Every single summer, lots of teachers start getting the “Sunday night nerves” weeks before classes start back up. Teaching, unlike so many other professions, gets a hard reset every fall, which can be amazing or daunting, depending on how you look at it. I tend to love back to school, and I’ve written about it many times. This year, I want to share with you three of my protocols for students that might not make the typical “new teacher” checklist. (Read more about the difference between rules and protocols here.) Whether you are new to teaching or just feel like it’s a good time for a change, feel free to borrow these protocols that I share with my students to put us all on course for a great year. And, just as I tell my students, these protocols are even more important for me to remember, since I’m the one orchestrating the environment for them to learn in—an environment that I hope they will love.
You know the adage, “Don’t let them see you smile until Thanksgiving”? No. No. No. There’s so much research to support that the very opposite is true that you need to understand just how ridiculous this horrible saying actually is. This Edutopia blog captures the essence of the argument for kindness well. However, you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. Just think about your own experiences in the classroom. Who is the teacher you just can’t forget, who made you feel safe and happy in the classroom, which allowed you to be yourself? When I walked up to Mrs. Neely, my first-grade teacher, with my sweater tied around my waist and tears in my pleading eyes because I had had an accident, she pretended to spill a mug of water on me. That, my friends, is what it is all about. If she hadn’t hugged me every day on the way into her room, I know that an entire day (at least) of my learning would have been disrupted. She let me pick out sweatpants from her cool closet where she kept spare clothes, not the weird ones that never fit from the nurse’s office. I’ve had the pleasure of former students visiting or emailing me and retelling a story where I “saved” them from something that happened. Be kind.
Before you decide that you’d teach better on Rollerblades—which you might—consider your own professional circumstances. If you aren’t tenured, don’t know your administrators well and haven’t “proven yourself” yet, there’s some wisdom in flying below the radar. However, the risks I’m talking about are the ones that will never get you in trouble. When I was younger, before I had children, I was petrified to call my students’ parents. I didn’t even want to talk to them about good things or remind them about a field trip form, much less when I really needed to talk to them. Finally, because I knew it was the right thing to do, I set a goal to call every home before our parent-teacher conferences at the end of September. Not only was this an aggressive goal, it also made me sweat, and when a parent didn’t seem that happy to talk to me, I felt defeated. However, as you might imagine, most parents do like to hear from teachers, particularly if it is a positive or neutral call.
Another thing that used to make me so anxious was when my students would want me to volunteer for something that would make me look silly. I’d avoid it at all costs. I may or may not have hid in the nurse’s office during a particular assembly. I have a history. Yet, this past school year, I was asked to participate in our school’s Mr. and Miss Falcon activities during our eighth-grade celebration, and I said yes. (Read why Spirit Week matters here.) I went on stage. I had to bottle flip of all things. I knew this mattered to my students, and that the kids in the audience cheering me on were way more likely to ask for help on a project or stop by my room to do extra work. I told my students how nervous I was, and they were able to see that even adults have limitations, and that a real growth mindset meant I’d do it anyway. This article explains why modeling risk-taking is so important for student success. Take the risk.
Be your own hero
To be honest, this is the hardest one. When you are a new teacher, and even when you’ve been teaching for a long time, you are going to have bad days. You are going to have a day that you can’t believe is happening. Every teacher will tell you his or her “Oh.My.God” story. Mine involves walking up the stairs of the high school where I taught, when a 10th-grader accidentally stepped on the back of my hippy-style dress, which proceeded to rip at the waist, revealing more than I can stand to imagine. I’m not sure who was more traumatized, me or the poor kids behind me. At that moment, I had a choice. Shrivel up and die (which wasn’t really a choice, or I might have taken it), or just hoist the back of my dress to its rightful place, and get on with it. Some days, the best you can expect of yourself is to “get on with it.” This doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher. It means that you are human. And, if you smiled at your students all along, they’ll smile at you when you are having a bad day.
Though this might not be your typical “new teacher” advice, I think it will ring true for most people. The sooner we realize that the protocols we have for our students are very similar to the ones we have for ourselves, the sooner relationships can develop around trust and mutual respect, not compliance and fear. I’d love to hear your advice for new teachers—especially if it isn’t exactly what everyone might tell them! Share in the comments.