A Letter to Teachers
I spent a good part of the summer (and the months leading up to it) planning and co-facilitating Teaching Foundations in Southern California and the Bay Area with a team of stellar facilitators and cohorts of inspiring participants. While I end each session feeling physically tired, my heart always is full, and from that fullness, I feel ready for the school year ahead.
For those who have experienced Teaching Foundations, either this year or in the past, you know each day is packed with so much—and it takes time beyond the workshop to process it all. Part of the program is to engage in a little professional reading, oftentimes from educators offering advice about the start of the school year. From Peter Gow’s “A Letter to New Teachers” to Jennifer Gonzalez’s “Find Your Marigold” to the wealth of wisdom in the world of education, teachers aren’t at a loss for some inspiration prior to the start of school. And as I thought about how to best encapsulate my sentiments from the summer, I thought I’d try my hand at writing a letter, too, offering wisdom that emerged from this summer (and many summers). So here goes…
By this point in time you’re either immersed in classroom set-ups, opening meetings, or sitting in a quiet place fine-tuning your lessons. Maybe you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. Maybe you have so many good ideas you’re not sure how to fit all of them into the span of a school year. Maybe you’re scared, excited, or some combination thereof. Whatever you’re feeling in this present moment, own it. Emotional vicissitudes are part of the landscape of this profession, and the sooner we acknowledge our complex feelings, the better we’ll feel when we come to understand how temporary they are.
And when you have time to settle into what’s most important to you heading into this school year, I hope you’ll add some of these pieces of wisdom to the fold:
Identity matters for equitable classrooms: It’s easy to dive into our subject areas, class routines, and skill goals in that first week without attending to who is in the room. Yet we can’t teach our students fully until we understand their backgrounds, beliefs, and values; and it’s equally important to know our own. This fall is a good time for intake: for learning about your students as young people so you can tap into their strengths and help them grow. In the same vein, make sure to examine what makes you who you are, why you got into teaching, and how the contexts of your lives brought you to this present moment. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your biases and blind spots as well. This extra effort will make all the difference in ensuring you can be responsive to every student in a meaningful and equitable way.
Understand your “why”: If you’re doing identity work, then the why is soon to follow—not only in understanding why you teach and your purpose in this profession, but also the purpose for what you teach. Everything you do needs to have purpose, even if the purpose is to set a foundation you’ll build upon later, or if it means taking risks and trying something new. I know it can seem like a nagging question when students ask, “Why are we learning this?” And instead of balking at the question or taking a defensive stance, consider leaning in and being clear about the why. Students will buy into the classroom process, and you’ll deepen your sense of purpose for what you’re doing (and cut out what isn’t working).
Build class culture with your students: The beauty of teaching is meeting the diversity of young people on their journey growing up. And while they may have fewer years around the sun than us, they have the wisdom of their age and circumstance that can help us know the best ways to meet their learning needs. In those first weeks, consider making classroom agreements, or class contracts, or establishing some classroom values together. Revisit these agreements at 3-4 week intervals and see how you all are doing in relation to what you stated. And yes, each class (for upper grades) needs to have its own set of values; this practice honors student voice and makes the classroom a safe, responsive place for challenging academics.
Seek feedback, early and often: Teaching is a vulnerable act, and nothing can be more vulnerable than asking for feedback. And yet, if the only people offering you feedback are the ones who come to visit your class a couple times a year, then you’re only getting a slim slice of your strengths and growth areas. Consider surveying students once a month, or consider using a range of feedback techniques to see if students are learning and meeting your objectives. Don’t forget to report back on themes from the feedback and share what action steps you’ll take (or not take) in response. Modeling the practice of seeking feedback will help your students accept your feedback as well.
Challenge yourself to be 10% braver: When I was working on my teaching credential, I took a course with a professor who was a font of wisdom. And as we were discussing a range of teaching techniques alongside the challenges of our classrooms, this professor asked us to approach our work as if we were 10% braver—because just as our students have their “zones of proximal development” (optimal conditions for learning and growth), we as teachers have ours. We can only learn and grow if we’re 10% braver, taking leaps and trying tools we might otherwise shy away from. After years of heeding this advice, it’s well worth the effort to approach teaching from this mindset.
Find your people, and take care of yourselves: Teaching can feel isolating, even if we’re in a building full of people all day long. And while it can be easy to shut our doors and retreat into solitude on our toughest days, we’re social creatures who thrive in community, whether large or small. Find trusted colleagues, in your school or outside it, and build time to check in. Having colleagues to rely on, to give you a boost, and to share good news can be affirming in hard and joyous moments. And just as we need people to hold us up, we also need the sort of self-reliance and resilience that comes from self care. I write/talk about this topic a lot, as self care is something that falls by the wayside when school years get busy. Consider building in meditation, exercise, or indulging in a favorite hobby or social activity as part of your self-care regimen. Keep a folder (electronically or physically) of good things you receive: messages, notes, a complimentary email. Finding community and taking care of ourselves are pieces of advice we’d offer students, and we also need the same.
To create student-centered classrooms, the power is in the planning: Independent schools pride themselves on being student-centered environments, with a focus on community and whole-child education. And while a teacher definitely burns calories during the class period, the greatest investment of time is in the planning process. Spend time developing dynamic lessons, experiences that have students engaged in multiple ways of learning about a subject. If you’re allocating your time right, your hard work is in the planning phases, and the students are generating the output within class. Especially in the early years of this career, when you know you’ll be busier as you learn the tools and habits of effective teaching, taking a good deal of time to prepare your lessons will manifest in students feeling safe, challenged, engaged, and empowered in the classroom process.
Regardless of where you work or the grade levels you teach, the traits listed above are skills that transcend time and space, age and stage. I’ve learned that education is not solely about the content or love of subject—although those are certainly helpful vehicles of learning. Education is about the kinds of access we can offer students, what doors we can open to learning, and how we can help raise young people into good human beings, so they, too, can help make the world a better place for all.
Best of luck as you start this school year. I can’t wait to hear all about it.
Lori Cohen has worked in education (both public and independent) for two decades and currently serves as the Dean of Faculty at the Bay School of San Francisco. Prior to her current role at Bay, Lori taught Humanities, Literature, and Religion/Philosophy courses; served as an Instructional Coach; and was the founder/coordinator of Bay’s Teaching Fellows program. This will be Lori’s sixth year as a co-facilitator/teacher leader in Teaching Foundations, a program that brings her joy and professional rejuvenation. In addition to facilitating professional development, teaching, and leading, Lori actively works towards equity and social justice in education, striving to offer access and pathways for all school stakeholders to thrive.