7 Fundamental Pieces of Advice for New Teachers

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When I first started teaching 25 years ago, the most repeated piece of advice I received from many experienced teachers was, “Don’t smile until December.”

The prevailing philosophy, especially if you were teaching 5th graders, seemed to be that students would behave better if they were afraid of you.  The emphasis seemed to be more on maintaining control than on finding ways to help children learn.   

Looking back through the journals of my early years in the classroom, I can see that my decision to eschew the smiling rule might have been perceived as the cause of my classroom management issues.  Or, one could decide (as I have) that my ability to laugh with my students may have actually prevented more serious situations.  Nonetheless, I can certainly give new teachers a few more words of practical advice based on my own experiences in the classroom.  

01. Laughter

So, let’s talk about that smiling ban – and ban it.  There are some days in teaching that a sense of humor is the only way to survive. Fortunately, laughter is also a great way to make those days few and far between.  When you laugh with your students, you make connections and begin to develop relationships.  In a relaxed learning environment, people are more willing to take risks and embrace challenges.  When I once admonished my 5th grade boys for refusing to get in line right away at the end of recess by saying, “From now on, when I blow the whistle, you need to hold your balls!” I knew right away I had made a mistake.  Instead of blustering through it, I laughed with everyone else and waited until the uproar died down before meekly saying, “You know what I meant.”  For the rest of the year, I got knowing looks as the boys lined up after recess with the basketballs firmly tucked under their arms.

Advice for New Teachers: Laugh with your students, but not at them.  Sarcasm can be tempting, especially with older students, but it should never be used to hurt someone’s feelings.  Check out these “21 Tips to Create a Classroom Culture of Laughter” for suggestions on using humor in positive ways.

02. Connect with Colleagues

Advice for New teachers - 02 connect with colleagues

When I opened one of my old teaching journals, a note fell out.  I picked it up and smiled as I recalled the year a colleague and I kidnapped Mr. Peanut.  One of our co-workers loved peanut M&M’s, and had a dispenser he kept on his desk.  We stole it one day and left a note that Mr. Peanut had been taken and would be given back when a ransom was paid.  Then we regularly left Polaroids of Mr. Peanut and his kidnapping experience – blindfolded all alone, blindfolded and playing cards, etc…  All of the fifth grade students knew all about the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Peanut and eagerly awaited for each chapter to unfold as more and more practical jokes among the teachers ensued.  In the end, the students didn’t get to see the conclusion as we delivered Mr. Peanut in exchange for his ransom of Diet Coke on the last teacher work day of the year, water pistols blasting on to our umbrellas as we tried to collect.

Advice for New Teachers: Find ways to connect on a professional and a personal level with your colleagues.  When students see you getting along with your co-workers, especially if they share common teachers, that puts them at ease.   In addition, you will be their role models for collaboration and mutual respect.  And don’t forget, in this age of global communication, that your colleagues don’t need to work in the classroom next door.  Using social networking apps like Twitter and Voxer means you can always find someone to share a laugh or commiserate with you.

03. Homework

According to the 21-year-old me, my prevailing complaint during those early teaching years was that students did not turn in homework.  Our common belief among the 5th grade teachers at the time was that homework reinforced learning and taught responsibility.  But the only students who seemed to regularly submit homework were the same ones who understood the concepts in class and who had already demonstrated great responsibility by making round-trip errands to the office without making detours to throw wet toilet paper on to the bathroom ceiling.  No one learned from homework – especially we stubborn teachers who kept giving the same exact consequences to the same exact students who didn’t do homework.

Advice for New Teachers: Save yourself time and agony by being judicious with homework assignments.  If homework is being given to reinforce concepts, make sure the student has plenty of resources to access for help at home.  Consider assigning reading lectures or videos for homework, and devoting time in class to tackling the tough stuff that requires guidance from you. This article from Edutopia shows what you should consider before loading your students with hours of extra work.

04. Parents

It took me far too long to recognize parents as partners in their children’s education instead of adversaries.  When you lack experience (as you generally do when you are a first-year teacher), parents tend to question your wisdom quite a bit.  The problem was that I often saw these questions as attacks rather than communication that could help me.  I immediately felt defensive and a need to justify my actions, rather than reflective and ready for advice.  One of my biggest weaknesses was keeping parents informed – and that doesn’t just mean about behavior issues or failing academics.  I saw report cards, discipline contracts, and the occasional parent phone call as the sole means of communication when I first started teaching.  As somewhat of an introvert, I didn’t seek out extra contact with parents.  During the last 25 years I’ve grown to learn that many parents would love to have more information about the daily education of their children, and are not just interested in grades. They can also be tremendous resources who are eager to help in numerous ways.

Advice for New Teachers: Give consistent, regular information to all of the parents of your students.  Be proactive when you see a problem brewing, and contact parents to discuss it and even ask their advice.  Make sure parents know about the great things going on in your class, too – so the communications they have with the school are more positive than negative.  Take advantage of current technology, which allows you to provide a window to your classroom in many different ways, like using blogs or digital portfolios.

05. Classroom Design

When I first started teaching, there were two supply stores for educators in town, and you would find every single teacher in them at the beginning of August.  We would hunt for the best new bulletin board borders, fade-resistant butcher paper, and cute lettering to match our theme.  Now, there is only one supply store, and I haven’t visited it in about 5 years.  It’s not that I don’t need anything; it’s just that my classroom design has different priorities.  

You can find posters, letters, borders, and everything else at online stores like Teachers Pay Teachers and other resources.  But more and more teachers are realizing that “cute” isn’t what makes a great classroom environment.

In 21st century, classrooms are changing.  Furniture is mobile to allow for multiple types of learning situations.  Traditional desks in rows are gone – and sometimes even the desks are gone!  You can find examples across the internet of teachers who use sofas, picnic tables, and even restaurant booths in their rooms to inspire innovation and collaboration.

Advice for New Teachers: Consult this article from Edutopia on what should be considered as you plan your classroom.  Look for ways to make the physical environment one that invites creativity and collaboration, while also serving the useful purposes of organization and flexibility.

06. Early Finishers

Most articles that supply teacher advice will tell you that you need to establish routines from the very beginning: where to put things away, how to enter and exit the classroom, etc…  With plenty of people giving me suggestions, I was able to master those pretty early in my career.  One routine I struggled with for years, though, was what students should do if they finish their work early.  

My first plan, according to my journals, was to make sure no one ever finished their work.  Then I could assign them homework to “teach them responsibility.”  As I’ve already mentioned, this was a pretty impractical strategy for many reasons.   So, I graduated to Plan B – just assume everyone will finish at the same time.

Of course, Plan B was a disaster.  Even if I fumbled the papers so the early finishers got to start on their work dead last, they still managed to race through the work.  This rapidly evolved into Plan C, which is the dreaded alternative for many early finishers…

“Read a book.”

Now, some early finishers will be more than happy to return to their Harry Potter, Book 6, at any opportunity.  In fact, they might be offended when you interrupt their reading to actually teach them.  However, we all know that these students come to school for your guidance in learning something new.  If they are finishing work that quickly, and plowing through the entire Warrior series during school hours, chances are there isn’t a lot of educating going on.

Advice for New Teachers: We owe it to early finishers to give them a challenge and extend their learning.  Regular early finishers are demonstrating the work is too easy (although there are the rare few who speed through and get it all wrong).  You have two alternatives that make pedagogical sense: give them something challenging to do after they reflect on their work, or replace their work with something suited to their level.  For the former, Pinterest has thousands of ideas that range from choice boards  to “I’m Done” jars.  If you think your early finisher may need some deeper learning, use Ian Byrd’s Differentiator for independent projects.

07. Sunday Blues

Sunday nights are difficult for anyone who has a Monday-Friday work week, but they can be particularly depressing for teachers who have procrastinated.  The easiest way to ruin a two-day weekend is to make it into one fun day + one day of impending doom.  It’s tempting to rush out the door on Friday afternoon after a long week, but you will regret it as soon as you wake up on Sunday morning.  And, trust me, trying to sleep all Sunday doesn’t solve the problem.

Advice for New Teachers: Plan your week ahead of time so that you are not only taking care of daily tasks, but also doing a little preparation each day for the following week.  Apps like “Squawk” can help you prioritize tasks.  Or, if you prefer to use pencil and paper, Levenger.com has wonderful large desktop pads to keep track of your lists.

When All Else Fails

I’m hoping my students don’t elect to read this article, but I’m about to reveal the most valuable tool in my collection.  It works for teachers and parents, but you want to use it judiciously or it might lose its power.  In 25 years of teaching, this has always worked for me.  

On the days when you feel like you have lost control, and you all of your best laid plans have dissolved into chaos, remember this extremely powerful strategy:

Count backwards from ten.  Out loud. Slowly.

You don’t have to say what you want.  You don’t have to say what happens when you get to number one.  All you need to do is count, and watch as your mass of milling children magically separates into individual personalities all looking at you with wide eyes to find out what will happen next.   Then you can take a deep breath and remind yourself why you chose this incredible profession in the first place.

Engage Your Students in a Creative Project.

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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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  • Bill Horniak

    Excellent insight and right on target! Be fair and consistent yet yet kind and compassionate to everyone! Always be overprepared in your lessons or suffer consequences with classroom management. Reflection and well preparedness well ease alot of unnecessary anxieties. Great article!

    • Terri Eichholz

      Thanks, Bill! Yes, I agree that being super prepared is definitely a way to boost your confidence!

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