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Advice for New Teachers

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

Don't miss Part 2 of this article.

No one knows better than a first-year teacher that the beginning of the school year bristles with anticipation—and not just for the kids. Yet, despite the excitement, the weeks before school are often filled with unsettling thoughts: “Will I ever be able to fill all those hours until lunch?” “What if a parent comes to meet me and can only say, ‘You’re the teacher?!” “Am I going to be able to keep the vows I made to myself to treat my students in a fair and loving way?”

There can be many scary feelings to face just before your role as “teacher” becomes real. To put those worries in perspective, take a moment and fantasize; picture your idea of a perfect first year. Imagine how you want to feel, the climate you create in your classroom and some of the ideals you have set for yourself. This vision can be a big help in your personal goal-setting process.

For example, most beginning teachers want to be competent and creative in a classroom where students are inquisitive and on task. They envision themselves as flexible and fun, enjoying their job, respected by parents and looked upon as a valuable addition by their school staff.

These are great expectations—and important ones. But it is also important not to let your expectations put undue pressure on you! Here are some suggestions to turn your beginning teacher’s dreams into achievable goals.

I Want my Students to Behave

You know you have the ability to think of a dynamic lesson and design a terrific bulletin board. It may be difficult to feel as confident about managing a roomful of students. There may be days when you will worry,“These kids must not like me at all because if they did, they would never act like this! What am I doing wrong?” Beginning teachers are often torn between wanting to develop a friendly relationship with their students and fearing that doing so will ultimately undo their sense of authority. Not true! Your students need and want to believe that you’re responsible and in charge, but you can be very friendly, warm and personal and still be the “adult” they need.

You can create a warm and positive climate in your classroom by identifying and considering your students’ needs and interests. You can meet students’ needs for belonging and control by involving them in decisions that concern them, like allowing them to choose which assignment to do first, or even letting them choose a partner for a particular assignment. Simply being able to make choices may give some of your students a real boost of confidence and often improves the chances for cooperation because it meets their need for control within limits you determine. Plus, making choices is an important step toward developing individual responsibility and decision-making skill.

Often beginning teachers feel insecure when other teachers walk by their classroom or the principal passes by their kids in the lunch line. Sometimes it’s hard not to panic and think, “ I know I would look like a better teacher if my students were not so noisy.” It’s true that part of your competence as a teacher will be reflected by your students’ behavior, but certainly not all of it. Try not to jump to conclusions or put a lot of energy into managing what other people think of you. Your primary concern is the quality of your relationships with your students and the overall climate in which you and your students coexist.

A very important challenge for any teacher is the ability to separate who your students are from the behaviors they exhibit, especially their negative or disruptive behaviors. In other words, can you still perceive a student as worthy of your attention and care even though she forgot her homework again, walked away from a mess he made or even said your assignment was stupid? Your ability to recognize that the students are not their behaviors will allow you to accept them without necessarily accepting those behaviors.

Be sure that your students have plenty to do. Always have a set of “emergency plans,” quick and easy backups for when things don’t quite go as expected—or take as long as you had hoped. Overplan! Undirected kids have a way of turning time on their hands into classroom disruptions.

Finally, a classroom atmosphere that emphasizes responsibility and cooperation, in which you model the positive behaviors you would like them to demonstrate and attempt to meet their needs for power and structure, tends to minimize the kinds of resistance and opposition that lead to so many classroom conflicts.

I Want my Classroom to Run Smoothly

Time management and classroom planning are always more challenging for new teachers who are often dealing with certain management issues for the first time. Policies regarding school attendance and lunch count, home visits and field trips are not necessarily things you would automatically know (or even be expected to know), so ask! Everyone else had to ask at some point, and being aware of important policies and procedures will immediately make your life easier.

Another realization will help, too, on days that unexpectedly turn hectic: It may be your students—not you—who are being overwhelmed. Sometimes a great learning experience goes down the tubes simply because the students do not have the independence and basic learning skills necessary to do the work. Don’t assume that your students have down pat skills such as listening, using basic tools (like a ruler or even the pencil sharpener), moving nondisruptively into small groups or putting their materials away when they’re finished. While it may seem time-consuming to have students practice these skills, devoting time early on to practicing skills, routines and behaviors your students will need to succeed in your class will save all of you many hours and much grief later.

Even your own enthusiasm and creativity can be a problem at times. One of the best things about new teachers is the excitement, creativity and enthusiasm so many of them bring to their work. And after collecting ideas and materials during your teacher training, it’s hard not to want to try everything at once. Nonetheless, being sensitive to the students’ needs and energy can pay off in a big way. High levels of enthusiasm may, at times, be too much for your kids to handle. On days when children seem hyper, it may help to tone down your energy or soften your voice. Be careful to avoid the tendency to present too much too soon, offer too many activities at once or make too many changes before your kids can handle them. Save some of your more incredible activities for slower times, when they’ll be appreciated and when your students have mastered the routines and logistics they’ll need to succeed. You don’t want to run out of steam in the first week!

Start slowly and simply. Establish a daily routine your kids can handle. Leave room for some student decision-making, but be careful to not overwhelm. Your students may not have much skill or confidence with decision-making yet so avoid offering too many choices, or choices that are too open-ended, at least in the beginning. Responsible decision-making and self-management requires certain skills and trust, which may take some time to develop. Once you and your class feel comfortable with one another and have some of the basics down, you can expand available options.

Remember too, that you will always run into events you simply cannot plan for or control. As the newcomer on staff, you may be the one who has to cope with major changes, including the possibility of room changes or even being moved to a different class or grade level a few weeks into the school year. At the very least you will have to accommodate new students, transfers, pullouts, equipment failures and last-minute schedule changes. This demands confidence, flexibility and, most important, a sense of humor. Nobody likes these inconveniences, even seasoned veterans. Hang in there and don’t hesitate to ask others to share their specific strategies for coping with these problems.

I Want my Students to Succeed

Everyone needs to succeed. In order to take the kinds of risks necessary to learn and grow, your students must perceive that success is within their reach. This means you need to learn a great deal about your students’ interests, cognitive abilities and learning skills before simply presenting content or assigning tasks. Yet with all the pressure to “get through the curriculum,” it’s easy to forego this important step. Nonetheless, if your intention is to encourage all of your students to learn, grow and be successful, you’ll need to start with them wherever they are—and that’s likely to be different from one child to another. (To be honest, if your intention is simply to cover content, you don’t even need kids! Without assessing what they know and what they need, you’re bound to be teaching over the heads of some students, and boring others to tears, neither of which is likely to result in academic growth.)

You may eventually want to vary your methods of instruction to include small groups, learning centers, self-selection or learning contracts, individualized assignments and student-teacher conferences. Keep in mind that working with different strategies will require various self-management skills your students may not have yet developed (or, with older kids, had a chance to practice for a while). While teaching these skills may appear a rather challenging and time-consuming task, keep in mind that the more independent and responsible your students become early on, the more you’ll be able to accomplish together all year.

Again, start slowly and keep things simple. Let your students know when they may and may not come to you with questions and, if you aren’t available to help, offer them the option of asking a classmate or switching to a different task until you’re free. Keep independent work and routines relatively simple at first—things the kids can do on their own. While some of these assignments may seem like busywork to you, remember that your intention is building confidence, independence and self-management. You’ve got a whole year to focus on content! It takes time, energy and practice to establish these skills and routines. As the students become better able to work on their own, you will be able to make the work more meaningful by increasing the variety of materials, the number of choices, the amount of work required and the intellectual processes required.

Use their mistakes as opportunities to teach, shape behavior or encourage them to make different choices. Your patience and persistence can encourage them to keep trying. Schools traditionally have been very negative and critical, and many people assume that we need to be this way or kids won’t learn or take us seriously. Not true! In fact, a consistent focus on errors and omissions, or a tendency to shame or humiliate students (even in the misguided interest of improving their performance or behavior) will undermine your attempts to provide emotional safety and can ultimately restrict growth in all students, not just in the one being criticized. Focusing on the positive, even when it seems as though a student has done just about everything wrong, allows you to build on the student’s strengths—whatever they are! This approach can have an extremely positive impact on the climate of your classroom.

When a child has turned in work that you know can be better, how about telling her it’s a “great first draft,” rather than scolding her for sloppy work? When another turns in a story with many misspellings, punctuation errors, incomplete sentences and no capital letters, how about noting the one thing he got right (perhaps excellent handwriting or an interesting title) instead of wearing out the red pencil marking every error? Then defy tradition by using the mistakes as a basis for your instruction—instead of a bad grade! Start with what they’re doing well and teach them the rest! You may really have to look for good points sometimes, but your positive focus will be tremendously encouraging and appreciated.

Read Part 2 of this article.

NOTE: The original version of this article appeared in a 1993 issue of Instructor Magazine.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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