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Stuff You Missed In Class

Veteran educators reveal secrets to success

After lots of studying and hard work, you have become—or you are on your way to becoming—a full-time teacher.  You will maintain a class and
curriculum of your very own, and you will educate the minds that will build the future. 

No small task, but you’ve prepared by checking off all the appropriate boxes. Paper? Check! Rulers? Check! #2 pencils, and those Expo markers every teacher swears by? Check and check!

For a moment, though, put your checklists aside. Take some time to read words of advice from your veteran counterparts. Together, they have decades of classroom experience that will serve you well as you begin this journey of educating young people, and if they have one message in common, it is this: Your learning will never end! 

Set the Stage for an Amazing School Year

Laura Jones is a literacy coach at Mission Oak High School in California. She mentors all new English teachers. Kelli Whisenhunt is a gifted and talented specialist teacher in the Denton Education Association elementary school system in Texas. Nearby, Michael Proscelle conducts his classroom like a pro in San Antonio. And before joining the NEA headquarters staff in September, Michael Hairston spent 31 years teaching music in Virginia.

When it comes to conducting a classroom with ease and purpose, these teachers are pros. Here’s what they’ve got to say about everything from grading tips to creating a positive classroom climate. Their techniques are sure to help you create a classroom that flows smoothly. 

Let’s start with the first day of school. Jones suggests using a randomized seating arrangement to break the ice. 

She explains, “We have six feeder schools to our high school. Many of our kids don’t know one another on Day One and tend to clique with their eighth-grade buddies.” Her remedy? Two decks of cards.

Jones tapes one card from one deck to each desk. One card from the second deck is distributed to each student as they come in. Students must match the card in their hand to the desk with the corresponding card. 

After everyone has found their match and gotten settled, Jones moves the class into what she calls the “something” interview. Students discuss with their neighbor five things: something everyone knows about me, something most people know about me, something few people know about me, something a select few know about me, and something no one knows about me. 

“This breaks down barriers, gets the kids thinking about how people perceive them and gives many of us the few laughs we need to break the tension of the first day of school,” she says. 

Hairston says that when he was in the classroom he tried to set the right tone from the beginning by filling his classroom with the rousing tunes of John Philip Sousa. He also made it his goal to memorize each name and face. Hairston believes all teachers should reach for that goal, because it helps an educator build their relationship with students.

Hairston’s method was to photograph his students as soon as possible. Then, he says, he would “study their names at home until I [knew] all 270 of them.” 

Balance Day-to-Day Responsibilities

As the days and weeks turn into months, gifted and talented specialist Whisenhunt has advice on how to survive the daily grind of grading. 

“Connecting with my students and calling them by name on the first day is essential.... Then, there is my student numbering system. It is a lifesaver,” she says. 

A lifesaver that cuts down on the amount of time spent sorting papers and entering them into the gradebook. 

Whisenhunt assigns each student a number at the start of the school year to correspond with their place in the alphabet. The number also corresponds to their place in the grade book. As students hand in papers, Whisenhunt calls out their number. The hope is that the students will eventually just know when to come up and hand them in because they are so used to the number system. 

“Once I have the papers in order, they are easy to record into the grade book. I just flip through, and the work of recording the grades is done,” she explains. 

Of course, she explains, the number system is for managerial purposes only. Whisenhunt also places a huge emphasis on acknowledging each student for their unique personalities. Along her classroom walls she has bulletin boards that display her students’ pictures.

“As I hang each photo, I am reminded of the name of each person I am fortunate to have in my class,” she says. 

Texas teacher Michael Proscelle advises teachers to set long-term goals, and keep them in mind during daily planning. He also tries to avoid interrupting students while they’re on task. Proscelle encourages new teachers to emphasize classroom climate by asking themselves questions like these: What do I want my desk and surroundings to say about me? How do I want students to turn in work? How clean must my classroom be, or is a spontaneous look okay? These simple aesthetic questions, Proscelle says, can direct an educator toward bigger meanings, and will help to create a positive climate. They also allow an educator to meet this critical goal: the creation of an environment where students become the greatest resource. 

“While I might be the one who plans lessons, it helps classroom efficiency when I can get input from students about what lessons are working as I planned and which ones failed to take hold,” Proscelle says.

He hopes that this two-way approach to communication will encourage students to think critically about the work they’re doing and how certain lessons, techniques, or methods may work better than others. He hopes they know they have a stake in classroom efficiency. 

“My students might be only fourth graders, but when I invite their input, they often astonish me with their fresh ideas and insights.” 

Find Work-Life Balance

If no teacher has told you yet, your well-being is critical to running a successful classroom. Good mental and physical health are two keys that will help your classroom run smoothly.

So take care of yourself! Use weekends to move your mind away from classroom worries so that you can replenish your stocks of patience, creativity, and teaching ability. 

At school, know your boundaries and set limits. Healthy, energized, and optimistic teachers make great leaders for their students. And they’re equipped to make a difference on behalf of their colleagues. 

Just look at Lorna Stower, who received the Illinois Education Association Region 5 Outstanding Teacher Award. Stower combined her English teacher background with her classroom organizational skills to help organize an anti-bullying program. She also established a student talent show that fundraised for students of low-income backgrounds, and Give Back Day, where over 200 students volunteered to spend a day doing community service activities, like cleaning their town’s streets, painting buildings, and planting flowers.

Or consider the advice of Paula Reed who teaches English at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. She combined her teaching skills with 17 years of experience as a debate coach and became an advocate who helped lead a 2015 effort that defeated three school board members. Their efforts whose work to censor the U.S. history curriculum sparked district-wide protests and school walkouts.

Reed stresses something very simple: You don’t have to be a good debater to talk to people about your profession and the great work of your Association. You just have to believe in it.”

And belief is what matters—belief that the opportunities are just beginning, and that they are endless. The job of an educator is invaluable. Enjoy this new period of your life, and look for the joy that lies within every school day and inside of every student. Along the way, remember that you’ve got a community of teachers surrounding you who all want to help, and that NEA will be at your side cheering you on every step of the way. 

7 Tips for Creating a Positive Classroom Culture

Give Your Classroom Some Class. Check out Pinterest for organizing and decorating ideas. Put your personality into the classroom decoration to help build relationships with your students.

Introduce Yourself. Create a video or slide show, or fun true/false quiz to help students get to know you. Sometimes a student may find something in common with a teacher and is able to strike up a relationship that could be a positive learning experience.

Establish the Rules. Set the class rules, consequences, and rewards—perhaps as memes—and let students have a role in establishing them. If they feel involved, they will have a tendency to follow them. Post no more than five rules where all students can see them, and revisit them throughout the year.

Foster Curiosity. Set an atmosphere for students that encourages curiosity and doesn’t stifle it.

Inspire an Attitude. Smile! You have the opportunity to help students determine whether school is drudgery or a serious undertaking that can have its fun moments. Give students the impression that being in class is positive.

Set a Positive Tone. Send a positive note home with every student at some time during each grading period. Catch the kids being good!

And Finally…Keep these three qualities of good teaching in mind: Be flexible, be patient, and have a sense of humor.

12 More Helpful Tips for New Teachers

We all know the importance of creating success during those first days of school. Below, we’ve reprinted tips from California Educator, the magazine of The California Teachers Association, which will help you make sure the rest of the school year goes well, too.

Organize Your Personal and Professional Documents. You never know when you may have to produce a document related to your job, such as a certification, past evaluations, or professional development records. Set up a good recordkeeping system. Consider keeping it in an electronic file on a flash drive.

Keep Tax Records. During the year you may have expenditures that may be used as business deductions on your income tax. Keep track of them. Keep receipts, and note on the receipt the exact purchase. Those materials you buy all year long add up!

See Your Site Representative if You Have Overages. Your locally negotiated contract dictates how many students should be in your classroom. If you have more students than the contract states, contact your site representative.

Build Relationships. Be friendly to the school secretary and the custodian. Network with your CTA site representative and colleagues.

Check School Policy. If you plan to do anything new or unusual this year, make certain you mention it to your principal in advance. In the classroom, keep your personal views on religion and politics to yourself. Have a plan for dealing with parental concerns about content and curriculum.

Don’t Overlook the Gifted. If you determine you have students who could be considered gifted, make arrangements to have them tested and to meet their specific abilities.

Communicate with Parents Early and Often. Determine how you will involve parents in your students’ education. In your initial contact, introduce yourself and tell them a little about you. Include your policy on homework, classroom expectations, and behavior. Let parents know when you are available and how to contact you; verify that you have their correct email addresses. Consider a monthly email newsletter, blog and/or classroom notification system, such as or

Sharing About You. Do not give parents or students your cellphone number. Communicate with students via email or a learning management system such as or

Health-Related Tasks and Your Students. Consult with your school nurse on how to handle students with special health problems. Some students have a health plan, which the school nurse will contact you about. If asked to perform health-related tasks, consult your site representative immediately.

Be Realistic. Don’t let your sincere concern for each child become depressing because you fear failure. You will not win every battle with every student. Sometimes it is months or years before our positive influence pays off.

Do Your Best. Determine which factors may keep you from doing your job during the school year. If you’re not sure how to deal with a wide range of abilities, seek out the school psychologist, and/or the resource or special education teacher. If you’re having difficulty with disruptive students, ask a seasoned teacher
for help.

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