13 Thoughts After 13 Years Of Teaching

Thirteen Thoughts on Thirteen Years of Teaching

Thirteen years have passed at the front of the classroom and I’m about to begin my fourteenth. Fourteen! That’s big WHOA for me.

Here are 13 thoughts I’d like to pass along to you. Whether a teacher, parent, aspiring teacher, all three, or none of the above.

No particular order, just important enough, I think, to know before you cross the classroom door threshold for the first time or you have yet again found yourself in front of the little people.

Here they are…

1. Unless you’re a teacher, a parent of a teacher, dating or married to a teacher… you’re just not going to understand what a teacher endures.

You might have heard a few things about the profession here and there, but you’re not going to get it.

I expect that all professions have their moments. I know doctors, nurses, engineers, call center representatives, salespeople. All important jobs, sure. It is my believe however that teachers, different than other professions, serve in a multiple of roles over the course of a day – it’s daunting.

It’s still daunting to me.

We console, prod, commiserate, care, reminisce, counsel, redirect, nurse, celebrate and encourage. We do all this with children – not adults. Additionally we have the added challenge of being expected to succeed regardless of whatever “roadblocks” we ourselves or our students encounter.

I will be bold enough to say we even do some parenting. We live in a time, I believe, when parents expect great things from schools – maybe even unfair expectations. We also live in a time when parents sometimes aren’t interested in defining right from wrong at home. That lesson has fallen to teachers as well.

I’ve encountered parents who are mystified that they need to practice lessons at home when their child doesn’t grasp it after numerous times at school. They’re expected to help their child academically, and they’re confused about why (see #7 below).

Therefore, if you’re interested in the profession, seek out an educator who will give you the real “skinny” on what happens in the classroom.

I often meet prospective teachers and invite them into my classroom. The best teacher preparation programs get students into the classroom early on in their coursework – imperative to ensure you’re ready for, and still interested in, the challenge of teaching little people.

2. It’s about motivation as much as it is about content knowledge.

Motivation isn’t something I ever remember being reiterated to me while I was in school. I don’t remember a class conversation and there definitely wasn’t a course. We spoke about reading, about math, about classroom management, about technology, and definitely about learning disabilities. What we did not cover is what to do when a student says they just don’t want to. Instruction didn’t cover what to do when a group of students decides they’re going to run the classroom or take over recess.

When to convince, when to prod, when to take a step back and when to step forward are skills worth knowing if you want to be effective.

Consider classroom management skills the life vests you grab when the ship is taking on water. You don’t want to drown surrounded by students looking right at you.

This skill set is going to take time and filling your toolbox, if you will, will happen through experiences as an educator. In the meantime, seek out colleagues who you see making strides in their interaction with their students and “borrow” what works for them. You can’t, of course, be someone you’re not and pretend to be them – but learning from others is a good start toward developing your own style.

3. It’s also about classroom management as much as it is about motivation and knowing your content.

I know I said motivation was more important than content in #2, but if your students are so motivated that they’re standing on your desks (like in my summertime nightmares you can read here) they’re not really going to learn what you’ve planned for them are they? They will learn other things of course, but not anything that’s on a state assessment.

So you’re in charge. You have to be. How you do that will be easier over time. I suggest, like I do when I direct substitutes in my plans, to take the stern approach. Doing so from the beginning will help you sort through content and everything else that will be thrown at you, until you figure out what works for you.

My mentor my first year shared that she had seen teachers fail when they were either too stern or too lackadaisical. Being too much one way or the other was a recipe that resulted in students eventually not caring.

So you’re going to walk a tightrope on this. You’ll find that balance (pun intended) with experience.

Want a little more in how to run your classroom? Here are my Top 7 Classroom Management Strategies.

4. There are three rules I use to make my life easier when it comes to what appropriate behavior looks like in my classroom.

1) Does it keep me from teaching?

2) Does it keep the student from learning? or

3) Does it keep other students from learning?

When I started I spent a lot of printer ink money making my own huge posters that outlined my classroom rules. I was under the impression that if they were posted, I could point to each one and recite when necessary. I took my lead from The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of making that first day and first week of school an example of what’s expected every day and week for the remainder of the year.

I was therefore convinced that posting these on my classroom wall and discussing them the first week of school would certainly result in none of my students telling me they didn’t know the rules.


I’ve since figured out that students know exactly what the rules are and don’t need a colorful, ink laden poster. They’ve been sitting in a classroom for years and are well aware of what they shouldn’t do.

Now what I do is review the three rules I listed above, however I don’t feel the need to point to a poster and recite them repeatedly – I find that it just wastes the time of those following the rules. It’s better to just have a one-on-one conference with the student privately and later.

If you’re up to it, a great classroom management book I would recommend is Teaching with Love and Logic. It was handed to me early on in my career and I constantly return to it when challenged by a student’s behavior.

5. A teacher can always make their lesson better, but when do you stop?

No lesson planning is ever complete. A teacher can spend hours making their lesson better, great, or the best that anyone has ever seen. I guarantee you there’s another approach out there that just might be better. You can beat yourself up making things great while you work late into the night – you’ll also be exhausted the next day though and your delivery will suffer.

At some point you just have to call it a day and teach what you’ve planned. Keep it in your files and make it better next year. Your students won’t benefit even the slightest if their teacher is incoherent because they are exhausted.

6. It’s ok when it doesn’t all go your way. You’re human. Give yourself a break.

Some days are just like that. Stop beating yourself up. Just like your students, you’re human and you definitely won’t be at 117% every day.

Think you can? Try it. I guarantee that you’ll be calling in sick before too long and it’s going to take quite a long time for you to recover.

Teaching is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

7. Students are little people.

They are not little widgets. They are going to be excited one day and uninterested the next – maybe even from hour to hour. Subject to subject. It’s normal. You, as their teacher, haven’t done anything wrong. The students sitting in your classroom are human.

Some students are going to understand your learning objective the first time, some of them won’t. Some of our students won’t grasp your carefully laid out lesson plan until next year –  a whole year after they have left your classroom.

That’a tough one to realize.

That’s frustrating, but that, unfortunately, is  not uncommon.

As you might expect, I often find myself at the copy machine making class sets of copies. I do this not because I like copies upon copies of work for my students to do, but because students need to practice what I’ve learned.

As I’m standing in line behind other teachers who may be teaching students younger than mine, I sometimes standards being taught that my present students haven’t grasped.

This is not because they’re not good teachers.

It’s because our state mandated learning objectives are so numerous and our county timeline is so fast. Students who might struggle, i.e.: aren’t awesome at everything, often don’t have the time to grasp what they don’t know and why.

Our students aren’t great at everything, nor should they be.

Regardless, it still bugs me to no end that I haven’t been able to correctly convey the material in a way that the student will understand it. It’s then that I remember and have to realize, mostly unsuccessfully to be frank, that my student is not a machine. He may not get it yet.

Our students aren’t robots and neither are their teachers.

8. For those of you just starting out, this teachin’ thing ain’t easy.

Just so you are aware: Year 1 is overwhelming. Year 2 is better because now you know what’s coming. Year 3 is when you feel finally start feeling comfortable.

I clearly remember one afternoon during my first year when my principal looked into my classroom to check on how I was doing.

“Do you feel like you’ve been hit by a semi?” he asked.

Yes, yes it did.

He also did a great job of providing a forum for us newbies to gather occasionally and reflect on how we were doing. Our mentor described the first year in chart form which I found online and posted below.

First-Year Teaching.gif

So it’s ok to have some ups and downs. That’s normal. From anticipation early on to the same feeling as the year ends and some time away for the Summer is granted.

9. State mandated standards tested throughout a student’s life are important, they are not, please remember, the most important thing.

Too often teachers are drawn into the zaniness that is testing. Their results determine whether teachers are successfully imparting knowledge and whether principals are leading effectively – all wrong.

I expect no one teaching pursued the profession and jumped through all the hoops so we could impart test taking strategies and worry about scores.

No test proves learning that is given on one specific day when a child, is feeling overwhelmed, having a bad day, didn’t get enough rest the day prior, or failed to eat breakfast because there was no food in the house.

There’s a whole lot more going on in children’s lives that doesn’t include testing, preparation for that testing, or worrying about testing.

Additionally, no test shows whether a child has left our classroom a better person that when they arrived at the beginning of the year.

Isn’t that the point why we became teachers?

10. Once you have a year or two completed, rely on your previous lesson plans.

Don’t recreate the wheel. DO improve the wheel. Take one lesson a week and recreate it making the best it can possible be.

11. Today’s classroom is not the classroom you sat in when you were in school.

I believe most people are quick to critique the profession because everyone of us has been a student well before being a teacher, parent or voter – therefore people have strong opinions on how things should be.

If only it was that easy.

Too many variables exist at too many different times during the day. Use one approach and it might be ineffective before you have time to consider its effectiveness – being a teacher is not without variability.

12. You’re the teacher, but you aren’t always the one who should do the teaching.

We have all sat and listened to one person go on… and on… and we have all shut them out if they didn’t provide either amazing insight or we were spellbound by visuals or props.

No matter how awesome we think we are or we think our lesson is, it’s still us doing all the leading and talking.

Allow students to teach one another. Whether working in groups or from the front of the classroom, let students help each other better understand your learning objectives.

Check out Kagan Cooperative Learning if you haven’t had the chance. Putting your students into groups in which they help one another using various strategies is inspiring to see.

13. Have fun.

Remember the teacher you had that you hated to see at the front of the room? Do you remember them as having fun? Probably not.

If you’re not having fun in the classroom, when is it ever a better time to start?

Fun makes the history lesson come alive, helps math problems worth solving and who doesn’t like a funny story?

Another thing, it definitely makes my day go by faster.

Here’s a post I dedicated to the importance of having fun.

What pointers would you give to other teachers who are either new or returning to the classroom?

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