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Educators, like people in every profession, engage in on-going professional development. Teachers refine their skills, stay up-to-date on the latest educational trends, and learn new research-proven techniques for helping students.
Growing as an educator involves more than sitting through classes. Professional development is a mindset and an approach that you bring to your craft every day.
In the third essay of this series of Real Talk for New Teachers, I’d like to suggest 10 useful actions you can practice that will help you develop as a professional educator.
School is a community that involves activities outside of the classroom. Teachers sponsor clubs, serve on committees, coach teams, and participate in district-wide projects. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have not been teaching long enough to juggle fundamentals and multiple extracurriculars. Involvement will enable you to meet people and build relationships. But if you overextend yourself during your first year, you will probably struggle. Find something you can participate in, but don’t overdo it.
You will work with colleagues who have taught for several years, and they will want to help you. Seek out their advice on everything from lesson planning to classroom management to preparing for meetings. Having a second set of eyes on emails you are sending to parents about difficult situations can defuse potential misunderstandings. Occasionally, my teammates and I would grade the same student writing samples to ensure that we were similar in how we assessed our students. You also can ask for help if you are struggling. Who is your immediate supervisor? Do you have a mentor or instructional coach? Benefit from the expertise of your co-workers.
You do not have to do everything exactly as your colleagues do. You have your own style, personality, and instructional priorities. Your students have unique needs and distinct gifts. Not every bit of advice will suit your situation. Additionally, be selective in seeking advice. Some colleagues offer superior guidance. In time, you will learn whose counsel resonates better with you. Your classroom does not have to look, sound, or feel like anyone else’s.
Many teachers suffer from perfectionism. When they make mistakes, they freeze up or break down. You are a new teacher; you are going to make mistakes with students, lessons, parents, and colleagues. Learn from those situations. For you to develop as a teacher, you cannot get everything right. No one does. When you make a mistake, own it. Don’t blow it out of proportion. What would you tell your students if they made a similar error? As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Your administrators want to know how you’re progressing. They care about you and your students. Share your successes with them, and let them know if you need their assistance. Give them a heads-up if an issue arises that might require their attention so they are not caught off-guard. But do not concern them with every small event. They have a school full of teachers and students to take care of, so be respectful of their time. You were hired to do a specific job; don’t bring them in to do it for you.
Your building and district have policies that you need to know. Policies range from student discipline to filing employment grievances. If you have a handbook, read it. Find the spots on the school and district websites that have the policies. If you wonder about how to handle a situation, the policies are your friend. If you’re not sure what a policy is, ask someone. They will be glad to tell you or to show you where you can find it.
You are now a member of a professional staff and team. Contribute accordingly. You have concepts, skills, and expertise to offer. Does your team need you to order materials for everyone? Do you have an idea for an upcoming event? Can you suggest a way to differentiate instruction? Don’t let your colleagues do everything for you. In order to develop as a professional, you can help others grow.
Your school and district have bought resources for you to use. Spending countless hours on Pintrest or Teacher-Pay-Teachers does not constitute best instructional practice. If you have a classroom budget, use it. There is no reason for you to spend your own paycheck if you have school funds available. If your school has a PTA, inquire if they have resources available. It does not make you more of a professional to use all of your own time and money if you have other resources available.
My first principal gave me the best teacher wisdom I have ever received. “Every day is a surprise party, and you’re the guest of honor.” You never know what will happen today. A student might throw up. Maybe your assistant principal surprises you with a walkthrough. That struggling student could have a major breakthrough. When something unexpected happens, remember that your students are looking to you for reassurance and guidance. They will follow your lead.
You probably wrote countless reflections in your teacher training program, and that’s a good practice to continue. You won’t have time to do that for every lesson, but you may want to keep a journal so you can record your thoughts. What are you doing well? How can you improve? What do you need to change? If you have a mentor or an instructional coach ask them to observe you and offer feedback. When you have a formal observation, take the critique as professional advice, not personal criticism. At minimum spend some time with colleagues on your team, in your department, or with your best teacher friend to discuss how your teaching is unfolding.
As a new teacher, you are taking your first steps on the long journey of professional development. Trust that you are ready to begin, and know that you have a long way to go.
No one knows everything, and no one teaches perfectly. The best teachers model education by continuing to learn throughout their careers. As your vocation unfolds, you will refine your practice and become a more effective educator. The best teachers are always developing professionally.
Part 4: Self-Care for Teachers