Things I Was Never Told

Having spent the last 7 years teaching pre-service teachers and working with districts and schools across Canada it’s easy to see a disconnect with new teachers and the environments they are entering. In times of fairly significant change and disruption to varying degrees, the role of hiring and finding great teachers is much more important than ever before. At the same time young people entering the profession likely have certain expectations that have been shaped by their past experiences in schools. My beginning of term speech to students in my courses goes something like this:

“You’re the winners of education. You got good grades, listened well and did what you were asked. School worked for you. This is going to make teaching difficult for you because education is in the midst of tearing down this system of compliance based success. Yes, many are still holding on to this but it’s changing and you’ll be placed somewhere in the middle of this. You’ll have a tendency to want to replicate the success you experienced in your own classrooms and it may work for a few but understanding this isn’t a plan for all or even the majority of your students will require you to rethink a lot of things. Buckle up, because it’s difficult, messy work.”

I teach one course and might spend one semester with these students. I’m sure they have other courses that might support these shifts, but to be honest from the conversations I have with most of my students I know they are going to be in for a surprise when they finally get hired.

I’m not sure young teachers fully realize the world they are entering and like all of us, have to experience it before they fully get it. But I’d like to give them a heads up to a few issues that perhaps they haven’t quite thought of to a great degree. While there are likely many more challenges and issues with recruitment, here are three things I think are current trends and will only increase over time. The first two are leadership issues and the last one is a teacher issue.

Loss of Professionalism

I’ve written about this before but it’s clear teachers are struggling to hold on to the autonomous nature of being a professional. This isn’t all bad of course. Teaching has a long tradition of being isolated. Being able to close their doors and “just teach” is problematic as we try and move to more open, transparent sharing but the emphasis on “accountability”  has also created a sense of distrust between teachers and leaders.  As well anytime you have an organization associated with unions, you also make it difficult to retain a sense of pure professionalism. In many provinces in Canada, we’re seeing increased tensions between teacher unions and provinces. Embedded in these conflicts is the struggle to retain a sense of professionalism. It’s complicated and not something I think has easy answers but it is a major issue that I”m not sure can be fully resolved under the current system. The tension, for now, will remain.

I’m not suggesting these things are all bad but they do make it difficult for a young teacher to see themselves as a professional. For many young teachers, they are looking forward to having a classroom of their own and focus on the ways in which they will shape and manage their own environments. I would suggest that in many cases, they over estimate this. You are a professional, sort of.


Rolling the Dice with Schools

I’m convinced that currently the most important position in the success of a school is the principal. Research is beginning to show this as well. As much as we have diversity among teachers and students, the diversity among quality of principals might have more impact. Over the last decade or so, principals have been asked to take on new roles, much like teachers. The new role and expectations of being an instructional leader is being met with varying degrees of success. It’s an increasingly difficult job. Teacher and student morale is very much tied to the ability of principals to create cultures of learning and care and when they do this well, teachers are generally happy and excited to teach. When it’s not there, schools, with all the other added pressures and challenges can be almost unbearable.

For a new teacher, early success will depend largely on the support or lack of support you receive at the local level. Much of this depends on your principal. Talk to almost any teacher in any district and they’ll tell you which schools they would be happy to teach at and which ones they wouldn’t be. This is almost always tied to the leadership, not the demographics of the students. The retention rates of teachers in the first 5 years is troublesome at best and we know most of it is related to administration. Unfortunately for new teachers they have little say in which school they will teach.


You’re Not an Instructor

When I graduated from college in 1988 the majority of my education revolved around instruction, strategies and methods. That hasn’t changed much. Yet it wasn’t long until I realized instruction was only one part of my job. If I had to guess, I’d say 60-70% of my time was spent on instruction and the rest was spent on dealing with personal/emotional issues and a small part on things like designing and guiding individual learning. Those numbers have pretty much flipped over the last 25 years.

As much as young and older teachers hear they need to take on different roles, understanding exactly what this means remains a major struggle for many. In particular I would argue that today we need teachers who are much more emotionally invested in students than ever before. In some cases our schools have great instructors but not necessarily great teachers. I keep hearing the word “relationships” more and more. This idea doesn’t come easily and doesn’t come unless you are willing to have some emotional investment with students. Many teachers did not sign up for this and in the past, left much of this to parents. Right or wrong, more and more of our students come with greater emotional and physical needs that cannot be ignored. In the past, these needs were either ignored or passed off to other agencies. Today teachers are being asked to become more and more involved in the extreme challenges of students that never made it to their classrooms in the past. In addition, as we seek more personal and differentiated learning environments, this requires us to spend more time with students getting to know their needs and strengths and weaknesses in order to design and guide them in better learning opportunities. I think we tend to underestimate what’s involved in this shift and many new teachers and those veterans knee deep in these shifts are find this extremely taxing. If you look at those teachers who are truly in love with their job, I believe they’ve embraced this shift and are seeing success as they move away from instructor and see themselves in these new roles. Our new teachers need to be better prepared to handle this change but instead are just thrown into the fire and we hope they survive.

The answer to any of these issues are complex but my point here is to identify to young teachers what you’re up against. The first two issues I pose here are often out of your control. The last one is a mindset you need to understand and embrace. Acknowledging and addressing these challenges is paramount to the future success of educators and education in general.