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Response: New Teachers Must Create a 'Balance'

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

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What are the biggest mistakes new teachers make and what should they do instead?

In Part One, Michael Janatovich, Sarah Thomas, Roxanna Elden, Kristi Mraz, Christine Hertz, and Julia Thompson contribute their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mike and Sarah (along with special guest Ted Appel) on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today's contributors are Cindi Rigsbee, Carol Pelletier Radford, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Jennie Farnell, and Ken Lindblom.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified ELA/Reading teacher currently on loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction where she works on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning teacher support. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

Although it's been 38 years since I was a new teacher, I remember my mistakes well and have seen them time and again as I have worked with beginning teachers during my career.

First, many times new teachers enter their classrooms with an unrealistic idea of what that first experience will be. I remember thinking I was going to change the world, and I set myself up to be disappointed. I was confronted the first day of school by disrespectful seniors who were only four years younger than I was, and not long after, I realized that students may or may not be motivated to learn, and that the students I would be teaching would be so different from the student I had been.

Educators can better begin their careers on realistic footing, knowing that they may not be teaching students who share their same work ethic. (It's a generalization, for sure, but it's safe to say that many teachers were good students who loved school!)

Entering that first classroom with some prior understanding can make all the difference—and all that's required is just a little research. School websites contain a wealth of information about the demographics of the classrooms; state level information can provide academic profiles, and teachers can find information about students and staff on the National Center for Educational statistics website (//nces.ed.gov/). In addition, a quick ride around the school's community (if unfamiliar) can provide much needed information prior to that first day. Some school districts provide a bus ride for beginning teachers so they can see the school's community first hand. I've had new teachers tell me that this opportunity has made all the difference.

Another mistake new teachers make is not working toward something I call The Relationship Balance. Many teachers want to be liked by their students and measure their effectiveness by how their students feel about them. However, relationships that cross the line from teacher/student to teacher/friend can be detrimental to the dynamics of the classroom. I believe in a balance when it comes to relationships with students. In other words, the teacher should maintain that air of authority while at the same time enabling the students to feel supported and safe in the classroom community.

I tell my students on the first day of school: "You are safe here, and it is my goal that this classroom will soon feel like a family to you. I'm here to do whatever it takes so you can learn and grow this year." I then point to my two handmade signs over the board that say, "Whatever It Takes" and, most important, "I Believe in You." And I make sure they know I do.

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Response From Carol Pelletier Radford

Carol Pelletier Radford is the author of The First Years Matter (Corwin Press 2nd edition) a month-by-month reflective guide for novice teachers. Visit her website Mentoring In Action for resources and free videos:

Three mistakes new teachers make and what they should do instead.

Mistake 1. New teachers work too hard!

They stay late, come in early, work weekends, ignore family and friends, and skip vacations to correct papers. Overworking often leads to a feeling of being overwhelmed and general burnout.

Instead of working overtime, I recommend novice teachers create a "balance" in each work day and take time off on the weekends. Teachers actually get more "done" when they feel good.

Some easy ways to be more emotionally balanced are:

  • MOVE—Take a walk at lunch, get up from your desk and just stretch your arms up.
  • BE GRATEFUL—Thank the people who are helping you and acknowledge what is good.
  • BE SELFISH about SELF CARE—Staying healthy means eating well and paying attention to your social and emotional needs.

Mistake 2. New teachers try to do it alone!

When novice teachers are asked, "How are you doing?" They respond, "fine" or "great" because they are afraid to share that they are struggling.

Instead of trying to solve the challenges of teaching alone I suggest novices:

  • FIND A MENTOR—Talking confidentiality with another teacher will help you grow.
  • SHARE IDEAS—Reach out to other beginning teachers, share best practices and solve problems together instead of complaining about what isn't working.
  • REFLECT—Think about "what is working" and pat yourself on the back.

Mistake 3. New teachers focus too much on content and not enough on students' perspectives.

Novices are so nervous about covering the curriculum and learning how to teach that they forget to engage their students. I often share this video, Qualities of Effective Teachers Through Students Eyes, with my novice teachers.

I also encourage novices to include students in these ways:

  • MAKE EYE CONTACT—Be present with students. Instead of multi-tasking when they walk in, look at them and ask how their day is going.
  • ASK—Talk to students individually and find out how you can help them learn the content more easily. Get to know each student as a person.
  • SURVEY—Use anonymous student e-surveys to measure your success from the students' perspective and find out how you can improve.

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Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge. She served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer and has been honored by the White House for her contributions to education. One of Dr. Rankin's books is titled Fist Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success.

The biggest mistake I've found new teachers to make is to not brace themselves (even before their first students' first day of school) to proactively fight teacher burnout. 15 percent of teachers (approximately half a million U.S. teachers) leave the profession within their first year as teachers, and this rate is 20 percent in high-poverty schools (Seidel, 2014).

New teachers should speak to veteran teachers who fit all of the following criteria: (a) lasted in the profession at least 3 years, (b) still enjoy the profession, and (c) are good teachers. The school's administrators can usually point out these teachers. It helps if these teachers will be teaching the same grade or subject area as the new teacher and can serve as a mentor. New teachers can speak with these colleagues about how they streamline their practices in order to save time, and where they focus most of their energy. These teachers should also read about teacher burnout so they can apply strategies to keep their profession enjoyable and successful. One of the biggest culprits is setting up unsustainable grading practices that require the teacher to drag home students' journals or portfolios every evening.

Teachers have a regular onslaught of demands thrown at them, they constantly have to shift directions as new curriculum and tools are adopted, and they frequently have to learn and implement new approaches to classroom management and instruction. If you learn about any aspect of teaching (cooperative learning, helping various populations of students, differentiation, using data, etc.), the professional development instructor or book will often give overwhelming suggestions for how to do a good job with that one aspect of teaching. Yet that would be just one aspect of teaching. To do everything as well as is recommended is overwhelming when suggestions and implementations don't consider the need to be practical and to merge the efforts with all of a teacher's other responsibilities. For teaching to be a sustainable profession, each endeavor must be approached with an eye for what is practical and what will be efficiently effective.

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Response From Jennie Farnell

Jennie Farnell is the assistant director of the English Language Institute at the University of Bridgeport, where she specializes in assessment and curriculum design, teacher training, and student support. Her research interests include supporting learners with special needs and integrating technology into education. She has been teaching ESL/EFL since 1998 across all levels and ages of students.

I think making mistakes as teachers not only never ends but is also what helps us grow. However, teaching is certainly much more challenging for new teachers since there's such a big on the job learning curve. Over the years, I have found are two big "mistakes" (I prefer to call them "learning experiences") that I have seen with almost all new teachers.

First, new post-secondary teachers (regardless of program type) often apply principles of pedagogy rather than andragogy (adult learning theory) to their classroom practices. While there are similarities between methodologies, adult learners have specific attributes which must be considered with both lesson / activity planning and classroom management. There seem to be three areas most often overlooked when teaching adults: their autonomy, their reasons for continuing their education, and their instructor's recognition of students' real life experience and accomplishments.

Culturally, most adult ESL students hold enormous respect toward both education and educators. However, that respect doesn't necessarily transfer to "I will do everything you tell me to do". This can feel like a direct challenge to the teacher's authority, while in reality, there are multiple outside factors that can impact why a student chooses, or doesn't choose, to follow instructions, do homework, come to class on time, etc. I have seen many classroom environments "go bad" when well-meaning but often insecure new teachers enter into confrontations with adult students who "don't do what they are told to do." The best advice I can give is a) "it's probably not personal" and b) "ask why." "Ask why" is tricky; it needs to asked with honest curiosity rather that sounding accusatory. But usually, if asked correctly, this is when teachers can learn the most and begin to understand that students' behaviors often have absolutely nothing to do with the respect the student has for the teacher, but rather the respect the student has for him/herself.

The other reoccurring mistake I have seen, and this is certainly not exclusive to new teachers, is wait time. Wait time is difficult for veteran teachers to manage; it's very easy to assume you didn't phrase the question properly, students weren't listening, etc. Wait time is also really uncomfortable; that overwhelming silence in the classroom gets you as a teacher thinking "what did I do wrong?" However, wait time is one of the most important factors we can introduce into our practices. When I teach my master's class "ELLs for Content Teachers," I demonstrate wait time both for native speakers and then the extended time I would give for ESL students and I can see how visibility uncomfortable teachers become after the standard 5-6 second native speaker wait time. I usually suggest 8-10 seconds with ESL students in the classroom, in either sheltered or inclusive classrooms.

Wait time is necessary for multitude of reasons. All students process information differently. Just some of the factors to consider with information processing is the type of question asked (written or spoken), how long it might take for students to parse out the information and then recall and answer, student attention, working memory load, and so on. Insufficient wait time can make it appear that some students are either improperly placed, not paying attention, or not comprehending and/or learning, while in reality there are just too many other factors in play to be able to make this determination solely by how long it takes to get an answer.

However, both of these "mistakes" are issues that, once recognized, can be easily corrected through attention to one's practices and how that practice aligns with best practices. In particular, I would suggest anyone teaching adults familiarize themselves with the principles of adult learning, a subject that is almost never taught in masters programs. There are so many challenges facing educators in today's educational systems that if we can avoid falling into some easily avoidable traps, we can have the energy to continue doing what we do best—teaching and advocating for our students.

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Response From Ken Lindblom

Ken Lindblom is an English Educator and Dean at Stony Brook University (SUNY). With Patricia A. Dunn he published the book Grammar Rants (Heinemann 2011). He and Leila Christenbury published Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts (Heinemann 2016); their book, Continuing the Journey: Being and Becoming a Better Teacher of Literature and Informational Text, is due out from the National Council of Teachers of English in November 2017. Ken blogs about teacher education at edukention.wordpress.com and tweets from @klind2013. To see a cringeworthy and amusing list of his own fails as a new teacher, see this post:

Making the Shift to "the Teacher Ego"

Many preservice and new teachers voice this concern: "The students will not respect me." I remember having had this concern myself, and it's completely understandable. But this is a problem that will prevent new teachers from becoming the best educators they can be.

The notion that "students won't respect me" is often rooted in a questionable notion of what a teacher is and what the student/teacher relationship should be. It comes from one's personal ego, sense of self. It's important to have a healthy ego: A good classroom presence demands it. But teachers don't start their relationships with students from a position of being respected. Respect is earned. A teacher's ego should be rooted in their students' success, not in their own standing in the classroom.

A teacher with an ego rooted in their own standing, rather than student learning, can suffer some of the following:

  • Lecturing too often, so that students' see all that the teacher knows
  • Creating a heavily rule-based classroom, intended to regulate students into standardized, respectful behavior
  • Discouraging risks in students for fear of upsetting the teacher
  • Answering one's own questions, to prevent uncomfortable silence, which may appear as if the teacher's class isn't going as intended
  • Responding directly to each student's question, turning what should be a classroom discussion into a series of one-on-one exchanges.
  • Favoring any student who demonstrates immediate responsiveness or follows directions, to the exclusion of others
  • Taking students' misbehavior personally, making a teacher quick to punish and miss what may be a student in crisis calling for help

Teachers who exhibit the features above have classes that are less engaging for everyone, and the job of teaching is more exhausting. Every wrong move a student makes—even a wrong answer on a test—is something the teacher takes as a personal affront and leads to hurt feelings.

New teachers understandably may fall victim to this ego problem as they have not yet developed the confidence and wisdom from experience to focus on their students' learning. But if they know about it, they can make the shift more quickly.

Once teachers shift to what I call "the teacher ego," their concerns about themselves and controlling the classroom fade, and a new form of ego—one aligned with their students' learning—takes over. An educator with a teacher ego exhibits the following:

  • Confidence in their knowledge; they focus on students' prior knowledge to lead them into new learning
  • Comfort with silence (knowing it's a natural part of critical thinking); they encourage students to answer each other.
  • Establish minimal classroom rules to ensure positive community and that allow risks and encourage creativity and humor in discussions
  • Take time to observe and understand their students, allowing the teacher to more effectively create and target new lessons and assessments
  • They know when a student's behavior is out of the norm for that student and can investigate to find out what's going on with that student
  • They don't sweat the small stuff. But if there is a serious classroom problem, they address it directly and quickly, without humiliating a student and creating a year-long enemy in the classroom

It's hard to make the shift to a "teacher ego," but once accomplished, it dramatically increases the joy and success of teaching. And—perhaps ironically—students will return the teacher's investment in their students success with the genuine respect the new teacher was hoping for in the first place.

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Thanks to Cindi, Carol, Jenny, Jennie and Ken 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 e-book form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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 six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

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Reading Instruction

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Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days..

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