In the Classroom Professional Learning
What I Didn’t Learn in My Teacher Preparation Program
January 17, 2018
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Rachel Turner

Now in my eighth year as a teacher, I often chuckle when I reflect on how far I have come in my teaching career.  Just a few short years ago, I was a clueless student teacher eager to change the life of every student I met. I did not know much, but I knew that I did not want to be like the Economics teacher (Ben Stein) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the teacher in Peanuts. I envisioned being a mix between John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poet’s Society and Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Dangerous Minds. Instead, I entered the classroom more like a cross between John Kimble (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Kindergarten Cop and Sherman Clump (Eddie Murphy) in The Nutty Professor.  Luckily, I have thick skin and stuck with the most rewarding career one can have.  However, I often think back and wonder why so many aspects of a teacher’s career go unmentioned in our preparation programs.
  • Teaching is not just grading papers and writing lesson plans. I am not just a teacher. I am a parental figure, spending almost as much time with my students as their families do and serving as a role model for them. I am a mentor, helping students balance relationship problems and troubles outside of school with their academic careers. I am a career counselor, helping students navigate through FAFSA, college application processes, and more. I am an innovator, constantly trying new things to keep my students engaged. I am a friend to my coworkers and students, providing each of them with a shoulder to lean on and pushing them to excel. I am a disciplinarian, figuring out creative ways to punish the student who is constantly talking without minimizing their academic exposure. I am a learner, eager to study the most trending strategies to use in my own classroom. I am a psychic, always thinking ahead to create the best lessons for my students. I am an entertainer, willing to do whatever it takes to engage my students in my lessons. Yes, I am all of that or, for short, I am a superhero.
  • Lesson plans are plans that usually do not go as planned. I believe I wrote somewhere around 492 lesson plans while preparing to become a teacher. Since then, I have probably written 876 more. None of them went as planned. I wish someone had told me that lesson plans are just that – plans. Plans can (and do) change. Flexibility is key in the teaching profession. Teachers must be able to gauge their students’ interest and understanding of a lesson and be willing to adapt to their needs on a dime. Teachers must also swallow their pride, accept when that “great” strategy is not working, and be willing to try something new.
  • Stop feeling sorry for students. Your world is about to be shaken when you enter the teaching profession. Sad stories abound – many of your students will be living in poverty. A shocking number of them may live with their grandparents because their biological parents are fighting (or losing) a drug addiction. Others may have no biological family members in their lives at all and live in foster care. And, unfortunately, there are many other horror stories that you will encounter in your teaching journey. While all of our hearts go out to these children, many rookie teachers make the mistake of excusing these students from meeting the same standard as wealthier, “better off” students. There are two problems with this, though. First, these students need rigor more than their more privileged counterparts, who already come from successful homes and are lucky to have parents at home who can push them to excel academically. We must give our at-risk students the best education possible to help them rise above all of the unfortunate things going on their lives now. Secondly, these students are already accustomed to rigor. They have dealt with problems that most adults never have. Life has been hard for them and yet, they persevere. Let them do the same thing in your classroom.
  • There is a lot of pressure on teachers. We are working with society’s most valuable resource – children. The world literally hinges on how well we do our job. Moreover, the job is not about crunching numbers or planning a meeting, it is about changing lives and providing hope to our students. Our work impacts the local, state, and national economy and society. It is the most important job in the world. That is why there is so much pressure on educational professionals. State and local mandates can be quite overwhelming and, some might argue, unattainable. Social media commentators will put down the profession and complain that you get paid too much. In the end, remember why you went into the profession. It was not to please the state, your school district, or some rogue grumps on social media; it was to help students reach their full potential.
  • Chill Out. While not officially diagnosed as being OCD, I am pretty sure I used to be. That is, until I taught for a year or two. My first year, I reserved the last five minutes of every class period so that my students could clean the room and make it as completely spotless as it was when they walked in. I threatened to take points off of students’ grades if they used an ink pen. I made students put their cell phones in a shoe holder so they would not use them in class. I made students exchange something of value to them for a pencil – a 10 cent pencil!! In the end, all of this was done in vain. I wasted more time arguing with kids about whether they had a cell phone or not, or logging whose “valuables” (usually Pokemon cards) I had when I could have been teaching more effectively. In the end, I have come to embrace the clutter and chaos that comes with the job! I learned that it is easier to adapt to my students’ needs than to expect them to adapt to my needs. Today, I cheerfully give out free pencils to any student who needs one and use strategies that either incorporate or discourage cell phone usage in my classroom.  
  • The job does not end at 3:00, and it does not end in May, either. Now, this is not why I became a teacher, but I still believed this myth somehow. However, in order to stay on top of my game and provide my students with a top-notch education, I am constantly attending extracurricular professional development opportunities to enhance my teaching style. You can find me at a variety of seminars or institutes on any given evening, weekend, or in the summer. Not to mention, many teachers spend their evenings coaching sports teams or sponsoring extracurricular activities. There are also parent phone calls and conferences in the evenings, school events to attend, and – of course – perfecting those lesson plans on the weekends and over our breaks.
  • You may not reach all of them. I remember rolling my eyes when veteran teachers used to say to me, “You can’t reach every student.” “Blasphemy!” I thought. I learned the hard way that, no matter how hard you try, you will not connect with every student. Most students will love you, others will like you, but there will always be one or two students who will hate your guts (or at least act like it). Do not let it get to you. The good news is that they usually do not hate you. Later on down the road, you will run into them at Walmart or on social media and they will surprise you by gushing over what a great teacher you were. I keep thinking back to a difficult student of mine, Tommy. Tommy had a grade of a 10 or below in each of his classes. Every day, I spent extra time working with Tommy and trying to encourage him to change his course. I was elated when, during the second quarter, Tommy received a B in my class! The very next quarter, and the one after that, Tommy’s grades dropped right back down to the single digits in my class. I was so frustrated and asked Tommy why his grades slipped again. I will never forget how he grinned when he replied, “I just wanted to show you that I can do it.” Overall, my impact on Tommy was a failure but I counted that one quarter as a success. You win some, you lose some. Just try as hard as you can and you will reach thousands of students throughout your career, even if you fail to reach a handful.
  • Love yourself, your family, and your friends first. Definitely love your students, but love yourself first. Many novice teachers spend so much of their time and energy trying to be the perfect teacher, when there is no such thing as the perfect teacher. This can lead to burnout and disenchantment. Set limits for taking or making parental phone calls. Find ways to lessen your workload. Have students peer review each other’s essay a few times before submitting them to you so that you will have less to grade. Have students work on assignments in groups and just take up one worksheet per group. Spend time with your family and loved ones. While there is no such thing as a perfect teacher, you cannot even be a good teacher if you are not in a good mental state yourself.

Rachel is the Social Studies Lead Teacher for Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a current Hope Street Group Fellow and serves on the steering committee for UnifiEd’s Action Plan for Excellence (APEX) Project. She is a former SCORE fellow, America Achieves Fellow, Teaching American History Fellow, PEF/HCDE Leadership Fellow, and Fund for Teachers Fellow, and was awarded the “Outstanding Educator Award” by Humanities Tennessee in 2017. She received her B.A. in History from East Tennessee State University and her M.A. in Education from Lee University. As a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow,  she engages her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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