Tips on Becoming a Teacher

Dr. R. J. Kizlik

It is absolutely true that some people, from the time they are in first grade, know they want to be teachers. For others, the idea to become a teacher can be a sudden insight, or a feeling that ferments for years in some remote corner of their consciousness. Regardless of where the idea comes from, for many, the images associated with becoming a teacher are compelling. However, as is often the case in life, the differences between images and reality can be stark, unsettling, and disappointing. Current uncertainties in the American, as well as world economies only serve to exacerbate the differences. This reality is the reason for this page.

We all know that as the "Baby Boomers" retire and leave teaching in large numbers over the next ten years, probably more than a million new teachers will be needed to replace them, let alone hundreds of thousands needed to keep pace with the anticipated growth of student populations, the current world-wide recession notwithstanding. Perhaps you will be one of these new teachers Perhaps not.

The current world-wide recession as of February 2010 has had some impact on public school systems hiring new teachers. In some areas there are hiring freezes, increased class sizes and cuts in courses offered, all of which affect hiring. This situation likely won't last more than a few years, and teachers will be hired, but probably at a much slower pace, affected possibly by the decisions of older teachers to stay longer in teaching than they originally planned. My advice is to hang in there, and be patient.

Please read on.

For lack of a better way to say it, this page is about some basic teacher-things. For sure, not every person who wants to be a teacher should be a teacher. There is a vast gulf between the ideal of teaching and the reality of the classroom. Teaching probably won't make you rich, and, to be sure, no one should make any career decision without gathering as much information as possible. Tips on becoming a teacher is a start.

Make no mistake; teaching is like no other profession. As a teacher, you will wear many hats. You will, to name but of a few of the roles teachers assume in carrying out their duties, be a communicator, a disciplinarian, a conveyor of information, an evaluator, a classroom manager, a counselor, a member of many teams and groups, a decision-maker, a role-model, and a surrogate parent. Each of these roles requires practice and skills that are often not taught in teacher preparation programs. Not all who want to be teachers should invest the time and resources in teacher training or teacher preparation programs if they do not have the appropriate temperament, skills, and personality. Teaching has a very high attrition rate. Depending on whose statistics you trust, around forty percent of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years. It is obviously not what they thought it would be. One thing for sure, it's about more than loving kids.

Make no mistake; as a teacher, your day doesn't necessarily end when the school bell rings. If you're conscientious, you will be involved in after school meetings, committees, assisting students, grading homework, assignments, projects, and calling parents. All these demand some sacrifice of your personal time. If you're committed to excellence as a teacher, it's a sacrifice you can live with. If not, you will be uncomfortable at best.

Teacher training and teacher preparation programs exist in every state, as well as in various forms of on-line courses and degree programs, and the requirements vary. Programs like Centenary College adult studies offer flexible schedules, different than regular degree programs. You will have many options from which to choose. Choose wisely. My own advice is to select a program that offers a rich and solid foundation of courses, regardless of whether you intend to teach at the elementary, middle school, or high school level. I believe that no teacher education program, including the one in which I teach, can actually teach you how to teach. Rather, what we do is get you ready to learn how to teach, and that takes place on the job. My advice is to choose a program that offers a rich balance of subject matter content courses and pedagogy, including clinical experience in all its forms. You are learning both skills and understandings in any teacher education program. Practice those skills as perfectly as possible, and strive each day to deepen your understandings of the concepts, theories and generalizations that you encounter. By doing so, you will build a solid foundation for learning how to teach once you become employed, and, you will be a better teacher.

From my own teaching experience and from discussions and teaching many hundreds of teachers and thousands of teacher education students, there emerge common threads of understanding and skill that good teachers weave into an effective personal style of teaching. Assess your own knowledge and values in terms of your thoughts about the following:

Good teachers:

are good at explaining things. Do you like to explain how something works, or how something happened? Being comfortable with explaining content to students is an essential skill for teachers, regardless of the subject or grade level.

keep their cool. There will be times when you will be tempted to scream or yell at your students, other teachers, parents, administrators, and so on. Good teachers are able to successfully resist this urge.

have a sense of humor. Research has consistently shown that good teachers have a sense of humor, and that they are able to use humor as part of their teaching methods. Humor, used properly, can be a powerful addition to any lesson.

like people, especially students in the age range in which they intend to teach. Most teachers choose an area of specialization such as elementary education, special education, secondary education, or higher education because they have a temperament for students in those age ranges. If you are not comfortable working with young children, don't major in elementary education!

are inherently fair-minded. They are able to assess students on the basis of performance, not on the students' personal qualities.

have "common sense." It may sound a bit corny, but good teachers are practical. They can size up a situation quickly and make an appropriate decision. Whether managing a classroom, leading students on a field trip, seamlessly shifting from one instructional procedure to another, assigning detentions, supervising an intern, or dealing with policy and curriculum issues in the school, there is no substitute for common sense.

have a command of the content they teach. For elementary school teachers, that means having knowledge of a broad range of content in sufficient depth to convey the information in meaningful ways to the students. For secondary school teachers, it usually means having an in-depth command of one or two specific content areas such as mathematics or biology.

set high expectations for their students and hold the students to those expectations. If you are thinking about becoming a teacher, you should set high expectations for yourself, and demand excellence not only of yourself, but your students as well.

are detail oriented. If you are a disorganized person in your private life, you will find that teaching will probably be uncomfortable for you. At the very least, teachers must be organized in their professional and teaching duties. If you're not organized and are not detail oriented, teaching may not be the best choice of a profession for you.

are good managers of time. Time is one of the most precious resources a teacher has. Good teachers have learned to use this resource wisely.

can lead or follow, as the situation demands. Sometimes, teachers must be members of committees, groups, councils, and task forces. Having the temperament to function in these capacities is extremely important. At other times, teachers assume leadership roles. Be sure you are comfortable being a leader or a follower, because sooner or later, you will be called on to function in those roles.

don't take things for granted. This applies to everything, from selecting a college or school of education to filing papers for certification. Good follow-through habits should be cultivated throughout life, but they are never more important than during your teacher education program. Read the catalog, know the rules, be aware of prerequisites and meet deadlines. In one sense, you don't learn to teach by getting a degree and becoming certified. You learn to teach in much the same way you learned to drive -- by driving. You learn to teach by teaching, by making mistakes, learning from them and improving. The purpose of a teacher education program is to get you as ready as possible to learn how to teach by subjecting you to a variety of methods and experiences that have a basis in tradition and research.

have some "hard bark" on them. Take it from me as a teacher in both public schools and at the university level, that you need some hard bark in order to survive, let alone thrive.

John Russell, the name of the character played by Paul Newman in the 1967 movie "Hombre," was told, in the latter part of the film by a man he had just shot in order to protect a group of innocent, yet cowardly people, "Mister, you've got some hard bark on you." Indeed he did, because he was both physically tough and tough minded. He was also realistic, honest, fair, and understood that sometimes doing the right thing involves risk. There is a lesson in all of this for education students.

Without a doubt, young men and women entering the teaching profession today need to have some "hard bark" on them. If they don't, the small wounds inflicted by dealing with the everyday problems of teaching, disciplining, planning, counseling, dealing with administrators, colleagues, parents, and so on, mount up. If they're easily wounded by disappointment, rudeness, and even unfairness, they won't last because these things happen, and nothing will change that. Reflecting back on my won experiences, I can say reservation, that the most difficult aspect of teaching was not the students, the subject matter, or the parents. It was the teachers. To be a good teacher, you have to be able to deal with the incessant politics and interpersonal issues of your colleagues. Trust me, if you don't have some "hard bark" on you, the stress of this aspect of teaching can easily wear you down to a nub in short order.

All of these qualities define some of the characteristics of good teachers. If it is not your goal to become a good teacher at the very least, perhaps thinking about the above will help you see other career alternatives. A good idea, when first making such a decision, is to talk to teachers. Find out what they do, and what led them into teaching. Do a personal inventory of your own values, personality, preferences and goals. But, whatever you do, don't go into teaching simply because you love kids!

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