PASSING TIME, PART 2: Advice for Young Teachers

  1. Stay out of teachers’ lounges. They have a tendency to attract bitterly bickering bitter-shitters (I stole that from Ed Sanders of The Fugs) and student-bashers.
  2. The best classroom control technique is a combination of deep knowledge of your subject matter, genuine passion for your subject matter, and the ability to communicate how your subject matter changed you for the better to your students.
  3. Patience is a virtue.
  4. Respect your elders. If they are still in the biz and haven’t evacuated to an admin job or some educators’ rehab job, you have something to learn from them.
  5. Figure out quickly how to balance your life and teaching, which can become your life. If the latter’s what you want, fine—it can work. I would argue that continuing to have experiences without having to punch in your building security code will make you a better teacher, not least because they rejuvenate you and keep you honest. Teaching is a job that can always expand to as many hours in a day that you want to devote to it. It is a job that is never completed.
  6. Eagerly pay your dues. They will help insure your survival, and enhance your love and understanding of the profession. Volunteer for a couple committees and ask if a club’s available for you to sponsor. If one isn’t, create one around your own interests.
  7. Set a goal to be human in the presence of your classes once a day. Once a week might be fine at first, but “don’t smile until November” is a crock. You can be kind and challenging, warm and tough, encouraging and demanding. It takes dedication—then it begins to feel natural. All my best teachers and peers had that complex core, and I always tried to.
  8. Never forget why your own worst teachers were bad—and avoid their habits. It goes without saying that you should emulate your best teachers, but that’s more complicated—their power often derives from an external je ne sais quoi, and you have to figure out how to give your own wellspring air.
  9. I can honestly say I never suffered by admitting I was wrong or deeply misguided in front of a class. First of all, they will sense you are lying; second, they will relate to you. I can think of three situations, in fact, when my relationship with a student radically improved when I confessed I had wronged him or her. Heather Porter, it’s been many years since our extra-credit argument, but you won, and I am glad, because it made all the difference.
  10. Don’t think you can win a disciplinary showdown in front of a classroom. You can’t. If there is a way at all, sic the class on an academic problem and have a calm discussion with the unruly one in the hall. Goals: keep them in the class learning, and handle your own business. If you need a motivation, it’s that achieving those goals will gain you freedom to be trusted, which does not come cheap or frequently these days.
  11. Reflect daily. (I hope you will see the value in that by the time you’ve finished this book; reflection is really the secret.)
  12. Screw professional reading. Yeah, I said it! It’s bad for the brain and rots the soul. Read exciting books on your subject matter or your personal interests. I’ll go out on a limb and say reflecting on your practices on a daily basis is the most important tool in improving yourself as a teacher. Besides, 99% of those writers can’t write to begin with and aren’t even in the classroom anymore, so why waste precious seconds of life? (Exceptions: Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn, but I am not sure the former writes “professional literature.”)
  13. If you don’t like your situation, get out and/or move on—there’s always a school looking for a good teacher. Don’t punish yourself, buffet your soul with pain, and become a martyr. As a great colleague of mine, Becky Sarrazin, once said to such a martyr’s face, “Climb down off the cross. We need the wood.”
  14. Abjure competition. No matter how great other teachers in your building are—and there will be some great ones—you will be able to do things they can’t. The difficulty is in figuring that out. Another thing: rather than sit stewing about how awesome they are and how much you suck, STEAL FROM THEM! It’s completely legal. All great artists are accomplished thieves, so you might as well hone that skill.
  15. It’s well worth the time and effort to learn about your students’ lives and interests. That seems like common sense, but the Herculean amount of other things you will have to do may distract you. When you know about their lives, you will understand the demeanor with which they enter your room (whatever their attitudes, they are seldom “about you”); when you know about their interests, you can more skillfully and honestly make connections.
  16. Look for the best in kids. And you may have to squint. Just remember the great things within you that your teachers couldn’t see and that you just couldn’t articulate.
  17. If you’ve made it this far without having developed a sense of humor about yourself, for Pete’s sake get started now. That lacking will lead to you being eaten alive, if anything will.
  18. Find a way to communicate weekly (at least) with your students’ parents. It’s simple now that we have email. Over the last decade of my career, I made a practice of sending out the coming week’s curricular overview, with some comments on the previous week’s activities. Though I mostly enjoyed talking to my students’ parents, that habit cut my parent calls and emails down to a trickle. Believe me, I found constructive uses for the saved time.
  19. Your administrators get their marching orders, too. It’s tempting to fall into an “us vs. them” mindset, but your building principals don’t have as much control as you think. You want to be a rabble rouser? You’re going to have to aim higher, and get your ass to board and teacher’s union meetings. I’m not discouraging that—it’s valuable as can be. Just make sure your aim is true.
  20. Be prepared to drink (or smoke—you may pick your own poison, child) heavily.


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