A Letter To A New NYC Teaching Fellow

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose14 Comments

My first pearl of wisdom to you: be a student first, teacher second.

You’ve just gotten in, or you’ve been finishing up your summer training for the Fellows, and you’re wondering where to start. You probably Googled for NYCTF and ran into my site (hopefully) or any assortment of ed bloggers that either give constructive criticism of the program or completely bash it as a waste of time (the latter is definitely not my approach). Rather, I’d like to help you get accustomed to the NYC school culture as it were and how your position as an NYC Teaching Fellow gives you a unique position to help improve the schools but also grow as a person.

For your own sake and the rest of us who’ve been working diligently with our kids, please don’t come in with a mentality of privilege. Oftentimes, the stereotypes of Fellows being prissy, disengaged, hippie-yuppie, separatist, and holier-than-thou-art come from actual behaviors that fellow Fellows take on themselves and forget that they’re part of a system that’s primary purpose is to educate children, not some sort of prestigious undertaking. Yet, for the majority of fellows who want to actually become part of the community, these stereotypes prevent you from actually becoming involved in the school community.

But there’s hope! If you just follow my 5 simple tips for starting out your year as a Fellow, you’ll have no problem getting acclimated to the rather rigorous first month of the school year:

1. Stay Humble: People from NYC or other urban settings usually don’t have a problem with this (in the classroom anyways), but if you’re not humble, then be cautious: telling people outright your background, your alma mater(s), and that you got into the Fellows is probably not the way to go because, again, it indicates a vanity about yourself that’s unbecoming of a new teacher. Stick with humility and introducing yourself as Mr. / Ms. / Mrs. _____. Trust me on this one. And that goes with your style of clothes too. Professional, but no Dolce & Gabbana or Versace or even Yves Saint Laurent. You’re begging to be isolated.

2. Personality Check: Reflect. And don’t just do it as a list of activities. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Sharpen your strengths; manage your weaknesses. Then when you’ve got alladat together, you can better relate to others in your classroom. Honest.

3. The Student Mentality: Learn and digest everything that you see around you. Be a constant observer. Ask a good collective of teachers (preferably with different styles) if you can drop by their classroom. Most teachers that I know will welcome you with open arms into their classroom, even on their break, so long as you follow #1. Take copious notes when they speak and ask away until they’re annoyed with you or vice versa.

4. The Poker Face: Look at this face:

Tim Duncan\'s Face

Notice that Tim Duncan’s face is expressionless. Emotionless. You can’t tell whether the man wants to hurt you, help you, or wants a slice of pizza. That’s how you need to roll. First few months, this sort of posturing is important because it gives the sense that you’re only there on one mission: teach the children. I know it’s hard because sometimes you want to crack up or make an angry face, but it’s better if you keep that to a minimum, not just with the students but the teachers and staff too.

5. Don’t Believe The Hype: “So let me ask you, what do you think about this teacher?” Your answer should always be: “I’m not sure. I know she works here, but that’s about it.” Keep conversations about other teachers and staff at a minimum. Students are usually fair territory (as long as it’s constructive), but by no means should you get caught up in the gossip and heresay of the school cafeteria. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t break bread with other teachers, but there are always one or two that want you to stoke their fire a little bit, and then implicate you for things that you may not have said. Please.

If you follow my advice and just take things one day at a time (while planning a week or two at a time), you’ll make it through. By now, you’ve surely got tons of material on classroom management, curriculum, lesson planning, etc., but I hope this is a nice supplement for you as you venture into the next school year. Please don’t take any of this personally; we all had to go through this self-examination.

Remember: you’re a student first, teacher second.

jose, who learned the hard way that he can’t take his position for granted …

p.s. – Please read about the case of LaVena Johnson, whose death was ruled a suicide a few years ago but had suspicious marks on her body that may have happened from some sort of physical struggle. Some are speculating that it was more than just a fight. To read more, click here while you’re at it.

Comments 14

  1. Post

    Thanks to the both of you. This was semi-inspired by a real life conversation I was having with an incoming Fellow. She’s there taking copious notes and it just got me to thinking that she may want to print this all out at some point. Nonetheless, it needed to be said.

  2. Man, that’s good advice for puffed-up n00bs in any school (and most of us, present writer included, were puffed-up n00bs when we started).

    How quickly we learn, when we enter the trenches, how little we learned in the tower.

    (And thanks for the LaVena link. I added my voice. Reading about that on CrooksandLiars.com was like a punch in the soul.)

  3. In general, good advice. Not so bought on the poker face – our human qualities are so precious. I don’t hide mine, though I do know how to keep my priorities straight both in the classroom and the staffroom.

    One of the most important lessons I learned early on, and one of the first things I try to impress on new teachers, is that my students are not my friends. I may be a friendly teacher, but I am their teacher first. I do not do things because I want them to like me but because it is how things need to be done.

    I’ve found that students respect teachers much more when we have principles and expectations and stick by them than when we roll over so that they’ll ‘like’ us.

  4. Post

    Clay, I wasn’t a puffed up noob, but I wasn’t always in the position to be the student like I wished. This might be one of the instances I actually took my own advice. And thanks for adding your voice, I’m glad you did. People are definitely moving around this issue, especially in the blogosphere.

    Tracy, I agree that we should show our humanity, but in different settings, it’s often best to keep that blankness, not just with students but teachers. Many times, teachers get caught up in being themselves but they get eaten alive by the people around them. It does take a little maturity and understanding to get to the point where you can be that emotional. Just sayin’ …

  5. Jose,

    What I say is different (I’ve been trying to write it up, but it’s not so brief) from what you say, but consistent, part of the same message. Thanks for putting that out there.

  6. Post

    But JD, what you’re saying isn’t all that different either. After reading your series of posts on the matter, I realize that we’re really on the same boat. Maybe not the same approaches to everything, but that can be expected. You’re welcome, man.

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  10. Thanks for the advice, I am about to begin a new career with the teaching fellows and needed some encouragement. Their are so many blogs with negative perspectives. Thanks again.

  11. Fantastic. I think getting a grasp on the school culture and finding one’s place in it are two of the more difficult tasks for new teachers. Thank you.

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