Category: Tips for new teachers

This new teacher’s biggest challenge

This new teacher’s biggest challenge

My biggest challenge as a first year teacher was not classroom management. It was not keeping up with lesson planning or grading.

My biggest challenge was not responding to questions and complaints from parents  or staying cheerful at long faculty meetings.

No, my biggest challenge was encouraging my students to think — what educators these days call developing a growth mindset.

As someone who loves making kids happy and comfortable in the classroom — and someone who has never been shy about sharing what she knows, it is hard to describe how difficult it was to bite my tongue and not immediately reply when students demanded:

“Just TELL us the answer!”

“Remind us!”

And, my favorite from the last week of school, “FIX THIS!” when a capable eighth grader’s Google Slides project went haywire.

It would have been an easy way to keep stress levels down in my classroom. Just provide the answer (or fix the problem on the computer screen) every time a student struggled. But that’s not in a student’s best interest.

Learning is a struggle — but a good one

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the term growth mindset and presented arguments for praising students who make the struggle to learn in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

She encourages parents and teachers to praise students when they work hard and ask them how they feel about themselves afterward.

The idea is to help students value the process of learning and feel good about themselves when they have figured out something on their own — not just memorized correct answers from a textbook.

As a world language teacher, I wanted to students to value the process of figuring out new words in Spanish based on vocabulary they already knew in Spanish and in English. I also wanted them to feel good about being able to create new sentences in Spanish with rules they had learned about nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations.


At the start of the school year, I discovered I had my work cut out for me. Students wanted to memorize passages from the textbook and phrases that I wrote on the board. They wanted those exact passages and phrases to appear on quizzes and tests.

“WHAT?? We didn’t learn this!” I heard over and over. No, I would say. You did not have that exact sentence but you learned something similar. Apply what you know.

As I said. It was hard not to just break down and just tell students the answers. All of the kids I taught were smart and adorable. I wanted them to like me and like my class.

Learning how to learn a world language

I had to continually remind myself that learning to think about how to learn Spanish would benefit them more than an immediate A on a quiz.

I wasn’t successful getting all of my students to embrace the passion for learning how to learn a world language. But I know I reached many of them.

More than 90 percent of the eighth graders I taught scored well enough on an end-of-year exam to earn a credit for Spanish 1-2 — a class ninth graders normally take the first year of high school.

I feel like I scored big too. I will be starting a new job at a magnet traditional public school in July. I look forward to teaching the growth mindset at my new school.




No, this teacher did not want a laminator for Christmas

No, this teacher did not want a laminator for Christmas

No, I did not get a laminator for Christmas.

I didn’t want one. I never have wanted one. Nor do I enjoy any of the other classroom tasks that laminating requires. Measuring. Lettering. Cutting in a straight line.

Which apparently makes me unique among teachers.

I became aware of this difference between myself and other new Spanish teachers in my district at the start of the school year, when our department head took us on a tour of the print shop.

Being brand new to teaching, I was expecting a place like Kinkos, where you drop off raw material to be copied and pressed into plastic by experts. To my horror, it turned out we teachers were expected to be the experts with all the machines.

The other teachers were thrilled to see the equipment. Not me.


Fortunately I had brought along only one poster  to laminate. I got another teacher to do the work for me by asking her to show me how the machine worked. I left right after that, figuring if I needed to laminate anything else during the school year I could use the same ruse at least one other time.

The reason I have an aversion to making things for my classroom is that I am not any good at it. As a kid I was all thumbs. The pot holders I make in kindergarten always had dropped loops. I never could color within the lines.  As an adult I don’t sew on buttons. That’s what the dry cleaner is for. I once took a college-level drawing class and produced a lot of work that looked like cartoons.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other things my job requires that I do well. I love grading and communicating with parents by phone and e-mail. Finding amusing images online and projecting them on my classroom screen is no problem. I am getting a handle on managing classrooms full of wiggling sixth, seventh and eighth graders. And even lesson planning has turned out to be fun.


So as I start my second semester as a teacher, I am wondering if I can start to barter services for things that I am good at — composing e-mails or inputting grades into the computer — for lettering, cutting, laminating and working my school’s ornery photocopy machine. After all I have heard a few teachers refer to these tasks as “the fun stuff.”

I would love to hear from other teachers who, like me, dislike the crafty side of teaching. I plan to return to this topic again.

You can reach me at






Positive helicoptering

I’d been warned.

As soon as I signed a contract to teach sixth, seventh and eighth graders at an A+, A-rated public school in a middle- to upper-middle-class attendance zone, educator friends told me to prepare to deal with helicopter parents.

You know, the parents who expect to reach their kids by text message in the middle of class to remind them they have piano lessons. The ones who bring lunch and a sweater by and expect to deliver it right to the classroom. The ones who pick up the phone to complain about a child’s grade before a teacher has even had a chance to talk with the student.


Too anxious about their kids?

Newspapers, parenting magazines and education publications are filled with articles on the subject.

Helicopter parents are unable to detach! They suffer from too much anxiety, critics say.

Helicoptering is necessary! In an era when kids fall through the cracks in crowded schools and classrooms, moms and dads need to be advocates, proponents say.

In the 12 weeks that I have been teaching, I have seen parents who fall into both categories.

A few parents interfere so much I worry about the sense of entitlement and anxiety they are passing to their kids. These are the parents who have pressured their students into taking a high-school level class in middle school just so they can get a credit out of the way, who tell their kids they will lose their phone and internet privileges if their GPA falls below an A and those who tell me I made a mistake when correcting their child because the kid has never ever failed or been in trouble before.

I actually had one mom e-mail me the morning after a quiz demanding that her daughter be allowed a re-test. I was happy to respond that there was no need. The student had already earned an A.

Luckily these folks are a tiny minority.


Positive parent-teacher connections

But others — and fortunately these parents are more common at my school — have a knack for knowing exactly how and when to get in touch about a concern. They also know just how to respond when I call or e-mail with a problem.

Early in the school year I had a close eye on one student who I knew had severe allergies that could be triggered in the classroom. The last thing I wanted as a brand-new teacher was to have a life-threatening health emergency on my watch.

When I noticed the student was walking around the classroom frequently and then got a low grade on the first quiz, I reached out to the mother to see if there was something else I needed to do.

At first she was defensive. Wandering? Could it be I had him mixed up with another student in my crowded classroom?

The helipad is open

Um no. I had my eye on this student like a mother robin watching a chick take flight.  I did not use those exact words, but she got the idea. She came in to talk.

It turned out that the student is gifted but sometimes lacks focus. He also gets stressed before tests. We worked on some strategies and built a partnership.

The other day, I had just returned a test to the student and encouraged him to come in and talk to me about what he missed. Minutes later I got an e-mail from his mother. “What do we need to work on?” she wanted to know. I smiled and answered her, explaining the plan.

Helicoptering? Yes, I would say so. Negative? No, not in the least.

For this mom and others, the helipad is wide open.







My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

I’ve been a teacher for two months now and my biggest challenge has not been the short attention spans of middle schoolers – or how much they crave lessons with computers and cell phones.

Eight weeks into my new life, I am shocked by the handful of kids who still want an old-fashioned teacher.

Yes, the kind of teacher who wants everyone in their seat facing forward, who writes everything out on the board and peppers lectures with the phrase “know this for the test.”

The kind of teacher my education course instructors and textbooks tell me NOT to be.

Not a ‘sage on the stage’

When I decided to leave my journalism career and teach Spanish to kids, I did not picture myself standing at a lectern and reciting verb conjugations until kids nod off. I did not want to be what modern educators disparagingly call “the sage on the stage.”

I arrived at the classroom with ideas for games, a stack of music CDs and links to educational videos that kids can dance to. Sure I planned to do short lectures but I expected to spend most of the time overseeing group work, encouraging kids to converse in Spanish and having fun with music, drawing and other activities that reinforce what we are learning.

With most students, this system works. At the end of last week, I gave out a boatload of As to kids who have worked hard, played hard and say they are enjoying my class.

But then there are the students who surprise me.

Some kids want an old-fashioned teacher

“You have only taught us ONCE this year,” one student complained a few weeks after the start of the school year.

It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to a time when I conjugated a verb on the white board because I could not find a creative image of the conjugation online and the verb was not in our textbook. As I wrote, I explained the rules for the conjugation. And I felt like a bit of a failure because the instuctions were not more fun.

But a couple other students chimed in after their classmate’s comment. They praised teachers who write out everything students need to know on overhead transparencies. And teachers who give long, and apparently comforting, lectures.

Nevermind that one of my textbooks calls the document camera and overhead projector the worst enemies of teachers. It is impossible to sit behind a desk and walk around to monitor student’s independent work at the same time.

So how did these kids get so traditional? And what about the majority of students who do so well in classes where teachers mix things up for a variety of learning styles, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence?

An experiment with tradition

After some long, soul-searching conversations with my principal, who tells me he is trying to get teachers out from behind the desk and at students’ sides, I decided to experiment with more traditional lessons.

We started out with an activity that always put me right to sleep when I was a public school student: Reading directly from the textbook.

But the previously unhappy students cooperated happily. As they read, you could feel the anxiety level in the room drop. I did not call on kids randomly but went in alphabetical order so they knew exactly what to expect. We went through the vocabulary words one by one until we had covered an entire page.

I was amazed. Students were focused. No one whispered or crumbled paper for spit balls. This was their way of learning. My college instructors would call them “auditory learners.” Most got As on the next quiz.

I am still a little baffled by this situation. Is my confusion because I learn best by reading about something, then writing or doing a practical activity related to what I have read? Perhaps. So, as I plan lessons for the second quarter, I am including more time for old-fashioned lectures and reading aloud for the kids who want it so much.

My worry – will they survive in AP classes?

Part of me is sad for the kids who learn in such an old-fashioned way. How will they make it in the more free-form high school honors classes that I know they are capable of taking?

I picture them in college waiting to take notes until a college professor opens the textbook and read it to them. Or in a high-tech work group waiting in vain for a team leader to write out instructions for that day’s work.

I worry about them.

Let it go, my teacher friends tell me. They will find their way.

And so I do. After all, I am finding mine.







‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

Turning a toddler’s potty seat into a bathroom pass seemed like a great way to discourage middle school students from leaving my classroom for too many breaks.

After all, what self-respecting 11-, 12- or 13-year-old would want to be seen walking down the hall holding a red and green Elmo seat with the expressions “Ha! Ha!” and “LOL?”

I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. Other teachers use it too.

Still, I was wrong. The potty seat goes into the trash and I am starting a new system this week.

Laughing Elmo seat was embarrassing

Elmo’s laughing image did nothing to discourage most boys from leaving my class as often as they pleased. Some would even come back into the classroom holding it high like a sports trophy — disrupting everything that was going on.

And girls who probably really needed a break would look at the potty pass, turn up their noses and go back to their seats.

It might have taken me more than a month to realize I was making a mistake by using the potty seat, but I was fortunate to recently spend a school day with master teacher Stephanie Franquinha, a Chandler, Ariz., Pueblo Middle School teacher and Spanish department chair for the Kyrene School District.

“NEVER embarrass your students,” Stephanie told me when I asked about her classroom management philosophy.

This idea made me stop and think about everything I have been doing since I began teaching in August . I have made rules and given passes, detentions, rewards and praise … but basic politeness has not entered into many of my actions.

I watched Stephanie’s finesse with her large classes of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Nearly all of the students were very clear about the rules and their responsibilities in class. When one would get out of line, Stephanie would walk over and talk to them quietly. She never stopped a class to call anyone out. The other students did not even look up when she redirected someone here or there.

Quiet classroom management works

At one point, Stephanie took a bottle away from a kid who was playing with it instead of paying attention. I was sure a few heads would turn and watch what was going on. Nope. She and I were the only ones who knew a student had been reprimanded. Everyone else was hard at work.

My own classes have been a bit calmer since my day with Stephanie. But I still have a lot of work to do on my system.

A few weeks ago I asked other experienced teachers  to share their wisdom. Here are a few more tips:

Tips from other master teachers

“Keep Sundays for yourself. Run your errands and do everything you need to do on Saturday. Then lay on the sofa with a good book or movie on Sunday,” recommends Kathy Nunez,  a history teacher at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School in Phoenix

“Find an exercise outlet that helps you physically and mentally,” advises retired Mesa Dobson High School English teacher Mike McClellan. “I used to take a four-mile run after school.”

“Self correct as you go along and never be too harsh on yourself,” says retired Mesa Redbird Elementary teacher Cindy Eckert-Timm.

“Nice matters,” coaches Beth Snyder, science teacher at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Phoenix. “You know how they say ‘Don’t smile before Christmas?’ Forget that.

“Laugh at yourself. Eat well. Hydrate. Sleep.”

“Remember that the kids will get it,” advises Sara Adams, a language arts teacher at Kyrene Altadeña. “All teachers doubt themselves but then there is that moment when the light goes on.”

What’s next for my students

Early on, I decided one of my missions is to teach my students how to plan their time and be responsible for themselves in the classroom. The Elmo potty pass was not doing anything to help kids with those goals.

So this week I am going to distribute two cardboard restroom passes to each student — to be used between now and the end of the term. Students don’t use the passes can turn them in before report card time and get extra credit points.

This idea also comes from Stephanie Franquinha. I will write again about how well it works!