An Open Letter to Veteran Teachers …

An Open Letter to Veteran Teachers …

As we start another school year, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you to look out for those young, doe-eyed kids walking the halls of our high schools. It’s their first day. Nerves may be high. They’re coming from a school where they were the big dogs; now they’re the pups, and they need guidance. Please offer it. They may not even know where they are going so take a look at their timetables and point them in the right direction. And above all, be there for them. They might not admit it but they need you. It may seem like they’re keeping on top of assignments and extracurricular activities but that could easily be a front, a false façade to hide the struggles of adjusting to their new surroundings. So make sure they know you’re here for them. Of course, I’m talking about the freshman class … of new teachers.

I still remember my first day like it was yesterday. I walked into the staff meeting a nervous wreck. It was a feeling that only escalated when the principal eventually adjourned the day’s proceedings and a veteran teacher came up to me, introduced herself, and said, in a somewhat ominous tone, “Come with me.” I sheepishly followed her to her room, not completely sure I had any choice. She asked me what English courses I was teaching this year. I told her and she responded, “Perfect!” Here we go, I thought. This is where she pilfers my schedule to give herself a great timetable while leaving me with a dog’s breakfast of classes with all the so-called misfit students. And I wouldn’t be able to say anything because it would be professional suicide to ruffle feathers on day one with my non-guaranteed contract. This is ACTUALLY what I thought! Instead, she pointed at a resource-filled bookshelf behind her and said, “I’ve taught all those courses before. Here is every lesson and unit plan I have ever made. Take what you need. It’s all yours to use. And please don’t ever hesitate to ask me for help.” I left her room with a cartful of resources, feeling like everything was going to be okay. Then I ran into another teacher.

This teacher, I knew. During the previous school year, while I was a volunteer coach at a crosstown school and he was coaching at my new one, things got heated between the teams. Then they got heated between the coaching staffs. I was sure things would escalate further before cooler heads finally prevailed … thanks largely to the referees. I was positive he was looking to ‘discuss’ that incident. He didn’t even bring it up. He said he had heard I’ll be teaching a Grade Ten Modified English class. He had taught this group the previous year and offered many strategies to help me manage the kids and their individual needs. And like the teacher before, he offered up all of his resources to the cause. I left school that day with a solitary vow. If I survived my first year, I’d become the type of helpful and caring educator these two teachers were.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I focused solely on myself. Even with all the help, I was still just treading water, trying not to drown in all my new roles. Year after year, my goal was simply to survive – to somehow manage classroom and extracurricular responsibilities with my growing family responsibilities. Those were trying times, filled with my share of failures and a whole lot of self-doubt. But I persisted, buoyed by my colleagues. With time, came experience and I eventually learned to swim … or at least not drown.

In the years that followed, I fell into a routine that allowed me to survive. I taught, coached, and went home. I didn’t have a lot of time for my coworkers … or at least not in any type of helpful way. I retreated into my room, avoiding others. I prepped and I marked. I came in on weekends for extended correcting sessions at times I knew I would not be disturbed. I moved into a seldom-used wing of the school to solidify my loner status. I only left my sanctuary when I needed something – a video, novels, a colleague’s lesson plan, etc. This is the way I wanted it. I didn’t foresee it ever changing. And then it did.

Last year, among our new teachers, was a graduate of our school, someone I had taught and coached. I loved this kid. He was everything you wanted in a student-athlete. Now he was here, eager to teach and coach! But adjusting to this profession takes time … and we are not kind to new teachers. We often give them the worst schedules, devoid of any classes in their area, while simultaneously expecting them to coach almost everything. Adjusting to this reality is tough and he struggled. We all do. But in his case, the supports weren’t there. I wasn’t there. By the time the scuttlebutt of his struggles reached me in my seclusion, it was already too late. I talked to him on a Friday with the promise to discuss his situation more the following week but Monday came and he was gone – stress leave. Less than a month of school had passed. I should have been there to help him when he needed it. I wasn’t.

But I can be in the future … and so can you.

Help me make sure this doesn’t happen to any more teachers. Like the students in our classrooms, we can’t assume everything is fine. Ask. Inquire. Care. Give new teachers a hand and maybe some resource help. Empathize. Remember what it was like to be a first year teacher? Anything you needed? Offer it. Remember, we’re experienced. We’ve made it this far. We might not have all the answers, but we have some. Share them. Help them navigate around potential pitfalls. What we already do for our students, do for our new colleagues. Please. The future of our profession depends on it.

On the first day of school, I tell my students my door is always open for them – sometimes literally, but always figuratively. I remind them often. Being there for them is at the very core of what in means to be a teacher for me. Every teaching decision I’ve ever made is based on the “Is it good for the kids?” principle. And it’s time to start applying it to new teachers because if we’re not helping grow our ranks, we’re not helping students … and that would be a real shame.

H.

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