Things New Teachers Probably Didn't Hear But Need To Know: Nine Tips for New Teachers to Survive and Thrive
Dear New Teachers,
You’ve survived methods courses, student teaching, orientation, in-service, and the first months of school. This is the point in the year where things can get a little rough as the newness of the year is long gone and the rest of the year starts to stretch out in a very long arc ahead.
I want to share a few important tips that were probably not discussed in your training, but can help you keep your energy and passion alive as you change the world, one lesson-plan at a time. These are things I’ve learned, either from observing colleagues or through my own experience.
1. Communicate the positive
As a dad, nothing warms my heart like someone loving and knowing my child.
A short email describing a student doing the right thing or demonstrating growth is a powerful gift for parents. I try to spend a few minutes every weekend sending out short emails, praising something I saw. It makes a big difference with your parents and students. It helps them feel known and loved. It can help a parent see the good in a child who might be frustrating. It can help the child see good in themselves at a time when this seems in short supply. This can help your credibility should you need to correct or discipline a student.
But beyond all of that, this will shape the kind of teacher you are; it will shape, even change, the kind of person you are. We become what we think, what we focus on. If you are constantly searching about positive things you will start noticing more of them. Your students will sense this, even if they can’t articulate it. One of the most powerful motivating factors is love. Humans who feel loved respond in a qualitatively different way than those who feel compelled, forced, or controlled.
2. Remember your power
Teaching carries a fearsome responsibility: our words can inflict wounds or build confidence, either of which might last for decades. You and I can surely both list examples of cutting or thoughtless remarks from a teacher. Hopefully, we can also remember at time when a teacher’s words lifted, corrected, motivated, or healed.
We are human, therefore flawed; the best teacher will sometimes make mistakes. But we must be careful and mindful. A student’s mind and heart are holy ground. Constant care and thought are necessary if we are to meet the obligations that come with this tremendous power.
3. Parents are not your friends.
Years ago, after casting a play, parents I thought were my friends turned on me with a nasty vehemence. The things they said and did were unpleasant, but the fact that I had thought them my friends made the situation devastating.
I poured out my soul to an older teacher, a wise, compassionate woman who had the affection and admiration of everyone in the school: parent, student, teacher alike. At the conclusion of my story, I said, “I thought they were my friends.” She listened to me, then shook her head sadly. “Oh, Braden,” she said, “they’re never our friends.”
She went on to explain that parents are partners and allies, employers, in a way, but not friends. While I have experienced some exceptions, I have found her words to be true.
I don’t mean that to sound unkind. Parents are our partners and allies and I’ve met some wonderful people when I taught their children. We have a mutual goal in trying to help their child, and we might connect with some of them.
But remember that friendships have different parameters and expectations than a teacher-parent relationship. We rightly expect certain things from our friends that aren’t appropriate in other contexts. A teacher must frequently make professional judgments that require acting as an educator, not a friend.
Be warm and approachable, but be personable, not personal. This is growing increasingly difficult in our informal age. Using titles for parents and yourself may seem overly formal, but they are a useful reminder of professional boundaries. You can always relax boundaries later if you choose. However, once down, they are very difficult to re-establish. And, should you really want to be friends, you can always build that friendship once their child is no longer in your class.
Take special care regarding social media. Your school may have specific policies about this. Even if it does not, extra caution will not cause regrets.
4. Be consistent
Be extremely cautious about granting exceptions to policies or rules. Wanting to be helpful, we’re sometimes tempted to make an exemption. That may sometimes be the right thing to do, but remember: parents talk and word spreads. Any exception may create resentment.
Exceptions may also set future expectations, thus creating problems down the road. One of the worst mistakes I ever made came from granting a well-intentioned exception. Be polite, but be firm.
Be careful about your policies and rules. Don’t have more than are necessary, and be sure each one has a reason. But once you have established them, do not lightly grant exceptions.
4. Communicate and document
Communicate everything. People will probably complain about it; they will also complain if you don’t communicate enough. Make sure policies and procedures are clearly explained. Get signatures. Keep track of email. One teacher friend calls email, “evidence mail,” because it proves that he did, indeed, give notice of an assignment, did explain a disciplinary action, etc.
Sadly, when you correct a student’s behavior or report a bad grade, some parents will try to make it about you, and the way you handled it, as opposed to the child’s misbehavior or mistakes. Situations like this are never pleasant, but you will be in a much better position if you can document clear communication and expectations.
5. Remember the good
You will occasionally get notes or pictures or emails of appreciation. Some will take your breath away, bring tears, and make your heart feel like it will burst from joy. Keep these mementos close at hand. On bad days, read them to renew your strength and confidence.
I keep letters and cards and drawings on a board behind my desk. Every day when I come in, this collage of love and appreciation is the first thing I see. It motivates and energizes me. During rough times, it comforts me.
Also: we all have bad times. It’s not just you.
6. Be careful with big projects
Creative projects and assignments can be wonderful. They can also generate tremendous frustration, especially when there’s not much notice between assignment and due date. This frustration is magnified during busy times such as the end of the year or holiday seasons.
Throwing together a Susan B. Anthony costume with only a few hours notice will frustrate even supportive parents, especially when it’s sandwiched between providing authentic Cuban food for a project in Spanish the day before, and a sugar-cube scale model of the Coliseum the day after.
Give ample notice for assignments that might require trips to the store. Not every family has a stash of craft supplies. Try to give at least one weekend between the assignment and the due date. Be careful about group projects that require parents to transport children to work together.
Make sure directions and grading criteria are clear enough that a parent can give guidance to their child when you are not accessible. Include in those directions something to let parents know they should not do the work.
You will also likely get better results if you help the parents understand the point of the project and what it will help accomplish. If you can’t explain this, reconsider the project.
Finally, be aware of other major assignments, projects, or school events going on.
7. Take care of yourself
Teaching is glorious. It is also exhausting in a way that defies description. It is most certainly a race for the steady. Set careful boundaries; pace yourself. Don’t be at school all night. Don’t check emails or take calls past a certain time. Actively renew yourself, and develop the non-teacher dimensions of your life. Make sure to take your sick days when you don’t feel well. Don’t be a hero or a martyr. Coming to work sick will just make you sicker, likely infect your colleagues and students, and will probably not be your most effective day anyway.
Establish little rituals that help you feel in control. Find ways to pamper yourself. The year will go so much better if there are things you can look forward to and about each season.
8. Get a mentor
You need someone who can fill you in on the realities of the school, the way relationships or past events might inform the current moment. You need someone who, like my mentor, can listen to you pour your heart out then give you sage advice.
To that end, be open and teachable. We live in a time when youth is celebrated and age and experience minimized or mocked. The older teacher down the hall may not be up on all the new jargon, pedagogy, or ideas. That’s fairly irrelevant. In education, ideas come and go. Today’s big new thing will be gone soon. Buzzwords change. Methods evolve. Values shift. Should you last as long as that teacher, you too will be antiquated.
What remains, what always has and always must remain, is a teacher with students. Teaching will always be a human interaction. Methods and ideas are exciting, helpful, even important. But they are tools we use. Learning how to teach takes much longer than learning what to teach.
Those older teachers have decades of experience. They’ve run a marathon successfully. The simple fact that they have not burned out is enough to merit careful attention. They learned what works and what does not work. They can save you years of difficulty if you’ll listen. The best professional development I’ve ever had frequently came around the faculty lunch table or from simply watching.
Asking and listening to their thoughts will give you the benefit of all their mistakes, all their struggles, and all that wonderful experience. They are usually very willing to share what they have learned. They’re teachers after all; it’s what they’ve spent a lifetime doing.
9. Be yourself and find your teaching superpower
Chances are you will, at some point, advise a student to be his or herself, to stop imitating others. This is good advice for adults too, especially teachers, who exist in a world where a few charismatic luminaries set the tone and pace for all we do.
When I first started teaching, I modeled myself on one of my heroes: Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter. I failed abysmally because, at best, I could only imitate her. I could not think or reason or act spontaneously as she did. The students could sense it, I think. Regardless, I did not do a very good job in my classes.
I stumbled through a difficult year. Then I stopped trying to be someone else. I found my own pattern. As I was authentic, I started connecting with students and the problems I had vanished. I also discovered my teaching superpower, which is empathy. I never would have found it had I continued my own imitation of the formidable professor.
We all have these superpowers. Some are incredible at classroom management. Others are amazing at devising clever assignments or meaningful projects. Some are great at leading classroom discussions. Still others have incredible content knowledge and the ability to make it relevant.
You have a teacher superpower. But you will only find it when you are yourself. You can’t soar on someone else’s gifts. At best, you can only be a decent imitation.
Thank you for dedicating your life to helping kids. We are all invested in your success. Clichés aside, the kids truly are the best hope we have, and our future is very literally in their hands—which means it is also in yours.
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