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Collaborative review: New teachers book

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Instead of writing this review myself, I wanted experts on the subject of being new teachers to respond to the "New Teacher Book." John Pickersgill and Lauren Goldberg, teachers at Beeber Middle School, wrote this collaborative review of the book, which is published by Rethinking Schools.

Lauren is in her first full year of teaching, while John is in his second year. Feel free to respond to John and Lauren with other suggestions or tips for preparing and supporting new teachers.

We began this school year with a critical eye and had high expectations for our students and ourselves. We knew that it would be difficult but had confidence that we could handle the challenges. We knew we could stay afloat, and that we needed to do whatever it takes to lead our students to success. No excuses.

Only five months into the school year, we already look back on our intentions as naïve and short-sighted. Books, such as the second edition of The New Teacher Book, in addition to the advice from our colleagues and online resources, have been a lifeline during our early years in the profession.

When we picked up a copy of The New Teacher Book, however, we had our skepticism. We expected empty promises cushioned by idealistic fluff that did nothing to validate our reality. A major qualm that we have with most advice guides for new teachers is that they tend to be too ambiguous, or on the flipside, prescriptive. Some new teacher books try to provide how-to tactics that seem unrealistic. Use proximity, then eye contact, and finally, the dooming “verbal warning.” “What if students sound like a freight train, books are sailing through the air, and your principal is quickly advancing down the hall?”

This second edition of The New Teacher Book is different. It is meant to provide practical advice and pedagogical ideas by addressing multiple perspectives. It consists of a collection of essays, from novice and experienced teachers, from urban and underfunded school districts to private and suburban ones. The selections are divided by theme, and each offer discussions, challenges, remedies, or successes that characterized the authors’ practices.

The themes covered are relevant issues that are rarely or inadequately covered in our teacher training programs. Topics like creating a community of equity and respect, addressing the dangers of standardized test inequities, and succumbing to the “undertow” were central questions that may help new and seasoned teachers avoid burnout.

We recognize that an effective classroom teacher cannot operate without guiding principles based on the pedagogy of how students learn. Yet it does not make reading a 353-page book on six hours of sleep a night after a 13-hour work day go any faster!

The first parts of The New Teacher Book offer poignant and realistic experiences that will resonate with most new teachers. We were glad to see that we are not the only ones whose idea of free time is watching TV while grading stacks of papers. How did some of the contributors know that we “get lost in the everyday details” and continually get “caught up in the immediacy of teaching that [we] don’t pay enough attention to the larger context"? It felt good to realize that we weren’t crazy and, despite what it felt like, we weren’t necessarily failing as teachers.

The overall tone of this book acknowledges that new teachers must pace themselves and be patient. Dale Weiss, a 3rd grade teacher from Milwaukee, in a voices from the classroom excerpt, warns, “Don’t be harder on yourself than you would your most trying student.” This is good advice to remember in a profession that expects you to hit the ground running your first year. The authors created a balance of validating new teachers and providing valuable advice by sharing the feelings they had early in their careers, but then continue to highlight what turned things around for them, and how in their own contexts, those strategies became long-term successes.

Having our feelings validated could only carry us so far through the book . This would be a fantastic book to read over the summer when there is time and space to think about the larger picture of social justice in our classroom and over-arching educational theory. However, this is not the summer. We were reading this book for practical advice and ideas that we can use now.

Don’t just tell us that you have trouble taking class time to give effective feedback to your students. We want to know how we can solve this problem! We don’t have time to waste reading over 300 pages on struggling teachers. We could just look back at our own classrooms. There are some true pearls of wisdom in the New Teacher Book; it is just a shame that we had to spend so much time finding them.

The Q/A sections are invaluable. Quick questions that impact teachers’ everyday lives are answered, and practical ideas are provided. Instead of just advising new teachers to get to know their colleagues and observe them, the Q/A sections suggest you sit down with fellow teachers and take a look at their written lesson plans. In fact, it would be even more useful for you to ask a veteran teacher how he or she goes about planning an entire unit of study. We have made an effort to learn from veteran teachers in our school but never even thought to do so in this way.

The New Teacher Book does a great job of answering critical questions with practical advice that can be used right away. Questions like:

  • How do I build community in my classroom?
  • How do I effectively assess my students’ learning?
  • How do I get the attention-seeking class clowns to give me the "stage" to teach?

All of these questions and more are addressed and, because of the diverse voices, there are ample ideas and perspective that will work, or can be adapted to work, in anyone’s classroom.

One theme that resonates with us is building community.

We learned that it is our job to acknowledge the differences among students and dispel negative stereotypes within our school communities in order to create an atmosphere of respect in which students feel safe.

In Linda Christensen’s article, “Building Community from Chaos,” she states that real communities are forged out of struggle, and recommends that teachers provide a curriculum that teaches empathy. She used materials that create connections for students – “the reverberation across cultures, time, and gender challenged the students’ previous notion that reading and talking about novels didn’t have relevance for them” (p.71). To strengthen communities, she suggests that teachers employ activism and work toward a common goal; to find a small crack in the exteriors that students put up to create a community.

The collections in The New Teacher Book helped us to learn a valuable lesson – there is no one size fits all solutions to our challenges as new teachers. Herbert Kohl advises that teachers “pick and choose, retool and restructure the best of what you find and make it your own. Most of all watch your students and see what works.” There is no one strategy to effectively teach or manage students because children are dynamic, diverse, and human.

As we move forward as teachers, we plan to remember that as long as we diligently work towards the safety, enrichment, and success of our students we will become better over time.

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