Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 16 2012

Saving the First Years

I find it unfortunately difficult to help first year teachers. By this point in the year, they know they’re in way over their heads, and they’re usually pretty miserable. They have to battle rooms full of difficult adolescents, who have spent the last six months learning that their teacher is somewhat impotent and aren’t interested in un-learning that in any hurry. In September, I was so caught up in effective discipline and behaving children at my school that I couldn’t bring myself to have much sympathy for our new guys and their “troubles”. Yet in February, as the kids start really giving me a run for my money, I only have to look at one teacher’s dejected, exhausted eyes and my heart goes straight out to him. Whether in a charter school or public school, surrounded by tight discipline or ineffective teachers, in Arizona or elsewhere, a room full of defiant middle schoolers is a room full of defiant middle schoolers.


He’s faced with an exceedingly complicated adolescent group dynamic that can change at any moment and only depends partially on how he acts in any given class period. He’s already worn out from fighting with the kids and they’re already spoiled off of disrespecting him. He has to overhaul an entire classroom culture, get some serious positive momentum going, and build a community with his kids that has already deteriorated. It’s not an impossible task, but it takes serious effort and a serious ability to ask for help.


Luckily, I think this guy is capable of both. He comes to me for help, and I want so badly to make it better for him. I want to write down everything I’ve learned through torturous trial-and-error and pass it over to him so that he knows it now. Or I want there to just be one thing he’s doing wrong that I could point out and he could quickly fix. Or I want there to be one piece of theory I can pass on that will change his whole style.


But none of it works like that. So much of what I know about management is very situation-specific, from previously having the exact same interaction with a different student and remembering what not to do. Much of what I do also only works because I’ve worked hard to establish a strong rapport with my kids, who know I’m tough but also trust in how deeply I love them. And some of what I do is dumb luck, and some things don’t actually work at all. So how do I help him? What do I pass on? What can a first-year teacher implement and what would just be too overwhelming? What is useful and what is frivolous? What has immediate enough results to make him feel better? What is guaranteed to not backfire? I need that one silver-bullet, a simple yet effective tool to hand him, but I don’t know what it is.


So I try as hard as I can to be helpful. Today, we sat after school and I invented an entire plan to implement with his homeroom, but I left just feeling guilty. What if I don’t know anything, and my idea is a bad one? What if it makes the kids worse? What if it just doesn’t do anything and he doesn’t come to me for help anymore? I want desperately to give him everything I had to learn already, but I just don’t know how to do that. I’m so sorry.

2 Responses

  1. Ms. Math

    I know exactly what you mean. I see so much about teaching math that I just want to show people-I just tried to write a plan for a middle school whose students were really confused about division.

    And I just don’t know how to show them what I see without the same long process I went through to figure it out.

    I still try though. I feel particularly sympathetic to new teachers as well-some mentors seriously saved my first year by modeling, showing me how to talk to kids, listening to me cry, and in general letting me know that I wasn’t a failure and I would get better. I think mentoring can keep people teaching even if it can’t create significant gains in a classroom.
    Keep at it!

  2. els

    Oh man. I was just thinking about the possibility of new CMs coming to my town next year, and I was thinking about how I could help them. We first-years need classroom management help more than ever. See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden has a specific section on how to overhaul a classroom and have a teacher comeback, and it’s super practical. I’d check that out maybe?

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