Education Opinion

To Jon, on His First Year of Teaching

By James R. Delisle — February 04, 2004 10 min read
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A proud uncle shares 11 classroom tips.

Dear Jon, I just heard the good news that you were hired as a 9th grade math teacher. Congratulations. As your uncle, I’m proud that you are joining the profession of teaching, one in which I have been happily involved since before your birth. If all goes well, you should be eligible for tenure the same year I will retire. The cycle continues.

I’ve put a little gift in this envelope that you may want to use to buy start-up supplies for your classroom. I also wanted to give you something less tangible but more valuable. I hesitate to call it advice, so I’ll simply label it “experiences from the trenches.” After 27 years in multiple K-12 and college classrooms, I’ve learned a few things not available in any textbook. If even one of these observations makes your first year of teaching more pleasurable or fulfilling, I’ll be glad.

  • Think management, not discipline. At the top of every new teacher’s list of worries is classroom control, a legitimate concern. When you’re young and fresh, you are, in the eyes of some students, vulnerable. Some new teachers believe that if they make their classroom rules as long as a yardstick, and consequences for misbehavior punitive and embarrassing, they will have few problems. They’re wrong.

Kids misbehave in class because what teachers are asking them to do is either too easy, too hard, irrelevant, or boring. I have learned that teachers who know their material and how to present it, who relate the content to students’ lives, plan twice as much material as they think they will need for a lesson, and return students’ work promptly and free of red ink (use green or black ink, instead) have few discipline problems. Classroom control is a matter of engagement. If you love what you do, and show this to students daily, you are conveying respect for their minds and time—and most of them will engage you back.

  • Students are only as anxious to learn as you are excited to teach. I’ve yet to meet a student or teacher who wakes up on the first day of school and thinks, “I’m really looking forward to having an awful year.” Human nature dictates that we pursue pleasure and avoid pain; this is as true in school as it is in relationships. And school is a relationship—a yearlong dance with unknown partners we eventually get to know over 180 days. Try to enter your classroom each day with a smile and a positive attitude. For kids who find few such attributes elsewhere, you may be the highlight of their day.

  • Get to know at least one teacher that the kids dislike and the staff avoids. Every school has them, and yours will, too: the people who can empty the teachers’ lounge simply by walking in. This teacher is sour, bitter, tired ... and in need of a colleague. Engage this person in a conversation about his or her first years of teaching. Ask why he or she chose this profession and what pleasures are still derived from it. Ask for guidance about how to teach a concept or relate to a reluctant learner. At first, you’ll probably be regarded skeptically, by both this teacher and your colleagues. But persevere. You may be surprised that even the most grizzled old-timer has much to share with an upstart willing to listen.

  • Be aware of educational trends and standards ... and then close your door and teach. The pressures of accountability, high-stakes testing, and the latest educational panacea unleashed by university researchers are much greater than in my era. Your job, as a first-year teacher, will be harder by far than mine was. But if you let these “trends” overshadow what you believe students really need to learn from you, your creativity will get stifled and you’ll be looking at a new career within five years.

You became a teacher to have an impact on lives. Avoid rote and tiresome methods—the kind you avoided as a student.

You became a teacher to have an impact on lives, and you can do this best by avoiding worksheets, workbooks, and mindless homework assignments—the kind that you avoided doing as a student. These rote and tiresome methods prepare students for neither the tests they’ll take nor the lives they’ll lead. Use the hands-on methods of teaching you learned about in college and engage students in real-world application of the mathematical principles they encounter in their daily lives. In doing so, you will bolster both their appreciation for and knowledge of mathematics.

  • If you don’t try too hard to get your students to like you, they probably will. It’s an unstated but understandable goal of almost every new teacher: “I want my students to like me.” Ironically, the more you try to get them to do this, the less successful you’ll be. Since you are the adult in the school closest to them in age, your students will be curious and interested in what you do when you leave school at day’s end. But remember, when they ask “Do you have a girlfriend?” or “Do you like to party?” it is appropriate to remind them they are treading on personal turf and that you prefer not to answer. Instead of becoming “a buddy” to your students, treat them with respect while teaching them content that is meaningful. When you do this, something magical happens: They begin to like you.
  • Trust your principal. You may fear a classroom visit from your principal for the same reason you don’t like going to the dentist: You expect pain. However, the old adage that “the principal is your pal” is more than a cute spelling mnemonic, it’s the truth. More than anyone else in your building, your principal is invested in your having a great first year. During the next few months, you’ll be evaluated at least once—perhaps more often—and the principal probably will conduct this observation. Talk to him or her before (way before) your first observation; ask for advice, share a success, or simply meet to get to know one another a little better. Then, when the observation occurs, ask your principal to be alert to a particular student or situation that is giving you trouble. You’re still a teaching novice, and your principal is there to guide you to the next level. Remember, in teaching as in life, less than perfection is more than acceptable.
  • Use your judgment, yet follow your instincts. When you became a licensed teacher, you also became a “mandated reporter.” This means that you have both a legal and an ethical responsibility to report any child abuse or neglect that you observe or even suspect in a student. It’s not a job that any of us likes, yet it is one of the most important roles we assume: guardianship for students unable to defend themselves. As a young teacher, you may have students who gravitate to you, opening their hearts and mouths simultaneously. If you hear “My dad beats me,” or “Look at this cigarette burn my mom gave me last night,” this is not information you can keep to yourself. You must report this directly to whatever child-welfare agency is in your city or county.

Of course, not all students are forthcoming verbally, so if you notice a dramatic change in a student’s behavior or attitude, try to determine its cause. Tell the student (privately) about the change you’ve seen, and ask if there is something bothering her. Speak with the school counselor about your concerns. What you are seeing may be nothing more than adolescent angst over a messy breakup, but it’s still worth exploring. The result of not doing so could be disastrous, for both you and your student.

  • Communicate with parents prior to conferences. As a new and young teacher without kids of your own, you have an uphill battle to achieve parental credibility. You may be the same age (or younger) than some parents’ older children, and your insights and recommendations will be perceived differently from how they would be if you were 20 years older. Not fair, perhaps, but reality. So, to counteract this age discrimination, I suggest contacting parents of especially strong or troublesome students as early in the year as you notice a trend in their behavior or classroom performance. A quick e-mail, phone call, or informal note will suffice, as the communication itself is what’s important, not its form.

If at all possible, make your first home communication a positive one—parents get too few messages that their kids are well-behaved or working hard. When this is not possible, try to uncover a way to make parents understand that it is your job to teach their child, but the child’s responsibility to make himself open to learning. Then get as specific as possible with techniques you have tried, asking for any suggestions the parent can provide. Doing these trickier (and, at times, unpleasant) communications prior to scheduled conferences shows that you are willing to work with your students to achieve their ultimate success.

  • College graduation was the beginning of your learning, not its end. I know, the last thing you want to hear after four-plus years of college is that you need to continue your education. But as a professional, that’s your job. You don’t necessarily need another degree right away, but take advantage of any opportunity you get to interact with other teachers at educational conferences. These are tight budget times, so you may not be jetting off to a national conference.

The farthest you travel might be to the school next door on an in-service day. Whatever the setting, try to find something useful in what you hear. Too many teachers pooh-pooh staff development as a waste of time, a mind-numbing day of hard chairs and stale doughnuts. Be wise enough not to listen to them and, instead, seek out colleagues who genuinely enjoy an intellectual interchange of ideas.

College graduation was the beginning of your learning, not its end.

  • Contribute to the school community, but learn how to say no. As the new kid on the block, you may be asked to serve on school committees, coach a sport, advise a club, or participate in some other ways that go beyond the school day time clock. Trust me, these are wonderful opportunities for you to get to know both students and staff members better. But as a first-year teacher, you’ll probably be spending more time on lesson plans and grading papers than many of your colleagues who are veteran educators. This is as it should be; as you are still learning the ropes they mastered long ago. If you find yourself devoting so much time to school-related activities that you haven’t got time for yourself, or (even worse) if you find yourself chipping away at your lesson-planning because of track practice each afternoon, then it’s time for something to go. Guess what that something should be? If you are doing things right as a first-year teacher, you’ll be continually tired and catching up, even without extracurricular involvement. So learn to say no without feeling guilty. You’ll have plenty of years ahead to coach basketball.
  • Remember that you will never again have a first year of teaching. When you walk into your classroom on the first day of school, you’ll be hit with a numbing reality: You have no idea how to set up a seating chart. Or, perhaps you’ll be clueless about “how tardy is tardy,” or on what to do when a student on your class list isn’t there, even though another student says, “I saw Jamil in the hall five minutes ago.” In other words, whatever you learned in college about teaching probably didn’t include the day-to-day mechanics with which we all contend. If you’re like most beginners, you’ll think to yourself, “Am I up to this?” The answer is yes. You’ve been preparing for this day for years and now that it’s here, it will surprise you to learn what you don’t know. Welcome to the club. You’ll learn. And by October, everything that seemed overwhelming that first week will merge into a comfortable routine. It sounds odd, but cherish this confusion, because you will never have another first year of teaching. And just so you know, the second year is a lot smoother.

Forgive me for being long-winded, but I thought 11 tips should get you started. Why 11, instead of 10, like the Commandments? Call it a metaphor of sorts. Eleven is a prime number; it can only be divided by one and itself. In a similar way, the only thing that can divide you from your goal of becoming an outstanding teacher is the idea that everything must be perfect from Day 1.

Get ready to learn that not every lesson will go well, that some experiences will frustrate and disappoint. But get ready, too, for your students to leave you on that last day of school with a handshake, a smile, and a few wry comments to the effect that you “didn’t do too bad for a new guy.”

You have entered a remarkable, timeless profession, the only career that allows you to reinvent yourself every single August. I wish you well.

Jim Delisle is a professor of education at Kent State University and a part-time teacher at R.B. Chamberlin Middle School in Twinsburg, Ohio. His books include Barefoot Irreverence: Critical Issues in Gifted Child Education (Prufrock Press) and When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers: Meeting Their Social and Emotional Needs (Free Spirit). He wrote this letter to his nephew, Jonathan Delisle, who teaches at Keene High School, in Keene, N.H.


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