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Ten things every new teacher should know

“I wish I had been told that classroom management was more important than teaching skills," said one reader.

Perhaps you’ve had this thought before: “If I knew then what I know now…”

You know the material. You know there will be some “problem” students—but what else do you need to know before you take that first step in the classroom?

In today’s often volatile teaching environment, and with expectations heightened, it’s critical to be prepared. In a recent Question of the Week, we asked readers: “What’s the one thing you wish your education professors had told you about teaching or classroom management?”

From school of education experts to veteran teachers with decades of experience under their belts, eSchool News readers weighed in by the dozens with their best or most useful advice for beginning teachers. Based on these suggestions, here are our readers’ top 10 pieces of wisdom for those considering teaching (edited for brevity).

What do you think of these suggestions? Do you have any advice of your own to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

10. Make sure your professors have experience with current instructional practices.

“It would be very difficult to answer this question having taught almost 27 years, but I do know what my student teachers come without. Most … come without current knowledge. I have a student teacher starting this fall with no knowledge of reading and writing workshop, standards-based grading, current authors, etc. Most of my student teachers have method course instructors who are not regularly in the classroom. It is vital that college professors are either experienced classroom teachers … or currently in a classroom on a regular basis.” —Sherril Studley, high school English/Career Forward teacher

9. Make friends with custodians and secretaries.

“Your ‘best friends’ in running your department or school are the custodians and the secretaries. Without a good relationship with both of these important groups, you are doomed to failure. As a former math department chairperson, my teachers were always in need of more chalk and graph paper. I could meet our custodian, Ed, in the hallway and ask for either or both—and by the time I got back to my office, the request had been filled! A simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ always went a long way. Among many other ‘hints’ I share with my current teacher candidates, this is one of the first.” —Dr. Susan A. Smith, associate professor, Division of Education, Molloy College, New York

8. Teaching is often political.

“No college professor [of mine] ever addressed all the politics involved in teaching, or that parents would not properly guide or care for their children, or the amount of governmental influence. Professors prepared us in our subject area and … teaching techniques, but they never provided information on all the possible dilemmas with parents, students, and political mandates that are never supported with matching funding. They never told us how much of our own money we would actually spend to be sure students had lunch money, clothes, books, and materials to do our job in the classroom. Never did they tell us that our lessons would need to parallel other teachers’, rather than address the needs of our students. Never did they tell us that our school board would sell out for money from the government or that taxpayers would refuse a penny tax to support education. You have to truly believe you can make a difference, have a strong will, be prepared to be a substitute parent, nurse, adviser, counselor, and be flexible enough to make changes every year, or you will not succeed in education today. Oh, and one last thing—have a positive attitude and be a team player at the same time!” —Peggy Mitchell, Choctawhatchee High School, Fort Walton Beach, Florida

7. Learn to put your foot down.

“I wish education professionals would have told us that behavior management is probably the most important and challenging issue you’ll face in the classroom. It would have been nice to have been given a variety of solutions, tools, books, and websites to use once you are working in a classroom.” —Susan Jamieson

Problems occur as “…an inevitable by-product of the ‘behaviour management’ philosophy that has gripped the teacher-training establishment for the last decade or more. These hold that children have the ‘right’ to their feelings, and that the job of the teacher is to ‘manage’ them. All notions of a moral dimension—of right and wrong—have been swept away in a postmodern deluge of relativism. This, coupled with the fantasy that children of wildly varying interests and abilities could manage their own learning in the same classroom—all in the pursuit of some deluded vision of ‘fairness’—has left us with a generation of children who have grown up in a narcissistic mental cocoon furnished with the most meretricious manifestations of popular culture.” —Tom Burkard, visiting fellow, University of Buckingham, United Kingdom

6. Lashing out will get you nowhere.

“Screaming ‘shut up’ has absolutely zero effect on kids. In fact, it most probably signals to them that they have gained control and forced you into desperate hollering.” —Bob Longo, President, SchoolOne, Cleveland, Ohio

5. Many times, you’ll find yourself alone.

“I wish I had been told that classroom management was more important than teaching skills and that I would be left alone in a classroom, without administrative support, to manage emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, … and brilliant students [together]. … Much more instruction on the political aspects of attempting to manage a classroom would have been very useful. I have taught in a school where there was administrative support and in a school where there was none. In the school where there was no administrative support, a few students … were able to limit the learning of the remainder of the class to a 37-percent pass rate. More like 60 percent passed with administrative support. As a veteran of 10 years of teaching, I love teaching, but after the last year of no support, I have chosen retirement rather than further abuse at the hands of … unsupportive administration.” —Brenda Hayes

“They should have told me that I would get zero help from … administrators and most parents.” —Barbara Lipston

4. Students are not your BFFs.

“[I wish I had been told] that I was now going to be a professional and I was not hired to be the student’s friend. I was hired to be an adult, [providing] steadying influence and direction in the classroom. I have to deserve and demand respect, at all times, from my students. If I respect my students and my students respect me, we can develop a relationship that will do justice to/for my students, and I will be fulfilled and proud. Unfortunately, now and then, beginning teachers do not understand the above. Someone tells them they must be friends with and must make their students like them. I have had students [whom] I struggled with for four years, return and thank me for what I did. Oddly enough, they don’t stop and talk to the teachers that treated them as ‘buddies.’” —Bob Icenogle

3. Have a backup plan.

“The one thing I wish my education professors had told me about school/classroom management is something perhaps they all felt was too obvious to share: The best classroom management is obtained through a well-planned and prepared teacher. When the teacher is well-planned and prepared, the students are engaged, and when students are engaged, most of the management/discipline issues go away. The well-planned and prepared teacher knows what the class is going to learn and why and can easily share that information with the students, lowering the student anxiety level. The well-planned teacher has already thought about what differentiation might be needed for her/his class, what accommodations will need to be made, and what plan B is if the lesson simply doesn’t click.” —Leigh M. Abbott, principal, Springton Manor Elementary School, Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

2. Be clear in your student expectations.

“Luckily, my first-year mentor teacher … told me what my professors didn’t about classroom management. He told me to have a clear and complete set of Expectations and Procedures (not “Rules and Regulations”) that itemizes what behavior is expected and the associated consequences/reinforcement (including how conduct grades are determined), and to consistently follow the Expectations and Procedures. Itemize the procedures for everything from headings on papers to how you will collect your papers (all home learning papers are placed on the upper right corner of the desk at the beginning of the period, etc.) and as a teacher, follow those procedures to the letter.

“The Expectations and Procedures are reviewed the first day of school and signed by both the student and parent. Throughout the first nine weeks, the Expectations and Procedures are reviewed periodically. Amazingly, by the end of the first nine weeks, after consistently following the Expectations and Procedures to the letter, I have found that I no longer have to manage my class, the students follow the process, and I can facilitate and teach to my heart’s content. One caveat: If I deviate from the Expectations and Procedures, the students remind me in no uncertain terms, and they assign my consequence! By the way, I teach in a Title I school in the fourth largest school district in the country, with students who are typically low-level math students, many with serious behavior issues. As [my teaching mentor] said, that consistent structure and clearly defined limits help to maintain a healthy learning environment.” —Petra Burns, M.Ed., grade 6-8 mathematics teacher, Centennial Middle School, Miami, Florida

“[I wish I was told] the importance of firmly establishing and reinforcing classroom routines during the first few weeks of school. My tendency as a new teacher, after the usual orientation on day one, was to dive head first into the curriculum. Gradually, I learned that it was more important to hold off on the math and science, and spend the first few weeks discussing, practicing, and reinforcing classroom routines, in order to save time and energy during the rest the term. So, I developed and taught routines for morning activities, lavatory use, lining up, fire drills, lunch and snack, homework collection, cooperative learning activities, dismissal—and practiced them the same way we did our multiplication tables, with repetition, purpose, and understanding that it was essential in making the class run smoothly and safely. Watching my students learn these routines gave me great insight into their personalities and learning capabilities. Some picked it up the first time around, and most needed the repetition. A few never got it, and still needed reminders in June! The best reinforcement for all of this work was getting a note from a substitute saying, ‘It was a pleasure to spend the day with your students. This class runs it itself!’

“I may have been behind my colleagues in the math book, but we always caught up, because time was saved later on in the year because the kids knew the routines, so we could focus more on learning and less on behavior issues. I recommend Harry Wong’s list of routines in his elementary edition of The First Days of School.” —Jennifer Bova, director, OWL Teacher Center, Lindenhurst, New York, and 33-year veteran teacher

1. Focus on the positives, not the negatives.

“Focus and remark on positive behaviors rather than negative. If some students are not doing what they should be, saying ‘I see that 95 percent of you are doing exactly the right thing’ is more likely to get those off task back to what they should be doing than calling them out for it individually or castigating the class as a whole. Alternatively, ‘I have 80 percent attention, 90 percent, 95 percent’… For some students, getting a reaction to negative behavior is exactly what they want—when you respond to them, they learn that if they ‘push your button,’ you’re the best show in town!” —Todd Harris, director of technology, Copiague Public Schools

The best you can do is “…to take [students] from where they are at the beginning of the year and encourage them and teach them as much as you can. If you have done this, you have been a successful teacher! I am an adjunct professor in Education, and I make sure my students hear this several times during the semester.” —Dorothy Miller, adjunct professor, School of Education, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma

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