3 Truths I Wish I’d Known as a First-Year Teacher

By Lee-Ann Stephens

I walked into my first official day in the classroom as an idealistic twenty something with some innate skills, a boatload of ambition, and a newly minted teaching degree from a program that did its best to school me on theory and practice. But what I couldn’t have known, and what my teacher training program didn’t completely prepare me for, was how much I’d have to learn on the job. When it came time for me to turn the teaching theories I’d learned into real, boots on the ground results, I was in for a schooling of a new kind. I call those early months in the classroom my “Fumbling Through” era.

When it came time for me to turn the teaching theories I’d learned into real, boots on the ground results, I was in for a schooling of a new kind.

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Now nearly three decades later, my rookie learning curve is ancient history. I’ve taught a wide range of subject areas from first grade to high school, and I help other classroom teachers address the racial disparities in education in my current job as a racial equity coach. But even today, I still think about those first days of my career and can’t help but wonder: Can we do better to set new teachers up for success? What skills would have been good to have in my teaching toolbox as I was getting my sea legs?

With the beginning of another school year upon us, and so many new teachers entering the classroom for the first time this month, I wanted to share three things I wish I’d known when the first bell rang on day one of career.

1. Model, explain, repeat.

I wish I’d known from day one that modeling content was such an important and difficult skill. It seems strikingly simple in retrospect, but as a new teacherI didn’t do much thinking about the best way to explore and present an idea and I didn’t always do an effective job of explaining concepts to my classes.  Instead, I “taught” a concept to my students and assumed if I taught it, my students would “get it.” I had my lesson plans and my prompts, and I mostly stuck to them. I also had lots of blank stares. It wasn’t until later in my career that I grasped the significance of knowing content deeply enough to clearly explain and model critical concepts and strategies. Staying one chapter ahead of them simply isn’t enough.

But now, modeling and explaining content is foundational for me. Not only do I explain with words, I show them what it looks like, I look for a variety of ways to model it, and I use multiple examples. I also regularly start a conversation with myself in front of my students, and find it’s one of the best ways to get them engaged. They mirror back to me whatever their understanding of the content is, and I then gauge my next steps based on what I’m hearing and seeing from them.  Effectively modeling and explaining content is a teaching essential and when you get the hang of it, it’s also a little bit of magic.

Effectively modeling and explaining content is a teaching essential and when you get the hang of it, it’s also a little bit of magic.

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2. A quiet classroom doesn’t necessarily mean there’s learning going on.

The ability to lead group discussions is like rocket fuel for student learning. Still, learning how to foster robust, reciprocal ones isn’t something that is standard fare in most teacher training programs. But when I truly embraced the idea that it’s not just okay for students to talk to each other in class, it’s imperative to support learning—my students got a better version of me and my classroom. I’ve learned that students need to have copious amounts of time engaging in conversation. They need to have time to practice listening to one another and speaking.

One of my biggest ‘a-ha’ moments as a new teacher was the realization that students can learn just as much from one another as they can from me, and that they do so primarily through discussions. If I was nervous as a new teacher about having a principal walk into a chatty classroom, I’m not now.  I see it as part of my mission to make those opportunities happen, and to build collective knowledge through student-driven conversations.

One of my biggest ‘a-ha’ moments as a new teacher was the realization that students can learn just as much from one another as they can from me

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3. “Right” answers aren’t always the point, but critical thinking always is.

I wish I’d known from day one that eliciting student thinking is every bit as important as getting them to share the “right answers”—arguably even more so. And that’s because the “right” answers can easily be rote ones. But being able to get a student to share their thinking, to interpret their thoughts, and to interact in the classroom in a critical manner is invaluable.

It’s also not always easy to do. I had to hone my skills in this area through practice, professional development and from reading, reading, and more reading. Today when I coach teachers to develop their own practice in this area, I focus on things like helping them ask open questions, and giving students a platform for thinking critically and drawing on their own knowledge and experiences. I’ve also learned that once students share their thinking, it’s our turn as teachers to think critically about the substance of what we’ve heard, and let that guide our decisions about what would best support their learning.

Once students share their thinking, it’s our turn as teachers to think critically about the substance of what we’ve heard, and let that guide our decisions about what would best support their learning.

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From high-leverage to just standard practice.

There are dozens (even hundreds) of lessons I’ve learned throughout my career, but I’m sharing these three primary ones in the hope that it might spark a greater discussion about the way we prepare for service, and what practices we consider to be a standard part of the teaching skillset. Coming into the classroom with a well-developed ability to model and explain content, elicit student thinking, and foster discussions would have made a world of difference to me as I got my teaching sea legs. Although these are increasingly referred to as “high-leverage practices”, I hope that the consciousness around them continues to grow to the point where they become indivisible from the practice of teaching.  And when that happens, perhaps we’ll be able to better empower new teachers. Here’s to less “fumbling our way through,” and more “hitting the ground running” this school year, and every year to come.

Guest contributor Lee-Ann Stephens has been an educator for 29 years and was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2006. She currently serves as a teacher on special assignment with the St. Louis Park School District in Minnesota.