Back to School: Ten Soul-Saving Tips for New Teachers

tips for new teachersSusan Anglada Bartley, M.Ed, is the winner of the 2014 OnPoint Prize for Excellence in Education. In 2013, she was awarded the NEA’s H. Councill Trenholm Human & Civil Rights award for her commitment to creating greater equity in public education. She teaches AP English and coordinates the Advanced Scholar Program at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. Here she offers ten useful tips for new teachers.

1. Make a seating chart. Do not get sucked in by the kids who ask if they can please sit together. Do not get sucked in by the idea that you will make kids like you by allowing them to sit together. Do not get sucked in by the idea that seating charts are old-fashioned. Kids know that teachers who are truly organized will make a seating chart. Don’t budge. Don’t make deals. Expect grumbling. Deal with it. You just prevented major trouble that could have taken down your entire curriculum. Do wait and observe all classes for three to five days before making the chart. Who are your extroverts and exceptionally quiet students? Find out if you have any vision or hearing impaired students. Make appropriate plans. In three weeks, review your seating chart. Is something not working out? Move the kids. No big drama. They come in. Their seat has been changed. Period. Let’s learn!

2. Give up on constant quiet. Learning isn’t quiet. Sometimes assessment and writing need to be quiet. Actual learning requires processing, movement, and interaction. Create a curriculum that allows kids to read, speak, and write every single day. If they know that they will get to work together in their table groups for a good chunk of the class, they will be way more likely to comply during the time when you ask for quiet. Be strict about it the first few times and they will get the routine. They will love your class because you understand that communication is part of learning…and talking is okay when you are asking them to ponder, embrace, or reject new ideas.

3. Don’t be afraid of your students. Some teachers have to overcome a major sense of fear about facing their students. Internalize the idea that all kids want the opportunity to learn and grow. If you do not believe this about them, they will never believe you. You will need all of the self-confidence that you can muster. Kids can smell a mouse. If you know you are a mouse…you need a mantra. Try some version of this: “The students need to learn and it is my responsibility to teach them,” or “My job on Earth is to make sure these young people learn and grow.” The ideas that kids don’t want to learn, can’t learn, or come from families that don’t care about learning are all excuses. Other excuses (some valid) include the lack of supplies, the lack of time, being overwhelmed, etc. These excuses can take a teacher down…and the kids go down with her. Have faith that other people before you have carved out a path to do the job exceptionally well. You can do it too.

4. Make your first and second year about figuring it out. If you really have that deep level commitment, you will cry. You will break down. You will want to beat your fists against the walls of the system. But you will return to your practice. You will return to figuring out your plan for tomorrow. You will return to your fellow teachers. You will love your students through it. You will see some things working and hold onto them like little curricular diamonds that you have cut from jagged rock in the subterrestrial world of new teacher angst. You will start to see that you are getting better. You will make it.

5. If you want to be an exceptional teacher, you will need a source of spiritual strength. This could be the night sky, the moon, your baby’s face, the ocean, your garden. It could be a major religion. You will not make it in this career without something that you can turn to when your heart is broken. It can’t be your partner, parents, or friends. If you want to be as excellent as I think you do, there will be too much. There will be things you can’t control or change. A glass of wine might help some people make it through the night, but it won’t make you a great teacher, it won’t give you the longevity you are looking for, it won’t be real answer. You have to be willing to kiss the ground and ask for strength to do this job. My spiritual source doesn’t answer when I ask to win the lottery, to have a second home in Puerto Rico, to stay young forever. But I see opportunities, ideas, and relationships open when I ask for the opportunity to be of great service, and of great faith. Ask. Bend down low, friends.

6. If you are hired late (like two days before the year starts), plan every inch of your first two weeks, and ask for help. For those two weeks, do not give homework at all. Give yourself time to plan two more weeks.

7. NEVER, EVER give busy work. Do not fall into the trap of assigning busy work. This will make kids resent you and feel like you are abusing their time. If you don’t have anything meaningful for them to do, do not give them something meaningless to try to save face. If you plan well, this should not happen. If it does, just do better next time to create a more meaningful and well-timed lesson.

8. Start with the assumption that all students wish to pursue a college or post-high school education. If you walk into your room assuming that some kids can make it to college, while others can never walk that path, they will know. Resentments will build. They will feel discriminated against and they won’t listen to you. You will lose their trust. But if you chose to empower them all by sharing resources and encouraging them all toward college, they will appreciate the opportunity. Shine the light. If you are in a high poverty environment, remember this second mantra: As a teacher, I am a guide toward a brighter future. Become that mantra. The level of desperation, madness, and chaos that is visited upon some of your students in their homes may seem un-navigable. It may actually be un-navigable. Their life may be a swamp full of crocodiles, and those crocodiles may be their own parents or siblings, or their lack of parents. You will have students who are homeless. You will also have students from impoverished families who have incredible parents who are counting on you to help their children reach college. Respect that. Be a bridge. As Mary Oliver says, make yourself a light.

9. Never post complaints about your students or a specific student on social media. That is unprofessional, poor form, and frankly, a desperate cry for help. Write in your journal, cry to a teacher friend, but do not put negative energy out there for the world to see unless you want negative comments about your teaching out there as well. Do not undermine your colleagues or your profession. Find your way through. You can do it.

10. Be solutions-oriented with your building administrators. Work under the assumption that they would prefer not to have massive conflicts with their staff members. If you have a real problem, do not let it fester. Politely request assistance and see what happens. They are very busy, but they should have some idea how to help you. When you speak with them, present possible solutions. For example, if you need supplies or funding for a field trip, mention the money you are raising on your own or through Donor’s Choose or with a NEA grant. They will most likely see that you are putting your best foot forward and help as much as they can. If you really run into a bad situation with poor administration (which has not been my experience), turn your head back to your curriculum and continue to perfect your craft. Keep evidence of excellent teaching by being able to show student growth. Don’t freak out. Don’t let them drive you crazy. You have work to do. Your soul’s calling, your craft, always trumps the latest directive. If you keep your focus on empowering the kids, you can’t go wrong. Good luck!

  • #8 is dead wrong. Or rather, you need to take a step back and examine your assumption that going to college is somehow better than going straight into the working world. As college-educated folks, we have a tendency to assume that college is for the better class of people.

    It is legitimate to challenge students to consider how hard it is to make a living in the ever-shrinking blue collar world, but it is not legitimate to suggest to them that entering that world is somehow less worthy.

  • laMissy

    “For example, if you need supplies or funding for a field trip, mention the money you are raising on your own or through Donor’s Choose or with a NEA grant.”

    Whoa! Why should begging for money from strangers on the internet be part of a beginning teacher’s repertoire? This makes the wrong-headed assumption that the teacher, not the school system, is responsible for providing what is necessary to teach. I’m not denying it’s a reality, but we don’t need to make it normative behavior.

  • I really like most of what you post but I agree with Peter that number eight comes off as elitist at best though I am sure that is not your intent.

    I teach in a small rural high school and as such, I teach five different subjects. Three science classes including two that are geared towards the college bound and two CTE woodworking courses including wooden boat building.

    My background for twenty five years was in woodworking and I made a respectable living working with interesting people doing interesting work. I volunteered to teach the woods classes because frankly not everyone wants or needs to go to college and our school was failing those students.
    Think about it, do you really care if your carpenter or plumber has a college degree or a higher education? Of course not, you want competence. There is a real prejudice towards those who make a living working with their hands until you need them. Or like many “professionals” one takes a class in woodworking, metal working or glass blowing because the tedium of much of white collar work finally get to them and they want to create something real.

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  • Linda St.John

    I really needed that!! Thanks a lot. Very well done. ( morale is so low with the changes going on, with the administrators moved and teachers who’ve left, the disastrous replacements and resulting chaos…even seniors staging a “sit-in” !)….so your article reminds me of a wonderful passage in Desiderata…as perennial as the grass…

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