Teacher Advice: The Good, the Bad, and “That Would Never Happen in MY Class!”

Hello-2Beware: Not all teaching advice is created equal. Whether you are on the giving or receiving end, here are a few examples of common suggestions with potential pitfalls.

“Be consistent.” / “Set high expectations.” / “Stay organized.” 
It is seldom helpful to redirect rookies to the general principles served up in teacher training. Chances are, new teachers have heard these suggestions and are struggling to put them into practice. In mid-November, a rookie teacher’s most pressing question is not likely to be, “Should I set high expectations?” It is more likely to be, “How do I set an expectation of college readiness when, despite my best efforts, only two of my students regularly turn in homework?” To be truly helpful, suggestions should be case-specific and as realistic as possible.

“Just read the books on this list / Set up a website / Do some research on educational psychology and you’ll be a better teacher in no time.” Some simple-sounding suggestions contain hours of hidden steps, and dumping them on an overwhelmed colleague is just plain mean. Work-heavy tips are likely to sink to the bottom of a beginner’s to-do list, where they lead to little more than a sense of inadequacy. Make sure your advice to newer colleagues is as easy as it sounds. If you want to help even more, share ready-to-use materials, like a preformatted lesson plan or ready-to-copy lab directions.

“I call parents from class when a child is misbehaving.” Calling parents from class can be effective at toning down out-of-control behavior or catching a skipping student red-handed. On the other hand, it can backfire if a parent isn’t home, students are making noise on your end of the line, or the troublemaker is allowed to get on the phone and talk his way out of trouble. Experienced teachers who describe daring moves in front of newer colleagues should anticipate and address likely exceptions. Don’t let rookies find out the hard way that the magic in your “bag of tricks” has limitations.

“What you should have done is…” Good advice applies to the future, not the past. If your advice includes the words, “You should have…” it’s bad even if it’s good. Chances are, the new teacher with an empty grade book three days before “Report Card’s Eve” now understands the importance of keeping up with grading. What they need to know is what do now.

“Don’t worry. If you can just keep these kids quiet you are doing fine.” Good advice may move rookies forward slowly, but it doesn’t tell them to stop. It directs them toward the next manageable step they can take toward the overall goal of being a great teacher. Don’t get me wrong – keeping kids quiet enough to learn is important, and in some cases it is no easy task. But don’t confuse comforting an overwhelmed teacher with sending the message it’s okay not to improve.

“If I were a teacher I’d make learning fun and let my students know I care… like in that one movie where that teacher finally got through to her students and then they taught her to dance!” Non-teachers mean well when they offer suggestions based on movies, their experience as a student, or the type of teachers they think they would be if they were teachers, but this type of advice can be especially difficult to handle. After all, rookies were well-meaning moviegoers themselves not long ago. Now, they’re just wondering why the movie teacher has only one class of high school students, and why she never seems to grade any papers. Movies are a lot less inspiring when the non-Hollywood, unscripted version is playing full time in your classroom.

If you can conceive it they can achieve it!!!!” Rhyming phrases may sound nice, but that doesn’t make them real advice! Hey, that was fun. Let’s try another one: Posters with pictures of baby animals and simplistic expressions may not really solve much in this complex profession!

“Well, that would never happen in MY class.” If you’ve read my book you already know my opinion on this loosely disguised piece of ugly non-advice. Teachers who respond to pleas for help with any variation on this self-serving phrase are not helpful. They are likely never going to be, either. The proof? They would rather make themselves look good than offer help to someone who is struggling, which is not the mark of a great teacher anyway.

How do you know if the advice you’re getting is good?

  • Imagine putting the advice into practice. If parts of the picture are fuzzy, ask follow up questions until they become clear.
  • Listen to your gut. Literally. If advice makes those Sunday-night stomach cramps worse, it’s not the advice you need, or at least not the advice you need right now. Good advice is comforting rather than overwhelming.
  • Seek out unofficial mentors: The mentor teacher assigned by your principal shouldn’t be the only colleague you turn to for help. Ask a few casual questions of any teacher with the same grade level, subject area, or student population. Soon you will get a sense of who is most willing and able to help you.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog of The Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 14 leading education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools.

P.S. You can now get your copy of Adequate Yearly Progress: A Novel!

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