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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Julia Thompson: ‘First Year Teacher’s Survival Guide’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 18, 2018 11 min read
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Julia G. Thompson agreed to answer a few questions about the new fourth edition of her popular book, The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide.

Recently retired after forty years as a classroom teacher, Julia Thompson now works for the Bureau of Education and Research training educators to work successfully with challenging students.

LF: Your book seems pretty exhaustive. What process did you use to identify the key information you felt a first-year teacher would need to know?

Julia G. Thompson:

When I wrote the first edition years ago, I was prompted by an incident at school where an innocent new teacher monopolized the photocopier while completely unaware of the line of angry teachers waiting for her to finish. Like many new teachers, that teacher meant well, but was hampered by a lack of practical skills. This shortcoming makes it difficult for new teachers to accomplish even the most basic school chores without having to spend an overwhelming amount of time and effort. I decided then, and have been faithful to the decision ever since, that I would offer advice on the practical aspects of being a teacher rather than on the theoretical. For example, I offer suggestions on topics such as maximizing planning time, grading papers quickly, working well with difficult colleagues, and the other mundane but necessary aspects of a teacher’s life.

Since that long-ago first edition, I have been privileged to work with many new teachers both in my own classroom experience, as a lead mentor, though my online presence, and through the seminars I conduct for teachers. In addition to the information and skills that I know from my own experience that every teacher needs to become an effective educator, I pay careful attention to the issues that new teachers ask me about. For example, in the newest edition, there is an emphasis on classroom management and dealing with challenging students. The expansion of this topic is a direct result of the concerns about classroom discipline that new teachers have asked me about with increasing frequency since the previous edition.

Finally, I want new teachers to know that they are not alone in the struggles that they may be experiencing during their first year. To this end, I included topics that I know that many teachers struggle with such as managing paperwork, assessing mastery, creating a transparent classroom, and learning to work as part of a team within a school community. I also asked some of my colleagues to contribute encouraging words of wisdom so that new teachers can understand that others have successfully faced the same challenges that they may be experiencing and that it’s possible to have the enjoyable career that they trained for.

LF: I’d like to highlight different sections of your book, and ask you the unfair question to identify two-to-four of the most important pieces of advice in each section.

The first is on differentiated instruction. What should new (and all the rest of us) keep in mind about this crucial aspect of teaching?

Julia G. Thompson:

I am glad you called differentiation a “crucial aspect of teaching.” Differentiated instruction absolutely should happen in every classroom. Although it seems daunting at first to figure out how to manage a classroom where students may be engaged in various activities at once, with careful planning it is certainly manageable for even the most inexperienced teachers to accomplish.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that not every lesson needs to be differentiated. To be successful, start small. Offer a remediation activity or an enrichment exercise. Involve the class in an anchor activity. Set up group activities and help students learn to work in teams. Start small and carefully so that differentiation can be successful and then you can build on it as the year progresses.

It’s also important to understand that it’s just not practical to offer differentiated instruction that meets everyone’s needs every single day. The logistics of trying to do that are just not workable. Instead, offer activities that rotate students through work that appeals to different learning modalities over the course of a few days. While this will allow students to use their preferred learning styles, it will also expose them to a variety of other styles and activities that may also appeal to them.

A final component of successful differentiation is to focus on student growth instead of grades. Plenty of formative assessments and a strong emphasis on developing a growth mindset are important keys to managing differentiation successfully. Another way to help shift the emphasis away from grades is to have students self-assess several times within a unit of study. Teaching students to reflect and then self-evaluate is a productive way to help them become the self-disciplined learners we want them to be. And once students are on the path to being self-disciplined learners, then differentiation can be a successful part of your instruction procedures.

LF: Next, let’s move to “effective instruction.” What should new (and all the rest of us) keep in mind about this crucial aspect of teaching?

Julia G. Thompson:

It’s vital to keep in mind that instruction must have a clear purpose if it is going to be effective. There are plenty of engaging student activities that have no real purpose or connection to learning. Not only should each day’s work be deliberately purposeful, but students--even very young ones--should understand how they will benefit from their work. Without a clear purpose for their learning, students will just comply (or not) instead of really putting forth the effort to learn. There are many ways to make sure that students know the purpose of their work: charting their success, connecting it to prior knowledge, setting goals, or even something as simple as asking students to explain how they can use it. Making sure that students should understand the reasons for their work should be part of every lesson plan.

Effective instruction also must cover the mandated curriculum as closely as teachers are able to make that happen. Effective instructions when teachers make sure they know what they are expected to cover during the school term. Then, with a firm grasp of the big picture expectations, teachers can break down the material into smaller units of study. It is often tempting to spend too much time on a particularly intriguing topic resulting in instruction that is not balanced. When a teacher takes the time to plan first for the year and then each semester, the unit and daily plans will follow a logical sequence. There must be a progression of learning throughout the year instead of activities that may be engaging, but do not have a solid educational purpose if instruction is to be effective.

With that being said, instruction that is not engaging is not effective. Students should want to do their work. They should be curious about the material. They could feel confident that they can master the material. In the book, I included lots of information geared to help teachers engage students such as list of digital resources, planning appealing lessons, building curiosity, formative assessments, and pacing instruction so that students can build on their success.

LF: Lastly, let’s look at classroom management. What should new (and all the rest of us) keep in mind about this crucial aspect of teaching?

Julia G. Thompson:

The most important advice that I offer first-year teachers about classroom management is that the actions that make classroom management successful usually happen in advance of any sort of disruption. When teachers spend time establishing a framework of reasonable boundaries with the creation of rules, policies, and procedures, then they are well on the way to an orderly classroom. Once these are in place, then it’s easy to let that framework do the real work. Instead of having to treat each infraction as if it were a catastrophic event, all a teacher has to do is enforce a rule or remind a student of a policy or procedure. Prevention will forever be better than having to cope with the messy aftermath of a disruption.

It’s important, too, to build a solid and supportive relationship with students as soon as possible. This works because when there is a positive relationship between teacher and student, the desire to misbehave is replaced by a desire to be a productive part of the classroom environment. Once teachers get to know their students, then they can work with them as individuals. Instead of young people in desks, students become unique people with quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and fragile personalities when a teacher takes the time to build relationships.

I also think that all too frequently we focus on the effect of a misbehavior instead of the cause. This is easy to do. Once a student has broken a pencil in two, kicked a classmate, and sassed the teacher, it is tempting to just angrily shut down the behavior. While it is necessary to deal with the effects of any disruption, teachers who want to resolve a discipline issue will take the time to work with the offending student to determine the cause of the mistake. With this knowledge, then the teacher can help the student learn a better way to handle problems and move forward.

Too often, once a student has developed a pattern of misbehavior, teachers seem primed to expect the worst from that student. We telegraph our unease to that student in lots of subtle ways. Instead of this, there are two actions that can make a big difference. The first is to increase the amount of positive attention that we give everyone in the class. Replace negative commands with pleasant and upbeat comments. Smile. Convey enthusiasm, acceptance, and affection. The second is to treat students with past patterns of misbehavior as if they are valuable members of class instead of troublemakers. In a matter-of-fact manner, act with the assumption that, of course, all students will be glad to comply with your requests. This is far more likely to have a positive outcome than telegraphing your negative expectations

LF: What is your advice to veteran teachers about how we can best support new educators?

Julia G. Thompson:

Don’t hesitate! Reach out! New teachers need your help all year long! Be proactive with the new teachers at your school from the first day until the last day. Too often, new teachers are either unwilling to admit that they need help or just don’t know how to ask for advice. Make it easy for them to ask you for help when they need it. Even if a teacher is not someone you work with on a daily basis, please go out of your way to check in from time to time. Your friendly face may be the only thing that keeps that inexperienced teacher from burning out that day.

Be that someone who is willing to answer a quick question. Drop by with a new marking pen or some other little school supply item and be a good listener. Help put up a bulletin board. Be sure a new teacher has someone to sit with at lunch or in a staff meeting. Make your classroom available to them when they need to observe another teacher’s class and offer to stop by to do a snapshot observation of their classes. Be upbeat and encouraging. Just be a friendly and supportive presence. It only takes a few minutes to change a new teacher’s day from stressful to manageable.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Julia G. Thompson:

I always worry about overwhelming a new teacher with the length of the book. I handle this by taking care that each section is subdivided into smaller segments that can be read in just a few minutes. There are plenty of lists and quick bits of information throughout the book so that teachers in a hurry can grab the book, look up a topic in the table of contents or index, and quickly find the information they need. In this way, the book is structured as a resource filled with suggestions and advice instead of a cover-to-cover read. This allows me to pack it with everything a first-year teacher could possibly use.

With each edition of this book, I have wanted it to be not just comprehensive, but as up-to-date as possible. New teachers opting for a career in education today face unique challenges just as they are fortunate to enter the profession at a time when we are learning more and more about how to help students succeed. With both the challenges and benefits in mind, I wanted this edition to help teachers learn how to take charge of their own professional growth so that they can become capable and confident classroom leaders. Here are just a few of the new topics I included in this particular edition:

  • Increasing workplace productivity so that you can maintain work/life balance
  • Using digital resources to inform instruction
  • Establishing your reputation as a competent professional
  • Helping students develop a growth mindset
  • Developing positive relationships with parents or guardians
  • Building positive relationships with students
  • Creating a supportive learning community with student-to-student connections
  • Developing the leadership qualities of a teacher who is a warm demander
  • Incorporating the concepts of the whole child and social emotional learning movements
  • Establishing a calm and confident classroom authority to successfully manage discipline issues

LF: Thanks, Julia!

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