...ON OVERCOMING MY BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS & EARLY MISTAKES AS A TEACHER...
There is no way to be a new teacher and not make a ton of mistakes along the way. The thing is, some mistakes are much costlier than others, and if those don’t get fixed, it can quickly lead to burnout. During my early years of teaching, I made numerous mistakes, but fortunately, I discovered solutions to these problems that transformed the learning in my classroom and brought so much more joy in teaching. Whether you're a new teacher or struggling a few years in, I hope sharing the top ten mistakes I made as a new teacher will help you avoid making the same ones.
1. RUSHING ROUTINES & PROCEDURES
New teachers are bound to struggle with classroom management, and by not prioritizing routines and procedures, I only added to my problems. My mentor teacher warned me — "You can't overteach procedures," but I ignored it for probably five years at my own peril. The thing was, I love teaching history and didn’t want to waste time teaching routines and procedures. Besides, these were high school students and they should know how to enter the classroom respectfully, retrieve supplies during projects, transition between tasks, and clean up their workstations before leaving, right!? Nope. Neglecting to practice these routines until mastery wasted valuable class time and led to so much stress and frustration due to the management issues this caused.
The Fix: Prioritize routines and teach them with the same focus as content. Model, practice, and provide feedback until mastery is achieved. This approach also communicates to students that learning is taken seriously in this classroom.
2. KEEPING LEARNING "FRESH" WITH NEW ACTIVITIES ALL YEAR LONG
In my first few years of teaching, I drove myself nuts and nearly burned out by constantly planning and preparing new learning experiences to keep things "fresh" and exciting for my students. From rewriting nursery rhymes for our 1920s unit to doing skits for the Great Depression and comic strips for the next lesson, I was constantly introducing new tasks. While creative projects have their place, doing new activities every few days created several issues in my classes. Firstly, I had to spend a significant amount of instructional time explaining each new task, its guidelines, expectations, etc. This was especially challenging since I was already struggling with classroom management and guess what happens if students aren’t really listening while you are going over how to complete the work? Yup- headaches! Moreover, students had to exert a great deal of mental energy on learning how to complete each new task, which hindered their ability to engage meaningfully with the content and focus on improving their skills.
The Fix: Develop engaging routine learning experiences that can be used across multiple units. For example, I rely on SCOAPS sheets and primary source sandwiches (freebies in the links) for primary source analysis. We frequently engage in virtual field trips and travel blogs, conduct "History Decisions Simulations" in almost every unit, and routinely do Socratic Seminars as well. Students are much more relaxed as well if they are familiar with activities and can just focus on learning and improving.
3. PRIORITIZING LEARNING HISTORY WHILE IGNORING SKILL DEVELOPMENT
As a history teacher, I believed that my primary goal was to ensure students learned history: the content, the standard- the facts. I thought that if my students could demonstrate mastery of the content, I was doing an excellent job. But teaching history is not just about imparting historical knowledge. It is essential to help students develop critical thinking and, more importantly, historical thinking skills. History classes must guide students in analyzing and critiquing primary and secondary sources, considering their reliability and usefulness, understanding how to corroborate different sources, fostering historical empathy, teaching questioning techniques to stimulate inquiry, and enabling students to communicate their findings effectively. While students may forget 95% of the content taught, the skills will last forever.
The Fix: Implement routine strategies that strike a balance between content, skill development, and character development as well! Education must help students grow and become better people.
4. TRYING TO CRAM TOO MUCH INTO EACH LESSONS
One of the ways I caused unnecessary headaches and frustration for myself was by attempting to pack as much as possible into each lesson. I loved teaching history and wanted to pull the absolute most I could out of each class. However, this led to limited time to review the material, for students to reflect on their learning, and to wrap up the lesson effectively. Students routinely felt rushed and anxious in my room and it was disastrous for the classroom culture.
The Fix: Plan lessons carefully to ensure ample time for review, reflection, and closure. By doing this, students feel a sense of accomplishment each day as they reflect on meeting the learning goals. Establishing this routine contributes to building a positive classroom culture.
5. WANTING TO BE A COOL TEACHER
During my early years, I mistakenly believed that being the "cool teacher" meant I had to be friends with my students and that disciplining them or holding them accountable would harm our relationship. I found myself being “too nice”, too forgiving, and too lenient. What this meant was that students did not have to be accountable for their behavior and that my rules and expectations were negotiable. I would almost rely on pleading with my students and guilt tripping them into following my expectations and staying on task. That is not a classroom management strategy that ever works. Students need a teacher who will hold them accountable and enforce their rules fairly and consistently.
The Fix: I experienced a transformative shift when I realized that being a good teacher meant creating a learning environment where students could excel. Instead of pleading or negotiating, I developed a system for enforcing rules that empowered students to choose to cooperate. A book that saved me was, "Setting Limits In the Classroom." I highly recommend it if you are struggling with classroom management.
6. GRADING EVERYTHING
“If I don’t grade it, will they even do the work?” This belief led me to be grading nearly everyday afterschool, on Sundays, and even on the bus ride to work in the morning - (I took the bus so I could get an extra 30 minutes of grading in which is the worst reason to take public transit). Were students even looking at the feedback I spent hours writing or looking over my corrections? Nope. So what did I and what did they get out of all the grading? Not much. I didn’t realize over grading actually hurts students because they become so afraid to lose points or make any minor mistake. But, when some assignments are just credited for completion and effort, you’re not only saving yourself time, but you're communicating to students that learning is a process and mistakes along the way are a normal part of that process.
The Fix: Strategize on which assignments will be graded with feedback (essays and summative assessments) and which assignments (which should be most of them) are just practice and thus just credited for completion. Don’t collect it - just go down the gradebook and check off all those that worked well that day.
7. LEAVING HISTORY IN THE PAST…AND NOT CONNECTING IT THE WORLD TODAY
How many times did I hear, “why should we care about this?” before I realized I needed to change some things in how I showed my students the relevance history? I thought my passion and planning fun activities would be enough to get students to love history but many of them still just didn’t see why it’s valuable or important to learn. But, students need to actually learn why history matters. I needed learning activities that connected history to things students care about- their lives and the world today.
The Fix: Start the year with some activities that get students to see why your subject/class matters- like this great first day lesson. Or try tasking students with debating with one another why X topic you just studied is important to learn or could help them in life? Include activities that connect your subject to current issues throughout the year. For instance, studying foot-binding or gender roles in Ancient China, compare that to beauty standards today or if you’re studying the New Deal have students research things in their community that was built or still influenced by New Deal workers.
8. MY DAILY DISASTER WITH BELLWORK
I knew bellwork was a great transition strategy to get students to focus and settle at the start of class. The problem was, my bellwork tasks either bored my students to death or overwhelmed them. I might ask, write down three things you learned about X last class or from your homework. What a snoozer! Or I might ask something super complicated because I really wanted to think deeply in my class from bell to bell. But this is like starting gym class with a timed mile race instead of stretching! Bellwork is the first impression of your lesson each day and if you are boring kids or stressing them out with an overwhelming task right out of the gates, good luck turning that ship around for the next 50 or 80 minutes.
The Fix: Start each class with a bellwork that will get students interested in the lesson and wanting to know ‘what happens next?!’ If you can get 100% of students successful those first three minutes and excited about the lesson, you’ve won.
9. NOT UNDERSTANDING WHAT TRUE ENGAGEMENT MEANS
I thought engagement had to be a hands-on or dynamic activity with lots of rich discussions, team work, and smiling faces. Something you could snap a picture of and put on Instagram. And while that surely is engagement- so is quiet reading and thoughtful reflection. I had a principal pop-in one year for a surprise observation (yippy!) and students were silently reading a text and taking notes to get ready for a group activity. He left before the fun activity- go figure. When we had a post-observation discussion, I apologized that the class wasn’t more engaging when he was there. But he said, “you had 30 students carefully reading a text and taking notes- thats high level engagement!” Holy moly did this help me reflect and grow as a teacher. I used to think if a room was quiet there was something wrong- it actually made me feel uneasy, but it sometimes means there is next level learning going on.
The Fix: Balance. Exciting cooperative activities and hands-on projects are great but a lot of learning takes place in quiet moments as well. Students need quiet time to read, think, and reflect and many students really appreciate the quiet time to do so!
10. PREVENTING STUDENTS FROM FAILING & MAKING MAJOR MISTAKES
For years I was so fearful that students would make mistakes and that the class could go off the rails, that I tried to control everything. This was especially true for projects. I spelled out every last requirement, laid out all the guidelines, chose the topics, success criteria, and showed students what quality work looked like. This left almost no room for student choice and for student ownership of their learning. While this did help students get their work done and learn the content I needed them to learn, they missed out on many of the most important learning opportunities we can give students. They weren’t learning how to make mistakes in order to fix them, how to make adjustments after falling behind, and were not given the wonderful opportunity to fail so that they could get up and try again. I was so nervous students wouldn't be successful that I didn't allow them the chance to develop the grit it takes to be a truly remarkable student…and person.
The Fix: Create projects that allow plenty of student choice- the more the better. Plan in time for things to go off-course and focus on helping students develop resilience and a love for learning instead of checking off boxes you’ve created for them. Read John Spencer’s, "Empower," to learn more.
While failing is a part of learning and teaching, I hope this helps you avoid some of my headaches and frustrations during my earlier years. Remember that teaching is a continuous learning journey and to have fun along the way.