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By Eric Pederson
Teaching. A special blend of dedication, innovation, and passion with a healthy dose of thick skin is needed to succeed in what many consider to be the noblest profession of all. With the fate of so many young children hanging in the balance, it would seem an obvious decision to prepare our future educators as best we can for the trials and tribulations they will face upon first setting foot in the classroom. However, one quick glance into the room of any first year teacher will reveal one terribly disappointing fact: Regardless of the amount of experience, educators leave college largely unaware of what truly lies ahead of them.
Growing up I wanted nothing more than to be a Navy Fighter Pilot, but it seems as though life had other plans for me. For starters I was surrounded by educators. My entire family lived and breathed education. This wasn’t a recent development in the family tree either. Nearly every member of my family was involved in education in some way, shape, or form, extending all the way back to each of my grandparents. One of grandmothers taught kindergarten for nearly 40 years (teaching every one of her children and grandchildren in the process) while my grandfather taught high school American history for just as long. My other grandmother taught a variety of elementary grades before finishing out her career as a principal while her husband taught high school social studies and served as the president of the school board. With a family so brimming with educators, it seemed like my path in life was written long ago.
Although the handwriting was clearly written on the wall, I needed to come to the conclusion that I wanted to become a teacher on my own. After ruling out the Navy and pursuing a career in creative writing, I took a job coaching high school golf at the same high school where I graduated. Although I coached there for six years it only took me a week to determine that working with kids and having a positive impact on their lives was what I wanted to spend my life doing.
I immediately dropped my creative writing degree and enrolled in the education program at the local university. The next four years found me working as a private tutor for students with special needs, organizing afterschool activities at a school for low SES students, coaching golf, and even teaching driver’s education and behind the wheel. Unlike many of the other education students I attended college with, I submerged myself in education. I wanted to walk across that stage and into my first classroom knowing full well what to expect.
Unfortunately, no amount of experience or time spent listening to my professors lecture about the ins and outs of teaching was enough to prepare me for what truly lie before me. I quickly discovered that, despite my years of preparation, I was beyond ill-prepared.
For such an important and demanding career one would think that colleges would pull out all the stops to ensure that future teachers are provided with the most accurate depiction of teaching possible. However, with the teacher attrition rates skyrocketing past the 40% mark within the first five years, it’s not hard to believe that students aren’t leaving college with the whole picture.
I’ll be the first to admit that as I walked across that stage on graduation day I felt like I could tackle anything that teaching had to offer. I doubt I’m alone in the new teacher world when I admit that I thought I was going to be the one with all the answers and have the ability to “save them all.” But after spending two short years in the classroom I am starting to see just how little I actually knew what to expect when I set foot into that classroom for the first time. A bit frustrated and puzzled as to why my real-world experience aligned itself in a realm that was the polar opposite of the one I was trained in, I began to reflect a bit.
Although college is supposed to be the time in your life where you unravel the seams of your mind and let a wealth of knowledge come flooding in, it’s primarily a time where you need to be preparing yourself for what truly lies on the other side of that stage. And throughout my days as an undergraduate I thought my professors and cooperating teachers were doing just that. After all, these people were who had dedicated their careers to education, some of whom had spent decades in the classroom. What could they possibly have to hide? As it turns out... a lot.
Since graduation day I have come to realize that my college training (and from what I've discovered, many other teachers as well) portrayed teaching as it would appear in an ideal world. One where students actually enjoyed coming to school, budgets weren't being cut, class sizes where manageable, parents helped their kids with homework and showed up for parent teacher conferences, behavior wasn't an issue, you had enough time in the day to get all your planning done, districts valued teacher input on policy changes, and administration actually backed you in your decisions.
For a brand new teacher right out of the box, this brick wall disguised as a reality check came as an overwhelming surprise and actually had some rather adverse effects on my future as an educator.
Therefore, in an attempt to pull back the curtain a bit on what it’s like to be a new teacher, I want to share my experiences over the course of next few articles; both good and bad. At times I may appear candid and blunt about what truly goes on at the front of that classroom and just what exactly causes teachers to burn out so quickly and how it can be avoided, if at all possible. However, focusing on only the negative would be counterproductive to the cause. After all, we’re a collection of teachers attempting to provide insight into our careers. So, I also want to share some of those more rewarding moments that just like all the negative stuff, no-one could have ever prepared me for.