(This is the second post in a seven-part series. You can see Part One here.)
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?
In Part One, Ruth Okoye, Sheila Wilson, Cindy Garcia, and Ixchell Reyes kicked off this multipart series sharing reflections from veteran teachers.
Today, Meghann Seril, Anabel Gonzalez, Kelly Owens, and Joy Russell share their thoughts.
‘Find Your People’
Meghann Seril, a national-board-certified teacher, serves as a 3rd grade teacher, new teacher mentor, and Teach Plus national senior research fellow. She was selected as a 2022 Los Angeles Unified school district teacher of the year:
When I first started teaching, I had lots of ideas and hope for what I could accomplish with my students. Little did I know how challenging that first year would be. Many tears were shed. But it was also an amazing year. I will never forget my first class and how much we all grew and learned together. If I could go back and give myself some advice, this is what I wish I knew my first year.
Find your people. This job can be isolating as we spend so much time in our classrooms. It is important to find folks you can connect with. Be open to the wisdom that your colleagues can share with you. Your office manager will probably know what’s happening with the student who arrives late to class because they get to talk with the parent at drop off. I spent many afternoons with my grade-level partners, tweaking lessons and problem-solving issues.
I learned so much from veteran teachers who were kind enough to share ideas for how they might teach a lesson or support a student. Get to know your plant manager. They will be your lifeline when you forget your keys or the sink is leaking. One thing I’ve learned in the pandemic is the power of having an online community. There are many Twitter chats and Facebook groups for different interests or subjects. There’s no need to feel alone in this work. We are better and more sustainable when we work in community.
Pick one thing to focus on at a time. After my first year of teaching, I wanted to change everything up. I was ready to throw out the curriculum and bring my own personality and incorporate the students’ interests more into instruction. I had dreams of creating these fantastic integrated units that combined math and language arts with music and science. But once I started planning and looking at standards and trying to find resources, I quickly became overwhelmed with the process. I learned to focus on one initiative or idea at a time.
One year, I wanted to create a series of art projects that would expose students to the different elements and principles of art by learning about different art styles and artists from around the world. I found tons of examples online that I could adapt for my 2nd graders. I spent time creating examples for my students, which became art therapy for me.
Another year, I focused on creating math warm-up questions that my 3rd graders could use for spiral review of the math standards and practices. As we tried each one, I would make notes of what questions were useful and which prompts needed to be edited for the following year. Bit by bit, I’ve been able to tweak and improve my instruction with the new best practices and strategies I’ve learned through professional development. Everything continues to be a work in progress, but I’m inching closer and closer to becoming the teacher I want to be.
Be yourself. A piece of advice I was given by a veteran teacher during my first year was don’t smile until December. I was encouraged to wear heels to try to make my 4’9” frame more domineering. I was told, “Don’t be too personal with your students.” I felt that I needed to keep a distance between the students and myself to remain professional. Nowadays, you’ll see me in Converse so I can run around with my students. I tell jokes often, and sometimes the students even laugh! My students know that my husband likes chocolate chip cookies and that I run half-marathons and marathons. To create a supportive and affirming classroom community, I want my students to share about themselves and their experiences. This means I need to be a model for my students. Learning is personal, and I want my students to be able to connect with the content and also with each other.
‘One Size Does Not Fit All’
Anabel Gonzalez is currently serving as a career and technical education instructional facilitator with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina:
If I only knew then what I know now. Famous last words.
That first year was almost a blur. I embarked on my teaching career in the fall of 1996 as a lateral-entry business education teacher soon after my husband and I relocated from South Florida to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I had previously worked as an account representative for a health-insurance company and had not stepped foot in a classroom since I graduated from high school. While I was hoping to enter a similar role, I decided I would substitute teach to get plugged into the community until I landed a permanent job in the insurance field. What I thought was a temporary job ended up being my calling.
Because I came in midyear, I wasn’t assigned an official mentor until my second year. Thankfully, there were a few angels in the building that helped me survive as I was flying off the seat of my pants during the first couple of months. Reflecting back, because I drew from my corporate experience and regularly presented to large groups, I was comfortable presenting to my new “clients.” I actually thrived that first year, but nonetheless, if it wasn’t for my unofficial mentors, I’m not sure I would have lived to tell this story.
As I think back to that adventurous year, this is what I would tell my first-year teacher self:
- One size does not fit all. Differentiation may appear monumental, but it’s crucial to ensuring that all students learn and it’s really very doable. School is not about curriculum, it’s about students. It’s more than fair to modify a strategy, assignment, or even deadlines. For some students, differentiation is required by an IEP or other learning plan, but you may find that others simply need a little grace. So long as students are meeting the learning targets, it’s important to remain flexible. In doing so, you will find that you are not only capturing their minds but also their hearts.
- A.S.K. (Always Seek Knowledge). Listen more than speak and ask lots and lots of questions. Fellow teachers may seem busy, but we all remember that first year, and most will lend a hand. Yet, if you don’t ask, they may not realize you need help. Students are also a good resource. While they may seem uninterested in talking to their teachers, give them a listening ear, and they will tell you all you need to know (and often more than you want to hear). It’s imperative that you know your students, so you best know how to reach them.
- Students are more than a score. When students don’t submit work, find out why before entering a zero in the grade book. Chances are they need help and are too afraid to ask. What may appear as laziness or apathy may actually be a cry for help. Our mission is to empower young people and prepare them for a lifetime of learning and growing. We are so much more than grade givers.
- View mistakes as stepping stones—not as stumbling blocks. Remember that failure is not an end but merely a beginning. We are all works in progress. And don’t be afraid to share this message with students. They really need to hear it, especially at the secondary level.
Teaching is hard work, and we often feel unappreciated. But take heart; we are making a difference in every single student. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.”
‘Ask for Observations’
Kelly Owens is a literacy interventionist who is a past teacher of the year. She enjoys sparking educators’ professional reflections via her contributions to MiddleWeb, The King School Series (Townsend Press), and Emmy Award-winning Classroom Close-up NJ:
Dear Twenty-Something Self,
Inspired teachers motivate inspired students. Make learning a habit with these 20-20 hindsight hints.
Ask for Observations
Your classroom has a revolving door with every administrator flying in to observe you. Turn the tables and be the observer yourself!
Teachers teach in a bubble—a classroom. Although lunchroom chatter, education blogs, and conferences offer professional interactions, you also need to see others perform their craft with students. Develop your teaching repertoire of tools, tactics, and techniques through peer observation.
In addition to novice teacher peer-mentor programs, seek out additional teachers in other grades and/or subject areas to observe. Seeing best practices in action will lead you to be more self-reflective of your own teaching and help build your teaching toolbox.
My teaching repertoire and philosophies are a unique patchwork quilt I’ve stitched together over time by observing and sharing with other educators. (And it’s still growing!) Don’t forget to swap and share your “new” stuff during peer-observation conversations. Schools need a balance of both. Stepping into a student’s shoes is key to growing and improving your teaching. Never stop!
Use an 80-20 Rule
Teaching is about balance. Manage your work-life balance so you don’t burn out. Also, foster a communication balance between teacher talk and student communication. If your instructional design follows an I Do, We Do, You Do structure to scaffold students toward independence and ownership of their learning, students will have more time to immerse themselves in concepts (hence the 80), and less time will be dedicated to spotlighting the teacher in whole-class teaching.
A well-planned lesson incorporates explicit teacher instruction and modeling to the large group, but the majority of class allows students to practice concepts, apply learning, self-reflect, and question. During student-engagement time, continue instructing through reteaching, reviewing, and enriching in individual and small groups. Students need hands-on, minds-on explorations paired with opportunities to communicate their understandings. Partner turn-and-talks, choral responses, reciprocal teaching, and group activities are parts of language-rich, student-centered environments.
A recent tennis lesson showed me what good teaching looks like, no matter what the subject. The pro began by briefly instructing and modeling proper and improper strokes. Then, as we practiced drills, she offered individual help based on our needs. Finally, we used our skills in practice games. My racket was in hand most of the class, and I was actively playing tennis. Learning by doing!
No, I’m not suggesting you join the comic-club circuit. (Although a couple corny jokes in your back pocket can’t hurt.) By improv, I mean improvising and thinking fast on your feet. Be prepared to act spontaneously and turn uh-oh moments into teachable moments.
Teaching stays fresh because no two days are alike. Unexpected occurrences—both good and bad—pop up all the time. Fire alarms sound at the most inopportune moments. Office staff broadcast a marathon of announcements. Temperamental technology pulls the plug on your craftiest lessons. All sorts of unplanned events will force you to go off-script: forgotten school supplies, off-task behavior, concepts that don’t resonate, concepts quickly mastered, deep questions students deserve to have answered. When a lesson hits a speed bump or complete roadblock, reach into your toolbox of teaching strategies and do a 180.
First, study the situation to determine what is needed. How can you most effectively right the ship to achieve the learning goal? Do you need to shorten or lengthen a lesson? Is there extra unplanned time you want to use productively? After you sense what is needed, you’ll be prepared to spring into action.
My mother taught me to expect the unexpected. Be proactive and anticipate hiccups. Have a teaching-strategy toolbox ready to rescue. For example, tear scrap paper and ask students a quick question to gauge understanding. Voila! An unplanned formative assessment informs the rest of your lesson. When crickets dominate a discussion, grab dry-erase boards so students can visibly show their thinking. Yank out a brainteaser book for those extra minutes at the end of class. Go with the flow and turn lemons into lemonade. Keep teaching tricks up your sleeve to turn uh-oh moments into aha inspirations!
‘Learning by Doing’
Joy Russell began her career as a private banker in South Africa and Sydney. She has since dedicated her professional career to teaching and is an advocate for youth empowerment through education in Northern Tasmania, Australia. Joy currently serves as the coordinator for year 11 and 12 at Scotch Oakburn College and teaches economics, business studies, and humanities in the senior school:
I began teaching after working in the corporate world of banking for 17 years. While a lot of my learning from banking was very valuable in the classroom (e.g., Excel and how to write professional emails), I wished I had some additional wisdom. I share my top 3 tips here and I still use them daily:
1. Connecting with children and building relationships is more important than teaching content. Students want to know that you care and that they matter in the class, school, and the world. Build a rapport by:
* Learning their names and using everyone’s name each lesson. I found that having the roll in front of me with a photo of the child helped because when I forgot their name, I could refer to the list. Read more for additional ideas that helped me.
* Make easy conversation with students; for instance, ask what they ate for breakfast, then, when you next talk about breakfast, show you remembered what they told you.
2. Take it easy on yourself. You don’t have to be the hardest-working person in the class. It is too exhausting to maintain intense effort every class, every day. Have a little fun, enjoy the students, and laugh with them. I sometimes run a mindfulness session to calm and relax a room. I energize a room by doing a Sally squat challenge, which is a three-minute movement session that is heaps of fun for all ages. Alternatively, a class “just dance,” a music rhythm game where players mimic the motions of an on-screen dancer’s choreography for a selected song. Taking it easy motivates learning—without the hard work.
3. Get students learning by doing activities. You don’t need to be talking and teaching for long periods. This approach takes the focus off you, the teacher, and puts it onto students’ learning. Be bold and brave with fresh, interesting activities. For instance, after giving a brief introduction on a topic, ask students to create slogans, crosswords, or wall art summarizing the key features of the topic in pairs or groups of three. Alternatively, have students create acronyms on key areas. This is especially engaging since students use acronyms frequently in their online conversations (e.g., LOL and BTW). Creating acronyms helps students to make meaning of their learning, in addition to building memory capacity. A word of caution though … avoid letting students go online to find an acronym to solve this for them. That would defeat the purpose of students making their own meaning of the topic and, of course, prevents them from actively doing the learning.
Thanks to Meghann, Anabel, Kelly, and Joy for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.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.
- It Was Another Busy School Year. What Resonated for You?
- How to Best Address Race and Racism in the Classroom
- Schools Just Let Out, But What Are the Best Ways to Begin the Coming Year?
- Classroom Management Starts With Student Engagement
- Teacher Takeaways From the Pandemic: What’s Worked? What Hasn’t?
- The School Year Has Ended. What Are Some Lessons to Close Out Next Year?
- Student Motivation and Social-Emotional Learning Present Challenges. Here’s How to Help
- How to Challenge Normative Gender Culture to Support All Students
- What Students Like (and Don’t Like) About School
- Technology Is the Tool, Not the Teacher
- How to Make Parent Engagement Meaningful
- Teaching Social Studies Isn’t for the Faint of Heart
- Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Need to Be a Heavy Lift
- How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
- 10 Strategies for Reaching English-Learners
- 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
- 10 Teacher-Proofed Strategies for Improving Math Instruction
- Give Students a Role in Their Education
- Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
- How to Meet the Challenges of Teaching Science
- If I’d Only Known. Veteran Teachers Offer Advice for Beginners
- Writing Well Means Rewriting, Rewriting, Rewriting
- Christopher Emdin, Gholdy Muhammad, and More Education Authors Offer Insights to the Field
- How to Build Inclusive Classrooms
- What Science Can Teach Us About Learning
- The Best Ways for Administrators to Demonstrate Leadership
- Listen Up: Give Teachers a Voice in What Happens in Their Schools
- 10 Ways to Build a Healthier Classroom
- Educators Weigh In on Implementing the Common Core, Even Now
- What’s the Best Professional-Development Advice? Teachers and Students Have Their Say
- Plenty of Instructional Strategies Are Out There. Here’s What Works Best for Your Students
- How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Classroom
- Looking for Ways to Organize Your Classroom? Try Out These Tips
- Want Insight Into Schooling? Here’s Advice From Some Top Experts
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.