In the spring, right before and during testing in a middle school, teachers were asked to share some advice for beginning teachers. Note that the end of the year can be challenging. The stress associated with teaching plays out in many ways. And don't forget the stress students experience by just being young adolescents. We know that teachers pass through multiple phases of teaching including anticipation, survival, disillusion, rejuvenation, reflection, and back to anticipation. When you add stress levels to mandates and expectations, evaluations, and performances tied to how well students perform on end-of-grade and end-of-course exams and a middle school building can feel weary. Those who are inside on edge may feel worse.
So, when teachers were asked to share their best advice, I wondered whether the challenges of a school year coming to a close and the challenges of young adolescents reflecting on and sometimes acting out in their own world might leave a damp view. However, in what appears to be a rainbow lighting the sky, these teachers, in their final days of classes remind us of the power of purpose and the magic of what it really takes to be a teacher. Their comments fell into three categories.
Relationships matter. Relationships are the spiritual foundation of classroom management. First and foremost, the relationships you have with every stakeholder are important. When you walk into a middle school, chances are there will be a warm and caring adult greeting you. Get to know them. Ask about their family, their health, how their weekend was. They bring the best sunshine to everyone. (They also know everything. Trust them.)
Get to know your teammates. They are the ones who will guide you with school protocol: rituals, routines, problem solving. Look to them for advice. Get to know your students' parents. While the parents may not have had the advantages you've had, they love their children, and although they may support their children to a fault, like the advice says, keep lots of documentation and communicate with them often. Get to know your students. They are social beings. They are not afraid to dream big; they have ideas and interests, get to know them. The more you know about them, the easier it will be to cater lessons to their interests, their learning styles, their cultural differences.
- Make friends with the janitor and the secretaries. They will be needed so much.
- Be consistent with all students, otherwise the students will call you out on it!
- Build relationships with your kids! Ask them what they like and don't like. They love that!
- Be true to who you are; kids want to see your personality, and they want you to be genuine.
Structures matter. There is a lot of research suggesting rules, rituals, and routines are the structural foundations of classroom management. Teachers suggest that consistency in a classroom is critical. One of the strengths of a team is that a group of teachers can establish common rules and expectations, celebrations, and recognitions. Your team leader will be a great resource for you. When thinking about structures and methods, your best advice will come from teachers in your building. If you are on a team, connect with your team leader and team members. If you teach a content, consider working with a teacher who is teaching the same grade level.
- Do not discount the "old" methods. Just as we are taught to respect the elderly, respect what was done before the pendulum swung and wait for it to swing back. Embrace them, but add your own spice.
- Watch experienced teachers ... sit in their classroom, if possible, during your planning.
- You are not alone. There are all sorts of people in the school (and outside the school) that want to be helpful. Find or create connections by looking for the people who smile a lot.
- Watch the cool things other teachers are printing or making copies of and make copies for yourself.
You matter. Teaching is hard work. It is valuable work. You have to take care of yourself physically, socially, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. A simple exercise is to consider each of these characteristics. Are you eating right, getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water? Do you have a friend and a professional learning network? Do you have a routine that allows you to stay centered? And are you aware of emotional intelligences and how to monitor them? By taking care of your needs, you will be more equipped to take care of the needs of your students.
- Expect the unexpected and be adaptable.
- You will make mistakes and it will be ok. Learn from them.
- Don't try to do everything at first. Pace yourself.
- Don't panic! Keep calm ... students sense panic.
- Don't take student behavior personally; there's almost always a heartbreaking reason behind the things they do.
- The first year is really hard! You will get better! We have all been through this!
- Your education is so valuable; however, your true education is about to start. Learn from mistakes and do not dwell on them.
- Treat others as you would want someone to treat your own children.
- Set clear boundaries with your students.
- Find an organizational system that works for you and make notes for each lesson/unit about what went well and what needs your attention. Follow your data closely.
- Be consistent.
- People will tell you to not work so much, that you will burn out. It's personal preference. I worked crazy hours my first few years, but it was what I needed to feel prepared and successful. Do what feels right for you.
- This is a profession. It's a hard job; this job is not for the faint of heart, or feeble minded. You must remain the adult, and keep in mind they are just kids. People say that they are just a product of their surroundings. This may be true, but remember you are part of those surroundings. You must keep your head at all times, because you can impact a life far beyond what you can imagine. They will come back after college and say "You helped shape who I am" or "I was able to do [fill in the blank] because you inspired me!"
- My last piece of advice is just that when you teach they learn, however you instruct, inspire, impact, develop—they grow, not only as students but as people, and that's the real part of this job ... the best part.
Veteran teachers in your school are an amazing resource. They know curriculum, they know kids. Do not hesitate to reach out to them. We are better when we work together. Our kids are better off when we work together. Good luck on the journey!
Nancy Bell Ruppert is a professor at UNC Asheville (NC) and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees.
Published July 2019.