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Advice for New (and Not So New) Teachers: Don’t Fail at Being Yourself

November 13, 2023

Advice for New (and Not So New) Teachers: Don’t Fail at Being Yourself

Amber Chandler shares why it is important for educators to never fail at being themselves. Not every teacher is the same, and that's okay because students need all types of experiences.

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As a teacher for over two decades, I’ve obviously failed many times. In fact, I spend a lot of time talking with my students and the teachers I mentor discussing why it is always a good plan to make room for failure. I’ve written about it for EdWeek, and on my own website, FlexibleClass.com. The premise has always been simple to me: The rewards of learning, pushing past barriers we often create for ourselves, are worth the risk of a “failed” lesson. However, I’ve found a wrinkle in my philosophy that I think is worth talking about, especially in the age of Teacher TikTok, Instagram-worthy classrooms, and Facebook comparisons. I have just failed in a way that was completely avoidable, cost me a little money and time, but mostly has bruised my ego a little. What did I do that I’m a little embarrassed to share? I tried to be someone I’m not. 

I believe in student choice—pretty much the premise behind both The Flexible ELA Classroom and The Flexible SEL Classroom. I believe in flexible seating, flexible grading, and pretty much everything else that breaks up the rigidity of traditional school. I’m a proponent of social and emotional learning; I am not, however, a believer of so called carrot-and-stick motivation. I’ve studied Daniel Pink’s Drive extensively, and have used the book in classes where I teach new teachers. So, you may ask, why the heck did I buy a punch card for my students as a means to a reward of some sort? Last week, as I was doing my quarterly purge of stuff on my desk, I was asking myself that same question. 

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Punch Card

I know that rewarding students for things they should already be doing (bringing a pencil or being on time) sets up a terrible dynamic. First, by rewarding expected behavior, you are implying that it is something terrible that you must bribe students to do. Also, you are setting up a paradigm by which the rewards must continue or the behavior will revert back to what it was. I know this. I’ve known this for years! I know that rewarding students for going above and beyond the expectation takes away their internal motivation, and in turn will hinder student growth. I know this, too. However, just like every other teacher post-pandemic, I’m living with the reality that kiddos aren’t the same as they were five years ago. 

Behaviors across the board have escalated. The National Center for Education Statistics report, “More than 80 Percent of U.S. Public Schools Report Pandemic Has Negatively Impacted Student Behavior and Socio-Emotional Development” from July 2022 confirms what we all know: Disruptive behaviors, chronic absenteeism and misuse of electronic devices have derailed many of us extremely experienced educators who are confident we know what is best for students. The education landscape has changed, and it is even more complex for new teachers who might not have a “bag of tricks” that are tried and true. (Teachers entering the profession post-pandemic have been on my mind. I wrote Everything New Teachers Need to Know But Are Afraid to Ask after my experiences mentoring.) After last year, the first full, maskless year for my district, I was burned out and frustrated, despite a pretty successful year with students. 

Am I opposed to punch cards and reward systems for everyone? Not really. I am, however, opposed to teachers trying to be someone they are not in pursuit of unrealistic results.

There are so many differences in the post-pandemic world that school has just seemed like one of them. Yet, this past summer, as I was prepping and planning, getting excited about the school year, I felt uncertain. This year, I was returning to fully flexible seating after having to move to rows six feet apart during the pandemic, and I was worried that students might not be ready for the experience. I wanted to be the teacher I was five years ago. However, instead of doing the things I know work for kiddos, I fell into the trap of trying to be someone else as a teacher. My plan was to encourage and engage students with water-bottle stickers, candy, a party—whatever it took to get them “back.” The problem, of course, is that there is no going “back.” I needed a way forward, and trying to be someone else just won’t work. 

What happened? Actually, not much. I introduced the punch-card system to my students, who seemed at least mildly interested. I used it for maybe two weeks, and then I simply stopped, shoving the adorable punch cards and heart-shaped hole punch (which, incidentally, was exactly what tricked me into buying this system in the first place!) into my drawer and never touched it again. Not a single student asked about it, and until I was cleaning, I’d kind of forgotten about it. But, when I found it, I felt ill at ease. What had I been thinking? As I reflected on my punch-card plan, I recalled spending an afternoon scrolling Teacher TikTok on my back porch over the summer, and I must have thought this was a good idea—some momentary lapse of reason. 

Am I opposed to punch cards and reward systems for everyone? Not really. I am, however, opposed to teachers trying to be someone they are not in pursuit of unrealistic results. I won’t say this has been a frequent problem of mine, but this incident really threw me for a loop.I have mentored and taught enough new teachers to have heard the stories of feeling inadequate: the Pinterest classrooms that are difficult to replicate, the elaborate greetings at the door, the doorways that are unbelievably artistic, etc. Teaching is hard enough without feeling the need to be like other teachers who are different from us. My classroom is pretty amazing, but I don’t expect everyone to have flexible seating. It would certainly drive some people crazy. If I had to have a secret handshake for all of my students, I’d have to retire because I’d never remember it. 

The more important thing is that teachers know what their strengths are, what talents they bring to their classroom, and what philosophies work to create a community of learners in their room.

As teachers, we need to know what we are about, what our educational philosophies are, and what “traps” we need to avoid in our own thinking. Years ago, when my own kiddos were younger, back in 2017, I did a webinar called 5 Things to Stop Doing Right Now. It was one of the first times I took a pretty strong stand philosophically, and it gained both acclaim (the number No. 3 webinar of 2017 and the No. 5 webinar of the decade) and pushback. The thing is though, the five things are mine—this is exactly what I believe. If you’d like to see the slideshow, here’s the link, but the more important thing is that teachers know what their strengths are, what talents they bring to their classroom, and what philosophies work to create a community of learners in their room. As educators, we must never fail to be ourselves, and we must support one another on that path. We aren’t all the same, and students need all types of experiences, but if your plan includes a cute heart-shaped hole punch with adorable punch cards, I’ve got you covered. 

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Amber Chandler
  Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification. She is the 2018 Association for Middle Level Educators’ “Educator of the Year.”  Amber has enjoyed a wide variety of... See More
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