By Otis Kriegel, author of Everything a New Elementary School Teacher REALLY Needs to Know
In my career, I have taught at five different schools. It’s fun immersing myself in different communities, but I’ve had to learn the ropes over and over again each time I switched locations. Were kids supposed to use the bathroom in pairs or alone? Were parents allowed free reign in the school or not allowed into the building during school hours? How much homework was expected each night? Learning a new school’s culture every year was exhausting.
During my third year—and third school—instead of going from classroom to classroom bothering my colleagues, including the office staff and sometimes the principal, I found one teacher on my grade level. I stepped into his classroom one summer afternoon when we were both prepping our rooms for the coming year and offered to help him with the desks he was moving. When we were done, I asked him if I could take a few minutes of his time so I could ask all of those school culture questions at once.
Ahhhhhhhhhh. Yes. Right away I felt relief from that stress headache that had been paralyzing me in the corner of my dusty classroom. We sat together, shared a snack, and I went through a laundry list of questions: What were the arrival and dismissal procedures? When were faculty meetings? What was expected of me during Back to School Night? How were report cards distributed? And so on.
After less than half an hour, I not only felt more prepared, but I had learned more about the school, the staff, and the likes and dislikes of my principal; a few details about some of my students; and even where was the closest spot to school for a quick, healthy lunch when I had forgotten mine.
Did I have more questions throughout the year? Of course. Was that teacher the only person I asked for help? No way. But finding the courage to ask someone for a chunk of his time at the beginning of the year paid off in dividends for the months after. And I was sure to bring that first teacher some treats throughout the school year. He deserved it.
Teaching can be an isolating job. We work all day in a room with 20–35 kids, and rarely do we have the chance to speak to another adult during teaching time. We are independent, self-motivated people who find inspiration in working with children. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the time to ask a fellow teacher for some help! Use some preparation time before the school year begins to get the low-down on how your school operates.
New teachers should heed the same advice we give our students: ask a friend for help.
What advice do you give new teachers at your school? How do you recommend learning a school’s culture?
Otis Kriegel is a 12-year veteran elementary school teacher, having taught in dual language (Spanish/English), monolingual, and Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms. He received his M.S.Ed. in bilingual education from the Bank Street College of Education, and is adjunct faculty at the Steinhardt School at New York University. He has been a guest lecturer at the Bank Street College of Education, City College of New York, and Touro College. He created the workshop, “How to Survive Your First Years Teaching & Have a Life,” which was the impetus of his book. An experienced presenter, Kriegel has conducted this workshop with hundreds of preservice and new teachers and continues to present in universities and teacher education programs. He founded the parent advice website The K5 (www.thek5.com) to help parents of elementary school-age children.
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