Dear New Teacher

In response to Bowman’s call for advice to new teachers, I wrote this letter. I love to talk about teaching, though I’m not sure anyone should really listen to me. I’m still working on knowing what I’m talking about.

When it is ready, I will edit this post with a link to his master collection of the rest of the notes, too. Edit: Here’s the full list.

Dear New Teacher,

First, let’s be honest. You’re going to be pretty bad at this when you start. Everyone is bad at everything the first time they try it. Usually the second and third times, too. Any complex skill requires a lot of time and practice to grow the myelin you need to be a master. Teaching is a pretty complex skill. Or set of skills. You know. Until the perspective offered by being in your second or third (or fourth or fifth) year, you won’t even realize how truly terrible you were when you started.

The good news, though, is that that first paragraph is actually very, very good news. Despite what you are going to hear and read over and over again (other places of course, not here), teaching is not a natural talent. No one is a “natural teacher.” The fact is, everyone is pretty awful at teaching (and every other skill) when he starts. Good teachers do exist. So there must ways to get better. Chin up!

You’re going to be one of those people who gets much, much better at teaching, aren’t you? I thought so. It doesn’t happen naturally, you know. No amount of time is going to make the change happen without some deliberate practice along the way.

You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. When you make one, be excited that you’ve discovered an area that you can start improving. Until you realize you’ve made a mistake, you won’t even know what you need to do better. Make sure your students know that you know when you’ve been wrong. Apologize. Make a plan. Keep working on what you just barely can’t do well yet.

It’s okay to work really hard. Everyone is going to tell you to take time for yourself, to relax, etc. And that’s fine. If you’re serious about getting really good at this, though, you’re going to have to invest a lot of time and energy. And that’s fine, too. Don’t let anyone shame you for committing to something worthy (like getting darn skilled at something).

Make sure you sleep at night, every night. The best way to stay sane and healthy is to keep a regular sleep schedule. Your students would rather have you go to sleep then get their problem sets, papers, or tests back to them one day sooner.

Have the policy that you’d rather have your students go to sleep than get their problem sets, papers, or tests in to you one day sooner.

Speaking of homework, think carefully about what you assign your students to do and why you assign them to do it. Homework for the sake of homework is just a very sad idea. Would 8-year-old you even believe you would do that to students?

Along the same lines, realize that your subject is neither the only thing, nor the most important thing, in your students’ lives. Sorry. Drop the self-importance that is so easy to assume and give yourself the room to look critically at what you’re asking students to do inside and outside of class. Are you asking them to consider questions that are meaningful and relevant? Are you doing only what was done to you?

As much as possible, spend your class time doing things that you can only do when you and your class are together. If a student can make up a missed class by “getting notes” from a classmate, then couldn’t you have just handed out the notes from the start and moved on to something more worthy? Keep and keep and keep asking yourself that question. Keep finding new ways to respond to it through your class work.

Get feedback from your students often. Let them talk to you anonymously through surveys or, um, onymously by giving them space on a quiz or test to write a few words for you. Do formal course evaluations at least twice a year. When you read their feedback, remember that what they write is really about them, not about you. Students aren’t experts on what makes a teacher or a class generally great because they haven’t thought very specifically or critically about that (nor do they probably have the metacognitive skills to do so, yet). Their feedback will give you valuable insights about what the class is doing to and for them. Keep experimenting, and see how that feedback changes.

You will establish routines in your classes whether you mean to do it or not. Try to be intentional whenever you can, and reroute bad routines as soon as you realize they exist. It’s okay to have meta discussions with your students about the way the class works. (Important note: intentional doesn’t have to mean crazily structured with rules.)

Get yourself a binder. And some dividers. If one organizational system doesn’t work for you, keep trying different ones. You need to find a system that works for you. Don’t lose your students’ work.

Different kids need different things. Fair doesn’t mean the same. Every kid deserves to learn the material in your class, no matter how many bad choices they have made on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Don’t let any student feel he can’t recover in your class. Some students will have learning differences. Some won’t come to your class with the same quality of study skills their peers have developed. Some will have been told by family members that they won’t be any good at (or won’t like) your subject. Some will be coping with a family situation that you’ll never know about. Give every student time and support and as many opportunities as they need to learn the material in your class. Even (especially) the ones that occasionally annoy you, frustrate you, or don’t seem to care.

Keep making and fixing new mistakes. I can tell you’re the kind of person who’s going to keep at it until she’s figured it out. You’re going to (eventually) be great!


A teacher working her way toward mediocre

10 thoughts on “Dear New Teacher

  1. “I love to talk about teaching, though I’m not sure anyone should really listen to me. I’m still working on knowing what I’m talking about”…From what I’ve read so far, you’ve put in more thought and know a lot more than most do in decades, so I’d say your well underway!

    I’m spending a lot of time at the moment to make more good mistakes next year 😉

    1. Thank you! 🙂

      One of the best things about teaching is how many chances you get to fix your mistakes. If a day goes poorly, you don’t have to wait long to try a different angle. You usually get the chance the next day! So if you take advantage of it, that creates a pretty quick feedback loop for improvement. 🙂

  2. I’m currently at my last year studying to become a physics teacher (for high school students) and I found your post very helpful and motivating. You’ve made some very important remarks which I think that a lot of physics teachers never consider. I really hope I will already assimilate most of your advice in my first year as a teacher.

    Do you teach other physics subjects apart from mechanics?

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, knowledge and materials with all of us!

  3. Hi Kelly,
    Im a Physics teacher in NC. This is my third year teaching Physics and I’m loving it. Im intrigued by what you mean by modeling instruction. Im always looking for ways to improve my teaching. Do you think that you could tell me what that means or provide me with a link that explains what that is. It may be something that I already do, or a teaching methodology that I am not aware of. Thanks
    Shanee Cowland

    1. Hi there,

      Modeling Instruction is a student-centered, guided inquiry pedagogy that is derived through physics education research. It helps students chunk knowledge the way experts do (in terms of models instead of in terms of types of problems, chapters, or equations). Every unit starts with a paradigm experiment, and all of the knowledge from the unit is derived from experiment (rather than being verified by experiment in the middle or end of a unit). You can read more about the paradigm experiments I use for most of the models in my Model Building posts, but you can learn a lot more about Modeling in general from the AMTA website. Here is an article about it.

      If you haven’t been to a Modeling Instruction workshop, you might be doing something that is Modeling-friendly, but it won’t be quite Modeling Instruction. I highly recommend going to a workshop (a list of ones that will be offered next summer is kept (and added to) on the AMTA website).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s