It's All About RESPECT
How to be taken seriously by your students and administrators
By Edward Graham
As a new teacher, it can seem daunting to corral a classroom of children while simultaneously trying to prove your mettle to the school’s administrators. Your education may have prepared you for the rigors of teaching, but it may not have given you adequate approaches to earn the respect that you deserve as an educator.
But take a deep breath. There’s a learning curve for new teachers, so don’t expect to be an expert the moment you set up your classroom. Know that there are steps you can take to win over your students and administrators. Always remember to be professional. Stay open to advice and constructive criticism. And know that you aren’t alone. Your fellow teachers have been down the same road, and they can share some tried and true techniques for being taken seriously as an educator.
And as you embark on your teaching career, listen to teacher Stephanie Skemp, who says, “Remember that you are no longer a student!”
Be involved, but don’t go crazy
Attending school-sponsored events is one of the best ways to show dedication. Make sure you’re visible. Show that you’re invested and that you care about the larger community.
Oregon educator Susan Elizabeth-Marsh Tanabe agrees that visibility is important. “Take tickets at games. Sell concessions with your students. Attend plays, concerts, fundraisers. Bring your date, spouse, children. Support students outside the classroom as well as inside, even those you do not teach. And smile when doing all this!”
But make sure not to fall into the perennial cheerleader role in your first year. Students and teachers can tell when you’re not being genuine. Know when to draw the line, and don’t attend events just because you want to be noticed. Having a life outside of school is important, too.
“Don’t sign up for 80 committees or after-school events,” says middle school teacher Nicole Garrio. “Visit other classrooms and keep learning.”
Act (and dress) like a professional
Teaching can and should be fun, but you should hold yourself to a professional standard in the classroom. If you keep a professional but understanding demeanor, students and administrators will quickly see that you mean business. And don’t be afraid to seek advice from colleagues and administrators. It will help you become a better teacher and will show them that you’re committed to improving yourself going forward.
“Act like a professional and you’ll be treated like one,” says fifth-grade teacher Rachel Fielhauer. “Don’t come in thinking you know it all. Learn from other teachers and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
It may seem like a no-brainer, but dressing professionally shows you want to be the teacher and not the student, and is key to setting a respectful tone for your classroom. It’s hard to be taken seriously if you are frequently unkempt or dressed to go clubbing. A small detail? Perhaps. But unprofessional attire can poison a first impression and force you to work that much harder to be taken seriously.
“Dress the part,” says Gina Frey, a veteran elementary school teacher. “If you are young and teaching middle or high school, dress professionally and older than you are. No parent or administrator should walk into the classroom and not be able to separate the teacher from the students.”
Be genuine and thoughtful
Always be genuine in your actions and words. It’s difficult to be disrespected when you create an atmosphere that’s conducive to mutual respect. When a student misbehaves, respond in a thoughtful manner that reestablishes your authority in the classroom while also showing that you care. Don’t let the student walk all over you, but also don’t impulsively let your emotions flow. Extreme or weak responses to behavioral issues can undermine your ability to teach effectively.
“Have a good sense of humor and think before you respond to a student’s misbehavior,” says high school teacher Laurie Knox. “If students know you like and understand them, they will be much more willing to work with you instead of against you. In 35 years of teaching I had only one student who remained difficult the entire year.”
And when you make a mistake in the classroom, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. You’re human, and admitting you’re wrong shows students that you can be open with them.
“A few times I reprimanded students for doing something and then later realized that I was wrong,” says Toni McGee, an eighth-grade language arts teacher. “I admitted my mistake to them, individually, and apologized. They saw that I could make mistakes too, and they were more respectful.”
How to win over administrators
Shane McAndrew taught at-risk high school students in Vermont, served as the co-president of his local Association, and worked as a conflict interventionist with the union. His training as a mediator and organizer often helped him assist colleagues through difficult situations in their own schools.
It’s important for new teachers looking to establish themselves to build a meaningful and successful working relationship with their administrators, McAndrew says.
“With any of the different stakeholder groups—parents, teachers, or administrators—the foundation is the same: building a relationship is key,” he says. “It will help you build a space where you can be collaborative, and where you can feel comfortable admitting mistakes and then problem-solving solutions.”
McAndrew shared his top three tips for creating meaningful relationships with your administrators:
1) Always be up-front and honest
McAndrew says that there’s often a disconnect between new teachers and their administrators when discussing classroom issues.
“One of the mistakes that really any teacher can make, but especially new teachers, is trying to figure out what incidences in the classroom are your fault, and what incidences happen naturally as a teacher,” he says. “I’d really suggest that teachers engage. You’ll be more successful in building professional relationships if you’re honest and up-front.”
So how does a teacher engage administrators about classroom issues? McAndrew says it is key to maintain an open line of communication with the principal. While the principal is usually there to support new teachers, it’s a teacher’s responsibility to contact the principal if they have a problem—not vice versa.
“Speak up, communicate with the people who need to know, and don’t ever cover up your mistakes,” he says.
And though it is sometimes difficult to separate what an administrator should know from common school incidents, McAndrew advises teachers to take an administrator-first approach on any issue that extends beyond the classroom.
“Chances are if you’re having issues with a student, then other teachers are experiencing the same issues as well,” he says. “Rather than hiding from the situation or being overly emotional, it’s better to articulate what happened, communicate with your administrator as soon as you possibly can about their behavior, and let them know about your approach and any interventions that you tried.”
2) Accept advice and be smart
Administrators often dole out advice to new teachers. Don’t respond defensively. Instead, work with them to flesh out what they’re saying—and then try to put it to good use.
“Know the difference between an observation and an attack,” McAndrew says. “Don’t just assume a principal is criticizing you if they’re offering advice or making a comment about your classroom. Take a step back and don’t react. Respond, but try and articulate what the administrator is saying.”
And, perhaps most importantly, try to keep documentation of all school-related communication and forge a close working relationship with your peers and building representative, according to McAndrew. Not only will it help you to be better organized and create a schoolwide network of supportive advocates, but it can also help you if any unfortunate incidents occur during the year.
“Insisting on documentation not only makes for a better administration, but it makes for better teaching,” he says.
3) Focus on improvement
“Let that be your mantra: ‘I want to improve my practice,’ ” McAndrew says.
During your first year of teaching, there will most likely be some system to evaluate your abilities in the classroom. Instead of taking a firm stance against the process, show a willingness to participate.
Work with administrators to smooth over the common bumps along the way. You’re still learning as a teacher—don’t take a stand against improving yourself. Be open to evaluations and view them as opportunities to hone your skills further. Plus, administrators will feel more comfortable working with you if you accept that you don’t know everything and are willing to open up to them about your limitations.
“New teachers should focus on their evaluation systems. I don’t know of any school or system that doesn’t have something for first-year teachers,” McAndrew says. “Embrace the opportunity to be evaluated and invite your administrator into the classroom so you can improve. Document, follow their lead, and work with them on the results. I think most teachers would be in pretty good shape.”