Nan Austin

On Campus: New, future teachers receive advice from current ones

In all the tumult over Common Core, one group has gotten little press: the teachers who did not have to retrain and start over, the ones just starting out.

At the California State University, Stanislaus, Student to Teacher Conference, I got to hear advice for new and future teachers from 10 educators only slightly more seasoned.

The annual gathering filled the main campus dining room, where Donna Andrews with the Teacher Education Department exhorted participants to “find something that you really want to get up in the morning and do.”

For her, that something was teaching, that endlessly challenging, most rewarding work that not everyone is cut out to do.

We know this because nearly half of all beginning teachers will leave the profession within their first five years in the classroom, according to a report released this summer by Alliance for Excellent Education.

There are doubtlessly a range of reasons for the calamitous drop-off we could all predict, but here are some I did not expect from “What to Expect From Your First Year of Teaching,” a packed panel discussion at the conference.

While the panelists spoke warmly of their career choice, they had words of sometimes surprising advice for those entering the field.

• Common Core is not the problem, finding out which grade you’ll teach a week before school starts and having to get up to speed in a new grade level is, said Jenny Feriani. “Every weekend, that’s what I’m doing, learning the standards and thinking up activities,” she said.

• Not all kids will come into your class at grade level. “In reality, you need to teach a year or two behind,” said Alice Poulson, putting that down as her biggest challenge.

“While you’re doing your student teaching, try to see the worst and hardest classes. I guarantee those are the classes you’re going to get. You’re not going to get those bright and shiny ones,” warned Tiffany Guenthart.

• Managing a classroom is harder than it looks. It takes more skills than most new teachers come in with, and those who brought it up talked with pride about techniques they had mastered.

“Start out the school year being the hardest teacher you can be,” said Brian Wood, who admitted being “too nice” his first year. “Get involved with parents,” he added, to improve discipline in the class.

Another panelist described taking over a class halfway through the year from a teacher who had been absent half the year and apparently only half there when present. Creating order out of chaos in her class was a major challenge, she said.

Tips for what worked included incentives – points, honorary jobs, leading the lunch line – and disincentives, such as staying 10 seconds after the last bell rings. Using technology works for keeping kids on task.

Beyond those quick fixes, several spoke of developing relationships with kids.

“I teach at the junior high I went to,” said Armando Mendoza, who posts his graduation certificate from Hanshaw Middle School to show his kids college success can happen for them. “They think they’re alone, but there’s hope,” he said.

• The greatest help and support, most said, came from colleagues, sharing their lesson plans and friendship in what becomes kind of a second family.

What did not help was the state support program required for beginning teachers, which was universally viewed as one more assignment on top of everything else.

“It was extremely time consuming with a lot of fairly pointless paperwork,” Poulson said.

• You will not know what you will not know, several cautioned to widespread nodding.

Getting keys. Finding the restrooms. Finding where your kids line up in the morning. How to work the copy machine. Knowing you need a lunch count.

All the details of the day become minicrises as first-timers discover the things they never thought to ask.

One more thing: “Treat custodians like gold!” Guenthart said fervently as “Oh, yes!” and testimonials exploded all around her.