This was written by educator Nancy Flanagan for her Education Week Teacher blog, “Teacher in a Strange Land.” She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She is now an author and consultant.
1) Listen to advice (your mentor, teachers in the lounge, books for new teachers) -- but trust your gut. Your goal is becoming an authentic teacher, one with autonomy, mastery and purpose. You will inevitably build a practice by stealing ideas from hundreds of people. The concepts you retain and embed into daily work are those that align and resonate with your core beliefs about education, which will change over time. Learn to trust the little interior voice that tells you what “works” for your colleague — her behavior rewards system based on Jolly Ranchers, say -- may be totally wrong for you, in spite of the fact that her class walks quietly in a straight line and your kids are straggling and blabbing.
2) Don’t wear your really cool clothes to school. Don’t read articles like this, either, which suggest it’s easy or essential to find discounted designer items for your stylin’ school wardrobe. Your go-to daily wardrobe will consist of items that are comfortable, have pockets, do not reveal flesh (attractive or unattractive flesh) and are impervious to all bodily fluids and getting snagged on the pencil sharpener. Shoot for: neat, clean, kind of boring. Avoid: sexy, luxe, casual chic. Corollary: never store your designer purse in your desk drawer.
3) You’re the adult in the room. Don’t get into power struggles with students, where you feel compelled to come out ahead by cracking down (this applies to first-graders as well as seniors). Remind yourself: you’ve already won--you’re the teacher. You can afford to be magnanimous, to decide on outcomes that benefit all kids (even kids you don’t like), rather than gratifying your ever-present sense of control / retribution. You’re the adult. Repeat three times.
4) Watch other teachers teach. You will probably have to arrange this yourself. But do it, even if it means taking a fake sick day in November to watch colleagues in another school. Do it during your planning period, too. Good teachers will be flattered when you ask permission to sit in their classes for a half-hour. Once you watch a dozen other teachers, you’ll have a baseline for measuring your own successes and screw-ups, plus a basket of field-tested techniques.
5) Most important people to get on your side first: custodians. Make cleaning up at the end of the day a habit for students and yourself — out of genuine respect for custodians and their work. Keep your room tidy, and extend honest friendliness to cleaning staff. It’s good karma--and it means the custodian will hustle to your room when someone throws up.
6) Stuff is not teaching. I knew a teacher who had 25 pre-laminated, super-cute bulletin boards--which she kept filed, by month, in color-coded rolling crates. She did all her Xeroxing before school started. Her book baskets had perky bows and her door had gingham curtains. And her teaching was rote and sterile.
7) Don’t patronize teacher stores. Nobody needs expensive bulletin board borders or retail-priced “Good Job!!” stickers. Anything you find at a teacher store can be purchased for less, elsewhere — without cloying commercial images of school. Invite kids to answer questions on your (chart paper-covered) walls. Snag 75%-off calendars in February, then cut them apart as artwork displays. Buy Dora the Explorer bandaids to acknowledge emotional boo-boos or outstanding work (even HS freshmen love them), dollar-store scissors and remnant-bin books. Be funky, creative and cheap when stocking your classroom.
8) Set aside a weekly prep time. Extremely disciplined teachers might choose Friday afternoon, but the advantage of waiting until Sunday evening is that you can work with a glass of wine in hand, feet up in a recliner and awesome music playing. In 31 years of teaching, I never abandoned the Ritual of Sunday Night. The planning and prep work you do may evaporate by Tuesday, but knowing you’re all set when you arrive at school Monday morning is priceless.
9) Just as broken bones are stronger where they heal, fractured relationships with students can turn into improved communication with your whole class. You will undoubtedly have it out with certain students, over time. You’d be surprised how often they minimize incidents that haunt you for days. You’d also be surprised at how much they want to be on your good side, once you offer them the chance, in public--and how their classmates will respect your forgiving nature.
10) Expect to make hideous mistakes. Expect to have crushing disappointments. Expect to feel like quitting, at least a dozen times. Expect to anticipate vacations with pathetic longing. And know that veteran teachers also experience these things, Just ask them.
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