Helpful Resources for Students

Helpful Free Resources
Free Games To Practice English

One of the most frequent requests I get from students, especially now that I’m teaching mostly adults, is for resources they can use to practice English on their own. Understandably, since they are paying a fair amount of money for classes and books already, my students are most interested in free resources. In early 2021, I shared some resources I’ve made for students in the posts Student Reference Tools and New Resources for a New Semester. I brought most of these reference links and downloads together into two posts, each with the resources specifically geared toward the curriculum we use (Pathways by National Geographic, Listening/Speaking and Reading/Writing). This week I’d like to share with you two of the resource lists I use for more general requests. These lists are not tied to any specific curriculum and are broader in their application. The resources included in these lists would be appropriate for upper elementary through adults, with a few being applicable to lower elementary as well. You can see previews of each resource to the side here and the link to download the PDF file is below each image. Let’s get into some details about each file.

Helpful Free Resources

This compilation contains links to ten different resources for all different types of helpful sites.

  • Word Hippo–an extremely helpful online dictionary/thesaurus (also an app) that also includes pronunciation, translation, and word form options
  • Khan Academy–not just for math anymore, there’s a great section for grammar learning and practice
  • DuoLingo–a free website/app for learning English, particularly helpful phrases and basic vocabulary
  • KnightCite–helpful for citing references in MLA, APA, or Chicago format while writing
  • ESL Cyber Listening Lab–listening activities with comprehension exercises
  • Read & Write–an extension that will read websites and online documents aloud in the Chrome browser
  • Creating Recordings–two different options for when students need to create a recording or video
  • YouTube Channels–three different channels great for learning and reviewing grammar, vocabulary, and more

Each of the ten resources includes a link to the website, links to the app in the Google Play and Apple stores (where applicable), a brief description of why it is useful, and a logo or picture to help students ensure they’re in the right place (especially when they can’t use the direct link for some reason and try to locate the site by name).

Free Sites to Play English Practice Games

Practicing anything is more fun if it can be done in a game format. There is also a growing amount of research supporting the idea that we learn more through play than study alone. It is no surprise that my students prefer to play games rather than complete workbook style exercises, so I’ve compiled this set of eight sites to allow them to do just that. Some of the sites are geared more towards younger learners but my students haven’t minded. We have a good relationship and they know from our time in class that I respect them. Once again, each of the eight sections provides a link to the website, links to the app in the Google Play and Apple stores (where applicable), a brief description of the site (including if it is geared toward children), and a logo or picture to help them identify the correct site. The included sites are:

  • Jeopardy Labs–Jeopardy games to practice just about anything
  • MES Games–games aimed more towards children for practicing vocabulary and basic grammar
  • Educa Play–great for older learners to practice vocabulary and grammar
  • English Club–organized into sections for grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation and geared toward older learners
  • Review Game Zone–more difficult to navigate with older style games but still free and useful for practice
  • ESL Games+— definitely aimed at children with games for basic vocabulary and beginning grammar
  • Quizlet–make your own vocabulary sets or use the premade ones, also an app
  • Free Rice–practice English and help feed the world’s hungry through a partnership with the World Food Program, also an app


Since students need to be able to click the links, distributing paper handouts wouldn’t be nearly as helpful as providing the PDFs digitally. For this reason, I place them in our Blackboard class (or Moodle, Google Classroom, Padlet…) so my students can download the files for use whenever they need. My students have really appreciated the PDFs and tell me they’ve enjoyed being able to practice on their own. They were frustrated by not knowing if they could trust the sites they found to be accurate in the information and answers they provided and this relieved that stress. While there are many other excellent free resources in existence, I chose to keep the lists short so as not to overwhelm students and these are the ones I found myself recommending most often. I hope your students will find it as helpful as mine have. Happy teaching, everyone!

Morning Bell Work

One of my education professors used to stress the importance of keeping students focused in relation to classroom management. She used to say, “If you don’t have a program running, put on a commercial or the students will air their own show and it’s guaranteed to be a drama.” I very quickly learned she was absolutely correct, and the time of the day students were most likely to get off track was the beginning of class.

It doesn’t matter which subject or grade I am teaching, it doesn’t matter if it is first or third period, the first few minutes of class are always some of the busiest and most chaotic. The best way I’ve found to deal with this, and to prevent my students from starting with drama straight away, is to have a very regimented program for them to follow. This was never more true than the year I taught a self-contained middle school class for beginning English language learners. Teaching middle and high school is rough when class starts badly, but at least it’s generally limited to 40-55 minutes and then you get a reset. On the other hand, elementary teachers know how hard it can be to get through a full day of school when things start off on the wrong foot. By the time I taught the self-contained middle school class, I had been away from the elementary model for well over a decade and had forgotten some of the more important routines. I’d become lazy about things such as bell ringers and some classroom procedures. It only took a week or so to remember why they were so important and I quickly hit the reset button, developed a whole new set of routines and procedures, and spent a week teaching them to my students. The one that I spent the most time on was our morning routine, bell work being the cornerstone of it.

I settled on a standard list of tasks students needed to accomplish every day. Students could choose the order in which they did them, but all needed to be completed by a specific time, usually about thirty minutes after the start of school. The next thirty minutes we spent going over various parts of the work, as I’ll describe below. Since I was teaching all subjects, I used this time as an opportunity to practice foundational skills (most of my students had large gaps in their education) and vocabulary. Our standard list consisted of:

  • Math Fact Practice: I used the free version of XtraMath for this. Students had to complete their daily practice, which the site personalized to them based on their initial assessment and previous work. As students progressed through the various fact families and skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), we tracked their progress and they earned rewards such as extra screen time, alternative seating choice, and homework passes. I could access their progress and participation reports at any time online, making my job a lot easier.
  • Math Vocabulary Practice: This was a journal I’d printed and students kept in their math folders. Each week had a single vocabulary word as the focus. Each day the students would complete a single problem related to the target word. The vast majority of the problems were word problems, which gave further review of math vocabulary, and much needed practice with word problems in general. I started out using the seventh grade version, but the gaps in my students’ education were too great to complete the problems independently. I quickly switched to the third grade version, allowing them to do the work independently and fill in some of the gaps we weren’t able to address during our regular grade level math lessons. During our thirty minute work review session, one student would be responsible for going over the day’s problem. This meant that if a student made a mistake, or didn’t understand the problem, he/she had the chance to correct it, or copy it, from the board. As students were discussing the answer, I observed to be sure students weren’t consistently doing nothing and simply copying the answer every day. Every Friday I’d collect the journals and do a quick spot check to be sure they’d completed that week’s work.
  • Language/Grammar Practice: This was a half sheet of paper I’d place on their desks before they arrived each morning. I made a full week’s worth of copies each Friday, usually from an Evan-Moor Daily Language Review book. One student (different from the math vocabulary student) would be responsible for going over the answers to each day’s review sheet. That student was also responsible for collecting the papers and placing them in our “I’m finished” box for me to do a quick check later. Once again, I observed and walked around the room making spot checks to be sure students were making and effort to complete the sheet and not simply waiting to copy the answers from the board.
  • Reading Practice: This was another sheet I placed on their desks each day before they arrived, and again I generally copied it from an Evan-Moor book, this time Non-Fiction Reading Practice. Occasionally I’d use a different text from NewsELA or CommonLit, something specifically related to what we were learning in science or social studies, but not always. Once again, a different student was assigned each day to go over the answers to the comprehension section and collect the papers for me to look over later while I made spot checks of student work.
  • Writing Prompt: Even though it almost never changed, I always listed the daily morning tasks to be accomplished on the board. The one part of this list that changed daily was the writing prompt. Students had their own personalized journals (notebook paper folded in half and stapled inside wallpaper covers) in which they wrote their responses. Each Friday I collected their journals and looked over their entries, giving quick feedback on specific grammar, punctuation, or other writing conventions we’d been discussing in our ELA lessons.
  • Academic Vocabulary: On Monday students would receive their graphic organizer for the week and I’d put up the first word’s card. Each day I’d add a new card to our vocabulary clipboards (half page clipboards located next to our word wall). Students were responsible for copying the definition from the display card, reading my example sentence, and writing one of their own. During our work review time, I’d randomly call on several students to share their sentences and we’d discuss the day’s word, adding its card to our word wall. Each Monday, at the end of our review time, students would complete the vocabulary quiz for the previous week’s words.

This routine ensured students knew exactly what to do upon arrival to my classroom each day and got our days off to a positive start with an immediate focus on learning. An hour of each day (30 minutes to work, 30 minutes to go over the daily checks) seems like a lot of time to “lose” on morning/bell work, but it was far from wasted. Students reviewed a lot of important skills, worked to fill in gaps in their academic knowledge, and practiced leading a group and speaking skills. I had the opportunity to take care of things such as attendance, get in some student conferencing, and answer a lot of questions about various subjects. During work time, I also made sure to meet with each student who would be going over the answer(s) to either the math vocabulary problem, language/grammar practice, or reading practice. This ensured he/she was confident in his/her answers, and would give the correct answer(s) to the rest of the class. Being the person in charge of of going over a particular item was a highly sought after thing, and students would often argue over who got to take someone’s place if he/she was absent. My principal was always impressed at how smoothly things went and how confident my students were in front of a group, despite their low proficiency with English.

When I don’t teach a self-contained class, I still start with some type of bell work. Almost all of my classes do the academic vocabulary work, and the others vary based on class focus. Some classes focus more on writing, others on reading, and still others on grammar. No matter what the focus, even the shorter time (usually 10-20 minutes) yields the same benefits. I would highly encourage any teacher, no matter the subject or grade level, to consider what type of “assignment” would make a good start to your class. Happy teaching, everyone!

Alternative Seating

Alternative seating is not something I learned about in school, university, or even student teaching. When I was going through all of those stages, classrooms had very limited seating options. There were carpets in the lower grade classrooms, elementary desks (the kind that the top lifted up and you kept your books inside), upper grades desks (the kind with a wire basket under the seat for your books), lab tables with stools, and that was about it. So alternative seating was something I learned through trial and error.

Alternative Seating Fails

As I’m sure you know by now, or will soon learn, not everything you try in your classroom will be a success. I have certainly had my share of, “This was a much better idea in my head,” alternative seating moments! Here are some of the things that did not work in my classroom:

Scoop Chairs

These chairs may work fine with the youngest students, but my students found Scoop Rockers to be incredibly uncomfortable. I tried to get the largest, strongest scoop chairs I could find, but they just didn’t make the cut. Even my third and fourth graders declared them too small and uncomfortable.


Stools were also not a hit with my students, especially my middle schoolers. While they all thought they were great in concept, and even helped write the request for funding, the students quickly abandoned using them after they arrived. We tested several different types: adjustable height wobble stools, stackable round stools, and rectangular metal stools. They were all fun for a time but very quickly students started complaining about their backs getting tired and starting to hurt. Everyone agreed: if they are going to sit on something for any length of time, it needs to have a back to lean against.

Tire Chairs

This one was such an epic failure that it never even made it into my classroom. I’d seen cute pictures of chairs made from old tires and lots of videos about repurposing old tires into chairs and thought it’d be a fun addition to my classroom. I very quickly learned several things: old tires are not easy to come by, it is nearly impossible to get them clean enough to work with, and the DIY directions are much more complicated than they look. While I have no doubt there’s a person out there with more talent and patience than I have who can make this work, I did not want to put in the effort required or risk not getting it clean enough and having some student ruin his/her clothing.

Alternative Seating Successes

I’ve had plenty of other alternative seating failures, but those were my three largest. The good news is that I’ve had far more successes than failures. Here are some options my students have loved.

Bungee Chairs

One year the PTA had some extra funds and gave teachers the opportunity to submit proposals for their classrooms. I told my students that if they completed the proposal form, I’d submit it on their behalf. Bungee chairs were one of the things they asked for and received. I will admit that when I saw them my first thought was, “Those look like the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever seen.” My students loved them though and would fight over the chance to sit in them for the entire class period, even going so far as to pull them up to our group tables for whole class instruction time. One day I was tired and told them if they didn’t stop fighting, I would take the chair and sit in it so none of them could use it. Being middle schoolers towards the end of the day, they didn’t stop fighting and I ended up with the chair. By the end of the class period I was so convinced I looked for and bought myself a bungee desk chair (that I still use and love years later).

Saucer Chair

The other thing the students requested in their proposal was a couple of saucer chairs. These were highly sought after as well but this time I wasn’t surprised. Many of my friends had papasan chairs when we were children and I loved sitting and napping in them. The saucer chairs my students chose were perfect because they were foldable and easy to move around the room. These too were dragged up to our group tables for whole class instruction time, making for some very crowded tables!

Body Pillows

My reading corner consisted of an area rug and a bunch of pillows. One year I tossed a body pillow with a fun colored cover into the reading area just for fun. It quickly became the most popular pillow in the reading area. Sometimes students would take it out of the reading area, toss it on the floor somewhere, and lay on it during independent work time.

Arm Pillows

Another popular option, especially in classrooms with carpeting, were arm pillows. Most of the time they lived in our reading corner, but they tended to travel around the room as well. When working in small groups, one group would inevitably grab all of the arm pillows and move to a different corner of the room, leaving the regular pillows for whatever group was in the reading corner. They were also a hot commodity during independent work time because students could put their phone in the small side pocket and listen to music while they worked in a corner by themselves.

Short Table & Cushions

I mentioned this option in my post about Out of the Blue Favorite Classroom “Supplies.” I rescued a short table from a trip to the dumpster one year and it quickly became a popular place for students to work on their computers, or when they needed to write and use a textbook at the same time. Students would sit on chair cushions and my last class of the day would simply toss them on top of the table so the custodians could easily sweep around and under the table.

Tall Table & Chairs

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, another popular option was the counter height table and chairs. What always made me laugh was it was my shortest students, often those whose feet couldn’t reach the chair’s foot rest, who were most attracted to this table. This was easily the most expensive option and we only had one because it was donated by a family who was returning to their home country. If you want something similar, you might see if someone is getting rid of a tall dining room table set. Such a set would also allow for small groups to work around the table.

Teacher Desk

The final option was one that surprised me greatly, an old teacher’s desk. It had been placed in my classroom because I was supposed to be assigned an assistant that year. She quit to take another job very early in the year and was never replaced. One day during independent work time a student just sat at the desk. The next day another student chose to sit there. Very soon it was one of the more sought after locations to work. To this day I have no idea why an old metal desk was so popular, but they enjoyed it and it was free!

Do I think alternative seating is a necessary thing? Absolutely not, especially if you have to fund it yourself and are just starting out. It will never make my list of recommended classroom supplies, but it is fun to play around with if the opportunity presents itself. Whatever you end up doing in your classroom this year, I hope you have a great one. Happy teaching, everyone!

Back to School Activities — Ice Breaker Alternatives

It’s the end of July, and that means teachers in the USA (and other parts of the world) are starting to plan their first day/week activities for the school year. If you, like me, hear the words, “Let’s do an ice breaker.” or “Let’s do a get-to-know-you activity.” and want to run for the hills, then this post is for you.

If you, unlike me, love ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities, may I suggest that you consider mixing some of these alternatives into your routine as well? While I agree that getting to know our students is important, relationship building is the key to a successful classroom environment, I’m not convinced that ice breakers and get-to-know-you activities are the way to go. Some students, especially older newly arrived students (be they newly arrived from another country, state, city, or even school across town), want nothing more than to blend in and be accepted as one of the group. Many students, newly arrived and not-so-newly-arrived, need time to become comfortable with new people/groups before being able to open up, even about seemingly inconsequential things. Thus the dilemma: how do we get to know our students, build a positive classroom environment, and have a smooth/fun transition back to school? I have a few suggestions.

When I first started teaching, I couldn’t imagine “wasting” an entire day, week, or even longer teaching routines and procedures. I quickly learned this time is far from wasted and I couldn’t afford NOT to invest it in these activities. Thus, on the first day of ever class, the first thing I do is start teaching routines and procedures. I then like to start trying to get a sense of where my students are at academically. While reviewing previous grades and administering pre-tests have their value, I don’t think it gives me the best reading of students’ actual abilities. Too many students are nervous when they know they’re being assessed and this leads to inaccurate data. Instead, I prefer to get students engaged in a game or other fun activity that allows me to observe and get a sense of their speaking skills, as well as their reading and possibly even writing abilities. In no particular order, here are five of my go-to first week of school activities that allow me to practice routines/procedures with students, have some you-don’t-have-to-reveal-anything-about-yourself fun, and start to get a sense of where they are at academically.

Silly Shorts

I wrote a complete blog post about this game in April of 2021, and it is always a hit with my students. I love it as a first week of school activity because it can be used with any age or proficiency level (remember, I teach ESL) student. It doesn’t take more than one or two turns for students to start to relax, and before they know it everyone is laughing and having fun. There is no reading or writing required, but it an excellent way to get a feel for students’ speaking abilities, sentence level grammar, story formation skills, and general vocabulary.

Mr. Potato Head

This descriptive writing activity is so much fun (students frequently request to do it again) and it gives me the opportunity to assess students’ writing skills, vocabulary, and get them practicing several different classroom routines/procedures (individual work time, materials passing out and returning, handing in work…). This is also a great first week of school activity because it can take as little as one block class period, or as many as three to four classes to complete. Get the full details in this blog post from January of 2021.

Proverbs from Around the World Game

This board game is especially popular with my intermediate to advanced immigrant students, and would be great for a world history, geography, or other social studies class. The goal of Proverbs from Around the World is to be the first player to reach finish. Players advance by reading a proverb and explaining, in their own words, what the proverb means/teaches. The game includes 40 different proverbs cards, so there is no fear of students having to repeat a previous student’s answer. My students always get excited when they find a proverb from their home country/language. They also enjoy discussing similar proverbs they know to those on the cards.

Paraprosdokian Board Game

Paraprosdokians are figures of speech in which the second part of the sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected, causing the reader/listener to reevaluate their understanding of the first part. They are often quite humorous as well. In this game, students read a paraprosdokian and then have to, in their own words, explain why it is surprising or unexpected. It’s a great way to give students lengthier, unscripted speaking practice and the linguistic complexity of these figures of speech provides enough challenge for advanced English language learners and native speakers alike. The surprising nature of the sentences never fails to get students laughing and talking amongst themselves.

Oreo Science & Math Madness

This is the most academically focused of the five activities, but it is so much fun my students never notice they are reviewing a lot of important skills. Many of my students struggle with creating their own graphs, as well as communicating in written form the data presented in a graph. The activity is cross-curricular and involves students in the full writing process, as well as speaking, data collection, graphing, and drawing conclusions. When we do the full activity, it takes us two weeks and they get a review of the scientific method as well as fraction, decimal, percent equivalents and conversions. If you don’t want to spend two weeks on this activity, it’s a lot of fun to simply brainstorm different ways to eat an Oreo (my students and I highly recommend actually trying each out) and then having students conduct a survey of their friends and family. You can create the graph as a class and easily complete the activity in two days.

Whatever activities you choose to use for the start of the school year, I hope you have a good one! Happy teaching, everyone.

Out of the Blue Favorite Classroom “Supplies”

I am a big proponent of NOT buying a lot of stuff for your classroom, especially as a novice teacher. I also recognize that I’m a bit of a hypocrite in this area as I have A LOT of teaching materials and love getting new things for my classroom. Some things I’ve purchased, tried, and not been impressed with. Other things get the job done but never become favorites.

What I’d like to share with you today are some of the things I’ve used over the years that have become absolute favorites for one reason or another. I hesitate to call them supplies, as you don’t actually need any of them (the only “must have” classroom supply is a dedicated teacher), but they are all great for one reason or another, as I’ll explain. So, in no particular order, here are ten of my favorite out of the blue classroom “supplies.”

Stikki Clips

Over the years I’ve had classrooms with all different types of wall surfaces: painted brick, unpainted brick, painted cinderblock, unpainted cinderblock, poured cement, sheetrock… What they all had in common was a prohibition against damaging them in any way, shape, or form. Stikki Clips have been my best friend for hanging things on all of these walls. These wax clips go up easily, remove cleanly, and are reusable. For larger, heavier objects, I simply used more clips.

Lava Lamp

One year, for who knows what reason, I decided to put a lava lamp on my desk. I turned it on when I arrived in the mornings and it would be warmed up and moving by the time students arrived. After students left for the day, I’d turn it off for the night. What I never expected was effect it would have on my students, and even myself. There’s something very calming about watching the bubbles in the lamp form and rise to the top. Even my most energetic students would settle and be more focused after a few minutes of watching the lamp in action. There were even times I caught myself just sitting and watching the bubbles for a few minutes during my prep period, lunch, or after students had left for the day.

Lego/Puzzle Tables

One year I had a couple of extra tables and several extra chairs in my classroom. Since I always get new students as the year goes on, I set them up against the back wall of the classroom to start the year. When the first day of school rolled around, the classroom wasn’t 100% finished (yes, it’s ok if your classroom isn’t done the minute school starts), and apparently as I was putting things away the day before I’d left a jig saw puzzle on one of the tables and a pail of Legos and some baseboards on the other. At some point during the first day of school, a couple of students indicated they wanted to work on the puzzle. When I said yes, they happily dumped it out and started putting it together. Later, a couple of other students sat down and started building something out of Legos. I never did get around to putting those items away and the two “centers” became popular places for students to relax when they had free time.

Teacher Rug

The majority of my career has been spent in middle school classrooms, so carpet time wasn’t something we did. I’ve also spent a lot of my career teaching in older buildings with cement floors. One year I decided to cover up some damage to the floor in front of my whiteboard with an area rug. It wasn’t long before I noticed that my feet and knees didn’t hurt nearly as much as they had in years past. The difference that industrial carpet rug made was tremendous and I’ve tried to put one over the areas I stand/walk the most ever since. They do make specific mats for cushioning your feet, and I’ve heard good things about them (my father has them in his workshop and swears by them), but I’ve always liked the homier look of the area rugs.

Low Table / Cushions

Another year the custodian was throwing out a low table and he mentioned how it was too bad a perfectly good table was going to waste. On a whim, I told him I’d take it and he moved it to my classroom. Having no idea what I was going to do with it, I put it to the side of my classroom and just waited for inspiration to strike. The next day, a couple of my students took their computers over, sat them on the table, sat on the floor in front of them, and started to work. A couple days later, they did the same thing, this time grabbing pillows from our reading area on which to sit. That evening I stopped by the store and picked up some seat cushions, tossing them around the table when I came in the next morning. That table and cushions became one of the most popular locations for independent and small group work in my classroom.

Wallpaper Sample Books

Did you know that wallpaper sample books are generally thrown out every few months or so? I heard this and went by my local Sherwin-Williams store to ask about it. Turns out it is true and, if you ask the manager of the store, they will give them to you for free. After the managers at my local store got to know me, they started saving them for me. Wallpaper is more durable than construction paper and makes great covers for journals and other paper books. My students also loved using it in projects because there were so many more colors and patterns to choose from than construction paper.

Hanging Shoe Organizer

I stopped fighting the, “Why don’t you have a pencil?” battle long ago. I now issue every student his/her own pencil case filled with several pencils, pens, erasers, etc. My only rule is the case has to remain in my classroom (and if you run out of, or lose, your pencils before I replace them you are stuck with golf pencils until then). I have also issued students with their own sets of earbuds for use in my classroom at various times. While this generally solved my, “I don’t have a _____!” problem, it didn’t solve the problem of how to organize/store everything. My answer to that ended up being hanging shoe organizers. I started with the basic pocket form, but found that not everything fit easily inside of them. That was when I found organizers with larger, and more sturdy, sections for shoes. These worked perfectly. I labeled each section with a student’s name and he/she was able to grab his/her supplies at the start of class and quickly put them back at the end.

Hanging File Organizers

Trying to organize all of the papers that come across our desks is a never ending challenge! I finally settled on a system using hanging file folders. I’d have one row for each subject/period of the day and one column for each day of the week. On Friday, I’d make all of my copies for the next week and place them into the folders for the day I’d need them. It was then easy to grab the Wednesday third period folder at the start of that class and everything I’d need would be right there (and if I changed plans, I could just as quickly grab the needed folder from the row). It was also easy to toss in announcement fliers, notes for specific students, and even make up work–meaning I’d be reminded to pass out whatever it was when I opened the folder at the start of the class period. The last column was for paperwork that related to staff meetings, department meetings, and other general school business. This was an easy solution to my outgoing paper problem, and did not take up an inch of my very limited desk space.

Storage Cubes

As an ESL teacher, I taught five to six different classes every day. Elementary teachers know how hard it can be to keep supplies for that many different preps organized! The system I settled on was to have a storage cube for each class. At the beginning of a unit, I’d bring all of the various physical materials (task cards, games, manipulatives, etc.) I’d need from home and load up the storage cube. The cubes were all in an organizer next to my desk for easy access. As I used the material, I’d toss it in a tote to take home with me each night or week and be put away in my supply area. The system worked great–I always had what I needed and never had to waste time looking for it because it was in the labeled storage cube. One note: I learned the hard way that not all storage cubes are the same. The cheaper ones you can find at Dollar Tree and other stores do not last nearly as long. It is worth the money to invest in nicer cubes.

Rolling Milk Crate

As any specialist teacher knows, you don’t always get your own classroom. I have been the teacher who changes locations every 30-45 minutes. I’ve also been the teacher who has to travel between multiple buildings in a single day. This milk crate organizer was a lifesaver for me! I had enough room to put teaching materials, files, and books in the center section. The pockets kept all of my pens, sticky notes, and various other small supplies organized. The wheels saved my back and, as long as I didn’t overload it, it lifted in and out of my car easily while keeping things from spilling all over as I drove. I still use it from time to time when I have to take large or heavy materials back and forth to the college and adult classes I teach now.

As I said, none of these are “must have” classroom items. They are simply things that I’ve used over and over again, things that either made my job easier or my students really enjoyed. If you’re looking to try something new, or already have all of the basics, you might give one of these items a try. Happy teaching, everyone!

Advice for Novice Teachers

When I started teaching in 2000, I was told I’d be considered a novice teacher for the first three years. Personally, I think it was more like five years before I started to feel like I had some idea of what I was doing. Every year about this time I see posts from novice teachers (first year, second year, third year…) asking for advice on every aspect of teaching, many simply asking, “What advice do you wish someone had given you?” Since this is a much bigger question than can be answered in a social media comment, I’d like to try and answer it today.

Breathe and take one day at a time

Teaching is a very overwhelming job and it feels as though everything needs to be finished yesterday. It is easy to get caught up in the rush and chaos. The truth of the matter is that it will all be fine in the end and very few things actually require immediate answers, responses, or actions. Figure out what needs to be done, prioritize the list, start at the top, and do the best you can. Everything that truly needs to get done will (and the things that don’t get done will likely have very little impact on your classroom).

My Teaching Aphorism

An aphorism is a short saying that gives advice or sums up a larger principle. My teaching aphorism is, “Do what you can for who you can when you can.” Remember that list of things to do I just mentioned? Here’s another hard truth: you will never finish it. There will always be something else to do and someone else to help. And a further hard truth: you can’t do it all and you can’t help everyone. So, “do what you can for who you can when you can,” and let the rest go. It is not your job to solve all the problems of the world, the school, your class, or even the student standing in front of you. Deal with what is yours to deal with (things directly related to your classroom), familiarize yourself with resources available at your school and in the community, refer students as needed to those who can help with specific problems, and then let it go. Much easier said than done, but absolutely necessary if you’re going to make the long haul.

“I don’t know” is not a forbidden phrase

I know I started my teaching career before Google was popular (it’d only been in existence for two years), but this piece of advice still holds true–even in our “Google it!” world. Students will ask questions you do not know the answers to, even questions for which you probably should know the answers. Do not panic when (notice I said when–not if) it happens. Just admit that you don’t know and, depending on the question, either promise to find out and get back to the student, challenge him/her to find the answer and get back to you, or simply move on. Google it later if your curiosity won’t let it go, but don’t waste valuable class time on distractions that don’t advance student learning. No one knows everything and it’s good for students to see an adult who is honest and willing to admit when he/she doesn’t.

It’s OK to say, “No.”

There is no law against using the word no. There’s also no law requiring you to always explain why you said, “no” (or any other answer). When possible and reasonable, I do explain why I am giving a particular answer to a question, but there are times when it is not possible or reasonable and I need students to simply accept my answer at face value. Students are much more willing to do this because they know I do not lie to them, I will admit when I don’t know something (see above), and I’ll also admit when I’m wrong (see below).

Learn to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry.”

When (again, not if) you make a mistake or do something wrong, admit it. It does not diminish your credibility or cause students to respect you less, rather it does the opposite. It also provides them a model to follow for when they make mistakes. Students need to see that adults can be wrong sometimes, too, and that we can admit it and apologize. You are human and you will make mistakes. The question is, can you admit it when you do?

Ask for help

Just as apologizing is not a sign weakness, asking for help is also a sign of strength. You are a novice teacher, everyone in the building knows it, and no one in the building expects you to know what you are doing (at least not all of the time). Find some more experienced teachers and pepper them with questions. You are not a burden, we are happy to help. I will say this though, it is nice when you do this in a considerate manner. Ask, either verbally or in an email, “Do you have some time to answer a few questions for me?” I would be shocked if your colleague said, “No.” And, quite frankly, if he/she does refuse to help, you didn’t want that person’s help anyway. Oh, and by the way, we experienced teachers do this too–I just texted a teacher friend last week to ask her a question about something in which she is more experienced than I am. One other side note on this–experienced teachers are just as busy as you are, sometimes even more so (they’ve had time to build families and are expected to join even more committees). It’s not that we’re too busy or unwilling to offer help, it’s generally just that we don’t always know that you need or want help. Take the initiative and ask us, 99.99% of us will be more than willing to do whatever we can for you.

“Boring” lessons are OK

Just as it takes a long time to build up your classroom supplies, it takes a long time to build up a repertoire of big, exciting lessons. There is nothing wrong with sticking close to the text and building up your supplemental activities and projects slowly. I recommend choosing one unit per subject per year to focus on. Work on building in an exciting lesson, a big project, or other highly engaging piece for that one unit. If you are teaching an upper grade and only have one or two preps, you can focus on a different unit every semester or marking period. That said, don’t be upset or scared when a lesson goes badly or flops completely, it happens to all of us. Just consider what you can do differently next time and give it another try.

Organize now

Though I don’t recommend purchasing a lot of materials during your first couple years, you will start to build up a collection of teaching resources. Please learn from my mistake and get yourself an organizational system now. You can read my previous post about this subject for all the of the details, but long story short–it will save you time, energy, and money (you won’t end up rebuying or remaking things you can’t find). Here’s a quick hint before you read the details: organize materials by subject/skill, not month/unit/curriculum. The curriculum will change (meaning the unit and month will change) and then you’ll have to reorganize everything.

Keep gathering ideas

It is likely your professors encouraged you to gather ideas for the grades/subjects you would be teaching in the future, it may have even been an assignment. Don’t stop gathering ideas (and if you never started, start now). Gather ideas for every subject/grade you are certified in +/-2 (above and below grade level students). While administration general tries to avoid involuntary transfers, sometimes it is necessary and the ones who generally are forced to change are the newer teachers (seniority does come with some privileges). You also never know when life circumstances may cause you to move to a new school/district and you may find yourself teaching a new grade/subject. These ideas (I highly encourage you to do this digitally and organize them) will be an invaluable resource for you and your colleagues as you develop those exciting lessons/projects we just talked about.

Function over feng shui

When it comes to setting up and decorating your new classroom, prioritize function over beauty. I’ve linked to posts about classroom set up and classroom decorations with a lot more detail, but in short: if it doesn’t contribute to the education of students, and/or make your job easier, it’s either in the wrong place or doesn’t need to be there. Does that mean your classroom has to be a boring utilitarian space? No. What it means is you don’t need to spend hours of your limited and precious time, or any of your insufficient and scarce funds, fretting over making everything Pinterest perfect. Just as there’s nothing wrong with having “boring” lessons, there’s nothing wrong with a “dull” classroom.

Stay in control of you

You are the teacher, you are the adult, you are the one who has to stay in control. The minute you lose emotional control and start yelling (or worse, panicking), you lose. The result will be one, and likely more than one, of several things: the students will take over control of your classroom, your classroom will end up being ruled by fear (not respect), and your classroom will no longer be an emotionally safe environment for students. Students depend on their teachers to set the emotional tone of a classroom and ensure they are safe. If you are not in control, you cannot ensure the students will be safe, and the emotional tone of the classroom becomes negative. You must stay in control of your emotions and responses at all times, even if it means saying something such as, “I need to take a few minutes and think about this. Please take your seat and we’ll discuss it shortly.” And when you do lose it (because at some point you will–you’re human), apologize and try to make it right (see above).

Tough Love

There’s a reason there are two words in this term. You need both and they need to be in balance. If you have all or too much tough, the students will rebel and your classroom will become a battlefield. The other possibility is you will maintain control of your classroom but it will be by fear and not respect. If you have all or too much love, the students will run your classroom and it will be chaos. Finding the balance isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for a student is make them unhappy. I won’t promise they will thank you for it later in person, but they will be grateful you did.

Be their teacher

You are their teacher. You are not their friend, parent, counselor, doctor…you are their teacher. And their teacher is what they need you to be. Remember what I said earlier, you can’t be all things all the time, you have to do what you were put in place to do and that is teach. There are other people who are in students’ lives to fill the other roles (and if someone is lacking, refer them to the appropriate person/service), you are the only teacher (or teacher of a particular subject) those students have. Do what they need you to do–teach.

It’s not your job to be liked

It’s OK not to be liked, in fact it is very probable (I’d even go so far as to say guaranteed) that you won’t be liked by everyone. Do we want to be liked? Yes. Is it nice to be liked? Yes. Will most students like you? Yes. But, at the end of the day, if it’s a choice between being liked and being a student’s teacher, choose being their teacher. It’s your job to teach, not to be liked.

Look for opportunities to say, “Yes”

Yes, it is OK to say no, and sometimes you will need to say no. In fact, you’ll likely say no far more often than you want. Look for the opportunities to say yes and then do it. It may mean something doesn’t go exactly how you want it to, or a project doesn’t look exactly how you planned, but if the student’s request is reasonable, try to say yes.


Your first few years of teaching will be the hardest few years of your career, possibly even your life. I still remember how hard I worked those first few years, how often I felt as though I’d never survive, and how badly I wanted to quit. It will get better, I promise you. So many teachers quit after one or two years–often just before things are likely to start getting easier. I would say I was about three years in before I started feeling better, and about five years in before I started to believe I could actually do the job. After that, things have continually gotten better each year and I can say I love teaching more now then ever before. Hang in there, find a good teacher bestie (you can read a little about mine in this post), and know it’s not always going to be this difficult.

Wow! That was a lot! If you’ve read this far I can guarantee one thing—you have the makings to become a great teacher, and likely are already a pretty good one. Only someone who truly cares about his/her students and has a deep desire to be the best they can be would stick with me this long. Thank you. Now go out there and do your best, you’ve got this! Happy teaching, everyone.

Sort Cards: Alternative Uses

I love using sort cards! In fact, I use them in all of my vocabulary activity sets, including my phonics based vocabulary activity sets (and I have plans to add them to my academic vocabulary units). Sort cards are great for practicing vocabulary, but when I first started using them I kept thinking, “There has to be more I can do with these cards than have students match words to pictures/definitions.” It turns out there are A LOT more things you can do with sort cards, and today I’d like to share with you some of my (and my students’) favorites.


Do you remember the children’s game Memory? You place all of the cards upside down and take turns turning over two at a time. If the two cards you turn over match, you keep them and get an extra turn. Sort cards can be used in the same way. I suggest using two different colors of cards, one for the term and one for the picture/definition. This helps the game go faster because students aren’t turning over two terms or two pictures/definitions. Students turn over one of each color and, if they match, keep them and go again. The person with the most matches at the end of the game is the winner. This is a great way for students who aren’t as comfortable with verbal expression to practice vocabulary.

Game Smash

Use the sort cards and any gameboard and pieces (Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and Sorry are some of our favorites) to create a new game. At the start of each turn, the student will draw a card and either name and spell the term represented by the picture/definition, or will define the term on the card. If correct, the student proceeds with his/her turn per the game rules. If not correct, the student’s turn is over.


This game requires a few extra cards that simply say “Kaboom!” and an empty container of some kind. I have a set of Kaboom! cards (free download at the bottom) and several old oatmeal containers that I spray painted black and painted the word “Kaboom” on in red. To play, take one set of sort cards, mix in three to five Kaboom! cards, and place everything in your container. Students take turns drawing out cards. If the student draws a picture card, he/she names the term and spells and/or defines it. If the student draws a definition card, he/she names the term and spells it. If the student draws a term card, he/she defines it or uses it in a sentence. If the student is successful, he/she keeps the card. If the student is not successful, he/she discards the card. If the student draws a Kaboom! card, all of his/her cards, including the Kaboom! card, go into the discard pile. The student with the most cards at the end of the game is the winner.


I have several different Fishing For… games, but any set of sort cards can be used as a fishing game. Similarly to Kaboom!, you will need a few extra materials in addition to the sort cards. You’ll need some Shark! cards (free download at the bottom) and some fishing ponds. My ponds are simply old oatmeal containers I spray painted blue and then dressed up with some badly painted fish and seaweed. To play, again mix one set of sort cards and three to five shark cards in the container. Directions for what to do with each card are the same as for Kaboom!, with the Shark! card replacing the Kaboom! card.

Collection Race

I was watching a YouTube video, Grammar Games with Flashcards, and the creator, Jenny White, suggested a fun game for irregular verbs. She said to scatter base verb cards around the room, have students race to find a card, bring it to the teacher, and state all three forms (present, past, past participle) of the verb in order to keep the card as a point. I was thinking, why couldn’t this work with any set of sort cards? Students could be given a specific length of time to search the classroom for cards. They could bring the cards, one at a time, to the teacher (or other designated person) and state the term, spelling, and/or definition that corresponds to what is on the card. If successful, the student keeps the card as a point. If not successful, the teacher keeps the card as a point. The student (or teacher) with the most points at the end is the winner.

Around the World

Do you remember the math game Around the World? The teacher shows a math flashcard and the first of two students to call out the answer proceeds in the game while the second student goes to the end of the line. Again I ask, why can’t we play this with any set of sort cards? The teacher shows a sort card with a picture and/or definition. The first student to call out the correct term proceeds while the slower student goes to the end of the line. Theoretically, you could show the term card and have students give the definition, but I think that’s too many words to call out. Maybe the students could call out a synonym instead?


This game also requires one extra piece of equipment: tiddlywinks, or some other flat disk students can flip. Lay your sort cards out on the floor or a large table in a grid pattern. Students gather around the sort card mat and take turns flipping their tiddlywink onto the mat. The student must then either name, define, or spell the term that corresponds with the card that his/her disk lands on in order to earn a point. You can increase the difficulty of this game by giving each student multiple discs of the same color (a different color for each student in the group). Rather than retrieving their discs after each turn, students leave them on the cards. In order to earn a point, students must land a disc on a previously unoccupied card and provide the correct term/definition/spelling.


If you’re looking for a game that might be a little less movement and noise inducing, you can always try Taboo or Pictionary. Follow the rules for either of these classic games, using your sort cards as the prompt cards. (If you need to review the rules, you can read them here: Taboo, Pictionary.) When I play Taboo, I’ll underline words in the definitions students can’t use with a dry erase marker. Pictionary makes a great game for students who aren’t comfortable with verbally answering questions.


Are there more ways to use sort cards? Oh, yes! (Check out the YouTube video Charlie’s Lessons 10 Flashcard Games for some fun and simple ways to use picture cards.) These eight ideas just happen to be some of the most popular ones I’ve tried in my class. Many of them also work with task cards–just substitute answering the question or solving the problem on the task card for providing the term/spelling/definition (for even more ideas, see this post about alternative task card uses). If you have other fun uses for sort cards, let us know in the comments! Happy teaching, everyone.

Here are the links to download the Kaboom! and Shark! cards:

Pathways Reading & Writing Plans

Last week I shared with you my lesson plans and supplemental materials for National Geographic’s Pathways Listening and Speaking books. This week I have plans for the second half of the Pathways series, the reading and writing books. I haven’t had as much opportunity to teach these books, so there aren’t as many supplemental materials, but I’m happy to share what I have.

Lesson Plans

As with the listening and speaking plans, these are brief note/outline format plans of everything I do with the students, in the order I do it. I provided links to all of the supplemental games/activities, videos, websites, and other resources I use. I like to start lessons out with some type of discussion question or interesting fact set related to the theme. Even though speaking isn’t our primary focus, I like to incorporate as much spontaneous speech practice as possible so students have the opportunity to use and build context for the vocabulary they are learning. The discussion also helps to activate prior knowledge and increases student comprehension of the readings.

Another thing to note about these plans is that they are almost exclusively for the reading sections of the book. The schools I’ve taught at have a separate class for grammar and writing so I didn’t deal with that part of each unit. I do briefly go over and practice most of the grammar, but I never take the time for a full writing lesson. Quite honestly, I don’t know how I’d fit it in if I had to, four hours of class time isn’t enough to do everything I would like with just the readings. The students are always highly engaged and we have a lot of great discussion about each one.

Digital Vocabulary Glossary

While writing is primarily covered in another class, vocabulary is one of the primary focuses of these classes at our school. In fact, though I’ve created digital vocabulary glossaries for the listening and speaking books, the reason I started making them was for the reading classes. These glossaries work exactly like the ones I shared about last week (check the linked post for all the details), only the words are different. My students are often overwhelmed by the amount of vocabulary these courses cover, but the glossaries help them to feel a little more confident. The glossaries, in combination with a heavy focus on context clue skills (we practice them every unit), have made a big difference for my students and by the end of the semester their skills have really grown!

The Links

Unfortunately, that’s it for now. As I said, I haven’t had as much opportunity to teach these books, thus I have yet to create review menus and other curriculum-specific resources for them. Maybe I’ll get the opportunity sometime in the future. For now, here are the links to download your free copies of the lesson plans and vocabulary glossaries. Happy teaching, everyone!

IAs much as possible, I linked to free resources in the plans, but there are some paid resources as well. If you, like me, teach multiple levels of the books, and want an easy one-stop way to get the resources you need (and I created), then I have two options for you. The first option is a bundle that includes all of the Pathways Reading & Writing books (25% discount). The second is a bundle that includes all eight of the Pathways books, both listening/speaking and reading writing (30% discount).

Pathways Listening & Speaking Plans

It’s no secret that my favorite publisher of ESL curriculum is National Geographic. I used their Inside curriculum with middle school and really enjoyed it. My students found the readings to be engaging and we had a lot of great discussions. When I left middle school and started teaching at the college level, working with those books was one of the many things I missed.

Fortunately, I did not have to leave my favorite publisher behind though! Both of the colleges I’ve been teaching for use National Geographic’s Pathways series for several of their courses. Over the years I’ve developed plans for all eight of the Pathways books, as well as some supplemental materials for students. In this post, I want to share with you some of those plans and supplemental materials. All of them are free and I’ll provide links at the bottom for you to be able to download any that would be helpful for you and your students. This week I’m concentrating on the four listening and speaking books. Next week I’ll share what I have for the reading and writing books.

Lesson Plans

These are not scripted plans for non-teachers. These plans are more along the lines of unit outlines. I list out the various things I do with my students: discussion questions (I like to start the unit with a question or set of interesting facts related to the theme. It always produces a lot of good discussion, perfect spontaneous speaking practice.), book activities, videos, supplemental activities, handouts, and games. I do this in the order I plan to use them in class. It’s what I teach from every day. What I did do is go back and add in links for you so you know exactly which YouTube video I used, exactly which handout I printed, etc. Many of the activities, handouts, games, and other resources are free, some are not. I also have a tendency to use the same activities, especially games, multiple times in a semester. Sometimes I’ll tweak the rules to have more targeted practice, other times I won’t. The reusing of activities and games saves me time (explaining the directions is easier the second, third, fourth…time around) and allows the students to revisit some of their favorite activities (just this week I reused a game and my students said, “Oh, good, I really liked this one!”).

There’s A Video About That

I first mentioned this additional resource in January of 2021. At that time, I had only completed PDFs for books one and three. You can catch up on all the details in the two previous blog posts (New Resources for a New Semester and Student Reference Tools), but let me give you the quick overview here. This single page PDF is a play off the phrase, “There’s an app for that!” I wanted students to have a one-stop location to be able to review the grammar concepts we talked about in class. I also wanted them to be able to hear a different explanation from the one I gave in class. When I first started teaching, I felt as though I’d failed in some way if a student didn’t “get it” from my explanation, but he/she did from someone else’s. Since then I’ve learned that this just means everyone learns differently and the important thing is the student learned–not who they learned it from. There’s a Video About That allows students to hear another explanation in another voice without having to worry the person in the video is giving them bad information (a common concern among my students).

Review Menu

These menus came into being at the same time as There’s A Video About That (you can get all the details in the same two blog posts, linked above). They are meant to be a more in depth companion to the one page PDF. The PowerPoint menu (it uploads well to Google Slides) has two slides for each grammar concept. The first is an explanation of the concept (a review of what we went over in class). The second slide has a YouTube video (different from the video on There’s a Video About That) and links to free sites with games and/or exercises to practice the skill. Many of the games and activities are geared toward children, especially for levels one and two. I always talk to students on the first day of class and explain I’m not trying to insult them in any way, I simply want to provide them with free practice and these are the sites I could find. My students have never had a problem with it, and many of them will tell me how much fun it was to play the games. In fact, I introduced my pronunciation class, all adult advanced speakers of English, to Storyline Online just last night. I warned them that all of the books were picture books but, in a not unsurprising occurrence to someone who’s been using picture books with older learners for a long time, the only complaint I got was I wouldn’t take more class time for them to watch more videos.

Digital Glossary

This is a brand new resource for this semester. I took my Master the Term Vocabulary Graphic Organizer and made it the background of a PowerPoint slide, adding textboxes for each of the sections. I added in a table of contents and hyperlinked each letter of the alphabet to a slide that lists all of the vocabulary starting with that letter from the book. Each vocabulary word is hyperlinked to a slide with the graphic organizer background and the term. Each vocabulary word slide also includes links back to the table of contents and letter slide. Students can then complete the graphic organizer to help them review the vocabulary. This is not something I’m requiring for homework at this time, but I have had students tell me they are using it and finding it helpful for reviewing terms from the book. Since the graphic organizer slide was created as a slide master, it’s easy for students to add additional terms to their glossaries (they will have to copy and paste the table of contents buttons from another slide). I honestly doubt I’ll ever require completion of the glossary as homework, but it is an option for the future. A note regarding conversion to Google Slides: I did try it and most of the features worked fine. The only problem was on the alphabetical listing of the words pages. In PowerPoint I set the textbox to have three columns. The columns did not transfer to Slides and the words appeared in one long list, running past the bottom of the slide. So, if you choose to convert the PowerPoint file to a Slides file, you will need to go back and adjust the 26 alphabetical listing slides to be either a table or multiple textboxes.

The Links

Now that you have a basic idea of what’s available, here are the download links! As I said, all of these resources are free. I hope you and your students find them as helpful as my students and I do. Happy teaching, everyone!

As much as possible, I linked to free resources in the plans, but there are some paid resources as well. If you, like me, teach multiple levels of the books, and want an easy one-stop way to get the resources you need (and I created), then I have two options for you. The first option is a bundle that includes all of the Pathways Listening and Speaking books at a 25% discount. The second is a bundle that includes all eight of the Pathways books, both listening/speaking and reading/writing at a 30% discount.

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!