12 Tips for New Teachers

The New Teacher Book

As you prepare for a new school year, we wanted to share this short article by Rethinking Schools editor Larry Miller.  While he is no longer in the classroom day-to-day, he continues to advocate for equity and social justice in education in his role as an elected school board member in Milwaukee, Wis.

His essay is included in the second edition of The New Teacher Book: Finding Purpose, Balance, and Hope During Your First Years in the Classroom. Get the book at a 25% discount with back-to-school discount code SchoolH12

Download  and share a copy of “12 Tips” (pdf). And share in the comments what tips you would add. 

12 Tips for New Teachers

by Larry Miller

I was 38 when I started my teaching career, and I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I’d been a community and union activist for years and I’d been political all my life. I figured all I had to do was bring my experience and politics to the classroom and I’d be a great teacher.

Was I wrong. Now I’ve been teaching high school for more than 19 years  and I continue to be humbled. When I work with new teachers, I give them the following suggestions:

  1. Keep calm in all situations. Calmness allows you to make rational decisions. If a student is confrontational or out of control, it never ever works to react with anger. Getting into a tug-of-war over who has the last word exacerbates the situation. Let the situation cool down and then try to have a mature conversation with those involved.
  2. Make respect central to your classroom culture. A common expression I hear from my students and parents is “You have to give respect to get respect.” They’re right.  The only way  to hold students to high and rigorous expectations is to gain their respect and their acknowledgment that your class will lead to real learning that will benefit them.
  3. Base your curriculum on social justice. Frame it with a critical edge. I have four questions for assessing my curriculum:
    • Does the curriculum deepen students’ understanding of social justice?
    • Is the curriculum rigorous?
    • Are students learning the skills they need to be critical thinkers, advance their education, be prepared for employment, and become active citizens?
    • I am also now forced to ask the question: Does the curriculum increase students’ ability to do well on state-mandated standardized tests?
  4. Keep rules to a minimum but enforce them. Always have clear consequences and never threaten to take a particular action if you are not willing to carry it out. Talk to students as mature young adults.
  5. Whenever possible, connect your classroom discussions and curriculum to students’ lives, community, and culture.  Learn as much as you can about your students. For example, I use hip-hop lyrics as a means to discuss current trends of thought and worldviews in my citizenship class. Rappers offer plenty to discuss, both positive and negative. I get lyrics from the internet, I borrow CDs from students, and I search for positive rap on TV and the radio.
  6. Learn from other teachers and staff. Pay special attention to teachers and staff whose cultures and backgrounds are different from yours. I’ve always made a point of consulting every day with my colleagues. Their insight can be invaluable.
  7. Build students’ confidence in their intelligence and creativity. I’ve often heard my students call kids from the suburbs or those in AP classes “the smart kids.” Don’t let that go unchallenged. I start the year talking about “multiple intelligences” and how “being smart” can take many forms. I find daily examples of students’ work and views to talk about as smart and intelligent.
  8. Distinguish between students’ home language and their need to know “standard” English. Work with both. This is a huge topic, one you will be dealing with throughout your career.
  9. Keep lecturing short. Have students regularly doing projects, reading, giving presentations, engaging in discussions, debating, doing role plays, and taking part in simulations.
  10. Have engaging activities prepared for students when they walk into the classroom. I might play a piece of music, put an African expression on the board to interpret, or put students in “critical thinking groups” to solve a puzzle.
  11. Call students’ homes regularly both for positive and negative reports. Visit their homes. Students often belong to nonschool organizations. For example, during Black History Month many churches in the black community have special programs that students perform in. Attend, and go to other presentations given by groups they belong to.
  12. Mobilize students to join in new experiences. For example, I sponsor a “polar bear club”: We jump into Lake Michigan to celebrate New Year’s Day, then we all eat breakfast together.

What tips would you add to Larry’s list? 

Related Resources:

Unintended Lessons

by Terry Burant

Recently, a friend told me that a former high school student of mine named his car “Terry” after me. When she asked him why, he explained, “She’s a little older, she’s strong and tough, and she can handle anything, just like my old car; watching her as my teacher made me realize that I can be strong and accomplish things too.”

This former student of mine struggled mightily with sophomore chemistry and, before every test, he spent hours in my classroom after school working problems on the board with other students and taking periodic breaks for making jokes, watching a silly YouTube video, or writing with the dry erase markers on the arms of his friends. I thought I was teaching him chemistry; turns out, he learned how to stay strong and succeed. His comment, and the picture in my mind of an old beater car with my name cruising the streets of Milwaukee make me think about the unintended lessons teachers teach, about the things we leave with our students of which we might not be aware.

An all-night-long Glee-watching marathon over winter break also made me think about our legacies as teachers. While I realize that Glee isn’t free from criticism, particularly for its lackluster, individualistic treatment of the many forms of bullying going on in the school (see “TV Bullies: How Glee and Anti-Bullying Programs Miss the Mark,” by Gerald Walton, p. 216, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media), the last ten minutes of the final episode made me think about the kinds of impressions we leave with our students and the unintended lessons we teach, so much so that I decided to use a segment of the episode on the first day of the spring semester in an undergraduate teacher education course I teach.

For those not well-versed in Glee, the show centers on a high school singing club in Ohio. Resurrected by a former Glee Club member and current Spanish teacher at the school, Mr. Schuster, the club is often on shaky ground with the administration and always in danger of having its funding cut. The first season ends with the club convinced that after not placing at the Regional competition, the club is history.

The last ten minutes of the season begins with the Glee club members inviting Mr. Schuster into the auditorium where the students are on stage ready to say goodbye to their teacher, in song of course. Yet they begin, one by one, describing the ways in which he and Glee club made an impact on their lives.

Santana, a bit of a badass cheerleader, always ready with a cutting remark for her fellow Glee club members, states that as the year started, “she hated everyone in the club.” Michael Chang, one of the best dancers in the group, says that before Glee club, “he only danced in his room.” Kurt, a young man who comes out as gay during the school year, points out that he “wasn’t honest with who [he] was” until the camaraderie within the group helped him realize that he could be himself. Finn, a young man whose father died when Finn was a young boy, tells Mr. Schuster that he was a like a father to him, showing him a model of “how to be a man.” Finally, Rachel, the quirky diva of the group, tells Mr. Schuster that “no matter what the judges said, we won. We had you as a teacher.”

After their statements, the group sings “To Sir with Love” to Mr. Schuster, and seasoned Glee fans will completely understand the looks between members as well as the appropriate lines of the song as sung by specific members.

As I listened to the students’ comments and the lyrics of the song, I noticed that not one student mentioned meeting standards, using a packaged music curriculum (for Mr. Schuster’s curriculum often came from student interests and concerns), getting a good ACT score, or mastering a specific objective that was listed every day on their classroom board. While I realize that this is an after-school club on a television show in which people burst into song in school hallways, the stark contrast between the students’ statements and official school goals made an impression on me.

In my class, towards the end of the first day, after showing this clip, I asked my students to think about and write from the following prompt and return with their writing for the next class:

Imagine yourself as a teacher, about 5-8 years from now, in a situation similar to the one in which Will Schuster finds himself in this clip from the Season 1 final episode of Glee. What would your students say if they were expressing some thoughts about what you’ve given them? In other words, what do you hope your legacy might be as a teacher?

My students wrote things like “I want my students to think for themselves, to be advocates for justice and equity, to realize that I cared about them as people, to be critical readers and thinkers, to know that I wasn’t just a teacher of math or science, but a person who noticed and cared about them.” Similar to the Glee episode, not one mentioned hoping that his students would remember meeting math standard 1.11.12 about linear equations, about being a teacher who recorded grades in the electronic grading program on time, about following the Success for All reading scripts to perfection, or about only using the district-approved curriculum. All of the future teachers in my class, most of them juniors or seniors in their teacher education program, want far more for their students than teaching them what’s on a test.

I worry about my students, just a little over a year away from their first teaching positions. Will the craziness of testing, of school district officials entering their classrooms to take away materials, of control of their curriculum from outside sources, lead them away from realizing their dreams as teachers? Will their students have the kinds of experiences in school that lead them to sing in gratitude for the larger life lessons they learned in school?

As an in-class follow-up activity, I asked my students to re-read their responses and to write an additional paragraph stating one specific way in which they would work this semester to make their desired-for legacy come true. They shared those paragraphs with a partner in class, making commitments to one another to stay true to their larger goals.

In these times, perhaps now more than ever, all of us who teach might remind ourselves of why we do what we do. If the conditions are making it harder and harder to be the kind of teachers we want to be, we might make the extra effort to commit to act in and beyond our classrooms to realize the legacies that mean the most to us and to our students.

Terry Burant is a Rethinking Schools editor and an instructor in the department of Educational Studies at the University of Wyoming.

Related Resources

Rethinking Schools has long been attentive to the messages in popular culture and media that saturate our lives.  We devoted an entire book to it, and carved out a section on “Minding Media” in our upcoming Rethinking Elementary Education.

Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, edited by Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy. This anthology includes outstanding articles by elementary and secondary public school teachers, scholars, and activists who examine how and what popular toys, books, films, music, and other media “teach.” The essays offer strong conceptual critiques and practical pedagogical strategies for educators at every level to engage with the popular.

Rethinking Elementary Education, edited by Linda Christensen, Mark Hansen, Bob Peterson, Elizabeth Schlessman, and Dyan Watson.The articles in this volume offer practical insights about how to integrate the teaching of content with a social justice lens, how to seek wisdom from students and their families, and how to navigate stifling tests and mandates. Teachers and parents will find both inspiration and hope in these pages.

Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel. Through articles that provide thoughtful and emotional critiques from the frontlines of education, Pencils Down deconstructs the damage that standardized tests wreak on our education system and the human beings that populate it. Better yet, it offers visionary forms of assessment that are not only more authentic, but also more democratic, fair, and accurate.

From the Archives: Unwrapping the Holidays

A recent conversation in a Facebook group I’m a part of centered on the celebration of the holiday, specifically Christmas.

Illustration: Bob Gale

The conversation started with this: “My school is very, very holiday orientated. All the classrooms have Christmas trees and have their students participate in Secret Santa and they even have Santa Claus come and the Three Kings and Baby Jesus visit the classroom. I don’t judge anything, but I personally have a number of reasons I feel uncomfortable pushing candy, materialism, consumerism and religion in my classroom. When I try to opt out or ask questions they think I am a Scrooge… Any ideas?”

This teacher’s question reminded me how delicate an undertaking it can be to challenge “the way things have always been done” as it relates to holiday celebrations. 

At Rethinking Schools, we’ve been challenging “the way it’s always been done” for years in our magazine and with our books.  But what we offer is not a formula or a “how-to” manual. Rather, we provide a space where teachers can share their successes, but also their struggles and lessons learned as they work to incorporate social justice teaching in their classrooms and schools.

In “Unwrapping the Holidays” (Fall 2003), Dale Weiss shares a poignant story of her attempts to change holiday traditions in her first year as a teacher.  We can all learn from Dale’s experience.

Enjoy this peek into our archives. 

Warm wishes to you and your families for a joyful and meaning-filled season.

– Kris Collett

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

Unwrapping the Holidays: A Teacher Reflects on a Difficult First Year

by Dale Weiss

My teaching career began on the picket line. After I was hired to teach first grade in a small town outside of Seattle, I spent my first month in front of the school instead of in the classroom.

After 30 days, our union settled the strike and won smaller class sizes for first and second grade, better health benefits, and a slight raise in salary. And on a personal level, I felt that I had really bonded with my colleagues. Most of the teachers who worked at this school had been born and raised in that small town and they showed extraordinary kindness to me during the strike. My father was having major surgery and I was extremely sad and worried. Each day, teachers inquired about his health. Other teachers showed concern about my lack of income and brought me bags of food. One teacher, Joseph, even brought me several bags of plums from his tree.

But through the course of the year, many of the bonds we formed on the picket line dissolved as I became involved in a controversy over holiday curriculum.

Before I became a teacher, I had spent years as a political activist. I saw my work as a teacher as important political work and wanted to create a classroom where students would learn to challenge biases and injustice and take action against unfair situations. Since this way of viewing the world seemed normal to me, I naïvely assumed my colleagues — with whom I experienced solidarity on the picket line — shared the same worldview. I could not have been more wrong.

Holiday Decorations

Before Thanksgiving, two sixth-grade girls approached me to ask if my first-graders could make ornaments for the Christmas tree in the library.

I replied, “We have been learning about four different winter celebrations: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas in Mexico, and Winter Solstice, and we are in the process of making a book about each celebration. We could put our books in the library for other children and teachers to read as our contribution.” The sixth-grade girls were persistent and still wanted to know if I would have my students make ornaments.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and then returned to my classroom.

I remember wondering if I would be depriving my students of something by my decision, but in my heart I felt I was doing the right thing. I was teaching them that not everyone celebrates Christmas, that there are many celebratory practices in the month of December, and that each celebration is richly marked with unique customs and beliefs. Not making Christmas ornaments would not rob my students of anything — except the belief that only Christmas occurred in December.

Thinking back to the Christmas tree in the library and feeling that holiday decorations should reflect diversity, I decided to speak with my principal, Oscar. Referring to the decorations in the library, I emphasized that I thought public areas in the school should reflect as much diversity as possible. Oscar was very supportive but he cautioned me that many staff members might not agree with my opinions.

At our staff meeting, I expressed my concern about the public Christmas displays and also mentioned the four different December celebrations we were studying in my classroom. And I shared an experience that had recently occurred in my classroom with Lindsey, a child who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her mother had expressed concern about the class study on Christmas in Mexico. After I explained that our study emphasized the cultural and not religious aspects of the celebration, the parent was relieved. I shared that as a Jew, I also did not celebrate Christmas. The next morning Lindsey ran up to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “My mom told me you don’t celebrate Christmas either. Now I’m not the only one.” I shared my student’s reaction as an example of the pain children can experience when they don’t fit in. I also felt responsibility as an educator to minimize that pain in whatever ways I could.

As the staff meeting ended, two staff members thanked me for opening their eyes to new ways of looking at things. But mostly there was silence. Later in the day I heard, secondhand, that Robert, the librarian, was upset about what I had said during the staff meeting. When I approached him, he said he felt blamed for the library decorations, despite the fact it was the sixth graders who had put up the decorations. I told him that I was not blaming him; I was merely concerned about decorations in common areas within the school.

I visited one teacher, Linda, during our lunch hour to ask if I had inadvertently offended her. When I got there, she was ripping the “Merry Christmas” banner off her wall, saying to a colleague, “We used to be able to do anything we wanted to at Christmas time, but apparently not anymore.”

I asked if she was referring to what I said at the staff meeting, and she replied, “Well, yes. Plus, I don’t teach about Hanukkah because I just don’t know how to pronounce all those words. Besides, I just don’t feel comfortable teaching about something I don’t know much about.” I shared that my viewpoints were not only based in my being Jewish — though this is a part of who I am — but because I believe it is important for children to have exposure to all different kinds of people, customs, and belief systems. I also shared that I, too, have a hard time teaching something new and that one way I learn is to read books written for children. Alexis then responded, “We’re used to doing the same things every year. When Dec-ember rolls around, we always take out our December boxes and put on the walls whatever is in those boxes. And we really don’t think about it. We prefer it that way.” Just then the bell rang and our conversation ended.

As the days went on, I noticed lots of Christmas decorations coming off the walls. The library was almost barren. And, where the library Christmas tree once stood, a book was placed on Hanukkah. Though I had stated my hope that decorations should be more inclusive and had not requested all Christmas decorations to be removed — and certainly not that a book about Hanukkah take their place — what people heard was something quite different.

The following day, Friday, Oscar shared with me that my comments at the staff meeting had really stirred things up, and that people had been speaking with him about the meeting all week. He said he wanted to put the issue on the agenda of the upcoming faculty committee meeting, where I represented the first-grade unit.

On Monday morning, as I arrived at school, I was greeted with an anonymous letter in my mailbox. The message said, “Rights for homosexuals next?” I felt incredibly upset and scared. After showing the letter to Oscar, he said he would share the contents of the letter with the faculty committee at our meeting on the following day.

When the meeting began, one teacher said she felt it was important for me to understand that teachers have done things a certain way for many years at the school and that the holiday curriculum was not offensive because it was well within the district’s student learning objectives. I then repeated what I had stated at the staff meeting and said that it had not been my intent to hurt or offend anyone and if I had, I was truly sorry. Another teacher piped up that she had taught for 20 years — in comparison to my two-and-a-half months — and she felt no need at all to have to explain her curriculum to me. She ended by reminding me “to check things out before jumping to conclusions about the way things are done at our school.”

I thought a lot about what she said. I always had seen myself as a person with a commitment to understanding other peoples’ views and who takes the time to talk things through. I have never been comfortable with people coming in from the outside and trying to change things immediately. I wondered if I had become that kind of person. When I first noticed the Christmas tree in the library and had thoughts that holiday decorations should reflect diversity, I shared this with Oscar prior to saying anything at the staff meeting. Should I have checked things out with other teachers as well?

A few other teachers said they wished I had brought up my concerns in October, before the holiday decorations went up. I replied that, as a new teacher, I wanted to wait and see what happened, rather than assume how things would end up. I thought I was sitting back, waiting and watching — but others saw me as a newcomer barging in, but somehow barging in too late.

Joseph (the same man who had kindly brought me plums on the picket line) then stated, “You know, several of the staff of Germanic background are extremely upset by the fact that the Christmas tree in the library was removed and in its place put a book on Hanukkah.” I felt shocked by his comment. I said that I had no idea who removed the Christmas tree and whoever had, did so at their own discretion. I also did not know who put the book on Hanukkah in its place.

Oscar then shared the contents of the anonymous letter I had received, commenting that this was an example of how far things had gone and how ugly they had gotten. People were shocked and could not believe that “someone from a staff as kind as ours could have done something like this.”

As the meeting came to a close, Oscar reiterated the importance of openly speaking with one another when differences occur and that talking behind one another’s backs would only serve to divide the staff further. He said he hoped the staff could heal and move forward with understanding.

Oscar checked on me several times during the day, letting me know how offensive he found Joseph’s comment about “staff of Germanic heritage.” I appreciated his support since Joseph’s comment really shook me up. I kept thinking it would have been one thing if Joseph had simply said “several staff,” but adding “of Germanic heritage” meant something very different. It felt like a brief look into the hatred of the Nazis towards the Jews.


Prior to the faculty committee meeting, I had not realized the extent of misunderstanding and anger that existed. I felt scared and continued to search my mind for who might have put the anonymous letter in my mailbox. Up until the prior week I had looked forward to each day of teaching with great eagerness and pleasure. I now dreaded coming to school.

I felt trapped, wondering if the only way out was to join the opinion of the majority. Realizing I could not trade my beliefs for a few moments of “relief,” what instead seemed to pull me through was a feeling of strong empathy for all who struggle for something that is right. I thought about people throughout history who took the first step — and sometimes alone — to bring awareness to an injustice. I thought about people who risk so much while working to bring about a more just world, who stand on the shoulders of those who came before them and know they must keep trying. It was an empathy that forced me to keep trying as well.

In the days that followed, a few staff members offered their support, for which I was immensely appreciative. I thought back on the first days of picket duty, when relations with my co-workers seemed so promising. I was glad for these memories. They helped soften the present wounds.

At the same time, I had to acknowledge that while the strike served to unify the staff and was a way for me to become acquainted with my colleagues, sharp differences also existed. They were differences that went beyond whether or not someone was nice.

I had popped open a huge can of worms, too big to shut. My original intention was not to change others but to see more diversity reflected in the library and other common areas within the school. But what, in my mind, was a simple request upset the teaching foundations of many teachers, caused resistance and upheaval, and resulted in alienation among many staff members and myself.

It was a long year, that first year of teaching. I tried my best to remain cordial with my colleagues, something that was often difficult — yet important — to do. In January of that year, Oscar shared with me he would be leaving for the remainder of the school year due to poor health. He left in February, and his replacement, Jeanne, offered me incredible support — both as a new teacher and as someone attempting to teach from a social justice perspective. This definitely helped me finish out the rest of the school year. Before the school year ended, Oscar died. It is to his memory and his support of, and belief in, me that first year that I have always dedicated my life as a teacher.

I remained at that school one more year, at which point I transferred to a school in Seattle.

Lessons Learned

What I have come to refer to as the “December incident” provided many valuable lessons for me.

First, I had not sufficiently assessed the staff regarding their potential reactions to being asked to be more inclusive in the school’s December celebrations. I assumed I “knew” the staff because we had walked the picket line for 30 straight days. I naïvely equated solidarity around union issues with pedagogical agreement. Additionally, I was the first new teacher to be hired at this school in many years, and I was viewed as an outsider.

Second, I did not take into consideration that many teachers held negative attitudes toward the administration because of the strike that began our school year. Although the strike was over, the administration was still viewed by many as the “enemy.” Additionally, my positive rapport with Oscar was viewed by some teachers as aligning with the administration.

Finally, what I am now able to recognize years later is that for the staff of my school, the celebration of Christmas represented much more than merely honoring a holiday that falls in December. It represented an entire belief system and something they valued and wanted to pass on to their students.

If I could turn back the wheels of time, I would definitely do things differently. I would sit through a “Christmas season” first, modeling my own beliefs within my classroom, but not pushing for change within the entire school. By allowing Christmas to happen first “as it always has,” I would better be able to assess people’s attachments to doing things in a particular way. I would then bring up the “Christmas issue” in the spring when the issue might not be so emotionally charged.

If I could do it again, I would start by assessing people’s viewpoints and beliefs instead of assuming they would understand or desire to do anything differently. For example, my co-workers prided themselves on being nice. They heard my request for diversity as meaning they had not been nice to people who do not celebrate Christmas. While I believe that my co-workers misinterpreted my original intent, I also think that I was partially responsible for this. I went about things in a way that did not first acknowledge the values held by most of the staff. Perhaps if I had first acknowledged how important the Christmas season was to the vast majority of the staff, they might have been more open to adding a bit of diversity to what to them was the “normal” way of celebrating December. Since I didn’t start by acknowledging their values, people’s defenses were up and they did not hear what I was trying to say. As a result, people clung tighter to their own belief systems, and my efforts essentially moved things backwards.

Introducing change into a school environment — especially one that has been firmly established for many years — is a complex process, one that I vastly underestimated. While I don’t condone the reactions of many of my colleagues, I do feel I understand what precipitated their response.

I also did not fully consider that people’s reactions to me might be based on the fact I was a first-year teacher. I can now see that not all veteran teachers — particularly those who have shaped the school culture and prefer things to stay a particular way — welcome new teachers with open arms.

I assumed my passionate devotion to my values could enhance the existing curriculum. I spent most of my first year of teaching trying to meld the world of my political activism with the new world I was entering as a teacher. I still believe that our best teaching occurs when we live first as authentic human beings, so I would never advocate leaving one’s values at the classroom doorstep. I would, however, suggest a balance of caution and wisdom when embarking on this delicate journey.