George Lucas Educational Foundation
New Teachers

Experienced Teachers Reflect on Their First Year

August 23, 2012
Photo credit; lindabrandon via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This year I had the opportunity to work with many educators in national and global workshops. On two of these occasions, I asked the teachers to share their wisdom by answering the question, "What I know now that I wish I had known as a first year teacher is . . . "

A recurring theme among their answers was the awareness of -- and responsiveness to -- the needs and interests their students. As one educator remarked, "Each moment presents us with opportunities and challenges. We succeed when we know our students as individuals, know our subjects well, and trust ourselves to respond creatively and learn from our mistakes."

Answers like this demonstrate flexibility and responsiveness among experienced educators -- way beyond the pedagogy they were taught. These educators revealed how they were open to learn about, evaluate and, when appropriate, incorporate changes to their teaching. They displayed this responsiveness when it came to new strategies, curriculum, standards and correlations from neuroscience and cognitive science, as well as changes in student populations, cultures and needs.

Below are some of the responses I got from experienced teachers when they were asked what they wished they’d known as first-year teachers.

In the Classroom

1) State Clear Expectations for Classroom Behavior

Anne Manalo-Hussein, an experienced teacher from Macon County Elementary School, Macon County, Georgia, offers this advice:

When I was a new teacher, I didn't know how important it was to go over good rules and procedures at the beginning of the school year. I was struggling with classroom management, and I didn't know that all I had to do was go over them again if I meant business. Instead, I ended up getting frustrated. During my first year, I had expected more out of my fifth grade students. Many didn't know my expectations, and I didn't realize how important it was to take the time to talk about rules and procedures clearly. However, I learned my lesson well! Now, I'm a very happy first-grade teacher, and whenever there is an old procedure not working, I quickly show them what they were supposed to do. If it's a new procedure, I learned that I can't just make them do it, they need to know "how."

2) Practice Mindful Leadership

More good advice comes from Donna Green, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at College of the Desert, Palm Desert, California:

When trying to figure out a behavioral problem a child is having, always ask yourself, "What have I done to contribute to the problem?" The only person in the room you can control is yourself. Every behavior a child exhibits is a reaction, and these reactions can be to your methods, materials or class environment that only you can change. You can’t change what is going on at children’s homes, but you can make your classroom a safe place for all.

3) Be Aware of Perceptions of Threat

And Tanessa Bass, fourth grade teacher at John H. Amesse Elementary in Denver, offers this insight into creating a safe classroom container:

It is important to create a safe community. Some students have strong perceptions of threat that inhibit learning. If a student feels the classroom is a safe place, his or her mind will be more open to receiving the information taught.

And from Nancy Sell of Screven County High School, Sylvania, Georgia:

Love your students, even when they aggravate you. Be empathetic towards them. They won't care about what you have to teach unless they know you care about them!

And to conclude with a couple of anonymous suggestions:

Keep discipline comments for private ears. Do not react negatively in front of your students even if you are upset with an adult or situation that has nothing to do with them.
Trust is very important -- the trust you earn as their teacher.

4) Remember There Are No "Bad" Kids

Jessica Terrazas, elementary school teacher at Universidad de Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, reminds us:

There are no lazy or bad kids. They may react that way when we don't grab their attention with the right stimuli (novelty and curiosity).

Brenda Lake of Pierce County, Georgia notes that:

Despite outward appearances, disruptive behavior such as zoning out and acting out, all students are paying attention to something. Using strategies linked to neuroscience research (RAD), I reach my students with the input I know they will attend to. They respond by being joyful and successful learners.

5) Invite Risks and Forgive Failure

An anonymous responder writes:

I wish I had known that the students would be so forgiving of my mistakes -- almost endlessly so. I kept encouraging them to take risks without taking many myself.

Bill Vance, Department Chair of Religion and teacher at Totino-Grace High School, Fridley, Minnesota suggests:

Ask great questions and make time for students to think deeply. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know. Let's find out together" when you do not know the answer to a student's question.

And Becky Aikens from Taft County, Georgia offers:

Create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable, and they'll take the risks of making mistakes.

How to Engage and Motivate

6) Be a Role Model

Bill Vance has something to say about this, too:

Parker Palmer wrote, "You teach who you are." Model good habits for lifelong learning.

7) Create Meaningful Challenges

Nicole Dahlberg of Hasty Elementary, Cherokee County, Georgia shares:

I wish I had known how much each of my students were going to mean to me each year and how each one is there to make me a stronger teacher. They are there to challenge me in every way possible, and when I say every way, I mean EVERY way. No matter what type of student they are, they are challenging me to help them in the way they need it, which we know is not the same for every student.

And here's one of my favorites from Albert Einstein (who didn't actually attend any of those workshops):

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.

8) Remember That the Brain Seeks Pleasure

Angelique Jackson, a professor at Chicago State University, notes:

The brain seeks pleasure and will get it one way or another (hence acting out). Since we want positive behavior, create instruction that promotes the students' dopamine boosts and positive responses.

9) Follow Students’ Lead

Tim Smith, a teacher at Congressional Schools of Virginia in Falls Church, advises:

Don't swim against the tide. Use what kids want to do naturally. Channel that whenever possible. If they want to get out of their seats, have them get up and do something that involves standing and learning.

Bill Vance adds:

Enjoy and foster the curiosity of your students.

10) Teach to Multiple Senses

Angelique Jackson of Chicago State says:

New information delivered in as many sensory modalities as possible is most likely to become memory and retained for recall.

Ashlee Mitchell, MS/CCC-SLP at Stilson Elementary in Bulloch County, Georgia adds:

Language is everywhere in the school day. Providing students with experiences that include vocabulary will ensure successful lifelong learning. Do not assume a student knows or understands vocabulary of language concepts. These concepts/vocabulary most likely need to be specifically taught -- ideally through auditory, visual and tactile inputs.

Your Turn

I hope that, as readers, you will add your own responses to the same question. Help us guide the thousands of new teachers who have just started or are about to begin their very first year in our profession.

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