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You’re a New Teacher. It Can Be Messy But Also Thrilling

You’re a New Teacher. It Can Be Messy But Also Thrilling

I should have trusted my students more and given them ownership of their learning (more student-centeredness). Instead, I found choice boards to be fun; the students could develop creative tools to show their understanding of the topic (at least with 2nd grade and up).

2. Be nice to yourself and to others: Not every lesson will be perfect, but that is an opportunity for you as a teacher to reflect upon what works and what needs a revamp. Avoid negative people at all costs. I have shared this article titled “Find Your Marigold” by Jennifer Gonzalez with my beginning teachers. I find it concise and inspirational—a must-read for all beginning teachers.

3. Learn everything you can from a mentor teacher: I had a great English partner when I was in the dual-immersion program. I shadowed her all I could and I learned many great strategies from her. I wish I had done that when I first started teaching. Remember that you are not alone in the profession, as there are many teachers that you can learn from.

Kayla Towner is a technology trainer/instructor for Utah Education Network (UEN) and a Utah Hope Street Fellow in Salt Lake City. Follow her on Twitter @mrstowner9 or email her at

As I look back on my first years of teaching, I have many such thoughts as “Why didn’t I think of doing it like this,” “I should have done that,” or “I wish someone told me this!” However, there is so much going on in your first year it can be overwhelming. Based on my organized and planned-out personality, it would have been helpful to hear these three pieces of advice: Organize your content as you teach, know your technology, and have clear communication with families.

Starting out as a first-year teacher can be stressful and daunting. There are countless teachers giving you materials to teach with, and you can easily forget what you used and how you used it. I wish someone had told me to keep a running record (physical or online) for all of my content. Once I finished a unit, I could have posted the materials in the binder and kept notes. This would have helped me tweak the unit for the next time I taught it.

For example, I taught a unit on the Civil War, and one year later, when I got to this section in my binder, it said, “Change up this unit, it needs to be more interactive.” I altered this lesson into a DeckToy (game-based learning website) and made it an interactive, game-based lesson that excited the students to learn about the Civil War. In addition, it’s a great time saver for the next year, because I already have something lined up in my lesson plans.

Something that I did not think was a high priority as a teacher was technology. I came in as a 2nd grade teacher thinking that these students do not need technology. I realized how much technology could become a bridge between learners. It pushed high-level learners, accommodated low-level learners, and motivated everyone in their learning. Later, I moved into a 5th grade position and was awed by how much leverage technology gave my students.

My students were collaborating in Microsoft Class Notebooks and taking digital notes. I had other students create 3-D houses in Minecraft using a volume algorithm. By utilizing technology in the classroom, it allowed me to personalize learning. It gave my students autonomy in their learning and motivated them to want to come to school and learn.

The last bit of advice I would have told myself was the importance of clear communication with families. It can be so confusing when you first start. What is the best way to communicate with families? Do you send emails, newsletters, digital newsletters, Class Dojo messages, phone calls, etc? I would make it clear about the tools you are going to use throughout the year to communicate with families. However, it is important to be flexible with your platform(s).

I received the most support from families when I did weekly digital newsletters via Microsoft Sway or Class Dojo homepage. Families were able to quickly see weekly updates on content and student work, and there was no confusing log-in. Also, Class Dojo had a messaging feature where families could quickly send me a “text,” but we did not have to share personal numbers. This allowed for easy, no pressure communication. Overall, it was important to establish a few key places where I communicated with families, so everyone was involved.

The first year of teaching can be a bit messy and overwhelming, but it is such a thrilling rush. You learn a lot about yourself and what you can do to support your students. For all the first-year teachers out there, I hope these tips support and guide you through your beautiful, bustling year.

I was never a great teacher. It pains me to say that to this day, but it is the truth. I left the classroom to move over to the dark side of administration too early in my career to ever become the teacher I believe that my kids deserved.

That said, I have had the privilege of being in thousands of classrooms and learning from some of the very best teachers (some newand noteworthy and others just absolutely doing great work in their corner of the universe) in the world. Knowing everything I know now, I would walk back into my first-year teacher classroom, now with a gray beard, and bestow the following three pieces of advice.

Early in my career, a neighboring teacher told me that the kids I was teaching could not do the work I was trying to have them complete. I listened. I lowered my standard. Some kids still did not pass my course. Others did.

The next year, I raised my standards. I upped my game. I tried new strategies. Fewer kids failed. The grade distribution improved. The expectations were higher.

The following year, I taught the material and held the standards I initially intended to. The kids struggled. I struggled. We both found our way forward. Still, fewer kids failed. Still, the grade distribution improved. The expectations were markedly higher.

Kids cannot rise to expectations you do not have of them, and I believe that one of the core responsibilities of a new teacher (any teacher, really) is to see kids for greater than they currently are or currently see themselves.

Critical thinking to me is best categorized via Bloom’s Taxonomy. I believe that all students, regardless of age, deserve to analyze, evaluate, or synthesize material every hour of every day. Our failure to allow kids to frequently practice thinking critically often leads to our frustration when we occasionally demand the same behavior.

If I had a nickel for every time a teacher assigned problems out of a book or off a worksheet and told the kids not to worry about the questions that are actually higher order in nature, I would be rich. This is the perfect coupling to piece of advice number one. If we do not expect kids to be able to create their own thoughts, exercise their own brilliance, and find new solutions to existing problems, then we are simply asking them to understand and apply knowledge already constructed.

One of the key reasons my failure rate dropped as I continued teaching is because . . . I continued teaching. When I first began, I had a traditional approach. I taught it. They demonstrated whether they learned the material or not. We moved forward. Simple approach. Mediocre results.

Then, a colleague asked me if what I was teaching was important. I was teaching sociology to a group of students that desperately needed to understand how societal roles, norms, and more were impacting them as traditionally underserved and marginalized students. I strongly and immediately asserted - YES!!

The calm retort to that answer was to ask me why I would move on when (insert random number) students did not show that they had learned this important material. At that point, my approach forever changed. Prior to that conversation, the timing of the assessment of learning was fixed, and learning MAY happen. After that conversation, I taught UNTIL my students learned it. The timing of the learning was variable, but learning WOULD happen.

Cheryl Abla, M.Ed., a senior managing consultant at McREL, works with schools, districts, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable plans for improving the professional practices of teachers and school leaders:

1) Be a “warm demander.” I learned about this term from the book The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. It originates with researcher Judith Kleinfeld, who identified several types of teachers in classrooms she observed in Alaska decades ago and why students responded to some better than others. Researchers and teachers are drawn to this phrase because in a mere two words, it captures so much that appeals to many of us about teaching: the hope that relationships and content knowledge will support and build upon each other, making our students, and maybe even ourselves, smarter and better people.

You need to demonstrate you are loving, kind, and respectful—but also that you have high expectations and tight structures. And I mean tight! If you are absent, I want your class to be able to run itself as the sub looks on in amazement. That level of trust and self-direction can only happen if you’ve nailed the combination of supportiveness and expectations that “warm demander” describes.

2) Have a reward system. I know we’re supposed to encourage intrinsic motivation, not lean on extrinsic rewards, but I’m here to tell you, never underestimate the persuasive power of a sticker, even for high school students. Heck, I use stickers as rewards in professional-development sessions, and you should see those grown-up faces light up!

There are actually legitimate teaching skills involved in setting up an effective reward system. You need to be clear with the students, and yourself, about what behavior you’re trying to encourage. I like to reward academic effort such as studying hard for a test, as well as prosocial behavior like helping a new student get organized or picking up a piece of trash. If stickers aren’t your style, some options for these individual rewards could be a piece of candy, a no-homework pass, a cup of hot chocolate, lunch with teacher, tech time, or even going back and spending some time with a previous teacher they miss.

There’s a second level to a great reward system, which is to recognize cooperative effort. By blending individual, group, and whole-class rewards, you’re drawing attention to the multiple aspects of success and showing the students how to build collective efficacy, which is something that all workplaces need.

3) I hope this doesn’t sound petty, but have a clean, organized classroom. In my writing and consulting work, I talk a lot about creating an environment for learning, and in part, it’s an accessibility issue. As they take ownership of their learning, students should know where their learning materials are, how to get them, how to use them, and how to put them back. If you had drone footage of your class, you’d see dozens of bodies taking dozens of paths around the room, but it wouldn’t be chaotic at all. It’d be very purposeful and it would support the goal of individualized learning.

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