“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The recent profile of author Ed Boland in the New York Times, The Myth of the Hero Teacher, reminds me of Kid Dynamite’s advice and my first year teaching at a middle school in Brooklyn.
Much like Boland, whose memoir is titled The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School, I left an ostensibly more prestigious career seeking something—I cringe to say it now—“more rewarding” and became a teacher.
Like Boland’s experience, my first year in an urban school was rough. My class was home to the most “mooing.” There were days when pencils flew and at least one scare involved burning hair. My failures in classroom management were only more apparent (beyond the barnyard on fire) as I often felt that I was the lone struggling teacher in the building.
That’s where the similarities end.
See, I found myself in an incredible school with like-minded teachers that wanted to get better at their profession. I regularly met with my principal to reflect on what went well and practice something new. Her suggestions were often little things, but the difference they made was great: stand still when giving directions, wait for all students’ attention before continuing, use proximity and eye contact to get students back on track, make four or five positive phone calls home weekly. My coworkers opened their doors, and I sat in back taking notes on their directions, their tone, their smiles and more.
My school knew that teaching was a skill and a profession to be developed, not a mythical power to be found in a select few.
My school put a lot of time and effort into my development as a teacher: workshops lead by the Teach Like a Champion crew, weekly meetings where the entire staff tackled a vexing problem or part of class, a graduate degree, summer and weekend courses at Teacher College’s Reading and Writing Project, Facing History and Ourselves and the Gilder Lehman Institute for American History.
None of these steps was a silver bullet, and some were more valuable than others. But each week and each year my classroom management was better, my curriculum more rigorous and my understanding of my students and my role in their lives stronger.
Eight years later, I do not have a book deal. But I am still a teacher. I’m also the chair of the history department, coach of six other teachers, and an adjunct professor of education. I don’t have all of the answers and I still have a lot of work to do, but my classroom is a much better place because of the time I put into getting better.
Last year, over 40 percent of my students passed the AP World History exam in my first year teaching the class, slightly below the national average—even though our school’s free- and reduced-priced lunch rate is about 80 percent, compared to a national average of around 50 percent. Based on this success, this year we doubled the number of sections offered.
When two first-year teachers I work with come to me—with problems ranging from students refusing to write to extended bathroom trips to cell phones in class—we workshop ideas, then they try them out. And every time their class gets just a little better, with one more skill added to their craft.
The premise of the Times profile—the “myth” of a hero teacher—is not the moral of Boland’s story. The moral is that teachers are heroes because they put in the time and effort to get better, often with the support of many others.
The myth is that you either have it or you don’t. The reality is great teachers do amazing things, and they are in the classroom today.