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Teacher Has to Learn by Listening

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Q I have not taken the traditional route to teaching -- I started after a few unsatisfying years in another career. Because I am teaching in a high-needs area, I was hired "conditionally" and have not finished my master's in education or my teaching certification. I recently had an observation meeting with my principal. She unfairly dumped on me, calling my teaching unmotivating, not fun, and saying it was obvious the student I was working with didn't like me. While I agree the lesson she observed had some flaws, I believe that a lot of these criticisms (and other things she has said) come from her belief that, as someone who does not have an undergraduate degree in education and has never done any student teaching, I am unfit to teach, period.

In my former job in the business world, I would have addressed this with the superior giving the evaluation. Here, I feel like that would be fruitless and would further alienate me, as everyone else in the school thinks this principal is great.

A You're not the first new teacher to experience this problem -- except the problem isn't what you think it is.

"When you enter a school, you have to be humble," said Tara Williams, site manager for D.C. Teaching Fellows, an alternative teacher certification program geared toward career-changers. It takes time and a lot of work to become an effective teacher, she said, something that high-achievers coming from other fields often have a particularly hard time accepting.

And you do want to be good at this, right?

If so, you need to schedule a follow-up meeting with your principal (a.k.a. your boss), and this time really listen to her thoughts about what you are doing wrong. As you acknowledge, most of the people who work for her think she is great. That probably means she knows a thing or two about teaching.

"Your principal is your employer," Williams said. "Instead of saying 'I don't agree,' ask what you need to do to improve."

Perhaps your principal can pair you up with a mentor, or you can find one on your own. You want an experienced teacher you trust, and who will share honest feedback with you. Oh, and you have to actually listen to that person, too.

Williams said your assumption that your credentials (or lack thereof) are the problem might have been true five to 10 years ago, but it's an attitude that's rapidly disappearing. Principals care less about the route that people take to enter the profession, she said. "They just want people that make effective teachers."

When is it appropriate to ask about salary and benefits during an interview? Is it during the interview or after they have offered the position?

It is to your advantage to wait until the prospective employer has made an offer, but that doesn't mean you should wait that long to think about what you need. Before you walk in to the first interview, you should have a solid sense of the market compensation for the job, as well as the minimum pay and benefits you require.

If they press you to specify a salary early on, offer a range instead, one based on your market research. Emphasize that you care about the total package, not just the salary.

Benefits are more complicated, but you are smart not to overlook them. Too often people focus solely on the salary, but benefits can represent a significant portion of your total compensation.

When the employer makes a formal offer, ask for written explanations of health insurance, sick leave, parental leave and vacation policies. Human resources should be able to provide this quickly.

Recently, a colleague sent me an e-mail by accident. It was intended for a co-worker, and it referred to some of my work habits. I responded, but tried not to make a big deal about what had happened. Now I feel uncomfortable dealing with this person, who might be talking behind my back about things. I don't believe that the comments made about me are true, especially without the person knowing everything about my work situation that I have arranged with our mutual manager, but they were judgmental. How would you have dealt with a situation like this? -- Vienna

I would have done pretty much what you did. Look on the bright side: Now you know what kind of people you work with. (Stupid ones, apparently, who don't understand the risks of gossiping via their work e-mail.)

Things are clear between you and your supervisor. Everybody else can mind his own business.

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