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Classroom Q&A

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.

Teaching Opinion

11 Pieces of Advice Veteran Teachers Would Tell Their ‘First-Year Selves’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 08, 2022 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a seven-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What are one to three things you would tell your first-year teacher self, and why would it/they be important to tell?

We obviously can’t talk to our past selves. However, what we would say to ourselves if we could can probably serve as good advice to new teachers.

Today, Ruth Okoye, Sheila Wilson, Cindy Garcia, and Ixchell Reyes kick off this multipart series sharing reflections from veteran teachers.

Ruth, Sheila, Cindy, and Ixchell were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

The primary piece of advice that I’d tell my first-year self would be not too worry so much after having a bad day in the classroom. Instead, take a moment to reflect on what you can learn from the experience and then put it aside. Fixating on it will not make anything better, and odds are, your students will also have forgotten about it by the time the next day rolls around.

Be Flexible

Ruth Okoye, Ed.D., is a 30-year veteran educator. She has taught in private and public school settings and is passionate about literacy, educational technology, and ed-tech coaching. She currently serves as the K-12 director at a nonprofit organization:

Since I have coached many first-year teachers, there are several things that I try to help them understand. So many things that they should know were not covered in class or during their student-teaching experiences. What would help each teacher is different and depends on many factors, including their personality, teaching assignment, and stage of life. I started teaching right out of college as a reading specialist and tend to be reflective, analytical, and a bit focused. While these traits work for me, some tips could have helped improve my first year or two. Writing a letter to my younger self, I would say:

There’s likely to be a steep learning curve. Bringing everything together for your first adult job can be a bit challenging, especially when you are a sprinter. You are not only figuring out how to work with your students but also learning school culture. There will also be necessary changes to your personal life. Groceries, cooking, and making lunches have never been hard for you, but you’ll have to pull that together more consistently. There’s no more buying lunch unless it’s at the school cafeteria. Lesson planning will take a significant portion of your time until you get better at it. You’ll have to help your friends understand why you don’t have as much time to meet up with them. You can do it; you will have to be ready to make new habits.

Plans are great, but learn when to deviate. Sometimes, you’ll find that the planned lesson isn’t the right thing for that moment. You may know the skill the student needs, but they may have other challenges for the day that are not addressed by your plan. You’re a reading specialist and you’ve learned many methods to help students pick up necessary skills. If the student comes to you and they are not ready to work, the best thing you can do for them and their teacher is to get them into a better frame of mind so they can return to class and have a better day. You’ll need to watch for signs that today should be a Carmen Sandiego or Reader Rabbit or Sing, Spell, Read and Write day. Think fast and find something parallel.

Relationships are everything. You’ve always done pretty well with kids, but you should work on building relationships with the other teachers. Genuine relationships … you may not have much in common, but the school is its own community, and you are a part of it. Also, your position is new at the school, and getting to know the teachers will help them understand what exactly you do. And you never know … they might also be able to help you with some things.


Reflection Is Important

Sheila Wilson has over three decades working as a classroom teacher, administrator, and adjunct professor. She is the owner and learning architect of AmplifyED Educational Consulting, providing support to doctoral students, educators, organizations, and families. Follow her on Twitter @wilson1sheila:

The role of teacher is one of the most rewarding yet can unfortunately be simultaneously emotionally exhaustive. As a new teacher, I entered my first year with such passion and a desire to change little lives and I have never looked back! Today, teaching has become even more challenging. If I could journey back in time, I believe these two practices that I’ve come to learn along the way would have been very powerful to my first-year teacher self.

First, prioritize self-care because you can’t pour from an empty cup! As the airline steward would say, put your oxygen maskon before attempting to help others. Anyone who is truly led to serve as a teacher, I believe, wants what’s best for their students. However, that often comes at a personal cost. Working beyond contracted hours, purchasing supplies and resources with your own funds, and bringing home schoolwork to prepare for the next day are just a few examples. Therefore, I’d tell my first-year teacher self that I have to first take care of my needs and maintain a proper work/life balance.

This would look like prioritizing my interests, not feeling guilty about taking time for myself and my family, and realizing that I should not let my professional life consume my personal life. Remember, the practices you put in place as you begin your career will lay the foundation for how you will proceed through the years … in other words, how you start is how you finish!

Second, make reflection a consistent practice. Have you ever heard the phase that Rome wasn’t built in a day. No matter how much you achieve, it is human nature to feel like you could do more. I have learned through experience that we don’t often stop to see what we have really done and the impact we have really made each day. I would remind the first-year me to stop often and be self-reflective by celebrating the small victories and triumphs along the way.

As part of my practice, I’d take time each day to reflect on the day’s lessons thinking what went well and what I could have done differently to make the lesson better. This process allows you to honestly examine your practice with the aim to refine your instructional capacity, create dynamic experiences for students that transform learning, and build relationships that ensure that your students will never forget how you made them feel. The practice of intentional reflection takes discipline and is critical to your ongoing growth as a person and educator.

While the teaching profession is one of service to others, as educators, we must also sow into ourselves and our social-emotional health. In the hustle and bustle of all we have to accomplish each day, we must slow down to reenergize, reset, and reflect. Utilizing these types of practices helps us to understand our value and lead to less teacher burnout and greater job satisfaction.


Ask Questions

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 17 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog www.TeachingElementaryMLLs.weebly.com:

The first year as a teacher is overwhelming because aside from facilitating lessons daily teachers have to understand the content, learn the curriculum, prepare lessons, get to know the campus culture, communicate with parents, keep up with documentation of student progress, attend faculty meetings, and take on other numerous duties.

As a first-year teacher, I hesitated to ask questions because there was so much going on and I was trying to figure things out. I would tell my first-year teacher self to request a daily or weekly time with a team member, campus coach, or mentor to seek clarification about what was going on on campus. These short check-ins would allow my first-year teacher self to prioritize tasks and plan ahead with enough time to avoid becoming overwhelmed. It is important to determine the nonnegotiable that must be completed and what would be nice to do but not required.

I would also advise against trying to do and implement everything during the first year. When listening to veteran colleagues or visiting their classrooms, it can seem that there are numerous things missing in your own classroom and instruction. It is important not to put extra pressure on yourself and not try to clone other classrooms. It takes time to figure out what works and doesn’t work.

While attending professional learning sessions, it is important to filter what can be done during that first year and what can be used later. Handouts and notes can be saved until you are ready to analyze the information. It is important to take the time to celebrate! Find something that went well each week and acknowledge that accomplishment. Not only will this celebration provide a sense of pride and joy, but it will help you remember to repeat those successful actions. A recommendation would also be to reflect at the end of the school year and determine what needs to be continued, stopped, or adjusted. Once the goals for the upcoming school year have been determined, then reasonable actionable steps should be planned.


‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’

Ixchell Reyes is an ESOL instructor and teacher trainer. You can find her co-hosting the DIESOL podcast or running at the gym on her free time:

There are so many things new teachers worry about the first three years. First, we are excited to have our own class and we quickly realize there is a lot to manage and balance. Hours of working outside of class are typical at the beginning. Not knowing how to minimize the amount of time grading and developing effective lessons can be quite overwhelming. After 12 years of teaching, if I could go back in time and give myself some pearls of wisdom, I would tell myself three things:

  • Adopt the mindset of an apprentice; you will get a chance to shine later when you have refined your craft. Right now, be gentle with yourself because the first few years are still part of the learning process, and all of the difficult first days of teaching are going to bring far more valuable lessons than the good days of teaching. Each time you feel down on yourself, reflect on how that will help shape you into a better teacher. After all, we often ask our students to do this very thing.
  • Find a colleague who will take you under their wing and show you the ropes. Not everyone may be willing to help, but there will be at least one veteran teacher who is. Even when the most seasoned teacher thinks they have everything down, there is always something new to learn or try. Teaching is a lifelong problem-solving, balancing, and growing process. One day you will be paying it forward to new teachers.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff! There is never a teaching emergency if you don’t show yourself grace on days when you’re running late, made an error on a form, forgot to print enough handouts, tech fails, a lesson goes awry, etc. Tomorrow is a new day, next week is a new week, and the next term will bring new opportunities.

Thanks to Ruth, Sheila, Cindy, and Ixchell for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.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.

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

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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.


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