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Letter to a New Teacher.

I was recently connected (via email) by a friend to a new teacher who is struggling.

I’m never quite sure what to say. For what it’s worth, here was my response:

> stress and anger management.

Heh. That seemed to define my first year.

The crappy thing about teaching is that (I’m convinced) no one knows how to teach how to do it. For all the talk of “education”, the people who are supposed masters are basically throwing us inn the deep end of the pond, and seeing who stays afloat.

That being said, here are a couple of ideas that stuck with me from my first year:

- You are responsible for the kids in your classroom. If they’re not learning, its your fault. Sure, it’s easy to blame parents or gangs or whatever else, but the truth of it is that for most of those kids, there is a teacher somewhere on that campus who’s made them want to learn. Be like those teachers, not the ones who constantly complain about the kids. This sucks to hear, but I’ve seen too many teachers with good potential get ruined because they couldn’t believe that changing what they did would change the kids.

- Observe observe observe. Use your conference period. Find out who’s good at classroom management, and go watch them teach. If you don’t see them in the first week of school, you won’t see how they got there. But you will see that it’s possible. (To which – every new teacher should be required to watch the 5 best classroom managers on campus for the first week of school, lesson planning be damned.)

- Only change one thing at a time. If you feel out of control, accept most of it for what it is, and only work on changing one thing about yourself at a time. The first thing I worked on was not answering a kid who just yelled at me – I had to teach myself to wait for them to raise their hand. I had post it notes reminding me of that everywhere. The kids laughed at me, didn’t change much, but eventually learned that they had to respond to me rather than the other way around.

- Make your expectations clear, in excruciating detail. Repeatedly. I spend about a week at the beginning of the year teaching them (as opposed to just telling them) my expectations. And still, every day, I need to remind my 5th period what they’re supposed to do before the tardy bell rings. Every week when I give a test, I go over the 3 rules. Even then, I’ll have a kid who starts talking before the test was completely over. But it happens rarely. If a kid ever does something I don’t want them to do, and I haven’t taught them about that, I take it as my fault. Sure it seems like they should know how to do some stuff as a student, but the reality is that they want to know that you know how they’re supposed to act before they’re willing to put in the effort.

Prevention is worth tons of cure, and I haven’t so much learned to manage my anger as find ways to prevent things that might make me angry from happening. I spent a full month of seven hour days during the summer after my first year making a list of things the kids did that drove me nuts, and then coming up with alternate behaviors to teach them, and then lessons to teach those things. Eventually, I got good at catching the precursors to those things as well as communicating those expectations, to the point where I can substitute a class from hell and have them eating out of my hand in 5 minutes.

That’s down the road, though. right now, pick one thing about yourself to change, and start practicing it.

And remember to get enough sleep.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Nick B | March 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate you sharing this letter. I love reading wholehearted advice from other teachers.

  2. David | April 2, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Could you share a list of the expectations you cover in the first week? Also, could you elaborate on what you mean by teaching these expectations…perhaps by example?

  3. H. | April 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Agreeing with David. Be nice and share, pretty please!

  4. Barb | May 25, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Oh my gosh … How true!!! I had a kid today who didn’t do anything because he didn’t have a pencil … I need to have a container handy so that doesn’t happen again … the only thing is, I feel that it doesn’t make them responsible for their behaviour. What I did solve though is that time is being used productively or rather not wasted for something so silly. I don’t get enough sleep but I really like your list idea about things that drive me crazy … I’m in hell right now (walked into an LTO in the middle) so I have learned pretty much what you’ve said in your post …

  5. Sue VanHattum | May 25, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Regarding responsibility, maybe you can charge a nickel (or whatever pencils cost these days). I let my college students use an older edition of the text, so it’ll be cheap ($4), and they still don’t buy it. So I’ve bought a bunch of copies and sold them to students. Anything to get them started… I also sell Overcoming Math Anxiety. I used to loan it to students, but I wouldn’t get my copies back. I buy lots of copies at $4 each, and charge them the same. (I love betterworldbooks.com.)