Letter to First Year Teacher Me

Back to future-deloran-dmc-time machine-terabass
By Terabass (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
I am an eternal optimist and truly believe in my heart that time travel will be possible one day. It is with this belief I write this letter that I will one day travel back in time to deliver to “First Year Teacher Me”. Yes, I realize that if in fact future time travel is possible, I would have probably already delivered this but let’s not get caught up in the details of the space time continuum or the true role of a Flux Capacitor.

Dear First Year Teacher Me,
As you are reading this letter I know you are sitting in your desk very early in the morning getting ready for the school day to start. You are staring at a blank sheet of paper because you have no idea what to teach because you never truly had a mentor to help get you going. Well, look no further, your mentor is here and I plan on clearing up a few things you never learned in college.
First, there is no such thing as controlling a class. Yes, you took that classroom management class where they taught you about Glasser, Piaget, and even some Skinner. You even put together a nice binder for a final project where you made a nice cover page and had appendixes of nice rules and consequences. Well, I have news for you; you cannot and will not ever control a kid. When a kid says, “make me”, you need to understand that you can’t. Rather than focusing on controlling the kids in your class you need to build relationships built on honestly and respect.
Next, content is not king. In fact, it is not even heir to the throne in your room. Very few of the classes you took in college will have a direct connection to the content you are teaching in your classroom. In some cases, you will be learning right along with your kids and that’s ok. You don’t need to be the expert and being honest with the kids will go a long way in building positive relationships. Despite what talking heads and politicians will like you to believe, the content crazy culture of standardized testing is not good teaching. Don’t teach to the test. Period.

Another piece of wisdom I would like to impart on you is to surround yourself with positive role models and peers. They will be there when you fall flat on your face and fail and also be there to put you in your place when you start to think you have all the answers.

As your first parent teacher conference comes up, you will no doubt be nervous and bit uneasy. You will think of parents as someone you need to justify your job to or in some cases as the “enemy”. Neither of those thoughts are true. Be open, honest, and find ways to build a positiverelationship with parents. I would suggest you send home a minimum of five positive calls/emails/notes a week. Parents love this and it is a nice way to end the week focusing on something positive.

You will get roped into boring meetings and training sessions that will suck the very life out of you…sorry, haven’t figured this one out yet. J
Many ideas you had about schools due to your own experiences are not necessarily right in today’s classrooms. Here are a few things I know you will be tempted to do because you know no better:
  • Hand out detentions – While discipline in extreme cases is warranted, I urge you to build relationships first built on trust and respect rather than fear and punishment.
  • Grade everything a kid does – Not everything a student turns in or does in class needs to be graded. Athletes are only “graded” on game day…apply that to your classroom.
  • Kick a kid out of class – With the exception of extreme cases this should never, ever be done.
  • Eat the “Double Spirit Burger” in the school cafeteria – Just trust me on this one and don’t do it.
  • Give extra credit for tissue boxes – Always make sure a student’s grade reflect their learning…not their behavior.
Before you do anything on this list just ask yourself the question, “how would I react if I was a parent of one of the kids in my class?” I’ve got news for you; you will have a couple of sons who will test many of your beliefs on education when they start school. There are many more things I will need to pass on but I will save that for another time. Just remember that you are a mediocre teacher at best…but there is hope for you. Never think you have it all figured out and always try to make each year better than the previous. The moment you think you have all the answers and that you are done improving, it will be time for you to head over to a new profession. Surround yourself with educators better than you and learn everything you can from them. Be a sponge and always remember that every single decision you make must be centered on the kids in your class. If not, don’t do it.
Future You
PS: Join Twitter and start a blog…


Anonymous said...

Good read. Thanks!

jvnanu said...

As a teacher in the early part of my career, I see a lot of great advice here. I'm going to share this link with those colleagues of mine who are also first or second year teachers trying to figure out exactly what it is that we are doing every day.

Mr. Brzezicki said...

I've been teaching for 15 years and this is a great reminder of my early years (and for last week!!)...great work...

Rest assured, this will be shared with my student teacher next week...

Sra. Spanglish said...

Could you take that back in time to 1st year me too? It would help a lot!

Anonymous said...

Great advice! As a pre-service teacher less than a year away from my own first year of teaching it is always nice to hear advice from more experienced teachers. I appreciate your tips and will be passing this on to other pre-service teachers.

Elaan said...

That double spirit burger sounds nasty! :)

I loved this post. The only thing that I thought differently about is your "kick a kid out of class" - not sure if this also means having a couple of minutes time-out in the hall while the student and you, or the student and others, have a break from each other. THAT, for some students (and for me!) is invaluable sometimes. And pretty harmless in my mind.

Everything you said is brilliant. Thanks for writing this and saying what needs to be said. We should all write such a letter to ourselves to remind us about what's important.

Kate said...

I'm an education student just starting my first field placement... great advice, thanks!

Marie said...

Thanks for the great advice! As someone who is about to start student teaching, I have found myself asking the same question to many of the teachers I meet, “what do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started teaching?” I have the unique perspective of entering this field mid-career and fully appreciate the saying: “If I had only known back then, what I know now.” I hope 10 years from now I am still asking those questions to educators and doing all I can to learn from those around me. The last three sentences of your letter should be not only given to first year teachers, but also to 5 year teachers, 10 year teachers, and throughout your career to remind yourself that in order to continue to be the best teacher you can for you students, you will have to continue to learn throughout your whole career.

Kathleen C. said...

I agree with you on many of your ideas and tips for a first year teacher. Next school year, I will be a first year teacher with a classroom of my own and students of my own. This is very exciting, yet nerve racking all in one. I like your idea of sending home a minimum of five positive calls/emails/notes to the parents or guardians. I have heard from many other teachers that this helps to build a relationship with the parents. Working with special needs students, some of their behavior is not always appropriate so I’m sure the parents/guardians see more negative than positive behavior sometimes, so it would be nice to give them positive feedback when I notice the positive behavior. I learned a great deal from your experience as a teacher and hope to use it in student teaching as well as in my own future classroom.

Amanda - Lewis Grad Stu. said...

I agreed to a lot of what you said. I do not feel that teachers must give homework. I think some students might have a difficult time getting homework done at home. It doesn’t always show that the student is lazy, but that they just don’t have the support at home to get the work accomplished. That then, in turn, reflects negatively on students grades. Projects that are given should be worked on and finished during class. Also I agree with that what you learn in school really doesn’t help you prepare for teaching like actually doing it. I am fortunate to be a parapro at a school and while I continue to work through my masters program I do not feel like what I am learning really applies to the multi-needs students that I hope to one day teach. I learn more every day by going in the classroom and trying new things then I do reading a book about an educational theorist who has been dead for decades.

Ted said...

Bravo! I whole heartedly agree with you. I think the foundation of successful teaching is in building positive relationships, not just with students, but with parents as well. I encourage parents to visit my classroom, I email them every week, and I connect them with my classroom through a “virtual classroom” web site. I approach my students with respect. In my educational philosophy (one aspect of becoming a teacher that I took away from the process) I write that students should be talked to and not at. I firmly believe that mutual respect goes a lot farther than fear and punishment. Engagement in the classroom is key. I use the fifteen minute rule: if a transition does not occur after fifteen minutes, you will lose the students. That’s not to say that an activity or a project can’t go beyond fifteen minutes, but the activity or project must be engaging enough and varied enough to take the students on a journey beyond fifteen minutes.
With regard to homework, I fell into the group committed to assigning homework. I felt that we as teachers should go beyond the content and teach students responsibility. I translated that into more work for the students. One thing about being a good teacher is always reflecting and modifying what you do. I always ask the question: “Could I have done that differently?” I asked that after I got into a debate on homework with some administrators. It made me change my policy on homework from graded assignment to recommended practice. You referenced athletes. I think that is a good analogy and I use it as well. Just as athletes are not graded until the game or the event occurs, we should not grade our students until that time as well. But I do feel that students need to practice. I teach math at the high school level, and practice is essential to success. I feel that an hour or two each day on a specific topic is not enough for my students to gain mastery, they must practice. I wouldn’t show a football player the playbook, take it away from him, and then expect that player to perform at mastery level on game day. Just as athletes practice and train year round, I give my students the opportunity to practice to improve their skills. To build responsibility, I recommend that they do it, but I do not force them to, it is their decision.

Anonymous said...

I just happened to stumble upon this and I am so glad I did. I am in college and just now starting to get into my Education major classes... and am already getting very nervous about teaching. But all my questions and fears were addressed in this short blog post! It is very encouraging and i will most definitely pass this on to my other future teacher friends... Thank you for this.