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Shared stories, advice are featured at JFNT conference

Gene Reiber recalled the first time he had to set up a classroom. The new teacher wanted to break from tradition, so he sought out interesting furniture and eye-catching wall hangings for the room. He was determined not to let his teaching become regimented over time, and he believed that a unique environment would help do the trick.

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From left, Michael Milton, Miriam Kranz, Nicole Roberge, Gene Reiber and Erin Burns of the New Member Committee shared insights and advice during a panel discussion.

After teaching for a few years, he changed his mind.

“You, as the teacher, are the defining thing in that room — not the furniture,” Reiber told an audience of early-career educators at the 15th annual Just for New Teachers conference.

Sharing stories and advice is a big part of the conference, which the MTA’s New Member Committee puts on each year.

Reiber, a member of the committee, made his comments during a panel discussion that launched the 2016 event on Nov. 19 at Worcester Technical High School. He and three others from the New Member Committee answered questions put to them by fellow committee member Michael Milton.

The conversation covered both small details, such as the necessity of having a hook to hang keys on, and broader concerns, such as preparation techniques, the pitfalls that first-year teachers face, and the big issues such as curriculum recommendations.

Two cautions emerged during the discussion: Don’t become isolated, and don’t become overwhelmed. The panelists, all of whom told survival stories about their own mishaps early in their careers, recommended utilizing the knowledge of as many veteran teachers as possible, not just those assigned as mentors, and being involved in the local union.

One of the best ways to become a great teacher, the panelists said, is by taking time to step back from teaching.

One of the best ways to become a great teacher, they said, is by taking time to step back from teaching.

“Set boundaries,” panelist Miriam Kranz told the audience. “Get a hobby that has nothing to do with teaching and make sure you spend time on it.”

Kranz, for example, routinely goes dancing.

More than 20 workshops were available, keying in on classroom management techniques for different grade levels, inclusion strategies and ways to engage students, among other topics.

Participants attended morning and afternoon sessions that were separated by a working lunch of sorts. The MTA’s Executive Committee held its November meeting at the high school to coincide with the conference so the association’s leadership could spend time with some of the newest members of the organization.

MTA President Barbara Madeloni, Vice President Erik J. Champy, Executive Director-Treasurer Ann Clarke and Executive Committee members joined conference participants for lunch and participated in the discussions at each table.

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Worcester educator James Kobialka led a workshop on student-centered teaching.

The conversations at the dozen or so tables were far-reaching. Some dug into what a Donald Trump presidency would look like; others talked about teaching the subject of history; still others discussed unionism. The conference fell just 11 days after an election that produced a decisive victory for the No on 2 campaign — which prevented the expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts at the rate of 12 per year — as well as what many found to be an unsettling outcome in the presidential race.

Those events framed the comments of MTA leaders before the participants headed into their second round of workshops.

"Your role as a teacher is to be there to help students,” said Laura Vago, chair of the New Member Committee. “We are entering strange times, and that role will be even more important.”

Madeloni picked up on Vago’s remarks and added that teachers must not only make sure that schools are safe places, but also just places.

Though the national political landscape is changing, Madeloni pointed to the No on 2 victory, saying, “The union is where we have our power, and it is power in the best sense. Our victory showed that people value public education. We have an obligation to our schools and to our communities to use our power to protect public education.”

Champy urged the new teachers to imagine where their union involvement could lead. He said that when he was beginning his career in education, he had no idea that he would become a union activist.

“But someone said, ‘Come to a meeting,’ and one thing led to the next,” he said. “It’s not a path I planned, but one that happened.”

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