New Teachers have a lot of difficulty during their first couple of years. They spend their days in a constant state of trial and error. I know I did. I feel sorry for those students who were in my classes those first few years. Since then, however, I’ve been able to learn from my mistakes, and I now truly enjoy my days as a middle school teacher. I’ve been privileged enough to be able to mentor several student teachers over the years, and I’ve done everything I can to make their first years a little easier by sharing some practical tips and strategies that I’ve learned. I’ve selected 25 to start with, but there are so many more that I share on my site. Teaching is a great profession. It a job where you may not make a lot of money, but you do make a difference. Hopefully these tips will make your first years a little easier.
1. I’m Perfect – If you’re a new teacher, don’t make the mistake of telling your kids about any of your faults – for example, my friend’s son’s teacher told the class that she has ADD. Kids will go home and tell their parents that, and right off the bat, your respect level drops. Give your students the impression that you are perfect – you know everything – and that they are lucky to have been enrolled in the class of such an amazing teacher. If this is your first year of teaching, don’t let your kids know that. They will naturally lose a bit of respect for you. You don’t have to lie. When they ask, just tell them that this is your first year at THAT particular school. Then change the subject. Respect is everything in a class. Don’t give your students the opportunity to lose any respect for you. It will make things easier for you.
2. Write It Somewhere – Always assume that there are some students who are not listening when you give your oral instructions. Always have the directions written somewhere – either on the white board or on a handout. If not, you’re going to get frustrated having to repeat the instructions over and over again.
3. Assume the Worst – Assume that each student has a terrible home life and that school is the only safe place for them. Be that one positive influence in your students’ lives. Assume that their poor behavior is a result of that terrible home life. That assumption will make it easier to deal with. It may not be true for most of your students, but if you assume that it is, your encouraging words and welcoming smile will make a world of difference for that one or two students for whom that terrible home life is a reality.
4. Birthday List – Celebrate your students’ birthday. It’s a small thing, but it’s something my kids look forward to. In my class, I start each day with a sponge activity called, “Today in American History.” I have important events that happened in our history on that particular day projected on my Power point, and the students have to copy it down. I go over the events and their importance. I always check my birthday list in the morning, and if there is a student who has a birthday on that day, I add it to the important historical events. I always come up with a story about how I’ll always remember that day. The earth shook. The birds sang extra loud, etc. Then I tell them how since that day, the world has never been the same. (I clarify that it has been better.) Kids appreciate it.
5. Re-Do – It’s OK to change your plans at the last minute. Sometimes you get to school, and the plan you had prepared all night just won’t work for one reason or another. Don’t feel bad if you have to throw something together at the last minute. If this happens too often, however, it may be time to re-evaluate your planning sessions. : )
6. Plan Ahead – Get the little things ready ahead of time. With most students, you have to be efficient with time. Too much free time will lead to the students getting noisy and it will be harder to get them back on task. Anything you can do ahead of time will make things easier for you.
7. Take Stress Out of Tests – Don’t make your tests so serious. On every test, I always include a “freebie.” This is a question that has nothing to do with the subject matter. If the student gets it right, it’s an extra point. If they get it wrong, it doesn’t hurt their grade. Mostly, I use brain teaser questions, like: Johnny’s mother had four children. One was named April; the other was named May, and another was named, June. What was the name of the fourth child? Most kids will figure it out and answer, Johnny, but some won’t, and they’ll feel worse about missing the freebie that they do about missing the real questions. You can find these questions on the web. Just Google: brain teasers. Anything you can do to take away some of the “stress” from the test, will help your students do better.
8. Don’t Yell – Don’t yell. I learned early in my career that yelling doesn’t work. It only serves to show your students that you can be flustered. When you raise your voice in anger, the students win. I have had many problem students in my class over the years. I have some now, but I never raise my voice in frustration. If the class is too loud, I cross my arms and wait. Once the class settles down, I continue. There will be times when the students will take longer than I expect to settle down. It’s in those times when I’ll start calling individual names. I’ll say, “Johnny,” and wait till I get his attention, “We’re waiting for you.” Most of the time the students will notice me waiting, and they’ll start with the “shhhhhh.” There will be, however, those rare times when I will raise my voice, but they are what I call “Strategic Detonations.” I, and not the students, determine when I will yell, and when I yell, it is to make a very important point. It happens maybe twice the whole year – sometimes never. If a teacher raises his/her voice on a regular basis, eventually the students become numb to it, and it will no longer have an effect. There will be times when the students will cause you to be flustered. Do everything you can to keep from raising your voice. Wait till the students leave, – then scream.
9. The Countdown – Use the countdown method. Any time you give an activity, give the students a time limit, and as the clock ticks away, keep reminding them of the time remaining. Students who are wasting time will normally get back on task when reminded of the shortening time. Students need time limits. They like time limits. They love time limits. They just don’t know it.
10. Making it Cute – Try and give cute/cool names to your assignments. Instead of just calling them “video notes,” I call them “IDK” notes (I Didn’t Know). Even if the assignment is one of those boring find-the-answer-in-the-book activities, you give a cool name like, “History Treasure Hunt,” the students will view it as more than just boring seat work – well most students will. Kids will perceive school work how you present it. If you say, “Here’s a worksheet to review state standards,” the kids will respond with groans. However, if you tell them it’s a “TITE” sheet, they’re going to say, “a what sheet?” Then you can tell them, “It’s a ‘This-Is-Too-Easy sheet.” You’ll get a different reaction from your students based on how you present the activity. Trust me. It works.
11. Celebrity Assistants – Keep up with who and what is popular on TV, music, or movies, and include them in your activities somehow. Add their names to the tests or worksheets or class games. Quote the lyrics of a popular song as you are giving a lecture. Watch how the kids who aren’t paying attention perk up. I never would have guessed that Taylor Lautner was so popular, but the kids really pay attention when his name is mentioned. Right now I have to find pictures of some singer named Justin Bieber. He’s supposed to be the next big thing.
12. Keep ‘Em Quiet – Always have some kind of quiet activity ready for those students who finish their tests early. Without this, students will start talking and making noise while other students are still testing. They need something specific to do. Wordsearches are easy and you can create them online for free. I know that reading is more “educational,” but the students who are most prone to finish early and talk are those students who probably won’t choose to read a book. That is why I always have this other option.
13. Let Them Win – Avoid getting into a “Burn” contest with your students. A “burn” contest is a conversation where with the use of sarcasm, you “burn” each other with funny insults. You have to remember that they are kids, and although they may be good at dishing it out, they may not be able to take it, and eventually, because they don’t want to lose this contest in front of their peers, they’ll resort to using insults that may cross the line. I like having fun with my students. They are funny and we get along well, but I always have to keep that line between teacher and student visible. If you do get into one of these sarcasm contests, let them win early. My response is, “Good one.” Then I walk away.
14. The Big Test – Don’t let the state tests stress you out. At the beginning of the year, ask a veteran teacher to tell you what topics are most likely going to be on the test. Not all the State Standards are on the test. This will allow you to plan your lessons better. For example, if you have a great two-week lesson on Lewis and Clark, you may want to modify that, since only ONE question in the entire test asks about Lewis and Clark – at least that’s the way our State Test is. Which is sad, because the Lewis and Clark expedition is so amazing, and the kids love learning about it. (I spend a lot of time on it anyway. Shhhh 🙂
15. Shoot For The Moon – If you’re doing a new project, try and do it with your highest achieving class first, that is your Honors or Upper Level class. The reason I say this is that they will most often give you the best work. Students in those classes seem to compete with each other for quality and creativity, so they will give you the best “sample” work for you to show to your other classes. You want to show the best examples for the other classes to shoot for.
16. The Last Week – Make sure you have something busy for the students to do during the last week. Kids normally check out a week before school ends. If you’re trying to give a last test or a major project, you may find that many students are absent or not really into school anymore. I know you are taught to teach to the very end, but you can’t get too much across to kids on the last day of school. I use that day for my End-Of-The-Year speech, where I encourage them to do their best and to ignore the negative influences in their life. I also like showing an End-Of-The-Year slide show of the students. That’s always fun.
17. How Many Here – When lecturing or giving information to the class, ask questions like, “Has anybody here…?”, “How many here have…?” etc. My student teachers did this when they gave their introduction speeches. They talked about their travels, then asked the question, “How many have been…?” It engaged the students and included them in the discussion. I would keep my questions to those that can be answered with just a raising of the hands. Otherwise, you may have a question answered with a long time-consuming story, and most students are that good at telling stories.
18. One Bullet At A Time – When giving a lecture using a PowerPoint presentation, and you want students to copy down what is on the screen, you want to set up your slide show to reveal one sentence or one bullet at a time. What happens in class is when the entire page is revealed and the students are told to copy it down, the students were too busy copying down all the notes to listen to the lecture. What I do is talk about the information, then, I reveal it for the students to copy. Also, only put the important information on the screen. You can’t give the students the option to paraphrase or decide which information is note-worthy. What I tell my student teachers is to tell the kids to write down everything that is on the screen word-for-word. The teacher, and not the student, decides what is essential. I tell them to also keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Give them basic fact, and let your lecture elaborate. Don’t put your elaboration on the screen. It will be too much for the kids to write.
19. Adding Passion – Include your hobbies or passion into your lessons. If you are into horses or sewing or hot rod cars, try and incorporate that into your lessons. For example, I have always liked writing poems. I can also play the piano and guitar, so what I’ve done is write little silly songs about my content – history. I just finished writing a rap about the events leading up to the American Revolution. It was a little hokey and undignified, but the kids loved it. It made the lesson stand out in their minds. What happens is that the passion you feel about a hobby shows in your lesson, and that excitement is contagious. The kids will get excited about the lesson. Plus, you will enjoy it a lot more as well.
20. Positive Peer Pressure – Use competition between classes to increase your volunteer participation. Today, I had allocated a certain amount of time for presentations. I found, however, that I wasn’t getting enough volunteers to present. I started thinking that I may have too much time left over, and with 8th graders, that is asking for trouble. I began counting out loud how many students had volunteered. I told them that the other class might have more volunteers, but I also told them that it wasn’t a competition. They didn’t believe me. All of a sudden, students began to pressure other students to raise their hand to present. I ended up having too many presenters, and I had to cut one of the activities from the agenda. Sometimes peer pressure can be a teacher’s friend.
21. Hey Parents – Create a generic letter that lets the parents know that you are concerned about the student’s progress. Make a list of about 6 basic concerns such as: not doing homework, not studying for tests, not focused in class, talking too much, not bring supplies, etc. You have to think about the most pressing concerns that you have in your class. Create this document, but leave the name blank. Start it with: To the Parents of _________________. Then write a short paragraph saying something like, I am concerned with the progress of your child. The reason why is:
Then have the reasons in a column down the page with a small empty box next to each of the concerns. End it with a closing paragraph like: I hope that you can work with your child to improve in these areas. Please feel free to contact me….ect. Include a parent signature line. Now you can fill one of these out for any child that is not doing well, check the appropriate boxes and send it with the child. The child will then be required to give it to mom or dad to read, sign and return to you. If you don’t get it back, then you’ll have to call, but if you do get it back, it saves you a call home. The parents have been notified. The signature confirms it. Before you send it out, however, get someone at your school to do you the favor of translating it into the language of the dominant subculture at your school. Print it with English on one side, and the other language of the back. Make it as exact as you can, so even if you don’t know the language, you know that box number three on one side is the same on the other. It’s all about communication.
22. Project Collection – When I collect big projects from my students, I want to know who did it and who didn’t, since it’s a big part of their grade. If I don’t check, then I won’t know until after I grade all the projects, and by that time it may be too late to get on the kids for not having their project in. It’s an easy way for a student to fall through the cracks. So what I do is tell the kids to get their project on their desk. Then I call their names using my grade book. I ask them to show me their project. The students will show me their poster or flash drive (where their PowerPoint is stored) or whatever their project is. I write down in the grade book exactly what they have – a poster, a PowerPoint, a game board, a scrapbook, whatever they chose to do for the project. It gives me a chance to scold the ones who don’t have anything, and it protects me from a student coming and saying that they turned it in, but I lost it. (Yes, it happens.)
23. Creative Use of Time – I always schedule a group work day after a big project is due. Finding time to grade projects is always going to be tough. You have to spend more time on big projects since it’s such a large part of their grade. Before, I would spend hours after school or during my prep grading those monsters projects. Now what I do is grade during the time the students are working in groups. I can still monitor and help, but for the most part, I can use that time to grade. Creative use of time is a skill that every teacher needs to learn. If they don’t they will burn out fast.
24. Paperclip Power – Always have a supply of paper clips up in the front of the classroom. Most teachers have them in their desk or in a cute container on top of their desk, which is OK, but you need some near the front of the room where you teach. You will always be collecting some kind of class work or homework, and having to go to your desk to get a paperclip takes time, not a lot, but still, it only takes a second of free time to allow Johnny to do something that costs you more time getting things back on track. I’m not into the cute paperclip container thing. I just rip the top off the box and leave it on my whiteboard tray. It works just as well.
25. Be The Light – You are going to find yourself in many meetings where everyone will be talking about how bad a student is doing or how poorly the school system works or how ineffective the administration is. Don’t fall into the darkness of the cynical (cool term). Be the positive voice in the crowd. They may call you naive or unaware, but who cares? I’ve seen too many young teachers lose their love of teaching, because they hang around the complaining teacher or the pessimistic teacher. New teachers bring that Save-The-World attitude to the school. I like hanging around with them, because it’s contagious, and sometimes I need to be reminded of why I became a teacher. Be the light!
Wishing you lots of Success In The Classroom!