Advice for the Future Educator

Today I was asked to assist in a mock interview of sorts with a recent college graduate, eager and ready to join the workforce of public education. In the process of asking typical questions one might encounter in this situation, I began thinking what advice I would have enjoyed prior to beginning my first year in the classroom. Viewing things in hindsight is sometimes depressing – especially when there were mistakes you could have easily avoided had someone stepped in to lend a hand.

So I lent a hand – if only a small one. And along with providing feedback to my interview questions I added these few items I believe EVERY new teacher would be wise to follow. And yes, I’m tellin’ it like it is.

1) Avoid the Jaded & Complaining

If there’s a sure-fire way to start your education career on the wrong foot, buddying up to one of these characters is a pretty strong start. In the hallways and lunch room, when you hear a teacher inevitably talking about the same students (it’s a revolving door of at least a handful) in a negative light – run far, far away. These are usually easy to spot because they have no problem showing their true colors. They’re almost always complaining about what a student did wrong in their class, what they forgot, or how much they don’t listen. Just keep in mind there’s typically a reason why; and it has EVERYTHING to do with that teacher failing to build a meaningful relationship.

The jaded teacher is simply going through the motions and can best be classified as “putting in time”. It’s not that they’re causing disruptions or leading a revolt, they just don’t really believe in anything new, anything leading toward change, or anything outside the status quo. Beyond second-guessing everything and finding holes in any new endeavor, they are the ones LEAST likely to lift a finger when you’re in need. These characters will suck the life out of an ambitious first-year teacher because they display an attitude of mediocrity and complacently that is hard to overcome.

2) Refer all “stupid” (or even mildly considered stupid) questions to your mentor or another teacher.

Now don’t get me wrong – administrators are there to help (they SHOULD help). But you don’t want the tag or label of high-maintenance and annoying because you asked your principal where to get a pencil sharpener instead of a teacher across the hall. Whoever said, “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” is an idiot – and likely asked many themselves. Granted, WE ALL will ask a stupid question, and there will be times someone already told us the answer but we simply forgot. It’s gonna happen. So when in doubt, ask a trusted co-worker. Better to earn the label of “dingbat” with them than your bosses.

3) Handle discipline “In-House”

To me, this is one of those unwritten rules or laws of the interview process. An applicant will usually be asked what their view of discipline is – or how do they look to handle classroom behavior problems? What a principal WON’T ask is, “are you gonna send a kid to the office because he told you he wouldn’t spit out his gum?” As an administrator, I’ve seen this exact phrase printed on a school referral form, and it reeks of ineffective classroom management. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t send students to the office or document behavioral incidents when needed. Just understand the impression you’re giving the administration when every week another incident has occurred that warrants their valuable time – and you could have handled it within the four walls of your classroom. Not only do you lose credibility and respect from your superiors, you lose instant credibility with that student and their peers who witnessed it!

Sure, there are plenty more, but these three provide a strong foundation for making your first year a successful one. Keep your priorities in line and remember it’s not all about you! There are valuable futures and dreams staring you in the face each day, waiting on your direction and guidance!

Any Better Than Last Year?

If you’re familiar with public education then you’re WELL aware of the issues surrounding the termination of a teacher. Documentation doesn’t even begin to outline the steps necessary to rightfully replace a teacher who is causing a great disservice to not only their students, but the culture of the campus they infect. And while I have several strong opinions (as if you couldn’t tell) about this topic, I only reference it to bring up the idea of growth and development among teachers.

The teachers you’re currently thinking of as you read this are likely suffering from years of jaded perspectives on education and little to no concern for the well-being or future of their students. As my dad has often said, “they’re just kind of kicking the ball around.” They may even defy authority or consider their task an impossibility in this day and age, beginning sentences with phrases like, “these kids now-a-days just don’t…”

I once had it explained to me that you’ll find teachers in education who have a first year teaching experience 20 times over and are considered veterans of their craft. I suppose this is actually true in any workplace area though; but then I stop to consider the constant evaluation process that typically occurs in the business world (again, another topic – another day). In very few situations other than education can you take advantage of periodical administration turnover and the fires they must put out on daily basis to fly right under the radar and become un-noticed. In any professional scenario, you must build and grow on each year to become a TRUE experienced and valuable employee. And that makes perfect sense to all of us, doesn’t it?

We expect out students to grow, mature, and learn new things! But what do we expect of ourselves? Are we working to better our craft – or do we con everyone around us? Have we forgotten why we entered education in the first place?

If we aren’t working on – figuring out – ways to help our students learn in an efficient and meaningful environment, then we must STRONGLY consider a career change. If the majority of our lesson plans today were taught to the graduating class of 2004, we’re in serious trouble. And until we recognize our NEED for growth and development as teachers, we’re failing our students and limiting the awesome power we can have as educators.

What Happened After 4th Grade?

I was recently in attendance for Danny Hill and Jason Nave’s presentation on their book, The Power of ICU, a framework and system for equating student’s grades with their actual learning. Novel idea, huh? It’s been called “Failure is not an Option” or the “No Zero Policy” at certain schools, but it really all comes down to eliminating apathy and holding students more responsible for their learning. It’s a VERY controversial topic by the way.

I’ve actually heard/seen Danny and Jason several times now and consider them friends – largely because of the firm belief I have in their mission. In their book and presentation, they mention a starteling fact that I as a 6th grade teacher can’t help but dwell on. In a nutshell, here it is…

Traditionally, the dinner table (ok, maybe now in front of the TV in the living room) is a common place for parents to quiz their kids on the events of the day. Holidays and celebrations invite questions from even aunts, uncles, and grandparents regarding a young child’s education. And the question is different, depending on what the age of the student is. But if you’re not careful, you’ll miss the key word that makes all the difference!

The question is posed early on – say from kindergarten through 3rd grade – “what did you learn today?“. This is because everyone in the room (including the child) understands the emphasis of education; LEARNING. If they don’t learn those letters, numbers, simple subtraction/addition, and beginning stages of science, they’ll fall behind. But somewhere around the 5th grade the question changes to, “what are your grades like?“. You caught the difference. It’s HUGE in terms of our educational system, societal norms, and the way our students percieve their time at school.

If questioned, kids will normally admit they’re at school to learn – and teachers will state they’re here to teach and educate. Yet our grading system (across the nation) doesn’t necessarily always reflect student learning. What is it that happens after 4th grade? Who can we blame for this shift in philosophy?

It’s an interesting topic we should all try to figure out.

Cell Phone Use Prohibited

If cell phones DID exist during my secondary schooling, you can bet your sweet cheeks I’d be texting, surfing, words-with-friendsing, and USAToday-ing till my battery died. Fact is, I can’t recall all that much about those years with the exception of two to three teachers (like most). The vast majority of lectures, readings, and worksheets were motions I went through; small stages of comatose until (like Pavlov’s dogs), I heard a bell ringing to queue my next movement. Survey your students today, and they’ll likely say the same.

If you’re a teacher today, the “cell phone battle” is one you’ve likely taken one of three stances on. First, you’re opposed, finding little to zero value in their use. Next, you’re indifferent, and it doesn’t really matter when, how, or if they’re used at all. You might take it up, you might not – you’re just putting in time. As long as it’s not disrupting or getting in your way, it doesn’t exist to you. But Third, you may be seeking new and interesting ways you can harness that enthusiasm toward effective learning. The cell phone battle isn’t a battle at all for you. You’ve recognized technology isn’t going away and you seek meaningful ways to engage your students.

And if you’re on the fence (or looking to lean closer toward choice #3) – here’s a few ways you can engage your students for that small window of time you have with them each day.

  • Allow students to answer questions directed at you by seeing who can “Google” it first. Encourage web browsing and surfing, but direct where it’s going. Even if you know the answer, let an eager student take the credit. You’ll find monitoring isn’t NEAR as big an issue when you’re saying, “SURE, you can use your phone in here.”
  • Pair ’em up! There’s always more than one way to find the answer, and two searches are better/faster than one. Plus, there may be students who find the race for information a healthy competition they haven’t enjoyed in previous learning environments.
  • Encourage your students to add to what you’ve taught them! While you’re teaching, ask students to elaborate or expound on the topic. If you’re discussing the fall of communism in Russia during 1991, ask for other details that need to be shared to understand the BIG picture.

Don’t forget it’s YOUR DOMAIN. Set the proper time and place when phones can and can’t be used and you’ll find that more times than not – your students will respect the boundaries. Take the opportunity to teach the value in having up to date information at your fingertips and watch a transformation take place in your classroom. Do it tomorrow.

The New (non)-Pollution

I’m now investing some time, energy, and brain power into 21st century strategies, helping teachers take ownership of their classrooms. More to come soon!!

– Ryan Cantrell