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Humility Lessons: Giving All Teachers a Chance

I was 21 when I started student teaching, and like all good 21-year-olds, I thought I knew it all. This was not in the sense that I thought I already knew how to be a master teacher, but rather that I thought there were good teachers who I could model myself after and bad teachers to teach me how not to teach. The good teachers were the enthusiastic progressive teachers doing new and different things in their classrooms who genuinely liked and cared about their students; the bad were the ones lecturing to students in rows or doing work out of the textbook like nearly all of my high school teachers.

I was lucky to be quickly humbled.

My first lesson in humility were taught to me by a math teacher who welcomed me to observe his class regularly, and who I thought was a bad teacher because he didn’t seem to like his kids. After observing him a couple of times, I wrote him off and stopped going to his class.

In hindsight, these might have been two randomly bad classes, or he might actually have not been a very good teacher, but he later gave me the best advice I got while student teaching: Create a “Happy Folder” filled with thank you notes, work from challenging students who finally got it, and those letters that teachers often get from students who, years after leaving the classroom, write to share about how they finally understood a lesson. The math teacher told me this was his most valuable possession and that if his house were ever on fire, it would be the first thing he would save. I followed that advice and started my own Happy Folder, which has grown in size over the past seven years. That folder has saved me from the depths of despair more times than I can count. It is a reminder of why I do what I do, and why I will continue to do it.

The second lesson I learned came from my mentor teacher. He seemed to be everything I didn’t want to be. He was in his 32nd year of teaching, and he spent nearly all of his time in the staff room with the other 30+ year teachers complaining and whining about the students, the state of the world, and the newfangled ideas of new teachers. He told me on my first day that he would stay out of the sections I was teaching, which I took as a sign that he didn’t care and just wanted to do less work. For that semester, I tried to minimize my interaction with him as much as possible, assuming he had nothing to offer me.

On my last official day at the school, the student teachers from my program gave presentations about what we had learned over the past semester. My cohort-mate gave a presentation on whether it mattered if students liked their teachers. He ended with a quote summarizing what he had learned was the best attitude to take toward students:

It doesn’t matter to me if my students like me; I like all my students, and want the best for them, regardless.

At the time, that quote summed up everything I thought teachers should be. It should not surprise the reader to learn that I soon discovered that the quote came from my mentor teacher. After four months together, I found out I had been completely wrong about him. When I returned to the school as a substitute the following semester, I realized his staff-room banter was just the thoughtless rhetoric of guys who had been doing this longer than I had been alive, and that it had nothing to do with what went on in any of their classrooms. Sadly, I had already missed the opportunity to learn from someone who might not have been the best teacher in the world, but who was a great person. I was humbled.

I was lucky to learn very quickly in my career that I always have something to learn from the more experienced people around me. Just as I had to learn not to write off many experienced teachers, I have also had to learn not to write off new ones either. The unfortunate reality is that most new teachers, especially in challenging school environments, are not going to be particularly effective when they first start. Most have no idea how to control a classroom consistently, no idea how to plan rigorous lessons that teach students skills while engaging them in class, and no idea how to deal with the dozens of conflicts that arise daily. But in my five years in the Bronx, I’ve been humbled again and again as I’ve seen teachers who were disasters when they started emerge two years later as competent professionals who become leaders among their peers. Nearly every great teacher I know tells a similar story: she or he had a rough 2-4 years, and then either a lightbulb went off or she discovered a new way forward, and things turned around. We all started somewhere, and for most of us, it was not in a good place.

Teaching might be the most consistently challenging job in the world. Anyone who has stepped in front of a classroom knows this in ways that people who haven’t never will. I applaud the parents, community members, and administrators who want to hold us accountable for the high expectations we have for our students — our students deserve this. However, I’m sick and tired of teachers selling each other out. Novice teachers would benefit from doing more listening to what others have to offer; even the most jaded 25-year veteran is going to have a worthwhile lesson to share. Likewise, I wish that when more experienced teachers see someone struggling, rather than writing him off or talking about how “she’ll never make it” they would take the time to observe the teacher and help him or her to learn from the mistakes that all of us make in our early years. While we may widely disagree about the best methods to reach our students and help them learn, I have yet to come across anyone who isn’t in the classroom because at some point they deeply cared about helping students grow and learn. And while there are bad veteran teachers out there and new ones who will never make it, a little humility in our professional relationships could go a long way to helping more teachers grow to be able to more effectively reach more students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.