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Response: 'When I Started Teaching, I Wish I had Known...'

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)


This week's question is:

Now that you have taught your first year, five years, or are about to retire, what do you wish you had been told or prepared for in the beginning of your career?

In Part One, Roxanna Elden, Dave Stuart Jr., Julia Thompson and Jennifer Gonzalez share their thoughts. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Dave and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Linda Hoyt, Jenny Edwards, Mary Tedrow, and Vance L. Austin contribute their answers to the question.

Response From Linda Hoyt

Linda Hoyt spent many years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, curriculum developer, staff developer, and Title I District Coordinator. She has created twenty-four professional books and video programs, plus numerous instructional resources for children:

I started teaching 45 years ago... and what a wonderful journey it has been. At the onset of my career, I was full of energy, eager to work with children, and lucky enough to have a mentor who knew how to create child-centered environments where students could operate as partners in their own learning. But instead of listening, I put a ton of energy into "decorating" my first classroom, thinking of what looked nice rather than what would facilitate learning. I put in endless hours that, in retrospect, did not advance my students' learning or independence. Thankfully, the birth of my first child forced me to stop and reconsider--to look at how to get the most learning from each precious minute in the classroom. Here are a few things I wish I had known:

Focus on engagement at every moment of the day. Choose turn-and-talks over hand-raising, explore topics that are of interest to students, provide hands-on learning whenever possible, and launch units of study with a great read aloud followed by vigorous student-generated questions that will fuel inquiry. Elevate engagement by making sure experiences are purposeful and authentic. Always include time for partner sharing, real audiences, and student independence.

Never forget that volume counts. A focus on the number of minutes spent reading real books and writing real messages every day is essential to accelerating literacy development and building lifelong literate behaviors. Strip away word searches, study guides, and "activities" that soak up precious minutes that could have been spent reading and writing.

Set high standards and believe in the children. It has been well proven that if we establish high expectations and provide plenty of scaffolds and supports, kids can do much more than was previously thought. Build your teaching life around "they can" rather than "they can't."

Teach strategies--not books. Treat the content or the story with care, but remember understanding them is not the end goal. The goal is to empower children to carry the literate behaviors across many books and many experiences. When you focus on strategies and demonstrate strategy use across the curriculum, you open eyes, minds, and hearts to unexplored worlds.

Model, model, model. Never ask learners to do something they haven't seen you do first. Demonstrate and think aloud as you go, show students how to approach learning tasks--how to craft their writing, how to read with expression, how to turn facts into interesting sentences. Let your demonstrations fuel the fire of new learning.

Foster curiosity. Don't just teach, ignite a sense of wonder. Help kids discover the power and excitement that are so essential to learning. Investigate topics that kids find interesting, teach research skills from kindergarten forward, and don't try to be an expert. Instead, open your heart and celebrate opportunities to learn new things with your students. Listen, commit to growing with your students, and don't be afraid to say, "I don't know the answer to that. How might we find it?"

Strike a balance between fiction and nonfiction experiences. Be sure to offer reading and writing experiences that balance carefully fiction and nonfiction--or informational learning. In addition, your classroom library should be assembled to ensure kids read widely, from many different genre, and on many different topics. When choosing books for independent reading and read alouds in particular, offer a minimum of 50 percent fiction and 50 percent nonfiction.

Never stop learning. Remember that the status quo makes innovation impossible. Embrace your own role as a learner by being a voracious professional reader. Focus on reading the work of many professionals in your field, consider a variety of viewpoints, and attend conferences where you can learn, network, and continue to grow as a professional. Every day, strive to be a better teacher than you were yesterday.

I hope that when you look back on 45 years in the field that you do so with joy, knowing that you have made a difference.



Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

Attribution Theory and Growth Mindset

When I started teaching, I wish I had known about Bernard Weiner's attribution theory, as well as Carol Dweck's fixed mindset and growth mindset. In my exuberance to help students feel good about themselves, I would tell them that they were smart. This was exactly the wrong thing to do! If they believed that they did well because they were smart, then what might they tell themselves if they didn't do well? They would tell themselves that they didn't do well because they were not smart.

Fortunately, my principal, Jim Fay, taught me about attribution theory. He taught me to say to students, "Tell me why you did well." Then, I would guide the students to attribute their success to having worked hard. Initially, I might say, "Bet you worked hard!" The attribution of their success to working hard was related to an internal locus of control, while the attribution of their success to being smart was related to an external locus of control. If they did not do well, they could attribute their lack of success to not having worked hard. In order to do better the next time, they only needed to work harder.

Then, Jim would guide me to tell the student, "Bet you feel good about that!" This enabled the student to own his/her success. So often, adults say, "I'm so proud of you!" The student learns that when he/she does well, the adult gets to feel good about it. By letting the student own the success, he/she is more likely to want to achieve in the future.

This is consistent with Carol Dweck's fixed and growth mindsets. Students who have a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed, and they either have the intelligence to succeed, or they don't. Students who have a growth mindset believe that they are continually learning and growing. The brain is malleable, and if they do not yet know something, they believe that they can learn it.

Teachers can notice whether students have a fixed or growth mindset by what they say when they do well and when they do not do well. We can ask students the reasons they did well. If they say, "I did well because I am smart," they have a fixed mindset. If they say, "I did well because I worked hard," or "I really wanted to learn it," they will tend to have a growth mindset.

We can also notice their reaction if they did not do well. One of my university students recently demonstrated a fixed mindset by responding to my feedback on her writing by saying, "I guess I will have to hire someone edit my papers because I have always written that way and don't think I can change."

Teachers can discuss fixed and growth mindset with students. We might ask, "Were you born knowing how to read? Were you born knowing how to write? Of course not! Did you learn? Of course you did! Do you believe you can learn to do this? Of course you can!" One of my students said that the one thing that kept him going was my saying, "You weren't born knowing how to write!"

For more information, please see:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success: How we can learn to fulfill our potential. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Weiner, B. (1992). Human motivation: Metaphors, theories, and research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.



Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary Tedrow is Director of the Shenandoah Writing Project housed at Shenandoah University and the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School .  Both are located in Winchester, VA.  Mary has been teaching since 1978, is National Board Certified, and writes a blog:

There was a crisis point in my career at the four-year mark where I thought I'd never return to the classroom. Luckily, several shifts kept me in an intellectually and spiritually enlivening profession. 

I learned three things that saved me. 

First lesson: Frustration and questioning are features of the work.  Embrace them. Like dedicated researchers, these qualities engage teachers in continual learning around that most interesting of topics: human behavior. Though I eventually discovered this by working with smart, committed teachers in the National Writing Project, I previously thought teaching was a flat career. Once familiar with the curriculum, just shampoo, rinse, repeat for the next 30 years.  Not so. And what a bore. 

Students bring challenges into class everyday.  Learn to love these for the human puzzles they are and search for resolution to the student-presented question. Rather than viewing student behavior as personal attack, an affront to the ego, or a power grab, consider behavior as symptom. Teachers can and do make a difference by approaching practice as diagnostician.  Without an inquiry stance, we burn out, seeing our work as out of control and students or parents as the problem.

Second lesson: Learn what is under your control and what is not.  Let go of what is out of your control and work with what you have. (Though if there are wrong-headed policy issues, keep speaking up. No one knows the job like a classroom teacher.)

What can you control?  The time you have with students, and that is about it.  So make the time important.  Students value what we spend time on.  Know what is valuable and spend the limited time there. Create meaningful time rather than marking time.

What can't you control? The weather. Student illness. The world at large.  Lockdowns. Fire drills.

Let it go.

Third big lesson: Let kids practice intellectual work. My best lessons are ones where I just shut up and let students describe, express, present conclusions.  This is not busy work.  Let them grapple, create, interpret, discuss, read, write.  All active verbs.

Kids are smarter than the school factory-model implies.  They are not empty vessels.  They are full to the brim with experience.  Sometimes these experiences can open a window into understanding that instructors do not have.  The diverse student population is an undermined resource. Invite these voices into the classroom to create a future we have yet to imagine.  It will be their future, not our past, after all.

It is one thing to understand the three lessons--learn from problems, use time well, let kids think--but far more difficult to enact. A fourth lesson must be added here: Teaching is best done with many minds at work.  Present your confusion or questions to your peers and start struggling together.  Try things out.  Report results. Experiment.  Adjust. Succeed and fail together.  Create the kind of cooperation in your work life that you hope to create for your learners. 

Most teachers loved both school and learning.  If teaching continually evolves and grows along with the students, the love affair with learning never has to end.



Response From Vance L. Austin

Vance L. Austin, PhD, has spent over 30 in the field of special education as a teacher, counselor, professor, and administrator. He is currently Associate Professor of Education/Special Education at the Manhattanville College School of Education. He is the co-author of Difficult Students & Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom: Teacher Responses That Work (forthcoming in Fall 2016 from W. W. Norton):

I wish I had been told when I started teaching that it is okay to admit you don't know everything, and that you aren't expected to "walk on water" or be the perfect teacher. It would have made my job much easier and, contrary to what I believed when I began teaching, would have helped improve my rapport with my students.

Later in my career, I also learned that it is actually helpful to reveal your authentic self to your students--assuming, of course, that you know your authentic self. I learned as well that it is really good practice to admit when you have made a mistake. It is good for the soul to apologize to the affected student or students in these instances, and it is equally important to have your apology accepted. In doing so, we are modeling the kind of civil behavior and good character we want our students to emulate. We want them to understand that it is okay to make a mistake as long as they acknowledge and correct it. It is also very healthy and affirming to ask to be forgiven when we have wronged someone and, conversely, to forgive the wrongdoer. As Alexander Pope famously wrote: "To err is human; to forgive, divine."

In a book co-authored by Dan Sciarra and myself and soon to be published by W.W. Norton, one of the central themes involves an examination of the elements of a sound pedagogy. We didn't learn about these principles until much later in our careers. None of our mentors bothered to share that knowledge, not out of spite, but because, we believe, they didn't learn about these principles themselves.

After much research, Dan and I have identified what we consider to be the quintessential elements of a sound pedagogy, evident in the practices of effective teachers. Here are a few that I wish I had learned about in my teacher preparation program:

  1. Teachers need to see and acknowledge their own worth to their students, their profession, and society.
  2. They need to develop their own professional identity and cultivate, as Stout (2005) encourages, "certainty, positivity, and the unity of self and moral goals" (p. 194).
  3. Teachers need to appreciate the importance of their own cultural influences as well as those of their students,
  4. Teachers need to empower students by helping them identify their strengths and weaknesses, take responsibility for their own learning, and, ultimately, change their lives for the better.

Finally, as Dan and I have learned over the course of many years of teaching and research, teachers are most effective when they are reflective practitioners, ones who are willing to risk failure and then learn from their mistakes, to acknowledge their shortcomings and apologize for them when warranted, and, most importantly, to be courageous enough to really know themselves and their students. The best teachers are those whose love of learning is contagious and entices their students to want to learn!


Thanks to Linda, Jenny, Mary and Vance for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with 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 this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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

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