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Response: Advice to New Teachers From Veterans

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week's question is:

What is your best advice to a new teacher?

Thousands of new teachers enter our schools each year and face challenges they have never faced before. Today, five veteran educators -- Valeria Brown, Julia Thompson, Roxanna Elden, Sean McComb and Megan Allen -- share advice they wish they had at the beginning of their careers. You can also listen to a ten minute conversation I had with Val and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show.  By they way, you can now access a list of all my previous shows -  with links and descriptions.

You might also be interested in seeing a compilation of related resources at The Best Advice For New Teachers.

This is a two-part series, and I'll be including many - and I mean many - suggestions from readers in Part Two, along with several from invited guests. But there's always room for more!

This is the last new question I'll be covering until September. But there's plenty going on here between now and then. I'll be publishing my popular summer series of new author interviews, and I have some great ones lined-up! I'll also be sharing a bunch of updated thematic compilations including posts from this past year. Last, but not least, I'll be working with two-hundred educators who are busily writing responses to forty new questions I'll be covering during the next school year!

Now, it's time for today's guests:

Response From Valeria Brown

Val Brown is a ten-year veteran and currently a teacher on assignment in professional development for a large central Florida school district. She loves connecting with other educators through the Center for Teaching Quality and social media. Follow her on Twitter at @ValeriaBrownEdu:

You are a novice teacher and you have just signed a one year contract to do the hardest job in the world. Take heed from a veteran teacher.

Get out while you can.

A friend and mentor, Dr. Irvin Scott, said for teachers to succeed or fail in isolation is tragic. It was years before I saw another teacher teach, and as a result, I reinvented the wheel year after year. Don't let "isolated" describe your first year as a classroom teacher. Get out of your leaky portable often - and not because it is the worst classroom in the building - but because you need to see and learn from your colleagues. In as little as fifteen minutes of observing a class and teacher, you will be provided with a wealth of examples and non-examples that will help you become a better teacher.

As a novice teacher, know your place.

Novice teachers often bite their tongues in professional learning communities or when among veteran teachers. It is imperative that you listen to the experience shared by your colleagues, but it is equally important for you to speak up as well. Just as each of your student's is unique, you too have a unique perspective and bring a new outlook to your team, your school, and the profession. As a novice teacher, your place is at the table. Don't let anyone make you feel like you don't belong.

You won't have time to teach the content you love.

I heard a guest speaker ask a room full of teachers, "What do you teach?" One by one, each teacher rattled off his or her content. He stopped the group after a while and said, "Teachers teach people." Whether it is English, American Government or Chemistry, you can't love the content more than the students you are trying to reach. If we have not connected to or built a relationship with the kids we are hoping to influence, there is no way they will want to hear about our content.

Thank you in advance for choosing our profession. We need you.

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Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

One of the great joys in my professional life is the time that I spend working with new teachers. Over and over again, I find myself inspired by their dedication to their new profession. I also find myself saddened by the large number of teachers who look back on their first year as a nightmarish and stressful time. Many factors contribute to this reaction: the overwhelming newness of absolutely everything, uncertainty about the right course of action to take when problems arise, or the discrepancy between idealistic expectations and the realities of a classroom, just to name a few.

When I meet with new teachers, one of the first discussions that we have is the importance of being as professional as possible as often as possible. I advise new teachers to consciously cultivate their professional image: listen more than they speak, ask questions, dress the part, treat everyone with courtesy, be prepared for class, and cultivate grace under pressure. Earning a reputation for being professional will make it easier for colleagues and others to support them when new teachers need additional support.

I also tell new teachers to accept the fact that they will make mistakes, lots of mistakes. We all do despite our best intentions. In fact, one of the best and worst things about being an educator is the many chances that we get to learn from our mistakes. Learning how to move on from mistakes is an important part of being a professional.

New teachers can also underestimate the enormous importance of focusing on their students and their needs. Every student is someone who needs a solid connection with his or her teacher; every student needs to feel valued and capable. Students must come first. It takes a while for most novice teachers to really internalize this profound concept.

Finally, every day that passes makes the next one easier. One way to make sure of this is to maintain a reflective practice. Keeping a reflection record of each day is an invaluable technique for any educator, but especially for a new teacher. Whether it's scribbled notes in a binder, audio recordings on a phone, or a more formal journal, taking a few minutes to look back on the day can only help new teachers grow.

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Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified Teacher in Miami. Her book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers, is widely used as a tool for training and retention. Roxanna also speaks at events around the country, providing training and support for teachers and sharing a teacher's eye view on a variety of education issues:

Beginning teachers have to lay the tracks as they drive the train, and they spend much of the year feeling like they're about to crash. Here are some tips to help beginners make it through the challenges of first year - and into a successful teaching career beyond.

Choose your mentors carefully: The best mentors combine discretion with honest, practical advice. Talking to them should make you feel hopeful, not discouraged. Be especially wary of anyone who responds to requests for help with any form of the phrase, "Well, that would never happen in MY class!" This is not a sign of a helpful mentor. It is the sign of someone who would rather look perfect than be helpful, which is not the mark of a great teacher anyway. Anyone you take advice from should be willing to say, "That HAS happened in my class, and it's not an easy problem to solve, but here are solutions that have worked for me." That is where an honest conversation starts.

Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, you'd like to be perfect now that you're in charge of kids, but chances are you're still more organized than creative (or more creative than organized). You're still more ambitious than patient (or more patient than ambitious). Strengths and weaknesses from our personal lives carry over into our teaching styles. Luckily, there are many traits that make a good teacher. No one has them all, and some of them can even contradict one another. Your goal is not to conceal your weaknesses or disguise them as strengths. It is to identify your true strengths and use them to reinforce potential weak spots.

Set up classroom systems that you can keep up with: New teachers often set up labor-intensive systems for discipline management or classroom organization. This makes it easy to fall behind. The good news is that it's never too late to simplify the systems in your classroom. A behavior system of putting checks on the board might be better than one that involves rearranging color-coded cards. Today's quiz doesn't have to be typed from scratch using student answers from yesterday's homework. Student helpers can take over certain daily duties. Treating your time and energy as finite resources can help you use both more effectively.

Learn from your mistakes, but take note of your successes: The great teachers of the future know they are not great yet. All teachers have bad days, and rookies tend to be harder on themselves than veterans. This is partly because experienced educators have stored enough good memories to reassure themselves and balance out the moments that make teachers wonder if we're cut out for this. Start collecting these memories early. Keep a file of notes from students and other encouraging signs. On your worst days, remember that the longtime teachers on your hallway have probably hit similar low points and chose to keep teaching anyway. If that's not an argument for the rewards of this profession, nothing is.

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Response From Sean McComb

Sean McComb is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year. He has served as an English, AVID, and Staff Development Teacher at Patapsco High School in Baltimore County, MD. You can connect with Sean via Twitter at @Mr_McComb:

There is little more exciting, and challenging, than to be a new teacher. It is an incredible period of growth and an important time to lay a foundation to flourish. Below are three pieces of advice I would offer to any new teacher:

Resources

When I was a new teacher I feared that publicizing any weakness to a colleague by asking for support would scar my professional reputation or make me appear inept. I was like that student who is really being challenged in your classroom, but is afraid to ask for help. Of course, in reality, veteran colleagues know the difficulties of the first year in the classroom and would not hold those feelings against any new teacher. Once I opened up to seek support from colleagues I was able to tap into a range of knowledge and resources that greatly improved my practice. The biggest growth, however, came when I began to truly collaborate through planning with colleagues and even inviting some in to observe my practice and converse about what they saw. Seek collaboration.

Reflect

Dewey's observation that "growth does not come from experience, growth comes from reflecting on experience" resonates with my own practice. It is important to become a reflective practitioner, to think carefully about what made one lesson successful and why students struggled with another. It's important to seek feedback from your students and to reflect on what they are telling you about their experience in your classroom--the good and the bad. And then it's vital for that reflection to lead to a thoughtful change in practice. Seek support for improvement through a combination of colleagues in the school, a personal learning network that may extend beyond the building, and professional organizations, websites and resources.

Restore

During that first year I somehow felt like the more hours I spent at school, the better a teacher I would be. So when I was visiting my college roommate during a break and his father, a veteran teacher, heard me discussing how long I was at school and how it was starting to burn me out, he gave me the best advice I heard all year: "You can always do more." This wasn't a call to double down on my efforts; that's how teachers leave the profession after a few years in the classroom. This was his way of gently telling me to find a manageable balance, to remain deeply dedicated to my students, but to know that I could spend 24 hours at school and still have more feedback to give, lessons to revise, and ideas to chase. And I would smell horrible and have a short temper. Find ways to fill your own bucket, so that you can continue to pour energy into your students. They'll demand it.

Enjoy all the triumphs and challenges of that first year. Get resources for yourself, learn from your experiences, and restore yourself, so that you can endure the challenge!

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Response From Megan Allen

Megan M. Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year. She is currently working as a program developer and visiting instructor at Mount Holyoke College, creating a blended-learning graduate program to support the development of teacher leaders. She has taught for ten years, serving in Title One schools in Hillsborough County, FL. As an edugeek, Megan enjoys blogging for the Center for Teaching, where she writes about her students, teacher leadership, and advocates for a more effective public education system for all students. Visit her blog at www.teachingquality.org/blogs/MeganAllen:

 I've accepted my first job...now what?!?!

The summer months can be a nerve-wrecking time as new teachers face the daunting task of tackling their first classroom. I think back to the offer of my first job, with Neighborhood Charter School in Atlanta, GA. I hung up the phone and leapt for joy, overcome with happiness, hope, and eagerness to start. But then the tears of joy quickly turned to tears of anxiety as a slew of questions buzzed through my head. But never fear, newbies...take a deep breath, begin to plan now, and remember the following pointers as you adjust to a lifestyle that includes one of the most amazing, challenging, and life-changing jobs in the world.

  • Your first job at your new school: Get to know the expert teachers and faculty members. Network. This is your support system for the following year and beyond...so begin by taking a stroll down the hallways, introducing yourself to the faculty and gathering ideas and insight from others. Check out the ways classrooms are arranged, ideas for organizing materials, and take mental notes of those teachers who are experts in certain areas/topics.
  • Find a mentor (or two!). Our public education systems should have full-time mentors and master teachers in place to support the induction process, but we ain't there yet! You may want to ask the school leadership team, you may want to do your own research, or you may have one assigned. Begin forming a relationship with that person and forming questions you want to dig into right off the back.
  • Get to know the school secretary. You may think that the principal or assistant principal runs the school, but it is really the secretary! I chuckle while I type this, but when I think of my former work homes, it really was the case. Much love to Zoila, Jennifer, and Ms.Williams!
  • Be nice to the custodians. They have a tough but really important job! They are a vital part of the team to help create great learning environments, and can also be so helpful in a pinch. Bake them cookies. Leave them a thank-you. Begin to nurture this important relationship as well. And see what expertise they can offer as well? I remember Mark who donated an incubator to our little scientists, Clarence who was a vital part of our mentoring program for your most troubled boys, and even one local custodian I met who runs an after-school guitar club for his elementary school.
  • Don't try to tackle every new thing or idea at once. There is a huge learning curve with everything in life, but especially the complexities of a classroom ecology. Try to set one small goal at a time. Year one? For example, focus on guided reading or your questioning strategies to push higher order thinking, not every subject and instructional method or idea that you have rolling around in your brain. Think about the Bill Murray movie What About Bob. Baby steps, baby steps. We must tackle one small thing at a time.
  • Stock up on wine. Trust me. :)
  • Find a virtual network. I might suggest the CTQ Collaboratory or a Twitter chat, such as #ntchat (new teacher chat) by Lisa Dabbs. Build your personal learning network not just inside your school building, but outside as well. Need ideas for organizing your first school library? Or structuring student to student dialogue in science? Post a question to the experts, share your own thoughts, and enjoy the fruits of virtual collaboration.
  • Visit a garage sale, tag sale, or Goodwill. Stock up on classroom items on the cheap.
  • Join a gym, sign up for a yoga class, or commit to running a race. One major struggle that you will face that you may not expect is how to balance your work life and personal life. Happiness and balance outside the classroom leads to better effectiveness inside the classroom (I'm making the claim, but I'm betting there is research on that!).
  • Listen. A lot. To other teachers sharing ideas, to great lessons happening next store, and especially to your students. But know when to tune things out as well.
  • Ask for time to see other great teachers teach. Get into classrooms...ask your administrator to be creative with your time so you can grow, learn, observe, and ask questions from those veteran teachers around you.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions. No one expects you to come into your first year knowing everything.
  • Think about procedures. Routines. The first day.
  • Remember the most important thing...those little (or big!) bodies sitting with you, eager to learn, ready for you to guide them. Keep your eyes on the prize...and that's the students sitting in your class and school.

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Thanks to Valeria, Julia, Roxanna, Sean and Megan for their contributions! 

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won't see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog's sidebar:

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies

Assessment

Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Two in a few days...

 

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