Advice for New Teachers, From a 40-Year VeteranAugust 11, 2022
2002 California Milken Educator Jane Fung teaches transitional kindergarten at Belvedere Elementary in East Los Angeles and has been an educator for nearly four decades. Although every new teacher will benefit from the advice below, Jane wrote this letter for Omari Groves, the younger brother of one of her long-ago first grade students. Omari was in preschool when Jane first met him, and though he was never officially in her class, he spent a lot of time in her classroom. They reconnected when Omari was a student teacher, and now he's beginning his career in education teaching social studies at Los Angeles Unified School District's Early College Academy. Jane tapped the Milken Educator Network to support Omari as he prepares for his first year in the classroom, connecting him with social studies teacher Aaron Kruger (WY '21) for subject-specific guidance.
Dear Omari (and all new teachers),
I am so excited and thankful that you will be joining the teaching profession. As I prepare for my 36th First Day of School this year, I wanted to pass on some simple lessons I have learned along the way.
Teaching is complex, but it’s not impossible. It will take time to learn the curriculum, standards and subject matter you are teaching. There will always be new lingo, mandates and assessments, but you will learn them. Don’t take on everything at once, choose wisely, and focus on a few things at a time. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher. Mistakes will be made. It’s all part of the process. With practice, you will get better and be a good teacher.
Being the new “kid” on the block can be tough. Advocate for yourself and ask for things you need. You may not get everything you want, but maybe you will. Never be afraid to ask questions when you don’t understand. My favorite high school teacher once told me that when you ask a question, you will not only find an answer for yourself, but you will help others who were just as confused.
Find a friend. It might be intimidating to introduce yourself to the department chair or ask the teacher down the hall for classroom management ideas, but just do it. Teaching is not meant to be done in isolation. Look for the helpers at your school. There are colleagues who are happy to help. You just have to find them if they don’t find you first.
Take risks, be innovative, and think outside of the box. There will be times when the lesson written in the teachers’ guide doesn’t meet the needs of your students or fit your teaching style. Don’t be afraid to change it up. Try to teach the lesson in a different way and make it yours. You know your students best and how they learn.
Sometimes, no matter how well prepared you are, things happen. You are going to make mistakes—many mistakes—but you will also learn from those mistakes. Don’t dwell on “unsuccessful” lessons. Learn from them and move on.
The lessons I’ve learned the most from were the ones I never taught. There are times during a lesson when I realize that most students are not comprehending what I am teaching. Instead of completing the lesson, I just stop. I apologize and tell students that the lesson just isn’t working, so we are going to try something else. Students are not seeking perfection; they need someone who’s honest and cares about them.
It’s just as important to forgive students when they make mistakes. Don’t take their actions personally. We don’t know what may have happened before they come to us or what they go home to after school. We can only control what happens when they are in our classroom. A little understanding and empathy can go a long way in building connections with even the most challenging students.
Be professional and treat everyone with respect and kindness. The school has a history, but your history is unwritten there. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, but being friendly will open doors to build new relationships and trust. A smile and friendly gesture go a long way. Some may tell you that the plant manager/custodian and the SAA (school administrative assistant, or office manager) are the most important people at schools, and they are, but so are the nurse, the cafeteria manager, and the teacher next door. Everyone has strengths you can learn from. Keep an open mind and reach out when you need to. There’s a wealth of experience within your school.
Teaching can be all-consuming, especially in your first year. Meetings, assessments, parent conferences—it can all be overwhelming and stressful. There will always be something you could be doing. The hard part will be knowing when to say no.
Prioritize what needs to be done, but include time for brain and body breaks for yourself. Take time each day for yourself, even if for just a moment. Do five minutes of calm breathing, sit, eat a proper meal or take that evening stroll. I guarantee you that the emails, gradebook and to-do list will still be there when you’re done. Listen to your body and don’t ignore your needs. Get rest, exercise and do things that make you happy. Balance is best. Teaching is not a sprint. Students are counting on you to be there. You need to stay healthy.
Setting long-term goals for your class is great, but get to know who they are first. You will realize that students don’t all start the school year at the same place. It’s important to know where they are currently to plan where to take them next. Take time to acknowledge and celebrate the smaller goals met along the way, while including them in the process of assessing their growth and achievement.
You may already have your classroom expectations set and ready to go, but find a way to involve students in helping create their environment. Students have an idea of what kind of classroom they want to be in. Listen to their ideas and include some of them in creating it. Together, build a vision of what your class culture will be like. You may not agree with everything they come up with and decide to make some compromises, but in the end, they will have buy-in and feel their voices are heard.
Spend the time at the beginning of the year building community and making connections. Get to know who’s in your class and let them get to know you. Look for fun and inclusive activities that will highlight students’ individual personalities, strengths and interests, while also showcasing yours. If you like to sing, sing! If you like to dance, dance! Show students your authentic self, and they will learn to trust and confide in you and show you who they are. You will enjoy teaching more and it will be easier to teach when you are being yourself.
Last, but not least: Have fun!
I was told years ago not to smile until Christmas or I would lose classroom control. Ridiculous! I smile from the moment I greet my students to when I say goodbye. I want my students to know that I want to be there, and that learning is not only valuable, but it can be fun and amazing. In the words of Milken Educator Rick Crosslin (IN ’98), aka The Science King, teach with enthusiasm. When students see that you enjoy what you’re teaching, they will enjoy learning it. As a teacher, you have the power to make learning come alive for students. Don’t hide your love for Harry Potter or your excitement when solving equations. Whatever you love to teach, do it with passion. Students pick up on that and will become just as interested.
As you begin your teaching journey, know that just as your students are unique, your journey in education will be uniquely yours. There is no roadmap to guide your every turn, but always remember what’s most important: the students you teach. You will work hard, never be bored and learn more than you ever thought possible. You will build relationships with students and families that will last beyond the year they are in your class. You have unlimited possibilities to make a difference in the lives of others.
I welcome you. I thank you. I believe in you.
Miss Fung (but now that we’re colleagues I guess you can call me Jane!)
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