This is another reflection from Jim Burke’s “Letters to a New Teacher.” I knew I had to post about this section the second I read the question Jim was addressing, “My students seem to be bored out of their minds. How can I compete with lunch, the weekend, and all their other interests? I feel like I am inflicting them with Chinese water torture or something. What can I do?”
Before I read Jim’s response I tried to answer this question myself. Of course, much of what we have learned from Methods came to mind: give them choice, provide them with material that interests them, apply material to their lives, don’t lecture. Which was also all addressed by Jim. However, I feel the most important part of his response was his resistance to allowing Joy to give up.
“You need to know that every great–and I mean great—teacher I know tried to quit at some point, felt they were a fraud or failure.” (48)
Immediately I became fearful. Am I going to want to quit too? To be honest, the answer is yes, I’m going to have my HORRIFIC days that I just don’t feel I am doing my job or getting through to my students. But it’s these days that Jim says we learn the most. We learn what doesn’t work and we learn from our students-what they want. Ever hear the saying, “You gotta hit rock bottom before you can hit rock star?” Yeah, really corny, but it applies. The point is not to give up. The great teachers are those who recognized themselves at their weakest and built their way to their strongest. They didn’t fail their students by giving into their temporary self-failure.
There is a solution for every problem (math taught me that….I think).
“Solutions lie not only inside yourself but in the books of the masters, which you must read, and the classrooms of the masters, which you must visit and observe as you figure out what kind of teacher you want to be, what your identity as a teacher is.” (50)
Does this sound familiar? It’s exactly what Dr. Ellington has preached. You cannot ever EVER stop learning. Learn from the masters, develop your professional life, learn from your colleagues, learn from you students. Learning is lifelong. And it also helps ease the pain of finding some of these difficult classroom solutions! I know it’s hard right now, because we are all drowning deep in our own schoolwork, but we have to learn to manage and make time to become better teachers as we are finishing our chapter as “students.”
“Give yourself time to learn, to be less than perfect, to make inevitable mistakes from which you will learn.” (52)
Jim ends his letter assuring Joy that she has already taken the first steps in becoming a great teacher; she hasn’t given up, she has consulted her colleagues, asked her students what helps them, and reached out to Jim (our master) for advice.
The resources are there. We just have to take advantage of them. We have to understand that being a great teacher requires revision and dedication. Most importantly, we have to have faith in ourselves.