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Dear new teacher,

August 14, 2012

Last week on Global Physics Department, the discussion was about what a new physics teacher should know.  I was surprised that the discussion was mostly about teaching physics specifically – having the problems solved ahead of time, choosing appropriate examples, doing the labs and demos oneself before trying them with students. My recollections about being a starting teacher don’t focus at all on the physics teaching part. So here is what I wish I had known when I first started teaching, and some advice for total n00bz.

ORGANIZATION.

You will have a lot of “paperwork.” Some of it is electronic, but it still fits into this category. IEPs to read and sign. Forms to collect and get to the right place. Forms to fill out and hand in by a certain date. Attendance to record and report. Keeping track of who has gone to the lav and when they went. Grades to record. Papers from admins or guidance to hand to certain kids or all kids. Reimbursement forms, field trip forms, building use forms. Some of this paperwork has to happen during class time when you are teaching – like attendance and lav pass use.  You have to stay on top of it and do it right. Don’t be afraid to change your system partway through the year. Your organization system is one thing you CAN change mid-year.

ATTITUDE (or, as I learned in Philadelphia, addy-tood).

Being a teacher requires you to create an appropriate mental state for your job. This is probably true for most jobs. Some people find their teacher-state to be more natural for them than others do. Personally, I am an introvert, and when I put on my teacher state I am acting, and it takes a lot of energy, and I had to learn how to play the part right. So this bit is advice I needed, but not everyone needs it.

Without a sense of humor, you are lost. You must be able to laugh at yourself, in particular. That old saw you may hear about not smiling until after Christmas is bogus, you don’t need to be constantly stern in order to maintain order and the students need to know you are human. And you must be able to laugh at the end of a hard day and shake off whatever has happened, so you can go back and teach the next day.

You must cultivate relationships. This was very hard for me and I could have used lessons in being social. On the autism/Aspergers spectrum, I am close to the border between “normal” and “Aspergers” and I have had to learn to smile and say hello when I was walking through the halls of my school. I had to learn to greet people and make small talk. This has even shown up on formal evaluations of me, so don’t discount sociability as important to your teaching career!

Relationships with students may come easier, especially to younger teachers. Be careful. I have been asked out by students (and one student who waited until he graduated to ask me out) and this is bad. That happened before facebook and twitter came on the scene, and now you have even more venues to be careful in. Keep it professional, err on the side of caution.

Administrators. I am still working on having good relationships with administrators. I confess to a lack of tact, which I am still learning, but my best advice to new teachers is think before you speak and run any e-mails you are thinking of sending past a colleague or two before actually hitting send. If you are untenured, pretty much keep your mouth shut and wait for a colleague to speak up. A good administrator will hear you and still do what they gotta do, but some admins will decide to make your life hell for no good reason.

COMMUNICATION

Communication is generally terrible in schools. The best sources of information are the kids and the secretaries. If you don’t know what is going on, it’s because nobody told you, or you didn’t read the e-mail. Read the e-mail! And figure out how to remember what you were told (see ORGANIZATION).

Do communicate with students and parents. This may seem obvious, but there is a lot of bad that can come out of “the teacher never said…” For example, in my district a student in high school cannot fail a subject if the teacher has not informed the parent(s) that the child is failing the subject. Respond to all parent e-mails within 24 hours and copy the guidance counselor and if necessary an administrator. Keep a record of all of your parent communication. Communicate with students about how they are doing, and what they can be doing better. I am still learning how to do that one, too. The fewer students you have, the easier feedback is.

Do not ever send mass e-mails to the entire school community. If you have something newsletter-worthy, or a request for used bowling balls or slide projectors, there is probably already a way for you to get your information or request out to the school community without a mass e-mail from you. And if it isn’t one of those two types of things, DO NOT send a mass e-mail. People will be annoyed, and you will be “THAT teacher.” I haven’t sent a mass e-mail in at least five years, yay me!

Do not ever text to a student, unless you are using a forum like ClassParrot to send information to all your students at once without knowing their phone numbers and without them knowing yours. I should not have to say that, but maybe someone reading this really is a complete n00b.

FLEXIBILITY

I am still learning this. I have to remember that I don’t need to get stressed out or wound up. If I don’t get all the tests graded tonight, the world won’t end. If I really need to, there are videos I can show in class. If suddenly there is a class meeting scheduled during a period when I was planning to give a test, I can work around that. State testing means I’ll only see two of my classes all this week? I can deal with that, the world won’t end. I didn’t actually teach every little thing in the curriculum? It won’t stop the students from getting into college, my supervisor won’t notice, and I won’t be fired.

I have to keep working on flexibility. Sometimes I feel like I need to stand straight without bending (usually after bending a lot in a short period of time) but really, being flexible is almost always best. And it is easiest to be flexible when you are relaxed.

WHAT IT ALL COMES DOWN TO:

I’ve learned a lot in the past 19+ years teaching. I know I am still learning. So, new/inexperienced teacher, prepare to learn a lot and keep on doing it. I hope you love it. I do.

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 15, 2012 8:22 AM

    This is an excellent summary of the stuff a first year teacher worries about. Thanks! I also think “find someone on faculty who seems to have their stuff together to mimic”. Today’s my first day at a new school and I’ve already informed my next door neighbor that I will be following his lead today.

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