Learning First Alliance

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Teacher Advice: The Good, the Bad, and “That Would Never Happen in MY Class.”

Roxanna Elden's picture

Editor's note: Our guest blogger today is Roxanna Elden. She is a National Board Certified teacher in Miami, Florida. Her book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, is a practical, funny guidebook with hundreds of stories and tips from teachers around the country. “It’s the book I needed my own first year,” she says. “It’s meant to keep the great teachers of the future in the classroom long enough to become great.”

This Halloween marks the nine-year anniversary of my rookie teacher breakdown. I spent the afternoon in my car in a Burger King parking lot, crying too hard to drive. According to many of the teachers I interviewed for my book, I was right on schedule. Late October and early November are often cited as low times for rookie teachers. The “honeymoon period” of student behavior – if there ever was one – has long ended. The hours of lost sleep have added up, and many rookie teachers are feeling particularly sensitive about the trial-and-error nature of their teaching. Naturally this season sees many new teachers reaching out to colleagues for suggestions. But beware: Not all advice is created equal.

Common suggestions with potential pitfalls
“Be consistent. / “Set high expectations.” / “Stay organized.”
It is seldom helpful to redirect rookies to the general principles served up in teacher training programs. Chances are, new teachers have heard these suggestions and are struggling to put them into practice. In mid-November, a rookie teacher’s most pressing question is not likely to be, “Should I set high expectations?” It is more likely to be, “How do I set an expectation of college readiness when, despite my best efforts, only two of my students regularly turn in homework?” To be truly helpful, suggestions should be case-specific and as realistic as possible.

“Just read the books on this list / Set up a website / Do some research on educational psychology and you’ll be a better teacher in no time.”
Some simple-sounding suggestions contain hours of hidden steps, and dumping them on an overwhelmed colleague is just plain mean. Work-heavy tips are likely to sink to the bottom of a beginner’s to-do list where they lead to little more than a sense of inadequacy. Make sure your advice to newer colleagues is as easy as it sounds. If you want to help even more, share ready-to-use materials, like a preformatted lesson plan or ready-to-copy lab directions.

“I call parents from class when a child is misbehaving.”
Calling parents from class can be effective at toning down out-of-control behavior or catching a skipping student red-handed. On the other hand, it can backfire if a parent isn’t home, the number is disconnected, if students are making noise on your end of the line, or the troublemaker is allowed to get on the phone and talk his way out of trouble. Experienced teachers describing daring moves in front of a rookie should anticipate and address likely exceptions. Don’t let rookies find out the hard way that the magic in your “bag of tricks” has its limitations.

“What you should have done is…”
If your advice includes the words, “You should have…” it is bad advice, even if it’s good. Chances are, the new teacher with an empty grade book three days before “Report Card’s Eve” now understands the importance of keeping up with grading. What they need to know is… what do they do now? Good advice applies to the future, not the past.

“Don’t worry. If you can just keep these kids quiet you are doing fine.”
Good advice may move rookies forward slowly, but it doesn’t tell them to stop. It directs them toward the next manageable step they can take toward the overall goal of being a great teacher. Don’t get me wrong… keeping kids quiet enough to learn is important, and in some cases it is no easy task. But don’t confuse comforting an overwhelmed teacher with sending the message it’s okay not to improve.

“If I were a teacher I’d make learning fun and let my students know I care… like in that one movie where that teacher finally got through to her students and then they taught her to dance!”
Non-teachers mean well when they offer suggestions based on movies, their experience as a student, or the type of teachers they think they would be if they were teachers, but this type of advice can be especially difficult to handle. After all, rookies were well-meaning non-teachers themselves not long ago. By November, they know too well that complete confidence in making-a-difference is a luxury few rookies can afford.

If you can conceive it they can achieve it!!!!”
Rhyming phrases may sound nice, but that doesn’t make them real advice! Hey, that was fun. Let’s try another one: Posters with pictures of baby animals and simplistic expressions may not address your problems in this complex profession!

“Well, that would never happen in MY class.”
If you’ve read See Me After Class, you already know my opinion on this loosely disguised piece of ugly non-advice. Teachers who respond to pleas for help with any variation on this self-serving phrase are not helping you. They are likely never going to. There are two reasons: first, they don’t want to be helpful. They would rather make themselves look good at your expense. The second reason is that they probably aren’t great teachers anyway. The proof? They just passed up a chance to teach you something, and made you feel worse in the process.

Rookies… How do you know if the advice you’re getting is good?
Imagine putting the advice into practice. If parts of the picture are fuzzy, ask follow up questions until they become clear.

Listen to your gut. Literally. If advice makes those Sunday-night stomach cramps worse, it’s not the advice you need, or at least not the advice you need right now. Good advice is comforting rather than overwhelming.

Seek out unofficial mentors: The mentor teacher assigned by your principal shouldn’t be the only colleague you turn to for help. Ask a few casual questions of any teacher with the same grade level, subject area, or student population. Soon you will get a sense of who is most willing and able to help you.

That "calling from class"

That "calling from class" trick burned me SO MANY TIMES. I agree, never try it on a kid unless you've talked to that parent a few times beforehand and confirmed that the number works. My batting average is around .100. Usually, it ends in everybody laughing at a disconnected number, and me stewing in my own stupidity.

If any teacher is so careless

If any teacher is so careless to claim, "That would never happen in MY class," we can be sure that it certainly will happen sooner or later. Always trust that karma will catch up.

"They just passed up a chance

"They just passed up a chance to teach you something, and made you feel worse in the process." This is so true -- not just in the teaching profession but in all professions.

Great piece, Roxanna. And a

Great piece, Roxanna. And a hint to all who read it: if you want 225 pages of similar, rich reflection on how to retain your sanity and teach school, get the book. Lots of books about teaching contain 3 or 4 great ideas and a lot of padding and phrases like "learning communities" and "lead learner." Roxanna's book has 200 good ideas and no baloney.

Plus--there's a section in the book where highly accomplished veteran teachers tell their shameful secret stories of screwing up. Too bad Roxanna didn't ask me, because I've got a doozie from the first year of school that involves a dunce cap. I survived that terrible day, and went on to develop some genuine compassion for novice teachers.

And I agree--teaching is the ultimate representation of seeking enlightenment. The karma of overconfidence will certainly come around. And nobody can be a fully enlightened teacher until they understand what it's like to be the Dumbest Kid in the Class. Perhaps in another life...

Nancy, Great advice! I would


Great advice!

I would also go camping in the Rockies in October. During my first decade, during good years, around that time I'd have my last of my regular dreams about students. During my second year, I had such a favorable class load that I only had one kid I hadn't dreamed about and he was a great leader. I dreamed about him sitting on a huge boulder and told him and the class about it afterwards. They knew the dream was based on "on this rock ...," and how we could build greatness on the shoulders of that class leader.

But other years, my dreams persisted until well into the second semeseter. The last thing we need is more of this socializing young teachers into believing simplistic soundbites.

Overwhelmed SDC teacher

Overwhelmed SDC teacher desperate for help. I stumbled across trying to find help for my husband, I hope someone here can help me. My husband is in his 3rd year as an SDC teacher, about 16 kids in his K-4 combo class (yes, you read that right). He has 1 p/t aide. I afraid he is going to have a nervous breakdown because of the stress he is under. He works at least 6 days a week, gets to school before 6am every day and works til 6pm, except on the 2 days a week he leaves at 3 to go to his continuing ed classes that last til 8 at night. He goes in to work from 6am to 10am every Sunday, and sometimes spends all day Saturday there. He is on the computer updating IEPs or correcting papers until 11pm every night. He is supposedly required to sit in on IEP meetings for kids who aren't even in his class and he stresses to the hilt because sometimes he gets meeting notices that he is supposed to be in multiple meetings all at the same time. I work in the private sector and told him he just has to say no, but he thinks he can't. We are in
CA. Can anyone give me some practical tips - even a script, that a teacher could use to legally say no to some meeting requests? How do other teachers do it? He doesn't have extra time to read a lengthy self help novel...he desperately needs practical help now. He loves teaching, he wants to help his kids and he is good at it; its the bureaucratic, endless supply of rules, paperwork and meetings that is killing him.

The bureaucracy and endless

The bureaucracy and endless rules are killing everyone--and it's gotten immeasurably worse in the last decade, with "data-driven" everything. Thanks for acknowledging that teaching is--basically--impossible. It's incredibly complex and wildly underestimated. Your husband is one of hundreds of thousands of committed public servants struggling to stay afloat, and all of us (including veterans like me) have periods where no human person could accomplish all that we have to do.

First--Roxanna's book isn't a "lengthy self-help novel." It's a great guide to balancing your life, among other things. Novice teachers often spend more time than they need to, because they haven't developed systems for managing the calendar.

Second--situations like the one your husband finds himself in are why teacher unions were created. Nobody can be at two meetings at once. And he needs to ask other Special Education teachers for advice on juggling all the IEPs, to develop reasonable work plans to manage the load. Knowing that other teachers and the association have his back is a great help.

There's this idea that the urgent always needs to come before the important. It's important to gradually, one step at a time, get control over what may feel like a hopeless situation. "See Me After Class " can help.

Being consistent in a class

Being consistent in a class will work magic. It will command respect as well as credibility.