Paula Rutherford
Issue XIV

Share this newsletter on

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Pinterest Email Addthis

 Why Didn’t I Learn This in College?

This newsletter provides advice, insights, and suggestions helpful to mentors and induction program coordinators as they strive to support new teachers. Also included are timely instructional tips mentors can share with new teachers. The focus this month is on the differences between collegiate life and the first year of teaching.

The question that is the title of this issue was asked on dozens of occasions by my son his first year out of college. Almost twenty years later, new graduates are still asking the same question. This is no indictment of colleges and universities but rather a predictable lament of students who may have studied hard and been taught well. The unavoidable fact is that you simply cannot learn all you need to know about teaching while in college.

Much of what students do as college work is individual work and much of what teachers do in schools should be teamwork. In college you are not supposed to ask classmates for help, especially when you need to demonstrate your competency. That is considered cheating. To try to go it alone as you were expected to do in college is a recipe for disaster for a teacher. For teachers, working collaboratively is supposed to be the norm. In schools the general education teachers, the special education teachers, the literacy and math coaches, the social worker, the psychologist, the mentors, and the administration are all a part of the team. Learning to admit out loud that you are stumped and need help is a difficult transition. Knowing exactly who and what to ask is even harder.

College students are focused on themselves, their own learning, and their well being; in teaching, while still learning and taking care of themselves, the focus shifts to their students, their learning, and their well being. The focus on their own learning has been a staple of new teachers’ entire lives; finding the emotional and intellectual energy to refocus and concentrate on the learning of dozens of students is not an easy undertaking.

In college, tiredness was experienced primarily at exam time or near big project due dates. In teaching, the long days and the steady stream of students all day, day after day, without breaks between classes for strolls across campus, extracurricular activities, or even a change of pace by working a part-time job, are natural causes of tiredness and fatigue. The relentless steady task of “being on” all day five days a week often breaks the spirit of those new to teaching. To add to the misery, they see that their college friends who are working in different fields do not have lesson plans to create and papers to grade in the evening; they can even go out on Thursday nights!

In college when a professor asked a question, it was usually beamed across the classroom and each student could decide whether or not to answer. Class participation was not usually a component of the collegiate grading system. As teachers, not only are they bombarded by questions from students, colleagues, and parents that all .have to be answered quickly and appropriately, they also have to plan and ask lots and lots of really good questions themselves… and listen carefully to the answers. There is little time to sit back and contemplate the world!

Furthermore, as college students they were judged by how well they did exactly what professors wanted them to In the work world, the expectations are not only more demanding, they are much more vague and multifaceted. Theory and knowledge were often sufficient to meet muster in college; in schools and classrooms it is the skillfulness with which teachers use their knowledge that determines their success. Learning to be proactive, anticipate the needs of the learners, use data to inform instructional decisions, and plan collaboratively requires a complex sets of skills not often mastered in the collegiate setting. 

And the list goes on. It is no wonder that new teachers, especially those who have followed a traditional pathway of K-12 education and an undergraduate degree to becoming a teacher in their twenties, are bewildered and exhausted. Their college classmates may experience the same sense of exhaustion and bewilderment but the context is ever so different. The biggest variable is that the classmates who entered the business world are not greeted by 30 to 150 students each day. They can take a break and chat with colleagues, close their office doors, or at least put on ear phones and listen to music to block out distractions, and even arrive a little late or leave a little early without causing a flurry of paperwork and the calling of a substitute.

What is a mentor to do? Most importantly we must be aware of the life changes the new teachers are experiencing and rather than try to change them into something they are not, be supportive as they find themselves as young adults and educators. We must not excuse them from, but rather support them in, planning rigorous standards-based lessons with appropriate scaffolding for their students. We must guide them to appropriate professional development, informal or formal, that will provide them “just in time” support for their work. We must help them become analytical and reflective practitioners about the wisdom and effectiveness of their decisions and the use of their time and energy.

Being an instructional mentor requires a complex and sophisticated set of skills. We are often handicapped by our own lens about our first year of teaching. The reality is that the game plan has changed and first year teachers have to do far more than many current mentors were expected to do in their first year. It is no longer enough to be competent within the confines of our own classrooms; it is essential to be data-driven and to balance autonomy and interdependence. Our job is not to protect new teachers from the harsh realities of the job but to support them as they confront these current realities with ever increasing knowledge and skill. 


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Rutherford, Paula. “Why Didn’t I Learn This in College?” Mentoring in the 21st Century® Issue XIV. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2007 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at