Let’s Start at the Very Beginning… by Mark Overmeyer
My first year teaching, I was one of the lucky ones.
I had come out of a strong student teaching experience, and my new teacher colleagues provided a perfect balance of providing support and letting me try (and often fail) and try again.
And my class– I will never forget my incredible sixth graders who were full of middle school energy. They were feisty, but never rude, even when they told me they were bored sometimes. We devoured books: our favorites that year were The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. I worked harder than I ever had in my life, but it was joyful work because I had found the perfect profession.
Now that I have been in education for 30 years, I still love what I do, but I need to remind myself to recover that joy of my first few years. How can I regain what it was like to be a beginner?
The idea of approaching life as a beginner has roots in Zen Buddhism. Recently, my online yoga teacher Adriene Mishler (of Yoga with Adriene fame) sent an e mail about the importance of a beginner’s mind. She recommended that we approach our yoga practice as beginners because a sense of curiosity is necessary for growth. It’s all about noticing everything we do as if it was the first time for that experience.
So how can a beginner’s mindset help us as teachers, regardless of our years of experience? Memories of my first few years have convinced me we can try some simple things to feel like we are beginners again.
Tips for Becoming a Beginner
- Remain curious. My first six years as a teacher, I worked with 6th graders, so of course they could be difficult at times. But my curiosity about their lives helped them to trust me. One thing that helped was our similar cultural references: Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Prince’s Purple Rain, and U2’s Joshua Tree all came out my first few years teaching. Our shared cultural references led to discussions about many topics beyond school. I am not suggesting we have to share pop culture references in order to be effective, but we should not stand in judgment of our students’ interests, regardless of their age. When I started working more frequently with primary students, I had to watch I have even played a bit of Minecraft. If pop culture isn’t your thing, you can still find out what sports students watch and play, what instruments they are learning, and what they are passionate about. The more curious we are about our students’ lives, the more they will help us to become better teachers.
- Notice students as individuals, and not always in reference to other students. My first few years teaching, every day seemed so new because… every day was so new. Over the years, I have developed strategies for students who tend to resist, and for students who need extra support. But, if I encounter a student next year who doesn’t like to read, I can’t view him as a carbon copy of my reluctant readers this year. Looking at our students each year, a beginner’s mindset will truly bring us back to the start where we might say: “I can’t wait to get to know each one of you.” Avoid thinking like an expert: “I have done this for so many years that nothing will surprise me. There’s nothing I can’t handle.” We will of course gain expertise the longer we teach, but we should not close ourselves off to beginning each year with a growth mindset, allowing our students to blossom in their own ways.
- Embrace opportunities to learn. I learned far more than my students my first years teaching. I read dozens of YA books, took a course on how to be a better math teacher, and visited other teacher’s classrooms on my off periods to view ways to manage behavior. I was a sponge. Now that I have been teaching for many years, I find I am most energized when I continue with this beginner’s frame of mind, realizing I still have so much to learn. I have been reading Kate Robert’s new book A Novel Approach, which I wish was around when I first started teaching. I still love YA lit, and next on my list is Kwame Alexander’s Rebound. Even after 30 years, one of my favorite things to do is visit other teachers’ classrooms so that I can continue to grow professionally.
I realized long ago that the main reason I love my work is because teaching is about being a lifelong learner. One of the best ways to learn is to become a beginner again: we should remain curious, engaged, and forever open to new experiences.
Mark Overmeyer has worked as a teacher, literacy coordinator, coach, staff developer, and adjunct professor for more than 30 years in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of four titles on writing workshop published by Stenhouse, including When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working and How Can I Support You? He is now a full time consultant and travels around the country and internationally, helping school to develop and maintain successful reading and writing workshops. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org