10 Mistakes New Teachers Make (And How To Avoid Them)

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

If you’re anything like me, you gained a great deal in college of academic knowledge about your content area and very little about actually getting students to stay quiet long enough to learn from your abundant knowledge base. Over the years, I have observed many young teachers enter the profession and make some of the same mistakes. I have compiled a lit of 10 mistakes new teachers make. Nobody makes all of the mistakes, but invariably we all go through a few of them within our first few years of teaching.

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Mistake 1: Many new teachers try to be “the cool teacher” and end up being “the pushover”

I get it. We all want to be liked by our students. The mistake many teachers make is that they try too hard to be liked by their students. The result is that often students end up dreading your class because of the lack of discipline.

How to avoid this mistake
The solution is to make your expectations clear. Students will behave when they are told what to do, but they won’t like you just because you want them to. So when your clearly explain the instructions, clarify any misunderstandings, and consistently enforce the rules, their respect for you will grow.

Mistake 2: Many new teachers try to be “the strict teacher” and end up being “the mean teacher”

This is the other end of the spectrum. The “Don’t Smile Before Christmas” crowd. They see themselves as Rule Nazis, and will enforce every rulewith an iron fist. This even includes the rules that nobody knew about. You better not cross this teacher or else.

How to avoid this mistake
The solution to being mean is to be nice, but not at the expense of sanity and order. To do this, we reinforce good behavior. If general student behavior is bad, then reinforce the most baseline expected behaviors. Someone somewhere in your class is doing something right. Find it, and reward it. You’ll begin to see more and more good behaviors springing up everywhere.

Mistake 3: Many new teachers miss deadlines

Teaching is a time-consuming profession. Most of the people on the business end of schools have never been on the front lines. They don’t get it. They go to work, sit at a desk, and work at work, then they go home and all of the work is left at work. We’re not like that. We take all of our student problems with us. We take ungraded papers and lesson plan books and emotional baggage and everything else with us practically everywhere. We have unplanned parent conferences in the checkout line at Walmart.So we must remember this when dealing with paperwork deadlines.

The finance office doesn’t really care that you have tutoring after school three days a week and have to take your daughter to ballet another day, and you go to Zumba class the other day. They just know that you turned in the budget request form for your trip in two and a half weeks a day late. Many of these people will go out of their way to help you out once in a while, but if you are known as a consistent procrastinator who misses deadlines, you get less and less grace.

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How to avoid this mistake
Mark stuff on your calendar and give yourself plenty of notice. Oh, you do only have one central calendar that you use, right? If we use one calendar on the school computer, one at home, one on the ol’ iPhone, and another on the Android tablet, will set ourselves up to miss deadlines.

Mistake 4: Many new teachers wait too long to learn the names of all students

“I’m horrible with names” is only an acceptable excuse for so long before it turns into “You’re not that important to me.” At least to some of your students. Most elementary teachers who have less than 30 students per class should be able to get all of their student names learned by the end of the first week. For those with 100 and up,  it’s challenging for sure. I usually end up having 3-4 sticky names that get crossed in my mind for one reason or another. Usually, it ends up that they have similar names or Lauren looks like someone you know who was named Lisa, and Lisa looks like someone who was named Laura. Or whatever the case.

How to avoid this mistake
Spend the first two weeks of the school year learning names. Memorize the names of the students as quickly as you can, and then begin to put faces to names and names to faces. It’s hard work if you have more than 100 students, but remember that these are living people, and they are well worth having their teacher know their name. For the sticky names, figure out who they are and force yourself to call them by name. Just like our students, we often learn best by learning from our mistakes.

Mistake 5: Many new teachers wait too long to make parent contact

Many teachers get to the end of the year and make the first contact with the parents of a student who has been misbehaving all year long.  This can backfire on you, as the parents are just learning about the problems after 8 months of problems. It also causes you to miss out on enlisting help from some of the best supporters you can have. Get parents on your side!

How to avoid this mistake
Make positive contact early. Open house is great. Put on your happy face and be seen. Some teachers like to make quick positive phone calls early in the year for every student so that the parents already have an idea of how nice and pleasant you are. For sure, you want to avoid the “It must not have been a problem if I haven’t heard about it until now” issue by making a point to get in touch with the parents and let them know what happened as soon as there is a noticeable behavioral disruption.

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Mistake 6: Many new teachers forget to set and keep a clear grading policy

As an elective teacher, I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken with students about their grades and they don’t have any idea how their grades are calculated. I ask to see their syllabus, and it does not make much sense either. If you find that you have 6 grading categories, your grading policy isn’t clear.

How to avoid this mistake
Many districts have preset grading policies, but I know plenty do not. If your district does, then be sure you stick with it. If not, then consult other teachers on your campus and be sure that you come up with something reasonable. For instance, don’t have “Major Projects” count as 35% of a student’s grade if you don’t intend on having a “Major Project” every grading period. The result of this is that everything else counts a lot more than is expected when the “Major Project” is absent.

And while we’re on the subject, enter your grades regularly. These things are computerized and most have online access now. Help the parents and elective teachers out by posting your grades so they can help you out!

Mistake 7: Many new teachers get bogged down in nonessential details

Details are great, as long as they are needed. Keep in mind, though, that the more detail focused you are, the less your students can cover in class. As a band director, it is often very easy to spend 20 minutes of a band rehearsal working with five students on six notes. That is a poor use of time for the rest of the students, though.

How to avoid this mistake
With music rehearsal, I have gotten to the point where I won’t work on something more than 5 times in a row. If it’s not fixed yet, we need to move on. Do you subtract points from assignments for improper heading format? Do you have students grade papers and then go back and check the work? If you do, that’s great. But be sure you have a great reason for doing it. If there’s not a great reason, then you are duplicating work for yourself, which means less attention is paid to other weightier matters.

Mistake 8: Many new teachers gloss over essential details

It’s easy to focus too much rehearsal time on wrong notes and not enough on proper posture, breathing, and intonation. It’s easy to focus too much class time on behavior problems and not enough on subject matter. It’s easy to focus too much on subject matter and not enough on behavior problems. It’s not so easy to know when enough is enough. That will come with experience, but only if you are constantly monitoring and adjusting how you teach.

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How to avoid this mistake
As with before, we all need to take a step back and analyze what is really important. Stephen Covey talks about putting first things first. Fundamentals are the first things. Whatever fundamentals are in your class. Behavior, penmanship, spelling, arithmetic, posture, hand position, basic tone production, vocal technique, 1st positon, what happened in 1776. These are all essentials. Figure out which ones apply in your classroom and to your teaching method, and be sure you focus on those. Don’t let them slip by.

Mistake 9: Many new teachers talk too much

The most common time for behavioral problems is when the students are not engaged. The most common time students are not engaged is when the teacher is talking. Keep those students working, and your behavior issues will drop dramatically.

How to avoid this mistake
Give clear instructions, and get the students working on something. Move around the room and answer questions or work with individuals.

Mistake 10: Many new teachers don’t go into the new year with a plan

Experience is great for helping you predict what might happen, but even so, you can do some planning early. Make a plan and let it transform throughout the year as reality comes into play. But if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.

How to avoid this mistake
Make sure you have checkpoints throughout the year. As mentioned above, I like to use one calendar for everything I schedule. I use a Google Calendar and sync it to my iPhone. I have multiple calendars on there so I can turn personal appointments or financial info or whatever off, but it’s all in one place. I know, if Google crashes, I’m doomed. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take for now.

I hope this helps. Now go out there and become the best teacher you can be!

4 Comments on 10 Mistakes New Teachers Make (And How To Avoid Them)

  1. Thank you for this article! I completely agree – as a college senior, I have a lot of knowledge about music but very little knowledge about classroom management, and all the other stuff that goes along with being a teacher! I am especially worried about finding the right balance between detailed rehearsal and spending too much time on the details.

    • This skill comes with time as you learn the little things that do and don’t work for you and your students.

      Some basics that I try to use in rehearsals:

      1) Find a way to engage all students as much as possible. If working with a section, I have the section play again and then call on someone to tell me what they hear. If I am repping a woodwind section, I will have brass players buzz or sing. Active engagement is the key. The students are not making improvement when they simply watch other people do all the work.

      2) If a problem persists after five times, it will not be fixed today. Time to move on. I always enjoy “Okay, you know what we’ll hear at the start of class tomorrow.”

      3) Listen to individuals frequently. This holds the students accountable for their own work. Something I picked up from Dr. Charles Menghini is the concept of the 5-10 second test. You don’t need to hear 3 minutes of an excerpt to know if it still needs work. You can test an entire band of 70 kids in a class period easily down the row. Metronome on: Ensemble, 1st chair, ensemble 2nd chair, ensemble, 3rd chair. In the time that the ensemble is playing, I am filling in my rubric and making a comment or two. I’ve found success with all levels of students with this. And this is the only solution I have found to regularly and effectively test students in large classes.

  2. Many are making this mistake and they don’t know that is affecting them. I wish many teacher can see this Post and learn from it. I will talk on number 9 ” Many new teachers talk too much” Instead of talking to much i believed the better idea is to give them the assignment. This will even give the students more knowledge. And i will recommend academic writing help by mhwriter because they have hundreds of expert in writer. Is the best place to solve your writing project and get unique solution

  3. I really find your article very informative and i fully agree with all the points discused above i personally very much connected to 4,5 points..and the rest of the article is very precise and explained in formal way.. and yes some teachers are very slow to make contact with the students and parents.if any teacher doesnt frequently interacts with the student then abviously there is a chance to miss his concentration in the class so i personally well connected with those points and i cant relly eloborate my views on that..thank you for sharing this..keep posting

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