Everybody makes mistakes, but you can learn to avoid the worst
All illustrations by Simonox
Mary Modder was student teaching in Silver Lake, Wisconsin, when the school nurses came to deliver “the talk” with her eighth-graders. She recalls that the principal said students might have questions afterward and teachers should be open and honest in their responses. So when one girl asked about contractions, Modder tried her best. She told all about her son’s birth and the necessary role of contractions.
That child listened politely and then asked again, more specifically, about the uses of isn’t, wasn’t, can’t, don’t, etc., for her language arts assignment. Modder’s mistake? Assuming too much.
All new teachers make mistakes—and not all are so funny! But keep this in mind: All experienced teachers do, too. The point is to avoid the worst and learn from those missteps you’ll inevitably make anyway. With that in mind, your more experienced colleagues have identified five of the most common missteps and offer their best advice for steering clear of them.
Taking it too personally…
Some sweetheart in the back row tells you that you’re the worst teacher he’s had in his life. Your class is BOH-ring! Like, totally irrelevant. And, half the time your assignments don’t even make sense, at all.
Now, maybe you’re a tough guy and you think, kid… you’re really pushing your luck today. Or maybe you’re a Mr. Softee and you just think, “I will not cry! I will not cry!” Either way, you can’t take the irritating things that students (or parents) say and do personally.
“With experience, you realize that taking things personally is a mistake, because not only are those things not meant to be taken personally, it will just wear you down too much if you do,” says Illinois teacher Jackie Quitter.
Consider that a student might have a legitimate beef—even if it has been offered offensively—and you may learn from it. In her “Ask the Expert,” discussion board, NEA Today’s discipline expert Kate Ortiz suggests speaking directly, privately, to that student who shouts, “I am so bored!” Say you’re interested in becoming the best teacher you can be and would like to hear his suggestions. In similar situations, Ortiz also has told students that they’re not required to “like” her class. But disruption won’t be tolerated, and they are required to do their work.
Also consider that a student’s comments or actions may reflect his problems, not yours. When a kid says he’s bored, for example, Ortiz notes that it may be because he’s actually not capable of doing the work. Sometimes students make comments because “they are hurting—not to attack you,” says Heidi Sagendorph Coffey, an alternative education teacher in New York. Same goes for parents. “You can be the best teacher ever … and you will still have parents who complain about you. A lot of times they’re having their own issues with life or the child,” says California teacher Valerie Barnes Doyel.
Her advice? “Just let it wash over you like water over a duck’s back, go on with your day, and be the best teacher you can be.”
The Superman complex
First there are the lesson plans—you need to write them. (Life’s mystery: why does it take 45 minutes to write a 30-minute lesson?) Then, there are the student papers—you need to read them, grade them. Parents must be called. Paperwork must be filled out. And then there’s the small matter of the upcoming benchmarks… So, when your assistant principal says, “We think you’d make a wonderful debate coach next semester and, oh, we’ve also got a slot for you on the school’s technology committee—and, hey, let’s just sign you up to chaperone prom, okay?” You do not say, “Hooray!”
You say, “How nice of you to think of me! But I really can’t right now.”
The truth is: You actually can’t do everything—and do it well. And, in your first few years of teaching, it might be best to concentrate your efforts on… well, teaching. “Don’t try to do it all,” warns Martha Patterson, an experienced Washington teacher. “It is okay to say no to chaperoning dances and organizing fundraisers. Remember you’ve been hired to teach.”
And forget that state college backpack that you’ve stuffed with papers to bring home each night. Teachers deserve personal lives, too. For Patterson, it works better to get to school early or often stay late, but she leaves work at work. She also reminds her new colleagues to make time for themselves—“exercise, read for fun, do a craft, hang out with friends.” Otherwise, you’re taking the straight road to resentment and burnout, she warns.
You need to associate
So you think your union is full of old people. Big mistake! You think its activities are irrelevant to your life. Another whopper! This might read a tad self-serving, but it is a real mistake for new teachers to disassociate with their Association.
For one thing, your union provides you with a community of educators, many of them more experienced than you and willing to mentor and assist a newer colleague. “I have met so many people who have offered inspiration, advice, and insight about education,” says Bridget Zick, a leader of the Young Educators of Clark County, in Las Vegas. “What could be better than getting to know people who care about kids and education just as you do?”
Many local and state Associations also offer orientations and workshops for new teachers, like the “I Can Do It!” classroom management training offered in Vermont, Colorado, Indiana, California, and other states. And, of course, you get the special deals offered by local retailers to union members. “Who doesn’t love a good deal?” asks Zick.
Also, keep in mind that your local union’s work around your salary and working conditions is important to understand. It can help you do your job better. At the same time, consider getting involved in NEA’s work to elect pro-public education candidates and shape policies like No Child Left Behind—there’s no question it makes a difference in your classroom life.
The Discipline Challenge
Figuring out classroom discipline might be harder for new teachers than navigating the Cretan labyrinth. But if you can avoid the pitfalls, you’ll find a much better reward than that bloodthirsty Minotaur.
One common misstep by new, and especially young teachers is the “I am going to be your friend and then everybody will love me and listen to me,” strategy. No, no, no, and no!
“Be friendly with your students, but they are not your friends,” warns California teacher Valerie Barnes Doyel. “You are an authority figure in the classroom and students appreciate a strong leader.”
You know what else doesn’t work? The “I’ll stand here and talk louder” strategy. When you talk louder, they talk louder. And then everybody gets a headache. But the “I’ll stand here” part is actually worse. First, you’re boring when you stand there and your kids will likely respond better to a more dynamic presence. Second, you can’t see—and stop—most misbehavior if your perspective is so limited. Try moving around your room instead, stopping to tap a paper here or circle an answer there. Stop in the back of the room to observe. But, says NEA Today’s discipline expert Ortiz, do begin your lessons in the same place every day. That will signal your students that you’re ready to teach, and they need to be ready to learn.
If your class gets increasingly chaotic, and you get increasingly desperate, no doubt you’ll turn to the Interwebs and the inevitable “I found this awesome discipline chart and if I just promise pepperoni pizza on Fridays, it’ll all be good” strategy. Ha! Actually, it probably won’t be. While many teachers do like to use group rewards for good behavior, consider that it’s hard to build a learning community if all your kids are sniping at each other about pizza. (What works better, Ortiz offers, is an unexpected reward. Like, “Everybody has been paying attention so well, I think it’s time to take a break and play a game!”) Also, it’s hard to use somebody else’s plan. What works for them and their kids might not work for you.
Sweating the small stuff
In case you didn’t catch it earlier, allow us to say it again: Everybody makes mistakes. Expecting that someday you’ll get everything just right might be the biggest mistake of all!
Listen to your own advice, suggests Dianne Cox, a middle school teacher in Kansas for 22 years. You probably have told your students, repeatedly, as Cox does, that you actually expect them to make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. (When they understand that message, you’ll find they raise their hands much more often in class, Cox predicts.)
“I tell my students we’re all human. If we didn’t make mistakes, we would be aliens,” Cox says—and the same goes for you. Relax, take a deep breath, and learn from your mistakes.
The First Days
Still wondering how to get started right?
NEA Today has oodles of teacher-tested resources on classroom discipline, setting up your classroom, and keeping
a much-needed sense of humor at nea.org/firstdays. Also check out our lists of where to find free stuff!
Photo: Isaac Brekken
Zick’s List of Mistakes
(and tips for avoiding them)
Bridget Zick, a third-year kindergarten teacher in Clark County, Nevada, compiled her own list of common new teacher errors.
Our advice: Read it, cut it out, and keep it on your fridge.
The number-one mistake is not getting to know your peers. I got so caught up in getting to know my students that I failed to get to know everyone in my hall! Now I realize that other teachers are a new educator’s greatest resource—not just for advice about school, but also for sharing recipes, thoughts on relationships, and life in general. I work with some people that I truly believe are some of my greatest role models.
When it comes to discipline, smile and everything will be okay. (Hahahaha!) Discipline does not take care of itself. You really do have to be tough those first few weeks—even in kindergarten! First gain their respect, and then capture their hearts.
Another common mistake is thinking you will have enough time. I plan, plan, plan and it always seems like there is never enough time in each day. Even on a day when everything goes amazing, I find myself thinking, “If I only had one more hour….”
More no-no’s to avoid:
Skipping lunch! You are given a lunchtime for a reason. We all are guilty of working through lunch, but you need energy for the rest of the day. Your class is depending on you, and being hungry is a distraction.
Thinking every day is going to be perfect… I don’t have bad days; some are just better than others. Those days that are not so good are what I consider character building.
Assuming parents are the enemy. Don’t be scared of parents. They are your greatest supporters, with many talents and ideas to offer. When you form positive relationships with your classroom parents, great things can happen.
Not keeping a teacher journal. Some are good and some are not so good, but memorable moments occur each day. I write about my teaching, behaviors I observe, and interactions with my students and peers. It helps me too—after all, the key to the future is learning from the past.
Not having a change of clothes at school. Yikes! This is a lesson that I learned the hard way. I wish someone had told me (especially as a kindergarten teacher) to keep an extra change of clothes and shoes at school. Live and learn!
Ignoring community connections. I think a lot of new educators feel like they need to do everything solo. Reach out to your city councilman, your county commissioner, your senator, etc. If you do, someone will likely adopt you. Last year, Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow adopted my class my very first year and was an incredible community partner to my classroom.
Giving up! It is so easy to get frustrated and feel overwhelmed. Take some time to stop and smell the roses. If you don’t, irreplaceable teaching moments just might slip by. You are doing an incredible job! You are igniting an educational fire inside children by making them think, hope, and dream every day. Who else gets to help build dreams when they go to work? When you start to feel down, look at every face in your classroom—32 kiddos smiling at me = a very successful teacher!