As a recent graduate of the Curry School and a second-year teacher, I am still very much learning the craft of teaching. I cannot speak about teaching with the authority of a veteran teacher or a Curry professor, but I can try to share insights that have been developed during my graduate career and initial teaching experience.
I teach at a privileged, all-boys, K-12 private school. Obviously, the student demographics, school and family resources are substantially different from most public schools in this country. Certainly, the issues facing teachers and students are not exactly the same as those facing teachers in many public schools. However, I believe some fundamental issues of teaching are common in all schools and for all students.
Specifically, I believe four factors are important for any teacher in any school: building on success, confronting challenges and fears, inspiring passion, and the importance of role models. I have discovered that each of these ideas is relevant to my work with students, but also to my own development as a teacher.
Building on Success
All students and teachers have the capability to be good at something. If you ask students what they are good at, they will inevitably give you an interesting answer. Sometimes the success is something others would judge significant, but often these successes are small in the scheme of things. In all cases, students believe they were successful because they realized some accomplishment, and most often, someone was there—a teacher, coach or parent—who acknowledged progress that gave them a sense of pride. Those smaller successes are motivating, they build confidence, and they set the stage for future success.
As a beginning teacher, it is important to recognize those successes as well. Certainly, there will be plenty of missteps, and many situations that could be improved upon. It is imperative to dissect the successes you have, not only the problems. Successes will vary from individual to individual and day to day, but we need to understand that at some point, there was a leap, a step, a jump toward the direction of getting better.
When the crucial successful steps were taken, think about what was happening mentally to you as a teacher, as well as to your students, that clicked? It is important to acknowledge those early successes—the things that worked—and use them to build your own confidence and effectiveness. As teachers, our job is to help students continually improve and develop and to understand that with hard work, they can make progress and have more and better positive experiences than they have had in the past.
Confronting Challenges and Fears
Being responsible for the education of young people is not only challenging, it can induce fear in a novice teacher. Certainly, I had days during my student teaching where I felt overwhelmed and anxious. Were my lessons well planned? Would I lose the students? Would the students be set back in their academic progress? Challenges will always be there, and fears are natural. The way we confront those fears and challenges, and the way we help students do the same, is what can make or break a new teacher.
For me, two experiences have been instrumental in helping me deal with the challenges and fears that come with being a teacher. The first situation took place in a conversation with the very approachable headmaster of my school. I confessed it was scary being a new teacher, and I wasn’t sure how I would do. He then proceeded to give me a huge boost of confidence in a matter of one sentence.
He said, “As long as you are teaching the boys to grow as human beings, we can always adjust and work to make the content and material aspect better.”
This was huge! I knew I could have a great influence on these young men.
The second experience has been the mentoring I have received from veteran colleagues on a daily basis. Throughout the first few weeks of my first year of teaching, I observed a successful veteran on a daily basis. I continue to go into his classroom to observe and see methods that apply to my teaching.
I would watch this teacher in the morning on my off-period, and then I taught the same lesson later that day. If you want to become good at something, observing an expert do what you hope to do is essential. I realize how fortunate I am to have had this opportunity and wish that this experience was commonplace for all new teachers, not only those in settings like my school. Having such good models of instruction helped in ways that not only helped the students, but boosted my confidence in ways I needed desperately.
I felt good. I felt confident. Most of all, I felt relaxed.
Students get it. They intuitively know, with incredible accuracy, whether a teacher is committed to them as students and to the subjects being taught. Deep down, students want to be inspired and in order for this to happen, the teacher needs to understand the students, and as important, the students need to feel they are understood.
Understanding your students is undoubtedly challenging. Each individual is different. Listening to and challenging your students will reveal important aspects of each student that will help you understand their individual strengths and weaknesses. With that fundamental understanding you can inspire students. Students trust teachers who truly understand and empathize with them.
Curry gave me the tools for managing classrooms and learning how to be an effective instructor. That was all part of the explicit teacher education curriculum. But what I also saw, in abundance, was the passion and trust-building skills that professors, university supervisors and clinical instructors all brought to their respective tasks. Their values and commitment to my fellow graduate students and me were not only obvious, but also infectious.
Importance of Role Models
Finally, students and new teachers need role models, not icons. Students need to see people who are successful, but to understand that their role models had to overcome challenges and build on successes just as they have. They need to know that their struggles are not unique to them, but that through hard work and perseverance they can achieve the success of their mentors. Curry and my professional colleagues provide that for me, and I try to do this for my students.
While confidence in the classroom was an issue before, being a positive role model for my students has not. For example, I was a competitive wrestler at U.Va., and my goal was to be an NCAA champion. I fell short.
It was difficult to realize I did not reach my goal; however, it did not mean that I was a failure or that I did not have significant success. (I won the ACCs and finished my senior year one round away from being an All-American. I came to value these achievements, even if they were not the goals I originally anticipated). More importantly, I could argue that I grew more from working through this realization than I did working toward it (at the very least, I learned another important set of lessons).
I hope that sharing this and similar experiences with my students will help them see adults who have worked hard, suffered setbacks, enjoyed success, and ultimately, inspire them to grow and push themselves.
I have found that the lessons I have learned in working through the challenges of being a new teacher are sometimes oddly similar to the lessons I try to impart on my students. In struggling through the first two years of teaching, I must remind myself to celebrate my small successes, not just focus on the tough stuff. Likewise, I must help students recognize their value and acknowledge their small successes in an effort to further develop their passions.
When I confront my fears of not being a perfect teacher in my first two years, I must also consider my students’ fears and push them to work through their hesitance. Although I want to always bring passion to the classroom in order to best connect with my students, I have realized my most important task is to inspire that same passion in each of them.
Finally, as I have learned from more experienced teachers and appreciated the importance of role models as I develop into my own mold of teacher, I have realized how important my actions are in becoming a positive and influential role model to my students.
Teaching is a learning process; everyone in a school is constantly learning, constantly growing, and constantly adapting to be the best version of themselves that they know how. My journey, with obstacles along the way, has been more rewarding than I could have imagined, and from the professors at Curry, to teachers who have been my mentors, to the students I have worked with every day, I have become a better learner and a better teacher.
Ross was named the Virginia Assistant Coach of the Year award by the National Wrestling Coaches Association in 2012. He teaches math and coaches wrestling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond.