The Magic of Teaching: First-Day-Ever Teacher Advice to My New-Teacher Friends

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Dear New-Teacher Friend,

As you know, every teacher has a bag of tricks… it’s that mythical, mystical bag (our heads) where teacher tips are checked in and out like a library of books.  Don’t worry, you’ve already accumulated some of your own, in your training, I’m sure of it, but you’ll continue honing your magic with each class– each student, each year– you teach.

Realize that I’m in my twentieth-something year of teaching, and while my bag of tricks is really full, at this point, it’s growing. At no point in my career have I stood back and thought, I’ve finally arrived as a teacher: this is as good as it gets. On the contrary, times change, I change, my audience changes, society and expectations change. Being a teacher (and you already are, if you’ve gotten to this point!) is an ever evolving process of growth and change. But that’s one of the things I love the most about teaching– that fact that we never find ourselves in a state of stasis. (And if you do, your teaching career is probably over at that point or should be).

So, I’d like to share with you some of my very essential-go-to teacher tips I’ve learned along the way to help ease your transition into teaching.

1)  Be prepared. Decorate your room. Make it a combination of a space that reflects you and your pedagogy and one the students are excited to enter. Plan, at least, the first week– in excruciating detail. Trust me, the more planned you are ahead of time, the less you will stress when the unexpected arises. And it will.

2) TRY to get a good sleep before the first days of school. I know you’re excited– the butterflies are fluttering, but I still get them at the beginning of each new year, so it isn’t something new to this experience. It occurs at the beginning of each and every school year, to be sure. You’ll think about all of the things you didn’t do and should do. You may even have scary teacher dreams. I have! But try to calm yourself, and just get a good night’s sleep (because you’re going to need it).

3) I know you’ll have a smile on your face, since let’s face it, if you’ve become a teacher, the first day of school is exciting because it holds such promise. Stand at the door, with that smile on your face, and welcome your new students into class, greeting each one. They are just as nervous as you, if not more. Your smile and greeting are their first impression of you. Make it a good one!

4) Make sure your expectations are clear and written somewhere that you and your students can refer to them. Often. Trust is something that’s gained when boundaries are clear. Be almost over-firm, in the early days and even months, in adhering to these, even when it’s easier to let one or two slide. Students will test you on them like it’s their job, but, even when they can’t consciously conceive it or communicate it, structure makes them feel safe and cared about. A wise teacher told me, you can always ease up on control, but you can never get it back once you’ve lost it— and it’s true.

5) Be enthusiastic. You want them to know that, together, you have a job to accomplish, but your goal is to make it engaging– even fun!

6) Get to know your students, by name, early on. I do this by saying their names (while looking at my seating chart/ cheat sheet) often. Normally, by the end of the first week, I have most of their names down.

7) Assign seats (this will help you in learning their names more quickly, too). I not only assign seats, but I change their assigned seats for every unit and/or marking period to develop a sense of community for my students. My goal is to provide them with the opportunity to work with and get to know everyone in class. Students usually grumble about this in the beginning of the year, but by the end of the year, they’re thankful to have had the opportunity to work with students they would, admittedly, not have chosen to work with on their own. Moreover, it fosters my philosophy that change is good and we should seek to change our perspective– to see and learn things we might not have otherwise.

8) Be flexible. Teaching is a juggling act of being present in the now, reflecting on what was, and thinking ahead– all while having two conversations simultaneously, sometimes, and making sure that everyone is on task. Allow yourself moments to breathe. And allow yourself teachable moments where sometimes it’s better to follow where the class is taking you than the plan you’d written in your planner. The more practice you get– the more you will begin to recognize these moments. But if you’re not flexible and open to them, you’ll miss the opportunity for authentic learning.

9) Find something unique in each of your students and let them know you know it. The fact that you care goes a long way in building a relationship with them that will flourish throughout the year.

10) Realize that plan you had for the perfect lesson will not execute perfectly, most often. And that’s okay. We do our best. We are human. We’ll forget something or rush through something or even handle something badly. But, at the end of the day, the most important part is to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and how you’ll do it differently tomorrow. Know that every tomorrow is a new day. Even some of the lessons that went so poorly or the worst run-ins I had with  students– usually, by the next day, it’s a clean slate. Put it in the past. Learn from it. And move on. Add it to your own bag of tricks.

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I applaud you for choosing teaching as a career– or more likely, for listening to the calling. Teaching is not something we do, as much as it is who we are. It’s not an easy job, for sure. You’ll be asked to multi-task in ways you’ve never even imagined possible. You’ll feel this awesome sense of responsibility to your students, your colleagues, parents, and community. Just when you feel caught up with your work, there’s always more to do. Most often, you’ll do far more than you’re compensated or rewarded for. But, through it all, remember that you’re making a difference in the life of a child– so many children, in fact. And in my experience, that is the most fulfilling and rewarding feeling of all.

Now, go out there: you’ll be fine (an the good news is you’ll be better every day!). Teach with passion, learn every day, grow with your students, give what you can & you’ll see how truly magical you are!

Best of Luck,

From a Fellow Teacher

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( This post was inspired by my own new-teacher friends: Joe, Katie & Stephen.

I’m so excited for you and wish you the very best!)

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First Day of School

I stand in front of the mirror, a dry run for tomorrow, full-front, then turn to one side & then the other, smoothing out the wrinkles of my pristinely new dress. This will need to be ironed. Slipping the brown, flat, flip-flops on. No, the heals will look better even though they aren’t new. They’ll make me look taller. A taller teacher gives the impression of greater control. On the first days of school, it’s all about presence and tone. There’s something to be said about making a good first impression.

My book bag is ready. New multi-colored gel point pens. Folders of first week’s curriculum I’ve been reacquainting myself with. You’d think after eleven years of teaching the same courses, I’d have it all committed to memory. Not so. Mostly, I do, but I want to make sure I come off polished, not sloppy. Besides, I always change it up a bit to keep it fresh for me and, ultimately, them; if it isn’t relevant, it goes unremembered. New clips for holding large stacks of paper and plenty of white out (the school never supplies the good white out, it’s always the gloppy kind). And my IPad, including my rosters of names that usually take me no more than 2 weeks to learn. I direct my students to sit alphabetically, at first, to facilitate learning their names. Nothing more embarrassing than calling a student by the wrong name; I can literally see the expression on their faces, when I address them incorrectly, show signs of disappointment (eyebrows straight, eyeballs  dilated, no curve at the edges of their mouths) imagining their stomachs sinking, thinking I’m not memorable enough for her to know. The truth its, it’s easier to learn the names of the loud ones, the odd ones, the uber nice ones before the others who choose not to stand out; if there is guilt to be had for succumbing to responding to certain stereotypes, I own it in the first weeks of school. Also, on my IPad is this new Planbook app I piloted for our school; I’ve been working with a beta group to test the compatibility of the Windows version. I like to be a pioneer.

The first day of school is hardly about that first day. It’s about the planning that begins weeks before. It’s about constructing each course like building a house. You need to understand what needs to be conveyed through the big concepts before you can plan out the details. It’s about creating an atmosphere that is a stimulating learning environment and slightly different than the year before, so repeat students don’t become complacent. Two weeks prior, I went into school with my daughter to reassemble my room. It’s important for me to have spaces that reflect who I am as a person and a teacher, but it’s equally important to have students spaces, so they feel welcome and comfortable there. In particular, they enjoy the colorful touches. The whiteboard paint in neon colors. The Expo markers of Caribbean hues. The college board, inviting students to write where they plan on attending complete with hash tags. I’m always proud, at the end of the year, when students tell me their college board in my room has the most names on it. Not for a competition or anything, but more to acknowledge my efforts in inviting them to take ownership of their space in my room.

When I walk in tomorrow, initially it will be close to silent. What stands out at first are the shiny floors and clean lockers which are like arms waiting for me to come in. Slowly, the voices can be heard. At first a hum, then so loud you could hardly hear yourself think, but it’s comforting to hear the laughter and see all of the smiles reacquainting themselves with one another.

I will wait in my room, greeting each student with a smile. My name written largely and neatly on the board to help them be sure they are in the right place. A bowl of Skittles will sit at the center of the round table in the front of the room. About half of them notice it; their curiosity already piqued.

I anticipate reminding myself that through all of the business and dissemination of information that needs to be dispersed, today, the most important thing is to convey my philosophy of teaching. I preface this by stating, “On the first day, I feel as if I’m vomiting information all over you. I promise every day will not be like this.” Then I continue, “This will be a student centered classroom; after all, you are the reason we are here. My expectations will be high but not unattainable, and I will be here to assist you achieve your goals in whatever ways I can. I don’t see teaching English as teaching students to learn to read or write. While you will be doing that too, the focus will be on using English to become a critical thinker. I hope to impart you with ways to be curious about and question your world, using different kinds of discourse as a vehicle for discovery– to discover new things about not only your world, but yourself and your place in your world.”

Yes, the anticipation is mounting. I can’t wait to meet these new young people with whom I will share my year. I know they will have just as much an impact on me and my thinking as I hope to have on them. I can’t think of another job I’d rather do. Second only to parenting, being a teacher, I believe, is the most rewarding job of all.