Monday, June 25, 2018

Live, Learn, and Share: My Best Advice to New Teachers

This post is a long-time coming. Having just finished another school year, I am reflecting on my time in the classroom like I do each summer. This year, though, it feels different. There are things I *finally* think I have the hang of after 7 years of teaching, and I want to share the things I've learned with any new teachers, student teachers, or teachers who are already in the classroom!

You know they don't (and can't) teach you everything you need to know about teaching in college. Even if you went to an amazing school with a thorough program (shout out to UT and their awesome ECE program!), there are scenarios, parents, and paperwork that you can't encounter until you're fully "in charge" of your own classroom. Since starting Research and Play, I have been getting messages from lots of new teachers who are fresh out of college or just recently hired that are similar in their search for tips, advice, or secrets that will make that first year in the classroom smooth and successful! So, I've thought, thought, and thought some more and finally compiled a list of my best pieces of advice for those teachers who are about to enter into the best career in the entire world.

Since you're coming into your career in the time of Instagram and Pinterest, chances are you already have your entire classroom setup planned down to the custom stamp you've ordered to grade papers with. You've probably already raided the Target dollar spot, you're getting your dad to build you a stage, you've got wireless doorbells in your cart on Amazon, and you're asking for gift cards to Lakeshore for your birthday.

None of that matters.

Of course it's important to plan your classroom design, but all those "extras" that you've seen going viral on social media? You don't need them. Your students don't need them. And there's no sense in stressing out over strobe lights and microphones when you really need to be backwards planning your very first ELA unit that you're about to have to teach in a few weeks.

My biggest piece of advice to ALL teachers: Don't get caught up in the hype. Kids don't need the bells and whistles to learn, and you do not need them to be a "good" teacher. Engagement is important, you want your students to buy in to and enjoy your lessons, but intentional planning goes a long way. Keep it all simple that first year (and second, and third...). Your energy and money and time are much better suited to making sure you're using developmentally-appropriate practices, teaching focus standards, and establishing strong classroom management. The kids working at their tables with their peers learn just as much as the kids on stages. Do your research about colors, lighting, and the physical environment. Know what zones or areas you want to establish in your room for the quiet learners and the kinesthetic ones. Think about where you'll store materials for your kids to access. Then step back and breathe. You don't need all that extra stuff (but go for it if you want), it's just not necessary.

It's hard to think about exactly how you'll discipline your students until, well, you have students. But doing research about *why* you'll do certain things is really important. Read, read, read about behavior. Understand why your students will behave certain ways, and start training yourself to recognize those behaviors. When it comes to how you will handle behaviors, ask yourself these questions:

What behaviors will I accept as developmentally appropriate?

What are absolute "no-go's" that will always get a consequence?

What behaviors will I have to teach my students so that they can be successful in my class?

What will my flowchart of consequences look like?

How will I recognize, support, and reward positive behavior?

Some of you may teach or will teach in a school where a behavior system is already in place, and depending on your principal/admin, you may have to follow that system with fidelity. It may or may not sync with your philosophies around behavior, so just do your best to be compliant but don't give up your own style. After all, these will be your kids for 180 days and you all have to find a way to live harmoniously together for that whole time.

My biggest tip for educators regarding how to establish a strong foundation for classroom management is to READ THESE BOOKS. I am a huge supporter of Responsive Classroom and their strategies, techniques, and philosophy of behavior management. I studied them as a grad student doing my student teaching and every single year since, I still get them out to remind myself of best practices. You'll meet your students and have to adjust the day-to-day practices, but having a strong foundation of *why* will make a world of difference.

My teaching bible. I still read it every August.

Framing your rules in ways that totally involve your students' needs, not just yours.

You'll have those hard kids, and this book will help.

This is the most important thing we can teach!

For learning why 6 year olds do the things they do. This book is incredible, I even recommend it to parents.

Maybe you've already tried backwards planning, but if you haven't, I highly recommend it! It has been one of the most valuable, useful, practical things I've learned how to do as a teacher. Now, every school seems to have its own policy about lesson plans like how to write them and when they are (or aren't) due. So take this piece of advice and see how it fits in with your school's policy.

Backwards planning doesn't focus on activities first, which is where teachers can sometimes get into a pattern of starting. "Oh I found the cutest pumpkin activity with rhyming words!" or "Look at this awesome project about creating a house using cardboard and paper clips!" have definitely come out of my mouth at some point in my career. Where that line of thinking falls short is not starting with the outcome.

"What do I want/need my students to learn and be able to do at the end of this unit?" should be the main question you ask yourself. If you determine that over the next 6 weeks, you want your students to be able to produce rhyming words, and that cute pumpkin activity lets them do that, then go for it! Just make sure you always circle back to the outcome. I attended a training for backwards planning in my old district and they structured it this way:

What do you want your students to be able to do 40 years from now? (The BIG picture outcome, the entire reason you're doing this unit - As a 45 year old, I hope they can manipulate words in ways that help them in conversations and extend their vocabulary.)

What do you want your students to be able to do 40 days from now? (The end-of-unit goal - After this unit, I want my kindergartners to be able to produce rhyming words.)

What do you want your students to be able to do 40 minutes from now? (The short-term outcome, end-of-lesson goal - After this pumpkin activity, I want my kindergartners to be able to read a rhyming word on the pumpkin and verbally tell a word that rhymes with it.)

In my first year of teaching, I was on a team of 9 kindergarten teachers. Honestly it was a new teacher's dream. We were about equally split as newbie and veteran teachers. I had mentors I could ask questions, people who taught me how to lesson plan, other newbies to vent to and laugh was awesome. Then I moved schools, and then there were 2. It was so different! Thankfully I got along well with my teammate, but I had to start doing a lot more than I was used to. I had to learn the real meaning of collaboration and start actually doing it.

As a new teacher, you might feel like you don't have things to share or just don't know what to contribute. Trust me, veteran teachers love learning from new teachers, too! Collaboration in the basic sense of the word means working together for a common goal. Sharing ideas, planning together, giving advice, those are all ways to collaborate. You have so much to learn, true, but you also have so much to share! Every single teacher has his or her strengths. If you're comfortable with technology, share that expertise! If you've done research in STEM practices, teach them to your colleagues. Ask what you can do or how you can contribute rather than waiting to have things delegated to you.

One thing to keep in mind, though: You do not need to be exactly like your teammate(s). You were hired for your own personality, experience, energy, and knowledge. If all the other teachers on your team do something one way but you really don't want to, voice to your team that you'd like to try it another way and see if it works, then go for it. Want to do flexible seating? Maybe by pioneering that in your room you can inspire your team. Don't be shy!

Some schools have amazing adopted programs, some schools have crappy ones, and some schools have none! You might not ever need to supplement with other curriculum (insert sarcasm), but if you do, be discerning. You're lucky to be teaching in the time of Teachers Pay Teachers and social media. Sooo many awesome ideas, units, activities, plans, and projects are easily accessible to you. It can honestly be a little overwhelming with so much at the click of a button.

Don't get carried away with the things you purchase to supplement with. There are most definitely things you will want to use, just make sure you do your research, look around, and compare before you buy. Not all addition word problems are created the same! In that same vein, don't feel like you need to buy "packets" of activities. I've seen this too many times with new teachers. Just putting it out there, but 6 year olds do not find any joy in doing multiple worksheets every day they come to school just because it has a little spinner in the corner or thematic clip art.

Buy what you need, not just what you think is cute or checks a box on your standards. Find things that encourage talking, working together, and cuts down on making copies. Plus, giving out worksheets all the time doesn't challenge you or help you grow as a teacher.

My first class of kinders back in 2012! These kids will be starting 7th grade soon, where did the time go?!
All of the advice I've listed are things that I wish I could have heard when I started teaching. However, there is a lot of benefit to the whole "you live and you learn" saying. I feel like there are some things that I haven't' changed at all since I started teaching 7 years ago, and there are things I look back on and think, "What were you doing??!!" Don't be hard on yourself. You are going to rock this whole teaching thing. And remember, you always have people like me to reach out to!

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  1. This is excellent advice! I would add: before buying something on TPT ask yourself, "Is this research based?" Sometines things are cute or it feels like all of the work has been done for you,but it can end up being busy work.

  2. I loved this post! You always have such practical, realistic advice. I would love to hear more about your classroom management, specifically the flowchart of consequences you mentioned and how you support/reward positive behavior. For me, classroom management is the most challenging aspect of teaching and it's preventing me from building the kind of classroom I imagine.