One of the worst nights of my life was the night before I taught my first high school class. I barely slept, the terror of the next day drawing closer through the night. The next morning, standing outside the door of the my first classroom, I almost threw up. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life.
Twenty years later, I’m still learning more about teaching every week, but I thought I’d offer up some tips that helped me through my first year as a new teacher. Here you go, five tips for new teachers:
1. Enthusiasm makes up for a lot.
As I was standing outside the door to that first class, Bill Leto, the man who had hired me, was waiting with me. He could tell I was nervous, and the last thing he said to me before it all started was exactly these words: “Enthusiasm makes up for a lot.” It was the single most valuable piece of teaching wisdom I’ve ever gotten. Enthusiasm really does make up for a lot. This isn’t saying the the more experience you gain the better you’ll be, because there is no substitute for skill. But in those early teaching days, when you’re struggling with everything that comes with being a new teacher, be sure to bring enthusiasm to your students and your classes. Teach like you mean it. Bring it every day.
2. It’s not about being a great teacher. It’s about building great students.
Take the focus off yourself and put it onto your students. New teachers often come into the field wanting to be great teachers, but teaching in itself is not the goal. You’re in the classroom to help students. Instead of thinking about how you’re going to be a great teacher, think about how you can make your students great. The irony of this, of course, is that you’ll become a more effective teacher more quickly by focusing on your students.
3. Activate the students.
If there is one thing we know about how people learn, it’s that passively sitting and listening to someone lecture about content is one of the least effective ways to teach and learn anything. If you’re a new teacher, you might be thinking, “I’ll play it safe in the beginning. I’ll add more interesting stuff later.” The problem with this is that it gets all too easy to congeal into a lecturer. Don’t let that happen. All the time, every day, right from the start, challenge yourself to think how you can take content, skills, material, and involve and engage students more. The question “What are my students doing right now?” should never be far from your mind. Never let yourself get comfortable with lecturing. There is a better way. Find it.
Rarely sit. Never stand in one place for a long time. Get to the back of the room, and if you can’t because of crowding, rearrange things so you can. Travel up and down rows, through sections, around work stations, be everywhere. Proximity is one of the most effective behavior management tools you have in a classroom, and to establish that it’s important to establish that you can go anywhere in the classroom. Don’t do this in a drill-sergeant, big-brother manner, but in a spirit of friendly energy. The nice part of this is that it leads directly to tip #5….
5. Talk with every student, every day.
In America’s high schools, we’ll often teach with 40 students in a class. It’s all too easy to talk to only a few students each day, or to develop solid student-teacher relationships with a handful, while barely conversing with others. My goal for every class is to talk to every student, no matter if it’s only a few words. Greet students at the door, move around and talk to students while they’re doing activities. Ask them how you can help. Stand by the door on the way out, and talk to more students. Every day, build those connections. The logistics of large classes means that it’ll often only be a few seconds, but the cumulative effect of these micro-interactions is powerful. Not only will knowing your students help you teach them better, it’ll also help if something goes wrong with a student in class. If you’re got a history of interaction, you’re much more likely to be able to solve the problem efficiently.
Creative commons photo attribution: lawrence_berkeley_national_laboratory (Thanks!)