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18 Tips for New Teachers

This post as originally written for a Huffington Post article in 2014.

In late August, the pleasure of summer relaxation begins to overlap with the excitement of a new school year. It’s a wonderful time to be a teacher. While trying to catch my last wave or last fish of the summer, I begin a mental routine that energizes me and prepares me for the next ten months of teaching and learning. Part of this routine involves a series of affirmations I use to update and re-familiarize myself with my teaching philosophies and techniques. This year, I’ve combined my affirmations with a few practical tips that I believe will help those new to teaching — or veteran teachers for that matter — prepare philosophically and practically for a successful school year. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Actively seek out advice and guidance from veteran teachers. Listen to them and trust them. You’ll find that the knowledge you acquired in your pre-teaching coursework is rapidly trumped by front-line classroom experience. Keep in mind that the best mentor for you doesn’t necessarily need to teach in your department. Make sure that your are asking questions more frequently than you are offering opinions. But at the same time...

2. Be confident and share your ideas with colleagues. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to bring to the table—quite the opposite, actually; a fresh mind can invigorate a curriculum. Your colleagues ought to be just as eager to learn from you as you are to learn from them.

3. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” — Often attributed to Teddy Roosevelt. When it comes to engaging your students, showing them how much you care about your subject is not nearly as important as showing them how much you care about them.

4. Create a Twitter account to be used exclusively for professional development. Get involved in the weekly new teachers’ Twitter chat (Wednesdays at 8PM EST), and find the hashtags that are pertinent to your subject or interests (like EdTech, STEM, Mobile or Project-Based Learning, and much more). Follow like-minded educators who will be eager to share their expertise, resources, and advice. You’ll be surprised how rich a personal learning network founded upon 140-character snippets can be. (A schedule of education-themed weekly Twitter chats can be found here.)

5. Seize teachable moments, even if doing so requires that you deviate from your lesson plan. Doing so will be engaging and rewarding for your students, and unwaveringly following a standardized test-driven curriculum isn’t why you became a teacher in the first place. (Note 1: Learn to recognize the difference between a truly teachable moment and a simple diversion. You’ll get better at differentiating between the two quickly. Note 2: If your supervisors aren’t supportive of this practice, it’s probably not the kind of place you’d want to work at anyway.)

6. “The only time you need to worry about what’s in your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough.” — Louis C.K. Your non-teacher friends are going to make significantly more money than you. Refuse to measure your happiness or success in dollars. Take comfort in knowing what Dan Meyer states best: many of your friends will worry that their jobs don’t really matter to anybody except the family they feed. As a teacher, you will never share this worry. You’ll never have to worry that you’re insignificant to other people.

7. Grading student work is a lot more pleasant when you’re blasting death metal at a dangerously high volume.

8. Check out Socrative and/or PearDeck. These tools replace expensive student response systems (aka “clickers“) with free web-based services that students can access from their phones or any other web-enabled device. Lots of research supports the pedagogical benefits of utilizing peer instruction techniques that are facilitated by student response systems—and now you can take advantage for free.

9. At some point, one or more students will claim that you are being unfair. Clarify to them that fair and equal are not synonyms. Treating students equally means every student gets the same thing. Treating students fairly means every student gets what they need. Fair is better.

10. When a student seems to be intentionally making your life miserable, don’t hold it against him or her. Students are teenagers; such behavior is normal. Instead, assume that karma has cycled back around, restoring cosmic balance for all of the teachers you tortured as a youngster. (Sorry Mrs. Wehle!)

11. Abstain from giving out candy or food as either an incentive or a reward. Motivating students this way will be unhealthy for both the mind and the body, will steadily lose its efficacy, and will ultimately break the bank.

12. “Don’t believe the hype.” —Public Enemy. Before becoming smitten with a flashy educational technology and quickly implementing it in your classroom, ask yourself the following two questions: “How does this technology improve teaching and learning over the methods I would use without it?” and “How do the drawbacks of this technology compare to the benefits it provides?” If you’re not satisfied with either of the answers, discard the technology.

13. Energy is contagious. Athletes get fired up for games, stage actors get fired up for performances, and you should get fired up for class. Again, I recommend death metal.

14. Even if you teach in a well-to-do district, many of your students will live lives much tougher than you lived as a teenager. Don’t be offended if they didn’t do your homework — if you had just been evicted, homework would be a low priority for you too. These students need your support the most.

15. Veteran teacher Peter Greene says the hardest part of teaching is contending with the fact that there will never be enough time, resources, or you. Balancing the needs of your students, the demands of your administrators, and your obligations to your loved ones will always be challenging, often be heartbreaking, and sometimes be impossible. Strive for balance. Refuse to let imbalance discourage you. Take care of yourself.

16. Don’t panic about all of the accommodations listed in that stack of IEP’s (individual education plans) you just got. You’ll find that about 90% of the accommodations—“present concepts in multiple ways,” “provide time to respond,” “clarify directions,” “cue the student as needed”—are common best-teaching practices that you’ll naturally strive to provide for all of your students.

17. Check out Remind (formerly Remind101.) This free teacher-to-student text messaging service allows you to give your students timely reminders or updates. Applied creatively, Remind has the potential to extend learning beyond the confines of the classroom walls and school day.

18. Never pass up a chance for a Friday afternoon beer with colleagues. These opportunities will be both educational and cathartic. It is said that true friendship is forged through shared traumatic experience. Thus I recommend that you seek out the dingiest dive bar possible in order to form the strongest interdepartmental bonds.

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