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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

Teachers: Give Yourself a Break. Don’t Expect Perfection, Especially in Your First Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 05, 2023 12 min read
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(This is the seventh post in an eight-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, and Part Six 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.

Today, Cindi Rigsbee, Ashley Kearney, Andrew Sharos, and Kathryn Welby reflect on their experiences.

‘Relationships’

Cindi Rigsbee is a middle school language arts teacher who has also worked as a literacy coach and a teacher trainer in North Carolina. She is national-board-certified in the area of English/language arts and was the North Carolina Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009. Her book, Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, details her journey from beginning teacher to veteran.

My first year teaching was rough, as in I-resigned-at-the-end-of-the-year rough. It was 1979. There were no beginning-teacher programs, no mentors; instead, I walked out of college and into my own classroom where it was expected that I perform as well as the 30-year veteran next door. I had six different preparations—various grades and levels of high school English (9-12, standard, college prep, gifted, etc.)—and one drama class. I told the principal I had never even been in a play, but he said, “You’re an English teacher. That’s Shakespeare. You can do it.” Then he told me I would produce the spring musical. I also was the cheerleading coach, drama club sponsor, and pep club sponsor. I arrived at the school at 6:30 a.m. most daysand left many nights at 11.

At the end of the year, the principal told me that enrollment was down, and since I was the last one hired, I’d be moving to another school. I couldn’t imagine starting over. So instead I resigned. Not only did I resign from the district, I also pulled my retirement money and closed the door on ever teaching again. I was tired and I felt like a failure.

I always say whatever called me to teaching in the first place called me back. I was out for seven years while I had small children, but I returned, first as a substitute and then back in my own classroom. That year was rough, too; after all, it was basically another first year teaching. But I was older and wiser, I knew a little more about child development (having had my own kids), and I wasn’t going to quit this time.

Here I am, over 30 years later, with plenty to say to that 22-year-old from 1979.

Once I figured out that teaching is about relationships, my mantra to beginning teachers became, “If you make them the enemy, you will lose.” I made that first group of high school students my enemy that year, and every day was a battle I was just trying to survive. But when I returned to teaching, I had a different perspective. I realized that my students were all someone’s children and I started looking at them in a different way. Even if they caused a problem—not turning in work, coming to class late, disrupting—I would work to support them instead of fighting against them.

It was an epiphany! My students were actually human people who weren’t perfect but who were funny and lovable and worth my time and energy. I realized it was OK to actually like them. Soon I was looking forward to seeing them come through the door. My class was my family, and my goal was that we all treat each other with kindness and respect. I made it my goal to be the teacher who made a difference in the lives of my students. That remains my goal … every day.

As I look back over the years, it’s the relationships that rise to the surface of my memory, not the hard times, the stress, the long days. When I think of my accomplishments along the way, I see children’s faces, each of them representing a part of my growth as a teacher, each of them contributing to the teacher, and person, I have become.

I would like to tell my first-year teacher self to persevere. There will be additional tough years, but there will also be amazing years that will mean everything to a 30-year veteran looking back. And in the end, it will all be worth it.

iwouldliketocindy

‘Leaning Into a Little Chaos’

Ashley Kearney is an award-winning educator focusing on systemic changes that can support the whole child:

One thing I would tell my first-year teacher self is:

Silence is not golden. As a first-year math teacher, class management was heavily emphasized, and it was extremely clear that losing control of the class was a fear for even veterans. As a result, we often interpreted silence as students listening and being engaged. Worst case, we viewed it as better than chaos.

Interrogating our views on silence is important because it can reveal the biases that we have as educators that can potentially be harmful to students. Emotion and communication are positives. Furthermore, leaning into a little chaos can go a long way with shifting math mindsets and creating space for positive math identities to be formed. Think-time is necessary. Lack of communication, especially peer to peer, is inhumane.

interrogating

‘We Should Fall in Love With the Process’

Andrew Sharos is a teacher, administrator, speaker, and author in Chicago. He wrote the Amazon-best-selling book, All 4s and 5s, which has become the road map to instructional methods and culture building for gifted and talented teachers. He also co-authored, Finding Lifelines, a book for new teachers and their mentors:

My dad, who taught for 38 years, used to tell me, “Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.” Sage advice from someone who spent their entire life in the profession. However, I think there is more to unpack as a first-year teacher.

Ultimately, I would want to reassure myself that I was going to get better with patience. Each day, I wanted to be the best teacher. I wanted to make an impact and form great relationships with kids. I wanted to help my athletes improve and win games. All of those things take a lot of time, and we shouldn’t be in a rush to see results right away. We tend to focus on results when we look at data, our own evaluations, or a win-loss record at the end of the year. But I think we should fall in love with the process. The process of improving as a teacher is fun.

If I knew or could appreciate that more as a first-year teacher, I wouldn’t have been as hard on myself for my failings and shortcomings. In hindsight, those weren’t failures but growth opportunities. There is a reason why the front windshield is a lot bigger than the rear-view mirror. If we focus on the next day and continue to improve with patience, we are able to alleviate a lot of the anxiety that comes with being a first year teacher.

iwouldnthavesharos

‘Do Not Be So Hard on Yourself’

Kathryn Welby is an associate professor of practice in special education and the director of K-12 teacher-preparation programs in the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. She is the author of Remote Learning Strategies for Students with IEPs (Routledge, 2021):

Twenty-one years ago, I was a first-year 1st grade teacher in Lawrence, Mass.—a city north of Boston. According to the most recent demographics, 94.1percent of Lawrence public schools students are considered high needs, and 89 percent are considered low income. As I reflect on my first year, I smile, thinking about all the challenges and lessons learned. I would not change a thing about my journey but would love an opportunity to tell my first-year teaching self a few pointers to make that year easier.

Here are three things I would tell my first-year teaching self and a quick explanation of why:

  • Don’t spend three hours perfecting your bulletin boards, organizing your cubby space, or creating that “flawless” lesson plan—you are wasting your time!

As a seasoned educator, I run into students I had up to 20 years ago. Not one of them has ever mentioned a memory that includes an exceptional bulletin board, a fantastic lesson plan, or the meticulous organization of the classroom. Previous students see me and recall the times I paused and got to know them, got silly with them, and took an interest in their everyday lives.

Your students will remember …

the day you went to their basketball game.

the extra time you spend before school helping them learn math concepts.

the day you had lunch together—discussing everything but schoolwork.

when you played soccer or softball with them during recess.

the evening you were the “guest appearance” during their talent show dance off.

your daily check-ins.

the stories you shared about yourself.

the personal connection you created.

Your students will remember you and the relationship you developed, how you made them feel, and the personal connection you built with them. When students know you care about them, are invested, and respect them, they want to learn from you and with you.

Developing solid relationships with students also minimizes behavior challenges. When students genuinely believe you care, they don’t want to disappoint you. There is mutual respect and connection that has developed.

I would tell my first-year teacher self to focus on investing more time on relationships and less time on perfecting lesson plans, redoing bulletin boards, and organizing the classroom. When you run into students 20 years from now, I promise you, they will not remember that “flawless” lesson plan you executed. They will remember your connection with them and how you made them feel.

  • Find a “go-to person”

You need to decide if your school-appointed mentor is your “go-to person.” The administration will likely pair you up with a mentor in your first-year teaching. Your mentor could be a great fit or that mentor could be paired with you for convenience.

If you lack connection, don’t feel comfortable, or are intimidated by your appointed mentor, follow your gut and explore the school for a go-to person. Your first year will be more meaningful and enjoyable if you seek out a person with whom you can have difficult conversations, ask questions without judgment, cry together, and share successes. Your go-to person should be your greatest cheerleader and support person.

I would tell my first-year teacher self to find a go-to person early. It will make the first year much more manageable and fun.

  • Don’t be so hard on yourself!

Your first few years of teaching will be hard and you will fail repeatedly. You will fail at classroom management, lesson execution, and organization. You will overthink something you said at a parent meeting, to a student, or in a conversation you had with an administrator. All of this is OK. You learn much more from your mistakes and failures than from the successes you will experience.

Successful educators learn, adapt, and grow in response to mistakes made, especially in their first few years. Failures help you reevaluate the lesson, the meeting, and decisions while refining your practice.

You will look back on all of these “failures” with a smile! I would tell my first-year teacher self that mistakes are OK. Failure is part of the process, and do not be so hard on yourself.

iwouldtellwelby

Thanks to Cindi, Ashley, Andrew, and Kathryn 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.

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