3 Things That Helped a Novice Through His First Summer of Teaching

March 27, 2014   |   By Kyle Vandenberg


"Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” This poisonous aphorism sums up the views some have of the teaching profession, at least those who haven’t yet seen it debunked in a powerful performance by educator and spoken word poet Taylor Mali. For myself, having tutored in a variety of subjects for years, realized freshman year of college that education is my passion, subsequently declaring a major of Public Policy with a concentration in Education Policy and interning with many education organizations, I thought I knew a thing or two about good teaching.

However, last summer, teaching classes in 7th grade Writing and Speech & Debate for Breakthrough Collaborative, I learned that being able to recognize good teaching is a very different beast from being able to teach well yourself, and being able to effectively tutor a few students is far away from teaching an entire classroom. I developed a greater admiration of how intellectually rigorous effective teaching is, and a huge appreciation for the literally hundreds of decisions a teacher makes on the job each day. Along the way, a few key supports were instrumental to making the experience a constructive one for both me and, of ultimate importance, my students.

The following are three things that helped a novice like me through my first summer of teaching:

#1: Collaborating with my fellow teachers allowed us to share effective techniques, efficiently use our limited time, and draw upon each other’s respective strengths to best serve the students in our classes. At Breakthrough, each academic department met at least weekly (often near-daily) to discuss lesson planning, and teachers for each grade met frequently to figur

e out how individual students were faring across classes. We would also share best practices with each other: one teacher explaining her surefire way of increasing sudent engagement, and another describing his strategy to hold his class to its agreed-upon community norms. Time is one of the scarcest resources for teachers, and having three teachers each invest substantial time and effort to making one stellar activity and sharing it with the other two teachers is vastly superior to each teacher rushing to come up with three slapdash activities on their own. In all of these collaborations, the input of veteran teachers who taught with Breakthrough in previous years were particularly invaluable, especially to first-timers such as myself.

#2: Having mentor teachers to advise and support our work helped us avoid unnecessary mistakes, take smart academic risks in the classroom, and accelerate our learning of the teaching craft. Each academic department had a dedicated mentor teacher with years of full-time experience in classrooms similar to those we taught in. Being new to the lesson planning business, we reviewed each new lesson we created with our respective mentor teacher, whose honed teaching instinct could alert us to any aspects destined to flop, encourage us to try fresh techniques, and suggest areas for improvement. We could bounce ideas off of our mentor teachers first rather than relying on our own thought experiments to decide if it was worth trying a new activity with the students. Most importantly, our mentor teacher observed us teaching multiple times per week, and because of the close and trusting relationship we developed, observation debriefs were constructive, allowing us time to reflect on our teaching practice and see our actions through the eyes of a seasoned observer. As veteran teachers themselves, our mentors c

ould genuinely empathize with our struggles, celebrate in our successes, and always prompt us forward.

#3: Our school leaders supported us as teachers. Far from being apprehensive about approaching them with problems, we most often went to them first when needing help. Our school leaders demonstrated that they cared about our success through debriefing with all the teachers at the end of each day, consulting us (and taking our feedback seriously) before making major decisions, and making a point to visit each of our classes. Administrators are educators, too, which we experienced firsthand on many occasions, from when our site leader walked me through how to best support a student dealing with a uniquely tough home situation, to when our supervisors arragned workshops for us teachers on current issues in education policy and future job opportunities in the education field to support our growth.

The common thread running through these three practices that supported me as a first-time teacher is that I consider all of them to be forms of professional development that grew our school’s collective social capital so that our combined effort was more than the sum of our individual parts. My fellow teachers, mentor teachers, and school leaders empowered me to push farther than I thought I could, and to feel as confident as possible to stand and explain how to write a compelling five-paragraph essay to dozens of angsty, sassy, and driven middle schoolers. Last summer was the most important work I’ve ever undertaken, equal parts fulfilling and exhausting, and it couldn’t have worked without strong professional development for teachers.

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