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Tim Tebow and new teachers

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

We make mistakes. We can’t handle the snap from center. We forget to take attendance and email the front office with the names of the absent students—and so we get a call, at 9 a.m., in the middle of class. “Sorry to interrupt but—”

We can’t find the open receiver. We don’t see the student who is silently disengaging. But Monday morning’s review of the tapes, and an irate mother’s phone call, alert us to our failure.

We can’t get our feet set and we throw another wobbly pass. Don’t scramble too much, we are told. Don’t look overwhelmed, the new teacher is told. Relax. But even the most basic issues can fluster us—how to keep eye contact with our students while also making good use of our much-needed notes, with all the questions we were writing until late last night. When to “stay in the pocket” and when do move around. The teacher must do both; we want to connect to these individuals—especially students who need a one-on-one check at their desk, that brief aside–perhaps a pat on the shoulder of praise, maybe a question, an easy toss they can handle, to give them confidence and get them in the game.

We’d like to feel more comfortable. But there are five ferocious 300-pounders charging at us like bulls, desperate to knock us down: A concussion—or a separated shoulder—waiting to happen. There are 25 adolescents who aren’t ready to give us their trust just yet, a few who are off-task before we can even get the class focused on this morning’s topic, a couple of whom seem all too willing to test us, to see how far they can go ….before we call for help.

O.K., the QB in question won the Heisman Trophy and has a following that is patient and forgiving. Besides, even if the pressure seems brutal, he is paid a pretty penny.

New teachers need suport too

A new teacher, in contrast, has fewer fans. Not likely to be front page news or lead the evening sports coverage on TV. His or her future is not in the hands of Broncos executive vice president Elway, coach Fox, teammates, Broncomaniacs—and hundreds of kids wearing orange and blue jerseys with a big #15. More likely the teacher’s future is in the hands of one principal, who can be the new educator’s chief support—or worst nightmare.

We know the first year or two of some of our Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks had plenty of trials and tribulations. Didn’t it take #7 a few years to become JOHN ELWAY? We hear time and again: It is a learning process. Most fans say: give Tim Tebow a chance.

Here’s the bigger contrast. For a number of new teachers, there is no such support, and there is too little forgiveness.

I learn of a DPS principal preparing to dismiss a teacher in the first two months before giving him or her the encouragement and mentoring this rookie so desperately needs. Has the move to stronger teacher evaluation swung so far in the other direction that school leaders now feels it right to be the number one critic of this person, beginning a new career, with over 100 kids a day?

Have principals forgotten their own first year or two, learning from what felt like one crisis after another? Have we jumped from “anything goes and in three years you’ve got tenure” to “three unsatisfactory classes and you’re out”? As if mistakes are not to be tolerated?

Forgive rookie mistakes, even amid evaluation pressures

My mistakes back in 1975-76, my first full-time teaching job, were legion. In more recent “first-years” in schools, on taking a new job, I continued to make them. We are human. When we work with young people my guess is we have a chance to be imperfect about 1,000 times every day—in our instruction, our grading, and our communication—verbal and nonverbal—with the kids, colleagues, and parents. Sins of omission and commission.

I cheer for the Broncos. But I cheer more passionately for the folks who enter the teaching profession, eager to give their best. I have some feeling for the commitment involved to do it well. I especially admire those choosing to work in inner city schools. I doubt I could have been successful there. I have seen excellence from 25-year-olds in such classrooms—and I am amazed and humbled. But they need support.

And yes I know not all are excellent and some are not suited for teaching. Of course I agree we should find ways to help these folks move out of classrooms promptly.

However, as we begin to roll out SB 191, the Educator Effectiveness Act—with its dubious faith in the power of teacher evaluations by folks who are often anything but “instructional leaders,” and see how Denver’s LEAP (Leading Effective Academic Progress) is piloted in over 120 DPS schools this year, let me restate a warning. I wrote this a year ago, worried about how these efforts might be badly implemented. Hearing two “evaluation” stories this fall—both deeply troubling—makes me believe the point bears repeating, now with greater urgency:

I would never say the purpose of year one and two is to help the self-esteem of a young teacher who should not be teaching. But we have to make sure we strike the right tone here—otherwise this bill can do some real damage to the profession. The new focus on evaluation must be respectful. If we have been hired with care, we deserve a vote of confidence. It is not a step forward in our profession if we begin it with a sense that the intent of all the visits is to point out our weaknesses and weed us out.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.