Dear Novice Teacher: An Open Letter About What You Really Need To Know For a Successful Teaching Career

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

Dear Novice Teacher, New Teacher, Seasoned Teacher, or Teacher Considering Leaving the Profession;

We need you. Don't go. You are here for a reason.

We are in a profession where things go wrong, things seems too tough, we see things that break our hearts. We ache alongside those who are grievously wronged. We cry with those who should never see what they've seen. We love the unlovable. We teach the basics which kids used to be taught at home-how to dress for the weather; how to use silverware; how to share; how to show compassion; how to problem-solve with their peers; how to use words and not weapons; how to have a conversation.

I know you are feeling spent, worn, fatigued, and maybe even exasperated, especially after the past two years, but as we move forward through this new school year, know you are wanted, valued, respected by many, and needed.

Please read my tone when I say this: I had a rough week at school.

I'm sure that if we're being honest with each other, you'll appreciate that statement as one which is genuine, honest, and crap-free but a statement which comes from a person who truly loves her role as an educator. With all confidence I will bet you have had one or two rough weeks as a teacher or as a student. It's bound to happen.

Due to his work schedule, my husband and I don't often get a chance to have a Saturday morning debriefing of our work weeks. You know, at the kitchen table with coffee, crazy hair, pajamas, and dogs sprawled out nearby. Today was one of those rare gems of a day.

As I animatedly expressed my indignation of the ridiculousness, he listened patiently, my frustration, impatience, and annoyance at myself for letting it all get to me at such a deep level. He listened. He didn't try and solve the problem for me.

There was a nugget of noxiousness for each day of the week. Retrospectively, nothing happened which hasn't happened before. It just stung more this time. Why? I don't know.

What WAS out of the ordinary is the way I processed it. It was no Bueno for me and by Friday evening's Passed Out On the Couch By 7PM routine, I'd realized how I could, and would, shake it off.

My career has taught me a few things, primary of which is the ideal that I love what I do so very much. But I'm human and humans have bad days and bad weeks. That's just reality.

Being reflective, the early days in my special education classroom were spent wondering why the heck I didn't feel well prepared for the actualities of a teaching career. There is no way I am alone in feeling like this. I attended a top-notch teacher prep program. It was, and remains, well-respected for readying educators.

Having spoken with many colleagues on this topic during my multi-decade career, it seems important to share some insights about what we learned in our college teacher prep programs as compared to our very real world of teaching.

We want you to hold on firmly to the passion you felt the day you graduated college. We also want you to know some things which could shed light on why you might feel the way you do.

The headache: No one in my hall/wing/building will talk to me let alone help me.

The aspirin: I have been in this place recently. It stinks and it's their loss, truly. You're awesome. If you know someone else in the same district who can help you problem-solve any issues you may have (e.g. questions about assessing, procedural information, how-to/who-to/what-to, etc.), that person can be incredibly helpful. If not, go to your admin and ask the question via email. If they direct you back to people in your hall, email the question. I've called the district person in charge of assessing to ask questions because no one would share information. They were happy to help! Don't feed into the negativity generated by people who won't take the time to get to know you. While it's reasonable to say everyone is fighting their own personal battles, it's also more than reasonable to expect people to be civil and decent to you. I have been excluded from hallway potlucks, parties, and professional conversations when working in a particular building. It's painful but then you realize that you have friends outside of school. You have professional peers elsewhere. If you join social media teacher groups, resources and support will be plentiful in many cases. You are a degreed and credentialed educator and while it would be wonderful to have a cordial team setting, carry on with your dignity in tact. Be strong and be great in your role. You've got this! DO remember how it feels, though, so that when someone else new comes into the building, maybe you can be "their person" at work-just like the one you wish you'd had.

The Headache: Parents say mean things, blame me for things I didn't do, and expect me to do things well beyond the scope of reasonable expectations.

The Aspirin: This is where you I tell you with all certainty that colleges need to have a course specific to interactions and the psychology of parental engagement. I've been asked to fully prepare lunches for a student (so produce won't wilt. I'm not even kidding.), told I need to return homework question calls at anytime (the parent meant even at 2 AM). I've been called some very colorful names for a variety of reasons which parents have felt were justifiable. My mentor taught me a few strategies which have worked for me.

When a parent is literally yelling at you (but not cussing), you have a couple options. You can choose to let them continue until they're done and then let them know you hear what they're saying and you want to work through the matter. Handling it this way requires a thick skin, personal interaction skillsets which are definitely developed over time, and the two parties have a positive end in mind. The next option is to inform the parent that you want to continue the conversation and are willing to do so. However, you will have an administrator join you at a pre-scheduled time. In a few cases, other teachers have joined the conversation to provide support to me or have chosen to stay nearby in case any safety concerns arise. That said, more often than not, parents want to discuss things calmly and in my experience, rare is the confrontational scenario.

The Headache: Surely the grass is greener in another building/district/location.

The Aspirin: The short answer is, yeah, sometimes. Before jumping ship to another location, find a disinterested third party by whom you can run your concerns. Make a t-chart of the positives and negatives of staying or going. Be very honest with yourself-is there something YOU can do to make the situation better? If you need to make more money and an opportunity presents itself, do your research. Be certain that the extra money doesn't come at a price (couldn't resist). There are teachers who have taken huge pay cuts to go to districts which are closer to home, are "more friendly," offer a better work-life balance, provide more fringe benefits, etc.

The Headache: I need a Sherpa! This career has a lot of twists and turs.

The Aspirin: Social media can be one way to find guidance.'s page, Teacher Daily, offers numerous posts on most topics facing today's teacher. Mentors can be found throughout your school, district, community, and within national organizations for educators. Sometimes mentors are right around your dining room table-retired teachers who are also family members can offer the best support available to us because they truly know our hearts.

The Headache: Behavior management preparation in college is lacking. Coursework often is rooted in issues taught by those who have been apart from the K-12 classroom for a number of years. I don't feel prepared to support a lot of the issues represented in my classroom!

The Aspirin: A key to good classroom management? A well-planned day. Have more than enough content ready for teaching. Hands-on activities keep kids highly engaged at all grade levels. Connect with your team members for the low down on what training is available. Is there a school social worker in your building and are they available all day or part time? What level of mental health support is offered to students on campus? Are counselors available? Professional development, both online and in-person, is a great way to get your growth on. Arkansas Behavior Support Specialists offers three free online courses which will build a firm foundation of positive and constructive classroom management system development. Dr. Ruby K. Payne has been a personal touchstone for my own development. A former high school teacher and principal in one of the nation's most challenging districts, the insights she shares through her books, workshops, and on the website have changed the thinking of many people when it comes to understanding the implications of poverty, both financial and emotional. Dr. Harry Wong and Rosemary Wong have traveled the world promoting Effective Teaching. Having had the privilege of attending their workshops on several occasions, their ideas do work and their approaches do make a difference to kids. Their focus is developing clear, concise procedures, easy for students to understand, and building systems on which even the most weary child coming from the most difficult of circumstances can find peace-giving. Growth can be more readily cultivated when kids feel safe even if only while at school. Most importantly, be fun, be kind, be confident, be loving, be yourself.

And so, my fellow teacher, I understand the challenges you're facing. They can feel daunting and they are very real. You may be ticked off that your college dollars didn't buy the most thorough of preparation. Be assured, so many of us are here to support you and we want to help you gro. We want you to feel valued-because you are. You're an asset to our community-at-large. Research suggests that within five years, 30% of teachers will move on from teaching. Be a part of the 70% who stays with us, stepping in time while marching to your own drumbeat. On-the-job training can feel roughshod and awkward but you'll find your balance.

We are better together, stronger in unison, and we make the world a better place for so many. Reach out to others so your students can reach up to you.



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