The New Teacher Book
reviewed by Denise Gelberg - 2005
The problem of attracting bright, committed people into the ranks of our teaching force and retaining them once we get them is one that has plagued our nations schools for decades. The authors of The New Teacher Book aim to prevent the loss of the most passionate new teachers in our midst, that is, those who not only hope to teach their students to read and write, but who are also dedicated to teaching social justice.
The new and veteran teachers who contributed to this anthology are the best of the best: masterful in the craft of teaching, reflective of their practice, and ever aware of the broader purposes of schooling in American society. It is never enough for them to have their students learn the mandated curriculum or score well on standardized tests, though they understand that these are important parts of their job. They also want to help their students develop a vision of social justice in which poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia have no place. For the authors of this volume teaching is a calling, not a career, and certainly not just a job. New teachers who do not share this concept of teaching are not likely to be attracted to this collection of essays.
The books 50 essays are divided into four chapters: Getting off to a Good Start, What Am I Going to Teach? Getting to Know the Kids, and Dealing With the World Beyond Your Classroom. The essays in the first chapter focus on new teacher anxiety, the frequent clash between the new teachers expectations and the realities presented by the classroom, and strategies for making it through that critical first year of teaching. Although somewhat repetitive (possibly the cost of having so many contributing writers), the essays in this chapter give the new teacher the pep talk that she may not get from the colleague next door or the building principalthe encouragement to help the novice get up and try again after a miserable lesson or a chaotic, exhausting day. The frequent refrain of be patient with yourself is buttressed by the suggestion of finding a support group of like-minded teachers. Herbert Kohls advice seems to hit the mark most precisely: teach your conscience and teach well, choose from among the many effective ways to teach and make them your own, be a mensch, and finally, protect and nurture yourself so that you can survive to teach another day.
The essays in Chapter 2 all center on the idea that curriculum is more than mandated standards and methods; it is everything that happens in a classroom. The authors give suggestions for dealing with textbooks that the new teacher finds lacking in substance, coping with the pressure to prepare kids for the ubiquitous standardized tests, developing respectful ways of ensuring student discipline, and teaching controversial content.
The New Teacher Book really hits the mark in its second half. The final two chapters give the new teacher guidance on coping with the problems that drive many novices away from teaching. Kelley Dawson Salass essay on dealing with children who rage in the classroom will give solace to the new teacher who feels overwhelmed by the child whose anger threatens to undo the best-constructed lesson or most respectful class community. Bob Petersons essay on discipline gives a clear, realistic, and helpful guide with many good suggestions. His conclusion: A well-organized classroom community that is based on mutual respect and involves the children in some decision making provides the best environment for encouraging children to do their best. Rita Tenorios essay on raising the issues of race with young children is well thought out and provides a sensitively constructed how to on this difficult subject.
Gregory Michies essay, Teaching in the Undertow, could also be called Holding on to Hope. The school culture that cherishes mindless compliance from students, fosters the chorus of negativity among the staff, and provides in-service training of the most narrow type is a challenge for the new teacher who hopes to change education as we know it. However, Michie warns the new teacher not to fall into the trap of seeing herself as the anointed one, the saint who alone is crusading for justice in an unjust world. Rather, he points out that even the veteran teacher who looks burned out may have lessons to impart and useful advice to offer.
Michies vision of teaching for social justice is both encouraging and workable for the new teacher: Once youre in a classroom of your own, you begin to realize that its in the details, as much as in the big picture theorizing. . . . Kids can learn about equity and justice from the way community is formed in a classroom, how decisions are made, who is represented on the walls and bookshelves, what sorts of interactions are encouraged and discouraged, whose thoughts and ideas are valued. . . . Teaching for social justice, in practice, is as much about the environment you create as it is about the explicit lessons you teach (p. 210).
The New Teacher Book is not without flaws. The organization of the essays and gray idea boxes is weak, making it difficult for the new teacher to find suggestions on a particular subject. Useful advice on homework, field trips, dealing with child abuse, and becoming part of the greater school communityimportant topics allis dispersed throughout the book.
Some of the contributors seem to have scorn for all programs and textbooks, suggesting that the new teacher create and substitute her own materials and curricula. Thankfully, this point of view is not shared by all contributing writers. Particularly those with many years in the classroom understand the perils of this suggestion. First, it is a near impossibility for a new teacher to create all the materials a class will use for an entire year. Second, the new teacher rarely is aware of what her students need to know in order to be successful in the school system in subsequent years. Third, good ideas or teaching strategies can be gleaned from mandated programs. These can become part of a teachers tool kit from which she can draw when working with students. Finally, a new teacher who refuses to use the mandated curriculum risks losing her job.
The last essay in the book almost apologetically explains why the novices teachers union may be a tremendous ally in negotiating her way through the school systems power grid. The author, Stephanie Walters, writes, I know, I know. As a new teacher you want to make a good impression. You dont want to look like a slacker to your colleagues or your principal (p. 241). The idea that teachers unions aim to protect slackers is a misconception school managers enjoy using to discredit these unions. It is too bad that Walters felt the need to include this point in an otherwise excellent description of how unions protect teachers from unfair or arbitrary actions by their supervisors.
Not every new teacher has complaints about our societys status quo. There are, however, some who enter teaching to make the world a better place. These idealistic new teachers are a tremendous resource for our schools. They provide hope, energy, and a vision of education in which all students are valued and expected to succeed. The New Teacher Book should be welcomed by these new professionals. It will help them stay the course during those difficult first years on the job. By offering this type of support, this book makes an important contribution to the effort to retain the best, the brightest, and the most visionary among our newest teachers.