As I create a to-do list to prepare for my sixteenth (wowza!) year of teaching, I know that sometime soon I’ll be asked what advice I would give to new teachers. I used to give very positive and uplifting advice. However, nothing has changed my understanding of what it means to be a teacher more than having children of my own who are in school. So my advice today is in the form of a “to don’t” list. Let’s be clear: I have done EVERY SINGLE ONE of these don’ts. I’ll probably do some of them again. But as a parent who is also a teacher, I just want to be better every year.
1. Don’t let a negative encounter be your first encounter with a parent or student. It’s near impossible to do, but giving every student some positive feedback before they get criticism and giving every parent a positive contact before you have to call home about a behavior infraction will impact the way they feel about you, your subject area, the school, and education in general.
2. Don’t turn a student into a buffer. We’ve all done it: built our seating charts and groupings around the challenging kids (especially if their challenge is loud and distracting behavior) and used the quieter, more compliant kids as buffers. But kids aren’t buffers. The quiet, compliant kids deserve to be in a seat that helps them grow just as the loud and distracting kids deserve to be in a seat that helps them grow. Treat your groupings and seating charts as an opportunity to maximize learning, not just to minimize behavior issues.
3. Don’t ever let an “F” be a surprise. Talk to the kid, the parent, the counselor before you even think of putting that grade in the book. Ideally, we should be able to intervene before an F ever even happens…but when it does (because it will), make sure everyone knows about it and everyone knows what the plan is to make it better.
4. Don’t let conferences be the first time a parent hears about a concern you have about their child. This makes kids and parents dread conferences AND turns the atmosphere unpleasant. At the same time, don’t report at conferences simply that the kid is “a joy to have in class” or that you “have no concerns.” Parents want to know – and deserve to – that you know your students academically, socially, and emotionally. That you know how their child excels, and how they need to be challenged in order to grow…not just whether their kid falls in the “problem” or “not a problem” column.
5. Don’t avoid the non-academic goings-on in your class. You can’t always see if a group of kids has excluded another kid from the “pretty hair club” or if someone is spreading rumors about someone over Snapchat, but you probably can see if a kid comes back from recess looking sad or if classroom dynamics have changed. Bullying is more than just punches on the playground, and when you see evidence of it in your class, take a minute to figure out what is going on and how you can mitigate it: helping to create new friendships with a new grouping, separating potential problems, even just seeking a struggling kiddo out at lunch or in the hallway can make a huge difference in how they feel about school and themselves.
6. Don’t forget your students are people. What sport do they play? Where do they work? What is their passion? Who is in their family? All it takes is an easy survey on the first day of school…file them away and you’ll have answers to so many of your questions later on.
7. Don’t ever let a day go by with a single student thinking you don’t care about them. As a teacher who has lost several students to suicide and watched many others struggle with anxiety and depression, I know too well that every kid needs to know every day that someone cares about them. If that someone isn’t their teacher…who is it? Greet them by name. If you have to correct a behavior follow it up with a positive later on. When you “lose it” (which you will sometime), ensure that your frustration in that moment doesn’t translate to how you feel about that child as a whole. Greet them by name, daily. Interact with each kid meaningfully during class each day. Smile at them. Tell them how much you care about them. They need to know that someone loves them. Their teacher should be one of those people.
8. Don’t allow injustice to go ignored in your classroom. Doing nothing is like condoning it. When you hear hateful language, see discriminatory behavior, or even just get an inkling that something is not right, intervene, correct, and create a learning opportunity from it so it doesn’t happen again.
9. Don’t forget there is a why behind EVERYTHING. Why is a kid acting up? Why is that girl falling asleep in class? Why has that boy been absent so much lately? Sometimes all you have to do it ask.
10. Never give up on a kid. You might not see any results for years. They may not show up until that kid is a grown up. But never, ever stop trying, even if it seems like it never works.