Monday, June 18, 2012

Life in the Gray

Bowman asked the blogosphere to write letters to new teachers. Sophie Germain wrote one already. (Edit: Here's the collection) I wrote a post last year with practical tips. Here's my advice.

Dear Noobs,

This is what you need to know:
Despite what teacher movies, books you've read, your credential program, your master teacher, your new principal, your BTSA coach, and the blogosphere would have you believe; there is no black and white in teaching. Teaching is one huge gray area
I had to bold that. We make it seem like it's a noble profession full of clear choices and goals. You want every kid to succeed and feel safe. You have high expectations. You set big goals. You put your students first. NCLB bad. Diane Ravitch good. Worksheets and grades and rewards and punishments are tools of the lazy and the incompetent. You will never, ever give up on anyone.

That's all bullshit.

Look. I know. You're brand new and you just watched Waiting for Superman or Race to Nowhere or read The Schools Our Children Deserve or watched Sal Khan's TED talk and you are PUMPED. You are going to be an amazing teacher. Your kids will gasp with joy and be lost in wonder and LEARN LEARN LEARN. More importantly, you're not going to be that teacher. The one next door that goes home at 3 and gives out the same worksheets as he did 10 years ago.

Sorry. I know this won't mean much to you right now, but it doesn't work that way. In teaching, there is no clear path. There is no choice that is always right or always wrong.

There will be a time when your students are hurt by your high expectations and your big goals. Especially when you're new. You just won't have developed the skills yet to help your students meet all of your goals. It's true. There will be a time when you have actually damaged a kid because you set a high goal for them that you just weren't good enough to help them reach.

There will be a time when you can't keep your kids safe. You hear about a fight that's going to happen at lunch. You should report it right? What if a lunch time fight is something that can be managed? What if it happens, gets broken up, and everything is fine after? What if avoiding a lunch time fight means they'll now fight after school? Only this time they will bring others. And weapons. And nobody is around to stop the fight when one kid is on the ground and ten others are kicking him.

There will be many, many times when you shouldn't put your students first. Go home. Go to sleep. Get a massage. Take a day off. Spend time with your family. Play a video. Ask that teacher next door for a worksheet. Often, what's good for you is good for them. You should do what's good for you. Sometimes what's good for you isn't good for them. Sometimes you should still do it.

There will be a time when that teacher next door has the perfect piece of advice for your current problem but you blow him off because he's that teacher next door.

There will be a time when embarrassing a kid in front of his peers is the best thing you could have ever done for him.

There will be a time when you just. don't. care. about a topic you're teaching.

There will be a time when you use stickers and candy and points and extra credit and it will work wonderfully.

There will be a time when you need to kick a kid out. You've got 33 others. Don't make them suffer for the one.

There will be a time when you give up on a kid. You hate it every time but you've got 193 other students that haven't given up and you can only do so much.

There will be a time when you have a student that you love like your own but you need to recommend to the school board that this student be expelled. Because no matter what he means to you, he is a danger to the rest of the students.

There will be a time when you look a student right in the eye and lie to her.

You can't worry about always making the right choice or always making the wrong choice. At best we can deal in probabilities. Often what we think are our best and worst choices were the result of nothing more than chance. 

Sometimes you make the choice that you can live with. Sometimes you make the choice that you can't. 

Teaching is a human endeavor. It's messy and complicated and the best job in the world. There is no black and white in teaching. Only gray.


  1. This is beautiful, Jason. If I may vouch for everything that you wrote here: been there, done that, some repeatedly. Twenty two years of teaching behind me, and I know there'll be new things that will rattle me, break my heart, test my limits, knock me off my feet. But I hope I'll pick myself up -- like before -- and carry on because this teaching thing is worth doing.

    Thank you, Jason.

  2. That was amazing. Nothing else I can say.

  3. You've just summed up the last 23 years of my life, accurately and far more brilliantly than I could have done.

  4. this one was really good ... kind of gruff but loving and hopeful but realistic ... perfect for a first year teacher

  5. Great post, Jason. It's important to get some sunlight on those hard-to-reach places in our profession, particularly when they begin to fester and smell to high heaven. I'm sending your post along to one of my students who recently secured her first full-time teaching post. She's excited and nervous, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and while I want her to keep that optimism, I also want her to know what lies ahead.

    I've been taking some time off from my blog to catch up on on the many deadlines clamoring for my attention, but you've inspired me to get back to work. Thanks for that, and thanks for your well-articulated truths.

  6. Right on, Jason! Hear, hear! So true, so well said, I too agree with all of after my first 21 years teaching. I have about 20 more to go and it'll be gray all the way. :)

    I'm sharing with my new student teacher. Thanks!