Reposted from July 2009
“Don’t hit the kids and don’t hit on the kids.” If I had to summarize my best advice about teaching in just one saying, that would be it. However, last summer’s post, 50 Things New Teachers Need To Know, went into a bit more detail and has now garnered thousands of hits, making it this blog’s most popular post.
During the school year between then and now, I’ve made some more notes and now have this new collection ready. As I say at the end, take it all with a grain of salt, but I have no doubt that this list is more useful than a bachelor’s degree in education. Furthermore, I like this list even more than last year’s. Enjoy!
1. Cover any windows on hallway-facing doors to your room from the inside with paper. If administrators complain about it, just cover as much as you can at eye level. You don’t need lollygaggers out there distracting students by making faces at their friends in your class.
2. PC Myth #5: “Your teaching skills are more important than content knowledge.” In my own undergrad days, an early class taught me that I wouldn’t need to worry about subject knowledge because I already had more than the students would, and I should just focus on methodology, classroom management, etc. As a result, I spent my first couple of years as a teacher watching all those college theories go down in flames, and desperately playing catch up on the English facts that I needed to know to teach well.
3. Always remember: administrators are politicians. Many, perhaps most, are personable and caring, and try to support you and help students, but nobody ever became an administrator for those reasons. No, people get office jobs because it offers more salary and authority, and any administrator’s first priority will always be protecting their own career. If you ever end up having a serious problem with a parent or student, your administrators might defend you…but don’t count on it. You can like your leaders, but don’t ever trust them. The risk to yourself is too great.
4. As soon as you can (before the school year starts, if possible), sign up for your local newspaper’s classroom delivery plan. No matter what subject you teach, this will be an invaluable source of topical, timely lesson materials. Regularly delivered newspapers will also help you establish a routine that you can rely on. I use mine as a way for students to do reading response journals with independently chosen material (they choose two stories, from different sections), making them punctuate titles correctly, incorporate quotes into their commentary, etc. Ask your school librarian about it.
5. Make copies of good and bad examples of student writing (anonymously, of course–scratch out any visible names) that you’ve corrected, and use them in class to show how papers should be edited. Students love this, and it’s a powerful, practical lesson (also, a good routine). Make transparency copies, or see if your school has those new projectors that display normal papers.
6. When a student starts slacking off or avoiding work, intervene as if you’re a peer: pull them aside and express concern for them, in a friendly tone, not as a lecture. Ask them what’s going on. Be firm, though: tell them that the behavior can’t continue, and–this is the most important part–tell them that you need their help to make the whole class successful. That almost always gets real results; kids love thinking that we’re partners.
7. When students have the option of missing your class for a club activity or field trip, etc., but it’s at your discretion, usually don’t let them go. Your class is the most important thing in the world. Of course, exceptions for student merit or activity importance may come up, but in general you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches–and do the students more good–when you reinforce the value of being in class. If they must miss an activity (or, conversely, a class assignment), they have to learn to make choices based on priorities. Beware: student government kids are the most susceptible to feeling like they’re entitled to miss class.
8. Be careful about missing days of work. Any plans you leave for a sub will probably be ruined, and if you purposely leave busy work to avoid that problem, it’s still a wasted day for the class. You being there even if your heart isn’t in it on a certain day will still do the students far more good than being with any sub. Students can tell when you’re taking days off for no good reason, and it changes their view of the class for the worse. Luckily, the converse is also true: teachers who are always there have more serious classes. Besides, using fewer absences might accrue more vacation days in the future. That’s how it works in my school district. All that being said, I recommend taking a free day off in May. You’ll have earned it, and everybody should get to enjoy a lazy Tuesday morning in May, after they’ve worked hard all year.
9. Learn about the 403(b). As a teacher, this will augment your retirement plan and be invaluable to you later on. This doesn’t have to be your top priority right away–lesson plans and classroom management will be more pressing–but when you feel you’re in a good place, ask the veterans on campus about who to set up a good 403(b) with. Certainly look into this by the end of your second year.
10. Also, be sure you know the requirements for licensure in your district–when you have to renew, any tests or classes you have to take. Again, this doesn’t have to be priority #1, but you do want to plan ahead for anything you need to work on. Your supervisor or their secretary, or your department chair, can explain this all to you when you have a minute to catch your breath.
11. Don’t offer extra credit to students for bringing in things. If your school doesn’t offer tissues as a standard supply, for example, or if it’s too hard to actually get some from the office, bring some rolls of toilet paper into your room from the staff restroom. It works great, and kids think it’s funny.
12. Make it a rule that students have to keep back packs and purses on the floor. Do not let them keep them in their laps; they’ll just use them as shields to hide things like cell phones.
13. Don’t try to “convert” your students to a love of reading, or any other aspect of your subject. They are almost certain to come into your class with deeply set prejudices about academic activities, prejudices that you’re not likely to impact. Yes, give them opportunities to experience the joy of your subject, and show them your enthusiasm for it (that’ll be valuable for those who do have open minds), but don’t be afraid to assign reading, writing, and any other kind of assignment as a chore. Your best shot for reaching kids with any kind of meaningful seriousness about most things will be to honestly tell them that whether or not they like it, it’s important and necessary. They’ll groan and whine, but at least you can dispense with the cheerleading and get down to some real content. Ultimately, that’ll reward everybody.
14. Assemble a class library of titles relevant to your subject area. No matter what you teach, reading in that field is very important. You should have your classes spend time independently reading such titles during class time regularly, after which they might fill out a reading log (date-author-title-pages read-summary paragraph with direct quote-commentary paragraph). Students should be encouraged to bring in books from the school or public library from within the call numbers for that subject (such as NA for art, D for history, etc.), or from a list of novels that are related to your subject (every student of physics should read Einstein’s Dreams, for example). You know the classics of your field–recommend them! But many students will never bring a book. They’ll use your class library. Collect books from what your school and public libraries discard, and from what anyone is giving away (retiring members of your department are a gold mine). Don’t let them browse during class time–they’ll just dawdle. Assign them out, and if they don’t like it, that’ll be that much more incentive to bring a library book of their own next time.
15. When making copies of articles, stories, or other things for use as a class set, make a lot more than your current class sizes require. You need to consider that classes may be larger in the future, and regardless of your best efforts, some copies may be lost or destroyed each year. You don’t want to constantly have to replenish your collection by making more copies. I recommend at least forty packets to a set. Fifty is better.
16. Tell students they’re not allowed to decorate or draw on their papers. Otherwise, you’ll get a lot of papers turned in with graffiti-style tagging in the margins, illuminated brand names, etc. When such things do get turned in, return them and say the assignment must be done over, that you don’t accept “tagged” work.
17. Don’t volunteer to be an adviser for any clubs, activities, or teams your first year. These are a lot of work. Schools like to take advantage of new teachers and sell them on running things, but you need to focus on your classroom before investing time in other stuff. I knew one guy who went to a bad school his first year and was given the yearbook and the student newspaper to do. That was a ton of work, and it nearly smothered him. If you have an activity or sport you love, feel free to throw your hat in the ring to run it…your second year teaching.
18. When students come into your room before or after school, the first thing you need to do is prop the door open.
19. Experiment with playing soft music quietly in the background as students are working, especially when they’re reading. I recommend the Evergreen channel at www.king.org.
20. There are valid, differing opinions about teacher dress. A shirt and tie may not be required every day, but in general, more professional is better than less. Definitely start off the year dressing formally, and start relaxing a little as time passes if appropriate. Still, you can’t go wrong with business dress.
21. Make it your goal to give at least three grades to each student each week. This will help you ensure rigor in the class, and help students to have sufficient practice with and attention to their own learning. These grades can include participation in discussions and notebook checks, etc., if that helps.
22. Never give “free days.” If your plans fall through, or if an emergency comes up, have simple emergency plans ready: sets of puzzles related to your class content, for example. Have them take notes on a documentary. Let them review their grades in your class and make up / redo old work as needed. Have them make study guides for your class exams and pair up to quiz each other or make note cards. Anything is better than just letting them sit around and do whatever they want.
23. My favorite “emergency plan” is to tape the annual Jeopardy! College Tournament each Spring. I keep that tape in my class the following school year and play a couple of episodes if a circumstance comes up (a few times a year I’ll have the majority–but not all–of a class out for testing or other activities) and I need to fill an odd day. The College Tournament is easy enough for smart teens to participate in, but hard enough that they’ll learn plenty, and it’s a good plug for quality colleges.
24. When a male teacher sees a female student obnoxiously out of dress code, he needs to ask a female colleague to talk to her and take the appropriate action. Men, do not approach this yourself and open yourself up to potential problems or accusations by “noticing” a tube top or short shorts or whatever. Women, please don’t resent having to pick up the slack on this. Actually, you’ll have a better chance of impressing better choices for appearance on these girls than any man would, anyway.
25. Before the year starts, find out from your administrative supervisor and/or department chair what their requirements are for your specific subject or grade level. Does every teacher need to assign a book report or research paper first quarter? Do all junior English classes need to read a certain book during first semester? You’d think they’d be sure to communicate these to you, but sometimes it doesn’t get done and you’ll find out too late what all your colleagues knew. Write down these items and work them into your year plan (see #29 on last year’s list).
26. Go to some of your school’s games. They should be free for you, so they’re a cheap date or family outing, and it will make a big difference in your classroom if the kids have seen you outside of work and supporting the school. Also, it’s fun.
27. If your room has an intercom or speakers for the school to ring bells or make announcements, see if you can muffle them by taping some foam or padding over them. Those things get loud and they’re irritating.
28. Be sure to arrange the desks, shelves, and cabinets in your room so that every part is visible from your desk. Do not leave any corners or niches out of your view. These would become havens for littering or worse.
29. Take each class to the school library at least once a year, for research or to find books to read individually, but be sure they have specfific instructions and assignments when there. Do not just give them free time there. When I take students for research, I have them take notes on the librarian’s orientation first, then fill in specific outlines for their research as they go, which is due for a grade when we leave. Libraries do not follow the “make sure every area is visible” rule, so be sure to circulate a lot and monitor.
30. Don’t let anyone scare you about copyright laws when you want to make copies. In a million years, you will never actually get in trouble for making a class set of an essay or article to use in your class.
31. If you suspect a student cheated on something they wrote, don’t bother with any fancy Web sites for detecting cheaters. Just Google the first sentence of the paper. If they copied it, 99 times out of 100 you’ll find the source that way immediately.
32. Don’t be a gum Nazi. It isn’t worth it. Yes, this means there’s a slightly higher chance that some will end up under desks or even on the floor, but that risk just doesn’t justify constant vigilance on your part. You have too much else to do. Yes, get on their case if they blow bubbles or play with it, but the vast majority of kids never will. That being said, you definitely do need to be a cell phone Nazi. Those things are much more pervasive, and present a much greater threat to your class and your students’ education.
33. Find a few good online resources for your subject to use with students. Some will have good illustrations, others will have quizzes to use for practice as a whole group, and others will have short video clips you can show. If your school doesn’t provide projectors for your computer, try to find one. Maybe they can be checked out of the library. Two sources I recommend for everybody are the Official SAT Question of the Day, and your local PBS station’s Web site. Judicious and cautious use of Wikipedia may be helpful. I bet someone in your department has a whole list of online goodies like these.
34. Your old lesson plan books will never be that helpful (not that I think lesson plans in general are very useful), but your old grade books are gold. Keep a printout of all the assignments you graded in every class, every year. These will tell you what you assigned, when, how much you made it worth, and when you did it. Such a concise summary of this information will be priceless as you plan and revise next year.
35. PC Myth #6: “Multiculturalism is important.” No it isn’t. Maybe minority cultures play an important role in your subject, or a certain part of it, and maybe not. Whichever way happens to be the truth, your subject is what it is. Don’t warp it to suit anyone’s agenda.
36. Good students that you’ve known for a while make great babysitters. Be sure to meet their parents first.
37. Teach students that after they’re absent, they need to see you before or after school about the instruction they missed and make up work. You should all be too busy during class to do it then. Do not just have a pile of papers for them to look through to get caught up; if someone can keep up with your class just by looking at a handout or two, your class is too easy.
38. As each year starts, get a big desk blotter calendar for your desk. Make it your master calendar, and use it to record your upcoming parent conferences, department meetings, and due dates for major assignments in your classes. These are dirt cheap at any office supply store or Wal Mart, but my school’s ROTC gives them away for free.
39. Consider having students submit work to you via email or using an online site for that purpose, such as TeacherSites. It’ll leave you with fewer papers to keep track of, and makes it much easier to save and document student work permanently.
40. When you send students home at the beginning of the year with your course expectations for their parent or guardian to sign, make a space for parents to fill out their cell phone numbers and email addresses. Do the same thing with your sign in sheet at open house. This will give you much more reliable information than in the school’s records. Parents love email, and it gets results.
41. When you call a parent or send a student to the office, record their name, the date, and the reason in a single place for quick reference. A small notebook is great. Maybe your desk calendar would work.
42. Grade some assignments in class. If the answers are simple, concrete things–like multiple choice questions, fill in the blank answers, or spelling words–pass papers back out to other students and have them write their name at the bottom of the one they’re grading. Give everybody a few nominal points for grading the paper right. If someone doesn’t, call them out on it. This isn’t to teach following directions or even to save you time, though; it’s to review material as a class.
43. Always write grades on things as a fraction. When a student gets a paper back and it just says “-4,” that will mean nothing to most of them. “16/20” is much better. If they ask what grade that works out to, tell them to do the math: 16 divided by 20.
44. Trail mix, nuts, granola bars, and bottled water are your friends. Keep a stash in your desk.
45. Greet students at the door as they come in. Stand in the doorway and check for open drinks or snacks (and have them get rid of them before coming in), and make sure they have materials for class–their texts and notebooks (and send them to their locker to get them if they don’t). Maybe make sure their iPods are put away and cell phones are turned off, too. Then step aside and let them in.
46. Avoid or be very strict about student presentations using PowerPoint. I know “technology is the wave of the future,” but most of these presentations are mind numbingly dull. Students come to rely on clip art animation and just read text from the screen.
47. Don’t sweat open house or parent’s night. It will make very little difference in the operation of your class, regardless what you do. Just summarize your plan for the class this year, communicate your high expectations for students, review procedures, and exchange contact information. Do take their questions and answer them, though, but not about individual students. Tell them to set up a parent conference for that.
48. PC Myth #7: “Students must be having fun to learn.” Nope. True, intense hatred for a class will probably restrict effective learning, but fun, especially as a priority, is overrated. Yes, novelty and humor enhance learning, and do have their place, but too much novelty isn’t novelty anymore; it just makes for a fluffy class. The majority of class time should be serious and focused on students working independently. That’s where the best learning will happen.
49. Don’t forget to erase the examples and notes on your board and cover any posters that may have answers on them before giving a test. I think every teacher makes this mistake at least once.
50. Take all advice with a grain of salt. Though there are simple, established things that are more effective than others (read Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works), teaching is still more of an art than a science. Everybody thinks they’re a good teacher, but not everybody’s right. Be skeptical about all experts and even “research” (which is rarely as objective as proponents would like you to think). Yes, this includes my lists. All fifty (or 100 total) of these things will not work for everybody. But many will. Your only two sure guides are common sense and experience. Take good notes, always be open to change, be flexible to responding to the needs of specific classes, and pay attention to everything. You’ll do great.