Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Unsolicited Advice for New Teachers

In 1998 I graduated from college and got my first job: teaching fourth grade at a small school just 15 minutes from my hometown.  I was just barely 22 years old and had my very own class of 14 ten-year-old minds to mold.

I worked hard with those kids.  I gave them everything I had that year.  Even so, in the end, I didn't think it was enough.  My principal was shocked to find me, after the kids had gone on the last day, sitting alone in the corner of my classroom, bawling my eyes out.  I just knew that I had failed those little people that I had poured so much into.  Luckily for me, my principal was a wise man who told me to suck it up; that I had done a great job and that I wasn't personally responsible for each and every student for the remainder of their lives.  I took that advice and it made the rest of my career a little easier.  Here are a few more nuggets of wisdom I wish I would have known that day.

1. Be creative.  The best things I did with my fourth graders weren't the things the textbooks suggested.  They were the things we did that were hands-on.  Yes, they took more work, but they were also much more rewarding.

We had a boat building contest.  I gave the kids craft sticks and soda bottles and sent it home for a week.  One kid came back with his boat covered in sprayed fiberglass!  He certainly won the contest! The next year, when I had his little sister, I had to be sure to have more well defined rules.  :)

We also did an econ project where we baked and sold hundreds of cookies.  The kids learned a lot about economics, everything from investors, to marketing to sweat equity.  They even got to choose what to do with their profits.

In my fifth grade class we read the book Esperanza Rising and celebrated Mexican culture with a a small fiesta.  We tasted jamaica (a drink pronounced ha-mike-ah) and rice water.  We learned Spanish words and ate fresh-made tortillas.  My student teacher had never had them before and I remember thinking, even the adults are learning now!

2.  Set the bar high.  I firmly believe that almost all students will rise to the expectations of their teachers.  If you lay out clear expectations and are consistent in making sure they are followed, you will have very few discipline problems and very few academic failures in your classroom.

3. Treat kids as individuals.  Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing.  Fair means everyone gets a chance to succeed.  The kid with divorced parents who spends Wednesday night at Mom's house may need extra attention on Thursday mornings.  The little boy whose father is in jail might need more warnings to stop his behavior than the kid sitting next to him.  The little girl who grew up reading Spanish may need a little more time to translate in her head before answering your question.  Give it to her.  This doesn't mean you're playing favorites or being unfair.  It means you are meeting the needs of the kids in your classroom in the best way you can.

4. Don't use behavior charts.  This teacher already wrote a blog about why they suck.  Read it here. She says it better than I can, so really, go read it.  Quit humiliating kids with these ridiculous things.  Would you want your boss to post one in the lounge with your performance evaluations?

5. Don't take away recess.  I know, I know, it's so hard not to, but really, just quit doing this.  The kid who drives you the most crazy in class is probably the kid who needs to physical activity the most.  This is the number one thing I would take back if I had those early years as a teacher to do over.  I would give more recess and absolutely zero time on the wall.  Even on the worst of days.

6. Quit grading every problem of every assignment.  This is crazy and unnecessary.  There is no good reason for you to spend two or three or four hours a day grading papers.  You can throw some of them in recycling without ever looking at them.  You can stick them in the Friday Folders with just a checkmark or a sticker.  If you must grade them, grade as you go.  Have the kids work a couple of problems, they come to you to have them checked before they can move on.  You can also have the kids trade and grade.  This works especially well on spelling tests and math worksheets.  With today's technology, you can probably even show the answer key on your smart board and have the kids check them that way.  You're doing enough without grading every single pencil mark your students make.  Take back your evenings and weekends.  Just quit this.  Yes, Mrs. Perfect, I'm talking to you.

7.  Admit when you've blown it.  My second year of teaching I had a particularly bad day.  I don't remember exactly what happened or why I was off kilter, but I do remember ten-year-old Kristi asking me if we could talk in the hall.  When we stepped out of the classroom, this brave little soul told me that I was being unfair.  The kids hadn't done anything bad and I was yelling at them and just generally being unkind.  She was right.  I have rarely been so humbled.  After sending her back to class and taking a few minutes to compose myself, I walked back into the room and apologized to the entire class.  Our day got better from then on and I was able to preserve my relationships with those kids, even on a bad day.

8. Treasure the little moments.  My favorite moment as a teacher was at a school awards ceremony.  John, who had been in my class the previous year, had gotten an award for his Exemplary score on his state tests.  After getting the award and before heading back to his fifth grade class, he walked over to me, gave me a hug and told me, "Thanks, Mrs. C, for teaching me stuff."  It was just 10 seconds to him, but it still makes me tear up.  Treasure those moments; those thank yous and those hugs.  Hold on to them on the days when you just can't seem to get anything to add up or you have an angry parent show up at your door.  You're going to need them on those days.  Write them down.  Keep a file or a scrapbook of the good things and check it often.  Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

9. This one may be uber specific, but I had a great system for fire drills.  At the beginning of the year, I would assign the kids a number.  I usually did this alphabetically but you could do it however you want.  We used the numbers for everything from attendance to turning in papers, so the kids were very familiar with their numbers.  At fire drills (or tornado drills or whatever) they were to get in line in number order as quickly as they could when we got outside.  We quickly numbered off and I knew exactly who was present and who was missing. My class was always among the first to turn in attendance and  more importantly, I was quickly able to identify who was accounted for.

10.  Don't give homework just to give it.  Just don't.  The kids who "need" to the work are most often the ones who don't have the support at home or the academic skills to do so.  It takes them hours and causes undo stress for them and their families.  The kids who can get it done quickly don't need it, they already have the skills.  It's just busy time that takes away from the really important stuff in life: family time.   Leave room for the kids to be kids.  Let them play and enjoy their lives at home without worrying about another math paper.

Yes, there will be exceptions to this one.  There will be days when you need to send something home.    It's hard to, say, observe the moon at 2:00 in the afternoon.  So, yes, kids will need to do this at home.  But give them some leeway.  When I assigned homework, it was almost always a weekly assignment; very rarely something that had to be done that night.  By this, I mean that I gave homework on Friday afternoon that had to be completed by the next Friday afternoon.  That gave the kids a week to work on it and didn't mean they had to do it on a certain night.  I think most families appreciated that.

I'm not gonna sugar coat this; some administrators will insist you send homework.  With ridiculous educational initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, the pressure is on!  Many principals don't know how to deal with it.  I once got graded down in an evaluation for not sending enough work home with elementary kids.  I wish I was kidding.  It's a tough one to stand your ground on, so do your best to know what you're getting into.  If you have the chance, ask what the expectations are for this when you interview for a job.  Finding a principal who shares your values can save you a whole lot of headaches.  Take it from a girl who had six bosses in nine years.  The ones who shared my philosophies (and I'm not just talking about homework here) were a pleasure to work with.  The ones who didn't weren't so easy to work for.  There's a huge difference.

11.  Make physical contact with each kid, each day.  In my classroom, this meant that before they left for the day, each kid gave me a hug or a high-five on the way out the door.  Every. Day.  I connected with them, one-on-one, for at least that brief second each day.  I think it made a difference.

So, there you go, new teachers (and maybe some veterans, too).  And just because I know that teachers LOVE graphic organizers, I'll leave you with these.


  1. AWESOME advice!! Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. surprised you used the names of students you have had! Dissapointed :(

  3. I figured that since the kids I mentioned are now well into their twenties, I didn't give their last names or the school they attended, it would be okay. Also, I used them in a positive way. I would never use names of kids who were still minors or any real names for kids if I was telling a story that reflected on them negatively, no matter how much time had passed.