For New Teachers


“Ten cuidado, hombre!”

It was the very first class I’d ever taught, in 1981, at a Berlitz-type English school in Santander, Spain. Inexplicably, the director had assigned me to an unruly bunch of ten middle-schoolers. Three previous, veteran teachers had given up in succession, vowing never to face the hellions again. Most likely the director had turned to me in desperation. I was too inexperienced to know I should have refused as well.

The first few days were disasters. Indeed, my only achievement had been to cajole the kids on at least a few occasions to actually sit in their desks all at the same time. Getting them quiet, though, remained an elusive goal.

Pablo was the worst. He, I soon realized, was the ringleader, whose outbursts were the most disruptive, the most apparently defiant. If I could scare him somehow, make him fear me, the others might fall in line. But how? I spoke virtually no Spanish, the students little English.

I turned to my Spanish roommates and asked them how to say, “Be careful, buster!” Then I practiced the phrase over and over, endeavoring to feign Spanish fluency, and so earn the kids’ respect.

The next class I deployed my secret weapon amidst the worst of the chaos. I approached Pablo and, jabbing a finger menacingly in his astonished face, uttered icily, “Ten cuidado, hombre!”

Pablo’s eyes grew large as eggs, and the other students turned and stared, similarly stunned. I seized upon the ensuing, blessed moment of silence to add, “Now sit down and shut up! I’ve had enough!” They didn’t understand a word, but they complied. Victory! For years afterwards I savored that scene as beginning of my teacher preparation.

It’s funny how truly momentous moments too often pass unnoticed. The real one occurred later that same class, while I was attempting to rid the students of their deplorable accent: “Dis,” “Dat,” and “Zurteen” instead of “This,” That,” and “Thirteen.” “You have to place your tongue beneath your teeth, blow some air and make it vibrate,” I instructed. “Like this,” I added, making an exaggerated sound like that of an engine revving up.

That’s all Pablo needed. In an instant he was out of his seat again, roving around the room with his tongue slobbering, popping wheelies like some sort of crazed drag racer. The others immediately followed suit, and, thus, it seemed chaos reigned anew.

But then, just before my incipient rage exploded, I noticed that every single student was, for the first time, correctly making the “TH” sound; and, in an instance of inspired madness, I joined the line of raucous students parading around the room, my tongue out the farthest. Eventually, the kids collapsed back into their seats, laughing uproariously. When they’d caught their breath, they turned back expectantly towards me. What was the next game?

Now, so many years in retrospect, I realize I didn’t teach Pablo to respect me that day. Oh no! He taught me the best way to instruct him and his friends: Instead of suppressing all their energy, silliness and noise, I needed to call it forth, channel it, then unleash it. And, as, day by day, I slowly learned to do so, those students and I came to love that class.

The Pablos of the world are still my favorite students.

High Standards

I learned a remarkable lesson many years ago, one which has served me well ever since, and which I hope will do the same for new teachers as they embark on their first year in the classroom.

I had just begun a new job teaching Spanish in a small, Catholic high school in San Antonio, Texas. Unfortunately, Spanish was only an elective there, and so was considered a fluffy, easy course.

My predecessor, for example, had been anything but strict. She had rarely assigned homework, but had almost always given her students at least a “B,” whether they could speak any Spanish or not, the latter being predominately the case. It seemed as if she had made an unspoken pact with her students: She wouldn't force them to really learn anything as long as they behaved. Everyone had appeared content.

Then I arrived. I announced the first day that I would give homework every night, and not one, but two quizzes a week; and that, after a brief introduction, I’d ban English in class.

Jaws hung open, eyes grew wide, and heads slowly shook. Several students immediately dropped my class. The rest fought me bitterly. In fact, the principal remarked dryly at the first staff meeting that I had earned a dubious distinction: After only one week, my name had already made it on the bathroom walls.

Then a strange thing happened: My students learned some Spanish. In fact, they began to jokingly call out phrases like “Cállate” (Shut up!) and “Date prisa” (Hurry up!) in the lunchroom and hallways. Soon they were tossing around complete sentences; and for some of them, Spanish became a secret language they flaunted among their monolingual friends.

The clincher came in the spring when I organized a student-exchange program with a high school in Monterey, Mexico. Somehow--sometimes haltingly, often with grammar that made me wince--my students managed to communicate. I was so proud of them, and they were proud of themselves.

Don't get me wrong. The following year my students still came to my class groaning, and my name still graced the bathroom walls.

One dramatic, very important thing had changed, though: There were twice as many kids in my classes. All of them realized I'd push them hard, give them regular homework and quizzes. Yet they also knew they would learn. And so they came, complaining the whole while, but they came.

That's the lesson I've never forgotten: Despite all their protests to the contrary, kids really do desire to learn. They want us to be hard on them.

So don't make the typical new-teacher mistake of seeking popularity by being easy. You'll fail. You see, students understand at least intuitively that our holding them to high standards is the greatest compliment we can pay them; and that to do anything else is to insult them most insidiously.

Indeed, I suspect that my long lost students from San Antonio now remember me much more than they do that first, easy teacher. What is much more important, I bet they remember some Spanish, too.

Classroom Management: Some Suggestions

Make your expectations (rules) and consequences very clear. This is best accomplished on the first day of school. Review all class rules and explain why they are so important. Then, demonstrate/model exactly how you will respond if the rules are not respected.

Know that you will be tested. After a brief "honeymoon" of a week or so, most students will begin to test their teachers. They do so neither consciously nor maliciously. They simply want to know if their teachers mean what they say. Kids need to know the limits.

Respond early, but leniently. You students will not test you at first by doing anything terribly outlandish or disrespectful. They'll start with little things, such as arriving just as the bell rings, or sighing audibly when you give an assignment. Everyone is watching to see how, or if, you will respond. If you do not, then they will continue to slowly escalate their misbehavior until they find your limits. What will make you react? If you let these small things slide, you'll soon find yourself having to respond with a severe consequence for a serious offense. So, look for an opportunity to make an example during the first few days. But, make your consequences minor, such as a short lunch detention. In this way you will painlessly set your limits.

Don't waste your breath. If you have adequately explained your behavior expectations the first day of class, then don't go back and beat a dead horse after an infraction. Such a lecture only wastes valuable class time, and set a a negative tone for the class. Worse, it inadvertently rewards the student or students involved, giving them the attention they were seeking, and so encourages them to repeat their misbehavior in the future. In other words, there is no "next time." Misbehavior demands an immediate consequence now. Otherwise, you are only daring your students to continue to test you.

Also, don't raise your voice or lose your temper. Respond swiftly and impersonally. You don't want your red face to become the best entertainment in town; or your students to lose all respect for you.

Similarly, don't argue with students. Not only can you never hope to win, but you're wasting class time. There is only one time when students should challenge your classroom management: after class.

Reward good behavior. The only way students should "get a rise" out of you is by contributing to a class discussion, or by turning in some outstanding work. If you shower the hard-working kids with praise and rewards, soon you'll find that a lot more kids are working hard.

Use Referrals Sparingly. The more referrals you use, the less effective they will be. Also, if you begin to rely on them to enforce your discipline, you'll subtly teach your students to respect the assistant principal, instead of you. You'll undermine your own authorit. You may win a few battles; but, ultimately, you'll lose the war.

Plan your lessons carefully. Be pro-active, not reactive. Greet your students at the door, and insist that they begin the opening sponge activity before the bell rings. Then, make your lessons lively, and varied. Get the students actively involved. Keep them too busy and too interested to get off task.

Smile. The old adage "Don't smile until December" is bunk. Yes, be very strict. (You can always ease up later on.) Remember, though, to enjoy yourself. If you're having fun, so will your students.

Concentrate on "Management Moments": The primary pitfall of new teachers is they don't keep their standards high, and settle for less than 100%.

All (100%) seated, quiet, and on task at bell. (Use an opening sponge!)

Ask for attention. (Wait for 100%.)


Explain what must be done.

Describe how it will be done.

Indicate how long it will take.

Indicate how you will get attention again.

Check for understanding.

"Ready? Go!"

Procedures (Must be taught. Remember: Classroom Management IS your curriculum during the first week or so of school.)Entering the classroom

Leaving the classroom

Moving into groups

Passing out papers

Collecting papers

Cleaning the classroom

Sharpening pencils

Getting students' attention

I finished early"

"I need help"

Missing/Late work

Lining up at door

Walking through halls

Copying homework into calendar

Remember: Your job is not to be liked, but to be respected. Praise in public, criticize in private. A parent phone call in time saves nine. Get some sleep.

Deep down, kids really do want to learn. And they feel much more secure in an environment where expectations are high, but consequences are consistent and fair. They'd never admit it to you, or to themselves; but your students want you to be strict. And it is possible to be both strict and fun.

Some General Advice

Find yourself a master-teacher, and then work very closely with him/her. Observe him/her--and everyone else--as often as possible. It's best to have a mentor teacher observe with you, so he/she can point out what to look for. Also, steal as much as you can. You don't need (In fact, you're a fool if you try!) to reinvent the wheel. Seek out good ideas, great lesson plans; then steal then brazenly. Shakespeare did it. So can you. So should you.

Seating the first day should be random (separate friends!). Then, once you know the students, carefully design your seating chart, taking into account balanced pairs and teams, individual needs, behavior, personalities, etc. Then, change the chart every now and then. Use a seating chart to take attendance, and to learn student's names ASAP!

Your first priority is not to get everything corrected. It's to walk in to every class prepared to teach--with meticulous lesson plans, and plenty of rest. If this means some assignments get the circular file, so be it. Be prepared. Be rested. You owe your students this, more than anything else.

Insist students write homework down in class. Then insist that they start it before they leave. They are far more likely to complete work they've already begun. This also gives you the opportunity to check for understanding, model a good answer, etc.

Obtain student home information the first day (opening sponge?). Then, call parents early and often. "A phone call in time saves nine." Log every call: when, with whom you spoke, what you spoke about. This is very important. Also, force yourself to make as many positive calls as negative ones.

Skills are just as important--if not more so--than content. Include a skill component to every activity: reading, writing, critical-thinking, geography, outlining, grammar, vocabulary, goal-setting, and, above all, study skills,

If you aren't having fun, something is wrong....