If I Knew Then What I Know Now
Three truths I wish I’d known as a first-year teacher.
I walked into my first official day in the classroom as an idealistic twenty something with some innate skills, a boatload of ambition, and a newly minted teaching degree from a program that did its best to school me on theory and practice. But what I couldn’t have known, and what my teacher training program didn’t completely prepare me for, was how much I’d have to learn on the job. When it came time for me to turn the teaching theories I’d learned into real, boots on the ground results, I was in for a schooling of a new kind. I call those early months in the classroom my “Fumbling Through” era.
Now nearly three decades later, my rookie learning curve is ancient history. I’ve taught a wide range of subject areas from first grade to high school, and I help other classroom teachers address the racial disparities in education in my current job as a racial equity coach. But even today, I still think about those first days of my career and can’t help but wonder: Can we do better to set new teachers up for success? What skills would have been good to have in my teaching toolbox as I was getting my sea legs?
With the beginning of another school year upon us, and so many new teachers entering the classroom for the first time this month, I wanted to share three things I wish I’d known when the first bell rang on day one of career.
1. Model, explain, repeat.
I wish I’d known from day one that modeling content was such an important and difficult skill. It seems strikingly simple in retrospect, but as a new teacher I didn’t do much thinking about the best way to explore and present an idea and I didn’t always do an effective job of explaining concepts to my classes. Instead, I “taught” a concept to my students and assumed if I taught it, my students would “get it.” I had my lesson plans and my prompts, and I mostly stuck to them. I also had lots of blank stares. It wasn’t until later in my career that I grasped the significance of knowing content deeply enough to clearly explain and model critical content. Staying one chapter ahead of them simply isn’t enough.
But now, modeling and explaining content is foundational for me. Not only do I explain with words, I show them what it looks like, I look for a variety of ways to model it, and I use multiple examples. I also regularly start a conversation with myself in front of my students, and find it’s one of the best ways to get them engaged. They mirror back to me whatever their understanding of the content is, and I then gauge my next steps based on what I’m hearing and seeing from them. Effectively modeling and explaining content is a teaching essential and when you get the hang of it, it’s also a little bit of magic.
2. A quiet classroom doesn't necessarily mean there's learning going on.
The ability to lead group discussions is like rocket fuel for student learning. Still, learning how to foster robust, reciprocal ones isn’t something that is standard fare in most teacher training programs. But when I truly embraced the idea that it’s not just okay for students to talk to each other in class, it’s imperative to support learning—my students got a better version of me and my classroom. I’ve learned that students need to have copious amounts of time engaging in conversation. They need to have time to practice listening to one another and speaking.
One of my biggest ‘a-ha’ moments as a new teacher was the realization that students can learn just as much from one another as they can from me, and that they do so primarily through discussions. If I was nervous as a new teacher about having a principal walk into a chatty classroom, I’m not now. I see it as part of my mission to make those opportunities happen, and to build collective knowledge through student-driven conversations.
3. “Right” answers aren’t always the point, but critical thinking always is.
I wish I’d known from day one that eliciting student thinking is every bit as important as getting them to share the “right answers”—arguably even more so. And that’s because the “right” answers can easily be rote ones. But being able to get a student to share their thinking, to interpret their thoughts, and to interact in the classroom in a critical manner is invaluable.