A Network Connecting School Leaders From Around The Globe
May 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 8
Supporting Beginning Teachers Pages 24-28
Looking back at his first disastrous year of teaching, a veteran shares what he's learned.
It takes a village to raise a competent teacher, but I didn't know that as a rookie.
Descending P.S. 85's stairs to pick up my students on September 8, 2003, my first day as a real 4th grade teacher in the Bronx, I thought I had things figured out. I was 22 and newly graduated from New York University, a prestigious institution where—just as in high school—I'd earned top grades. The New York City Teaching Fellows, a selective alternative certification program, had accepted my application and deemed me qualified to teach in a high-needs public school. Up to then, I'd done pretty well as a student, so I expected that teaching—just a stone's throw from studenthood, I thought—would offer me a similar equation:
effort + intelligence + people skills = success
I loved kids, had a career-teacher mom, and was willing to dedicate myself full-time to my students. How wrong could it go?
Once my kids and I arrived in the classroom, I talked at them about teamwork, rules, and respect. They looked at me while I delivered my speech, a response that I interpreted as tacit and complete agreement with everything I had said. A few students even spoke up to define respect and provide real-life examples. Their participation elated me, and I let them know it with fist bumps and celebratory hand gestures.
About 45 minutes into my teaching career, Fausto, a boy I'd been warned about in the faculty lounge, stood up from the reading rug during my reading of Taro Yashima's Crow Boy and wandered toward the door. The other students went silent, watching me confront the first brazen challenge to my authority.
It didn't go well. Fausto's shout of "This story wack yo!" drew raucous laughter, and I doused gasoline on the flames by replying, "The story is not wack. Are you ready to stop acting like a kindergartner?"
I never finished the sentence. The class had already degenerated into a whooping fracas ("Mr. Brown saidwack!"), and I gracelessly scrambled to silence everyone. My desperation was obvious, the calm from moments before irrevocably lost.
The remaining 99.9 percent of the school year felt defined by this initial blunder. I perpetually battled uphill to gain command of the class, an often fruitless effort. Instead of teaching fractions, I struggled to avert fisticuffs.
I scratched out minor victories as the year wore on, but my students hadn't learned nearly as much as I aspired to teach them. Our classroom didn't resemble school as I had experienced it as a youngster. If my own daughter had been in that turbulent environment, I'd have had a heart attack. At the end of the school year I resigned, joining the legions of teachers who bolt the profession in their first years. I was sure that my initial power struggle with Fausto had cost the class a stable school year.
I did return to teaching a year later, determined to get it right. Since then, and especially after the release ofThe Great Expectations School, my memoir about that rookie year, I've shared in dozens of conversations with educators and stakeholders about how to mitigate the steep learning curve of new teachers. Invariably the question comes up, Now that you know what you know, what would you have done differently on that first morning in the Bronx?
For a long time, I offered convoluted answers about classroom management systems or not letting the students see me sweat, but the truth is, I didn't really know. I was still looking at the Fausto debacle as a personal failure, through the lens of my equation for success that had served me as a student when the variables were all within my control. As a new teacher, I had approached my job with the same mind-set: I'm the authority figure in the classroom. I deserve the credit or the blame if my effort, intelligence, and people skills succeed or fail.
But as a new teacher, you don't know what you don't know. My grit and wit alone couldn't bring about a positive 4th grade year for my students. I had bought into the fallacy—propagated by the marketing for my alternative certification program—that basically anybody smart and willing can jump in and do this.
Now with a master's degree, years of experience, and National Board certification, I realize that a much more accurate equation for a teacher's success encompasses a sea of factors. The first three I list ...
Dan Brown teaches 11th and 12th grade English at the SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011); @danbrownteacher on Twitter.