Open Letter to a New Teacher

The strangest, albeit pretty wonderful, thing happened to me the other day.  I was helping clean up from dinner when my cell phone rang.  When my wife answered and then handed it to me, the Caller ID gave a Texas number.  I know very few people in Texas, and this number didn’t belong to any of them, so my next thought was “telemarketer” – I usually just hang up on those, but I took the call anyway.

It turns out that an aspiring teacher came across my resume via Google and decided to call me to ask for some advice on resources she could look to in order to prepare for her first year of teaching.  Ten years ago, I would have been freaked beyond words to receive a call out of the blue from a complete stranger, but since I have gone to great lengths to represent myself online, I actually took this as a) very flattering, and b) validation of the concept of networked learning – somebody else was able to increase their knowledge because I have established an online identity and made myself available (besides, it’s not all that different from getting a blog comment or a follow on Twitter from someone you don’t know).

I wasn’t able to talk at the time (between dinner and the kids’ bedtime gets a bit hectic), but she promised to send me her email address, to which I replied later that night.  After some shout-outs to my fellow educators on Twitter, I was able to offer the following advice (this is the truncated version; the real email is much more detailed):

My parting bit of advice was this: you can go through the best teacher prep program, read all the books, blogs, and magazines out there, and go to all the conferences, but so much of how we learn to teach comes from actual classroom experience – OJT!  At least, that’s how it was for me.

What advice could you have benefitted most from when you were just starting out?   Drafting this blog post I can already think of a few things I left out of my original email, but the topic is so vast, it’s hard to get everything in the first go-round.  If she’s reading, what other advice would you offer this soon-to-be teacher?


  • Thanks for the mention. “Mosaic of Thought” was suggested to me by a colleague a few years back when she, I and others had to prepare for a large inservice project. It’s nice to be able to pass on helpful advice that I’ve gotten.
    I appreciate that you mention in this post that you’ve worked hard to establish yourself online. The online presence of thoughtful teachers is very important.

  • I would say to keep in mind that these are real little people who are not finished works of art. Regardless of how many standardized tests we throw at them, they (the students) are not standard. Keep in mind that mandates and tests, and curriculums and standards come and go but if you can reach each student every day in some way, you’ve done a great job.

  • My best advice:

    Remember that the kids are people. If you treat them with respect they will appreciate that. Get to know them, they like that. No matter how tired or stressed you are, try to remember to enjoy your job. The kids sense that too.

  • A new teacher needs to develop some really thick skin. Not be negative but they will be tested in a variety of manners by both their students and unfortunately their peers and administrators. It is just the way it is. After they establish their teaching personality and gain the confidence their peers it gets easier.

  • Classroom management is key. Use a seating chart and enforce it. Establish a discipline pyramid and strategy for dealing with behavior. If you don’t have this foundation established, it won’t matter what you teach anyway, the students won’t be in an environment that is conducive to learning. Definitely use “First Days of School” by Harry Wong as a guide to start with.

  • One piece of advice: Let the students see that you love them and care about them.

    This does not mean that you are their friend. You are not. You are their teacher. But as a teacher, you care about what they have to say and what they think. You will genuinely listen to them. You will ask them questions that indicate that you care what they have to say and recognize that you can learn from them.

    When students see that you care about them and respect them, the feeling will become mutual and a real learning community will develop.

  • Be positive and realize the first year is a challenge on so many levels. Be flexible and make each day the best it can be. Read a lot and ask questions of everyone.

    I did the career change a few years ago and love my job now! Every day is different and I do have some control over what happens behind the door to my classroom. I try very hard to make sure that I create interesting lessons, reflect on what goes well and not so well with each activity and make changes as needed.

    Kids/teens are great and will often give you feedback (even when you don’t want it or ask for it).

  • You need to realize that you will be learning right along with them. You are not a finished product, just like the students. Keep a sense of humor because there will be times when you do something or a student does something and the appropriate thing to do is laugh.

  • For building:
    Network. Find people to talk to about teaching. This includes Twitter and Nings, but also people at your school or nearby schools that know your specifics.
    Know your students. Data is a collection of numbers and curriculum a list of ideas. Your students guide your instruction. Always keep them front and center in your mind, your planbook and your gradebook.
    Give it at least two years. You walk into your class on day one of your second year with a different attitude than you do in your first year.

    For not being torn down:
    Don’t take it personally. Your students were built to test you, your administrators are under pressures from their bosses, the state doesn’t have a clue what you do and parents are often focused on only their kids. Very little of the criticism you recieve will really have to do with the quality of your teaching. You have to know how good you are, but don’t confuse criticism with solid advice.

  • Ensure you are up to speed with making tables in a word processor – you’ll need them for class lists, rubrics, timetables… and endless other tasks.

    Don’t be scared to use ICT in education, in fact it is essential with this generation.

    Get familiar with Google Docs for peer editing and submission for teacher editing before publication.

    Don’t talk over classroom noise – wait for the students to be listening.

  • ~Never say you’ll do something that you aren’t prepared to do. There will be a day when that “one student” calls your bluff and if you aren’t prepared to follow through with it (no matter how ridiculous), you’ve lost them.
    ~Document everything.
    ~Have fun and love your job! I wake up everyday thankful to have found a career that I love and know that I make a difference.

  • Wear comfortable shoes.

  • […] Apace of Change gets a phone call from Texas. It’s a new teacher asking for advise. A of C sees it as an example of the internet building a network of change. So do I. […]

  • Thanks so much for all your comments, folks! Here’s another resource: 100 Helpful Websites for New Teachers, found via Kate Olson (whose blog also appears on the list).

  • I just read this blog and it was very nice to read. I am a sophomore in college now and I am taking a class that is making us subscribe to blogs and join social net works and such. Many of us thought these things were pointless. But after reading your blog post I am glad to hear that everything we are doing is going to help us in the long run. Thank you for the reassurance.

  • Thanks for stopping by to comment, Keyle. Just like any other tool, the usefulness of social networks, blogs, etc., comes down to how a person uses them. If you start your student teaching experience or your first year of teaching with several years worth of professional networking under your belt, you will have resources available to you that even many of your veteran colleagues won’t have. Good luck to you!

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