It’s hard to believe now, but the first time I formally stood in front of a classroom was also the day I stepped off an eighteen-hour flight from Detroit to Taoyuan, Taiwan. Jet-lagged and armed with exactly two words of Mandarin in my back pocket, I eventually—after many misadventures that would take a book to describe—found my way to the school for “orientation.”
Allow me to describe “orientation.” Basically, it entailed signing some paperwork, receiving five textbooks and being told by the co-director of the school, “Just have fun with the kids and you’ll do fine—oh, and your first class is in three hours.”
Three hours later, there I was…in front of twenty eleven-year-olds, doing my best to keep it together for the next hour and forty-five minutes. I survived, but it wasn’t pretty—and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty for quite some time.
I sought advice from anyone who would give it, but the most common sound bite was, “Just stay positive and have fun with the kids.” This was neither specific, nor was it very helpful.
Looking back, I know that having a copy of Roxana Elden’s book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers wouldn’t have solved all of my first-year woes, but it certainly would have put a lot of what I was going through into perspective.
Basically, Elden describes her book as the antithesis to the beloved Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Why? According to her, “new teachers need something stronger than chicken soup.” Most of us have heard our share of commonplace teaching advice, so let’s skip the sound bites and get to part I of 10 Things You Will Wish Someone Had Told You About Teaching.
A lot of the advice you get will make you feel worse—not better
You will hear lots of advice your first year. Some will be good, but you won’t necessarily be able to put it into practice right away. Some will be bad, but you won’t realize that until you have more experience. Either way, advice is likely to come from at least three different sources:
- Professional development: When done right, training sessions can be quite useful, but often they overwhelm new teachers. You may, as Elden points out, hear in one meeting that students must use “learning logs” or all is doomed. In the next meeting, though, you may hear that reading comprehension only happens when you conduct pre-reading actives with manipulatives. “What happened to learning logs?” you’ll think.
Don’t beat yourself up for not doing every last thing that begins with the words, “Research says.”
- Other teachers: Veteran teachers are often the best sources of information, but you may find that your colleagues are not able to entirely articulate their techniques. You may also find that these teachers give advice based on what they think they should be doing instead of what they are actually doing.
- Nonteachers: It seems that everyone has an opinion about education, especially people who aren’t teachers. Since you are a teacher, be prepared to hear all about what you should be doing in the classroom. You’ll probably hear a lot of “Let them know you care” or, in my case, “Try making it fun and you’ll be fine.” These folks mean well, they may even offer good advice on occasion. Don’t let them get to you.
Your classroom is your first responsibility
When you’re the new teacher on the block, it’s tempting to sign up for any opportunity that comes your way so that you can prove yourself. Here’s Elden’s two cents: “Unless you were specifically hired to run a program or coach, don’t take on other responsibilities until you have a firm grip on teaching.”
Coaching volleyball, leading after-school programs and planning class trips can be rewarding experiences—but they can turn into a nightmare when you’re still learning the essentials of teaching. Learn to walk before you run.
You can’t change everything the first year—and you shouldn’t try to
You’re coming into the school with a new set of eyes, which means that you’ll see flaws or ways of doing things that seem inefficient or unfair. Always remember that your classroom is your first responsibility. Focus your attention on becoming a better teacher, not on fighting the system.
Ask for help and accept it
New teachers often make the mistake of thinking that they have to design all of their own lesson plans, worksheets and assignments. There’s nothing wrong with designing your own resources, but you should also be open to getting ideas from other teachers. There’s a definite value in your creativity, but there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. You’ll quickly exhaust yourself.
Your students are kids, no matter how big they are
If you are an average-sized adult and you teach junior high or high school, you’re going to be working with students who are bigger, taller, and physically stronger than you are. Here are two pieces of advice: First, don’t allow your students’ size or appearance to intimidate you; second, keep your preconceptions in check and don’t allow superficialities to keep you from caring about your students.
If you found any of this advice helpful, be sure to check back this Saturday for part II!