule another meeting later in the school year, when your new teachers will have questions to ask.
Make a set of cheat sheets for web-based services. Back in the old days, we used to “call-in” sick. Now, of course, there’s a web-site for that. School districts also use web-based services for reporting maintenance issues, requesting tech support, and updating teacher web-pages and wikis. Make a one-page “cheat sheet” for each of these web-sites, with step-by-step instructions and a place for the teacher to write their username and password. Duplicate the sheets on color-coded paper, and put them in a file folder for quick reference. So, if you’re sick, pull-out your green sheet and follow the instructions. If you’re computer breaks, pull out the yellow sheet. Also, e-mail a PDF version of all cheat sheets to the teachers, so that they can save them to their smart phones.
Avoid difficult classroom assignments and extreme duties for your new teachers. Assuming that an equitable duty system is in place, the new teacher should assume the classroom and the duties of the teacher they replace. Unfortunately, sometimes schools have a pecking order, and the new teacher gets the worst classroom and the worst duties, as everyone else “moves up.” In secondary schools with more teachers than classrooms, new teachers often “float” from room to room during the day. While this may be unavoidable, steps can be taken to minimize the distance. Several years ago – in my first year at a large school – my classrooms were so far apart that I actually had to drive my car around the block to make it to my next class in time! At my first year at another school I had bus duty every day of the school year. Realistically, that shouldn’t happen. If everyone does their part, the work gets done.
Finally, realize that helping your school’s new teachers is a reward in itself. Teaching isn’t a zero-sum equation. If a new teacher is confident and proficient, that certainly doesn’t make the veteran teachers any worse. In fact, this veteran teacher can tell you that the school day is much more enjoyable when all teachers – regardless of their levels of experience – are highly skilled in the profession.
Teachers are the life blood of the educational system. New teachers represent the infusion required to keep the system alive. Good schools encourage, support, and nurture their new teachers. Review my suggestions above, add your own, and create a welcoming, supportive environment for your new teachers.
...and if you stole my pencil sharpener 34 years ago from room 105, I forgive you. Just make sure to give it back when you're done.
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Authors note: this posting is dedicated to Mrs. Anita Ryall, my internship supervising teacher, mentor, and friend.
Just the other day I read another online article about a young, bright, sincere teacher who announced that he’s leaving the teaching profession after a couple of years. His comments were typical: it’s not like I thought it would be. I’m not making enough money. The kids are disrespectful. There’s too much paperwork. I’m not making enough money (oops, I said that already.)
My response to those articles is: Huh?
I can’t think of another job for which qualified candidates should be more knowledgeable and prepared. (A physician or nurse would be a close second.) Most – if not all – education students complete at least one classroom internship. Salary schedules and school reports are public documents, and easily accessed. There is simply no good reason for being completely surprised with a teaching job. Either you didn’t look, or you weren't paying attention.
Apologies if that was too rough. But it’s a lot like buying a used car, except the stakes are much higher. When you buy a used car, you do your research. You use the Internet to find a fair asking price. You pay $75 to have a qualified mechanic inspect the car. You buy a CarFax to make sure the car hasn’t been totaled or flooded. You work with your banker to see how much car you can afford.
A career choice deserves at least that much due diligence.
This blog post is targeted at students considering the teaching profession. I am certainly not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone about a teaching career. That’s an individual decision that you have to make for yourself. It is my hope that this information will find its audience.
The purpose of this article can be summarized in three words: Eyes Wide Open.
Teacher salary is often the main reason for new teacher attrition. Even if low pay is a secondary reason, it’s likely the tipping point. In other words, they’d put up with the other hassles if it paid more.
Salary First, realize that most school districts publish their teacher salary schedules online. That document is easily accessed and easily understood. If you’re interested in working for a school district and you can’t find their salary schedule online, call the human resources office and they’ll point you in the right direction. (Hint: sometimes it’s an appendix in the “Negotiated Agreement”- aka the teacher contract.)
Teachers are contracted on a yearly basis, so you can divide that amount by 12 to get your monthly salary. Unfortunately, that’s not your take-home pay. From that monthly salary you should deduct taxes, insurance, and union dues. Your district may also require a donation to your retirement account. What’s the total of all of these deductions? It varies, state to state. Your internship supervising teacher can be a great source of information. Don’t be afraid to ask. Of course the deductions described above aren’t unique to teaching. Everyone who works has payroll deductions.
Cost of Living The flip-side of the salary coin is the cost of living for the school district. In some counties a $50,000 annual salary will buy you a modest home and a comfortable lifestyle. In other areas, it’s barely a livable wage. Once again, the Internet is a wonderful place for finding home/apartment prices and utility rates. Research is the key to avoiding financial disillusionment.
Let’s Get Real A beginning teacher salary provides enough money for a modest lifestyle. If you’ve told yourself that you “need” a new car, a fancy home, and an extravagant yearly vacation, you probably won’t be happy with a beginning teacher’s salary.
Beginning teachers can become frustrated with the slow pace of their advancement on the salary schedule. Teacher salaries are based on your highest college degree and years of service. Yes, the experienced teacher next door may be making twice your salary. But that’s the system. (Make sure to ask that teacher about her first-year salary.) Also, there’s rarely a mechanism for earning bonuses. Coaches and band directors can earn supplements, but most will tell you that they’re underpaid for those extra hours.
However, realize that over the long haul, teaching offers a great deal of financial stability. Every year you’ll make a little bit more as you climb the salary ladder, and the entire salary schedule often adjusts to meet the cost of living. The insurance is typically affordable, and retirement is achievable at the 30 or 35 year mark, which is much earlier than many careers.
Another source of new teacher frustration is “the job” itself. Teachers complain about mountains of paperwork, extensive lesson plan requirements, and draconian evaluation systems. “I just want to focus on teaching!”
At some point, all teachers have had this fantasy: the room is silent, and 25 students stare attentively toward the front of the room. The teacher steps on a small platform and begins his discourse. Perhaps he recites a Shakespearean sonnet, dissects strategies of the Peloponnesian War, or explains the relevance of the Pythagorean Theorem to modern engineering. The students hang on every word, and frantically scribble notes in an effort to capture the very essence of the presentation. Forty-five minutes later, the teacher stops talking and bows his head. The room erupts in applause, several students weep, and the school resource office must forcibly clear the classroom as the bell rings….
…Wake up! WAKE UP!!!
Teaching’s not like that. Not even close. Of course, your internship made that clear, right? Unfortunately, many teachers enter the field with that expectation, and are disappointed when their classes don’t fit the fantasy profile.
Paperwork, lesson planning, and teacher evaluations are all important parts of a teaching career. Sure, sometimes it seems like there’s just too much. And yes, it would be nice to use that time to develop lessons. But understand that the current teaching job description includes these tasks and they do fill an important role: documentation. Education is almost completely standards-based. We’ve moved away from the teacher-centered classroom. You need to be able to document the lessons you present that teach each standard. Teacher evaluations can be tedious and nerve-wracking, but they show that you are an accomplished teacher, not just a college graduate. As data scientist W. Edwards Deming so famously stated, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” In today’s educational system, you need data to document your student’s achievements and your professional accomplishments.
The Respect Issue
Some new teachers cite the lack of respect as a reason for leaving the teaching profession. I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years, and I believe that the level of respect that teachers receive from students and parents is an individual characteristic, and not a societal perception. In other words, if students and parents don’t respect the teachers, it’s more about them, and less about you. Don’t take it personally.
I have worked at schools where the teachers were treated as respected members of the community. Parents would make a special effort to thank teachers for their hard work. At one school, Teacher Appreciation Day turned into Teacher Appreciation Week, with themed buffet lunches every day in the teachers’ lounge. A year later I worked in another district where the school and teachers were held in very low esteem.
We had great faculties at both schools, and my skills certainly hadn’t deteriorated over the summer. So what was the difference? -- the attitudes of the communities. The first community was a very respectful community. They recognized education as their child’s ticket to a successful future. They honored military members, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, too. The second community was disrespectful. They were disrespectful to all authority figures, their neighbors, and their family members. Unfortunately, some communities are just like that.
So my advice: XYZ. Examine Your Zip code. If you feel disrespected as a teacher, it’s probably because the values of the community don’t match your personal values, and you just don’t feel like putting up with it. Trust me – there are communities that would love to have sincere, hard-working teachers. And from my experience, this has little to do with the socioeconomics of the neighborhood.
Some educators would argue that it’s up to teachers to build that respect. Realize that schools are like battleships – they take a lot of effort to turn and they make big waves. Changing the culture of a disrespectful school will take time, a great deal of effort, and a captain (a principal) with a firm hand on the wheel. If a strong captain is in place, a sure course is set, and all of the crew members are receptive to orders, then sure, school culture can change. But if you’re already considering changing careers, you’re probably better off seeking a different teaching environment. Trust me – those respectful communities are out there. Ask around.
Advancement and Recognition
Finally, some new teachers become discouraged when they are excluded from recognition and quick advancement opportunities. Realize that as a teacher, you will be on the same organizational chart position as every other teacher in the school. Sure, some teachers are named grade-level leader or department chair, but that usually means a small stipend and a lot more work. In most cases, there is simply no promotion through the teacher ranks. Teachers don’t have supervisory duties over other teachers. If you want to be the boss, you need to go into administration – a task that holds little interest for most teachers.
Along the same line, don’t expect to earn a Teacher of the Year nomination during your first year, or even your fifth year. Many fine teachers teach 20 or more years before that recognition comes. If you need awards and accolades to be happy with a career, then teaching may not be the best fit for you.
Does that mean you’ll never get the recognition you deserve? Of course not. It just manifests in different ways – when a student says they can’t believe how much they learned this year; when a parent stops you in the grocery store and thanks you for being such a great teacher; when you receive an e-mail from a former student whose life you changed for the better. There’s no plaque for that; no elevation in pay grade or year-end bonus. But those are our rewards.
If you’ve read this blog post and you’ve decided to steer your career goals away from the teaching profession, that’s okay. Or maybe this dose of reality has helped you refocus your attention toward a career in teaching. Recall that it wasn’t my goal to convince you one way or the other.
Just remember – teaching is a career, not just a job. Every career has a downside. (If you don’t believe me, ask an attorney, a sales manager, a physician, an architect, etc.) Teachers invest in college preparation and develop the teaching craft over the course of many years. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Just realize the benefits and pitfalls of teaching so that you can run strong and win the race.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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