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It is always difficult to transition into a new teaching situation. Whether you are moving to a different grade level or changing districts altogether, you may find the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Andrew talks to AOE Instructor, Molly Wiste, about why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, and why you need to be patient as you go through the rough spots that accompany every transition. Make sure you listen for the comparison between your first year of teaching and your first year somewhere new (6:00), how you can differentiate yourself from the previous teacher (16:30), and the best advice to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation (23:00). Full episode transcript below.
Check out the AOE series on your first year of teaching art at each level:
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. I think I’ll spare you all from the introduction that I really want to unleash on this podcast, which is me singing a few bars from David Bowie’s classic, ‘Changes’, and instead, I’ll just lay this out there. Every year of teaching is a whole new adventure. Whether it’s something as simple as a new group of students to new co-workers, new administrators or new educational directors that we have to follow, those are things that we as art teachers, we can’t control.
Now, many of us veteran teachers will have some control over changes that we’ve made like moving to teach in a new district or maybe staying in the same district, but jumping to a new age group or a different building in that district. You know the adage that “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side”. There’s this brisk realization that as a veteran teacher, we’ve stepped into a less than ideal situation, and that can be really sobering. We’ve been around long enough to know that there might be better solutions out there, but we don’t want to be that teacher who just won’t shut up about how things were done so much better at the old school, and to be honest, how much of that is looking back in time with rose-colored glasses? That’s what we’re looking at today, how to make the best of a bad situation.
When you realize that you’ve bitten off a little bit more than you can chew, that you’ve inherited a room and a job that you know is going to be a tough fit for you. I had the opportunity to talk shop with resident Art of Education instructor, Molly Wiste.
Molly: My name is Molly Wiste, and I teach high school art in Minnesota.
Andrew: Like me, Molly has recently changed roles, but has stayed in the same district. Despite the fact that we are both veteran teachers, there are some challenges that we’re both facing, and she was able to come in and chat with me, and I think we both bolstered each other up and let each other know that it was going to be all right.
Molly: Even though you’re a veteran teacher, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you bit off more than you can chew or you’re in over your head, my advice would be don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek out help.
Andrew: As veteran teachers, we have both the curse and blessing of experience and a little bit of wisdom. We know that we can do this job, but we also might feel like we’ve been doing it too long to have to deal with huge classroom management shifts and classroom supply woes, either way too much accumulated junk or not enough stuff. I think this whole problem, it really boils down to time, and we can remember back to being a new teacher and think about how challenging that first year was and how each year after that gets better and better. It’s just like that. A tough situation and a tough job is just going to take time to make better.
I think the biggest challenge in changing to a new position is that classroom management shift. Either the former teacher was way too strict and drove students away like the [plague 00:03:04] or way too lenient, and kids just ran roughshod over the entire room. Both of those things are challenging in their own unique ways, and that’s why I think taking a class like The Art of Education’s Managing the Art Room would be so helpful. Even season teachers would benefit from a dynamic learning environment where you can learn alongside of other teachers and classmates from around the country. Managing the Art Room is just a two-credit class and it starts up at the beginning of this month, so head on over to ‘Theartofed.com’ and check out this class. All right.
Now, to bring on Molly and here are some great ways to make the best of a bad situation. Now, to really pull out all the stops and get all the adages out here, you know what they say about life giving you lemons. Right? Hey, Molly. Thanks for joining us.
I like to start out by just setting the scene here. It’s kind of a multi-part question. How long have you been teaching, and then what big moves and changes have you made, and I’m thinking like different districts or age groups or anything like that?
Molly: I’ve actually been teaching about 11 years. I’ve been really lucky I’ve stayed in the same area, but I’ve moved schools. I started out in elementary school teaching kindergarten through fifth grade, and then a few years later, I ended up moving to middle level which was a big change. That was sixth through eighth grade. Then, most recently, I ended up moving up to high school, and so now, I’m teaching at the high school, so I’ve been at all three levels. That’s been a lot of big changes for me.
Andrew: I know people are going to wonder what … Because I’ve done everything from really little kids to even college kids. Do you have a favorite group so far?
Molly: What’s funny, I love them all for different reasons. The elementary kids are just so enthusiastic and pumped up and they just love you, but it’s a lot of management. Middle level still has that enthusiasm, but they’re going through stages where they’re trying to figure out who they are, but they’re fun, and high school, the enthusiasm isn’t always there. Sometimes you’re spending a lot of your time trying to pump them up.
Molly: They can be interesting. They can be rude to you, but I still really love them and I think I’m meant to be in the high school. I’m feeling like that’s my spot.
Andrew: You’re the perfect person to talk to since you’ve taught all three grades and ages. One of the things I’ve noticed on The Art of Education whether it’s articles or some of the last couple podcasts we’ve done, we’ve really focused on being a brand new teacher starting off the school year well as a new teacher, you’re first year, but you and I, we’ve both been around the block a few times. I’m wondering what do you think is tougher if you can think back. Do you think it’s tougher being a brand new teacher or being a veteran teacher who’s for whatever reason inheriting a new situation that’s maybe less than ideal and not great?
Molly: I do think it was difficult being a new teacher because you had no idea, but you also didn’t know what you didn’t know. I think people were so eager to jump in and help, and a lot of schools have mentor systems for new teachers in place, and people were pretty forgiving. They’d have expectations, but then because they were new, they’d allow you more time or more help, so I got to go with the veteran teacher moving into a difficult situation I think is harder because I have preconceived notions or expectations about how things should or could be, and when they’re not that way, it’s really disappointing, and I know better, so I want better, and I think it’s really hard.
Andrew: I’m feeling some of this too and I felt this in a couple of different moves. I mean I’ve moved and had three different jobs. As a new teacher, I think you said it perfectly, you don’t know what you don’t know, but as a teacher who’s been around a while, you can feel like you got to bite your tongue because you’re putting this tough situation. You don’t want to be that new person who’s like “There’s a better way to do this”, and then everyone is like, “Be quiet, new guy or new person”, but then at the same, you’re a little frustrated because you know there might be a better way or a better situation to go.
Andrew: It is tough, and I think with every person in every situation, you got to find that balance ground, that mid-ground that feels like good for you. One of the things that I think about when people take on a new situation, a new role is it’s like a regime change, and I think a big part of that is classroom management. Maybe the person that you took over for is too tough or too easygoing and too lax. I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with this that you can talk about. I mean, how do you deal with this? If you’ve got any specific tips for people out there who are going through a similar situation.
Molly: It’s really tough especially if you’re following a teacher that was there for most of their career because things are really set and people are used to the routines. I know following a teacher that is really strict almost … When you come in, if you’re not a strict, the students are thinking, “This is great” because that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a little bit of freedom, but you also have to be careful because if you come in and you’re on the other extreme and you’re too lax, your other teachers and administration could be looking at you like, “What do you got going on down there? Everybody is just running around”. Definitely relationship wise with the students, I think it can be fun to follow somebody that was a little more regimented because I’m a choice teacher, and giving students freedom is so much fun to see their just enthusiasm and creativity light up.
I’ve also followed a teacher that was a little bit more lax or easygoing with things, and the students love that. People could come and go. There were different people in the art room. It was all fun, but it’s really hard to come in then and have some expectations and rules. Right away, the students aren’t bought in.
They’re going like, “What is this? We had all this freedom and you’re trying to take it away from us?”, and that’s a really difficult thing to follow too. In either situation, you have to watch out and feel out the situation and figure out what you’re in.
Andrew: Right. I think what you just said, the idea of routines that it really does take time to build up your expectations, your routine, how you do things, how the kids are getting used to it. I’m in now my third job, so my second big shift and move, and I just feel like that first year, for anyone out there who’s in a similar boat, this is my moment of giving hope to people is I think that that first year is definitely rough because you’ve got the legacy of the former teacher and you’ll get kids say, “Miss so and so didn’t do it that way, or Mister so and so let us do this”, and you’re just like, “Sorry. I’m not that person and I do it differently”.
Andrew: Then, I think after that first year of maybe butting heads a little bit with those classroom management things, it definitely does get better. It just takes a lot of time.
Molly: Yeah. Yeah. I would agree.
Andrew: I think about this a lot. I’ve been thinking about a lot lately that as a teacher, you have two parts of what we do. Dealing with students, we talked about the regime change and dealing with student’s expectations and classroom management, but then there’s this other thing of fitting into a new building environment, and new teachers and new administrators, and maybe even a new community of part of your move was like changing towns. I wonder, and I feel like I’m battling this right now, as a new staff member, how do you navigate that stuff? Are there things that as a veteran teacher but new to the building, we have to be careful about that maybe say a new teacher wouldn’t have to worry about?
Molly: I think you’ve touched on this a little bit before, but it never looks good when you’re the new person coming in and telling everyone else that they’re doing it wrong, so you have to bite your tongue a little bit because it’s very possible that you’ve seen it, done better somewhere else or a different way. I think it’s really good to maybe find a couple things that you think need to be fixed right away and address those with people. Really try to push some other things aside, and even though it’s bugging you, wait a little while and give it some time, and even though it’s hard to hold back your enthusiasm, you’re pumped up and you know how you can make things better because you don’t want to be that guy. You don’t want to be annoying right off the bat and just bugging everybody about everything.
Andrew: I got to say that advice hits me so close to home because I know that I’m that person and I also logically know that I don’t want to be that person, but it’s like every time someone ask me how things are going or “How’s it going?”, and I open my mouth and it’s just a big, old like, “In my old district …” As I’m saying it, I’m just like, “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up”. Most of the time, you’re right.
I mean, I think it’s usually like little stuff, but yeah, you don’t want to be that new veteran teacher that everyone just associates like, “All right. He’s going to talk about hid old district. That’s like just amazing”. I think as teachers, what’s really dangerous is sometimes we look back on maybe a former gig, whether it’s a different building but same district or maybe it’s a whole different district and we put on our rose-tinted glasses and it’s like, “Oh, it was so amazing”. Then, you’re like, “Was it really or were there also all sorts of horrible things that you’ve forgotten about as you’ve moved on?”
Molly: Then, the other thing I always think about too, if you’re in a position where it’s not ideal and you’re really struggling, you can be really short on time, but I think it’s really important too to get out and socialize even though that might be the last thing on your mind. Making friends with people in the new building really creates people that are going to understand you and understand what you’re working through, and then people will advocate for you. If you have a pulse on what’s going on, if you’re out socializing, you’ll have a pulse on what’s going on, and you can actually that way too find somebody that could be your mentor. You might think like, “I’m a veteran teacher. I don’t need a mentor”, and there’s not going to be a mentor program for you, but the mentor needs to help you with the ins and outs of your new situation, your new building, and the things that are going to be different that you might not be aware of.
Andrew: I think that’s so true, and even … I remember as a new teacher being placed with a mentor who had nothing to do with art, and it was like it really was like “Here’s how you can get a lunch from the cafeteria, and here’s where you park, and make sure that you fill out this form by Friday”. It’s like that stuff is nice to have someone tell you, but it wasn’t really art specific, so I agree like if you can get out of the classroom and meet and network … It’s a gross word to say. I felt sleazy saying it for some reason, but get with people in your building who, you’re right, can advocate for you I think would be really, really helpful.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Tim and I did a podcast a couple weeks ago about negativity and positivity and things that teachers do well and don’t do well, and I really think that complaining without offering up other solutions is just pointless. It’s just whining and complaining. As a veteran teacher, if you see a better way, don’t just say, “I don’t like this”, but it’s like, “Okay. I’ve noticed this could be a problem, and this would really be a great solution”, so at least you are speaking up and it’s not just criticism, criticism, criticism, but it’s like criticism with a solution thrown in there as well.
Andrew: I’ve got a really, really weird question, but you got to bear with me here because I think maybe I’m going to use you as my shrink here and just I want you to tell me that I’m not weird for having this thought, because as I’ve mentioned, I’ve left jobs and started new jobs. I think with almost every single job, I’ve known the person that I’ve taken over for either beforehand or maybe afterwards, and I’ve also almost always met and known and gotten to know the people that have replaced me, and I’ve noticed this really weird thing happening. I think that as a new person, either consciously or subconsciously, we vilify the former teacher. It’s like, “Oh, why did they do it this way? They must not have known what they were doing. They weren’t very good.”
I ask this because I’ve seen people who come in after me, and it’s like, “Why do you have all this stuff. I’m not going to use this stuff”, and then they throw away everything, and I’ve been around enough to know like “Man, your budget might be cut in a couple of years. You might need that stuff”. Do you think there’s something where we feel the need to differentiate ourself from the person that came before us so we build them up in our mind to be like the bad guy or the villain in our mind or am I just like cookie here?
Molly: I think it’s just human nature, and I think like you said, sometimes it’s almost subconscious because I know that I’ve done it too. It almost builds up over time, like as I’m cleaning out my art room right now and I’m on full size dumpster number four, you really feel like you get to know when I actually did know the person that I’m replacing, but you find out more about them each cabinet that you empty. After a while, you’re just thinking like, “What is all this stuff, and what could this possibly be for?”, and like the negative thoughts almost just slip in. I’ve actually been struggling with this lately because like I said, I know the person that I replace and I have almost known the person that I replace every time. Each person has amazingly good qualities about them, and then there’s some things that I see as bad.
Then too, like you said, I’ve met people that have replaced me. In fact, when I moved up to the high school right now, there’s a person that replaced me at the middle school, and just like you said, he’s going through my cabinets going, “What the heck is this?” Like “Wiste, what do you do with this?”
Molly: It’s funny that I think we only see glimpses of who they were, and I think that’s why we feel that way because we don’t necessarily always see the good glimpses.
Molly: We see their dirty cabinets, and we just hear bits and pieces from students. I think that’s it. I think there’s good and bad in all of us. When you’re moving into somebody’s room, you’re like digging through their closets and you find the bad stuff.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s interesting. I mean, I know that as I’m on job number three, I’m definitely now thinking back to the people that I have replaced before like in job one and job two, and I’m becoming like a little more lenient and like, “All right. Okay. You did things a different way, and you had $2,000 worth of feathers, and I would never have bought those, but okay. We’re going to be all right here”.
Andrew: Then, I’m also now maybe wise enough and old enough to think like, “Oh God. What sort of weird stuff did I leave behind, and they’re probably cursing at me”. The last job I left, I really tried to like, “Okay. I don’t think this guy is going to want all this stuff. It’s weird”, so I’ve tried to take it out, but then you never know.
Maybe they’re as weird and cookie as you are and exactly the same way and they’ll want the same stuff, so it’s kind of a no win situation I guess. I think just what you said I think is really great, you’re getting just glimpses of the people, and yeah. I mean, I think for people out there who are inheriting a less than ideal situation and they know that there’s a better way to like you said, don’t maybe let that negativity creep in and just realize that this is only snippets of what that person was really all about.
Molly: It’s funny too, the person that I just replaced, I actually worked with them for a lot of years and they were my mentor, and we actually got to have a conversation before he left and we talked about he was there 30 plus years. He was a beloved teacher. He knew that he was very lenient like open door policy with everything, whatever it was, and he felt bad because we were talking about how rough my year was going to be like replacing him the first year, and he knew it. He was like, “Wiste, I know you’re going to have it rough”, but it also wasn’t going to change who he was, but it was fun to have that connection, that conversation.
Andrew: Right. That brings up something I’ve actually thought about the last job that I left and as I thought about transitioning because you get to care for your kids and love your kids so much. It sounds like this teacher that you replaced was actually thinking about his legacy or the next person. Have you ever thought about the person that replaces you and what qualities you’d want them to have so that they’re not so radically different that then they’re just like inheriting just a horrible experience if that makes any sense, like maybe trying to find someone who’s at least close to you so it’ll be like a similar kind of experience?
Molly: Right. That’s a good question. That’s an interesting question too. I’m in the trenches right now of trying to figure out. I’m like treading water trying to figure out how to survive this first year and this huge change, so I haven’t thought about it too much, but when they were interviewing to find a person for this position, the retiring teacher wasn’t involved in the interviews, and I wondered “Maybe he should have been”.
Andrew: Yeah, to make sure that those are smooth transition. I mean, I thought about that like if I were to leave, I mean, they are teaching communities small enough especially locally where we might live and work and you’re just like, “Okay. I bet this person and this person and this person are all going to apply for the job. Boy, this person is a really great teacher, but man, their style and outlook is so different from mine that they’re going to walk into a less than ideal situation because they’re so different when it comes to classroom management or outlook on things that boy, they just might not be a really good fit”.
Andrew: I want to take a big final summary picture of this thing. We’ve walked into a less than ideal situation. Things are maybe going to be a little rough. I mean, do we just take comfort in the fact that it’s just going to take time and that as veteran teachers, we know we’re going to get it worked out or are we keeping those resumes handy because we’re looking for a better situation down the road?
Molly: I would say it depends a lot on different circumstances like I was just saying this room that I just inherited four dumpsters later. I was in there all summer and I’m still cleaning the place out. It’s been rough. It really has, and it’s taken a toll on me, and also, I have the teacher who’s a really tough act to follow and it’s a big transition, but I really … The staff and the administration have been so supportive.
My administration was like “What do you need? We’ll pay you to work on curriculum this summer. We can do something to get you some time in the art room”. They’ve gotten me supplies, materials, paid for all these dumpsters, and the staff has been so supportive. A lot of them have said to me even though the last teacher was beloved and they all had good relationships with that teacher, they said they know that it would be really tough to follow him. They’re supportive and they know what I’m going through, and I also really like the community that my school is in, so I’m vested. I’m going to stick it out.
Molly: If you didn’t have that staff, admin, community support, and you had the room with the four dumpsters and you’re treading water because it’s a tough transition, I don’t know.
Molly: I might be looking elsewhere.
Molly: I think that other support is what is important when you’re in a bad situation.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s really important. We are joking off mic that we wish that our communities, our schools were close to each other because you inherited a classroom overflowing with stuff and materials and you’ve had to purge, and I inherited the classroom where literally my cupboards were bare and it’s like “Oh, Molly. I wish I could take all the junk you’re throwing away from that”.
Molly: I know, right?
Andrew: That’d be pretty pricy though to ship it from Minnesota to Iowa, so oh well.
Molly: I know.
Andrew: Things didn’t work out. Hey, Molly. Before we go, do you have any last minute tips for anyone out there listening who is maybe like us dealing with a less than ideal new gig out there?
Molly: Some of us could be a repeat, but just to make sure, definitely ask for help. Like I said, my administration and my teachers, my teachers have donated stuff to me for organization. My administration got me paid time, dumpsters, and they’re just always giving me that pat on the back like “It’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this”. Then, even though you’re a veteran teacher, find a mentor that you trust, like go out and do that socializing and figure out who you get along with, who you think you can talk to, and find somebody they trust to really help you know the ropes, and it’s nice if you can have somebody advocate for you.
I have a new teacher that I meet with right now, and when he’s in a tough situation, I go to admin and I say, “Hey, you need to help this guy out”, so he doesn’t have to do that. You need somebody to advocate for you. Then, the last thing is just that change is really hard for everyone. Once in a while, I have to think about my students might be hurting because they miss their teacher. We’ll have a relationship eventually, but right now, they might be lashing out at me because not so much because I’m more strict maybe, but because they miss their teacher that they’ve had for years and years.
Just I have to stop and think once in a while even though I’m struggling, that I need to build relationships with those students and I keep trying to make sure that I share my heart with them and tell them why, like, “Why am I more strict? Why am I making them do digital portfolios when they’ve never done it before?” If they understand who I am and they know my heart and they know my story, they’re going to come around and we’re going to be okay and we’re going to have a relationship too, and someday, they won’t want me to leave.
Andrew: Very well put. Hey, Molly. Thanks for coming on and man, we’re going to make it through this year, and then we’re going to laugh at our rough first couple of weeks of this new transition for us.
Molly: I hope so.
Andrew: All right. Take care. Have a great rest of the year.
Molly: You too.
Andrew: All right. I hope that talk between Molly and I inspired and informed you if you’re also finding yourself in a less than great situation. There’s lots of little things that you can do, but I think the two big pieces of the puzzle, number one, don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help, and secondly is it’s just going to take some time. As veteran teachers, we know we can change the direction of the shift. It’s just going to take time.
Before you know it, you’ll look back on this first rocky period with some humor. I mean, what doesn’t kill you is only bound to make you stronger. Right? Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. For fans of the podcast out there, do us a favor and give us a ranking or positive review on iTunes as this is totally what helps us find new listeners when they type in ‘Art’ and ‘Education’ into whatever podcast listening app they’re using.
This totally helps spread our message and our show. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio will be released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on ‘Theartofed.com’. All right. Thanks for listening.