This special guest post was written by Rabbi Joe Hirsch, a Judaic Studies teacher at Akiba Academy in Dallas. Rabbi Hirsch has articulated 6 go-to principles in his blog that can guide the new teacher and can help pave the road to success. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the YU School Partnership.
Teaching is both an art and a science, but for the inexperienced educator, it can sometimes feel like mad science. Or bad art. It doesn’t take long for newcomers to feel singed by the unforgiving nature of the job – the daily grind of preparing and presenting lesson content, measuring and marking performance, recording and relaying progress. That’s before teachers must contend with learning-diverse students, expectant administrators, impatient parents, and mountainous paperwork. As knowledge workers, teachers must keep pace with policy changes, study up on best practices, stay ahead of field literature and experiment with emerging technologies. One day’s triumph doesn’t guarantee the next day’s success. The depressing figures on teacher attrition, especially within the first five years of practice, are well known. Could this be why Nancie Atwell, the first recipient of the Global Teacher Prize, counseled “creative, smart, young people” to stay out of education?
In my work with emerging educators – those with less than three years of on-the-job experience – I encourage them to stick to six bedrock qualities, the six C’s of educational craftsmanship. While the list is by no means a holy grail of wisdom or buffer against burn-out, it contains battle-tested principles that help teachers stay afloat in swirling waters.
Clarity: When classroom expectations are clear, students thrive. Murky expectations – questions over what passes for acceptable work or behavior – can make students feel confused, stressed or reluctant to engage. If students perceive that teachers aren’t willing to set the table, they won’t sit down to dine. Despite their protestations, students crave clear-eyed rules and guidelines that provide a bottom line. For some children, school may be the only time and place in their day where someone provides guidance and structure. Teachers also need to maintain clarity when planning and presenting lesson content. What will be the outcomes of this unit or lesson? What are the limitations of time (deadlines), space (in class or at home), materials (mobile device or worksheet) and process (independent or collaborative)? How will students know if they are successful? When teachers have clarity, their students will have it, too.
Consistency: It’s not enough to show students a roadmap. Effective teachers lead their students down a familiar path, time after time. Rules and policies are uniformly enforced. Procedures and expectations hum along with a predictable rhythm. When it comes to enforcement, teachers hold students accountable without exception. Students take comfort in knowing that the classroom is a place of equity and that the rules won’t suddenly change on a whim. Being consistent also means that teachers provide a steady framework for learning, with recurring activities and patterned forms of study. That’s not to say that learning has to feel listless or boring; there’s plenty of room in the margins for excitement, innovation and spontaneity. But it’s no secret that when teachers act with consistency, they remove the guesswork from learning. Being able to anticipate classroom currents – where the action has been and where it’s headed – gives students the confidence to swim.
Commitment: With teaching, it isn’t enough to know the tricks of the trade. Good teaching requires detailed knowledge of content and pedagogy, the twin engines of high-impact instruction. Unlike other fields, where pre-service training can buoy employees for years on the job, teaching demands ongoing professional learning to keep educators afloat. And while pre-service graduate programs provide a good head start, they can’t match the value of later-stage professional development that strengthens every teacher’s instructional core. That said, teachers need to be committed to the continuous cycles of learning that empower change. Like a health regimen, professional learning works when it is a natural and daily part of a teacher’s day. Read the blogs over lunch. Make time to observe a colleague in action. Join your faculty book club, or start your own. Even small commitments can make meaningful differences in a teacher’s practice, but they must be non-negotiable. Teachers have to feel as if they are in committed relationship with their professional growth and nurture it with lots of attention, time and devotion.
Communication: If educators have successfully mastered the first three C’s, chances are they are captains of a smooth-sailing ship. The classroom is optimized for learning. Students have wide lanes for participation. Lesson plans are interesting, aligned with the real world, leverage technology, and make room for different learning styles. Now tell people about it! Make parents aware of the neat ways your students learn through a weekly communication – a newsletter, podcast, vlog – anything that shouts success and brings them into the conversation. Communicate your wins and future plans with supervisors to make them aware of your progress; they might reward you with opportunities to further your studies or assume leadership within the rank and file. Staying ahead of the communication curve is important when things go well, but it’s even more important when thingsdon’t. Did a student get into a nasty fight at recess? Preempt the inevitable drama at home with a phone call to the parents. Notice that a student didn’t understand a concept? Fire off an email with explanations or tips to support the homework. Worried that a student might misrepresent the way in which you disciplined him in class? Loop in your supervisor, who will probably hear about it from an angry parent – except now, your side of story appears alongside theirs. Never underestimate the power of a well-placed communication.
Conviction: William Butler Yeats wrote that the goal of education isn’t to fill a bucket, but to light a fire. Like it or not, teachers must accept the fact that they are more than just information machines. They are moral incubators who reveal their deepest-held convictions with every classroom encounter. Students notice when teachers show compassion or scorn; espouse cynicism or hope; radiate optimism or negativity. From the first roll until the last bell, students want to know: Does this teacher believe in second chances? Integrated technology? Is it more important for students to be “busy” or think deeply? Will character matter just as much as content? Great teachers teach students, not subjects, and they actively nurture life-enhancing qualities like grit, teamwork and generosity. These virtues and others like them comprise the “total education” of a child and should be prized by all teachers. They certainly won’t show up a standardized test but are just as indicative of a teacher’s professional readiness as his or her mastery of material.
Collaboration: Too often, teacher “go it alone” and don’t reach out beyond the confines of their own classrooms. This is a mistake. Whether teachers are cruising comfortably along or sputtering out of the gate, there’s a whole lot of opportunity outside the silos we erect inside our schools. Chances are another colleague – maybe even the one in the classroom two doors down – can offer an insight or a solution that can inspire new thinking or solve a problem of practice. Open up your door and talk. And these relationships can be more than just collegial interactions. They can morph into collaborative dynamics that help teachers plan, think, learn and grow together. There are multiple ways that schools can create collaborative environments that support job-embedded growth. But before teachers search for the “right” mechanism, they need to have the right mindset. If collaboration is a virtue we champion for our students, it ought to be something we practice ourselves. With so much on the line, so much to accomplish and so little time to achieve it, it’s either learn together or fail alone.