(This is the second in a series of reflective posts about my first year teaching. The first can be found here.)
“I spell mmm, aaa child, nnn
That represents man
No B, O child, Y
That mean mannish boy”
As a first year teacher straight out of college, I found myself not too far removed in age from my senior students but suddenly at a vast distance both socially and developmentally. I admit that I approached the year from a fear-based standpoint from the outset, and to some extent, I still approach the prospect with fear. That is not to say that I’m scared of going to school, but that the unknown always promotes some sense of fear in me. Seligman’s basic theory of preparedness suggests that some phobias are more universal than others, and the unknown future qualifies as one of the environmental threats that prompts this kind of fear-response. I remained, however, a “mannish boy” in the eyes of many — my students, my peers, and myself.
The developmental stages that every psychologist and theorist from Freud onward identifies are much more fluid than the convenient categories we assign. Some days, my responses to stimulus were boyish — using sarcasm with students to get a laugh, feeling an angry response to a petulant lipsmack by a student, looking for leadership rather than leading myself. To use Kohlberg’s definitions, I remained in a conventional mode — attempting to find social norms and be the “good guy.” Other days, I found myself in full adult mode, building social contracts with students and other adults, leading a classroom, ignoring behavior but addressing students. This spectrum of emotional responses could change daily, but a gradual change was setting into place.
One of my criticisms of most developmental theory is the presumption that these stages occur once and never again, and that they occur at specific times in development. Nowhere is this clearer than in the development of our different roles and transition from one phase of life to the next. As new teachers, our teaching styles and personalities become as easily formed in our first year of teaching as we were in our students’ basic peer interactions in late childhood and adolescence. Recent research seems to corroborate this, in that improvements in teaching (standardized test scores — they ain’t much, but hey, they’re something) only occur in the first four years, after which any improvements plateau.
Just as adolescence is formative for young teens, so are the first years of teaching formative for first-time teachers. The birth-order effects and role model behavior that occurs, then, applies to my teaching as well, and I would posit that much of my positive growth this year has come as a result of peer interactions with other teachers at our school. Teachers on staff were almost uniformly dedicated to their jobs of educating students and providing students the opportunity to succeed in the classroom and in the real world. Existing in a community — belonging — allowed me to develop the emotional stability to move past the basic fearful stage into more actualized stages of development. Older teachers and administrators provided positive role models and facilitated a safe environment for me to step away from my initial fear. Notably, however, the principal also had a generally hands-off approach when it came to the teaching techniques I used in the classroom. Certainly there were observations, but these supports were never overbearing, striking the proper balance of guidance between neglectful and doting. Although the lack of solid disciplinary systems at my school led to difficulties in managing the classroom, once I became familiar with the setting (and a relatively “normal” routine was, I think, important for me to fall into an established pattern of positive behavior), I was able to reflect on lessons as they were taking place, as well as self-assess my emotions towards a particular confrontation or frustration during the day.
If regularity and proper support were the tools that gave me the patience and mental fortitude to cope with the stresses of the unknown in the first year teaching, the areas that hampered my growth were the opposites of these — random occurrence and improper support. Certainly a person must be ready for random occurrences at all times, but the haphazard way in which the school was often run did not allow me proper time for reflection, often putting me back into a “fearful” mentality. An unannounced half-day or assembly, a student loudly paraded out of my classroom, an insecurity as to what will happen from day to day — the same kinds of disruptions that create social maladjustment in developing students — created a difficult environment for me to grow properly.
Judith Rich Harris notes that birth order effects (oldest more responsible, youngest more personable, etc.) are only as far-reaching as the particular family environment in which they occur; once outside that environment, entirely new behavioral effects take charge. Similarly, no matter my previous experience with routine or lack thereof (working at a newspaper, hitchhiking across America, etc.), the particulars of teaching still produced the emotional/social responses that I had to my teaching world. Analogously, the occasional lack of support — demonstrated most clearly by the teacher groups and cliques that began to form over the course of the year — led me to wonder whether my role in the school community would be appreciated, and whether I had to watch my back and avoid taking risks. Again, it was the return to fear, which by Maslow’s model knocked me past all basic reason, that occasionally kept my brain in self-preservation mode rather than anything altruistic or beneficial. Peer effects were the most powerful at this point, since I was a neophyte and the community was developing with few veteran teachers, so I often felt myself dragged along by the current of popular opinion or turning a blind eye to unethical behavior.
Based on this, although it seems strange to say, I believe that the students themselves may be the least important element to healthy teacher emotional growth over the course of the year. That’s not to say that strong relationships don’t build between teacher and student, nor do I suggest that students are uninfluential in the construction of a teacher’s identity. Nevertheless, the key factors in my development and the key factors that the research would point to as important in developing a healthy emotional/social life style are school administration- and peer-oriented. Even in a school with an unruly and disruptive student population can be a welcoming environment for teachers as long as routines and support exist for the teacher. With a tough but fair principal, competent support staff, and a strong community of fellow teachers, any new teacher can break through a feeling of insecurity and fear towards more emotionally healthy development.
Because those first four years are the only formative years that a teacher really has, schools should not discount the importance of programs that support first-year teachers, as well as organizing routine procedures (as opposed to the byzantine bureaucratic wild goose chases that characterize many urban schools) that let first-year teachers worry about their teaching. Schools must recognize that new teachers need the kind of support that adolescent students receive to transition from “teaching boy” to “teaching man,” or at the very least, “teaching mannish boy.”