By Katja Hvenmark-Nilsson
The room is quiet, apart from the sound of fast finger tapping on computer keyboards. Thirty concentrating students are sitting with their heads bowed down, fully focused on writing their argumentative essays. I erase the instructions and comments from the white board, because class is almost over. “The deadline for your essays is Thursday by midnight. If you have any questions, this is the time to speak up,” I say. One student raises his hand: “Do you know what’s for lunch?” “Sausage and rice”, half of the class reply simultaneously, and they start to collect their belongings. “I’ll send mine in EXACTLY one minute before midnight,” one of the students says to me. “By the way, what happens if the clock is set to the wrong time, and the essay is sent in one minute AFTER midnight?” “The computer explodes,” I say. “Ok, I’ll send it in five minutes to twelve!” the student promises eagerly.
The students grab their bags and wander off in varied styles. Most of them stroll together in clusters; two are involved in what looks like a walking wrestling game, and some apparently find it easier to climb over the rows of desks than to walk around them. I pick some papers up from the floor, rescue a forgotten laptop (!) and put the chairs back in order. Meanwhile I wonder if the students ever think about what their lives would look like if school did not exist. Free materials, clean and modern facilities, varied education, free school meals and patient teachers are all they have ever known, so they take them for granted.
In our information and technology based society it is almost impossible to imagine a life without access to basic knowledge of reading, writing and counting, development of one’s language, and learning about the world and different cultures. A society without school, or a school tradition reserved only for certain privileged children, would look completely different.
I have traveled in countries where school is not compulsory for all children and in countries where post high school education is so expensive that not everyone can afford it. I have attended schools abroad where the meals are not for free, where computers in classrooms are a rarity, where deviation from the school’s dress code results in a private meeting in the principal’s office, where students have to wear badges with their school ID visible and cannot walk freely in the hallways during class hours without a “hall pass” which is a written certificate from their teacher. Everywhere, education has been looked upon as an influential imprint on identity. By that I do not mean to limit the word “education” to include only knowledge from school curriculums, but also practices taught and learned by professionals and apprentices in vocational fields. Nor do I mean to equate higher education with a higher quality of life; I think that one, to a large extent, is responsible for the creation of one’s own happiness. However, it would be difficult to deny that it can be empowering to have many possibilities in the labor market, to have the ability to read one’s own rights, and to independently be able to analyze and reflect critically on the conditions being considered, as opposed to being left to someone else’s mercy and discretion.
Most educators would agree that awareness of the training in a variety of fields that education provides builds confidence and self-reliance which in multiple contexts of life can make students want more and dare more. The school can then serve as a gateway to the broadening of perspectives, values and life choices which I believe are important to have, regardless of one’s choice of profession. Students come to that gateway with expectations, anticipations and questions. They want to learn about life, the world and society beyond their own geographical and social spheres; they want the keys to those future possibilities, and I want to participate in giving them those keys. That is my vision and the essence of my choice to become a teacher.
Within the teaching profession, the new teacher’s first years in the field are often talked about as the time for “working like a dog.” You face problem-solving in a multitude of expected and unexpected areas, there are high demands from your workplace, your students, your students’ parents, and not the least from yourself, and the pace demanded in the never-ceasing stream of new challenges will be faster than you ever imagined. You will, like I did, above all of this, and probably at a time when you least expect it, be put to the test in scenarios you had never anticipated. And when they happen you are expected to give directions and choose actions to take, with a firm hand, and make decisions that cannot be put on hold. To handle that reality in a constructive way, you have to keep your head cool and think fast.
In this book I describe dilemmas which I have encountered, and still see as very relevant to ponder over in order to think a little bit faster when those situations occur. The dilemmas are referred to as “balancing acts,” since there are always considerations of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” attached to them. The teacher must help and serve the students, yet teach them independence. You must adapt your ways of teaching to different groups, but not at your own expense. You must give clear directions, yet not rule the students and their thoughts to the point of silence. You have to keep the balance on all fronts simultaneously, and that is a difficult art to master. There is no silver bullet, but it can help you to have thought through situations that may arise before they happen. In addition to reflections on these balancing acts and how I dealt with them in ways that sometimes were successful and sometimes not, I have written down practical tips which I hope can be of use to you during your first years as a teacher. Perhaps they can save you some of the “dog-work,” at least that is my hope!
Chapter 1: The Art of Starting from the very Beginning and Doing Everything at the Same Time without Burning Yourself Out During the First Month
Welcome to your first day of work, here is your schedule, here are your 200 students, here is a new building, here are the six courses you are to conduct starting in a few days, here are all of your colleagues and faculty members, here is the copy room, here is the computer system everyone here uses, here is your boss, here are the school’s guidelines, here is your employment contract, here are your union rights, this is the program’s guidelines, this is the team of teachers on your department, you have a meeting with them once a week, here is the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, here is the break room, here is another building, this is how the intranet works, this is how the scanner and fax machine work, this is your new email, here is all the info prior to start-up, here is information about student welfare calls, here is your own class, in a month you should call a parent meeting, here are the colleagues for your subject, you have meetings once a month, this is how the students borrow their school books, this is how the students’ computer accounts work, this is an interdisciplinary collaborative project which we started up last year, this is how you post class material so that the students can download it from the intranet, this is the students’ guidance office, these are the students’ bus passes which you need to distribute asap, here are the procedures around truancy and plagiarism, your first lesson starts now, this is the school calendar, this is your program’s calendar, as you can see we have a theme day on Friday, do not forget that you have to write reviews of all your students in about a month, your second lesson starts now, here are the class lists but it may be that they change because the students have one month to decide if they want to switch classes, schools or programs, here are some students with special needs that need to be taken into account, here is information about school photos, here is a list of students lockers, here are your keys, this is the school library, your third lesson starts now, and do not forget to take attendance!
You have had your weeks of practical work experience in the university’s credential program where you probably got to partially do and see all these things. Now you have to do it all, at the same time, and even though you are familiar with much in theory, in practice you start out from square one. As a teacher, it can feel like you are juggling a thousand balls in the air because you work with so many people and your responsibilities are of the kind that in addition to the execution of lessons, require both work in advance and after the fact.
You stand there with zeal, inspiration and determination, ready for anything, and if you had the opportunity to focus on only one or two things at the same time the result would probably pass with distinction and an extra golden star. The dilemma here is that the amount of tasks to do and data to absorb are out of balance with the time needed to achieve excellent results, and your ambition can turn against you in the form of exhaustion if you do not conserve your energy. You must last through everything the new work assignments have in store for the entire school year. Thus, you cannot tire yourself out during the moments in the beginning so that you are brought to your knees in November. Yet, you need to make it work.
My best advice for the first month is to take it one day at a time, write many post-it notes to yourself so that you do not forget anything, eat properly, sleep properly and accept that it will take some time for both the students and you before it all falls into place. Hold back the excitement a little bit, because you will need that energy later. Next year you will have a better idea of the procedures and be able to answer more questions directly. The year after that you will be even more assured and knowledgeable.
The strategy that works best for me is to break down this “achievement chaos” to many concrete milestones, because that gives me the opportunity to succeed, and that builds self-confidence. “One step at a time” my dad often says, “it’s too much to try to do it all at once.” Within the following chapters of “arts” or “acts” are suggestions on some milestones that I, myself, think a lot about and update each semester. It may well be that some or many, or all of them are obvious to you, or that you would rather do it another way. As stated in the prologue, this book is not meant to be a manual, but rather an inspiration.