Twenty Insights Learned from Twenty-plus Years in the Classroom
by Sally Hermsdorfer
If today I worked across the hallway from myself, the newcomer, there are some things I'd take me aside to say.
I was a late vocation to the teaching profession. A 39-year-old brand-new teacher does have the advantage of some built-in credibility; education is probably not the only job where a little gray hair can do its own salesmanship. But if my first class assumed I’d been at it for a while, my gaffes and missteps soon revealed the truth. I’d felt ready to teach, but found out that I also had to be ready to learn. A veteran educator knows that the first few years in charge of a classroom are more profoundly enlightening to the teacher than anything from a university teacher-prep course. Twenty-three years later I’m still glad to have owned up to my inexperience. Twenty-three thousand classroom hours since that first day in Freshman English, I know that kids in classrooms from posh suburbia to the inner city require a lot of the same things from their teachers. I owe so much to the thousands of young people who taught me what they needed most at school. And if today I worked across the hallway from myself, the newcomer, there are some things I’d take me aside to say:
1. You chose this job out of a sense of mission. Your friends will tell you how lucky you are to get off work at 3 p.m., and to have “all summer off.” They will never understand that your seven-hour work day takes 10 of every 24 hours and half of your weekend, so don’t let it bother you.
2. Learn your kids’ names as quickly as you can. And use their names often when you talk to them. Compliment them on the haircut, or the new shoes, or the almost-home-run at yesterday’s game. Just use their names often.
3. Even the best-behaved of your students is going to have an occasional off day. So do you, now and then. Don’t take it personally.
4. Don’t take anything off-kilter that happens in the classroom personally, for that matter. Doctors don’t take their patients’ appendicitis attacks personally.
5. Don’t ever fail to give an apology to a kid when you owe one. It will not cost you that kid’s respect. It will not diminish you in any way. It will vastly elevate you in the child’s eyes, and will teach that student something priceless about human relationships.
6. When you have the respect of your students, and treat them as if you have respect for them, they will behave well for you about 95% of the time. They will also work hard for you about 95% of the time. Yes, they have to earn your respect. But you have to earn their respect at the same time.
7. Forget what somebody once told you about not smiling until Christmas. That’s baloney. When you smile, most of the time your students will smile back at you.
8. Prepare. Prepare for every day, every lesson. Tuck away a spare lesson for a bad day when you didn’t have time to prepare. Don’t fake your way through a class; even your slowest student will see through that in a heartbeat. Don’t come unprepared and just call it a “free day.” An idle mind truly is the devil’s workshop, and you’ll find that out the first time you give a free day. And here’s how that day will be described at home: “My teacher never teaches us anything.”
9. You can either be your students’ new best friend, or you can be their teacher. You don’t get to have it both ways. Remember which side of the desk is yours.
10. Don’t read the newspaper at your desk, play solitaire, talk or text on your cell phone, or otherwise ignore your students while they’re working at their desks. Ever. This is disrespectful to them. And they will misbehave while you’re occupied with the crossword puzzle.
11. Students know when they’re getting away with bad behavior. They will resent it when you can’t control their classmates—or when you can’t control them. Deal with bad behavior quickly, quietly, and move on immediately. And do it yourself; sending a kid to the office should always be a last resort.
12. Don’t argue with students; arguing is done between equals.
13. Pray for the kid who is acting out in your class. That kid is hurting for some reason. Your prayers may not change the kid, but they will change the way you deal with the kid. And often that will be enough.
14. Resist the temptation to penalize the class for the misbehavior of a few. It may be emotionally satisfying, but only for a minute or so. And it’s a rotten stunt that will very quickly make matters worse for you.
15. Make the heroic decision to leave your own bad day or troubles at home when you come to school. The students are bringing in their bad days and troubles at home, and somebody has to be the grown-up in your classroom. Things work better when the grown-up one is you.
16. Clean off your desktop before you have a parent meeting, especially
if it’s going to be a bad news session. Parents will not look at stacks of paper on your desk and think, “Oh, that poor thing—so overworked.” They will think, “This scatterbrain has the nerve to give my kid an F?” Cram the clutter in a drawer if you have to, but make your desktop tidy. Keep some wet wipes in your desk for a quick dusting job.
17. Parents find bad news about their children more frightening than just about anything else. They will react with panic and sometimes will lash out at you. There’s a gut-level fear of what they see as your power over their kid’s future; if you retaliate while the parent’s adrenalin is surging, the situation will tank before you know it. React with quiet, listen to the rant until it’s done, and take a deep breath before you answer: “Wow, that must have been hard for you to say. I’m so glad you told me. It’s a good thing you came (or called) to talk.” This defuses the tension they feel, and from then on you will be able to talk—about the student, not about the parent’s anger.
18. Don’t gossip about your colleagues. Not to parents, not to students, not to other teachers, not to anybody. Stay classy.
19. Be kind to the secretaries and the maintenance staff of your school. Learn their names, and be respectful of them and of their time. Thank them. They can make your work life wonderful, or they can make it miserable. The choice is pretty much yours.
20. Make your students work hard, and relish their complaints. They will admire you for making them be smarter, and some day they will tell you that.
Sally Hermsdorfer has been a teacher and a principal with the Diocese of Memphis schools for 23 years. She is currently principal at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School in Memphis, TN.
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