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New teachers: Fail, make friends – and eat some cake

Now that Labor Day has come and gone, the school year is underway nationally. Many teachers are new to the profession, hopeful wide-eyed people who love children and want to make a difference in their lives.

I’ve been in the classroom long enough – almost 40 years – to know that maintaining that enthusiasm and optimism is a challenge. More than half of those eager new teachers will call it quits in five years or less. Those who stay will at times wonder why they didn’t choose a profession that values and rewards its practitioners.

In the spirit of being helpful – or an insufferable know-it-all – I’m offering three pieces of advice I wish I had known when I started out all those years ago.

First, don’t be afraid to fail. We expect everyone learning a skill to fail multiple times before mastery. Yet in this country we throw new teachers into the deep end of the pool and scold them as they drown.

Imagine a world where first year teachers worked in tandem with experienced veterans, learning the art and science of teaching through direct observation and team work.

No matter how good our teacher induction programs are, no matter how carefully our administrators mentor our new teachers, for much of the school day we shut newbies up in a classroom with their students and expect miracles.

Like astronomical test scores. Or actual learning. Or mere order…things that don’t just magically happen.

So new teachers will fail. So will those of us starting our 40th year. Failure doesn’t mean we are incompetent or poorly trained. It means we are trying. We labor over beautiful, amazing lesson plans that our students don’t relate to at all. We learn what we didn’t teach when our students bomb our tests. When a class discussion careens out of control or the students flatly refuse to work, when the study groups waste their time or go bananas just as the principal walks in, we fail.

A popular inspirational poster says, “Success is getting up one more time than you fall.” Write that on your palm.

Related to that is the second bit of advice: Know where to get help.

I’m not talking about the school superintendent or the principal or department chair, but make friends with the technology fix-it whiz on your staff. Introduce yourself to the custodians. Make a point of speaking to the cafeteria manager. Ask the media specialist for a tour of the library. Become pen pals with your students’ coaches. Bus drivers, parents and grandparents, school receptionists, school nurses, guidance counselors, social workers – all these people deal with the same students you do, but their window on their behavior is different, their toolbox full of different stuff. If education is a door, not every student wants to walk in. Sometimes you can open a sticky door with your hammer, but sometimes you need to borrow a screwdriver. The point is to get the door open – so reach out to everyone who can help.

Finally, take care of yourself. Teaching uses so much of your energy, time, and money that you may forget you are mortal. You aren’t a superhero. Ordinary heroes suffice. Put down the red pen on the weekend and take a walk. Reward yourself with food that’s good for you, like chocolate cake. Forgive yourself for your failures. Avoid negative people who confuse their inner storms with the larger weather. Eat more cake. When the alarm goes off Monday morning, get back up one more time.

Kay McSpadden

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C.