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A Safe Space for New Beginnings

This is written by Juan Guerra, Anna Roseboro, and Lara Hebert. 

When we share our stories, we notice patterns of sameness and difference that can inform our decisions moving forward.

juanguerraWhen I walked into my first classroom in 1973 as a teacher in a college writing program for minority students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I had no idea where to begin. At the time, there was no mentoring program in place to prepare us for the experience. Luckily, a colleague in the program who had several years of experience as a teaching assistant while he was working on his PhD interceded and provided me with material to read and suggestions for how to manage and organize my class. Among the first books he shared with me was Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Little did I know that Freire’s book and my colleague’s support would not only help me get through that first experience in the classroom, it would shape my perspective on teaching for many years to come. I will be forever grateful to my first mentor for his encouragement because I don’t think I would have continued teaching otherwise. ~Juan Guerra, longtime NCTE member, 2016-17 Trustee of the NCTE Research Foundation and CNV Director

annaroseboroIn 1987, having recently moved to California, I transitioned from teaching in public schools to a former boarding school for girls being prepped to attend Ivy League colleges. I was the first African American faculty member. Though I’d come to the position with experience teaching middle and high school English in Missouri, New York, and Massachusetts, the students, faculty, and parent volunteers looked askance as I crisscrossed the campus. It was the department chair, an NCTE member, who seemed to value my public school experience. It was she who invited me, her new teacher, to share lessons incorporating multicultural literature into our curriculum. Her acceptance and leadership opened the doors to other opportunities that led to my becoming department chair … twelve years later … still the lone African American member of the faculty. ~Anna Roseboro, lifetime NCTE member, winner of the 2016 Distinguished Service Award

hebert_photoWhen I first stepped into my own classroom, my sixth-grade teammates, all experienced teachers, also found themselves in a state of transition. The district’s sixth-grade classrooms were moving from an elementary, self-contained model to a middle school teaming model for instruction. This put us on common ground as we learned about the middle school philosophy and designed our own iteration that would initiate the shift of the school from being a junior high toward becoming a middle school. Despite my limited classroom experience, my teammates respected and honored my contributions as equal and even necessary to our success in this first year. While there was no formal mentoring or induction program other than a couple hours of inservice at the beginning of the year, these teachers offered the support and encouragement that I needed by treating me as an equal and valued part of the team, innovating and taking risks together. ~Lara Hebert, NCTE Professional Learning Specialist, Community Facilitator–Literacy in Learning Exchange

At the Early Career Experiences Practice Exchange during NCTE’s 2016 Convention, we began the session with participants sharing their own peak transition stories: those times when we were first starting out in the profession or moving to a new role or position. When we looked across these stories, we found common characteristics bubbling to the surface within our pool of “best of” experiences (adapted from this Peak Experience protocol).

These are the themes compiled by practice exchange participants in November:

Feeling at ease and welcomed

Opportunities to give back

Embracing risk-taking

Creativity and freedom

Mentorship and support, professional and personal

Mentors as risk-takers

Acknowledging room for growth for everyone

Competence

We aspire to hold these components in mind as we think about navigating the tensions and dilemmas we experience early in our careers, as well as in times of transition. Below, we want to introduce you to more of the outcomes of our November conversations and then invite you to join us in keeping the conversation going and growing.

After identifying characteristics of “best of” early-career supports, we collectively identified a number of tensions that we have personally encountered during new beginnings; whether we are just entering the profession or moving to a new position or role, we can all relate to these tensions in some shape or form. Things like

  • striking the right balance between our personal and professional lives
  • deciding when to adapt versus when to adopt
  • honoring the expert and the novice simultaneously present in all of us
  • balancing internal and external supports or networks
  • deciding when to navigate and when to negotiate when beliefs conflict with requirements
  • balancing student needs and teacher needs
  • “avoiding the teachers’ lounge” versus the need to build relationships

Are there others you would add to this list?

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Last, but most importantly, we engaged in deeper discussions around just a few of these tensions that mattered most to us at the time. We considered together “What would this look if we got it right?” and “What would it take for us to get there?” This is where holding those “best of” characteristics in mind will help us to think toward the future rather than getting bogged down in the present and the past.

Our practice exchange conversations just scraped the surface, so we hope you will join us to continue engaging around these questions and issues over time within the Early Career Community of Practice online space. We invite those in transition and those who support them into shared conversations about the issues, challenges, and successes unique to new beginnings. You might already be involved in an NCTE support initiative like Early Career Educators of Color, Cultivating New Voices, the Commission to Support Early Career English Language Arts Teachers, CEE and CEL initiatives, etc. We could use your voice in these conversations, and we have a couple of ways that you can get involved right away.

First, do you have a story of an early career or transition experience that illustrates a tension or dilemma like those mentioned? If so, please consider sharing it here (250 words or less). These illustrations will help us determine which tensions and dilemmas to discuss next.

Second, come and join the Early Career Community of Practice discussions. Because the issue of time was so prominent during the practice exchange, we decided to start with conversations related to the Tyranny of Time. We are thinking together about that balance of personal with professional and about strategies to avoid becoming overwhelmed at this halfway point in the academic year. Anna Roseboro kicks us off with recommendations for making the most of mid-year reflections, goal setting, and the juggling act involved in meeting those goals. Bring your questions and your recommendations as we respond to Anna’s query that asks us reflect on the following quote from James Patterson’s Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas:

Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.