New Teacher Series/Question 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

I was 23 years old with a degree in English and a Kentucky teaching certificate.  Just legal enough to be dangerous. My first job was in a rural, independent school with grades K-12 in one building. The graduating class had 32 kids. I was given no syllabus, no curriculum, only a textbook, a student handbook, and a calendar from the Army recruiter who stopped by my room while I cleaned the four inches of chalk dust that had settled on everything in sight.

I started that first day with some games and journaling prompts with zero instructional value or connection. My college of ed professor had promised these would promote “a robust marketplace of ideas.” Those students indulged my lameness for exactly two days, then the honeymoon was over. For weeks, they defied me openly or ignored me and went to sleep.  When I tried to get control of the class, they were angry with me for not going along with the no- expectations contract I had unknowingly signed that first day.

As bad as that school year was for me, I’m sure it was even worse for my students.  I was immature, unprepared, and inexperienced. I didn’t feel like a real teacher, so I didn’t act like one.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t understand the gravity of my role.  I didn’t even have appropriate clothes.  I didn’t understand how to communicate effectively, how to forge relationships, how to be empathetic while also being emphatic.

In no particular order, and leaving out about 200 more, here are my five biggest first-year mistakes, and my suggestions for avoiding them:

  • I had no idea how to actually teach anything. In college I studied literature and composition. I had exactly six education classes (one which taught us how to put a cassette in a tape player and push “on”) plus student teaching.  I knew how to write a lesson plan. I knew how to write a philosophy of education statement. I was a proficient reader and writer, but I had no idea how to take what I did intuitively and break it down in steps to help someone who was struggling.

Tip: Learning occurs at the intersection of desire and need, so get to know your students. Figure out what they need, what they want, and what they care about.  Tap into their prior knowledge and help them make connections.  Teach skills in the context of student interests and ask open-ended questions.  Learn how to break down a complex concept like reading or writing into its elemental components, and explain those components in clear, simple language, so a 17-year-old who reads on a second grade level can understand you and still maintain his dignity.

  • I did not set clear expectations for my classroom, my students, or myself. Setting clear and high expectations for academic success and helping your students meet those expectations is the cornerstone of education. Expectations are not rules; they are statements that set the bar and establish the culture of your classroom’s community.

Tip: Expectations should be both high and simple.  They should be posted and communicated to your students in positive language.   Don’t be a hypocrite; make sure you model those expectations every day by how you talk, dress, prepare lessons, and conduct business.

  • I did not establish classroom protocols. The organizational side of teaching with its hundred moving parts can murder, bury and say Mass over a new teacher.  I was cluttered, disorganized and frantic, which was exhausting and crazy-making.  Instead of establishing procedures that would have provided peace and stability, I made contradictory, from-the-hip decisions and was forced to put out the fires my inexperience had started.

Tip: Establish a simple procedure for every element of classroom business (how to deal with cell phones, make-up work, homework collection and return, tardiness, plagiarism, cheating, hall passes, attendance, tutoring, parent contacts, detention, etc.) Communicate these procedures also in positive language to students.  Once you’ve established simple, efficient protocols, maintain them from the first week onward.

  • I didn’t understand how to manage my time – either in class or in my private life. Transitions between activities took longer than I expected or an activity was finished in 15 minutes, and I had 30 minutes of dead air on my hands. I didn’t understand how to stall or accelerate an activity on the fly, and I didn’t yet have a compendium of exercises I could whip out to manage dead time. Also, that first year, I worked at least 80 hours a week. Every teaching day was a 14-hour day, and I would spend my weekends planning lessons and grading homework.

Tip: Do every activity you plan for your students and time yourself; figure out how much time students need to transition from one activity to the next.  In your private life, practice self-care. Indulge in a non-teaching hobby. The world will not stop spinning if you don’t finish grading that last set of essay questions. Get 8 hours of sleep.  Exercise, drink plenty of water, and go out with friends who make you laugh hysterically.   When you are with kids all day, sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be an adult.

  • I didn’t know how to connect with students. I took everything personally.  I fell into two speeds – either passive and avoidant so I could just get through the day or furious and volatile, exacting punishments on the whole classroom when only one kid was out of line. After the first semester when I cried once a week, the second semester I got bitter and mean. I hated those kids, and they hated me.

Tip:  See student outbursts for what they are:  frustrations at life, of which you are only a very, very small part. Do not get defensive. Be patient, kind, and slow to blame.  Be curious, not furious when a student acts out.  Set emotional and physical boundaries for yourself to avoid being sucked into student drama. Learn to disengage while practicing empathy and support.

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