Put ‘Relationships Before Curriculum,’ Veteran Educators Say
1. “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Spider-Man) - Throughout history and starting during the French Revolution and continuing into the Spider-Man comics, this theme has appeared many times, but it definitely applies to being an educator. When I first started teaching, I didn’t realize just how much power I had. Not just power over their grades, but how I made them feel. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How you engage with students and how you make them feel is so important. Curriculum, depending on how it is taught, has the power to uplift or cause hurt and harm to communities. Consequences, depending on how they are applied, can build trust and repair relationships or can cause long-term damage to students. The goal should always be to interact with students in a positive way that keeps their spirits intact. Even when they are frustrating. Even when you are tired or are having a bad day. It’s easy to forget just how much power educators hold in every interaction they have with their students. Use that power wisely.
2. Relationships before curriculum - This is not to imply that the subject matter being taught is not important, but students will learn a lot better if they feel that the person teaching them cares about them, not just as students, but as people. It takes minimal effort to greet students at the door with a smile, to ask them about their day, or to take an interest in something that interests them. Taking the time to build relationships with students is worth every second of the investment. Participation in extracurricular activities is a great way to do that. When I think about the classes I loved the most in high school, it wasn’t just the content that hooked me, it was the educator. I knew they were invested in my success and were working just as hard as I was (sometimes harder) to make sure I achieved my goal. Also, it’s not only relationships with students that need to be built but with parents and guardians as well. Make contact with them early and often. Make sure that first interaction is something positive about their child. Work together to support their child. Parental/guardian involvement goes a long way with student success.
3. Build a supportive network - One of the things that helped me the most when I first started teaching was having mentors and supportive colleagues. You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s important to have good people to guide you and someone you can ask questions of. Closing your classroom door and working in isolation might be easier in some ways, but it’s often not the best way. Learn from the mistakes, challenges, and triumphs of others. You can learn so much if you are open and willing. Teaching is the kind of profession where you can be on top of the world one day and feel like you can’t do anything right the next. There will be highs and lows, and it’s crucial to have a network of colleagues, family, and friends to listen and keep you going. Tap into social media. I know it can be very messy sometimes, but I have used it to my advantage to connect with other educators from all around the world who have helped me to learn and to grow in my own teaching practice. Take advantage of the many opportunities that we have to connect.
I think these three things are important for educators who are just starting out to know because teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Burnout is real, and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the many responsibilities and expectations placed on teachers. People often underestimate the value that strong relationships and connections can have. Students want to be seen, heard, and respected. A little time invested upfront, will continue to pay off in the long run.
Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and civics and is associate head of school at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse):
That first August seems very long ago after 23 years of teaching. However, the visceral moments endure—such as staying late at school, laying out the newly created middle school newspaper myself because the students had worked so hard on the content and it was “just easier” that way. (As I learned, it may seem easier in the moment to do it yourself, but it is rarely sustainable!)
As a teacher and administrator now, helping new teachers is one of the best parts of my job. Here are two things I always end up saying at some point:
I’m not sure I exhaled a full breath in the classroom until about 18 months in. I planned minute by minute while also stuffing in so many “sponge” activities that I’m surprised my lessons plans didn’t drip water. I just hadn’t yet developed the muscle memory, peripheral vision, or equanimity to believe that a class would go all right from beginning to end.
Yet here’s the rub: I also can’t remember any true disaster from that first year. There were some puzzled or annoyed looks from students, as well as a bunch of flat lessons, awkward silences, and overlong discussions. And I’m sure I missed a lot of sideways glances. But I would have been more relaxed, and a better early career teacher, by accepting that I would feel uncertain.
My English and history colleagues in the little middle school where I worked (entirely in trailers!) shared projects, handouts, and class-management tips with me freely, as if they had nothing else to do during their prep periods.
In retrospect, too, my principal and department chairs could have given so many critiques. Instead, they mentioned what was positive. I still remember the English chair saying, in a handwritten note in my box at the end of my first week, that she was so glad I was focusing on teaching writing right away.
Finally, I was lucky enough to have mentorship each night by phone from my mom, Jane Schaffer, a seasoned English teacher. A couple of things she emphasized were to create major assignments in a way that gave choice, so kids weren’t bored, and to use every minute well. From her, I understood that the moments we teach are sacred (though she would not have used that term), and that we are engaged in a calling: day by day, year by year.
Serena Pariser has 12 years of experience teaching in public schools, including charter schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Serena is the bestselling author of several books, all published by Corwin Press:
Your first years of teaching will most likely be the most challenging yet are the most crucial to your success as a teacher. Here are three pieces of advice I would tell my first-year teacher self, in no particular order.
First, invest time in your curriculum. When you have engaging, relevant, and fun units of study, you’ll notice that your behavior issues will begin to disappear. The issue is, units of study take time to make and take a lot of planning. You don’t want to have to redo them every year. Spend some time your first few years to build engaging and relevant units of study that can be used year after year, just made stronger each year. Once you have the foundation, you can use trial and error, student feedback, and your own progress in teaching skill to strengthen them. Also, when you have these unit skeletons, your life will be a lot easier.
For example, if you have a unit of study on writing persuasive essays to combat a societal issue, you could save the skeleton, your pacing guide, your daily plans, your stellar work examples to show the next year’s students, your rubric, student-feedback forms from the unit to implement it the next time you teach the unit, and all the other materials. Then, when you go to teach it the next year, you have a foundation to start from. There’s no need to re-create the curriculum wheel year after year if you teach the same class each year of even similar classes. That leads to lower-quality lessons and more time and energy on your part. It can be as simple as just making it stronger every year.
The next piece of advice would be to be selective about the teachers you spend the most time with. There’s a saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Think of this in your out-of-school life. Isn’t it true? This will also hold true in your school life. You will speak about students the way these teachers do. In your first few years, you are shaping your belief system so spend time with teachers that hold true to your own beliefs about students. You will start to think of students the way these teachers do. You will think of curriculum the way these teachers do.
Another piece of advice would be to develop good organizational and time-management habits early. Bad habits are way too easy to fall into and even harder to unlearn. The issue is that not forming healthy and efficient habits leads to burnout, constant exhaustion, and overexertion.
An example is getting into the habit of using your prep time efficiently and purposefully to set you ahead. In my first few years, I was so exhausted with behavior-management issues in my morning classes that by the time I had my prep, I used to crave going to my neighbor’s classroom and venting. So, I did this many days and used up my prep. This set me behind even more because I set aside doing tasks I needed to do in my classroom. Then, I found myself staying hours after school to try to catch up.
A useful and simple strategy to use your prep time efficiently is to make a list of 3-5 things you must get done during your prep and trying your best to stick to it. Put 3-5 tasks you have to get done during your prep on a sticky note and have it with you as you walk through campus completing tasks. This will eliminate the common problem we have during our prep when we start to do one task, get distracted, and think to ourselves, “Wait, what is that thing I needed to get done?” Without a simple list like this, it’s easy to get distracted by the “Shiny Ball Syndrome” where you get distracted by everything that comes your way and fall behind from what really needs to get done that day.
Julia Lindsey, Ph.D., is an early-literacy expert and the author of Reading Above the Fray: Reliable, Research-Based Routines for Developing Decoding Skills (Scholastic):
The first thing I would say to my first-year teacher self is: “You’re doing great! Hang in there!” Then, I’d probably give her a hug and ask if I could share some wisdom about reading. In my first year as a kindergarten teacher, I taught reading using a systematic and explicit phonics program and guided reading (along with a read aloud and writing curriculum, too!). I wanted my children to succeed in reading while loving it. But I knew something was missing from my approach. Too many of my kindergartners were “mastering” phonics and struggling while reading books, neither succeeding nor experiencing joy because reading was just too much of a struggle.
I would tell my first-year teacher self some good news: We actually know a lot about how to teach early reading by focusing on helping children build a strong foundation in decoding. Decoding is using knowledge about sounds and spellings to read words. Decoding is the most efficient and effective way to recognize a new word (Miles & Ehri, 2019). It is also critical for helping readers store information about new words and spellings in long-term memory (Ehri, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015), which allows children to become fluent word readers.
I bet my first-year teacher self would respond, “Yes, I do ask kids to sound out words all the time. English is just too weird, and even when they say all the right sounds, so many kids get stuck trying to put the sounds back together.”
Then, I would tell her some more good news: You’re missing two key things, and neither is that hard to implement. First, you aren’t teaching phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the smallest units of sound in oral language, the phoneme (hearing /g/ at the end of dog or knowing that /f/ and /v/ are two different sounds). It is one of the critical elements of decoding and reading success (Caravolas et al., 2019; Clayton et al., 2020; NRP, 2000) because phonemic awareness allows readers to map sounds onto spellings. Phonemic-awareness instruction does not need to take a lot of time if done well (NRP, 2000; Suggate, 2016).
Second, you’re having children practice reading in books that don’t include enough words they can actually decode. If a reader only knows basic letter-sound correspondences of consonants and short vowels, then, if you want them to decode words in books, you should mostly give them books with regular consonant-vowel-consonant words and known high-frequency words (a decodable sentence at this stage might sound like: “Dad, can we go get a ball?”). These books are called decodable texts. These days, you can find books that have lots of decodable words (based on your phonics scope and sequence) and are meaningful, linked to knowledge-building vocabulary, and culturally relevant. By giving readers a chance to practice in decodable texts, they are more likely to be accurate, rely less on prompting (Mesmer, 2005), guess less (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985), and are likely to experience greater success in reading (Cheatham & Allor, 2012; Chu & Chen, 2014).
I would then tell my first-year teacher self: Find joy in the moment a child decodes a new word correctly, the moment a child spells a new word with a spelling for each sound, the moments when a child uses what you’ve taught to uncover the vast possibilities of our written language. That’s the magic in teaching reading: giving a new reader all the tools and knowledge they need to be engaged, independent readers—able to find joy in reading because they can succeed at it.
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