by Toni M. Poling
I still remember the first lesson I ever taught that fell completely, utterly, and painfully apart, like the tiny pieces of confetti that blow around Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I was about halfway through my 15-week student teaching placement and things were really starting to go great. My mentor teacher was amazing and very supportive; my students were learning; and I was teaching my first novel. Everything was coming up Toni! And then…it happened. I was planning to teach a lesson on character using A Tale of Two Cities. I wanted the students to do what I now call a body biography, a thoughtful breakdown of a character’s attributes using a his or her physical body. At this time, however, it was not a well-planned assignment. It lacked clear directions, a focus, and connection to the text.
Example from The Crucible of my current iteration of a body biography.
When I first suggested the assignment to my mentor teacher, she tried to tell me just that. She wanted me to hold off on the assignment until I had revised it. I, however, was resistant. In what I hope was a respectful way, I told her I didn’t believe there was anything wrong with what I had planned. I told her the students would love having a creative assignment about the novel she picked, which they didn’t like. I was convinced they would love A Tale of Two Cities when we had finished this character analysis. I can still remember the way she leaned back in her chair and smiled at me before giving me the go ahead to do exactly what I had planned. I left feeling as if I had earned a win; she waited patiently knowing this win was hers.
In class the next day I spent fifty minutes running from desk to desk answering the same questions, redirecting student behaviors, clarifying my directions, and managing the barrage of complaints about how dumb this assignment was. When the kids finally left after turning in their assignment, I had a stack of what amounted to stick figure drawings that said things like “this character is mean.” Not exactly the in-depth view-altering analysis I had expected. Physically, I was exhausted. I felt as if I had run a marathon (something I would never do)! I was sweating; my hair was frizzy; I was breathing heavy; and I was on the verge of tears. My mentor teacher and I had planning after that first class. I turned to face her with my disappointment in a stack of crumpled drawings in my hand and said, “Please help.” To her credit, she did. There was no “I told you so” or “maybe next time you’ll listen.” Instead, there was support. She and I worked through that planning period to revamp the assignment and as I taught it to the remainder of my classes that day things went exponentially better. Let’s be honest, I had nowhere to go but up!
I learned a lot from that lesson, likely far more than my students in that first class. I learned that I will survive a bad lesson, and so will my students. I learned that failure is an option for teachers, too. But perhaps most importantly, I learned to listen more than I talked.
As new teachers, we don’t even have enough experience to know what we don’t know! There is a huge learning curve that takes place between years zero and five, which I believe is why so many teachers leave the profession by their fifth year in the classroom. We have to learn to ask for help and then listen when help is given. New teachers bring a vitality to a school that is needed; fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and creativity are all great additions, especially when tempered with the wisdom and experience that only comes with time. A partnership of the new and the veteran can provide the best of both worlds, so form that PLC, create a teaching partnership, or just find your lunch crew. Grab your bag of popcorn, lean back in your chair, and listen.
WVCTE is wondering how you support new teachers?