What I Learned When I Started Teaching

And why I wrote books for beginning educators

This excerpt was pulled from the introduction of the final draft of Becoming a Win-Win Teachera book I wrote to help prepare beginning teachers enter—and STAY—in the field. The piece has been revised somewhat to refer to resources available on this website.

In retrospect, I was one of the lucky ones. I did my student teaching and first-year internship at two tough inner-city schools, the professional equivalent of learning to swim by jumping off a ship a mile from shore. As solid as my teacher training classes had been, I discovered a number of gaping holes in my preparation once I was actually facing my students for the first time. At the very least, I was surprised to discover that the majority of my students were not easily-engaged, self-managing, traditional learners who wanted to be there and who wanted to learn—the very students I had been trained to teach. So much of what I had learned prior to my work with real live students wasn’t as helpful as I would have liked. 

There were so many things about the profession that were never mentioned or discussed in my training. I knew a lot about teaching, but I didn’t know anywhere near what I needed to know about the culture of the profession I was entering. Having a good grasp of curriculum, scope and sequence, or the effective use of instructional activities and materials was small comfort when up against the emotional defenses and apparent indifference of students whose previous school experiences were laced, to varying degrees, with discouragement and failure. 

Likewise, my instructional skills didn’t help prepare me for the challenges of becoming a part of the adult community at school. And I don’t remember anything that would have helped me to develop the flexibility, resiliency, people skills, or sense of humor I’d need—or even to appreciate how important these qualities would be. As comprehensive as my training may have been, if there was any instruction that would have helped me deal with the politics of the workplace, recognize the hidden agendas of colleagues and administrators, anticipate the range of cognitive and social realities I would encounter in my students and their families, or even learn how to function as an adult and professional in a school, I was apparently absent that day.

My own failures and frustrations as a beginning teacher were reflected (and validated) years later when I started working with first-year interns, many of them struggling with similar gaps in their personal and professional development. In response, I put together a survival manual for these individuals, and like the resources and materials I encountered in my own training a few years before, it addressed the immediate management issues they were facing.

Among the original forty-four chapters were strategies for dealing with lesson plans, bulletin boards, and field trips—important information, to be sure, and back then, there was nowhere near the number of resources on these topics that are now available in books or online. But when the opportunity to revise that book arose, I found myself led in a somewhat different direction. This was more than a simple case of “been there, done that.” Whatever guidance I received, whether an intuitive hit or a reaction to what I was hearing from beginning teachers around the country, it seemed far more appropriate for me to take on the challenge of addressing some of the issues and realities for which many new teachers are still unprepared. 

In itself, this has proved to be no easy task. There continues to be a fair amount of black and white thinking around teacher preparation. But somewhere between the giddy exuberance of so many beginning teacher resources and the disquieting accounts from survivors of extremely negative (even dangerous) teaching situations, I believe there is a place for something that reflects the actual experience of working in a school, which for most of us, is much closer to the center, somewhere between these two extremes. I certainly want to share the “good stuff,” because teaching can be incredibly satisfying and there are many positives in teaching that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. But I also believe that a balanced teacher-preparation resource needs to include a visit to the dark side, a glimpse of the negative aspects that can tank an otherwise promising career. 

I have no intention of scaring anyone off or painting an unduly bleak picture of the teaching profession. (I certainly would not have devoted my entire adult life to this field were it not returning a great deal on my investments of time and energy, or if I didn’t believe in its potential.) But the stories of teachers who simply walked off the job—sometimes in the middle of the day—begs the question of what might have helped them prepare for whatever in their experience overwhelmed them. 

I want [the resources on this site] to help you have a successful and satisfying experience, and a part of [these materials] is about the ways you can create the support and protection you may need to do so. So let’s take a look at education from a big-picture perspective, including some of the stuff you may not have heard about in your training—good and not-so-good. Because teaching is hard enough without walking into a situation unaware of the things that can make it even harder.

Related resources:

Why I Teach 
Wish List for Beginning Teachers: What they really want most
Why Teachers Quit: 6-part excerpt starts here
Making a Mistake in Front of Your Class

Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers

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