5 Pieces of Advice to New Teachers

Lately I’ve been listening to a number of educational podcasts. And while there are plenty of exceptional shows out there, the Edu All-Stars podcast has by far gotten the most play on my drive to and from school. Todd Nesloney, Chris Kesler, and Keegan Waid provide an awesome platform for game changing educators to share their story, ideas, and passions with a worldwide audience. It’s been an amazing source of both inspiration and introspection.

One of the questions the hosts pose to the guest towards the end of each episode is: “Looking back 5 or 10 years, what advice would you give your former self…knowing what you know now?”  Having now been an educator for ten years, this question really made me stop and think. And on the heels of an amazing vignette put together by SoulPancake, If I Knew Then: A Letter to Me on My First Day Teaching, and an inspirational message I received recently from a former student, I wanted to share my thoughts:

Teaching is a complex profession. There are many variables that factor into every lesson design and instructional decision, but stripped down to its core, I believe there are five overarching ideals that students need from you, their teacher:

Engage Them

One of the most important things we can do as educators is make the content we teach relevant to the lives of our students. Use cartoons to teach story structure; music to teach literary devices; Angry Birds to teach geometry; and sports to teach mathematical processes. You don’t have to follow the textbook page by page. In fact, bury it. Let kids explore, create, innovate, and evaluate. Purposefully infuse technology into your learning experiences. Break down the walls of the classroom. Connect with and publish for the worldwide audience that’s only a click away. Think about what a powerful motivator that is for kids.

Create authentic learning situations in the classroom that give kids an opportunity to connect to the content and understand why they are learning it. You will see a transfer of knowledge — greater than any pre-packaged test prep program could yield. Students will be able to apply the understanding to new situations because it meant something to them — you made the experience memorable. The results will be apparent…not just on the standardized tests, but, more importantly, to their lives after they leave your classroom.

Challenge Them

Devise learning situations where kids feel safe to take risks, are challenged, and are permitted to fail. Provide tasks and experiences that align with their readiness level. Don’t use grades punitively — help students see that grades are a means to an end (mastery), not the end itself. Believe in the self-fulfilling prophecy. Kids will rise to the bar we set. Set high, but attainable expectations for all students. Tell parents on Back-to-School night that you plan to challenge their children, to push them to new heights, to support them as they grow. But reassure them that you’ll also be there to catch them if they fall.

Call on students to act with honor, integrity, loyalty, and self-respect – but you must not forget to model these characteristics yourself. Your actions teach the greatest lessons students will ever learn.

Love Them

This tenet isn’t always easy, at times. But it’s worth it. Smile everyday – don’t worry about what the book tells you. Show them that you care: Engage in conversations about their interests and passions. Celebrate their successes – no matter how small they seem to be; for what may seem trivial to you in the moment, oftentimes means the world to them. Comfort them during their struggles. Treat them as if they were your own children.

And when you are pushed to the breaking point by a child who is acting out or disrespectful or just doesn’t seem to care, always remember: Kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways. Try even harder to forge that connection with that child. S/he needs it more than you’ll ever know. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.

Believe in Them

If we don’t believe in students, how can they believe in themselves? Your students need you. They need you to support and to coach; to connect with and to encourage; to push them to be the best they can be.

They need you to be their rock; their cheerleader; their champion. And if you ever feel that belief waning, please reinvest 7 minutes and 48 seconds to watch this incredibly powerful reminder from Rita Pierson.

Listen to Them

I believe Bethany Hill, an assistant principal from Arkansas, put it best: “Every child you pass in the hall has a story that needs to be heard. Maybe you are the one who is meant to hear it.”

Get to know every child individually. Ask them how they are each day and genuinely be interested in their answer. Get to know their hobbies their passions, their fears. Spend time at lunch and recess just talking. When students see a teacher who is genuinely interested in listening to them and building a relationship, they will move mountains.

Also, give kids a voice in the classroom. Ask them what they want to learn — what their passions are — and create situations that give them the opportunity to follow them. Let them try new things — learn with them. Don’t worry about not being the expert all the time. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know…let’s learn about that together.” They’ll appreciate your honesty.

Don’t worry about following the curriculum or textbook page by page. It’s a long year; you can cover it later…Don’t let those special moments pass you by because you have to get through the next page in the Social Studies text. There’s always tomorrow. Cherish those teachable moments — those are what make memories.

And two final words for you: Be Proud. In the midst of all the pressures of standardization, high-stakes testing, and political pressures (both inside and outside the building), remember: you have the best and most important job in the world. Commit to always learn; always grow; and always challenge yourself to be better. You owe this to your students and our future.