Standards Opinion

What I Wish I Knew As A New Teacher

By Starr Sackstein — December 31, 2014 3 min read
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At the beginning of my career, I was a hot mess; I just didn’t know it.

Although aware of the fact that I had no practical classroom experience beyond that of my formative years as a student, I still believed that if I could connect with kids, I could make them love English the way I do.

And one thing that has remained true since that time is that relationships are the most important part of teaching, not what I think I know.

I was fortunate enough to figure that out by accident.

Hours were spent trying to write the perfect lesson plans and when they didn’t go as I believed they should, I’m embarrassed to admit I’d blame the kids. Perhaps not directly, but there was an indirect ire that would be foisted upon them due to my own lack of reflection or understanding as to why the lesson went astray.

Clearly, because I spent so much time planning, there was NO way the error could be mine.

This and other mistakes were follies of my youth in education. After 13 years in the business, my perspective has changed considerably. And now, I’m not afraid to admit that there is still a lot to learn.

Here is what I wish I knew then (that I know now):

  • All kids are different and they don’t learn the same way, so expecting them all to do the same thing, all the time isn’t fair or effective. As teachers, we need to know our students well enough to offer them opportunities to show what they know in a way that is good for them.
  • Just because I came up with a creative project, doesn’t mean that it has merit. Arts and crafts are great, but there needs to be innovation in what kids are doing with higher-level thinking and problem-solving. A really good looking project doesn’t necessarily make for good learning.
  • Although kids want to be told what to do, we can’t do it. We need to provide boundaries and parameters, but we must also leave room for students to find their own way and make the learning their own. Choice is huge in education and we need to offer students more choices than we often do. Instructions can’t be too limiting. There is always more than one way to accomplish a task.
  • Deadlines are an unfair limit as not all students are able to show their learning in the same amount of time. Teachers need to be flexible when working with students with the amount of time provided to show growth and progress.
  • Grades are not a tool to be wielded and used to garner power over students, but rather an inconsistent and unreliable means of communicating learning. They should never be used as a punishment. Grades docked for kids giving in late work or bad behavior. Students need feedback, often not letters and numbers which are often subjective. We need to keep achievement and behaviors separate and not grade kids on either.
  • Standards and expectations should be transparent in the classroom always so that kids know what success criteria look like. Always backward plan from what you want kids to know at the end of a particular project/unit/learning cycle.
  • Extra credit shouldn’t be provided to bolster grades as it usually doesn’t even develop more learning.
  • Nightly homework is not necessary. There are many ways to learn and extra worksheets or hoops to jump through aren’t the best way to do that. Kids should have time to explore the world on their own time. If “homework” must be given it should be to provide more practice and it should NEVER be graded. If students are working on projects over a period of time, then they choose their own pace and the expectation of nightly work isn’t so stringent. Additionally, reading should be done, but not logged. We want to foster a love of reading, not a disdain.
  • I’m not the only expert in the room and if students are empowered to share the control, they will be more engaged in their learning.
  • Learning is messy and loud, so trying to keep kids quiet isn’t always the most effective learning environment.
  • The teacher doesn’t have to have all the answers and it is OK to say that I don’t know; in fact, it’s important for students to see that adults don’t know everything and that not knowing is an opportunity to learn more even as an adult. It models life long learning.
  • Technology is an important learning tool and not a distraction. Even though I’m not comfortable with all technology, doesn’t mean my students shouldn’t use it. We can all learn together.

I’m sure that I could continue with this list for a whole book (and I already have), but as I spend more time in the classroom, the more I realize how much things change and how important it is to embrace the changes.

What advice would you give your early career self from the current experience you have now? Please share

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