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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: What Teachers Wish They ‘had Been Told’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 07, 2016 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

Now that you have taught your first year, five years, or are about to retire, what do you wish you had been told or prepared for in the beginning of your career?

In Part One, Roxanna Elden, Dave Stuart Jr., Julia Thompson and Jennifer Gonzalez share their thoughts. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Dave and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Linda Hoyt, Jenny Edwards, Mary Tedrow, and Vance L. Austin contributed their answers to the question.

Today’s post in the last in a three-part series. Allison Marchetti, Rebekah O’Dell, Kathy Levy, Matthew R. Morris, Stuart O. Yager, Rita Platt and Larnette Snow finish it off with formal responses, and I also include tons of comments from readers.

Response From Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell

Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell teach 8th, 9th, and 12th grade English in Richmond, Virginia. Their first book, Writing with Mentors, was recently published by Heinemann. They are the co-founders of movingwriters.org:

We thought we knew everything when we left our teacher ed programs. We could plan a perfectly balanced lesson. We could cite all of the latest brain research. We were ready for the classroom of our dreams -- four walls, a bulletin board, hopefully a window or two, and, most importantly, a door we could close so that we could rule our kingdom without interruption or interference. The autonomy of the job was alluring.

But we quickly became burnt out on our little islands. When we experienced victories, they were hollow because no one else understood the dynamics of our classrooms. When we struggled, we did it silently, hoping to avoid the notice of our colleagues.

Here’s what we didn’t know: to thrive in this career, you have to find your tribe.

A tribe is more than just the sympathetic teacher down the hall. Tribes are made up of individuals who come from a similar point of origin. They share customs and beliefs. They are fundamentally linked.

Your tribe is that group of kindred teachers with whom you are linked by philosophical origin, classroom culture, and educational beliefs. They encourage you, support you, nudge you, inspire you, challenge you. They push you to be a better teacher tomorrow than you are today. Sometimes you find a large tribe. Sometimes it’s just one other person. Sometimes your tribe starts small, gains momentum, and grows.

Years into our careers, we finally found our tribe -- at first, just one another -- when we each left our previous schools for positions at a new school. In our first conversation, we recognized the marks of our tribe in one another. We read the same books, idolized the same teachers. We had similar goals both for ourselves as educators and for our students. And in the last three years, we have seen our classroom practice grow by tremendously.

Meeting during lunch or sneaking a chat between classes, we share what has just worked for us and what has fallen flat. We challenge each other to document these successes and failures in a blog. We sit in on each other’s classes for inspiration and a different perspective. We dare each other to try something new in our classroom every day.

We got really lucky -- we found our tribe in the classroom next door. Hopefully, you, too, will find colleagues in your own building who will listen to you vent while gently prodding you to re-examine, re-think, and try again. But, if your tribe doesn’t reside in your school, don’t lose heart. These days, the internet makes it easier than ever to find kindred spirits. Become involved and meet others through your professional organizations, both locally and nationally. (For us English teachers, the annual NCTE Convention is mothership calling our little tribe home.) Or log on after a long day of work and chat with other connected educators on Twitter.

So, what do we wish we had known earlier in our career? That engaged and passionate teachers need other teachers -- not just to listen and support, but to encourage us to try new things, expand our horizons, ask hard questions, and forge new territory in our classroom.

Response From Kathy Levy

Kathy Levy is a special educator (grades 3-5) in Long Island and a blossoming writer for early chapter books. She loves collaborating and working with teachers. She’s still a baby chick with Twitter @educ8ter1 but if you feed her tweets she will grow:

What do I wish I were told when I first started this profession? Like the genie in a lantern, there is not just one wish...here’s the first three!

I wish I were told to:

1. Be patient. Not just for the kids’ sake, but also for the profession. Practice and curriculum changes develop to accommodate current research and education mandates. As teachers, we know we have to build strong foundations to develop strong learners. Lately, fostering student proficiency feels like we are entering the top floor of an apartment building through the fire escape trying to reach children who are first arriving in the lobby. Really? How will they meet those standards? Patience. The elevator will stop at every floor to let children in and out. Be patient. There are some perks-- every compulsory shift ends up putting some new learning and tools in our pockets adding to our knowledge.

2. Be Creative. Take your students as far as their imagination can go. Be a model for creative thinking and challenge students to think out of the box. Due to current evaluation procedures, teachers are afraid to color outside the rubric squares. These rubrics have become the teacher’s “high stake testing,” and we have begun to perform to the test- especially new untenured teachers. Cultivating creativity in our students and within ourselves is key to loving what you do and becoming great. Just ask Sir Ken Robinson (my favorite creative thinker). The out of the box thinkers are the ones that make marks in the world.

3. Be YOU. Never forget exactly why you teach--the children. We are their mentors, advocates, role models, heroes, etc. It is our job to educate with curiosity, patience, creativity, technology (see how I squeezed that in?), and passion. Love what you do!

Response From Matthew R. Morris

Matthew R. Morris is an Elementary educator, blogger, speaker, and Anti-Racism activist. He currently teaches fifth grade in the TDSB. He is also completing his M.A at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education:

As a new teacher, you will get all sorts of “advice” from other teachers as to how to do your job. Mentorship and advice from people who have been teaching for a long time is important when your beginning your career. But it all depends on how this advice is delivered. When you are starting out, don’t be afraid to operate your classroom the way you want. Once you get those keys to the room, your class is your own, period. Do with it as you may. It is important to understand this because your students will ultimately respond best when they know and understand the true and authentic you. Don’t yell at your students if that is not your personality. There may be times when you may have to act a certain way to convey a particular point to your students. But do it your own way. Take advice on strategies and technique as needed. You are free to try out a few, even. But understand, that everyone is different, every class is different, and in the long run you are going to come up with your own style, techniques, and methods of dealing with your students and managing your classroom. So, the best way to learn this job is to go out and do it - on your own.

A lasting thought on advice from experienced teachers. Yes, they have been teaching for a while and may have a lot of knowledge and lessons to give a young teacher. But remember what the young teacher has as well. A teacher of 15 years was talking to me and giving me a laundry list of do’s and don’ts and “insights” into the adolescent mind. After rambling on for a while, I reminded her, that while her advice is built on years of experience and is valid, so is mine. She has been teaching adolescents for the last 15 years, but 15 years ago I was the exact age of those adolescents I now teach. So what I lack in experience I gain in relevance and relateability. Never count yourself short just because you are new and others have been at this for a while.

The experience factor usually balances out. More years can often means more out of touch with the idiosyncrasies and little things that drive an individual student. More experience can translate to a “textbook approach”. By this I mean that the sincerity of the unique daily experience is forgotten or dulled. For the beginning teacher, everything is new and fresh. Every student’s problem is cared for. These feelings and moments will inevitably fade, but in this time, new teachers still have the advantage of authenticity and complete and utter sincerity. Everything matters because it seems to matter. And although I am not condoning or condemning one factor over the other, sometimes as a new teacher, what you lose in experience, you gain in authenticity and raw emotions to situations. To the fresh teacher, everything is sincere still. Inevitably, it all balances out.

Response From Stuart O. Yager

Stuart O. Yager is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University:

I wish I would’ve been told that content is not as important as climate and community. In my early years as a teacher I spent far too much time being stressed about covering the content and I didn’t think about the climate or the sense of community in my classroom. Now, after years of teaching, I know that in order for content to “stick” in long-term memory there must be a sense of trust, calmness, and safety in my classroom.

I focus my classroom climate on low stress and high challenge - low stress being first and foremost. Low threat is the tone I expect in my classroom. In my classroom, I want students to know what is expected of them, feel emotionally/physically safe, and know that they can do what’s expected of them. They trust me - the teacher! Next, I want my students to feel a sense of community amongst themselves and with me. We look out for each other and help each other before we focus on the curriculum content. In a big sense, we are a family. We look out for each other, protect each other, and we are a team. Often, I model that I’m learning alongside my students.

We’re all life-long learners and I’m not the keeper of the content. Climate and community in the classroom must come before content! I call these the three “C’s” and the order they come in is critical. Climate comes first, then community and lastly comes content. In my view, I see my classroom and the world I want to be in as a people help people world as opposed to a dog eat dog world. Therefore, I model: climate, community, and then content. I wish I had been told this at the beginning of my career. But, at least I can teach this to my students today!

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher who enjoys nothing more than thinking, talking, and writing about issues of teaching and learning. Find Rita’s articles on education here:

Reach out to other teachers. Build a professional learning network, tag a mentor or two, and never be afraid to admit that you have questions or need help. These are lessons I learned in my first years teaching and 19 years later they still serves me well. Years ago, I taught in a remote Inuit village on the Bering Sea of the Alaskan coast. I was a good teacher and I felt confident, but, I was smart enough to know that Mrs. Trevithick was better. She, like most great teachers, was willing to answer all of my questions, to model for me, and to endlessly help me problem-solve.

There are few professions as challenging as teaching and there is a tendency for new teachers (and plenty of veterans) to think they have to do it by themselves. Thinking as a professional means using the body of knowledge that is out there and reaching out to colleagues and scholars for help. We must allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that someone else might have answers that work. We must maintain our status as life-long learners. Yes, each of us has something to add to the body of knowledge but we don’t have to and shouldn’t treat all of education as a do-it-yourself endeavor. There is no room for ego in teaching.

Almost two decades after I met Mrs. Trevithick, I still reach out. I use Twitter, Pinterest, lesson plan wikis, Google Docs (the list is endless) to share ideas and ask questions. I keep learning in low stress ways. I take online classes designed just for teachers, enroll in a MOOCs, and read professional books. Most importantly, I still reach out to my colleagues for questions and help.

Effective teachers are reflective learners. Reflection leads to questions. Do not be afraid to ask them!

Response From Larnette Snow

Larnette Snow has been a Pk-7 school librarian in Carroll and Patrick County Virginia for nineteen years. She wishes she could make all of her students life-long learners and readers. She attends many educational conferences and teacher institutes during the school year and in the summer:

Looking back at my nineteen years as a school librarian, I wish that my peers had encouraged me to go to regional and/or state conferences. Given the chance my first “do over” would be to go to my region’s annual, spring library conference and to join the Virginia Association of School Librarians (VaASL) by my third year as a librarian, giving myself time to acclimate to the position.

I had been a librarian for nearly ten years before I went to my first regional conference and then it was a couple more after that before I joined VaASL and began attending the regional and state conferences every year. Boy, did I miss out on a lot of fun, learning, and fellowshipping!

During these past six years of attending the regional and state conferences, my professional growth has expanded through meeting and hearing outstanding librarians and authors as the featured speakers and during their concurrent sessions. I learn so much at each one and try to take at least one thing and use it in my own library.

One of our teachers is getting her Masters in secondary education with certification in library science. She attended the American Librarians Association Conference in Chicago this year as a student! My advice is not to wait for colleagues in your district to go to regional or state teacher institutes and/or conferences that are for your certification area. Don’t worry about going solo or not knowing anyone. You will come away with many new friends and ideas. And if you think that you want to change to a new position, going to conferences in that area will not only look good on your curriculum vitae, but also help you determine if you truly want to change positions.

For your own professional growth begin attending these opportunities as soon as possible. You will not regret it.

Responses From Readers

David Deubelbeiss:

Hi Larry, Always a great question, necessary question for teachers. I wrote a post of the same title here. One thing there that I’d state as number 1 for me is “Find Your Place”. Too often, young teachers suffer, suffer so hard because they are mismatched for their teaching environment. They then begin to have a “fail” mindset and don’t feel teaching is their cup of tea. It’s a big problem in teaching - we don’t match new teachers very well with schools/teaching environments. Too often its about immediately filling a vacancy, practical things like the teacher needs to pay the bills etc .... But there are no bad teachers - just teachers who haven’t found the right place for their talents as people. Find your place, try your best to do that right from the start.

judy W:

I wish I had known about the growth mindset before I started teaching. I think the information we now have about how the brain grows smarter is invaluable. We need to get this info out to parents too! Let’s start by reading children’s picture books early to young children. One book is GROWING SMARTER that has a growth mindset along with perseverance, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. These are all of the 21st century thinking skills in one GREAT book for kids and parents!

Michelle Thompson:

After 5 years of teaching middle years band/choir/art I wish someone had told me (and I listened) that it’s all about the journey, not the destination!! Process > Product. You will go absolutely insane trying to perfect every little detail because you feel the performance (product) reflects on you and your abilities as an educator. It’s not about you! Your job is to install a lifelong passion for music (art, science, writing, etc.) Have fun with it! They will too. :)


I think what I’ve learned over my fifteen years in the classroom is that the most important part of being an effective teacher is developing a close relationship with your students. It’s way more important than pedagogical choices, and it is the best way to ensure effective classroom management. If the kids know that you care deeply for them and that you’re completely invested in their learning and well-being, they will work for you and behave for you. And teaching will become infinitely more satisfying. Here are my three rules for great teaching: 1. Know your kids well and care deeply about them 2. Love your subject - be passionate about what you teach 3. Work hard! Great teaching is hard work.

AJ Sisneros:

I wish I knew how much of my job was going to be classroom management. I remember being told that classroom management was a big part of the job, but after student teaching, I thought I had it mostly down. What I didn’t quite realize was that, as a student teacher, there were already classroom expectations in place that made it easier for me to bypass some of the building blocks of management. The first year and a half felt like I was concerned more with classroom management than anything else.

Betty Hagymasi:

A friend of mine just reminded me the other day of Theodore Roosevelt’s quote “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I learned a great deal my first year of teaching but comparing my classroom and my teaching to others crushed me many days. I worked hard to keep myself from getting discouraged. I tried new things often. I asked to observe classes. I found mentors in more than one teacher. I sought to figure out my own equation that would work for me. Frankly, I am still working on this! But every year I feel better because I have students who help me and remind me of the difference I am making.

If I could go back and share something with my former self, I would tell myself to keep working hard and don’t give up. I would make sure that when comparing myself to others that I don’t get discouraged but, rather, encouraged to work harder.

Thanks to Allison, Rebekah, Kathy, Matthew, Stuart, Rita, and Larnette, and to readers, for their contributions!

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

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