Part of what’s hard (especially in a struggling job market) about being a recent college graduate heading into the world of education is the lack of that all-important “E” word: experience. Teaching, like few other jobs I know (medicine being one that comes immediately to mind), is a job where comparatively little of the theory that you learn will make you competent – it is really one of those jobs that you learn how to do largely by doing it (although much can be learned by the experiences we have being taught and by watching or reading about others’ pedagogical ideas). Consequently, this is why internship experiences are absolutely vital to education programs, giving education majors the opportunity to practice the ideas they learn in philosophy and pedagogy courses.
First-year teachers may have some experience, but by definition, they – we, I need to add – are not as qualified in that department as our colleagues who have been on the front lines for years and have paid their dues (if I might mix my metaphors a bit) as new teachers. The only way to gain experience as a teacher is to teach when you’re relatively inexperienced and hope that you have the tenacity, patience, and a support system (including a mentor or mentors, hopefully) that will see you through the beginning years of your educational career.
What I think we first-year teachers tend to overlook are the skills we bring to the classroom that are relevant but don’t come from curricular studies in pedagogy or a specific content area. As a teacher of literature, I always try to remember that part of how students – anyone, really – respond to literature depends on what they bring to the table as a person, what experiences they have to build on. I think this idea that people are in part a product of what they have experienced is an important consideration for any teacher.
Get past the stuff that is expected: educational philosophy, developmental psych, methods courses, disciplinary and interdisciplinary training. What do you bring to teaching not just as a teacher but as a person?
I feel fortunate in this regard: I have at times in my life been a composer and arranger, a performing musician, a music director, a web designer/programmer, a technician, a customer service representative, and a variety of other different roles that may not seem very much related to teaching. Some of them, though, seem perfectly relevant, sometimes in strange ways.
As a composer, I have created something new, hoping to create something harmonious and enjoyable. As an arranger, I have been similarly responsible for adapting the musical ideas of others into something that is worthwhile for someone else to hear and enjoy.
As a music director, I have been responsible for organizing groups, for practicing skills, for assessing ability and correcting problems, and ultimately for leading the members of my groups toward a common goal: beautiful music.
As a web designer and programmer, I have analyzed the needs of my clients and customers and persisted in developing tools that serve a purpose; perhaps more significantly, I have determined when to try different routes and develop workarounds for existing problems when the conventional methods don’t seem to work.
As a technician, I have cultivated analytical thinking to identify sources of problems, thinking logically about the possibilities and working with others to collaborate on solutions.
As a customer service representative, I have learned how to be patient, empathetic, and courteous, as well as a careful listener who can notice verbal and nonverbal cues (which do exist in phone conversations, in subtleties like tone of voice) and can respond quickly to prevent escalation of problems.
These kinds of experiences are as much a part of my professional arsenal as my understanding of pedagogy and English language arts. Why should it only be my direct experience teaching that determines how experienced I am?
This is my word to you, my fellow beginning teachers: As you jump into your first “real” teaching experience, don’t dwell on the fact that you haven’t done this – teach – before. Remember what you have done, what kinds of experiences have helped define you. They will be what carries you through, even when your ability to know how to teach well might falter. Just as your students bring their experiences to your classroom, you bring yours, too. When you do this, the rest will come.