Education

Q&A: Advice for New Teachers

May 08, 2008 7 min read

New and prospective teachers face a host of challenges and uncertainties as they prepare for their jobs, from daily planning to organizing curriculum to classroom management. In this discussion, Lisa Vahey, Director of the New Teachers Network, a teacher-induction program in Chicago,and Scott Mandel, author of the book The New Teacher Toolbox: Proven Tips and Strategies for a Great First Year, answer readers’ questions on getting off to a strong start in the profession.

Question: What are the five things you would advise a new 1st year teacher to have already prepared before she or he enters into a classroom for the first time to make the process a little easier to get started?

Scott Mandel: Sorry if I don’t limit it to five: arrange the classroom; get supplies; gather basic information about the school and procedures; prepare for the first day; organize the first week’s curriculum; establish classroom procedures.

Question: If you could only teach one thing to a class of new teachers, what would it be?

Scott Mandel: Do what you feel is right. Too often new teachers are so concerned with meeting the demands of administrators, the district, and ultimately the requirements of NCLB, that they forget their basic teaching skills. The first year, they need to become comfortable in the classroom and learn how to relate to students. This can only be successfully done when a new teacher uses his or her basic instincts and previous educational knowledge. Skill refinement comes in the second and third year.

Question: What advice do you have for a person beginning to search for a teaching job and, once that person finds a job, starting to prepare for that first day of school? Thank you.

Scott Mandel: To your first question: Get some experience in the ages that you want to teach. Even if it is only observing or volunteering, get into a classroom during your off-time so you can see if this is truly the area that you feel is the most comfortable for you. As far as preparing for the first day of school, once you get a job, speak to some experienced teachers in the grade and subject in which you are teaching. Use them as mentors—they are your best source for succeeding in your new position.

Question: How can teachers overcome the financial gap easier when moving from the corporate world teaching to the public school teaching?

Lisa Vahey: The answer is that you can’t overcome the financial gap. Isn’t that a hard answer?

Many teachers have to pad their checks with tutoring jobs, weekend work, and after-school teaching. BUT if you count the emotional pay you get—hugs (OK, only if you teach little guys!), deep sense of purpose, impact on the future, you might be able to stomach the income drop.

Career-changers should be sure to look into mid-career certification programs, though, so you don’t start your teaching career with graduate school debt! More programs that will help you (or even pay you) to train for urban teaching or high-needs area teaching are sprouting up around the nation. Good luck!

Question: What are the most common challenges faced by new teachers and how should they overcome them?

Scott Mandel: Most common challenge is not to get discouraged. New teachers try too hard to be “perfect.” They are afraid of losing their jobs, or afraid of disappointing an administrator. They must learn that teaching in and of itself is a learning process, and that it takes at least three years before they really “get the hang of it.” They should think of it as is the case in the medical profession. Med school makes you a doctor, but your internship or residency makes you experienced. Same in the classroom. You need that “residency” period to become comfortable. The challenge then is not to get discouraged early and stress out or, worse, quit.

Question: Do you think substitute teaching is considered “real” experience in the eyes of potential employers, or are their better avenues to landing a first-year teaching job?

Lisa Vahey: Many schools turn to subs as a resource for maternity leaves, medical leaves, and other “we need a teacher now” types of situations. If you are willing to sub, I think it’s a great option. It is different than having your own room, but many sub jobs lead to the “right place at the right time” job offers that will get you your own room.

When you do sub, make sure you do your part as a “staff member.” If you can, eat lunch with other teachers, pitch-in with projects, and attend professional development (if you’re allowed to do so). Being a sub can be very un-glorious work, but it is great training, as well as a foot in the door (especially in competitive settings).

Question: I will be student teaching 5th graders in an inner-city school. My biggest concerns are classroom management and how will I relate to kids whose lives are so different from my whitebread suburban upbringing? I would appreciate any advice you can give.

Lisa Vahey: First, kudos for realizing that this will be an issue. We can’t ignore the impact of race, class, and culture on classroom management (or curriculum, or society, for that matter!). Thanks for being reflective enough to ask.

So, what to do? I am a fan of professional reading, so find an author or two who’ll inspire you. Gloria Ladson Billing’s Dreamkeepers is a must, and I still pick-up Dave Brown’s Becoming a Successful Urban Teacher at least once a month. Lisa Delpit, Martin Haberman, Theresa Perry, Bill Ayers, Herb Kohl, Greg Michie—find an author who will push and support you as you think more about this.

Then, of course, get into classrooms. Watch what city teachers do to be effective. They use their voice, their manner, their style, their pacing, their organization, to keep their kids on task and focused on learning. Look carefully at what they do, and start to try out what works, and then own what you’ll do (student teaching is all about finding your voice, manner & style!).

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from teachers you see having successful experiences. Bring up this topic during your student teaching seminar.

Oh, and one other tip: find curriculum that you love and bring that passion to your teaching. If you are excited about the learning, that can be more effective than even the sternest “look” you can muster!

Question: Do you have any tips on how to handle or organize the new immense workload beginning teachers face?

Scott Mandel: Make prioritized lists. Things you want to do today, this week, this month. Once the list is made, mark each item A (must do today), B (should try to get to today) or C (if I have time). Cross each item off as you get to it—that will give a feeling of accomplishment. Also, ask experienced teachers at your school for help/advice as to “short-cuts” for some of the stuff you are required.

Question: How do you gain the respect of parents in your first year?

Lisa Vahey: You earn it. The same way you get anyone’s respect. So what to do?

You introduce yourself first thing (consider sending a letter before school even starts). You dress, act, speak respectfully. You say “That is a good question, let me gather more information so I can answer it for you” when you don’t know the answer—don’t fib, lie, or create answers off the top of your head. You see the good in every child and celebrate that good. You set fair, clear rules (and expectations, too). You communicate them to families from the start.

You don’t ever say “I know how hard it is to...”. Ever. Because you don’t know. (Can you tell I learned this one the hard way?)

Question What can new teachers do to help manage disruptive students without sending them out of the classroom?

Scott Mandel: First of all, it is critical that you find out why they are disruptive. That’s the most important thing. Good classroom management skills can alleviate most discipline problems. In the meantime, when someone is disruptive, I follow this progression: IGNORE the behavior—often the student is trying to get a reaction. No reaction, no reason to continue. STAND near them while you teach—this way they know that you know there’s a problem and are giving them an “out” before you react. SIGNAL them—use a hand signal or something similar to get them to stop. SPEAK to them—interrupt your teaching and ask them to stop the behavior. MOVE them—move their seat to another area of the classroom away from those they are affecting. This is NOT for a “specific amount of time.” Rather, you tell them they can return when the behavior stops.

Question: Can you explain to us some proven strategies in classroom management regarding maintaining order and discipline without being “military” about it? Or should we be military about it?

Lisa Vahey: Jump over to www.responsiveclassroom.org and read their amazing stuff about creating a community. Their guidance on interactive modeling, creating rules, and holding a morning meeting is extremely beneficial to developing a positive classroom atmosphere.

But I will say one thing, from the heart. My very progressive, very wonderful teacher-education program was all about “democratic classrooms” but I did realize, in about my third year, that I definitely needed to be president of my room! It is very important for kids to know that there is a great leader guiding their work. Oh, but do remember, be president, not the dictator!

This article was excerpted from a previous live Web chat entitled “Advice for new Teachers.”