Ten Rookie Mistakes of a First Year Teacher
But if you’re any good you’ll learn and you’ll easily avoid the gaffes in April that you blundered into in October.
Here are the top ten slip-ups, faux pas, bungles, and flounders I caught myself executing during my first year as an educator. Some are special ed. specific, but many are missteps that any new teacher could stumble through.
1. I spent three days of going over procedures and rules instead of three weeks. This was my main oversight for the year, I spent way too little time on classroom expectations and paid for it all year with an increasingly unruly class. The problem was that I didn’t know how to broach my expectations for students and consequences in a spiraling fashion, I just went over it once, posted the rules and dove right into academics.
2. I was a rube and offered seemingly boundless extrinsic rewards (otherwise known as bribery) From day one I handed out Tootsie Rolls to students who filled in their blue identification cards correctly. By the end of the year, not only was I out tons of cash in which I bought bribes, but I found that my kids were now trained to only do work if a reward was involved. Even worse, I only gave treats out for good work or behavior; however my para just gave gum and candy out to whomever asked…so ultimately they treated her with more respect.
3. I crossed the line from friendly to informal. Repeat after me: you are not your student’s pal. I found myself being way too open with my students, initially sharing a lot of info about myself…and that ended up being a bad idea as students took my informality as a welcome for disrespect. This year I plan to exercise kindness and warmth without being an open book for my kids. Oh, and know this: students will try to look up your MySpace page…so make it private or risk them bringing up that way-too-personal photo of you.
4. I would make empty threats. In September I was making five phone calls a night, on Fridays I called the families of students who were really good. I thought I was a rock star because I called whether students were good or bad. By November it was over. But if you tell a kid you’re going to call, and don’t make good on your threat…it’s pretty much over for you; the student will know that they can get over on you with no sweat. Be consistent and follow up your threats! You’re only as good as your word.
5. I let my paraprofessionals run the show. I was 23, my paras were in their 30’s and 40’s…and I was shaking in my shoes when it came to asserting myself in the classroom. The result was that they didn’t do their job, left me with tons of extra work, and often left alone in my classroom. If you’re like me, you’re not too keen on confrontation, but realize that if your paraprofessionals mess up it’s still your ass/job on the line. Just like with the students, make your preferences and expectations known from the beginning.
6. I made two many calls to School Security each day. I was so freaked out by my student’s misbehavior that I was calling school safety nearly every day, and it got to the point where they wouldn’t answer. The realization that I was leaning on security too heavily came the day that the officer came into my room, saw the student laying over my desk casually tossing my belongings into the trash bin, and promptly walked out shaking her head. When you rely too much on administration and security for classroom management you give up your own power as a teacher and disciplinarian, not to mention you look like a wuss, not to mention you are viewed as an annoyance.
7. My classroom routines were established too late. It was December before I had all my routines posted and in place. By then it was hard to make students truly adhere to the rituals of the classroom. When they didn’t follow the routine, they didn’t do the work and they acted up considerably. By May they followed the routine pretty well…but all that wasted time haunts me. This year I will be all about the routine from the get go, and my classroom should work like a well oiled machine. (Ha!)
8. I engaged in arguments with students (and I let them see me sweat!) Little known fact: students test boundaries and want to see if you’ll take the bait. Each time they insult your shoes, tell you that you’re a bad teacher, or say their mom is going to slap you they are testing whether they can get under your skin. When you snap back at them, or get into a verbal battle…they win. And it’s fun for them. Seriously, many of my students can’t read and only are coming to school so they avoid truancy or their probation officer; if they can liven up their day by making the teacher scream and rip out her hair, all the better! Kids are so smart it’s scary, and they will act like an evil mirror reflecting your worst qualities; once they see what sort of comment or action provokes you, it’s all over. My example is my desk; all year I was vulnerable because the kids learned to pick the lock on my drawers and rifle through my belongs—this would drive me to shout and actually chase students around the room. To a student seeing a teacher actually run to a desk before a student got his hands inside must have been as entertaining as hell…Finally I had to face facts and just act like it was no big thing that the kids were stealing my post-it notes and making paper-clip necklaces. After I moved my valuables to my padlocked closet, of course. Once I didn’t care the students saw they couldn’t get a rise out of me and left my desk alone.
9. I retreated to my desk. Again with the desk! I often used my desk as a barrier between myself and students, and this negatively and unconsciously constructed a barrier between us. I’m not saying I sat at my desk all day, or never stood in front of the class while I instructed; but during down time it was my natural default to sit at my desk while I readied assignments or grade papers. This left me really isolated and created an air of inapproachability between me and my students. This year I’m moving my desk to the far corner of the room so I am forced to sit at the student table and be among my kids more.
10. I let people intrude upon my lunch break. New teachers: keep your lunch hour holy. This is the time for you to relax and unwind for 50 minutes before the screaming hordes of students return to class. Let’s be frank: I was a pushover for any administrator, counselor, or student who wanted to meet during my lunch…and often I didn’t face the afternoon as a refreshed and enthusiastic educator. If you have to leave the classroom or teacher lounge and get outside: do so. Don’t pick up your classroom phone, don’t commit to meetings, don’t let students “hang out” in your classroom. Maybe in a few years you can spread yourself thin and can teach well while tired, but for now I recommend taking some time for yourself because you’ll need all the energy you can muster.
Don’t despair, new teachers. The mistakes you’ll make will lead to a metamorphosis to an incredibly dynamic instructor. Hang on, don’t lose your excitement, and you’ll definitely survive the year.