Four Tips for New Teachers

Beginning teachers have to lay the tracks as they drive the train.Beginning teachers have to lay the tracks as they drive the train, and they spend much of the year feeling like they’re about to crash. Here are some tips to help beginners make it through the challenges of first year – and into a successful teaching career beyond.

Choose your mentors carefully: The best mentors combine discretion with honest, practical advice. Talking to them should make you feel hopeful, not discouraged. Be especially wary of anyone who responds to requests for help with any form of the phrase, “Well, that would never happen in MY class!” This is not a sign of a helpful mentor. It is the sign of someone who would rather look perfect than be helpful, which is not the mark of a great teacher anyway. Anyone you take advice from should be willing to say, “That HAS happened in my class, and it’s not an easy problem to solve, but here are solutions that have worked for me.” That is where an honest conversation starts.

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Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, you’d like to be perfect now that you’re in charge of kids, but chances are you’re still more organized than creative (or more creative than organized). You’re still more ambitious than patient (or more patient than ambitious). Strengths and weaknesses from our personal lives carry over into our teaching styles. Luckily, there are many traits that make a good teacher. No one has them all, and some of them can even contradict one another. Your goal is not to conceal your weaknesses or disguise them as strengths. It is to identify your true strengths and use them to reinforce potential weak spots.

Set up classroom systems that you can keep up with: New teachers often set up labor-intensive systems for discipline management or classroom organization. This makes it easy to fall behind. The good news is that it’s never too late to simplify the systems in your classroom. A behavior system of putting checks on the board might be better than one that involves rearranging color-coded cards. Today’s quiz doesn’t have to be typed from scratch using student answers from yesterday’s homework. Student helpers can take over certain daily duties. Treating your time and energy as finite resources can help you use both more effectively.

Learn from your mistakes, but take note of your successes: The great teachers of the future know they are not great yet. All teachers have bad days, and rookies tend to be harder on themselves than veterans. This is partly because experienced educators have stored enough good memories to reassure themselves and balance out the moments that make teachers wonder if we’re cut out for this. Start collecting these memories early. Keep a file of notes from students and other encouraging signs. On your worst days, remember that the longtime teachers on your hallway have probably hit similar low points and chose to keep teaching anyway. If that’s not an argument for the rewards of this profession, nothing is.

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in Education Week’s Classroom Q&A, by Larry Ferlazzo. You can see the original piece, with beginner advice from several educators, here.

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

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