How Teachers Can Avoid The October Blues

For many teachers, September brings grand plans for the new school year. October sees those plans fall under the weight of classroom challenges. Teacher Roxanna Elden writes about how young educators can survive and thrive in her book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, and she speaks with guest host Celeste Headlee.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of super spy James Bond's debut on the big screen. Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe is our guest. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, October is here. September is in the past. That means many American students are so over their back-to-school resolutions and their enthusiasm, but teachers can also experience a letdown as October sets in, and the best laid plans for the school year tumble to the ground like so many dead leaves.

Roxanna Elden knows about those feelings firsthand. Elden is a national board certified teacher and the author of "See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers." Elden teaches high school in Florida and, each year, she helps train new teachers. Welcome to the program.

ROXANNA ELDEN: Hi, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So tell us about what you call the disillusionment phase for new teachers. And you say it often happens in October and then peaks right around Halloween. What is it?

ELDEN: This is when the kind of initial adrenaline rush of the beginning of the year has already worn off for new teachers and some of the judgment calls that you're forced to make as a new teacher that you've never made before - they're staring to see that the little judgment calls that they made the wrong way are starting to pay off in kind of negative ways.

And, in my particular case, I did hit my low point of my first year on Halloween. I had been running on so little sleep, trying to be that teacher that you see in the movies and that I had learned about in training that was going to turn everything around for these kids. Near the end of October, I was so exhausted and the kids were so hyper, there was this one day where the only way that I could get them to quiet down was to add more math problems to their homework and I had already learned in training that the worst thing that you can do is give kids homework as punishment because it makes them hate learning.

And, at the end of that day, I sent these fourth graders home with about 70 long division problems and I saw another teacher in the hallway who was holding a plastic orange pumpkin full of candy and I realized at that moment for the first time that day, that it was Halloween that day. So, on top of all of my other failures, my kind of ongoing failures as a teacher, I realized on that day that I had destroyed Halloween for a class full of 9-year-olds.

HEADLEE: Oh, no. You didn't.

ELDEN: And, on my way home that day, I just - I had to pull into a Burger King parking lot and I just sat there in the car for two hours crying and I was just thinking, how did these kids get stuck with a teacher like me?

HEADLEE: Well, you know, beyond that, one of the reasons that this disillusionment phase, as you call it, affects new teachers, especially, is because so many new teachers come in with an idealized vision of what their experience will be. Right? Something that you say comes a lot of times from movies, "Stand By Me" or "Dead Poet's Society."

What is it that movies are getting wrong and why does that become a problem for new teachers, especially?

ELDEN: The Hollywood story needs a hero and a villain and teachers who are actually in this business will tell you that the truth is much more complicated. So the Hollywood version of what I call the super teacher or the rookie super teacher is this 22 and a half-year-old. You know, she maybe struggles for a few weeks, but then she realizes that the secret to getting through to kids is showing them that you care. And the reason this works so well is because all of the other teachers in the building got into education because they don't care about kids.

What they need is this person who's brand new on the job to show them the way and you can imagine that rookie teachers who actually try to follow this model - they don't get along very well with their colleagues, among others.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I bet. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about inspiring and fighting frustration among new teachers. I'm joined by teacher Roxanna Elden. She's the author of "See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers." And let's get to some of that advice.

You have three tips for new teachers. The first one is find a mentor who will be honest and give practical advice. Explain what you mean.

ELDEN: What I looked for when I was interviewing teachers for "See Me After Class" were teachers who were willing to say, that has happened in my class and it's not an easy problem to solve, but here's how I handle it. And that's where an honest conversation starts and you should look for - any mentor that you choose to take advice from should be willing to say something along those lines.

HEADLEE: And here's your second tip. Find a teacher personality that's natural, yet professional. But, Roxanna, that kind of makes it sound like teachers are putting on costumes and playing a role.

ELDEN: In a way, you are. And there's two schools of advice that you tend to get about your teacher personality. One is be yourself and then the other one is someone kind of tells you what an ideal teacher looks like and acts like and you try to fit yourself into that. And that - if you try too hard to be a personality that's very different from you, it can feel like you're in this kind of loose fitting teacher Halloween costume and it's just only a matter of time before someone, you know, points you out in the hallway and says hey, you're not a real teacher.

(LAUGHTER)

ELDEN: But on the other hand, I mean your weekend personality is not necessarily who you want to bring into the classroom.

HEADLEE: Right.

ELDEN: So I tell teachers that it's kind of like your teacher wardrobe. It should be a professional twist on your normal style, but also still something that you're comfortable in.

HEADLEE: And you also have a third piece of advice, which I find great which is, you know, keep it simple.

ELDEN: It's never too late to simplify some of your systems in your classroom, especially if there are things that you are having a lot of trouble keeping up with. So I remember my first year, I had gone to this workshop where the person was telling us to use color-coded chalk for different-colored points, and at the end of the week you need a folder that adds up the points that - I mean to keep up with this system took hours and it didn't really - it wasn't really effective because students knew that there was a 50/50 chance that I wouldn't send those folders home and that's not very scary.

I was able to kind of steal a system from a teacher who worked down the hall from me that was a lot simpler. And sometimes the changes that you need to make are pretty simple. Like I had - my first year, I taught fourth grade and I had this star chart where, you know, if students were behaving they would be shining stars and if they were misbehaving they would be falling stars.

HEADLEE: Right.

ELDEN: And the main problem with that system - which I spent I can't tell you how many hours setting up - was that there were really only three levels.

HEADLEE: Right.

ELDEN: And when I switched to a system with nine check marks I was able to enforce little misbehaviors in a way that I wasn't before, and just by doing that it helped the behavior improve in my class a lot.

HEADLEE: But for the teachers who were there, new teachers or not, who are experiencing what you call the disillusionment phase as we speak, who are listening to your voice now, what do you say to the teacher crying in his or her car after school today?

ELDEN: First of all, you have to hang in there because you have to know that it's that time of year. And also, it helps to know I think, the great teachers of the future know they're not great yet. They want so badly to be everything that these students need them to be, but at the same time they are very hard on themselves when they fall short. So if you have those moments where you're wondering - like what I wondered was, you know, how did these teachers get - these kids get stuck with a teacher like me, that can actually be a sign of kind of a point in your growth. It's a low point that it still points in becoming a teacher that you hope to be.

HEADLEE: Teacher and author Roxanna Elden. She's a high school creative writing teacher in Miami and the author of "See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers."

Good luck with the rest of the year, Roxanna. And thank you.

ELDEN: Thank you.

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