“Ctrl+Z” is one of the greatest functions ever created. The ability to undo mistakes helps me, as I have a knack for accidentally deleting entire pages with a touch of my hand. Sometimes, I also need an undo button in my classroom, to alter a lesson that flopped or “delete” the way I snapped at a student. Certainly I could have used a reset button my first year of teaching, as I struggled to manage my classroom and meet my students’ needs. Now, 15 years later, I can reflect on that experience and recognize some common mistakes of first-time educators. As many of you are prepping and planning for your first classes, consider how you can avoid some of the errors I made.
It’s difficult to manage a classroom without consistency and routine, yet it takes experience to establish what works best. In the meantime, borrow from the others’ expertise. Before school starts, talk with your grade level and content area teammates. What are their classroom expectations and procedures? What routines do they establish the first week of school? How do they start and end their lessons? Once you’ve determined some strategies for managing your classroom, be sure to practice them early on with your students and use them consistently.
2. Focusing on lesson planning rather than student learning
My first year of teaching, I was desperate to keep my students busy. Prepared with work sheets on every topic, I’d lead 10 minutes of grammar instruction, followed by vocabulary work, then a class novel, and so on. This practice may have passed the time, but my lesson plans lacked purpose. Structure your class using essential standards, clearly stating the goal of each lesson, modeling tasks, and allowing time for students to practice. Then they know what they are learning, and you have evidence of their understanding. Avoid worrying about what your students will do in class, and think, “What do my kids need to learn?”
3. Grading everything
I used to feel guilty when I assigned work, knowing I wasn’t going to grade it. I also used to intimidate students with grades when they were off task. As a result, I scrambled to collect and “grade” every assignment, though usually just for completion. Eventually I learned the foolishness of my thinking. Class activities and homework assignments should be opportunities for students to learn and practice new skills. And who would want to be judged on a first attempt when learning something new? Now I grade what my students actually know or can do. For instance, my students and I may spend a few days practicing using context clues. Then I assess their ability to do so independently through a “ticket-out-the-door,” short quiz, or conference. I grade fewer papers, yet provide more meaningful scores for students and their parents.
4. Avoiding parent contact
As a beginning teacher, I was uncomfortable calling parents. I was closer in age to the teens in my room than the adults on the line, and felt like a tattling child as I stammered out my reason for calling. When you call parents, make sure you are calm and able to speak with a positive tone. Describe the strategies you’ve tried in class, and ask for suggestions. Parent contact is most beneficial when it’s clear you are all on the same side, working in the child’s best interest. Consistent parent contact is important, too, whether it be a weekly newsletter, email, or updated website. It builds your credibility and makes further interactions with parents more productive.
5. Not setting boundaries with students
We love our students and know the value of getting to know each one as individuals. However, you need to set some boundaries in the teacher-student relationship, beyond just setting your Instagram account to private. As the cool, young teacher, students may feel more comfortable around you, treating you as a confidante, but it’s important to remain professional. When a child drops by to see you, keep your door open. If they discuss personal information, such as feelings of depression or problems at home, contact a guidance counselor. Your interactions with students, in person or via email, should not be secret, and students should understand you have a duty to report sensitive information to the necessary school figures. Troubled kids may want you to be their friend, but they need you to be a responsible adult.
6. Being afraid to ask for help
When struggling as a first-year teacher, it’s tempting to hide in your room. However, helpful solutions may be right down the hall. When asking for advice from teammates, mentors, or administrators, be specific and solution-oriented. You may also seek assistance in virtual communities. Participate in educational Twitter chats, or join the Center for Teaching Quality and post a question. Know that asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re being proactive and have a willingness to improve.
7. Being afraid to speak up
Beginning teachers have much to offer their school communities, but may be hesitant to speak up among their veteran colleagues. Start your growth as a teacher-leader by actively participating in your professional learning community. Share your ideas and favorite technology tools. Gather assessment data and report what you’ve discovered. You may soon find other teachers approaching you for help! This past year, new teachers in my building led professional development sessions on setting up online classrooms and using standards-based grading.
8. Burning out
Teaching requires a lot of time and energy. Learn to set limits for yourself and prioritize your well-being. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list, schedule some fun! Add a book club meeting, workout, dinner date, or even a few extra hours of sleep to your calendar. Taking care of yourself, physically and mentally, is an accomplishment worth checking off your list.
9. Forgetting the joys of teaching
The difficult realities of teaching hit hard in your first few years. Standardized testing, paperwork, and extracurricular duties can be overwhelming. Learning to focus on the positive experiences can help you power through tough days. Remember why you chose education in the first place. What we do matters, and sometimes remembering that simple fact can make all the difference.
Ultimately, educators at every level make mistakes. While there may not be a “Ctrl+Z” function for the classroom, each morning represents a chance to start fresh, make amends, and try again. Children are resilient and incredibly forgiving. Give your students your best, and you will be amazed at what you can accomplish year after year, imperfections and all.