Education Opinion

How To Succeed in Teaching By Really Trying.

By LeaderTalk Contributor — August 05, 2009 5 min read
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School Administrators: As I am sure you are aware, hiring the best and brightest teachers for our schools is one of the most important responsibilities we have. But, hiring good people is really just the beginning. For our new, and often inexperienced teachers to be successful, we need to devote a lot of time, energy, and patience to ensure that they reach the potential you saw during the interview process. Below is a letter I have written to all new teachers out there who are excited, anxious, and scared out of their minds to start the school year.

Dear New Teachers,

Congratulations! You have survived the monotonous resume-writing and job application process, the nerve-wracking interviews, the reference and background checks, and the signing of a multitude of forms and papers. Now, you officially are a teacher! It is your dream come true. So what are you going to do to start off on the right foot and have a successful first year at your new school? Here is my top 10 list of ways to get you started toward a successful first year.

1. Learn as much about your new school and the community as possible. Search the internet, read local newspapers, and talk with people working in the area. Understand the needs, issues, problems, and strengths of the community. (Actually, you should have done this prior to interviewing, but if not, get going!)

2. Ask your principal or another administrator for a tour of the school. Don’t be shy; ask questions. Then, spend some time alone in your new classroom. Just sit for a while and look around. Take pictures of the walls, furniture, technology, closets, shelves, and anything else you see. After a while, force yourself to go home. You can only spend so much time staring at blank walls and empty desks.

3. Start a list of questions, organized by the person who can best answer them (principal, mentor, teammate, department chair, secretary, custodian, etc.). Continue to add to the list and check off when you get answers.

4. Now start thinking of how you want to set up the room. Where will your desk go? How should the students’ desks be arranged to best meet your style of teaching and the needs of the grade level? What should go on the walls - Teacher created stuff and/or student created stuff? Once you are back in the room, play around with the furniture and try different configurations (just don’t scratch the newly waxed floors, it makes the custodians angry). Picture yourself teaching from different areas of the room. Envision students sitting in their desks. Where are they looking and what can they see? Ask yourself, “Is the room designed for teacher-centered instruction or for student-centered learning?”

5. In my opinion, you must have the classroom set up before you can focus on the lesson planning. Once the room is ready, a big weight will be lifted from your shoulders. Then, it will be time to dig into the curriculum. Start by collecting as many teaching materials and curriculum guides as you can find. Also, try to meet with one or all of your new teammates or your assigned mentor. Ask them questions related to teaching, but don’t focus only on you. Get to know them personally as well as professionally. Meeting for coffee or lunch is a great way to get started.

6. For new elementary teachers, acquire a class list as soon as possible, and learn as much as possible about all of them before school starts. Find out who are on IEPs or 504s, who are in a gifted program, who are dealing with difficult issues at home, who are talented in activities outside of school and so on. Read through the cumulative files, old report cards, portfolios of work, and speak with other staff members. Most schools have some type of directory that lists the classes from the year before. Find out who your students’ teachers were last year. Then, before the start of school, make a personal contact with each student. Either call them all or send a personal note in the mail. Don’t send a form letter, make it personal in some way. Communicate with their parents, too!

7. For middle school or high school teachers, you probably will not be able to make a personal contact with each student, but you certainly can learn about them in the same manner as the elementary teachers.

8. As you start to plan for the first week of school, remember that your most important job is to establish effective routines and procedures in your classroom. The routines you set at the very beginning may stay all year, and negative or bad habits are very hard to change after the first few weeks of school. Clearly articulate what you expect from your students regarding their behavior, effort, work, and attitudes. Never assume that the children know how to be respectful and behave in your class. Teach them exactly what you expect, and then reteach and model it often, just like you would with an important curricular concept.

9. As you plan specific lessons, don’t attempt to plan too far ahead until you really know your students and the curriculum. There will be a lot of adjusting and readjusting of lessons at first, so it is OK to plan one day at a time for a while. You still need to see into the future, and have goals for what you want to accomplish, but take the lesson planning slowly. Make your lessons very detailed and specific, and clearly spell out your objectives, guided and independent activities, and assessments just like you did in college. Eventually, you will be able to write shorter plans and still know exactly what you need to do, but it will take time and experience to get to that point. Finally, it never hurts to over-plan. Be prepared in case the lesson goes faster than you expected, or you need some back-up activities.

10. Finally - HAVE FUN! Be yourself, and let your students see you as a real person. Share some personal experiences you have had, and let your students into certain areas of your life that you are comfortable sharing with them (e.g. pets, family, hobbies, etc.). They will respect and appreciate you more, and they will be more willing to share themselves with you. Effective teaching is all about relationships. Build positive ones with your students.

Teachers, be ready for the realization that your first year of teaching (or the first year in a new school) will be nothing like your student teaching experiences. Accept that, be ready for successes and failures, and continue to learn along with your students every day. Remember, teaching is about “The Will and the Skill.” Retain the will to be the best you can be and work hard to develop the skills necessary to be successful in the most important of professions.

Have a great school year!


Dave Sherman

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.