Adapted from Passionate Learners: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students by Pernille Ripp (2014, Powerful Learning Press).
We’ve all been there (or perhaps you are still dreaming of being there) — arms full of papers, books falling out of bags — and so many questions as we enter our new job and first classroom that we hardly know what to ask or where to start.
The plight of a new teacher is frightening, indeed. When we move out of our comfort zone and anticipate our new career, we wonder whom we will turn to, and where we will find the elusive answers that can help us sleep better at night, before the big show. But which answers do we really need?
I think most teachers get into this job because they think they can make a difference, and many do. Yet as a new teacher, the responsibility of my new classroom and the role of custodian for the dreams of my students was a crushing weight. Sure, I had people I could speak to about it all, but I still felt overwhelmed.
I thought I had many of the answers — Harry Wong and I had figured things out in the short summer before my first 19 students arrived. And yet, that nagging feeling that perhaps I really had no idea what I was doing haunted my own dreams.
So I went to work, listening to every piece of advice I could scrounge up, but those who have tried that approach can attest that it often just leaves you with more questions. I finally settled in with a notion of doing it by the book because I had no other way of doing it. I certainly did not think to reach out more to others, establish a Personal Learning Network (PLN), or even listen more to myself.
I believed that being new meant I had to follow someone else’s advice for the first six weeks of school, or I would be doomed. Now I know that students mostly know how to do school, and we must respect their intelligence as we build community with them.
Don’t accept these myths as truths
Behold the 10 myths I believed as a new teacher. And the realities I now believe to be true.
Myth 1: Children are only learning when they are quiet and focused on the teacher.
Reality: So we all know this isn’t true, right? Well, I didn’t, at least not the first two years. I thought if students were too noisy they couldn’t hear the most important person in the room, me. I came to find out, it is often through these “disruptive” student conversations that deeper learning takes place. So now I know that you must talk, of course, but be brief and get to the point. Simply put: get out of the way of learning.
Myth 2: As a new teacher, you should never send a student to the principal’s office because it shows weakness and inexperience.
Reality: Your principals are your liaisons so use them if needed. Trust me, they do not keep a tally of which teacher sends more students to their office. Realize, though, that when you do send a student to the office, the outcome of the situation is no longer your choice, so if you want to have a hand in it then engage the principal in a conversation with the child, rather than just doing a referral. Make it clear to students that going to the principal’s office is to give them space, time to think, not to be punished.
Myth 3: Try to never ask for help, but if you must, do so in private.
Reality: Always ask for help, big or small. My first year, I was petrified that people would think my hiring was a mistake because I did not have all of the answers. Well, guess what? No one has all of the answers. When you approach someone and ask for help, you are showing trust, and through trust you build community. That sense of community can carry you through many situations and years of teaching.
Hopefully, someday you will be the one whom new teachers come to for help. And don’t just ask for help within your school; get on Twitter and get involved with the thriving teacher community there. In fact, here is why all educators should join Twitter — and here is how to make sure it is not too overwhelming when you do.
Myth 4: Listen, but do not talk, during staff meetings.
Reality: I am a perpetual hand-raiser (there, I admit it). I am also guilty of thinking aloud and most likely having an opinion. While I don’t recommend turning staff meetings into your one-person show, if you have a question, or perhaps even an opinion, please share it.
You may be surprised over the discussion that ensues because of something you said. Successful staff meetings rely on discussion, so become a partner in that, not just a fly on the wall. It is okay for you to have a voice in your very first year.
Myth 5: Take a break from coursework and professional development your first year since you will be so busy.
Reality: I know college is hard. I worked almost full-time while I went to school full-time. It was tough! The first year of teaching is even tougher, but that does not mean you should stop learning. Check out the professional development offered in your area or online, or better yet create a PLN so that whenever you have time, you can be engaged in conversation with educators from all over the world.
Model for your students what a true lifelong learner looks like by becoming one yourself.
Myth 6: Show up at all extracurricular activities your students participate in.
Reality: I know students love to see us outside of school, and I love to see my students participating in something they are passionate about, but it is okay to say no once in a while.
With all the piano recitals, dance performances, football games and basketball tournaments, I hardly ever saw my husband, my family or my friends my first year. So pick a couple of general events. I always go to whatever my school puts on and see almost all of my classroom kids in one swoop.
Now that I have children of my own, I bring them along, which makes for an even more exciting meetup for my students. If you attend one student’s solo event then you will feel obligated to go to as many as possible and that can be exhausting if you have a large class size. So yes, they love to see you out in the real world but don’t forget to attend to your own life. After all, that’s what makes you interesting!
Myth 7: Work through your breaks to show you are serious.
Reality: There is nothing more serious than a first-year teacher — always rushing about, eating lunch in the hallway while running to the copier, or stealing a snack while he or she helps students during lunch. I did it, and I still do sometimes, but give up your breaks in moderation.
Going to the teacher’s lounge may seem like a silly event; perhaps you have been warned that it’s nothing but a room where burned out teachers spew their negativity. Actually, the teacher’s lounge is where I have had some of my most meaningful conversations and also developed friendships with other teachers.
I always have kids who hate going out to recess or need help with homework. Yet it is okay to say no sometimes and let them know they should take their break as well.
Myth 8: Don’t try too many new things.
Reality: I am an idea person. I see inspiration in random places and get so excited to do/share/tell what I see that I am about to burst. Yet I was told repeatedly to not put too much on my plate; after all, this was my first year of teaching.
I was too afraid to try some of my “crazy” ideas, and so I went with the survival book. It may have worked for others, but not for me. I’m begging you – don’t be afraid to try new things, even if it is your first year. After all, you are trying to discover who you are as a teacher, not just becoming a really good copy of someone else.
Reality: I am not against modeling, scaffolding or showing. But I have found that often students like a challenge. Instead of showing them the whole process, try telling them the goal, give them a beginning, and let them discover. (I talk a lot about this in my book.)
Learning is, after all, about the journey of discovery and not just the end of the trip. Trust them to try things and fail and watch them grow as independent learners. If this scares you, start with a small project and give students some freedom there.
Myth 10: You must be/act happy at all times. It’s the “Go in there and win the Oscar” myth.
Reality: Students respond to humanness, and, in particular, genuine human beings. While I do not recommend teaching in a foul mood, it is okay to lower the pitch, as long as you explain why this is. The explanation, of course, depends on the grade level you teach.
When my grandfather died, I found out an hour before I had to be at school. This man had influenced me in more ways than I can count, and his passing was one of deep sorrow for me and the rest of my family.
Yet I showed up at school, told my students, and my students embraced me and carried me through the day, knowing that I had chosen to be with them in a moment that was so deeply personal. This is how meaningful connections are made. You show them that you care enough to trust them with your real life. Maybe they will trust you too.
Classroom photos: Pernille Ripp