Advice for Future Educators

I am part of several different teacher groups on Facebook and there are certain types of posts I see every year:

And the list goes on. These are all good questions, but there is one question that always impresses me just a little bit more than the others:

I’m a first/second year education major. What advice do you have for me now, at the beginning of my studies, to help me get the most out of my teacher preparation program?

I love that these future educators are going above and beyond to ensure they get the most out of their preparation time. Education majors are not for the faint of heart, they are a lot of work, and when someone is looking to go the extra mile, and already understands that not everything can be conveyed in a program, that tells me he/she will make a good teacher. Since such a great question deserves a much better answer than a quickly tapped out comment on social media, here are five pieces of advice I would give to future educators.

Work Hard and Learn A Lot Now

If you are the type of student to be asking for advice early, I’m sure you are the type of person who will work hard and learn all you can. That being said, I know how tempting it is to cut a corner here or take the occasional shortcut there. As I acknowledged earlier, education majors are difficult. It’s been a few (ok, more than a few) years since I was an elementary education major, but I still remember staring at a little blurb of an assignment in a syllabus and thinking, “What in the world am I supposed to do?” Let me encourage you to struggle with the assignment and keep working until you figure it out. Please don’t post something on social media, or Google until you find someone else’s solution, and copy or tweak it for your own assignment. Even if you change the response or credit your source so you aren’t committing plagiarism, you won’t learn nearly as much as if you had persevered on your own. Does that mean you can’t ask for help? No, of course not. My classmates and I spent many an hour sitting in library study rooms and dorm lounges kicking around ideas, searching teacher magazines, calling up practicing teachers we knew to pick their brains, and working together to figure things out. The key here was we were truly collaborating, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of various ideas, and expanding our knowledge. Besides helping me to better understand the various theories and methodologies we were learning in class, these discussions helped me understand that no two teachers are alike and that’s OK. I saw how method X worked really well for teacher A, but not as well for teacher B. I learned that the same idea could be applied in different ways by different people and yield positive results each time. I also learned that it’s ok to try something and fail, that my colleagues would be there to help me work through what happened and improve the plan for next time. In short, resist the urge to cut corners or take shortcuts, it will only cost you in the long run.

Plan and Save NOW for Student Teaching

Do most careers have paid internships? Yes. Is it fair that education majors have to pay, rather than be paid, to do their internships? No. Is there anything we can do to change this? No. My advice to you is this: accept reality and move on. You’ll only waste time and raise your blood pressure if you sit and stew over it. More practically, my advice to you is to use the time you have. It always amazes me when I see panicked posts from education majors about to start student teaching and they have no idea how they’re going to support themselves or pay for it. You have at least three years of preparation before student teaching, you know student teaching is a full time unpaid internship, start preparing now. If at all possible, build up your savings so you won’t have to work another job during student teaching. It’s a lot of work and mentally/emotionally draining. I know this isn’t practical for everyone, so if you have to work while student teaching, start positioning yourself with your employer so you can work evenings and weekends only. You aren’t going to be able to student teach part time, and you aren’t going to be able to change the school schedule, so you’re going to have to adapt your lifestyle to the student teaching schedule. The sooner your start thinking about and planning for this the better.

A related sub-piece of advice: do not take a position that allows you to combine your student teaching with your first year of teaching. It seems like the perfect solution: get paid, have a guaranteed job when you’re done, extra experience… very tempting, I get it, but I do truly believe it’s a mistake. Student teaching is an extremally valuable experience and gives you the opportunity to learn things and be mentored in a way that cannot be replaced, no matter what the administration promises you. Are there those who will disagree with me, say they skipped student teaching and would recommend it? Yes, there are. Are there those who skipped student teaching and would agree with me because they regret it? Yes, there are. Ultimately it’s going to be a personal decision, but I truly do believe not doing student teaching will end up costing you in the long run.

Avoid and Ignore Negative People

Every profession has its complainers and education is no exception. I told you I’m part of several teacher groups on Facebook, and there are a lot of negative posts in all of the groups. I love teaching, I’ve been doing it for nearly two decades now, and sometimes all of the negativity gets me down. Protect yourself and your future by surrounding yourself with positive people, not complainers. I’m not telling you to put on rose-colored glasses and only hang out with Pollyannas, there are most definitely some harsh realities about the world of education you need to be aware of, rather I’m saying find the optimistic realists. Find those people who acknowledge the truth about education and the problems within it but take positive action to change the things they can and choose to accept the things they can’t. Sitting around complaining improves nothing, and many things are beyond our influence (such as unpaid student teaching), so rather than focusing on what we don’t like and can’t do anything about, focus on what is good and within our power to change.

Build Your Wardrobe, Not Your Classroom

One of the more common posts I see is in regards to student teachers and new teachers not having anything to wear. After four years of high school and three or more years as a college student, one’s wardrobe tends to be more comfort casual than business casual. My advice: start building your professional wardrobe now. Rather than asking family and friends to buy you classroom supplies, decorations, and/or library books, ask them to buy you clothes and shoes for your teacher wardrobe. As I point out in my post about new teacher classroom supplies, you have no way of knowing what the school will supply, other teachers will give you, or even what you’ll truly want/need in the way of classroom supplies. Also, in a very unpopular opinion these days, you don’t need a Pinterest-perfect themed classroom with a fully stocked library. It is perfectly acceptable to have a “boring” room and utilize the school’s library. What you will need, and can be assured no one at the school will provide for you, is a teacher wardrobe. Start building that now, making sure you have enough professional clothes to go at least two weeks in every season of the year (there will be weeks when laundry just will not happen), and avoiding things that require dry cleaning (you’ll be on a teacher’s salary). Since you don’t know what the dress code of the school you end up in will be, and it’s not unusual to move around your first few years of teaching, I recommend business casual as your minimum level of formality. Schools with less formal (or no) dress codes never have an issue with teachers who choose to dress more professionally, but the opposite does not hold true. I give some specific things to consider regarding clothing in my post about interviewing, and while you’ll likely be less casual in your classroom than for an interview, the general principles still apply. You’ll be standing, moving, and working all day and you don’t want to have to think about your clothing. More professional than less is always the safer choice.

Soapbox moment and unpopular opinion warning…I see a lot of people advocating for teachers to be allowed to dress very casually or however they choose. While I agree that one’s clothing does not make one a better or worse teacher, I do think we should dress in a professionally appropriate manner for our grade and subject area (gym teachers should not be allowed to wear sloppy sweats with holes in them but a dress or suit/tie would not be appropriate either). We are client-facing professionals and we should dress like it. Our society does not treat teachers with the same level of respect they do other professionals (or much respect at all) and this needs to change. One way we can help with this is to present ourselves as the professionals we are by the way we dress. While looks/dress shouldn’t influence what we think about, or how we treat, other people, the sad reality is that they do. So let’s help ourselves, or at least get out of our own way, by dressing for the societal position we want.

Digitally Gather Ideas

As a resource junkie I know that saying, “focus on your wardrobe, not your classroom,” is easier said than done and not nearly as much fun. There are a million fun, cute, and exciting resources and ideas out there and you want them all–I do, too! Please, learn from my mistakes and resist buying them. Instead, focus on building your digital idea files. You know what you will be certified in when you graduate. Start gathering as many ideas as you can for every subject and grade level you’ll be certified in, plus/minus two (high and low achieving students). Save files, links, photos, videos, and any other digital records you can. Organize them in folders by subject/skill and just keep adding to them. (Specifics on how I do this can be found in my Digital Materials Organization post.) This is a free way you can start preparing now and you will be very thankful for it! If you do this, when you sit down to plan out a lesson you will have a wealth of ideas and resources you can use to supplement, extend, deepen, and reteach the material. When planning lessons, the supplementary things are the generally the hardest part. The vast majority of the time the curriculum will help you with the basics and give you a place to start, but it’s the extras that really drive a lesson home and help it stick in students’ brains. Give yourself a leg up in this area and gather ideas now. Will you end up with some that you never use? Yes, but that’s the beauty of doing this digitally–it takes up no physical space and is easy to move.

There are so many more things I could say, but they will have to wait for another day. Again, the fact that you are reading posts like this one tells me you are going to be a good teacher. Keep working, keep learning, and I look forward to seeing you in the room next door to mine some day soon. Happy teaching, everyone!