Advice to New Teachers

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This is actually an ancient-of-days thing I wrote many many moons ago for a friend of mine who was beginning his teaching career. But even seven years later I think I have the same general opinion, so I’m offering it up mostly unedited.

Also, I want to try out multi-screen posting. 🙂


This is in response to a question from TJ, who asked me, “Do you have any advice for a new high school teacher? Classes start in less than 3 weeks. I have to admit I’m a bit nervous.” I figure that, after doing this for three years (now ten!), I’m a veteran if not a pro :). And having really enjoyed doing it for most of that time, I think a little introspection is in order. So, herewith, my advice to TJ, to other new teachers, and to myself, lest I forget:

Show the students respect. They want that. At the high school level, they crave it. I don’t mean accept or approve everything they do. They’ll do a lot of silly, mean, adolescent things. But remember: they are adolescents. They aren’t complete human beings yet, despite what they (or their parents) believe. That’s what makes teaching at this level so exciting. And making them into real people is, in part, your job. So don’t expect erudition and empathy – but be ready to be astounded at the depth they display. If your students are like my students, they will be complex and deep – but only along certain dimensions. Treasure their maturity. Cherish their remaining childlikeness.
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Shameless self-promotion

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Who am I, what gives me the gumption to write this, and why should you care what I say about education?

Fair questions all. Let’s start with the last one first. Why should you care? I could offer up genealogies or testimonials or credentials (see below) — heck, this being education, I probably should offer up credentials as the gold coin of the realm — but really, the reason you should care is that what I say makes senese to you. If it doesn’t make sense, ignore it and ignore me. Teaching remains much more an art than a science and I am surely still in my journeyman phase. (Or should that be “journeyman stage”? For some reason, educators love the word “stage”.)

Who am I? I am a teacher of Honors Physics and AP Physics at a prep school in New Jersey. (I hasten to add, this blog is not officially connected to, endorsed by, or even known to the School.) I just finished my eight year at the school, seven of them living on campus. Before that I taught for two years at a Catholic high school just outside of Philadelphia, handling pretty much the same subjects. Prior to that I did four years at a moderately-well-known West Coast university, first as a doctoral student in astrophysics and then, when I figured out how little I liked graduate research, as a terminal masters student in the School of Education.

Just recently, at the commencement ceremony on June 2, I was named as the first-ever recipient of the School’s Distinguished Faculty Endowed Chair. There are lots of very gratifying phrases attached to the award — “an inspiring master teacher as viewed by peers and students”; “a person who is energetic, passionate, and invovled with students and the School beyond the classroom”; “a scholar with deep understanding in his discipline”. Also, the award comes with an (almost) embarassing gob of cash and a medallion large enough to use as a bola in hunting wild game.

But mostly it comes with the moral authority to keep being loud and unrelenting in my pontificating about the sorry state of education (hence this blog). Those who know me will tell you that I surely didn’t need such justification. I have always been willing to share my opinion, asked or not. But it’s nice to have the medallion to duck behind when people fire back.

So that takes care of the credentialling. Oh, the genealogies? Well, my mother was a public school teacher for 22 years in the New York City public school teacher. My father, though he wound up a social worker, was also always a teacher and counselor. One of my sisters teachers part-time at St. John’s University; my other sister was a public school teacher before taking a job in administration at St. John’s as well. My uncle has taken up teaching as his second career. And my great uncle, for whom I am named, was a fantastic teacher with the Christian Brothers. So you can see, teaching is sort of in my genes and in my blood.

Only time will tell if that will help this be any good. 🙂