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Reader Response: What Is the Most Important Thing You Know Now that You Wish You Knew When You Started?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Jennie Wagner — reader of this blog, 7th grade teacher, and Brandisher of Awesome — recently wrote me an email with the following sage advice:

Perhaps you could ask for your readers to write something for a guest page of sorts. You choose the topic and say “Go!” I bet a ton of your readers have some interesting thoughts

I really like that idea, so here's the question that's on my mind lately: How do we better prepare brand new teachers for the work of teaching? Part of it, I think, is through getting much smarter about what understandings we send them into work with. There's probably room to drop some of the “Here, read this Educational Psychology textbook”-style information and add some, “This is a list of the most important things teachers wish they had known when they started”-style stuff.

So, in the comments, make this article amazing by answering one question: What Is the Most Important Thing You Know Now that You Wish You Knew When You Started?


Thank you to Jennie Wagner for this excellent idea. I'm pumped to learn from the readers of this blog.

26 Responses to Reader Response: What Is the Most Important Thing You Know Now that You Wish You Knew When You Started?

  1. Lee June 28, 2016 at 6:55 am #

    I think the most important lesson I learned is that your students are NOT your friends. No matter how nice you are, they are not going to invite you to their birthday parties or to hang out with them. Stop trying to make them like you, and concentrate more on giving students what they really need: a firm, fair leader who will give them the motivation they need to get through the tough material presented. They need a teacher they can respect. And even though you are not their friend, it is still okay to smile.

  2. Joy Kirr June 28, 2016 at 7:50 am #

    Teach CHILDREN first, and the CONTENT second.

    • Minerva June 28, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

      I agree. I read a quote once that says: people will only care about what you know once they know that you care.

  3. Yvonne Taylor June 28, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    The most important lesson I learned is that most discipline/behavior issues have nothing to do with me. Even when they outright disrespect me, they are actually acting out because of something else going on in their lives. When I encounter anger and disrespect, I have the student take a breath and tell me what is going on. I don’t assume I am the one right in the situation. I recognize that something I did, or something that has happened in class has triggered an issue for that student and we talk it out. If we can’t…they leave to calm down, then we talk it out later. Conflict resolution is an important skill needed in life and sometimes the most important lesson of the day.

  4. techreadwriteblog June 28, 2016 at 11:32 am #

    I visit classrooms and often see new teachers working harder than the students. They are answering the questions and modeling everything. The students are just sitting and listening. New teachers need to learn to not be the one doing the “work”. Students have to work much harder than the teacher within the frame of the lesson; they are the ones that need to learn and grow.

    • Minerva June 28, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

      This is a really important one, and a lesson I’m still working to apply.

  5. Joe Collins June 28, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    2 things to focus upon – It is all about vocation and the more you know the more you know you need to learn!Learning the craft of teaching takes considerable time and that it really is an ongoing process, I do not think I was prepared for how humbling teaching can be and that just when you think you have it you learn more about yourself as well as the people in your room. It takes a lot of inner strength to be a teacher and to continue even when you don’t feel the magic happening, this is the vocation side of the work and it is irreplaceable. If you do not feel teaching is a calling don’t go into it you and more importantly those you serve with be disappointed.

  6. Marrissiaj June 28, 2016 at 11:57 am #

    One of the things that I have learned as a new teacher is that it requires consistent reflection , honesty and transparency . Authenticity is essential in the field of education and makes a difference with the students.
    Sometimes you have to be honest about certain preconceived notions about kids, parents and administration and do your best not to let it interfere with your calling .

  7. Maria Lennon June 28, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    Make decisions on what you think students need to master as a result of your class and be true to that. Work backwards creating small lessons that will lead students to that goal. Kids need time to process, practice, and reflect on their learning, before moving on. Sometimes we get stuck in the covering of curriculum and lose track of what really matters. Helping students learn to read, process, and communicate effectively is difficult, hang in there.

    Let kids see your love of learning and they will be inspired.

  8. Janet Pitchford June 28, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

    Be prepared to learn from your students. They are your most important teachers. Also, never, ever stop learning more about your craft from any and every person and resource you can find.

  9. Kathleen Foster June 28, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    Students want and need structure. When procedures and expectations are explicitly articulated and practiced over and over until they meet your expectations, rules become unnecessary.

  10. Desiree O'Leary June 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

    Find a mentor! Someone willing to take you under their wing and show you the ropes. To do this you have to be willing to ask for help. This is a strength, not a weakness! You aren’t expected to know everything when you walk in the first day and you will be continually learning every single day on the job. Having someone to guide you through makes the journey more manageable! (And sometimes they end up becoming your best friend!)

  11. Kimie Carroll June 28, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    Relationships are key, if students know you care about them, it’s off to the moon! However, you are not their buddy or pal, you have enough friends. Students will work as much as you expect them to, set high expectations for all students. Give them time to discuss, purposefully insert higher level questions into your lessons. Finally, admit when you are wrong and be honest and gracious, students respect that. Enjoy the ride, they will teach you as much as you teach them!

  12. Marwa Elnaggar June 28, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

    Being a team player, admin demands and expectations, and “how things have always been done” are all fine and dandy, but you should never let those things get in the way of your students’ learning. You have to learn how to be your students’ advocate. Do what’s best for them and their learning. It’s easy to feel the pressure of doing things the way they have always been done by your predecessors (or even mentors), but while you should always consider expert input and advice, at the end of the day your students are your responsibility. You’re an adult now. You can and should make your own decisions on what you think is best for your teaching, your students, and their learning.

  13. Heath Kelley June 28, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    Great comments here….each of them echo something I have learned myself in my first eight years of teaching. I think it is especially important that we learn to appreciate every child and work to find the hidden gifts and passions they possess. All children are smart. It is just a matter of finding out what kind of smarts kids have and encouraging them to use them with good character.

  14. Wendy June 28, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    How truly consistent one needs to be with regards to classroom management. A couple of rules, consistency, and the desire to get to know your students will take you a long way. As a novice grade 3 teacher, I had a student who had never attended school (home school or otherwise). it didn’t take me long to realize how little I knew about teaching reading. If I knew then what I know now about teaching reading…

  15. Frank June 28, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    Experiment with your teaching – be open to failure. It seems like the weight of the world is on your shoulders when you’re a teacher… I mean, you’re only responsible for making sure our next generation becomes responsible and educated citizens – no pressure! :oP :o) I felt I had to be a perfectionist and spent countless hours lesson planning, afraid to try something that “might not work”. It wasn’t the end of my first semester that I realized all of my effort resulted in horrible lessons anyway haha. The way to grow as a teacher wasn’t to try to stick to “what works”, but to play around and try new things, and yeah, sometimes things fall flat on their faces to the detriment of my students, but on the long run, it made me a better teacher – to the long term benefit of my students. Now if I think of something or learn of some idea on the internet and I ask myself “Should I try this?” Automatically, the answer is YES.

  16. whatsourpurposeblog June 28, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    There is a quote that says, “Think outside the box.” My advice would be to, “Think like there are no boxes.” Be flexible in your approach, in your craft, in classroom management, with your schedule, with your lesson plans, etc. Begin to switch your mindset to being flexible.

  17. Erin June 28, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

    Teaching is a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful black hole. I am very passionate about what I do, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else for work, but teaching will consume every spare second of our time & emotional energy if we allow it. There is always more to learn, more to read, and more to do! You have to fight to keep a balanced life. The first few years are especially rough, because there is SO much to learn. So in a way it does get better. But in many respects, the demands will be there your whole career–from horrible outside mandates to very good desires to improve your practice or help students more. I have been actively fighting to live by the following 2 principles for the last few years: the Good is the biggest enemy of the Great, and Focus on what only you can do (in my case, it’s be a wife to my husband & mom to my kids). When I have time rest, reflect, and build into my family relationships, I am energized and in a better mental state to pour into my students than those periods of my career where I slaved over work until 10pm every night.

  18. Kimberly Means June 28, 2016 at 6:41 pm #

    Two important lessons I have learned in my 20 years in education are these:

    1. We are teaching kids, not numbers. Parents are sending us their most cherished treasures; they are not leaving the best they have at home. We need to remember that every single day.

    2. Design up and deliver down. Task analyzing is one of the most important skills we need to develop to be an effective teacher.

  19. Tyler Madden June 28, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    If you need help, ask, and if you don’t need help, start a conversation or help someone who needs help. Other teachers are teachers best resources. Reciprocity is a very real thing. If you give help, share, and are an awesome colleague, you are going to be surrounded by awesome colleagues actively giving back. I think that’s when teaching becomes really fun.

  20. emmakatetsai June 29, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    I just finished my first year of teaching, and there is so much I could say in response to this. Here are a few: Trust your gut. Do what feels right. Know that you will gain more confidence and it will come easier. The way it is now will not stay the same. As an English teacher, do whatever you can to connect the material to the students and allow them to air grievances. It’s okay if they hate the book, what’s important is that you ask them how they feel. Put your foot down fast and furious and don’t let up. Also be okay with trying a lot of things in classroom management. I believe in the approach of many approaches. Don’t let them get too comfortable. Forgive yourself because some classes are just hard, and would be for anyone. Don’t be afraid to teach–they don’t need to give everything, some things need to just straight up be said. They don’t have to love every lesson, either.

  21. Michelle June 29, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

    Over the years I’ve learned two important things:
    1. I don’t need to grade everything. Some writing should be reviewed strictly to see where my teaching and their writing needs to go next.
    2. When I first started teaching, I felt that I had to be up in the front talking, explaining, showing, etc. I was doing all the work. Now I put most of my time into planning and creating materials. Students do the hard work now. I see this behavior is a few of the teachers I have coached. By the end of the day, these teachers are worn out, and the kids have watched and listened. We then expect them to produce. Students produce good work if they are doing the work.

  22. Rho June 30, 2016 at 10:34 pm #

    Show your passion for your subjects; it’s catching and kids love to shake their heads at that English teacher who’s excited about teaching Shakespeare or Ancient Greek Lit. When I ask my students why they signed up for particular courses, there are four prevalent reasons:
    1. I heard you are pretty interesting and funny.
    2. My brother, sister, friend who took the course said you really care about each student and don’t have favorites.
    3. I am interested in the material in the class.
    4. I really like the way people tell me your class runs; you expect us to work hard but you’re not boring.
    I sometimes hear that they had a friend or relative who was known to be a real pain in the butt, but that I stuck with him or her, and that person was able to graduate, change behavior, get a fresh start, etc.

    Become a teacher only if you can’t imagine doing anything else. The work is harder than you can imagine, especially some of the paperwork that seems only to check off boxes for tasks that have nothing to do with teaching. Develop a strong sense of who you are and how you conduct yourself: you can’t be grouchy, overly sensitive to insult and disrespect, and you can’t be teaching to get love from your students. Be respectful, responsible, and self-motivated to doing your best. There will be good reviews and some not so good and it will have more to do with the “buzzwords” of the year, or the personality and experience level in the classroom of your principal than what you do day after day. Be your own best critic and cheerleader.

    Be the kind of person who easily and honestly admits mistakes. Be able to change the day’s lesson with aplomb. Be able to laugh at yourself and the crazy things your kids will say and do. Keep the best bad writing examples for a private laugh on a bad day. Keep a clean copy of the week’s lesson plans, with all the material you used, and take five minutes at the end of the day to note what went right and what you want to change. Note time needed for different activities. It helps so much the next year as you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Ask for advice from teachers who enjoy teaching and have a positive attitude (at least most of the time!)

    If you decide to keep on with teaching, welcome to the most demanding and rewarding life’s work!

  23. carina_stillman July 11, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    These comments are so inspiring–and I would echo nearly all of them! After 11 years in a large district, I recently moved to work in a tiny district and have re-discovered why I love teaching. Politics, heavy teaching loads, and too many out-side-the-classroom obligations slowly wore me out, and pushing reset was just what I needed. My best advice is to figure out how to create balance so that you continue to love life and work.

  24. Alicyn Guilfoyle July 14, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    On Tue, Jun 28, 2016 at 12:03 PM, Guilfoyle, Alicyn wrote:
    Good morning Dave- Great question…uncomplicated answer. As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I learned quite early in my career that the MOST essential skills to facilitate with our students, patients or clients is resiliency and diligence. Without these two requisite characteristics, regardless of the context, humans are restricted from optimizing their highest potential. Enjoy your summer, Alicyn Guilfoyle, Warwick, NY

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