My Advice to New History Teachers
Welcome to the world of history teaching, new educators! It's such a gift to be able to share the lessons and stories from history with children and young adults and though it can be challenging, it's a wonderful profession. And to help you start planning for your first year, here’s my best advice to new history teachers.
It's Not All About the Content
One of the pitfalls new history teachers often encounter is the overwhelming focus on content- I sure did! While the history is essential, the journey is equally about developing crucial skills and students’ characters. In your pacing you need a balance between delivering historical knowledge, and fostering historical thinking skills, while helping students become better people. Remember, your role extends beyond creating history enthusiasts; you're molding the citizens of tomorrow.
Make it Relevant
If you’re not preparing for it, you are sure to face the infamous question, "Why do we need to learn history?" from your skeptical students. Don't view it as a hurdle; see it as an opportunity. I love to have students explore different reasons why history is important the very first day with this lesson, but throughout the year I create space for students to make connections from history to understand the world today. The more students see history as valuable, the more they will meaningfully engage in our lessons.
Reignite Students’ Curiosity
Secondary students often enter the classroom with their curiosity all but extinguished. It's your mission to reignite that spark because curiosity is the lifeblood of true engagement. So encourage questions, create an environment that celebrates curiosity, and watch as your students become active participants in their own learning journey.
Wonder Day projects are a great way to empower students to explore their interests by simply giving them a full period to explore any topic that interests them within the unit you are teaching. They can start with a question and explore from there!
Tell Stories, Not Lectures
Do you know why all cultures start with creation stories? Because if they started with creation lectures, they would never survive! But for real, while almost all kids love stories, most students hate lectures- especially long ones. As history teachers, we are natural storytellers so as best you can, ground your lectures (for those days when you need to lecture) in stories. Swap monotonous lectures for engaging narratives that breathe life into historical content and help students remember and relate to otherwise dry, dusty facts.
Some "Boring" Lessons are Okay
In the pursuit of creating an exciting learning environment, don't drive yourself crazy thinking that every single lesson needs to be an exhilarating, jaw dropping learning extravaganza. While you should definitely include fun and exciting lessons, some simple and even boring lessons are perfectly okay. Reading, writing, and note-taking might not always scream "engagement," but they are indispensable tools for deep learning. While students will remember the exciting lessons, a lot of learning takes place in quiet spaces that invite deep consideration and thoughtful reflection. Engagement is sometimes quiet. :)
Inquiry Should Guide All Lessons
Inquiry grounds learning in investigations rather than simply being told or shown the answers and tasked with remembering them. With practice, every lesson can be framed as a puzzle to be solved and every learning goal, a mystery to be investigated. By framing content as clues and evidence, you not only instill a sense of wonder and excitement.
Be Wary of the Fluff
In an era dominated by social media, the allure of visually appealing lessons can be strong. However, substance should always trump style. Exercise caution with activities that might look impressive or cute, but lack educational depth and rigor. While sometimes learning can be simple and fun, don’t mistake making things pretty with meaningful engagement.
Be Willing to Experiment
Embrace the spirit of experimentation, especially in your early years of teaching. Try out dioramas, rewrite historical skits, Socratic Smackdowns, invite guest speakers, do oral history projects, doodle notes and Cornell Notes. The only way to find your style and what works best for your students is to experiment and not be worried if something fails. It's a cliche, but failing is an essential ingredient of learning.
Don't just teach about history, get students learning FROM history
We often tell students “we study history so we don’t make the same mistakes as they did in the past,” but we rarely give students opportunities to actually apply lesson from the past to the world today. Every unit should allow students time to think about how this information can help them in the future or how it can be relevant to things going on in their lives.
So you just learned a lot of awesome stuff about the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Qin Dynasty, but what must we learn from these events? The more opportunities we give to students to apply the lessons from history to their lives, the more empowering and transformative your classroom will become.
I wish you all the best in your first year of teaching and if you are looking to learn more about how to make students love history, check out my course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering.” It is a self-paced course that will give you the confidence to plan an amazing year with your students! With modules on exciting students in the first three minutes every day, history decisions simulations, fostering rich discussions, making inquiry fun with history labs, and how to make history relevant- the course teaches everything I wish I knew my first years in the classroom!