What Makes a Good Teacher? First-Year Reflections
Victoria Nichols, a former member of our team, has recently completed her first year as a middle school teacher in California. Last year, she shared her thoughts on the meaning of “good” teaching in a previous blog post. In this new contribution, Victoria provides some reflections on the difficulties of being at the head of the classroom and whether she feels she has yet become a “good teacher.”
As of 2am on Friday, June 3rd, after a 12-hour field trip to Six Flags, I officially survived my first year of teaching. I teach English Language Arts to 8th grade students at a public charter middle school in South Los Angeles. And as rewarding as this first year was, it was also mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting; at times, it was even demoralizing.
Thus, I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on what went well, what went wrong, and what I can do next time to become a better teacher. I have a strong background in English, psychology, and education, and graduated from an acclaimed Masters in Teaching program, but like so many before me, I was not prepared. I was not prepared to serve as innovative educator, pedagogical expert, Common Core specialist, disciplinarian, advocate, counselor, therapist, nurse, friend, enemy, confidant, and surrogate family member, all at the same time. This, of course, raises the question of where I may have went wrong, and more importantly, what really makes a good teacher?
According to the findings of the Good Work Project, work that is “good” is defined as excellent, ethical, and engaging. Teaching was, without a doubt, engaging. I was fully invested in teaching, meeting with my colleagues, calling parents, tutoring, grading, and planning, often from 7:00 in the morning until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. What I enjoyed the most, however, was finding new, innovative ways to teach concrete reading and writing skills to my often-apathetic students. From comparing Langston Hughes to Tupac Shakur, to analyzing commercials as an introduction to rhetorical devices, what I found most engaging was making the lessons engaging in turn for my students.
I am also confident that the work I am doing is ethical and that I have a strong ethical compass to guide me. My school’s mission is to educate future leaders who will transform their community by closing the socio-economic, ethnic, and gender gaps in STEM-related fields. The school places an emphasis on the importance of scholarliness, advocacy, perseverance, and kindness, in hopes that my scholars will one day return to their communities both academically and morally strong, thus ending the cyclical effects of poverty, racism, and sexism. I personally saw some of my students transform in the nine short months we worked together. One student, who began the school year striving to get kicked out of class every day by any means possible in order to avoid reading, sought me out at graduation to apologize for his behavior and to make a promise that he would seek help, not avoidance, in high school. I feel fully aligned with my school’s vision and am assured that I am having a lasting impact not only on my students’ lives but also on the community as a whole.
The question of excellence, however, still remains. What makes a master teacher? Is it experience? Or is it the grit, tenacity, and perseverance required to achieve that level of experience? Currently, in the United States, the majority of teachers quit before five years on the job, thus never reaching a true level of mastery. But who can blame them? Very few jobs ask one to accept the possibility of being screamed and cussed at, lied to, ignored, talked over, and even stolen from on a daily basis. You just need to decide if that thank you note from one of your most difficult students or being bombarded with hugs at graduation will be enough to sustain you.
For me, the fleeting moments of recognition, inspiration, and understanding far outweigh the drudgery of moderating teenage angst. Therefore, I hope that I can learn from the mistakes I made this first year so that I can continue to strive for excellence in teaching, and hopefully, one day, become a truly “good” teacher.