George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

I taught a workshop one time at a statewide conference of teachers on how to be a successful teacher your rookie year and I told them that you don't really have to love kids to be a great teacher ... you just have to understand them. All the teachers in the room agreed with me.

That was a real nice moment. I couldn't believe I had actually hit on some remarkable, agreed-upon truth in a profession I was real green at. One woman was asleep, so I'll never really know if she agreed or not.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Being fascinated helps, too. If you're a teacher and you're genuinely fascinated with children, teenagers, and young people and what they say and do and how they interact with you and each other, then you'll always have fun at work, every day. This is why some people teach until they croak and why most policemen police for a long time, too.

Tomek Pietkiewicz's picture

1) Share your life story in the first lesson through PowerPoint or YouTube video. I shared photos from when I was baby to something I did in the weekend. This will instantly engage the students and start the process of relationship building. You have to let students know that you have a life outside of the school.

2) Classroom Management. Co-construct a classroom management policy with the students. Ask students what should be the policy in the classroom.

3) Don't let students have power over you. Effective Discipline. Be mean every now and again, and give students a wake up call. Some will take you for a ride, because they don't know how lucky they are to be blessed with education.

4) Relationships. Build positive relationships with all your students, and find the positives in the negative students. Be honest at all times.

5) Know your content. Be the expert. You will get students who ask you more, like "Sir - how do I start my own business?"

6) Differentiate your classroom. You need to perfect differentiation.

7) Individual, Pair and Group Work. I start with a pair activity, and then they go into groups. Individiual is more of summative assessments.

8) Be actively involved in your school. Be friendly with everyone in the school network.

9) Make best friends with the senior management team, and especially the photocopy lady / guy.

10) Have fun. I love teaching. Enjoy what you do, and the students will respond.

11) Be patient. Good relationships, and student success take time. It's worth it.

Ms. K.'s picture
Ms. K.
K-8 Music Teacher, Band & Choir Director

This is my first year of teaching music full time. Last year I worked part time so I still consider myself to be in my first year of teaching. I believe that all responses as far as what goes on in the classroom and how to motivate are valid. While reading the responses from experienced teachers #2 resonated with me. I am currently facing the challenge of controlling my seventh grade class and motivating them. They constantly talk and regardless of what I say, they continue to do so. I am learning that to guide my students with the hope for change I must start with myself. I must reflect on my behavior and make sure I am modeling and demonstrating what I expect from them. I'm slowly learning that I cannot control everything and am beginning to focus on what I can control. I am seeking advice to attain a more solid classroom management plan and I've been told it becomes easier with experience. Thank you for the post!

Msmonica's picture
Preschool teacher in the midwest

What Really Matters

My first year of teaching brought so many struggles that I suffered severe burnout and considered leaving the profession. In retrospect, one thing that I wish I had known and understood is that everything else will come with time, but I needed to focus on what I knew how to do and that is teach children.

I spent a great deal of time overwhelmed with paperwork and assessments and all sorts of other requirements at the expense of focus on my students. In retrospect, I should have put my effort into doing what I knew how to do and learned the rest as I went. I often felt like a failure because I was not an expert at the paperwork or procedures. If I had focused on my strengths in teaching I think the year would have been much more beneficial for my students and for me.

Newtothejob's picture
9th Grade Special Ed

I'm new to the job and definitely learning as I go. Overall, my lessons grow upon each other and my students are making progress. I have two ADHD students with trouble not talking and doing the work. Both students are low level writers and both told their parents that told admin that they feel disrespected/ganged up on in class. I would never want to make a student feel like that. At first, I thought the students were just upset because I'm one of the few special ed teachers that gives homework. It took some reflection for me to realize that I was not differentiating the curriculum for them and giving them the support to feel safe in the class. Somedays they really can't write, it is staying in their seat that is their goal. I messed up and on Monday I will talk with both students and apologize. What I struggle with is the guilt/taking criticism personally. I internalize all of the feedback that I get, good or bad. It is difficult enough to set up a classroom, navigate school politics, and teach. I feel like I've failed. I have had two students with IEPs get their parents involved because they don't feel supported, and to me, that is two too many. I know I focus on the bad versus the students I have helped and supported. I just don't know if I'm cut out for teaching. How many first year high school teachers don't support two students emotionally to the point of parent complaint? All the amazing curriculum means nothing to me if I have two kids who are feeling mistreated in what should be their safe zone. Am I taking this too personally, and should just live and learn? This first year has been difficult. I have had child abuse to call in, students who are third grade readers in high school, parents that never answer their phone, truant students, kids with anxiety and depression, and all that while case managing 20 kids and writing curriculum. Help! Advice/support needed. I think the best way to learn is through experience and others, I just forgot that experience can be challenging to your emotions.

Mario Gomez's picture

I learned this beyond scope of my first year and I am still in the process of applying it. Before you proceed with great instruction, technology, pbl, flipped classrooms, etc, get to know your students. Make it a priority to learn their names, smile, be honest, treat them as with respect and as people. Praise their character, not their accomplishment, listen, make them feel important, be real/genuine. Invest in them and their success. I believe that if you build a trust and positive rapport, the rest will follow.

T.M. Brooks's picture

This is my first year teaching and I truly love teaching Pre-k. I understood the challenges and demands places upon me teaching at this level. However, starting in the middle of the first halve of the school year as an obstacle. The class being in a childcare setting left little in house resourceful people to feed upon. I had to learn to network, research, and encourage myself.

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