On the Same Team: Supporting, not Hazing, New Teachers

For the first time in several years, I’m starting to feel less like a new teacher. I don’t mean it’s getting boring—I don’t think that would be possible as a teacher since every day presents its own new unique challenges and amusements. (Part of the appeal of being a teacher for me was that I would never have the same day twice.) I mean that I feel like I’m finally figuring out how to carry the load, what to let go of, and how to not let the job consume me.

It feels strange. And it’s got me thinking about my first few years as a teacher, especially as this year I find myself watching so many new teachers learn to navigate our building and the landmines that are held within.

There are some truths to the stereotypical “new” teacher. When someone told me in college that my first year in my own classroom I would be in survival mode, I wanted to argue. Looking back, I can see the truth in that. Simply figuring out how to make copies, plan lessons for several preps, juggle grading, learn an electronic grade book, differentiate for classes of IEP and regular ed students, navigate collegial relationships… My first couple of years as a teacher in our school held all those stereotypes true. I didn’t find myself crying myself to sleep every night, so I felt successful. I’m thankful I had a strong support system at home in an understanding husband and forgiving kids.

This year as I watch the new teachers traverse the tricky landscape that is our high school building, I’ve heard some things I’ve never been privy to before: comments about the new guys earning their place.

Wait, what? Why do vetted, or tenured, teachers feel the need to haze, indoctrinate, and initiate new teachers? Why do new teachers (at least in our building) have to prove that they deserve to be there, working alongside the rest of us?

I like to think that our high school is a leader in our region; while I may not agree with many of the decisions of leadership and directions our school has taken over the last few years, I also understand that we’re lucky. We have great kids, supportive parents, and a budget that gives us more professional freedom than that of colleagues from around the nation. Because of these things, I can assume that the majority of teachers who are hired are the cream of the crop, that they have something special to offer.

These facts would allow me to draw the conclusion that the teachers we hire are qualified to take on anything our building can throw at them professionally… so, why? What purpose does it serve to indoctrinate and haze new teachers?

Now that I’m more comfortable in my role as teacher, I have a bit of time to look back and reflect on my own indoctrination and question the role it had on the teacher I am today. To be fair, I’m not sure my experience was typical. For a number of unusual reasons (namely one), I was more of a target than most new teachers because I was viewed as a threat rather than an asset.

Without getting into the dirty details, a part of me can understand the perceived threat a new teacher may bring to a teacher who has been counted as “a chosen one,” or one of the most popular teachers in the building. A new guy (or gal) comes in with energy, excitement, and fresh ideas, and the kids react accordingly and love this new teacher; maybe administrators have high hopes and place value on this new person. As a vetted teacher now, I can see how that might seem threatening, and I can see why my experience was atypical (hopefully) and why I was viewed as a threat.

That strange scenario aside, there were many aspects to my indoctrination that made my life as a new teacher more difficult than it had to be. The feeling of being under the microscope was pervasive and real, and I remember having a principal in my room at least once each day for the first two years of my career. I had been prepared to be observed frequently; I had also been prepared to have conversations that may be difficult but would ultimately help me to be a better teacher. While I went into most of these conversations with an open mind and willing-to-work attitude, I always left feeling not good enough… completely questioning my values and role as a teacher. In one instance, I was completely unprepared to hear I “served no purpose in the classroom,” but luckily I was able to hold myself together until I got to the bathroom before I lost it and sobbed.

In another instance, it was suggested that I take on the role of advisor for a struggling club. Because I wanted to focus on my teaching, I declined, but I was informed I would take the extra duty because I had received new desks for my classroom. Choice was an illusion in this instance, and I transferred that philosophy to many roles I was asked to assume. I was afraid to say no because I didn’t have tenure… I was naïve enough to think they could find a reason to get rid of me because I didn’t take on everything extra.

Meetings with colleagues were also a challenge and added to my frustration. Pats on the head, eye rolls, and professional dismissals were common place anytime I tried to contribute to the community as a whole. While I was expecting to be greeted like an equal and respected as a professional, my reality was much different.

These events early in my teaching career stunned me, and these are only some of the episodes that affected who I am as a teacher today. (I feel like some of my stories sound more like a fictional soap opera than an actual operating high school.) Taking a look at the collection of occurrences, I marvel at the fact that I didn’t quit and move on to something more rewarding, less stressful.

The work load alone—and the fact that my teaching program didn’t prepare me for the realities of the classroom—would have been enough of a challenge. In fact, we all know many new teachers crumble under those pressures and move on to other careers. Looking back, I’m thankful for the coaches and motivators I had in my life: instructional coaches, a few encouraging colleagues, one administrator who was a teammate rather than a dictator… Those people convinced me I could make it. They convinced me that even if I only had one positive interaction with one kid on one day, that interaction may mean the world to that one kid—those were the moments I needed to cling to as I navigated the terrain.

I understand now that my position is one of support for those new teachers, like the individuals in the building who pushed me through my dark times and doubts. No, I don’t have a problem with a new teacher being assigned an honors or upper level class, as long as they are the most qualified teacher for the job and will work to benefit the students. Isn’t that supposed to be the point anyway?

It doesn’t have to be the way it is now. Just because this is the way it’s been done for years doesn’t make it right.

What if instead of hazing and initiating new teachers, we see each person for the individuality and value they bring to the team as a whole? What if instead of throwing them to the wolves, we supported our new teachers and held them up through the choppy waters of their first few years as an educator? Why must the newbies be beat up and drug through the mud, hazed and indoctrinated to understand “their place?” Maybe this new person isn’t a threat. Maybe this new person has just what the kids (and we) need to be better.

And isn’t that the point?

A problem in education seems to be teachers who feel entitled because they’ve served their time. Yes, time matters. Those teachers who have been around and lived through changes in education have valuable experiences that need to be shared with all. At the same time, that knowledge shouldn’t be valued over the fresh perspectives brought by people new to the field or new to a building. On the flip side, the new teachers need to learn to listen—as do the more experienced teachers. We all have contributions to be made to this complicated, difficult field.

At the end of the day, we are all on the same team and are working toward the same goal. Perhaps instead of falling into old habits and complaining about what another colleague has (or doesn’t have), we can hold each other up and wade through the muck and mire.

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