The Shoulders of Giants
A new teacher, fresh-faced and armed with the knowledge from her student-teaching experience, as well as her university professors, walks into her empty classroom and sets down the armful of bags labeled “Target,” “WalMart,” and “Parent-Teacher Store.” A feeling of pride washes over her. She imagines the minds she will mold here! The thoughts of changing lives brings tears to her eyes. Today is the day when she will set up her classroom! “Where do I begin?” she wonders. The orientation, provided by the district, gave lots of paperwork and information, but nothing on how to build a classroom, much less teach in it! The bags she brought in are full of decorations, books, and punch-out letters. She knows how to put together the perfect classroom. She knows how to write a lesson plan, but there’s nothing in her bags that will help her with the execution of those plans. Nothing about how to talk to a student and determine their level of understanding. She was so confused! Nothing she had learned in college prepared her for this! She needed a fairy godmother to appear about now, someone who could guide her on what happens next.
She needed a mentor.
If you’re a teacher, I know this sounds familiar! It’s how we all felt walking into our first classroom. The pride! The joy! Soon followed by: The fear! The anxiety! And the tears.
How do I arrange my classroom? Where do I get supplies? Where do I get my lessons from? Is there a book? What happens if they don’t like me? Can I send them to the office if they talk back? What time is lunch? When do I pee? How do I use the copier? What do I do with them on the FIRST DAY? How long until Winter Break? How do I get all of these Standards across in just nine weeks?
Where did I go for the answers? I had a wonderful principal, but these weren’t principal-worthy questions. The school secretary could help with some of my questions, but she was overwhelmed herself with all of the new registrations.
It was very intimidating to imagine myself in a classroom, alone, with 30 sets of eyes that are waiting for my guidance…expecting me to be the “all-knowing teacher” they imagine. I wasn’t even sure where the restrooms and cafeteria were located!
The greatest gift to a novice teacher is a strong mentor. Someone who will patiently answer questions and give advice and guidance freely and lovingly. For a new teacher to succeed, finding someone like this is priceless and necessary. In fact, I recommended to all of my student teachers to find someone in their building that they can turn to in a struggle. I let them know that I can always be reached for advice, but it’s nothing compared to having someone who is in the same trenches!
I was incredibly lucky that my first year was in a school where I was surrounded by incredible teachers who reached out without thinking twice! My first teaching assignment was actually 7th grade math! Anyone who knows me knows that math can be a struggle for me. My brain isn’t wired that way!
I was basically standing in my classroom in the days before school started and had no idea how to proceed beyond the first day introductions!
Then the most confident and intimidating woman I’ve ever met comes walking in! She introduced herself to me, and inside I was thinking I’d found my first ally! Karen Phair is truly the most confident woman I’ve ever known. I’m pretty sure that she could run the worst middle school without blinking an eye or raising her voice! She made herself known in my world immediately and answered all of my questions as calmly and as many times as I asked! She had an affinity for math and for 8th graders, both of which scare the heck out of me! She retired a couple of years ago, but still is influencing the lives of students and teachers with her part-time school role. I never would have made it through those first weeks without her and some other very special teachers.
I can think of multiple days when Bonnie Hyde would spend extra time talking with me and sharing ideas and advice, especially when it came to working with her “cherubs” (her word for the hard-to-love-but-needs-it-the-most kids). Bonnie was our ELL teacher, something I had no experience with, and she shared a love of Social Studies. As a first-year, second-year, and even a third-year teacher, she was someone I could turn to for advice, help, and support. Not because she was assigned that job, but when you have a passion and a love for serving students, you want others to share that as well. After Bonnie retired, she went on to work with a publisher, and she worked to mentor young teachers in the classroom. Even though I was long past a novice, I still loved to chat with her and hear her take on classroom teacher struggles. She passed away a couple of years ago, but I will never forget the kindness and patience she had for me and the compassion she showed in the classroom.
After the first two weeks of school, I moved from the 7th grade math class to a 5th grade SELF-CONTAINED classroom! Now it was me and 32 other children all day long! I had numerous experienced teachers on the 5th grade hall, but none impacted me as much as Ellen Davenport. I realized I already knew Ellen from many years before when I was a teenager and volunteered for Vacation Bible School at my church. Ellen’s daughter was in my class and she was the sweetest little girl! Anyway, Ellen loved teaching and loved our students. She was kind and reassuring and helped with every issue I had in my very crowded classroom! She loved Science and was always willing to get her hands dirty, rescue a “critter”, or steer me to a fun hands-on lesson. Ellen not only was a great mentor, she became a wonderful friend! She went on to teach in the gifted program and recently retired to spend more time playing tennis, cheering the Vols, and loving her husband and grandchildren. She showed me that there was more to life than teaching and I wish that I had remembered that lesson! She had a great balance of teaching and home and I always admired her for this.
Our mentors are important. Experience should be valued, not cast aside like yesterday’s news. I think teachers understand this better than most young people today. For example, I had a new teacher on the hallway who was dynamic! I loved her ideas and her energy! I know that I was learning as much from her as she was from me and I made sure to tell her that. I believe that even the most experienced teacher can learn new things about teaching. How can we promote lifelong learning without modeling how we learn and communicate?
The ladies I mentioned earlier weren’t just great mentors, they were great learners and listeners. They taught me if I wasn’t willing to open myself up to input and ask questions, how could I tell my students to do that? I know I did a lot of telling over the years, but I hope that when my colleagues and former students think of me, they’ll remember that I was as good of a LISTENER as I was a teacher. Don’t think that because you’re new to the profession that you shouldn’t have an opinion. There are many people in the profession, who lifted me up with their wisdom, their advice, their lessons, and sometimes just a kind smile. I learned so much from teachers younger than me and less-experienced than me! Just because I carry that “professional” license, doesn’t mean that I know everything about connecting with kids and adults!
Teachers should not be left in isolation once they’re hired and assigned a classroom. I have always questioned why this is considered appropriate for the profession as a whole. While I do believe in teacher education programs and degrees, I also believe that there is incredible value in spending time in the classroom with an experienced teacher. I always felt it was my duty to do that for college students coming up through the ranks. I had multiple student teachers at different levels visit my classroom over the years. I had novice teachers that observed my lessons and asked questions about my methods. Unfortunately though, once teachers are given a degree and a classroom, our system says that they should be in the classroom teaching, and we don’t give them time and mentors to work with on a consistent basis. Teachers need other teachers to help them through the highs and lows of an incredibly loving and demanding job. There are many days that I would have crumbled except for the support of other teachers.
Here’s the gist, if we don’t begin to acknowledge and value our experienced teachers, they will go away. We see it already in many of our priority and high-needs schools. The teachers that fill those roles are young, novice teachers with no mentors in the hallway to turn to when they struggle. I guess they can look up strategies on the internet, and I guess they heard about all of the shiny, new programs from their college professors just a few months ago and can’t wait to try that out on a kid that is reading two years below their grade level. Pretty soon those young teachers will get to frustration and leave the profession in less than five years. Our experienced teachers are leaving the profession in droves. My school experienced a 50% attrition rate last year, and the district as a whole STILL has over 150 vacancies in classrooms. That is quickly becoming the reality of schools everywhere. That is happening every day, in every school district across the nation, not just the one in which I happen to be employed.
This should be unacceptable in our communities and I hope that our leaders are reaching out and finding out WHY teachers are leaving the profession and using that knowledge to improve working conditions for those still in the classroom. It makes me sad for the young teacher who wants nothing more than to teach and guide students on a path to success. Who will this young teacher turn to when they are struggling? The answer isn’t found on Google! That teacher will likely find a job making the same money with less stress in the near future. Lyft and Uber are full of former teachers!
The young teacher I mentioned at the beginning is full of hope and excitement! She could be the teacher of a future president, an astronaut, or a scientist that cures cancer. She might mold the mind of an artist or a world-renowned musician. She could inspire great leaders of Fortune 500 companies! She can inspire kids to dream and excel beyond their own limitations…but it won’t come from WalMart, Teachers Pay Teachers, or an Amazon wishlist. It doesn’t even come from the degree that she worked so hard to obtain and probably has loans to repay. It only comes from the heart, and from the guidance and support of those around her. It will come from the knowledge she gains from watching, learning, and observing those mentors that she will hold in her heart and tell stories about for years to come. By standing on the shoulders of giants, she will move mountains!