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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: New Teacher Advice - ‘Hold On To Your Optimism & Idealism’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 06, 2015 19 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What is your best advice to a new teacher?

In Part One, five veteran educators -- Valeria Brown, Julia Thompson, Roxanna Elden, Sean McComb and Megan Allen -- share advice they wish they had at the beginning of their careers. You can also listen to a ten minute conversation I had with Val and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show. By they way, you can now access a list of all my previous shows - with links and descriptions.

Today, Allison Zmuda, Jenny Edwards, Kelly Young, Maurice J. Elias, and Emily Geltz contribute their guest responses, and I feature the comments of many readers.

As I mentioned in Part One, this is the last new question I’ll be covering until September. But there’s plenty going on here between now and then. I’ll be publishing my popular summer series of new author interviews, and I’ll also be sharing a bunch of updated thematic compilations including posts from this past year.

Response From Allison Zmuda

Allison Zmuda is a former public high school teacher turned education consultant and author. Her current consulting work and writing centers around personalized learning where students play a seminal role in the design and development of their own education. Learn more about her work with the ASCD Faculty and look out for her new book, Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015):

Your job is to grow your students to become independent, self-directed learners not for someday in the distant future, but right now. Students deserve to have clarity on the following questions:

  • Why do I have to learn this? What value is it to me? The goals of your course and your unit need to be crystal clear from a student’s point of view. For example, read the course description in the student handbook, read the description of the scope and sequence for grade 3 writing. Ask yourself what are the big goals of this semester or year-long experience? A couple of concrete examples that are true across units, years, and subject areas:

    • Communicate effectively based on purpose, task, and audience using appropriate vocabulary
    • Analyze data to seek out patterns and/or make predictions
    • Based on an understanding of any problem, initiate a plan, execute it, and evaluate the reasonableness of the solution

  • How will I be assessed? When you articulate these larger goals in question 1 you want to make sure that what you say lines up with how you design assessments. In any subject and grade level, there should be a balance of fluency, conceptual understanding and application. Fluency assessments are quite straightforward: either you know it or you don’t. Conceptual understanding (making sense of information, ideas, data) and application are much more in alignment with the larger goals. You need to be clear that we work on fluency so that we can handle complex, messy problems and challenges. But those messy problems and challenges need to show up on a regular basis.

  • How will I be judged? Not a grading policy but key criteria that you will evaluate them on over and over again. For example: a coherent paragraph, historically accurate, effective use of mathematical language to demonstrate thinking.

  • How will I be supported during the learning experience? Clarify what you expect from every learner and what every learner can expect from you. The non-negotiables -- a place where it is safe to struggle and to express ideas; a place where we learn through struggle - challenges, wrong answers, and setbacks are powerful learning moments; a place where we have clarity on what quality looks like and receive regular feedback to achieve quality.

How do you make this alive in your classroom culture? Articulation of what we as a classroom community value and consistency of practice. Here is an illustrative example that a grades 6-12 secondary school in New York City developed, entitled “Universal Bill of Rights for Learners.”

I have the right to ...

  • know what is expected of me ...
  • an environment conducive to learning ...
  • be given the opportunity to do the learning assignment ...
  • be active in the design of my path to success ...
  • learn from my mistakes / setbacks / wrong answers ...
  • get frequent constructive feedback ...
  • express my point of view ...
  • be recognized for who I am ...

keeping in mind the rights of others.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

Welcome to teaching! We wish you years of success as you are influencing the lives of many students! Some strategies are offered below for saving time so that you can focus on working with your students.

  • Arrange your room so that items are located where students will be using them. Set up your desk to save steps and save time. Create an enjoyable environment for yourself and for your students. Ask yourself, “Where am I wasting time in my day?”

  • Break large tasks down into doable pieces. Then, decide how long each task will take, or determine how long you can spend on the task today. Arrange tasks in the order in which you will do then. Then, visualize yourself moving easily and enjoyably through them.

  • Limit the amount of time you spend on a task. According to Parkinson’s Law, a task will expand to fill the time available for it. Rather than spending a half hour doing a task, see if you can do the task in 20 minutes.

  • Make use of small bits of time. If you have five extra minutes, what might you be able to accomplish?

  • Delegate non-teaching tasks to students. Set up a system in which students take turns doing various tasks. This will enable you to focus on helping them to learn.

  • Only touch a piece of paper or e-mail one time. Develop a system in which you know exactly what to do with a piece of paper or e-mail.

  • Have certain times during the day when you check e-mail. Only check it when you have time to respond to the messages.

  • Have the same organization for folders in your computer or Dropbox that you have in your file cabinet.

  • Assign each student a number based on alphabetical order. Students write their name and number in the upper right-hand corner of the paper so that they can be put into alphabetical order.

  • Teach students to turn their papers in right side up, facing the same way. If possible, use different colored paper for different classes. Have an In box and an Out box for each class or subject.

  • Think through when students will be turning in major assignments, and stagger the times when they are due.

  • Use a predetermined number of points for different types of student projects and tests.

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young is founder and executive director of Pebble Creek Labs, a training and curriculum consulting company focused on instruction, literacy and leadership development. Since 1998 Pebble Creek Labs has partnered with schools and districts to promote student achievement and develop educators. Kelly can be reached at kelly@kellyjyoung.com (From Larry: I’ve learned more about teaching from Kelly than from anyone else):

Teaching might be the most satisfying and consequential work available. All the epithets are true; and done right, you can look back on a career and know you made a positive difference in the lives of many. That is a wonderful feeling.

But it is as challenging and heart breaking work as there is too. So advice is frequently provided and abundantly offered. As a young man I took it all in. All was grist for the mill.

In looking back, I think there are three ideas that I would offer to new teachers as values to hold tightly.

  1. Hold on to your optimism and idealism.

Teachers enter the profession excited and eager to make a difference in the world. They are idealistic and optimistic. Often they are also unprepared and naive to the works’ many challenges and are humbled and tried. I have watched many smiling and bright-eyed new teachers become sullen and jaded within a decade. It is critical to hold tight to your optimism and idealism, for the students’ sake and your own.

Just as we are what we eat, we become who we hang around with. Choosing who you spend time with, who you pick as mentors, is critical. Colleagues who act victimized, powerless and sarcastic are not healthy companions. Instead, colleagues who embrace the difficulties as challenges, want to share ideas and problem-solve, and still feel efficacious about the profession are who you want to seek out. As a teacher and administrator, I purposefully adopted the posture of cockeyed optimist. Students and staff need, deserve and appreciate educators who are optimistic about youth, their work, and the future.

  1. Tough students make you better. Appreciate them. They need you.

As a young teacher, my first principal told me “if a student isn’t learning it’s your fault”. In retrospect I think such advice may have been simplistic and short sided, even harsh, but in hindsight I became a better teacher because of it. I embraced this belief as challenge, and it caused to do three things: never give up, dig deeper, keep trying. It forced me to learn and try new techniques. I kept communicating to the student my belief in their ability. And, out of necessity, I developed repertoire while maintaining high expectations.

Over time I learned that it was “hard” students and the classes that pushed me most that forced me to grow. And thus I learned to embrace their presence. I learned that simply adopting such a belief system made the “tough” student or the “hard” class less formidable. They weren’t a foe anymore, but an opportunity.

It truly is often a self-fulfilling prophecy with students. If they feel your belief in them, and your confidence in yourself, even the “toughest” students learn.

  1. Develop a rich instructional repertoire.

Learning is complex and sophisticated. In front of teachers is a classroom of students with an amazing variety and richness of life experience, motivations, experiences, interests, and learning styles. As teachers we should strive to develop and amass as rich and always growing an instructional tool kit as possible. We must humbly acknowledge we never have it figured out, and we should never be afraid to reveal that we are always learning. In fact, it is what makes teaching so compelling-- the interplay of science, art and relationships. Young teachers need to learn strategies they can use for different purposes, adapt for different learners, and combine artfully to create classrooms and learning communities of variety and depth. It is what makes the work not only worthwhile but transporting.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting,” and a book young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

My best advice for a new teacher is to care deeply, problem-solve relentlessly, and ask for help incessantly. Of course, this is also my best advice for experienced teachers!

Teachers must understand that students learn from THEM, not from curricula, media, materials, or standards. Caring relationships form the foundation for lasting learning. Students’ ability to learn, and to retain and apply what they learn in their lives, depends on the emotional tone of the context in which learning takes place. In a caring and supportive context, learning puts down deep roots. Teachers should care deeply about their students’ lives, not simply their performance. Teachers can’t change home lives, at least not to any appreciable degree in most cases, but should be quick to be understanding and empathic.

And because some students will be hard to reach, or not respond as their peers to, or become derailed by home circumstances, teachers must be prepared to problem solve relentlessly to find creative ways to help all students succeed. It is not children’s responsibility to adapt to the curriculum. Adult educators--who are, after all, learning professionals--must find ways to foster that adaptation. There can be no indifference, no waiting without a plan, no giving up. Every child can be reached.

Of course, it would be a myth to believe that somehow, every educator can reach every child through his or her own creativity alone. So teachers must be prepared to ask for help. Their colleagues in school, and thousands of others now accessible via the internet, may have found ways to reach the very child that has caused you such frustration. Others’ ideas and perspectives, even if not feasibly applicable, may nevertheless spark your own creativity. Of course, for new teachers, being willing to admit you don’t know something can be hard. Being willing to seek out help if your mentor teacher(s) do not seem to be helping is even harder. It takes courage.

But that is why you must care deeply. Caring deeply fuels problem solving, and the courage to admit frustration and reach out to others. Students learn from you, and once they know you care, they will put forth their best effort and be willing to challenge their own comfort zones--just as you are willing to do for them.

Response From Emily Geltz

Emily Geltz (an 8th grade Language Arts teacher, who just finished her first year of teaching at Laconia Middle School in NH) interned with Linda Rief (a Language Arts teacher for the last 30 years at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, NH) during the 2012-13 school year, as part of a 5th year Masters Program through the University of New Hampshire. She and Linda previously co-authored a response about the best way to work with student teachers:

Be true to yourself and your philosophies.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the world of test scores and standards and to pay more attention to the content you need to cover instead of the skills you should be improving. You will never feel that you are doing enough, but beware of peripheral requests that take away from good teaching. Do not lose sight of the beliefs at your core. Encourage students to read books of their choice and to write about subjects that matter to them. Above all, listen to your gut, and do what you feel is right.

I think this is best illustrated through a conversation I had with Linda about her first years of teaching. She assigned worksheets and sat in the front of the classroom and lectured because that was what she had seen done before. But something didn’t feel right, so she listened to her gut and evolved. This simple anecdote has been important for me because it is easy to look at teachers who have it all together and be intimidated by their wealth of knowledge. I was! But knowing that Linda had to work, and still works, to improve her teaching grants me hope and confidence, as well as the realization that I have to listen to myself.

Struggle in front of your students.

Show students that you too need to work at learning. Comprehending a difficult text does not come naturally, so explicitly teach students the strategies you use when you come across text you don’t understand. Write for your students so they see that final drafts come from lots of hard work. It is incredible to see the difference in both discussions held and the quality of writing students produce when you model your own writing process. Students need to see that you are a writer who needs to brainstorm, draft, work through problems, and get feedback just like them.

My students responded so enthusiastically when I shared my narrative on the aftereffects of my house being robbed to teach flashback and when I drafted a scene about getting “dumped” at a sixth grade dance to demonstrate show vs. tell. They loved getting to know me through my stories just as I love getting to know them through theirs. They were more willing to try out these literary techniques when they saw what I had done to weave them into my writing. So many students believe that they are not readers and writers because they think that you either have the skills or you don’t. It is our job to show them that yes, they too can read and write with confidence.

Become a reflective practitioner.

Keep records of lessons you have taught. Note what works well and, more importantly, what does not. Then change things! I remember the lessons that went poorly much more vividly than ones that were successes. The first month of school this year I was told to teach students how to write a persuasive essay pertaining to a book they read during the summer. I was worried because it wasn’t my assignment, but came in bright eyed and ready to use all that I had learned from Linda and UNH. After the first day, I knew I was in trouble. These kids were much less prepared than I thought. I had to regroup and refocus. I asked for advice from the other eighth grade LA teacher, the special education teacher on team, the curriculum coordinator, and the librarian. I pored over my teaching resources looking for ways to break my lessons down even further. I learned never to assume that my students will know something, and to scaffold my lessons better. With each mistake comes a lesson learned.

Find quality professional development.

Teaching is not a career for the stagnant. It is of vital importance to learn from those who have advice to give. The teaching community is filled with brilliant individuals who are happy to share what they have learned from their experiences teaching.

This past year I attended professional development that reenergized me and gave me back my hope when I was feeling lost with everything I was being asked to do in my first year. Teaching can feel lonely sometimes, so find supports. Know who your teaching heroes are and read their books, attend their workshops, and find others we are interested in learning as well. Seek out ways to better your craft. Do not become complacent. Sometimes all I needed was lunch and conversation with Linda to get me on the right track again.

Responses From Readers


I’m sorry, but the question was really backward. It should have been: “What should a school do to support new teachers? No first year teacher, despite his ability, knowledge and training, is really prepared to face the demands of teaching alone; he must be given all the assistance the school can provide. The first thing a principal should do is to appoint a mentor who is teaching the same K-6 grade level or middle/high school subject. The beginner and the mentor should have the same planning period every day, and the mentor should be given time off once a month to observe in the new teacher’s classroom and confer with her afterward.

Windy Mariscal:

I have three pieces of advice for a new teacher:

1) Spend plenty of time teaching classroom procedures. In order for things to run smoothly, students need to know what to do and how you want it done. Revisit and refine procedures throughout the year.

2) Connect with a mentor on your campus. Some districts assign one to you, but you need one at your school site too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement, just one that works. We all need someone to help us though the challenges of teaching as well as someone who will celebrate our successes.

3) Resolve yourself to having an unfinished to-do list and go home at a decent time. Working late and taking more work home with you will quickly lead to burnout. Take care of yourself so you are rested and ready each day.

Dr. Mapp:

For teachers new to the profession, I offer these clues:

1) Know yourself, your culture and your faith and what pushes your buttons

2) Understand that how you were taught (good and bad) may become deciding factors when tough fast-paced classroom situations arise since you may revert to what feels comfortable

3) Be open to the levels of diversity within yourself (birth order, gender, etc.) and respect the diversities of others (race, income levels, etc.) as you work towards and become comfortable with inclusion and All Children Will Learn (ESEA reauthorization)

4) Be proactive and feel, critically think through and discuss with others possible classroom scenarios

5) Understand that nothing happens in isolation in the classroom since everything is connected (from how you treat parents and the “worst” of your students, to how you work with the “best,” etc.)

6) Understand that building relationships and communicating well with others are some of the 21st century clues for classroom success that go beyond technology usage.


I would tell a new teacher to be as picky about the school district is possible. He or she should work in a district where the students are at grade level or above and where teachers are treated professionally.

Anna Bartosik:

1. Respect your learners.

2. Plan your lessons beginning with the result you need to achieve and work backwards.

3. Find a mentor who exhibits the qualities you respect. Ask to observe their teaching. Invite your mentor out for coffee. Find out what inspires them and who inspires them. Ask for an introduction to meet that person, or a referral to learn more from another teacher. Repeat.

4. Make time for reflection on your teaching.

5. Teach your class as you, not ‘teacher.’ Honour your voice.

Nancy Salmeron:

Develop strong personal relationships with her/his students first. Have strong classroom management second and always remember that it gets better everyday!

Tyler Amidon:

Learn the story of each of your students. It will completely change how you view them... For the better

Thanks to Allison, Jenny, Kelly, Maurice and Emily, and to many readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar:

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for updated thematic compilations of past posts and new interviews with author over this summer, and new questions/answers in September!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.