I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it will be like to start over at a new school and remembering what it was like to first start teaching at Trinity, my current school. When I began teaching at Trinity, I had no experience teaching high school. I had taught third grade, and I had taught at the collegiate level some, but high school was entirely new to me. It showed in my teaching, in my interaction with my students, and in my interaction with my colleagues. It was not an easy year. The second year got a bit easier, but it wasn’t until my third year that things really started to run smoothly.
When one starts teaching at a new school, it would be so much easier on the teacher to be able to self-select his or her students. Imagine having a month or so to get to know the students, figure out who you gel with and who you don’t, and then pick your rosters for yourself. Fortunately, that’s not how it works. I say “fortunately” because that way does not lead to authentic teaching or leadership. It is a kind of teaching that has at its heart the convenience of the teacher, not the students or the institution as a whole. The students are not following the teacher because they made the choice to do so; they are following because they have no choice. Many will not follow for long. Even if you could self-select your entire class, if you do not have true teacher leadership, the students will not follow you once they figure this out. They may have some loyalty in the beginning to you, feeling special because you handpicked them, but they are more savvy than you think. They will see through your actions and words whether you truly deserve their respect or not.
Authentic teacher leadership takes time to develop. You can’t rush it. You have to be willing to spend time getting to know your students inside and outside the classroom, you have to be willing to suspend judgement for a time so that you don’t inadvertently write students off or favor them over others, and you have to be willing to work on repairing relationships that you (and they) have inadvertently damaged in the early days when mistakes are bound to happen. This means saying you are sorry to students to their faces even when it is embarrassing and humbling. This means asking your students for forgiveness when you spoke without thinking and stepped on some toes in the process even when it wasn’t your intention to do so, perhaps even when you don’t understand why what you said upset them so much. There is no shame in an apology; there is only shame when the apology never occurs. There is no shame in mistakes; there is only shame in continuing to make the same mistakes.
When you begin teaching at a new school, whether you like it or not, the burden is on you to prove yourself, not on your students to prove themselves to you. They have been at the school much longer than you. They have built relationships and formed reputations already. Now, it’s your turn. The three things students look for in teachers are knowledge, empathy, and passion. If you can prove to students you understand this – through your words and actions – then you will have them; if you can’t, they will not follow and there is no one to blame but yourself.
Of course, even when you do all this, there may be one or two that you can’t reach, but if you are a true teacher leader, most will end up following you. If you are looking out at your class, however, and the majority are distant or disdainful, ask yourself what the common denominator is in that situation. Before you assume that the fault lies with them, make sure you give yourself a good, long look in the mirror.
*I know we often use this term to mean teachers taking on leadership roles amongst their faculty, however, in this post I’m using it to mean teachers who lead their students well.