If Only I Knew…

Alyssa, 3rd grade teacher

Teaching is truly one of the most rewarding professions to ever exist. That being said, it presents its own unique challenges, most of which cannot be anticipated. There are so many things that I learned during my first year of teaching that I wish I could distill into a concise list for other beginning teachers, but the truth is that every school is different, so some specific advice that will work for a beginning teacher at one school probably isn’t applicable at another school. Therefore, I’ve tried to come up with some general advice that will hopefully benefit any beginning teacher. Following are some bits of advice that I wish someone had told me before I began my first year teaching.

  1. It’s okay to disagree with your colleagues. Many times, beginning teachers feel that they have to go along with what the other teachers on their grade levels say because these veteran teachers have more experience. This is true to an extent. Only an experienced teacher can tell you how to prepare your students for field day, how to fill out forms for a class field trip, or even how to obtain students’ usernames for the computer. However, although you may look to your more experienced colleagues for certain advice, your opinion should be valued and you should be treated as a professional. Some of my grade level’s most effective meetings have come from disagreements. When teachers take the time to discuss their opinions about a topic in a civilized fashion, they often realize that they can come to a compromise or consensus that ultimately will be what’s best for children. Sometimes it’s hard to have your voice be heard as a beginning teacher, but if you maintain a professional demeanor and can cite research or other professional literature when stating your opinion, your colleagues and administration will admire your confidence and poise. Avoid making statements that cannot be traced back to valid sources when possible, especially if you know that your suggestion will go against others’ beliefs or preferences. Always express your opinion politely and humbly to avoid alienating your peers.
  2. Build sincere relationships with your colleagues. Maintaining positive relationships with everyone in your school building and beyond can make your life much easier. It’s easy to forget that all individuals who work in the school building are not only there because it’s their job, but because they want to make a difference in children’s lives. From the custodial staff to the lunchroom staff to the media coordinator, all members of your school community are crucial to the day-to-day workings of your school. And here’s a secret – your principal may technically run your school, but any experienced teacher knows that making friends around the school is the best way to get what you want, whether it be extra chairs, a new computer, or hooks for students’ backpacks. Trust me, a smile goes a long way!
  3. “Don’t smile before Christmas” is a piece of advice that shouldn’t be taken literally. There are basically two extremes that most beginning teachers adopt as far as classroom management. On one hand there are the jellyfish teachers, who are too nice and let students get away with behavior that they shouldn’t get away with. On the other hand, there are the teachers that literally don’t smile all year. These teachers often use fear or intimidation to get students to listen. Please don’t be either of these teachers. The secret is this – foster relationships with your students that are built on mutual respect. Part of mutual respect is treating students with dignity. It’s important for students to feel respected and treated fairly. If they don’t think you are fair or respectful towards them, there’s nothing you can do to make them listen to you. Here’s some easy ways to build positive relationships with your students:
    • TALK TO THEM! Ask them about their lives! Take the time to get to know them, and I mean really know them. Go beyond the superficial (i.e. favorite color) and find out who they are as a person (i.e. career aspirations).
    • Don’t talk about them as if they aren’t there. Kids are very intuitive. They can tell when you’re using “code names” to tell another teacher about them.
    • Be a role model! Your students will admire you and model their behavior after you. They can tell when you’re gossiping with other teachers and will often replicate that behavior because they look up to you! I’m not saying you have to be perfect, but pay close attention to your body language and how you interact with other adults.
    • Somehow, someway, convince those kids that they are the reason wake up every morning and come to school ready to teach. Convince them that you are so invested in their success, that you would actually be heartbroken if you thought they weren’t doing their best. Convince them that they are the most important thing in the world to you. Once they know that you care, they will work hard to make you proud.

In addition to demonstrating respect towards your students, you have to be firm. Set high expectations and demand that your students rise to meet them. Explicitly teach your expectations and tell them how they can be successful in your class. Children aren’t mind readers. You need to be specific and patient when teaching them your expectations. Don’t let students get away with mediocre work. All children are capable of excellence – it’s your job to inspire them to attain it.

  1. Don’t pity children. Regardless of where you teach, you will come across children that are neglected or that come from families that struggle to provide their children with basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing, etc.). Empathy is crucial, but pity is not. It’s natural for teachers (and other human adults) to make excuses for students with imperfect home lives. A good teacher recognizes that students may come from a disadvantaged home and make an effort to provide the additional support these students need. A great teacher takes it one step further. A great teacher sees the potential in all students and pushes them to be the best they can be. So, I urge you, don’t pity children – support them and challenge them. Children from disadvantaged homes are just as smart, capable, and resilient as any other child.
  2. Your integrity will be tested, so be ready. I think that any teacher will agree that the best practices that we learn in our undergraduate classes are never present in real schools the way we expect them to be. With so many constraints on teachers from the school, district, state, and national levels, it’s hard to conform to the obligations set forth by governing officials while maintaining one’s integrity. There are going to be situations where you are asked (or told) to do something in your classroom that you know isn’t the best use of your time or resources. Prepare yourself to make compromises. There are some things that you can challenge and possibly change, but other things are not only out of your control, but also out of almost everyone’s control. Instead of complaining about things that cannot be changed, work to find productive solutions to immediate problems. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative conversations that often run rampant in schools about topics that are largely political or irrelevant. Be realistic and be smart. Your time is very valuable, so don’t spend it complaining.
  3. The most dangerous phrase in the language is “we’ve always done it this way.” During my first years of teaching, I stumbled across that quote by Grace Hopper. Whenever I’m asked to reflect on my first year teaching, I always remember that quote. It provided me with a sense of affirmation that it is okay for beginning teachers to challenge the status quo while maintaining their humility. Every distinguished teacher that I have ever met takes risks, adapts to meet the changing needs of students, and never stops trying to improve. To be a distinguished teacher, you must constantly modify your pedagogy, classroom management, organizational tools, and more. Not only is every individual child different, but every group of children in a class are different. What works for you one year might not work the next. As far as I know, there isn’t a single teacher that can honestly say they’ve got it all figured out, which is okay! Realizing that growing as a teacher means making changes is half the battle. The other half is following through.
  4. Making mistakes is okay. Repeating mistakes over and over again is not. No one is perfect. No matter how well your undergraduate classes, practicums, and internship experiences are designed, there is no way to anticipate what the first day of school is going to be like, especially in your first year teaching. That being said, teaching is a unique profession because the learning curve is extremely steep. As a beginning teacher, you will be expected to perform your job just as well as a veteran teacher almost immediately. So, obviously, you’re going to make mistakes, which is completely normal. But with a steep learning curve and high stakes, beginning teachers often shut down after making mistakes and their self-esteem, confidence, and self-efficacy take a hard hit. The key to being successful is to actively search for ways to correct mistakes that have already happened and to avoid making the same mistake in the future. If you need to ask for help, do it! Your administrators and peers will trust you as a professional if they see that you are resilient enough to take constructive criticism and use it to become a better teacher.




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