My 3 Biggest Mistakes and 3 Biggest Successes as a First-Year Teacher

This week I had the privilege of visiting my first classroom. The room looked and smelled exactly the same as it did back in 1993. I, however, look completely different. I think differently too.


I was flooded with memories as I walked around. I began thinking of my mistakes and successes in that first year.



Mistake 1: Arrogance

This is tough to admit. I came in with all my notes from college, from student teaching, and from courses I had taken over the summer. I believed the methods I had learned were superior to the "traditional" methods I saw in my colleagues. I was going to amaze everyone with my ideas and my results.


I didn't listen well to advice, especially advice about my environment - my number 2 mistake.


Mistake 2: Not Considering My Environment

A classroom may feel like a solitary place- you close the door and the classroom is yours. I learned that my classroom was part of a bigger system of expectations. My principal, many of my colleagues, and most of the parent community expected traditionalist teaching.


Many came to my private school to avoid the Outcome-Based Education movement. My principal at the time went so far as to call it "A government conspiracy to control our children." Had I better considered my environment, I would have maintained my beliefs about pedagogy beyond textbooks, but I would have spoken more carefully and made some compromises (using textbooks a bit more at first) until I had gained principal and parent trust.


Mistake 3: Taking Criticism too Personally

The day of my first parent-teacher conferences, I was excited to talk about the students. I had grown close to each child and was ready to share all the great things I had seen. In short, I had good news for every parent about every child.


I was completely unprepared for a few parents to say, "There are a some things in my child's work that concern me" or "I wonder if my child really deserves a high grade with [these particular errors]" or "My child says you don't teach reading, you just let them read" or "We're not seeing much work coming home."


Looking back at those statements, parents wanted an explanation of why I was doing what I was doing. Honestly, I was doing what I was doing because my professors and workshop leaders had told me the methods would work. I bought into philosophies without thinking them through carefully. Worst of all, I felt like parent questions were criticisms and personal attacks. I needed two things: maturity and perspective.


Success 1: I Adored the Students

I can remember the names of almost every student in my first class. I remember enjoying the workdays as much as the weekends. A colleague said to me, "Enjoy this year. You have great kids. And, you have more energy this school year than you will ever have again."


She was correct. Every lesson was new. Every holiday and celebration was new. I embraced everything. I told great stories and couldn't wait to make students smile. I still keep in touch with many of them.


Success 2: I Managed the Classroom Well

For some reason, I instinctively knew that the trick to classroom management was thinking through transitions.


What routines would students have when they arrived in the morning? Between lessons? After recess?


Where should I place supplies so that students could easily get the materials they needed with the least amount of disruption?


What behavioral issues might hinder the lesson? How could I proactively discourage such behaviors? How could I set them up for success?


How could I communicate with students so that they understood I still cared about them even though I didn't always care for their behavioral choices?


Success 3: I Learned from my Mistakes

The old adage That which doesn't kill us serves to make us stronger summarizes my early teaching career. As a result of my mistakes and my determination to prove I was a good teacher (yes, it took awhile for my arrogance to die), I altered some ideas and honed my craft. I learned:

  • Traditional teaching methods are not necessarily evil. First of all, textbooks can be a good starting point for scope and sequence - especially in a school without clear curriculum documents. Second, it doesn't hurt to ask kids to sit still and listen as long as the expectations are reasonable and the information is formatively assessed through conferences with individual students. 
  • The two most important people to know (at first) are the secretary and the custodian. Next, the principal and your new colleagues need to know you're a team player. It's okay to test out some of their ideas and philosophies as long as you know the students are learning what they are suppose to learn and students feel safe. 
  • Always consider the philosophy and research behind instructional methods. No one program or method will work for every lesson or every student. 
  • Parents are not the enemy. They want to know why you do what you do. They may also need a bit of education about your philosophy and methods. School doesn't look or feel the same as it did when they attended classes - which is a bit scary for some. 
  • If students know you care about them and their learning, students will respond. 
  • If you manage a classroom well, you greatly increase the rate at which students learn. 
  • You will mess up. Be humble. Pick up the pieces: Make things right with the students. Make things right with the principal. Solicit help from colleagues. Make things right with parents. 

What were some of your mistakes and successes?


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Tags: Classroom, Colleagues, Instruction, Learning, Lessons, Management, Parents, Pedagogy


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