Teaching is a stressful and sometimes emotionally draining profession whether one’s in her 5th year or her 25th, but it’s especially hard on those new to the job. The first few years are taxing as one learns how to plan curriculum, provide feedback, and manage a classroom all on one’s own.
Because I know all too well the difficulties of adjusting to the responsibilities placed on educators, I’ve compiled a list of mistakes every new teacher should avoid. Knowing these common pitfalls and how to avoid them can make all the difference in the beginning stages of one’s career.
Mistake #1 — Wanting Everyone to Like You
Wanting people to like us is human nature, but it can be detrimental to a new teacher. It’s important to establish and maintain a friendly and approachable persona while remaining professional at the same time. This can be a difficult balance to strike as many new teachers confuse being “cool” with being “respected”.
New teachers, for example, often feel the need to sell themselves to their students, sometimes treating kids like buddies in an effort to win them over. This is so not good. Remaining “friendly but firm” is a rule of thumb I share with student teachers and interns. Students need to know that teachers genuinely care about them and want to help, but they also need to trust that the teacher is the superior in the room who will maintain structure and safety.
If a kid does something she shouldn’t, sticking to the rules and consequences will earn teachers far more respect than letting her get away with something in an effort to be “the cool teacher”. And you know what? Some students, colleagues, parents, and administrators aren’t going to like certain teachers. And that’s OK. It is possible to be both cool and well-respected by many (probably not all), but not at the expense of a positive and productive learning environment.
Mistake #2 — Neglecting to Follow Through
Once teachers establish a “friendly but firm” demeanor, it’s critical that they follow through with promises and punishments. If a teacher has warned a student that s/he’ll confiscate a cell phone the next time s/he sees the student texting in class, this better be what happens. I’ve learned the unfortunate lesson that idle threats do nothing but plant in students’ minds the idea that the teacher doesn’t really mean what he says, only leading to trouble down the road.
Mistake #3 — Failing to Establish Clear Rules and Routines
Believe it or not, students crave order, and they expect teachers to provide it. Clearly communicating what’s expected of students and how they should go about turning in assignments or obtaining absent work makes students feel secure. Teachers must convey these rules and routines at the beginning of the school year and be prepared to repeat them often for the first month or two. Once students nail them, the remainder of the year will run a lot more smoothly than if no rules and routines were in place from the start.
Mistake #5 — Being Inflexible
Many new teachers like to plan out their lessons and units in detail, as well they should. A problem, however, arises when teachers are unwilling to waver on these plans. Sometimes a well-structured lesson or unit simply doesn’t work for students, and it’s important to be flexible enough to scrap what’s ineffective for a new plan of action. Being cognizant of students’ needs, learning styles, and signs that they “don’t get it” and being willing to adjust curriculum based on those factors is essential to good teaching and learning.
Mistake #6 — Putting Everything in the Grade Book
Teachers do not need to include Every.Single.Thing. students do in the grade book. If they do, there will be time for nothing else in life. Some assignments and tasks are strictly formative in nature, meaning teachers should use them to inform their practice rather than use them as accurate measures of students’ mastery.
A teacher who has taught a lesson on parts of speech, for example, can very easily determine where understanding and confusion lie by walking around to observe groups of students working and intervening as necessary. These observations should be used to determine whether students are ready to move on to the next step in the lesson or whether reteaching is required, not as an indicator of their mastery of content.
Being selective about what goes in the grade book has a number of benefits. Not only does it make grades more reflective of students’ summative knowledge of content and ability to meet course expectations, but it also leaves time for teachers to reflect on their craft and to employ more effective strategies to increase student understanding. Perhaps most importantly, it affords teachers time to recharge once the day ends.
Mistake #7 — Allowing School to Take Over Your Life
It’s true that in order to be a lasting and effective educator, teachers need to be willing to “live the life”. This means spending evenings, weekends, holidays, and summers planning, grading, taking classes or attending workshops, and worrying about students. This does NOT, however, mean giving up one’s personal time, hobbies, and relationships altogether.
Many new teachers find themselves coming in to school early and leaving late every day that first or second year, spending very little time on themselves in the process. New teachers do have to put in a little more work time than veteran teachers because their skills are not yet honed, but they should not sacrifice time for themselves entirely. Veteran teachers are great resources for new teachers because they have learned when to give the job their all and when to take a break for themselves. Striking balance is essential to both physical and mental health, two necessities of effective teaching.
Mistake #8 — Taking Things Personally
Teaching carries with it an emotional burden that, if left unchecked, can become insufferable and cause for leaving the profession. I, for example, have made the drive home in tears many a times. Still, it’s imperative that new teachers learn to not take everything that happens in the classroom personally.
Students will call teachers names, announce that a thoughtfully planned assignment or activity is stupid or pointless, fail projects and exams, refuse to comply with requests, and threaten administrative or legal recourse. New teachers need to realize that not everything is true or their fault. Sometimes students are having a bad day. Other times they don’t realize the gravity of their behavior. In certain circumstances, a student and a teacher simply aren’t compatible.
Learning to file negative feedback in its appropriate place is critical. In some instances, new teachers should use bits of that feedback to reflect on their practice and make changes for the future. In others, teachers must realize that there are a number of factors at play in every interaction, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with the teacher at all.
Mistake #9 — Reacting Emotionally
I can’t tell you how many times my face has flushed, my heartbeat has quickened, my fists have clenched, and my blood pressure has risen in anger or frustration at what is happening in my classroom. In the early years of my career, I often acted upon these emotions, shouting orders and giving hecklers evidence that they’d gotten to me. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to overcome these feelings and react unemotionally (most of the time; hey, we all make mistakes).
In addition to being “friendly but firm”, teachers must also interact neutrally with students. Instead of getting angry when a student misbehaves, new teachers must take a second to breathe and calmly enforce the consequences without reacting to the student’s attempts get under the teacher’s skin. This helps teachers maintain a safe and comfortable learning environment where respect prevails.
Mistake #10 — Being Too Serious
As part of their attempts to establish authority in the classroom, new teachers sometimes buy into the “don’t smile until December” mantra so popular among stern educators of yore. I’ll tell you right now: this is bull.
Smiling is an integral part of being “friendly but firm” and communicates to students that you’re a regular human being rather than something made of stone. Being willing to laugh at oneself both makes for entertaining classroom delivery and helps students feel comfortable enough to laugh at themselves and learn from their mistakes as well.
Mistake #11 — Agreeing to Sponsor Everything
Administrators and veteran teachers often perceive newbies as “fresh meat”. They know new teachers are eager to prove their worth, and they play on that desire by asking the new guys to sponsor the chess club and coach the freshman softball team and head the party planning committee on top of all the responsibilities new teachers have to learning the ropes.
Don’t fall into this trap. It’s a good idea for new teachers to get involved in one or two extra activities where they can, but not in every single opportunity offered and definitely not if it takes away from their ability to excel in the classroom or pursue leisurely activities in order to rejuvenate. Teaching and self come first; extras come where there’s room.
What would you add to this list of mistakes new teachers can’t afford to make?