A lesson for teachers

New teachers, celebrate your calling to join one of our society’s grand professions. What is more important than fostering the development of young people’s lives? Cherish this calling, for it will be tested.

You are entering the profession at a troubled time. For all the political talk about the importance of education, cities and states are trying to balance their budgets through cuts to schools. You will also hear conflicting messages in the national conversation about education. Teachers are universally praised as the solution to our educational problems — and condemned as the root cause of all that’s wrong with our schools.

Underlying this craziness is an ideological battle to define what teaching is. And though there’s not much you can do to revive the economy, you can be tough-minded and vocal about what it means to teach.

As often happens in so many spheres of modern life, there is a strong push to define teaching in technical and managerial terms. Curricula are “scripted,” directing the teacher as to what to do and when. Student learning is reduced to a few scores on standardized tests. The teacher becomes a knowledge delivery mechanism whose effectiveness will be determined primarily by those scores.

You hear little from the federal Department of Education or the local school board about engaging young people’s minds or about teaching as an intellectual journey. You don’t often hear about the values that brought you into teaching. They are the mind and heart of the work you will be doing.

Teaching is a profoundly intellectual activity, and this applies to kindergarten as much as to Advanced Placement physics. Most people will grant the brainwork in physics, but what is neglected is the intellectual chops it takes to teach any subject to any age. The good primary school teacher knows about child development and how to engage young people across a range of subjects. She takes in a room full of kids at a glance to see who needs help, thinks on her feet, knows how to respond to a wrong answer and provides the apt example or comparison to guide a child toward clearer thinking.

You might not fancy yourself an intellectual. New teachers sometimes say that they’re going into teaching because they “like kids.” But remember, this is a special kind of caring, a relationship focused on children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. This goes beyond affection; you are using your mind in the service of others.

You’ll need to learn about the young people in front of you, where they come from and what matters to them. This will call for special effort if you, like many teachers, are a foreigner to the communities in which you teach. Listen to your students. Try to understand the world as they see it. You will be both troubled and inspired by what you hear. And you’ll be smarter for it.

Don’t expect things to be reciprocal. Kids will not always respond; they will even shun you. But stick with it. Show them that you’re serious and available even when they’re not. This will register. Young people are hyper-alert to betrayal and consistency. A veteran teacher I know tells her beginning teachers, “Don’t think that because a kid can’t read, he can’t read you.”

Get ready to fail. A lesson you slaved over will flop, or your understanding of a kid’s problem will be way off base. This will happen during your first year or two, but believe me, it happens to all of us through the years. Education, wrote W.E.B. DuBois is “a matter of infinite experiment and frequent mistakes.”

For some of you, this will be the first time you’ve failed in a classroom. It will be painful and disorienting. So learn how to handle failure, for at those moments you will be vulnerable to your own insecurities and to those who are cynical about young people, some unfortunately as close as the teachers’ lounge.

It is imperative, then, that the minute you walk through the schoolhouse door, you start figuring out who the good teachers are. Get to know them, for when you fail, you’ll need them to convert those failures into knowledge rather than doubt and bitterness. The same holds for some of the parents you’ll meet. Learning to teach well is a long journey, full of deliberation and self-assessment. You don’t want to make that journey alone.

So what are you going to do on your first day of school? This takes us back to the issue of what teaching is. Knowing the nuts and bolts of running a classroom is hugely important, and if your training was any good, you’ll have some plans in place.

But just as important is the way you think about what to do that first morning. Every good teacher I’ve known, regardless of grade level, subject or style, has the equivalent of what musicians call “big ears”; they are curious, open, on the lookout for anything they can use in the service of some larger goal. That is what it means to think like a teacher, and that thinking defines the work you are about to begin.

Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and is the author of " Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”