Five things I wish I knew when I started teaching

by Blythe Purdin

She was called “The Kindergarten Whisperer.” She was a genius at keeping her children engaged. She never raised her voice and spoke only in soft, soothing tones. Her smile radiated across her classroom and the students sat at her feet waiting for her next word. To move from one lesson to the next, all she had to do was play a short tune on her piano (yes, she had an actual piano in her classroom!), and they moved along with her. To me, a young teacher, she seemed to be a magician at her craft, and I was fortunate enough to have her as my mentor. Although she was older and a veteran teacher, she was also my friend. I realize now that not every new teacher is so fortunate.

It can be difficult as a freshly educated and enthusiastic young professional to become part of a staff with members who are five, 10, or even 15 years older and with many years of experience of doing things a certain way. Most of the faculty I have worked with are closer to my parents’ ages than my own. I have made mistakes and missteps in my attempt to be a part of the staff, and had some successes, which is why I would like to give you the benefit of my experience. Here are a few things I have learned along the way for the “new” teacher:

1. Make a new friend every day for a week. This is advice my mother gave me when I was homesick three weeks into college. It sounds silly, but trust me, it works. Stop by someone’s classroom after school, chat up someone in the teacher’s work room, have lunch with faculty members, and soon you will find you have made friends on staff. Friends may come in unlikely forms, such as teachers from other grade levels or a paraprofessional who works in your room. Include them all. This will help the staff to get to know you better and will help you become part of your faculty.

2. Get involved in something other than your classroom. It’s hard to think about anything but your classroom of students those first few years of teaching, but you need to remember that your classroom is a part of the larger school community, just as you are. During my first year in Nahant, I signed up for the Principal Search Committee and was appointed to be one of the teacher representatives. This allowed me to not only work closely with the union president, but to help choose our next school leader, who has been my boss ever since. It also established that I understood the importance of working beyond my classroom, which has made me a leader of many new initiatives for the staff.

3. Find people who inspire you and share with them. The story I began with about my mentor teacher is completely true. She has taught for more than 30 years and was an influential resource during my formative teaching years. However, the truly amazing thing about her was that she was a sharer. She spent hours with me that first year, sharing with me how she did everything from teaching hand washing (“One pump of soap.”) to how she organized her literacy centers. She also was very open to new ideas. I could share with her things that I was doing, and often she would want to try them. This exchange of ideas gave me confidence and helped me to be a better member of our kindergarten team.

4. Care about your local and what the MTA can do for you. This is advice I didn’t take until it was out of necessity. Last spring 13 staff members, including me, were pink-slipped due to an override failure. (I do not wish this experience on any of you.) It was our union leadership and the MTA who I turned to for help. It wasn’t until this summer, when I attended the annual conference in Williamstown for the first time, that I began to realize how empowering it is to be a part of the MTA. Since then, I have been elected to our local E-board as secretary, appointed as our local’s PAL (Political Action Leader) and become a member of MTA’s New Member Committee. My new involvement is changing my school’s teaching staff into a more involved union. Don’t be afraid of the union, explore it and see what it can do for you.

5. The good you do is the only power you have. When you are in your first years on a staff, there may be times you feel isolated or not confident. Try hard not to let those thoughts in. Do your very best every day in your classroom and with your students. Talk to parents with confidence and follow your own instincts. When you do this, people will notice. A veteran teacher might not rush up to you to say how beautiful your bulletin board is, but you’ll know she noticed when the bulletin board outside her classroom suddenly looks similar to yours. Just by being there, you are improving your school’s climate. You are changing things and you are helping people become more engaged in their work.

In closing, remember, becoming a part of the staff is a work in progress. Teaching can be an incredibly stressful profession, and we work such long hours that we can sometimes take it out on one another (especially before a vacation). But as we say in kindergarten, every day is a new day. If today is tough, tomorrow will be better. What I know for sure is that it is always better when there’s a friend to share a laugh or to talk to about a problem.

--The writer is a member of the MTA’s New Member Committee and has taught kindergarten in the public schools for eight years.