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A Practical Guide for New Teachers

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I remember my first day teaching -- back in the day. After a half-day of staff meetings, a tour of the building with the school secretary, and a hearty good luck from my building principal, I was on my own -- with 30 quivering kindergarteners. Some were crying (or their mothers were); some were sucking their thumbs (or their fathers were); a few were screaming in the hall, refusing to enter the room at all. The rest were dismantling the bookcase, teasing the rabbit, over-feeding the fish, and getting grimy fingerprints all over my freshly covered bulletin boards. Suddenly, I felt a migraine coming on. The year went downhill from there!

The situation is different today, of course. For one thing, today's new teachers can rely on the advice of Yvonne Bender and her New Teacher's Handbook. Included: Tips on classroom management, record keeping, getting along with parents and administrators, more.

Yvonne Bender, the author of New Teacher's Handbook, has 30 years experience teaching in the Baltimore, Maryland, public schools. A nominee for Maryland Teacher of the Year, Bender has taught reading, English, math, history, social studies, and science to emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, gifted, and average students in elementary, middle, and high schools. Throughout her career, Bender advised and mentored numerous teacher-interns and first year teachers.

After earning a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Baltimore in 1968 and a Master of Education degree from Loyola College in 1974, Bender continued post-graduate courses in education, student teaching, and liberal studies at Towson University from 1968 through 1991. For several years, Bender also taught graduate level courses in methods and curriculum at Loyola.

Bender holds a Maryland State Department of Education advanced professional teaching certificate for English (grades 5-12) and special education (K-12) and is a retired member of the National Education Association, The Maryland State Teachers' Association, and The Teachers' Association of Baltimore County.

Bender, who also is the author of A Parent's Guide to Child Control or Who's the Boss Here, Anyway? lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Education World asked Bender to share her classroom secrets -- and survival tactics --with our readers.

Education World:Why did you decide to write The New Teacher's Handbook?

Yvonne Bender:Throughout my teaching career, I mentored many talented teachers who were disillusioned and frustrated during their first year in the classroom because they weren't properly prepared for the realities and demands of their new profession. As I reviewed the written materials available to help them, I found the majority offered impractical strategies and motivational platitudes. So, I decided to write a book for new teachers that actually delineated the realities and demands of teaching, and offered viable strategies for dealing with them.

EW: What are the three most important things a new teacher should do to prepare for his or her first year?

YB: In order to prepare for their first year, new teachers need to learn as much as they can about their students, their school's policies and procedures, and the curriculum they are to teach.

EW: Most back-to-school articles recommend that students help write their own classroom rules, and that those rules be written as "dos" ("Do respect your classmates' right to learn"), instead of "don'ts" ("Don't talk when others are working"). Is that good advice for new teachers too?

YB: Because it takes a great deal of skill to not only elicit viable rules from students, but also to work with them in the egalitarian atmosphere created after having done so, it's not a good idea for inexperienced teachers to use this rule-writing procedure. (If it's school policy to have students help write their own rules, the new teacher should prepare a list of rules and work diligently to elicit those rules from his students.) Rules should be worded so they are crystal clear and unambiguous; the rule, "Don't talk when others are working" is clearer and less open to interpretation (and argument) than the rule, "Do respect your classmates' right to learn."

EW: How should a new teacher who's having difficulty with behavior management deal with the situation?

YB: First, new teachers must understand that behavior management is a challenge to all teachers because many variables are involved; there are no pat answers to behavior management problems. To resolve those difficulties, a teacher must make an objective assessment of what's actually happening in the classroom by asking such questions as:

  • Are my perceptions regarding my students' behavior correct?
  • Am I misinterpreting developmentally appropriate or culturally different behavior as willful uncooperativeness?
  • Am I overreacting at the first signs of minor student misbehavior and causing small incidents to escalate into major confrontations?
  • Are my expectations appropriate for my students? Are they clearly stated? Do I consistently and fairly enforce them?
  • Are my lessons appropriate for my students? Does the material seem too easy or too difficult? Is my pacing too fast or too slow? Do the activities I use address my students' learning styles?
Honest answers to those kinds of probing questions will help the teacher pinpoint the areas she needs to work on to solve behavior management problems. If behavior problems have escalated to the point that the teacher seldom, if ever, can complete a lesson, however, she must seek (in writing) the help of an appropriate mentor, chairperson, supervisor, or administrator.

EW: Many parents view inexperienced teachers with a certain degree of wariness. How can a new teacher quickly gain parents' trust?

YB: Parents' trust is gained through open, honest, and frequent communication. That communication needs to begin early in the school year with an introductory phone call or letter and continue throughout the year with every effort being made to keep parents informed of positive as well as negative happenings. That type of communication helps parents understand that the teacher is working in their children's best interest.

EW: In your book, you talk about the "golden rule for communicating with administrators." What is that rule and how can a new teacher implement it?

YB: The golden rule for communication with administrators is to make sure it takes place, especially when issues regarding student safety, school policy, community relations, or serious parent complaints are involved. That is best accomplished by scheduling a meeting with the appropriate administrator, bringing the necessary documentation to the meeting, and taking notes during the meeting.

EW: What is the most common mistake new teachers make -- and how can they avoid making it?

YB: New teachers often make the mistake of trying to build rapport with their students by attempting to be their "best buddies." This strategy backfires when the teacher must place demands on the students and they become resentful and rebellious. To avoid this ugly scenario, it's best for the new teacher to cultivate a respectful and business-like approach toward students. Once the teacher has developed his own distinctive teaching style (usually after the first year), he may choose to relate to his students on a more personal level.

EW: What does good record keeping have to do with good teaching, and what kinds of records should a new teacher keep?

YB: Good record keeping is an essential part of good teaching. Accurate records give the teacher an objective view of both classroom dynamics and student progress and, because they provide verification, they also can improve communication with parents, staff members, and administrators. New teachers should keep copies of anything they write to or for others, notes they receive from others, and student work samples, in addition to such mandated records as daily student attendance and grades.

EW: You advise new teachers to be careful about taking the advice of veteran teachers? Why should they be wary of such advice? Whose advice should a new teacher take?

YB: When a veteran teacher offers a new teacher advice about how to teach a lesson or discipline a class, she is speaking as a teacher who already has developed her own teaching style. Those techniques might work well for her, but they may prove to be a disaster for the new teacher. A new teacher should seek advice from veteran teachers who are respected by administrators and fellow teachers, and then adapt that advice to fit his own personality, teaching style, and classroom dynamics.

EW: How many weeks, months, or years of experience does it take before a teacher feels confident and competent in the classroom?

YB: Generally speaking, it takes about two years before a teacher feels comfortable in the classroom. That doesn't mean, however, that first and second year teachers don't have periods of time when they feel self-assured and proficient, or that highly experienced teachers never have moments of doubt.

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