Straight Advice for New Teachers Starting Their Careers
Whether you call them precepts or pro tips, these are for you.
Every year, thousands of new teachers enter into the profession with dreams of making a difference, connecting with students, and creating a career for themselves that is deeply rewarding. Having taught and coached hundreds of teachers (or even thousands…I’ve not done the math), I know that summer is a time when new teachers start to think about who they will be in their new role. What will students call me? What will I teach? Do I know my content? How do I make sure I don’t look like a “noob,” which is what those tweeny kids will call you when they don’t trust you know what you are doing?
Too often, we seasoned educators don’t make our insights and advice available enough to the newly anointed. So I asked folks in my network what advice they’d give you. Four precepts emerged.
1. Get to know your students.
Think about it: You can’t teach without your students. You need them. What’s more, if you take time to really get to know their stories, you can build the foundation of a mutually respectful relationship that is the bedrock of pedagogy. Lauren Zucker, a New Jersey English teacher and digital learning wiz, suggested on Facebook to keep student relationships in mind when planning curricula. She advises to plan enough so you have a sense of where the year is going, but remember that “…you have to meet your students and learn their needs, interests.”
I couldn’t agree more. New teachers should know that when it comes to planning, for example, common wisdom is to begin with the standards first. What skills am I to teach? Skills are important, but they aren’t necessarily where you start or end. When you reduce your teaching to standards and skills, you risk forgetting that you teach human beings who experience worry and love and stress and pain. No one experiences skills. Resist the temptation to reduce your craft to the categorization of children and covering of standards, even when the school system routinely talk about students in terms of demographics or behavior or test scores or literacy levels. At the end of the day, learning is not something a teacher can impose on a child. The child has to will learning, which for many students requires feeling safe and supported and known.
2. Focus on simple, high-leverage practices.
You can’t do everything, so stop trying to. Instead, identify what I like to call “simple high-leverage practices” that are engaging, smart, and nimble. This goes for students’ learning as well as for your teaching. For example, many new teachers worry about how to establish culture in their classrooms. A key way to do so is to create rich routines that students can count on and that you have pedagogical faith in. When recently working with an ELA team in a middle school in Manhattan, I emphasized the importance of Do Now or Write Now activities: daily prompts on the board related to what’s being learned, always focused on low-stakes writing. Or, I encouraged a math teacher to focus on teaching into and assessing students’ small group conversations. Those kinds of practices–low-stakes writing, small group discussion–can be used over and over and over in ever-evolving and meaningful ways. You can even create some simple rubrics to assess such things and Bob’s your uncle for the whole year. So get really good a them.
My former graduate student and now an assistant principal, Marianna Mushailov, said something similar over on LinkedIn about teaching. She encouraged new teachers to really get to understand teacher evaluation frameworks and to target simple high-leverage areas on which to focus. “I like that the Danielson [Framework for Teaching] provides a common language for what good teaching sounds like. It’s not just an evaluative tool, it has great developmental value. So, I recommend reading the overviews, levels of performance and critical attributes of ALL components, not just the 8 rated ones.” Totally: Having a shared language for what you value in your practice–from teaching to learning–can bolster your confidence really exponentially.
3. Know you are not alone, ever.
You cannot grow as a teacher alone. What’s tricky, however, is that not all other teachers will bring out the best in you. Consciously feel out which other teachers are committed to growing, challenging themselves, and pushing the system forward for all. And, identify as quickly as you can which teachers appear to have given up, gotten complacent, blame the kids, and should honestly probably leave the profession. Make lunch plans with the former; keep a polite distance from the latter. In addition, take a cue from my friend and Houston-based educator Saba Ebrahim. In addition to really knowing your curricular fundamentals (i.e. teaching key reading strategies like annotation), Saba emphasized on Instagram the importance of knowing “you are not alone..we’ve all been there” so “don’t forget to ask for help.”
Teaching can feel really isolating. You are one person responsible for so many. Some teachers respond to that sense of responsibility by firing on all cylinders and working non-stop. I’m here to tell you: Slow down. Of course you do what you do because you want to make a difference in children’s and families’ lives. But don’t forget that you are the most important person in that classroom. Period. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will be of less use to your students. That means getting enough sleep, managing your time, eating well and exercising, and finding other teachers who share your commitment to getting better and better year after year. Find the professional learning organizations in your specialty area. Go to conferences. Heck, connect with me on Instagram. I’ll help you find your professional home.
4. Know Your WHY.
I wanted to put this one first, but didn’t because I worried it would feel too abstract. But now that you’ve read this far you’re ready for it. This precept is the most important. When a student raises her or his hand and says Uh, why do I have to do this? what’s your answer? You cannot say any of the following: because I said so, it will be on the test, you need it for college. Those responses are all different forms of widely accepted bullshit. In that moment, you have to know why what you are teaching matters. Like, really matters. Remember Precept #1: A child has to will learning. In one school I worked with, the English team settled on the following big idea that guided their curriculum: We read to understand the world; we write to change it. When I taught high school I used to answer the WHY question with, “because language is power.” You have to find your WHY for yourself. In fact, the standards and even state constitutions can’t really help you because we’ve done a very poor job as a nation defining the purpose of education in society. To help you define your WHY, start with this classic TED Talk by Simon Sinek, which I use with my teaching candidates for this very reason. It’s a solid first step.
I say this without hyperbole: Teaching is one of the most important professions in the world. We need reflective, creative, caring, and systems-savvy educators to lead our society to new futures. It is big work. You can help change the trajectories of entire families for generations. To become the teacher you envision yourself to be: know your students, keep it simple and high-leverage, connect with your people, and know in your bones why what you teach matters at all. That’s a hell of a way to head into your first classroom, let alone your career.
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