A Word of Advice to New Teachers: Excel in the Ordinary

About this time of year thousands of recent college grads and others will be receiving e-mails and letters telling them where and what they’ll be teaching for the next two years of their lives.

Students at KIPP Delta College Prep
Students at KIPP Delta College Prep in Helena, Arkansas

Teach For America is a non-profit that focuses on closing the achievement gap by recruiting our nation’s top college-graduates and leaders for a two-year teaching commitment in low-income schools.  And they’re sending out their placement notices right now.  I am a TFA alumnus and ended up at my school for a total of seven years.  As I reflect on my experience as a public school teacher and administrator I have a word of advice I’d like to humbly offer all new teachers: Excel in the ordinary.

Teach For America and  similar alternative teacher certification programs market “impact” as their hook. They entice ambitious young professionals to put their leadership skills to work in America’s toughest classrooms and make an impression for good.  These organizations cast teachers not only as educators but as leaders, life-changers.  Men and women who have the potential to irrevocably alter a child’s destiny.  And they’re right.  Teachers are leaders.  They wield tremendous influence in their students’ lives.  Teaching, especially in our most under-resourced schools, is a high and noble calling.  But there’s another angle to consider.

One of the messages that may not be as explicit or emphasized to new teachers is how  one actually makes an impact.  I’ve encountered so many teachers (and I was one of them!) who believe that success as an educator means an earth-shaking, odds-defying, Stand and Deliver-type of achievement in the classroom.

I’d like to take the pressure off.  You don’t have to raise $10,000 to send your kids to Washington D.C.  You don’t have to get all your kids to advance three grade levels in a year.  And you don’t have to have a moment when all the kids stand on top of their desks and proclaim, “O, Captain, my Captain!” in unison.  All you have to do as a teacher is excel in the ordinary.

If you are a new teacher you can be caught up with trying to change the entire school and something broader than the classroom, but I advise new teachers to focus on creating change in the students in your class.–Nicole Baker Fulgham

Excellence in the classroom happens in the daily, mundane, common tasks every teacher has to accomplish.  If you want to have influence and impact as a teacher come to class every day with a tight lesson plan.  Make sure your self-made worksheets are typo-free.  Remember your students’ birthdays and make sure their classmates do, too.  Chat with the kids at lunch and recess instead of other teachers.  Go to their football games, recitals, and church programs.  Keep every single promise you make to a child.

My dear teacher, your students may get excited about the “big” things you do, but their lives will be changed by the “little”, every day acts of faithfulness that you perform.  Our students, from pre-school to high school, are looking for steadiness, consistency, kindness, and compassion from their teachers.

These attributes are communicated subtly, without a lot of fanfare.  Most people won’t immediately recognize when you’re being outstanding in these areas.  But trust me, if you persistently do the ordinary things in an excellent way, your students will notice.  One day, even after just a year or two, you’ll look back and see dozens of children who admire, respect, and even love you.  That is impact as an educator.  That is excellence.

3 thoughts on “A Word of Advice to New Teachers: Excel in the Ordinary

  1. Great post with an awesome, realistic message. I remember entering my first inner city classroom as a new grad, feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, that somehow I had to work a miracle with my students, some of whom were two grade levels or more behind. A wise mentor pulled me aside one day and told me to start by making a dent.

    You’re so right – students will remember the small, every day kindnesses. Children need to know their teachers really care. If you can achieve that, making a dent or even more will happen.

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