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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

Just Because You’re a Teacher Doesn’t Mean You Know It All

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 09, 2023 18 min read
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(This is the final post in an eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, Part Six here, and Part Seven here.)

The 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?

In Part One, Ruth Okoye, Sheila Wilson, Cindy Garcia, and Ixchell Reyes kicked 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.

In Part Two, Meghann Seril, Anabel Gonzalez, Kelly Owens, and Joy Russell shared their thoughts.

Part Three was time for Neema Avashia and Jennifer Orr to make their contributions.

In Part Four, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Ann Stiltner, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Susie Katt, Latrenda Knighten, Georgina Rivera, and John SanGiovanni contributed their answers.

In Part Five, Vivian Micolta Simmons, Kayla Towner, PJ Caposey, and Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., offered their responses.

In Part Six, Jonelle St. Aubyn, Sarah Cooper, Serena Pariser, and Julia Lindsey, Ph.D., wrote about their experiences.

In Part Seven, Cindi Rigsbee, Ashley Kearney, Andrew Sharos, and Kathryn Welby reflected on their experiences.

Today, Kiera Beddes, James Alan Oloo, Ph.D., Marci K. Harvey, Dale Ripley, Ph.D., and Stephanie Dewing, Ph.D., wrap up this series.

Don’t ‘Be Too Hard on Yourself’

Kiera Beddes has been a secondary ELA and history teacher for 10 years, and is now working as a digital teaching and learning specialist in Utah. She is part of the network leader team for the Utah Teacher Fellows and is passionate about social science, literature, and technology in education:

As is well-known, we are our own worst critics, especially as a first-year teacher. There is so much that you don’t know and even more that you know you should be doing but can never manage to find the time for it all. Still, somehow, over the years, things get easier. Looking back on 10 years as an educator, it’s encouraging to see how far I’ve come as a teacher.

However, there are some things that haven’t ever changed. Teaching is difficult in many ways, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Trying to balance relationship building, planning, classroom management, grading, and all the extracurricular requirements is mind-boggling, especially to a new teacher. Here are three things that I would tell my first-year teacher self:

  • Admit when you don’t know. I started my first-year teaching as a fresh-faced university intern. My student-teaching experience was teaching full time at a junior high school. I had a mentor teacher, but from day one, it was my own class, not a cooperating teacher’s space. From day one, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted to make everything perfect. I stayed too long. I planned too much. Regardless of all that time and effort, there is no way that any one person can attain perfection. Gradually, I learned that it is OK to say you don’t know. It’s OK to admit to human mistakes. In fact, it’s even better to do so that you can model that behavior for your students. Once I learned this lesson, I was able to relax and enjoy my time much more in the classroom. Instead of feeling like I was constantly under a microscope, I resituated myself as a learner with the rest of the class.
  • Laugh with the kids. I remember in the early days of my teaching being too uptight. I used to be terrified that something would go wrong and thought I had to be hyper-aware of every little thing. Learning to relax comes with time. Once you’ve been teaching for a while, you invariably experience more and no longer have to stress about unknown situations. During that first year, I learned that there are really two ways to respond to a problem—you can either laugh or cry about it. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of tears those first couple of years, but it is a huge relief to laugh. Plus, kids are funny! Learn to enjoy the messy process of learning and growing, in all of its ups and downs, and find space to laugh—with the kids and at yourself when need be.
  • Eat lunch in the faculty room. The temptation in the early years is to take every spare minute to “catch up” on all the things that demand a teacher’s attention. It took me a minute to learn that all that stuff will still be there, regardless, so I might as well take my lunch break to relax, connect with colleagues, and enjoy myself with other adults. Teaching can be very isolating. Eating lunch with my co-workers gave me a break from the stress of being “ON,” it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what worked that day (or what didn’t work!), and it was just a good time to connect with other adults in the building. It helps immensely to make these meaningful connections so you have a support group to lean on when you need it. These networks start in the lunchroom, connecting over the day’s events and some food. I encourage all my newer teachers to come to lunch.

Looking back on the first couple of years as a new teacher, I know it can be tempting to self-critique harshly. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. However, it doesn’t do anyone any good to be too hard on yourself. These are just a few of the things that I would tell my first-year teacher self, just simple things that help remind me why I am a teacher. As a new teacher, you are learning how to teach, how to connect with kids, how to best share the content; it’s also important to learn about yourself and what you need to stay happy, healthy, and sane.

findspacetolaugh

‘Enjoy the Teaching’

James Alan Oloo is an assistant professor of educational administration, policy, and leadership at the Faculty of Education, the University of Windsor, Canada. He can be reached at james.oloo@uwindsor.ca or Twitter: @JamesAlanOLOO:

The start of a new career is often an exciting time. For a beginning teacher, it is the time to finally transition from being a student-teacher to becoming a teacher. A time to test what you have learned, experienced, believed in, or have gut feelings about. It is normal to feel both excited and anxious. I was a first-year teacher in my native country of Kenya and, later, in my adopted home, Canada. As I look back, here are some of the things I would tell my first-year teacher self.

Relationships matter. Relationships with your students, families, colleagues, administration, staff, and content. Regarding teacher-student relationships, be proactive and intentional in reaching out and talking to your students—in the classroom and outside the classroom. Know your students and build healthy relationships with them. Know their stories, what they like, their aspirations and expectations. This will not only make your classroom a welcoming space, but it will also enhance the overall quality of the classroom environment, improve student confidence and behavior, as well as the general learning outcomes.

Effective communication with parents/guardians is crucial. As a beginning teacher, I had a challenging experience with a parent that made me fear parents. Parents know their children and want the best for them. They want to know that you value their children. Remember that some parents/guardians did not always find school welcoming for them as students and even as parents. It may have nothing to do with you, but you can make things better by regarding parents/guardians as your allies and through effective communication. For example, let parents/guardians know by word and deed that they are welcome in your classroom. Be open and prompt in your communication about the good and the not so good. Call the parent/guardian with positive news about their child. Whenever possible, avoid communicating anything negative about their child through email.

Effective classroom management is key. Many teachers—both novice and veteran—have at some point been concerned about classroom management. This goes over and above student behavior to include a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. For first-year teachers, it can be tempting to try to win students over and get them to like you. However, that is not always an effective way to manage your classroom as students may want to push the boundaries. From the beginning, set the tone for your classroom environment—a space where everyone feels acknowledged, respected, safe, held to high expectation, and supported. A place where all students can learn. Include the students in setting rules around behavior and the consequences for rule-breaking. Be fair, empathetic, and firm.

Be yourself. As teachers, we are influenced by many things (including our beliefs and experiences) and other educators. It is tempting to compare yourself with other teachers. Traits and strategies that are employed by other teachers, such as communication, instructional, and classroom-management skills, could be an effective source of learning and improvement for novice teachers. However, be yourself. Do not try to be someone else, except a better version of yourself.

Take care of yourself. Teachers give. They ensure that students are OK and are making progress. This can be exhausting. Be intentional in balancing your work and personal lives. Take time for yourself and do something you like: a hobby, exercise, time with family and friends, etc. That is, make time for self-care. This will enable you to rejuvenate, recharge, and keep burnout in check.

As a beginning teacher, remember to be kind and patient with yourself. Get any help you can get. Embrace ongoing professional development and be intentional in celebrating the seemingly small victories. They make a big difference along the way. Enjoy the teaching. It is a great profession.

donottryoloo

‘Build Your Network’

Marci K. Harvey is a renewed national-board-certified teacher at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. She teaches 9th grade integrated science and 11th/12th grade physics in the high school program at UNCSA and has been teaching for 26 years:

Teaching is hard. We have all experienced it, either when we are given a new course or as a beginning teacher. Looking back on those early years, I was lucky to have some strong mentors by my side. They provided support, mentoring, and friendships that have lasted my entire career. If I had the opportunity to tell my first-year teacher self some sage words of advice, these would be my top three.

1. Get involved and build your network. It seems impossible to find time to get involved in extra activities in education, especially when there’s grading and lesson planning to do in the evenings. But, if you are planning to make a career out of teaching, you need to be engaged in the professional work of education. Meet other teachers with experience in your courses and learn everything you can from them. Ask for lesson plans and best practices. Inquire about visiting their class or meeting them after work for dinner and a review of your newest lesson plan ideas.

Go to the district meetings to meet teachers outside your school. Join your professional organizations and attend their meetings. There, you will meet passionate educators who have a wealth of experiences and because they are already engaged, will be enthusiastic about supporting you. These people will be your tribe, and those friendships endure far beyond your work in education.

2. Volunteer and serve. Again, it takes effort to find the time, but as soon as you are eligible to serve on the school improvement team, take the opportunity. Learning about the administrative work in a school offers a completely different viewpoint than the classroom does, and it is important when you need to understand new policies and decisions that impact your classroom. And do not believe that it will not affect you because it 100 percent does! Volunteering at your school lets you interact with students in a different context. This is why we love teaching, right? It’s the students.

Play in the student/staff basketball game. Coach a sport or sell tickets at an event. Sponsor a club. Plan the prom. Students often have the most impactful memories with their teachers when they are not inside the classroom setting. You will make a difference to those you work with. Serve your entire school community, not just the students in your room each day.

3. Never stop learning. Teaching does get easier, and you will develop a great repository of lessons for your students. However, as our students change, so must we as educators. Continue to learn from others and lean on them for support when you need it. Not every day will be great, but if you learn from your mistakes and adjust to make learning more impactful for students, you are becoming more effective as an educator.

It took me a long time to accept “less than perfect” from myself, but now I recognize that I am learning along with my students and giving them control to guide their learning. Create an environment that is supportive of questions and mistakes, allowing both you and your students the opportunity to learn from them. Attend the conferences, adjust your lessons each year, and continue searching for new knowledge and techniques to inspire you as a professional educator.

meetotherteachers

Neither Parent Nor Friend

Dale Ripley, Ph.D., has taught for over 40 years at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, primarily in high-needs schools. His latest book, The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, shows teachers 58 ways to improve the negative classroom behaviors of even their most challenging students in order to increase student learning:

All right, young Mr. Ripley, teacher wannabe, listen very closely. If you expect to be good, perhaps even great, at the profession of teaching, there are three things that are essential. If you don’t have these three attributes, please, for the sake of the thousands of kids you will potentially teach, choose a different career. Otherwise, you will do some serious damage to yourself and to your future students.

First (and this is first for a reason, because without this, nothing else matters), you must truly like other people’s children. Think about this for a moment. You are choosing a career in which you are likely to spend 30-plus years working with other people’s children. Over the course of this career, you will teach thousands of kids—other people’s kids. If you don’t like other people’s kids; if you don’t find kids to be interesting, fun, and inspiring; if you don’t enjoy hanging around them listening to their views of the world and seeing them learn and grow; if you don’t enjoy their sometimes crazy sense of humor; and if you don’t feed off their energy so you can give them some energy back; get out now!

Secondly, you need to know—without any doubt whatsoever—that great teaching is hard, and it will require you to work hard if you are going to be successful every day of your career. There are no shortcuts; there is no easy street. Your students deserve and need your very best, every day. Certainly, when you learn the curriculum and you learn the myriad ways that you can work with kids in the classroom, those aspects of teaching do become somewhat easier. But there are always curriculum changes you will need to learn; there are always kids who will be challenging to teach; and there will always be assessments to grade and lessons to prepare. To do this well will require an ethic of continuous improvement on your part. You must learn to strive for progress, not perfection, throughout your entire career. Lazy simply will not cut it. So if you are looking for easy, get out now!

The third thing you need to know applies to all the students you may teach, but it is especially important if you are teaching older students. You are not their parent. While you may at times find yourself taking on a quasi-parental role—such as providing your students with food, clothes, money, wise counsel, and a shoulder to cry on—there are limits to how far you can go down these paths. There is a line between being their teacher and being their parent. You need to see it and not step over it.

As well, you need to know that neither are you their friend. Many teachers—in particular young teachers—make this mistake, especially with students at the secondary level. These teachers are often not that much older than the students they are teaching, and they feel they know their students really well—their students’ likes and dislikes, what’s in and what’s out, what’s cool and what’s not. Because of this, these teachers often fall into the trap of seeing themselves as an older “friend” of their students. But you are not their friend. There will be occasions when you will have to do things to your students that friends simply don’t do to friends.

You will have to discipline them, you will have to hold them accountable for their actions, you will have to assess their work, and, at times, this may lead to them failing your course. You will have to hold them accountable for the way they treat their classmates. Racist, sexist, or bullying behaviors cannot be accepted, and you will have to deal with these if they occur. Their friends rarely do this. You must do this all the time!

And so, young Mr. Ripley, ask yourself: Do you have these three qualities, in abundance? If you do, you have a strong foundation upon which you can build a career as a great teacher, and thousands of students will benefit from having you as their teacher. If you don’t, I implore you to get out of teaching now.

youmustrulylike

‘Find The Joy’

Stephanie Dewing, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She has been a Spanish and English as a second language/English-language-development teacher and teacher educator for nearly 25 years:

Dear Stephanie of 1998,

Happy first day of teaching! I want to tell you not to give up. I know you are scared, nervous, and questioning if you can do this. I know your heart is pounding and your palms are sweaty. You are even wondering why someone gave you your own classroom with such little training. People stare at you because you couldn’t possibly be old enough to be a teacher. One day, you will miss that. :)

You will have funny stories to share about your epic failures, such as bombed lesson plans and walking out on your own class (that’s a story for another day), and how it all turned out OK. You will laugh and cry. You will be so frustrated some days that you will want to give up, but don’t. Because there will be other days that your heart will burst with joy, love, and pride. You will change lives. And don’t listen to the cranky teachers who give you a hard time for being happy or “too nice.” Be you. Be genuine and true to yourself. Be the best YOU you can be, not anyone else.

Your students will appreciate that smile you give them before winter break, even though you were warned not to do it. You will have so many wonderful experiences and work with so many INCREDIBLE students, especially those newcomers that will forever impact your life in a positive way, that you will look back on this day and know in your heart that there is no place else you would rather, or should rather, be. Enjoy the journey! You’ve got this!

With love,

Stephanie of 2023

3 key takeaways:

  • Don’t give up.
  • Be genuine and true to yourself.
  • Find the joy in teaching.

Why is this important?

  • This is the most important profession in the world. And your students need you!
youwillhavefunnystories

Thanks to Kiera, James, Marci, Dale, and Stephanie 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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