Dear New Teacher,

From my neighbor’s classroom looking out into the math hall.

Are you going to be teaching for the first time in a few months?  Or, are you switching schools or districts or states? If so, then this letter is for you.  You are no doubt both nervous and excited all at the same time.  You are thinking about what you’ll be teaching, about who your students will be, and about how you’ll decorate your classroom.  While those are all worthwhile ruminations, and necessary for effective teaching and learning, here is a list of what I would encourage you to do in your first few months at your new school:

  1. Learn the Culture of the School.  The biggest mistake I make (even now after teaching 28 years) is seeing things as I am instead of as they are.  If you try to understand the culture of the school, you can avoid more pitfalls.  Your new school is not the same as the one you attended or as the one you were just at, even if it’s the same size, nearby, and with a similar demographic.
  2. Find Your Mentor.  I am not talking about finding a friend. I am talking about finding someone who you can bounce ideas off of and who will give you advice when you ask for it.  (Avoid those who are dishing out unsolicited advice.)  This person will lift you up in the dark times and challenge your assumptions in the easy times.  This person may be assigned to you, or it might be a mentor that you find on your own.  It could be someone in the same department or teaching the same grade, or it could be someone who is on the other side of the building.  It could be someone who has been teaching for a long time or it could be someone who has just a few more years experience than you.  Whatever reason, you gee-haw with this person and they become your mentor.
  3. Ask Questions.  We learn not by answering questions but by asking them.  If you feel you are asking too many questions, you haven’t found the right mentor(s) yet. Reread the paragraph above.  If you feel like you never have any questions to ask, you probably need to rethink your career path.
  4. Pick a System.  Think about every detail of your instruction.  Pick a system that is easy to train your students on bit by bit in the first few weeks of school, and don’t be afraid to modify it as you go.  How I manage things now is an evolution of what has worked in the past combined with new stuff every few years to replace what wasn’t working.  Wong’s The First Days of School is an invaluable resource.
  5. Attend Extra-Curricular Activities.  Ball games, concerts, competitions, plays, drill meets, etc.  This is when you will make real connections with your students, because you will see them in a new light doing something that they are particularly good at (whereas they might not be doing that well in your class).  You can tell them how much you enjoyed watching them perform either right then at the event or the following week at school, and they will truly appreciate it.  You will also make connections with their families, the administrators, and the other teachers.  Being a classroom teacher is isolating.  You will interact with students 95% of the time and adults only 5% of the time.  Getting out to these other events is crucial.

Well, that’s all from me.  I have successfully squandered an hour or so when I might should have been packing up my classroom.

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