Being a new teacher has always been hard, but in the past year or two, entering the education profession has come with additional challenges that may leave even the most resilient of new educators gripping the edge of their desks. To help, Dr. Mamie L. Pack offers this top 10 list of practical advice that can be immediately applied, helping new teachers positively affect so many students’ lives while also building a strong foundation for their practice.
“I think the most important thing to understand as a new teacher is you are not going to start out as the best teacher that ever was,” said Pack. “This profession is learned in the trenches, and it may be as many as five years until you feel fully confident and capable and are called ‘awesome’ by your students. You’re going to make mistakes along the way. But there are some practical actions you can take to make the most of every moment and power up your classroom! Here are some tips you can apply starting today:
1. Self-Reflect to Build your Cultural Competence and Empathy
As a new teacher, you will inevitably come face-to-face with students who are not like you. You’ll want to understand the world these children live in. There may be differences in religion, race, socio-economic status, geographies, learning or physical challenges, and more. Prioritizing time for self-reflection to identify where you need to bolster your cultural competence is essential. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Showing empathy and interest in understanding the uniqueness we all bring to the classroom shows you care about the individuality of your students. Ask yourself questions like, “What are my views about this? How do my experiences with this impact how I see and hear my students?” You’ll benefit from shining a light on where you need to shift your perceptions, uproot biased teaching practices, and build practical tools to be more inclusive and empathetic.
2. Set Your Personal Goals and Revisit them Monthly
It’s easy to feel like you need to boil the ocean, but – good news – you don’t! Think about your career trajectory and what you want to master. Then, set two to three goals each month to learn something more about these topics. At the end of each month, revisit those goals and see what worked, what didn’t, and what you learned. I also recommend that new teachers pick a well-regarded book about a topic of interest and always have a book going to grow your knowledge.
3. Connect with Your Community - Starting with your Classroom
Your classroom in your community. Avoid starting your initial conversations with students surrounding rules. The school already has a lot of rules in place, and students are generally aware of them. Instead, create meaningful conversations with your students about building community and establishing classroom culture.
Make clear your classroom is a place of learning where every student has the right to be there at the table. Great starter questions are around respect, fairness, and equity. For example, “How should we treat each other?” Most children will answer that we should be nice or kind. Then you can ask, “How do we know when someone is being kind?”
Other discussion questions might include: “How can we show them we are listening? What if you want to add something to what another person is saying – how will we agree to do that in a way that is respectful and polite? What do we do if we disagree with someone? How can we share different opinions in a way that makes each person feel seen, heard, and valued?”
I want to pause here for a moment to really drive home this point: Every student deserves to be seen, heard, and valued. All of us do. Sadly, it doesn’t always happen, and the scars can last a long time. So please keep this front of mind on your path to becoming an amazing educator. The benefits from keeping this mindset will infuse joy into your classroom community and the lives of your students. It’s an integral part of social-emotional learning, character education, and flourishing learning environments. Strive to make sure everyone feels they have a voice that is valued, enabling each student to bring their unique gifts to their learning experience. It won’t happen overnight, but children respond to this and thrive when adults affirm their value. Create strong classroom agreements. You can do this and still have healthy boundaries.
4. Be Intentional in Celebrating Victories and Progress
In a fair and equitable environment, celebrations are a must in creating a joy-infused classroom. By continuously recognizing the good in your students and helping them to identify the good in each other, you are building a healthy classroom community. A Celebration Board at the front of the class where students can note what they see is a great way to approach this. Did they see someone help another student pick up a dropped book bag? Have them note it. Celebrate it! This allows your students to purposefully identify the good in each other. As a teacher, you can help model this by making it a point every day to look for ways to celebrate your students’ contributions.
5. Be the Ripple
Speaking of modeling seeing the good, realize you are that pebble in the pond that creates ripples that go all the way to distant shorelines. As an educator, you create disruption just like that pebble in the pond, and that’s a good thing. Learning can be about thinking in new, disruptive ways. Another favorite quote of mine is, “There can be no growth without disruption.” But there’s a marked difference between disruption and eruption. So, if you’re having a bad day or you were caught in traffic and you’re feeling really on edge, it’s okay to take a breath and just let your students know you feel a little tight or edgy and need to collect yourself for two minutes. You can all do a short breathing exercise and, in the process, model awareness of our own emotions and responsibility for our actions because they affect others. We can act proactively, not reactively, and still be our authentic selves.
6. Build Partnerships
You’re not in education alone. Reach out to your leadership, your peers, your students, and their parents and make this work a team effort. There are many times when I am teaching, and I reach out for a second opinion on something and get fantastic support. Ask for help when you need it.
7. Be Okay Having Uncomfortable Conversations
This part is especially hard for new teachers. You are going to do something that visibly upsets a child or angers a parent. At some point, you are going to make a mistake. You might have even been right, but that won’t matter in the moment. Surrender the need to be right and just listen.
The worse response we give to a child is to dismiss them to the extent they say, “Something happened, and my teacher did nothing.” Ask open-ended questions and really listen. There’s a tendency for all of us to pivot to our point of view or to throw off a quick apology, then start fixing the issue. Don’t do it. Let the child know you saw them, you hear them, and you value them.
Your conversations after that can lead to finding the best resolution in much more productive ways. Parent-teacher conferences can get heated. Getting defensive isn’t going to help anybody, least of all the students you care about. Ask the parent to elaborate on their view of what happened, how that made them feel, why they think it happened, and what they need. Then, after you’ve listened, you can share your perspective and work together to find the best solutions. Many conversations are uncomfortable, that doesn’t make them unnecessary. In truth, it’s the most uncomfortable conversations that often net the greatest rewards. Be humble, be courageous, and be an active listener.
8. Reach Up
The process of learning to be an effective educator doesn’t have a finish line. Everyone needs to keep learning. You may have a formal mentor, and if so, great! Have them help you with the goals you set under item two. If not, realize the power of social media for good and find someone you deeply respect, and follow them. Read their blog, listen to their podcasts, and see what they can teach you.
9. Reach Back
One of the greatest accomplishments we can have in life is helping someone else along their journey. Teachers are inherently good at this! When you become a second-year teacher, think about reaching back to a first-year teacher and offer support. Get a coffee and share best practices. Or reach back out to your university and offer to mentor a student heading into their demonstration teaching program. You can create a continuum of learning that benefits the communities we all live in.
10. Reflect Some More
Yes, more. As a teacher, you are modeling behavior all day, five days a week. It’s important to keep building self-awareness and self-understanding in order to create a classroom that is anti-biased and anti-racist. Personally, I’m big on journaling, and I use paper and pen. I just like the fluid, slower rhythm of it. But there are many free online journaling apps or voice recording apps you can use. The moments you take to stop and breathe, and then reflect can be powerful to acknowledge and cement your own learning experiences and victories. And yes, even in the midst of a pandemic and a school year turned on its head, you will have victories. You will change lives for the better. And that’s why we all got into education in the first place, isn’t it?
Dr. Mamie L. Pack is an Instructor in the Teachers College at Western Governors University. Dr. Pack has spent more than 20 years in education, amplifying diverse voices. From writing grants to teach African American literature in high schools to creating diversity, equity & inclusion safe spaces for youth, Mamie’s professional interests include cultural studies, educational equity, and mentoring. With a Ph.D. in Education in Mentoring and a MEd in Divergent learning, she has served as a clinical supervisor and as a mentor for teachers entering education through alternative certification programs and providing support for military spouses. Additionally, she serves as a consultant for teachers supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in her community. Mamie is passionate about breaking barriers in education.