Notes to a New Teacher (Dana Dunnan)

I met Dana Dunnan 40 years ago when he was a teaching intern at Stanford University and I visited his classes at a nearby high school. He received his Master’s degree there. We reconnected when his recent book was published. Dunnan began as a high school chemistry teacher and then later taught physics, physical science, English and journalism. He also worked at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a teaching practitioner, helped Massachusetts develop curriculum frameworks and accompanying assessment, and designed curriculum materials used in chemistry classrooms internationally.

This is an excerpt from Notes to a New Teacher. Details on the book can be found at

On top of the thrill, and abject terror, of newness, is the way schools treat beginning teachers. Since those creating schedules have developed relationships with those who they are scheduling, the classes assigned a new teacher tend to be what no one else wants to, or is willing to, teach.

My first year, when I was exclusively a chemistry teacher, I taught five classes in a seven period day. I was the only newcomer in the department, and everyone else taught four classes. Everyone else had their own classroom, and I taught in three different rooms, in three different wings of the building. Each room “belonged” to someone else, with all the territoriality that implies. Each room had a teaching aide, whom the teacher in that room treated as theirs exclusively.

By that June, I was exhausted. Having failed to leave time for exercise, my back was killing me.[1] It is not hard to see why so many people leave the profession in the first three years.

After seven years in science, I got laid off from that department. I had the option of bumping my way into the English department. I was so pissed off at being bumped out of science that I took a year’s leave of absence.

Having no kids, and a wife who was a public school speech pathologist, I could afford the time off. It rejuvenated me, allowed me to spend months with my father as he recovered from an amputation, and gave me the energy to wade into the English department.

While I did get my own room, I also got the journalism course, a grammar/vocabulary course, and a course for seniors who needed an English course for graduation requirements.

On top of knowing nothing about journalism, it was also the course that produced a weekly school paper, which was distributed in the local newspaper, for all to see and critique. There was no extra stipend for this responsibility, and it was more work than any other course in the department.

But here’s why teaching can be great- I loved teaching journalism. It was constantly stimulating, I had complete latitude in the curriculum, and the successes of my students were publicly visible, so that my competence as an instructor was not subject to adolescent whims or subjective administrative analysis.

I taught journalism for three years, and stopped because I was officially back in the science department, and the journalism had drained me.

Which brings me back to a key bit of advice to a new teacher. There is always something more you can be doing. If you have any imagination, and a desire to be better, there is always something that can improve your classroom, or your lessons, or your content knowledge. (This is well known to those evaluators who feel they must justify their existence by finding “suggestions” for your improvement.)

Resist the temptation to run to a horizon you can never reach, and save room for yourself. If you run yourself down, your teaching is going to decline anyway, and, if you get sick, and you will (as Petri dishes, schools need defer only to commercial aircraft), then you’re running uphill to make up for the time you have lost.

A very bright and driven teacher I knew created a great debate program, then found community funding to build a radio station within the school. He told me that the superintendent had words of advice for him when he had lamented how hard he was working. The superintendent said to him, “One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself.”

While it sounds like a recommendation for self-gratification, it is important advice for the beginning teacher.

The hard charger who got that advice was out of teaching within a decade, working in a bank, then a funeral home, then car sales.

One hand for the ship, one for yourself.


[1] When I went to a doctor for an analysis of my back, he said I would need back surgery, and that I could probably never play basketball again. I spent the summer doing hundreds of sit-ups daily, and the back problem dissipated. I did, in the process, so strengthen my back muscles that, under great stress, my back would tighten up and torture me.


Filed under how teachers teach

12 responses to “Notes to a New Teacher (Dana Dunnan)

  1. I was a new math teacher. I asked the seasoned teachers why they got to teach calculus while the new teachers got remedial math. The hard part isn’t the math, its the teaching. They told me I had to pay my dues. I left after 5 years of teaching.

  2. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  3. Thanks for posting my piece, Larry. You, Dave Tyack, and John Taylor influenced me enormously at Stanford.
    Go Spurs.

  4. JMK

    It’s not simply that new teachers get the bad assignments, although that certainly does happen.

    But principals also signal clearly which new teachers are desired and which aren’t. I wrote a piece about this:

    Specifically, at my last job, two teachers newer than me got far better assignments, and a teacher was assigned to teach algebra II/trig, despite not being qualified (thus requiring a notification letter) rather than giving me the class.

    And as I also write, many tenured teachers deal with being out of favor with the current administration.

    I agree that “let the newbies suffer” is a common administrative priority. But it’s not the only one.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Michele, for the comment. Yes, there are different ways to handle both novices and veterans in assigning classes to teach.

  5. BernardHarris

    I have been teaching for over 5 years. My first year was horrible. I was at a middle school and I really had no idea of what I was doing. I had no one here to help me and all I had was administration on my back nagging me about what I wasn’t doing right. I wound up quitting after the first semester. I was stressed out because I was on my own, My following years I went to a high school and things went a lot better. I started a debate team. That school had a change in administration and the superintendent fired about everyone in the school. I wound up at a horrible middle school where there was no support from administration. Kids were horrible. I still came to work everyday earlier than everyone else and stayed later then everyone else. I wound up being let go in July because they labeled me ineffective. Also, through that time I still ran my debate team and we went to the NAUDL finals. That school was a bad experience and I also learned that middle school was not for me. I wound up teaching at another high school where on the first day, the students and I clicked. I got them thinking historically by using the curriculum read like a historian and the kids ran out the room telling administration that they needed to hire me. I’ve had up and downs in teaching however I pressed through them and I have kept my enthusiasm. So much, that principals notice it through my interview. My supervisor told me that I have taken a subject that was once considered so boring and made the kids so excited to teach it. The advice that I would give any new teacher is to; one, never loose your enthusiasm for teaching. two, look at everything as a learning experience, even the bad ones. Sometimes, the teacher is not always the problem. Know that you are a good teacher in spite of what some people say. Take your time and learn how each school works. Keep in mind, you are a valuable commodity and not some lackey. Don’t give up no matter what comes your way. I’m successful because I don’t give up and neither should you.

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