Published Online: May 5, 2010

Teaching Secrets: 10 To-Dos for New Teachers

College commencements are in the air, and while the thoughts of some new teacher graduates are no doubt turning to the beach or summer jobs, other freshly minted educators are already envisioning their first classrooms full of students, each with his or her own special learning needs.

It’s an exciting but also anxious time, as the experienced professionals in the Teacher Leaders Network know well. So for those early birds lucky enough to have found a teaching position in the current down-sized economy and eager to begin, we offer our first Teaching Secrets article of 2010, tailored to the particular needs of new teachers in the “tween” grades.

Author Marsha Ratzel teaches middle school math and science in Blue Valley, Kansas, where she has also served as a district-wide technology and curriculum coach. She’s National Board-certified and began her (so far) 18-year teaching journey after a first career in health care administration. Marsha’s 10 practical ideas can help novice educators better prepare for the first day of school and a successful year.
John Norton, TLN moderator

Ratzel's Top 10 To-Do List for New Teachers Starting School

1. Find your curriculum and read through it several times. Put Post-it notes in places where you have questions. Work with the principal to partner with an experienced teacher at least several weeks before school starts to get an overview of the entire year and do serious scrutiny of the first month’s goals.

2. Find all your supporting materials, both student and teacher copies. Know where and how the curriculum and the textbooks match up in a general sense. Do a more thorough matching for the first unit, so you’ll know exactly where and what you’ll be using. Be sure to scan through all the supplemental materials that most publishers provide. This can be overwhelming at the level of fine detail, so go for the big picture snapshot. You can come back later when you see a need, once you have some working knowledge of the possibilities.

3. Ask to look over last year’s yearbook. It’s a great place to see the kinds of activities that are important to your new school community. The faculty pictures and names will be there, too. If the school has a student newspaper, that’s another source for developing a sense of the school identity.

4. Create a birthday list for each class (celebrate half-birthdays for summer birthdays, six months from the actual date). Decide what small thing you might do to honor each child. Maybe it is a B-Day postcard you send home. Maybe it’s a Free Homework Pass. Maybe it’s a Birthday Pencil. Take the list and group birthdays by month and get everything ready to go for the whole year. Since I use Homework Passes, I put student names and the birthday date on each pass, then hand them out with some ceremony at the start of each month.

5. Develop some sort of impartial method for calling on students during class. Assigning student numbers and then randomly picking a number works well. You can put the numbers on craft sticks or ping pong balls (some gradebook programs have a student picker option). You may be able to number the desks and call on the student sitting in that desk. However you do it, you’re demonstrating a method that removes bias and gives all students an equal chance to be asked.

6. Figure out how you will capture students on the first day of school. Going over the rules or what they’ll be learning is not the way. Think of some easy-to-implement, highly engaging activity to snag their interests and build a bridge between you and them. (You can find many ideas on the Web.) I always try to give them a sense of who I am, my sense of humor, and what I love about my job and them. This helps students relax and realize you are their ally, their partner, their facilitator…not the enemy. The activity has to be structured, though, or it could descend into chaos. It’s a fine balance—so ask around and see what has worked in the past for other teachers.

7. Design some method to manage and keep track of daily paperwork, especially for absent students. If you have all of your students regularly asking you for their missed work assignments, you’ll lose your mind. There are so many options out there. My favorite is to have a hanging folder for each student in every class. If I pass out papers, the student at the front of each row is responsible for filing the handouts in the appropriate folder for every absent student in that row. When the student returns they know they can look in their folder for all their work.

8. Make an appointment to sit down with important building specialists. If your building has a staffed library, see if you can meet with the library media specialist to find out how you can best utilize their resources. Even if the discipline you are teaching doesn’t seem to require library resources, you will be amazed at the things that are possible and available if you only ask.

9. Introduce yourself to the school secretaries, the nurse, the bookkeepers and the paraprofessionals. Most importantly, find out who is going to clean your room and make sure to start building a close relationship with them. Friendliness leads to cleanliness!

10. Decide where and when you will fight your battles with the kids. Gum chewing, talking, a failure to bring pencil and paper to class—these are all potential danger zones. Pencils used to be a constant battle for me. Now I just buy about 1,000 of them during the Back to School supply sales for $5.00. It’s the best $5.00 I could ever spend. Your rules must adhere to district/school policies and be supported by your fellow teachers. But that still leaves lots of latitude. For example, our policy leaves gum chewing up to the discretion of each teacher. This can be tricky as students move through the day. When it comes to potentially conflicting policies, teachers need to know where they stand (vis a vis other teachers) before something becomes an issue with a student.

These straightforward, practical tips can help you get off to a good start by smoothing the path to the destination you care about most—teaching well. Start thinking, planning and preparing now, and you’ll get there.

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