Five Unwritten Rules of Teaching

Messy Teacher Desk

Here are some rules of teaching you won’t find in any manual—but probably should.

Beg, borrow, steal… then adapt.

Undoubtedly you’ve heard the classic teacher advice, “Beg, borrow, and steal.” A better phrase would be, “Beg, borrow, steal…and then adapt.” If another teacher’s routines fall flat the first time you try them, don’t get discouraged. These procedures are inseparable from a teacher’s personality and are almost always more complex than they sound.

Be careful what you say in the teachers’ lounge.

Before my first year, a veteran teacher told me to stay out of the teachers’ lounge. She said it would be full of negative teachers gossiping about kids, coworkers, and probably me as soon as I left the room. This turned out to be easy advice to follow. I spent every lunch period in my classroom giving “lunch detentions,” staring at ungraded papers, or hyperventilating in the dark. At the end of the year, I regretted it. Getting to know your coworkers makes any job more enjoyable, and we all need to socialize sometimes. Why do you think it’s so hard to keep the kids quiet? By all means, sit in the teachers lounge when you need adult company during a day full of kids. Just remember this: Everyone talks to someone, and someone in the teacher’s lounge talks to everyone. If there is anything you wouldn’t want repeated to a coworker, overheard by your principal, or announced out of context over the PA system, the teachers’ lounge is not the place to discuss it.

Don’t start your scheduled observation lesson until the principal walks in.

New teachers often spend sleepless nights preparing before scheduled observations, then start a few minutes ahead of time so it looks like they just so happen to be in the middle of a superstar lesson. (Don’t act like you haven’t tried this.) Unfortunately, administrators sometimes miss scheduled observations to handle unscheduled emergencies. This means your principal may not show up at your classroom on time – or she may not show up at all. It’s a horrible feeling to start your painstakingly prepared lesson and keep looking at the door, only to have someone walk in just as you finish and are about to give a quiz. The good news is there is nothing wrong with working on something else until your observer arrives, since they usually want to see a lesson from start to finish. Work on something low-key until the person walks in, then calmly end your other activity and start the show.

Have a backup activity in case your lesson ends early.

Those hoping to set high standards are quick to emphasize of the importance of good lesson planning. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help a new teacher who stayed up three extra hours cutting out paper pepperonis for a fraction pizza lesson but didn’t have the experience to know the activity would only take fourteen minutes. For a teacher who hasn’t built up a “bag of tricks” yet, thirty minutes of no-lesson-plan time is like a week and a half in normal-people time. In those cases, a backup activity that keeps kids busy and quiet is smart, not lazy. Plan a better lesson tomorrow. Do damage control today.

It’s sometimes okay to be just okay.

Teachers often feel like we need to be great at everything, and that can be somewhat paralyzing. A better way to think of it is that teachers need to be adequate at everything—especially administrative, non-instructional aspects of our job. (Hello, mandatory written reflections after professional development sessions!) We need to be good at the things that affect our students, like grading and classroom management. Then, we should strive to be great at those few things that give us extra spark as teachers. It’s possible that some of the people you think of as great teachers may in fact just be good teachers who have budgeted their time and energy to allow for moments of greatness.

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