Pep Talk For New Teachers

As the new school year approaches, it occurs to me that there are a lot of new teachers heading out there.  This is my twentieth year in the classroom. It hardly feels possible, but if you were to check my Facebook page, it is peopled by former students from five different schools. Most of these folks now have children of their own!  I figured I’d share some things with new teachers that I’ve learned over the years. And I hope that parents will consider these things, too – especially if you hear your child has a new teacher. Before you start wringing your hands in despair, understand that new teachers bring enthusiasm to the classroom. They are eager to work, eager to get to the business of teaching. Help them; encourage them. They have to figure things out very quickly.

August. A new class arrives. Wide-eyed, unformed, brimming with enthusiasm, the youngest ones tinged with trepidation. They find their rooms, sit in desks which have held many before them, smile brightly, secretly thrilled, eager to ponder great books, study unfathomed formulas, devour complex theories, dream noble dreams. This is the ritual of August, right?

Sort of. I mean, maybe for the first week or two. But by the end of the first month, when that ho-hum routine is kicking in, and summer feels like past tense, students may become hauntingly silent, or worse, horribly restless. This is when a new teacher may begin to panic. Because  there are papers to be graded, charts to be updated, forms to be completed and returned to somebody’s office: It’s grueling and even more difficult when you are still trying to figure out whose office is where and which key opens what door.

When I was a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was on a Committee that helped to create a new faculty handbook filled with enough information to get a new teacher started, but not so much as to overwhelm.

New Teachers, see if any of these things help:

photo by Eric James Sarmiento @ flickr.com

1. Don’t take things too personally. You have to know this up front. Your students are going to talk about. If you are lucky, they will say nice things like, “I like Mr. X’s hair,” or “Ms. Q. is kinda cool.” More likely, you will overhear them in the halls: “(Insert your name here) is unfair. Not flexible. Boring. Biased. Unqualified.” Let’s face it. Not every student is going to die for your class. Not every student is going to find the Quadratic equation fascinating. Not every student is going to care about conjugating verbs. They won’t all be interested in Mendelian genetics. Some of them won’t like your unit on Lord of the Flies, or insects, or rain forests. Listen to their comments, glean from them what you will, and then let them go. This is especially true for teachers of older students when you receive your first batch of student evaluations.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Usually teachers are the nicest bunch of folks you can ever meet. (Except when there are budget cuts. When there are budget cuts, hide your construction paper and bolt down your stapler.) But generally speaking, if you need support, a new teacher can ask just about any other faculty member to explain how to un-jam the copier or for directions to the nearest bathroom. No matter what your problems might be, if you are in need, there is someone who can help you. Teachers like to be helpful.

3. Don’t forget to forgive yourself. One of the greatest advantages to teaching is the forgiving nature of children. That same characteristic which makes your students forget the complex theory which you masterfully presented to them just yesterday allows them to completely forget your prior day’s blunder. Even older students will be tolerant of your errors if you are honest about them and don’t try to pretend they didn’t happen. You should apply this same forgiveness to yourself. Some of your lessons are going to suck. But some will be brilliant.

photo by Nick J. Webb @ flickr.com

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is not in any  handbooks I’ve ever read on teaching, but it’s actually really important. If your new teaching experience is anything like mine was, in addition to your teaching responsibilities, you’ve probably already taken on extracurricular responsibilities. Whether you’ re working on a yearbook, organizing a dance or proctoring for SATs, helping to make costumes for the play or coaching a sport, no doubt you’ve got your new teacher hands full. And just as you are getting a grip, someone pops his head in and offers you another great “opportunity for growth.” Don’t be afraid to say no. It isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to take on additional responsibilities you don’t feel ready to handle. Because if you take on too many activities, you’ll get sick. This is because new teachers spend late nights planning, and grading, trying to stay one day ahead of their students. So while it sounds obvious, don’t forget to get enough sleep, eat right, and take lots of vitamins.

5. Don’t forget to laugh. If necessary, look for something funny! Just watching a group of kids at work or coming down the hallway is usually sufficient. There’s usually someone picking his nose, someone with an unzipped fly, someone with pants down around the knees, some girl wearing waaaay too much make-up — (and I’m pretty sure this applies from kindergarten all the way up to college level, folks!) And don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t appreciate the hilarity of the moment when you learn that you have chalk on your butt. It’s funny!

6. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. The most seasoned teachers will tell you that even fifteen or twenty years from now, you still won’t know everything – especially these days with the technology changing so quickly, the kids will, no doubt, be teaching you many things. Let them. If you don’t know something, don’t make something up. Tell the student you don’t know the answer to the question. Write. It. Down. Do some research, and get back to the student with the answer. That student will know that you care.

In May, when you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, more competent, you will walk from one end of the campus/quad/building to the other and each time experience something different — a burst of magnolias on the east side of the auditorium; on the terrace, a gathering of students, intense in their chatter; the sturdy dark wood of the dining room, inviting and scented with red sauce; in the middle school wing, you might see mouths devouring a snack. If it is a Thursday, maybe they might be eating donuts (*she said nostalgically*); outside, during recess, the littlest ones will swing and climb, jump and shout; and everywhere fluffy squirrels will scratch up the nearest trees. You will smile at a colleague while passing her and return a wave to a student who enjoys your class. You will remind someone to throw his plastic something-or-other in the garbage can. You will begin making plans for next year’s classes. You will feel calm. You will feel you belong. You will have survived your first year, the gauntlet.

I promise you, the following year will be a lot easier!

Seasoned teachers, how did I do? What did I forget?

76 responses to “Pep Talk For New Teachers

  1. 1. A meaningful “please” and” thank you” from the teacher works wonders.
    2. Act like you really believe that the activity is important. It rubs off.
    3. Over look little infractions or outbursts. A mere raised eyebrow often works.
    4. Send more letters home reporting on how well the child is doing than negative reports. You will be surprised how the need for negative reports declines. (I always hand wrote mine and sent US Mail).
    5. If they are so behind in reading and writing give them alternative things like drawing the Pilgrim scene, making a map or cutting out pictures so you can still put A’s in the grade book and not fail them like the other teachers would. Cultivating a little sense of just the possibility of success breeds success.
    6. As long as they come back promptly, always let them go to the bathroom. The other teachers don’t, but it’s OK to respect and trust your kids this way. They are human beings too.
    7. Don’t bring school day problems home and don’t bring home problems to school.
    8. A cheap fresh vase of flowers from the grocery store each Monday can make the whole classroom seem like an explosion of crayons with an aromatic hint of happiness.
    9. Oh yeah. Remember, administrators come and go, but you will always be there. Don’t take them as seriously as they take themselves.
    10. AND MOST IMPORTANT: Don’t expect to receive an apple but always have one for the kid whose parents could not afford to give him lunch money that day.
    PS: Love the daffodil photo – my favorite.

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  2. Back when I taught in public school this was the most depressing time of year! Students don’t know it, but teachers are just as sad about going back!

    Great post! Good tips.
    http://www.denwrites.com

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  3. Great list. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. These tips will be helpful as I begin my first year of Youth Group. I will be teaching the 6th grade girls.

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  5. Great article for a first year teacher! I’m in my 34th year of education – a school librarian and I still think what you have to say holds true for the seasoned educator. Nice job!
    Kathleen

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  6. This is an excellent read. I teach on the college level and all of your counsel applies. I treat every day like a new day and make sure my students know I care about their progress, not just in the classroom, but also in life. They appreciate that and it makes the classroom experience so much more rewarding. Thanks for the pep talk and congrats to you for such a rewarding career!

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  8. I will always remember the first year teacher one of my kids had who smartly remarked,
    “I won’t believe everything your kids say about you if you don’t believe everything they say about me.”

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  9. Pingback: Pep Talk For New Teachers (via Lessons From Teachers and Twits) | Running with Mittens

  10. I totally agree, new teachers would do well to follow this advice, especially 1, 2 and 4. A burned out teacher is not an effective teacher! Learning to say no, and when to ask for help (hint: always ask for help) can make that first year go by a lot easier.

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  11. Are you SURE that you are talking about new teachers? It sounds an awful lot like sage advice for motherhood. ‘Except for the May part. That part is life-long for mothers, and particularly for homeschooling mothers.

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  12. i’m about to enter the job market next autumn and this calmed me down a little. thanks!

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  13. Great tips. Thank you.

    Teachers can have a huge impact on their students. I still remember my 7th grade science teacher who was a little bit wacky but made science fun. I am a biochemist (and part time financial blogger) in part because of him.

    I remember my 3rd grade English teacher who made fun of me when I had difficulty reading poetry aloud in class. Even today, I still get nervous giving speaches at conferences because of her.

    Teachers have the power to motivate kids to like school or to hate it. Always remember that and you will do fine.
    http://www.moneyprovidesfreedom.wordpress.com

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  14. Thank you so much for this. I’m beginning my field experience this Friday. And next semester I will be a student-teacher, and then it’s on to the “real deal.” I’m excited, and nervous, worried, yet sure that I’ll be all right. This is strange for someone who is very confident normally.

    Every semester I become very discouraged about becoming a teacher and say, “I don’t think I want to do this!” In south FL, as in every other state, I’d wager, there is something very corrupt and deeply disturbing about the educational system. But then someone from my support-group (family, boyfriend, etc.) reminds me that teachers are NOT a part of that corruption. Teachers are the ones who make this Dark-Ages of the education system tolerable to their students. We work around the strange requests of the multitude of higher-ups to ensure that our students aren’t just passing standardized tests, but that they’re passing life’s tests as well. We care about them, and they know it – whether they are capable of admitting that out loud or not.

    My advice for other teachers is directed at long-time teachers: If you are taking a college course to re-certify for something, please remember that we future teachers are in there too. We know that like everyone else in the world, there is something about your job that makes you want to quit every once in a while, but something draws you back and encourages you. So when you complain with one another during this class and compare notes about how much things suck, how dismal things are, how hopeless things seem – when you try to tell the instructor of the class the way things “really” are in the public schools, sandwich the negative between two positives.

    There hasn’t been a semester that I didn’t encounter the overwhelming negativity. And this is the main reason each semester that I think, “If even long-time teachers can’t find the positive in this profession, what do I have to look forward to? What will make my experience different?” And, “Is it really always going to be that bad? Do I really want to choose a career with high and steady levels of misery?” Please tell us what we have to look forward to if you find yourself sharing the harsh realities. You’re our mentors, whether you signed up for that or not.

    I had a class last semester which was mostly composed of already-teachers and I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that we spent the 1st hour of our class EVERY TIME letting them vent to one another about how bad the system is, how much their school sucks, how little control they have over their curriculum. No matter what the topic was that came up in class, someone was always there to take that topic and turn it into BS. Nothing positive was ever uttered. Very few “what worked for me…” stories were ever shared.

    I attended only as many classes as I had to that semester. And at the end of a couple of them I went to my car, wept, and called someone to talk me back up so I would want to go back again. I realize that there will be days like that at work, and I accept that. I can bear those days. But try to remember to buffer the negative with some positive. It’s probably good for you too. carldagostino’s comment about not taking the school day problems home with you is spot-on. Stay in touch with your own happiness, even when you’re surrounded by the misery of others. That is what I’ve had to do and I’m not even a teacher yet.

    Thanks again!

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    • Once I cried into a big bowl of red beans and rice and asked my department chair if she would hate me forever if I quit, right then and there because I just couldn’t take it anymore. She told me to give the students a reading day, to just let them catch up on homework. That they would love me for it. After school, we talked for a long time – and I never thought about quitting again. But knowing you can give the kids a reading day (or have some sort of emergency plan ready to go) can make live infinitely more relaxing. Best of luck to you.

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  15. I used to be a teaching assistant at a couple of universities, and was terrified of those first few sessions. But I got along well with most of my students, and there were always those that made it worthwhile to be there. This is great advice…even for those of us who are sessionals or teaching at intervals other than a typical school year. Thanks!

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  17. Good advice, especially the bit about ensuring you get enough sleep.
    A teacher I know shared with me his one inflexible rule: Never smile before Christmas.
    But then he did teach in a particularly tough environment.

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  18. Pingback: Pep Talk For New Teachers (via Lessons From Teachers and Twits) | Divamama's Blog

  19. You did great! Loved the post. This is my 21st year teaching and after all these years, I still love it. Probably the hardest thing for me to learn was to schedule “me time.” I do this now by not grading papers over the weekend. My students won’t die if they don’t get their papers back the very next day and they appreciate that I don’t assign them homework over the weekend either. This way, on Monday we are all happy busy bees and ready to learn español! ¡Sí!¡Sí 🙂

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  20. Great post! I have the deepest respect for what you teachers do! Great job.

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  21. Very good tips. It’s especially important to remind teachers to take care of themselves, as unfortunately, it is often assumed that they will put the needs of all others first — just not a good idea when you’re talking about an ever-changing cast of 25+ students per class!!

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  22. Great post! My mom was a teacher and she hated back to school just as much as we did. My heart goes out to all the teachers in our area who don’t get to come back to work this year though because of cut backs! I’m glad your tip was “Making sure to take care of yourself” as this is key. It is important to keep time for yourself in your daily routine.

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  23. Great post, I as a teacher experienced some of these things more than once.
    It wouldn’t hurt for parents to tell their kids ot be nice to us for a change.

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  24. Sometimes I ponder the possibility of becoming a teacher. While I feel I might have some qualities and insight to offer young people, I’m just not sure how long I would last before my nerves were a jumble. It takes a special breed of person to go through everything you’ve said here and still find joy in it and want to continue doing it for decades. http://theignorantbystander.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/all-the-things-ill-never-see/

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  25. God bless teachers everywhere – it is one of the toughest jobs on earth!

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  27. I just wanted to thank you for this post. Your sage advice really resonates with my experience teaching in the public schools of New Orleans for the last two years. Don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but recently my other teacher friends have all been sending around this post:

    http://stupidtimemachine.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/letter-to-a-new-teacher/

    It is new teacher advice from someone I can only assume is either the worst or the funniest teacher alive. Enjoy and feel free to pass on.

    Like

    • That link is HIL-AR-I-OUS! I love it. I kind of hope the guy is real. I’d like to picture the man at the bottom of the page doing all those ninja moves in a classroom.😉 Thanks for the link! Take care of my favorite city! She needs our best teachers!

      Like

  28. This is fabulous! Thanks for posting it! Next August, I will be a new teacher.. I’m sure I will have to come back to your blog and re-read this🙂

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  29. Great post! As a guy that wants to go into teaching, this was really insightful🙂

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  30. Great post! I’m not a teacher yet have several friends who became teachers. Having attended many years of school, I can appreciate what teachers have to go through (all the way up to college level and beyond!) Kudos to those who have chosen this challenging yet rewarding field! Congrats on Freshly Pressed Renee! LB

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  31. You rock. I was so excited to see you on the home page gettin’ all Pressed! You really deserve it for this thoughtful piece. Putting down thoughts like this comes from a lot of experience. Congrats.

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  32. I’m sure being a teacher is pretty tough, especially at some schools.

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  33. Avoid the politics! Keep informed, be aware of interpersonal crap as much as you can tolerate, but try not to take any of that personally, either. But don’t be a doormat.

    Treat everyone as you would want to be treated, including the difficult secretary/aide/parent volunteer/librarian/janitor-custodian/principal/teacher. Don’t bad mouth other staff in front of your students. It will confuse them – they will either feel protective toward the person you’re badmouthing, or they will lose respect for you.

    Everyone has a bad day now and then. It will get better.

    If you made a mistake, admit it. It’s ok. Everyone makes them – and most kids will have more respect for you if you admit your errors rather than trying to cover them up!

    You may not feel like it happens, but you truly will make a difference in the lives of your students. Some of them will be to shy to tell you – but some will let you know the only way they got through that year was because they had your class to look forward to.

    Despite mounting frustration, never resort to outright humiliation of a student as a disciplinary measure.

    Wow – my post sounds negative, I know – apologies, there. But I can tell you from past experience that it can be very difficult to navigate the murky waters of staff relations when you’re a new teacher, and sometimes your own gut instinct is what you need to listen to!

    Good luck, all new teachers – keep the faith!

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  34. This is all great advice – now how about a post about actually GETTING HIRED. lol. I graduated in 2009 and still don’t have a teaching job. My degree is sitting useless in the tube they handed me when I walked the stage at graduation.

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    • I feel your pain. Many of my former students have completed their coursework to become teachers, and they have had very little luck at actually getting into classrooms – or, worse, they have had to take positions outside their certification areas or work in special education on a 1:1 with some kids who really shouldn’t be mainstreamed.

      All I can say is these days, with the cut-backs to education, people who want to teach have to be willing to pay their dues. Stay assertive. Go to the schools in which you’d like to teach and try to have an informational meeting with the principal. Just try to make some face time. Can you get on a sub list? In some districts, it’s impossible, but in others, that can help you get a foot (or maybe a pinky toe) in the door. Best of luck to you

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  35. Useful tips. Thanks for sharing. I think I have to learn a lot from you😉

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  36. This is a great post! Great advice. I wish I had read this 15 years ago!

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  37. Pingback: Warm Fuzzies « Amberserendipity's Blog

  38. Great post! It’s a job I could not do but sure can appreciate. My third grader is in my fourth grade teacher’s class – on purpose… I loved her and know that her style will suit my easily distracted daughter.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

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  39. Great job. I love teaching and have been enjoying it for just over ten years. I agree with everything you’ve written, but seeing as you asked, I would suggest that a change of environment every so often is good for the brain. I worked in one school for seven years and just when I started to feel some strain on my passion I moved to a new school. It allowed me the luxury of resigning some of those responsibilities I’d taken on (couldn’t say “no”) and ignited a fire to teach students again. Remember, we teach students, not subjects.

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  40. WOW ! You hit the nail on the head. Wish I had that advice 28 years ago, I would have been able to sleep better those first five years that I taught.

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  41. Absolutely agreed. It’s tough, but it’s about how you deal with it. Laughter, taking care of yourself. That’s what counts. I used to teach pottery to small groups and it was the best “work” that I’ve ever done. I no longer have the facilities to teach groups so I’ve resorted to putting what I know online.

    Truth is, I miss being face to face with the students, even when they don’t listen or just aren’t getting it. I guess it’s about appreciating the good in every situation. Anyway, thanks for the article. Feel free to visit me… http://www.pottery-on-the-wheel.com

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  42. A word of caution about Number 6, though. I think, by and large, telling the student that you do not know the answer to a question and will do some research then get back to him/her are things that many students will generally accept, particularly if the question is asked from a sincere desire to learn something new. Indeed, the response is what we are more or less reminded to say when attending refresher seminars. In my years of teaching, though, I had come to recognize students who ask questions to put you on the spot. Sometimes, a student knows the answer already and wishes to discredit you among his or her peers. An “I-don’t-know” can be dangerous. I have learned, though, to say instead, “I have a feeling you know something about this already. Why don’t you tell us all about it…” It may take time, but I think eventually most young teachers learn to spot students like this.

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

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  43. Great Post! Thanks for sharing these inspirational story.

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  44. Wow, I’m just entering in my third year of training to be a Primary School teacher and this helped me alot. Losing alot of enthusiasm at the moment for going back due to four months off University (Thats how they do their holidays :S) but reading this bought a smile to my face and I will definitely try to remember many of the points here.

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  45. It’s a very useful post to me as i too am a new teacher. I encounter many of such problems in my classroom too.

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  46. Jornal do Whisky

    😯 I liked your WordPress template, inspires me to change mine💡
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    Cheers!

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  47. I think my key to survival 1st year was to accept that my lesson plans were in fact works in progress. Flexibility became key and I always had plan B, C and D in place “just in case. I did however “smile before Christmas”. I was teaching in schools where a hug, kind word or a snippet of ecouragement was often worth more than gold to the kids….the first hint that I had really made a difference was when several of my students cried before Chirstmas Break because they wouldn’t be able to come to school. We need to remember that quite often….teachers are so much more than teachers to many children and young adults.

    Like

    • MARTIE: You are so right about plan B,C, and D. To show Churchill movie. Open cannister- “The Story of Mars Exploration” Notice: Your room commandeered for testing 3 days. Hold class in Gym. One hour later: Gym closed for bleacher repair. To hold P-1 in auditorium, P-2 on Rm 206, P-3 back in auditorium, during P-4 planning period cover for Valdes in Rm 607. P -5,6 in cafeteria. Next two day room assignment TBA. Emer Dept Mtg at 3:00. Parent Conf with mother/ Jeff Wills tomorrow re counselor 6:30 AM.

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      • Soooo true. Yesterday, during the first day of classes, I had a moment where (for a moment), I thought my second class had been relocated as several Economics students started filing in. I kinda freaked out. I didn’t double-check to make certain that my second class was still in the place they had told me it was going to be two weeks earlier. Luckily, they were in the wrong place. But yes, I generally have a plan for those who are A) prepared, those who are B) semi-prepared and C) those who are totally unprepared (which means they cannot participate in any meaningful way so they have to read an additional assignment and provide me with a written response by the end of class). I’m the Queen of Plan A, B and C!

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  48. Keep in mind on the first day: it has honestly never occurred to them that there are 30+ of them and only one of you.

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  49. Wonderful write up about schools… I work in one… I would just like to add- that usually it takes me about a week to forget that summer ever excisted…lol… here in the UK the pupils have been back for a week now…and its like they had never gone away…lol…

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  50. Excellent post. I love reading posts like this… and hi from a New Orleanian!🙂

    Take care and congrats on being freshly pressed!

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  51. How weird that you mention Lord of the Flies, and this is exactly the book I remember people getting bored with when I was a teaching assistant! And once I couldn’t answer a student’s question, and I lost his focus forever. Good thing I wasn’t the one teaching them every day!

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  52. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed AND on being a teacher for 20 years. My mother, grandmother, and great grandmother are all teachers. Thank you for being a teacher!

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  53. Great Post.

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  54. Pingback: Links I like for you « Think of pretty things

  55. You just made people understand how much of a creative art teaching is… so many teachers are going to benefit from this little nudge you’ve given them.

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  56. Creative art? LOL!!! It is, truly. A young teacher has no idea how many Oscar-winning moments he or she will have to go through within the course of his or her career. The personality the student sees of the teacher is often not necessarily what the teacher really is. Over time, a teacher learns to show a “face” that is expected of a professional; but in private, and especially among close friends, a teacher can often be almost an entirely different person. We used to liken ourselves to actors; and the analogy may not be all that far-fetched, LOL!!!

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

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