In the last few weeks, I’ve had the occasion to talk with several young teachers, conversations that prompted me to reflect on the beginning of my teaching career.  

It was the fall of 1981; I had just graduated from college with a degree in history. A distinguished New York girls school had hired me, assigning me all the junior U.S. history classes, AP and regular, along with a section of eighth grade. I had no teaching experience beyond what I had learned from observing my own teachers. My history degree seeming sufficient preparation, I received no direction for the bulk of my responsibilities — three sections of 11th grade U.S. history. The chair of the department may have visited my classes, but I don’t remember her doing so, and I know for certain that she offered hardly any advice or support — nor, in fairness, did I ask for any. Fortunately, we used a curriculum for the eighth grade that incorporated a variety of activities, such as mock trials and debates. Despite having had many teachers whom I would describe as excellent, I had never experienced this type of learning. I quickly saw its value and started integrating similar methods with my juniors. 

While using more student-centered, interactive activities in my classes surely made them more engaging, I think I owed the success I achieved to the connection I quickly developed with my students. I loved them, and my passion for history, sense of humor, and the fact that I wasn’t much older than they all helped me to connect with them. I felt invested in their success and they knew it. 

Mostly On Their Own

Because at my school we rarely hire teachers right out of college, when I have a chance to talk with new teachers, I’m curious about how schools prepare them for their work. What I learned was that, in at least two independent schools, not much has changed in 35-plus years. 

One young man who just finished his first year of teaching at a 9-12 boarding school, the school where he went, told me that he spent about 90 minutes with his department chair reviewing the content for the required theology class he teaches three sections of each trimester.  For the section of 10th grade English that rounds out his teaching load, he received a list of the core texts and was left to his own devices to flesh out the assigned reading and teach the material as he wished. He is also living in a dorm and coaching. 

Another young man, my nephew, teaches math, computer science, and pretty much whatever else they need at a boys junior boarding school, also a school he attended. He told me he does receive support from the math department chair, but given that in his first year he was teaching some of the weakest math students in the school, he probably needed much more than he got. Like the other young man, he has dorm responsibilities and coaches.  

A young woman who is about to start as a Teach for America teacher at KIPP in Lynn, Massachusetts, where, as it happens she also went to school, told me spent two weeks in a TFA teaching boot camp that focuses on a host of issues including classroom management and diversity, equity, and inclusion. While exuding confidence, she observed that she didn’t feel very well prepared.  

Discovering the Key

Which brings me to another recent conversation with a relatively new teacher, albeit older.  Two years ago, our Director of Libraries and Information Services — the tech guy — started teaching seventh grade computational thinking.  He had the support of a structured curriculum and a colleague steeped curriculum design and pedagogy, but he was initially very anxious about taking, for him, the huge step of entering the classroom. This summer, as he and I were reviewing his year, he made the observation that at its heart, teaching is about building relationships. Once he figured that out, he has found much greater success. 

There it is: the heart of effective teaching. Do we often enough tell novice teachers this? Maybe in some schools we do, but I don’t think that we make it the top priority. We didn’t tell our tech guy. We do put structures in place, like advisory, to promote the building of relationships. We talk about the importance of student-teacher relationships in our promotional materials and students recognize the importance of these relationships. Do we, though, help teachers actually build them?

For the most part, we rely on teachers to figure out themselves the importance of relationships with the actual building happening naturally, as it did for me as a young teacher, or because teachers work at it. While we may not prioritize relationship-building in whatever training we do offer new teachers, any administrator knows what happens when teachers don’t connect with students.  

Emphasize How We Teach

Content knowledge is important, and I worry some about the psychology-major KIPP teacher who will be teaching geometry. However, my Ivy League degree was not sufficient to make me as good a teacher as I could have been nor are these young teachers’ degrees from fine colleges and universities. Administrators, department chairs, and mentors of new teachers should all focus new teachers on establishing connections with their students. In addition to emphasizing the importance of relationships explicitly, we should give our teachers — all of them — more tools in the areas of adolescent development along with an understanding of mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, as well as training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. This knowledge will help them in their relationship-building. 

Without denying the importance of what we teach, we need to emphasize more how we teach. Are we seeing each student for who she is? Are we really getting to know our students, not just in the classroom but outside — by going to a game or attending a play and then saying something the next day? Are we not waiting for the student to come to us, but instead reaching out when we can tell a student needs support — academic or otherwise? In treating our students holistically, we will be more effective in the what, and have more opportunity to teach the other lessons we hope to impart, lessons about integrity, respect, perspective, and compassion.