A little help from my friends

Picture the scene: a young woman, fresh out of college, some-time in January of her first year of teaching. She’s alone in her chemistry classroom at the end of another difficult day. Her head is down on her desk. She is crying. Earlier that day she discovered that one of her students had squirted dish soap into the distilled water dispenser, effectively ruining the lab that she had carefully prepared for her classes. She is at her wit’s end, feeling frustrated and defeated at the hands of a misbehaving high school student.

That sad scene was only one example of my challenging first year of teaching. I was working in a small school that had only one physics and one chemistry teacher, me. At the beginning of the year I got a tour of my two classrooms, I was handed two textbooks, and I received a few words of advice from the departing teacher, then she was gone. Not only was I the only one teaching in my discipline, but the other science teachers were teaching in another part of the building. All alone, I felt that I had to figure this “teaching thing” out on my own. I made all the typical first year teacher mistakes and felt that the year was spiraling out of control by Christmas vacation. A life raft came from the reading specialist across the hall. She stopped in one day to ask how things were going. This simple gesture on her part opened up a flood of problems I was encountering with my chemistry and physics students. She invited me to sit with her at lunch the next day to talk about lesson planning and classroom management. She encouraged me to seek out help from the teachers I worked with the previous year during my student teaching. I had never thought to ask for help from them, but when I called my cooperating teacher she jumped right on board to help me make some positive changes. These kind teachers helped me limp my way across the finish line that first year.

My own experience as a new teacher has solidified my resolve to support science teacher colleagues through the steep learning curve during their first year. I have worked with many new science teachers at Pomfret School, both as an “official” mentor and as a cooperating teacher assigned to sections of a course shared with a new teacher. I also have the opportunity to work with new teachers at the New England New Teacher Seminar (NENTS), a weeklong crash course for new teachers at private schools in the New England area. Mentoring these new teachers serves as a good reminder to me that new teachers are struggling with both the “what do I do now” and the “how do I do it” questions. Veteran teachers, I challenge you to make an impact in a new teacher’s life by opening the dialogue. And new teachers, visit the classrooms of your teaching colleagues. These people are a wealth of knowledge and experience just waiting to be tapped. By working together, we can ensure that no one is left feeling alone in their chemistry classroom, and more importantly, we can share in the fun of teaching chemistry.

Go to my blog for more on mentoring.