Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Are You Ready for the First Day

This week will see the first day for the school year in many communities. Time to ask teachers this question:

Do you feel prepared?

Periodically we get a survey of teachers about this question, and typically a fairly large number of teachers say, "No, I don't-- or didn't-- feel prepared when I first stepped into a class room."

This is most typically offered as evidence that teacher preparation programs are stinky and need to be overhauled or replaced. I'm never going to declare that no teacher preparation programs are stinky (a few, in fact, are extraordinarily stinky), but I do think the survey results have an alternate meaning.

I had 39 first days of school in my career, and I never felt fully prepared for any of them.

There are plenty of reasons for that. For one, even if you've taught in the same school for your whole career, even if you know some of your incoming students by reputation or even previous contact, you never know what a class is going to be like until you are dealing with them, and even then it will take a few weeks, minimum, to lock things in. You can have big plans for your content, your pace, your scope and sequence, even things like how you're going to organize the room this year. But your students will be deciding which parts of the wish list you call a plan are actually going to happen. And you won't know until you know. This does not change, ever. You just develop a clearer picture of what range your classes are most likely (but not certain) to fall within.

Another reason to feel less than fully prepared is because you're not a dope. Seriously. If you walk toward your first day of school (whether it's your first or your twentieth) thinking, "I have nothing to worry about because I have a total lock on this and I'm prepared for everything," then you simply don't understand the situation. Nor do you understand yourself.

A good teacher can tell you the list of things she needs to work on. One of the surest signs that someone is a lousy teacher is anything along the lines of, "I've got this class down to a science now and I can just breeze through like a well-oiled machine. There's nothing I really need to work on-- I've got this down pat." Those are the words of a lousy teacher.

A good teacher is always working on getting better, because a good teacher always feels, acutely, where she is coming up short. It's what many teachers focus on, perhaps excessively. Teachers have a tendency to be humble, and that may be part of the professional ethic, but teachers are often focused on the very things they need to be humble about, and not their areas of mighty excellence.

My first choice for a teacher will always be one who answers, "I'm not sure. There's so much more I want to do before that first day, so many things I'm not positive about" over a teacher who answers, "Totally prepared. Haven't even thought about the first day because I'm so totally ready."

Teaching is a profession of limits. There's never enough. Never enough time, never enough resources, never enough of you as a teacher. You spend your whole career bumping up against those limits and figuring how to push them back or move around them. The preparation you get from your college just sort of plunks you down in the middle of that space, but it takes a lifetime to find the barriers, push the barriers, figure out how to stretch and simplify your practices so that you can get a little more accomplished.

So, no, you're not fully prepared. You're never fully prepared. That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works. Your training is not to get you to the destination-- your training is to help you understand how to make the journey, a journey that you will never actually complete. And that's as ready as you're ever going to get.

1 comment:

  1. I went through 34 1st days, but in 5 different schools and I agree with the theme of this entry. Even when I had the luxury of repeating the same course in the same school there was always something that I found to change or to introduce.

    There is one thing that you didn't mention which caused me and my colleagues unnecessary stress and angst:

    Meetings absolutely assassinating time about practice & instruction
    & psychology led by admins who read verbatim from their powerpoint...literally f'ing idiots who couldn't teach a 3rd grader how to extract a booger from their nose with his/her strong hand's index finger. This was MUCH worse during my 24 years in public ed than it was in my 10 years in private schools.