TEACHER VOICE: I started seeing a difficult student as a person, not as a ‘challenge,’ and it changed my outlook on education

Date Published: 
June 26, 2019
Jill Bernstein
News Type: 

It was a potential disaster for any new teacher: A student in my eighth-grade math class was telling me that I didn’t know the rules and proclaiming that he would never speak to me again. Basically, he was testing whether I had the confidence to handle a difficult situation.

Even though I already had a master’s degree in teaching, I had applied for a position as an associate teacher in the Massachusetts charter school where I currently work. I knew I needed more classroom experience and one-on-one coaching before I was ready to be a lead teacher. I was also drawn to the school’s academic track record, as its student outcomes place it among the top-performing public schools in the state.
As an associate teacher, I was paired with a mentor teacher and trained over an entire school year to gain critical skills in managing a classroom, fostering a positive learning environment and more. At each stage of my training, I had to demonstrate competence before I could take on greater responsibility.
When I debriefed with my mentor about what happened that day, she emphasized that to become a successful math and science teacher, I had to build trust in my classroom by showing my students that I cared about them on a personal level.
Based on this advice, I made an effort to strike up regular conversations with the student in question and find a way to bond with him outside of the math curriculum. We developed a rapport, chatting about his friends and sports and sharing corny jokes. By the end of the school year, James was meeting my high expectations because he knew I was invested in his well-being beyond academics.
Based on this powerful experience, I began to take a similar approach with all of my students: seeing them as people first and students second. My mentor’s coaching was invaluable in giving me a new lens through which to see this situation and many others in my classroom.
I completed my training and was hired to be a lead teacher three years ago, but my learning is far from over.
The public charter school at which I teach affords us the freedom and flexibility to implement research-based practices, frequently observe lessons, and encourage one another to bring our best to the classroom every day.
Now that I’m a mentor teacher myself, I am paying my training forward to ensure our new associate teachers are well-prepared.
Many teachers realize during their first year on the job that they’re not ready for the complex work of managing a classroom, and their students suffer as a result. Associate teaching offers an alternative, supportive approach in which teachers gain the skills and confidence needed to create a classroom culture that brings out the best in students.
After all, kids have only one chance to take eighth-grade math, and an underprepared teacher can directly affect their future academic potential. I hope other schools will consider replicating this program so that every child can have a teacher who is ready to do right by her students on day one.