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Education Leadership Perspectives

Views from the Principal's Office

By Brian Gatens

Learning From Your Mistakes As a New Teacher

By Brian P. Gatens

It was the first day of my second teaching position at a suburban school district after spending six years working in New York City. I vividly remember the assistant superintendent saying the following to the assembled (and nervous) group of new teachers:

“Congratulations. You are sitting here following a long and rigorous search process. You are not sitting here by accident and you have not been brought here to fail. We will offer you the opportunity to grow into great teachers.” You could almost feel the tension and nervousness flow out of the room. By offering perspective and context for our growth as professionals, he did us a great service that day. And I’m happy to return the favor.

I have the privilege of working closely with new teachers, so it falls to me to (gently) let them know that mistakes and errors are a part of learning process. Rarely are any of these errors fatal to a teaching career, and most of them will definitely offer opportunities to grow as a professional.

If you’re new to teaching, it’s critical from the very beginning to work early and often to develop relationships with experienced colleagues and caring administrators so you can grow from mistakes. Four things to keep in mind:

1. Teach Students at Their Pace, Not Yours

You’ll probably overshoot your students’ ability to know and understand your subject area. This is a common mistake for new teachers and is based far more on your enthusiasm, excitement and unfamiliarity with your students. The key to overcoming this issue is to slow down the learning in your class. It is far better for your students to learn the most important things well than to learn many things poorly. Knowing the most important things, though, comes with time. You need to soak yourself in the curriculum to know it well. Observing your colleagues, especially those at your grade level, will be a great help in this area.

2. Don’t Rely Too Heavily on Supplied Materials

Textbook companies generate increased profits by selling all sorts of materials (kits, worksheets, reinforcement materials, etc.) to schools. Many teachers view these resources as a lifeline as they seem to specifically address curricular topics and offer the ability to use class time wisely. The key to avoiding a mistake here is to always remember that the ability to complete a worksheet does not equate with learning and understanding the material. If this were the case, then 100 percent of the population would know how to use commas properly.

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3. Balance the Big Three

Teaching has three key components: school culture, expected curriculum and your students. Interweaving these three can be tricky for new teachers. Not only must new teachers begin to learn and know their specific school’s culture, they also must get to know both their students and their specific academic discipline. This is a tricky balancing act and it’s not uncommon for the newer teacher to feel pulled in different directions. As with teaching your students, the important thing is to slow down and focus on the most important things. Start with your students and their needs, move onto your school’s culture as you try to become a productive member of your staff and then go back to your curriculum. It’s hard but not beyond your ability.

4. Dive Into the Life of Your School

Most new teachers come fresh out of college unfettered with significant commitments outside of their teaching lives. If you fit that description, I encourage you to involve yourself as much as possible in the life of your school. See if your school needs club advisors or coaches. I also found tremendous fun and growth in volunteering my time. My favorite memory of my early years as a teacher was returning to my school in the East Bronx to open the gym up for Friday night open-gyms from 6 to midnight. In those days the streets of NYC were still relatively violent and giving children the option of being someplace safe for those six hours was very important to me, and it was also a comment on my less-than-thrilling social life.

As I reflect on my experience and practice for my writing, I work hard to draw in other experiences of mine as I find that all of my experiences are woven together. On that note, I think of my bicycle racing. In a race, where you can be shoulder-to-shoulder at 30-plus miles per hour with up to 100 other riders, the worst thing you can be known as is “twitchy.” This is the rider who is erratic, nervous and so scared of crashing that he ends up crashing anyway. This is quite the paradox. I pass this along to you as I encourage you to be as comfortable and as at-ease as possible. It is from this position that your best work, and best growth, can flow. Remember, you haven’t been brought here to fail.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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