How I Engage With New Teachers [Gems from the Dirt]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

I did a lot of listening in the last month, mostly to teachers who just finished their first year of teaching. The sorts of things we veteran teachers complained about when we first started teaching still persist (and in some cases are exacerbated). Some folks felt like their administrators didn’t listen to their feedback. Others felt their mentors were out to get them, or weren’t pedagogues who knew what they were talking about. Some saw that the institutions they were getting degrees from were little more than money-making operations with little grounding in their day-to-day operations. Generally, they felt like they were duped by the institutions that pretended to be friendly to them.

As a teacher who just finished his tenth year of teaching, my first question is: how could I support them in staying, or at least doing the best job possible for the kids in front of them next year?

Everyone bandies teacher attrition statistics about as a filter for their confirmation bias. “These new teachers are leaving quickly, so ed reform isn’t working!” “These new teachers are staying at this school, so something we’re doing must be working.” Yet, the question is rarely, “How can we support new teachers despite and because of our current education climate?” What protections are there for the untenured, possibly brilliant, and harangued by the systems around them? How do we create spaces that explicitly invite and engage teachers in constructive, reaffirming dialogue? Why do so many veteran educators and K-12 professors see themselves as above and beyond needing to mentor their younger peers and, yes, listen as actively as they opine?

I have a serious interest in reversing the effects of climate change, and am keenly aware of the deleterious forces that won’t change their toxic practices, and equally concerned with assuring people with the most need have shelter when the weather goes awry.

That’s why, when representatives from AFT and TFA asked me to engage with them, I said yes without apologies. The AFT space wasn’t too complicated for me. I’m a union guy who pays dues to UFT, NYSUT, NEA, and the AFT, and Randi endorsed my book. TFA made me think thrice. After critical conversations with my friends, it felt like the right thing to do specifically because of the work I would engage them in. When I spoke on #BlackLivesMatter at the AFT, a few folks walked out immediately, but even more folks waited in line to speak with me because they inferred how voiceless they felt around issues of race. When I spoke to Black and Latino teachers of color just finishing their first years of TFA about the complicated spaces they occupy as people of color and the countercultural pedagogy necessary to move towards equity, they too affirmed the purpose of why we were assembled.

If I made even one teacher feel like she or he could do this work for another year, then I’ve done what I came to do. Conversely, I’ll probably be a better teacher from having listened to so many voices of different ages and backgrounds, but with a common thread of wanting to teach kids better.

In the last three months, I’ve met with politicians who I’ve spoken out against on numerous occasions here, women who I’ve battled trolls and union folks over (and lost), and organizations that I haven’t wanted anything to do with for the last eight years. In each case, I hoped to bring about touchy subjects in the hopes that we would hold folks accountable for their work with children as much as I hold myself to it.

Sometimes, we’re going to fail miserably, but we get up and into the work because it moves us so. The things I’ve heard from so many of my colleagues new and old is testament to that. Our flaws are on display daily, and none of the labels make the job any less difficult when young humans we call students are involved. In all the spaces I walked into, the underlying foundation of empathy made me feel like I made purpose there, and for that, I am grateful to have partaken.

I keep finding ways to draw gems from dirt, which is what I do for a living anyways.