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Take a chance, be yourself

August 14, 2013

Six years ago almost to the day, before I started blogging, I wrote an article in EdWeek Teacher, aimed at new teachers and offering advice on establishing your professional identity. This is certainly the right time of year to be looking back at it, and I’m glad to say I wouldn’t change a thing. Here are some excerpts from the original article; add your own advice in the comments!

Although the students and the classroom are your top priorities, it’s never too early to think carefully about how early experiences in your career can help you establish a professional identity—about how you can collaborate with others and engage in the profession. Here are some hints to help you think about and establish a professional identity.

DSC_0104First, find your allies. Whether they are teachers, custodians, secretaries, parents, librarians, aides, coaches, or counselors, these are the people who want to help you succeed with students. You’ll hear this advice from others who quite rightly want you to recognize how these people contribute to your effectiveness in the classroom. But, besides helping you in your teaching, true allies will start motivating you and validating your efforts, even beyond what you might think you deserve. Consider what a vote of confidence does for your students, and give yourself permission to actively seek out the same for yourself.

… Maximize the time you spend with people who recognize your brilliance while still pushing you to question and reflect. Find allies who are modeling a professional community and who support their colleagues to ensure that the school is committed to sustained professional development.

wrong wayAvoid the Ax Grinder. …Look out for the complainer. Someone in your school doesn’t like being there anymore, or doesn’t like someone else in the school. Needing validation, the complainer will want to present evidence to you so that you will join his or her ranks. Often, this person has a permanent spot in the office or lounge. In that case, make yours a coffee-to-go. You have nothing to gain from listening to gossip, slander, or the repetitive spinning of an ax-grinder, and even less to gain by trying to match stories, if you’re so tempted. It’s a trap easily fallen into.

Moods are contagious, so spend your time with people who love what they do.

DSC_0310Speak Your Mind. … Staff members play roles in the drama (or comedy) of school cultures, so choose your early roles well to avoid typecasting. …Many people take a similar approach in schools…, and might even tell you “don’t make waves, keep quiet until you’re tenured.”

But my good friend and colleague Adam showed me the importance of speaking your mind from the start. When we taught together in Chicago, we found each other quite compatible in our values and priorities, and we sometimes found ourselves trying to express the same dissenting view on a decision or policy within our school. …Adam was more effective at this than I was, because his professional identity was already well established. Everyone knew what he stood for and knew that he would express respectful disagreement when necessary. That was Adam’s role, and his voice could put an end to thoughtless groupthink and encourage people to reconsider an idea. …With time I gained the confidence to speak up, but either because I waited too long or spoke too equivocally, I was not heard the same way that Adam was.

My advice may seem unorthodox, but I’m merely suggesting that you need to be yourself, be authentic, and be principled—and don’t wait.

Within a school community, your professional identity forms early, and can contribute greatly to your job satisfaction and effectiveness. With the support of a collaborative, appreciative community, and by steering clear of negativity, you can find your voice early and grow into the roles you’re hoping to play as an educator.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2013 9:45 am

    Many new teachers struggle to be “principled” when faced with the pressures and constraints teachers encounter. Much they are asked/expected to do in the name of CC/Accountability may be counter to what they believe about kids and learning. That the context in which you are establishing yourself will shift, will change, is important to know. The history of your profession demonstrates that “this too shall pass,” or at the very least will morph repeatedly and often rapidly – all the more reason to be “principled” and to find your foundation in more than the current wave. JSD

  2. August 14, 2013 5:27 pm

    I have to be cynical like this, but let me say the following: sometimes, I’m happy some teachers aren’t themselves. Every so often, we need people to learn how to listen, how to address their colleagues, or even how to model the behavior we want to see with our students. Also, as much as I wanted to be out there with everything I was doing, I found that too many of my new colleagues were getting the wrong type of attention (jealousy, pats on the head, disrespect). When I walked in the school, the serious face was for everyone, especially administrators. Once I had my pedagogy down and my reputation was secure, I lightened up a bit. I wish this wasn’t the case, but in some environments, that’s how we have to be.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 14, 2013 7:42 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope my post didn’t seem to suggest new teachers should just let it all hang out all the time. Speaking your mind won’t impress anyone if you haven’t been listening, learning, processing, respecting people, and thinking carefully. But it’s a shame not to tap into the potential insights and perspectives of new staff members who keep quiet regarding divergent views just because they’re new.

  3. Felicitas permalink
    January 11, 2014 9:02 pm

    What happens when the new teacher is the complainer? I find it hard when new teachers are the ones complaining and have the negative attitude. I have been a teacher 20+ years and it’s hard to see that a new teacher would be so negative and set in their way instead of the 20+ year veteran

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