Advice for New Teachers: Jacob’s First Day

As I have grown older, I have drawn ever more pleasure from helping young, inexperienced teachers. In this–my last year of teaching at Portsmouth Abbey School–I have begun to mentor a fine young teacher. Let’s call him Jacob.

A few days ago before classes began, I found Jacob–wide-eyed, eager, and a bit anxious–in the classroom we will share this year, preparing for his first day of teaching. Immediately and without hesitation,  I realized that I had decided to mentor this young man, a reflection of what I was as a young lieutenant many years ago, having just graduated from West Point. This then was my first piece of advice for Jacob.

The most fundamental decision a teacher must make is to answer these three questions: By the end of the course:

What do I want my students to know, in terms of content or subject matter?

What do I want my students to be, in terms of attitudes or habits of mind?

What do I want my students to be able to do, in terms of intellectual skills?

The answers to these seminal questions should guide everything a teacher does in the course.

It would be great if a teacher could comprehensively and precisely answer these questions before he or she teaches the first class. This is ideal. In reality, the first time teaching a course a teacher may formulate answers to these questions; however, it is only after the first–or even second time–teaching the entire course, that he/she is truly comfortable with the answers. I told Jacob that it generally takes me three times teaching a course to get right.

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