A few weeks ago I had a brief conversation with a university student. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life even though he was in his senior year. He had decided that, since he had so few ideas, he was going to apply for teachers college. Up until that point he had never considered teaching as a profession. He figured that teaching was a good option because it seemed like a job that offered security, good benefits, reasonable hours, and summers off.
Maybe this young man will end up being a great teacher but to hear him talk, I don’t hold out much hope. You see, I believe that good teachers are invaluable. They matter more than any idea, philosophy, piece of technology, or new facility. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who become teachers who really shouldn’t be teaching. They become teachers because nothing better seemed to present itself. And that frustrates me.
So I wrote a letter to future teachers.
Dear Future Teacher,
I want to commend you on your decision to become a teacher. Teaching is an honourable profession. Trust me, there are fewer people than you think who can actually do what you’re training to do with real effectiveness. Don’t’ ever make the mistake of believing that the work you will do with students will have any less importance than those vocations that pay a lot more and get a much more attention.
The reason I’m writing is to offer encouragement, advice, and to make sure that you really want to do this. So you may not like, or accept what I have to say but please read on because, hopefully, you may glean a thing or two that has taken me – and so many others – years to figure out.
- Teachers college will not adequately prepare you for what’s ahead
You worked hard to get in to teachers college. I mean, you can’t become a certified teacher – and therefore employable in most schools – unless you graduate from a teachers college, right? I didn’t say you wouldn’t learn anything. But teacher’s college can’t possibly prepare you for all the challenges and variables you’ll encounter when you’re in the trenches. Even your practicum, as valuable as it is, will barely give you a taste of what’s to come. I don’t mean to sound ominous. I really want you to be a great teacher. I just don’t want you to become disillusioned and give up at the first sign of trouble.
- In order to be a great teacher, keep on learning
This isn’t about implementing the latest, trendy teaching methods. It isn’t even about attending a seminar a couple of times a year during professional days. This is about becoming an expert in the subject(s) that you will teach. If you end up teaching math at any level, for example, and don’t already have a university degree in mathematics, then become an expert. This could involve anything from workshops, to online courses, to a college course.
It’s likely that you aren’t receiving any kind of formal, intense training in mathematics, reading, writing and so on in teachers college. You may know a whole lot about pedagogy and theories in classroom management, but if you aren’t knowledgeable and proficient in the subjects you’ll be teaching, all of those fascinating philosophies about teaching that you’re learning about won’t amount to actual, good teaching.
- Teach according to what works, not what’s fashionable (even if everyone else is doing it!)
You’re going to discover that, every few years, some new idea or philosophy is rolled out as the best approach to teaching. Most of the time, it’s some old but unproven notion that has simply been recycled and given some shiny new moniker. Some ideas will be worth exploring. Others not. Regardless, be discerning and use your common sense, perform some objective research, and don’t get caught up in the excitement.
Don’t ever worry if you’re considered “old-school” or “unprogressive” if you adopt approaches to teaching that aren’t the latest and greatest, but are tried and true.
If you heed this bit of advice then expect some criticism from colleagues, administrators, education “experts” and even parents. Your job is to teach – effectively – not pander to popular opinion. That doesn’t mean that you should be inflexible or insensitive. Remember, some new ideas have merit.
Here’s the thing: The greater your expertise in a subject, the easier it becomes for you to identify what works, and what doesn’t. At least, you stand a far greater chance of it. Far too many ridiculous teaching philosophies sneak their way in to the classroom because there are too many well-meaning, but clueless teachers who don’t know any better. Don’t be one of them.
- Teaching is not a popularity contest
Many teachers want to be liked by their students. I get it because it feels like you’re having such a positive impact when the kids in your classroom actually like you. Remember, you’re going to be a teacher, not a buddy or some kind of camp counsellor. Your job is to teach – whether that’s math, science English, music, P.E., whatever – not worry about being well-liked. If you’re considered the most fun-loving, well-liked, and popular teacher in the school but have a classroom full of kids who have hardly learned anything related to the subject material, you’ve failed.
I remember, long ago, when I was in my senior year in high school. I took a geography class. I made sure that I registered for that specific geography class because of the teacher. EVERYONE wanted to be in that teacher’s class. You know why? You were practically guaranteed an “A” because the teacher spent all of his time socializing with the students. I didn’t learn a thing and I aced the class without any effort. Everyone in that class may have thought the teacher was one of the most fun adults to “hang” with during classtime, but we had absolutely no respect for him as a teacher.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be warm or approachable. But you don’t have to compromise on effective teaching and high standards for the sake of popularity.
5. You will not change the world
There will be many days when you feel like your students hardly listen to you. You will have to endure more complaints from kids (and sometimes parents) than compliments. Some students will talk about you behind your back (they won’t be saying anything nice), you will have kids struggle in spite of your enthusiasm and best efforts to make the material interesting and understandable. Very few students will come to visit you, years down the road, to thank you for making a difference. In fact, you’ll be a distant memory to most of them once they move on to the next grade
I know, that sounds really cynical. Before you write me off as some bitter old man (I’m not THAT old), hear me out. Teachers DO make a difference in the lives of their students. But it almost never plays out like one of those Hollywood moments. The changes you will make will be small and will rarely have any noticeable or immediate impact. But you may be the one teacher who helps a student to strengthen his or her math skills, gives her the confidence to offer feedback in class, or offer solid advice to some perplexed parents. Not much in isolation but over time, in the lives of the countless students who pass through your classroom doors, you will have an affect. Not terribly romantic I guess, but our education system could use a whole lot more teachers who have this kind of perspective.
- Be certain that you want to be a teacher
That probably sounds like an absurd piece of advice. Why wouldn’t you be certain? You’re in teachers college after all! There are a lot of great teachers out there and hopefully you’ll be one of them. There are, however, a lot of teachers who, frankly, shouldn’t be teaching. It’s true that you can earn a pretty good living as a teacher. It comes with good benefits, a pension, and lots of vacation time. If that’s what motivates you or if you simply can’t think of anything better to do as a profession then please, for the sake of students and parents everywhere, don’t bother.
You should be one hundred percent invested in teaching. Don’t treat it like a placeholder until something “better” comes along.
Books by Marc Lapointe