Recently, I was asked to speak with a class of Mathematics students who were finishing their teaching degree at a local university. These students were about to embark upon their first year of teaching. I thought to myself, “What would I share?“. What could I tell these bright-eyed individuals that might make a difference to their practice? What would have resonated with me back when I was sitting in their seats?
It was the short, sweet & raw advice that I remembered (No filter!). So here are my top tips for beginning teachers!
Part 1: Plan Plan Plan
1. 20 mins plan > 5 min plan
I believe that any teacher who has completed a Mathematics degree could walk into a classroom and teach Pythagoras’ Theorem. 5 minutes of thinking about how the lesson might run and then go! Just chalk and talk.
Yet, I guarantee you that a lesson that has planned out for at least 20 minutes is going to be incomparably better. Why? Simply because the teacher will have thought about lesson progression. What learning skills does the teacher want the students to develop? How will the topic be introduced creatively? What activity will follow the introduction to allow the students to explore the concept? That awesome activity that visually proves Pythagoras Theorem using paper cut-outs didn’t just find itself!
It doesn’t matter how many years you have under your belt, the 20 minutes lesson plan is always better than the 5 minute lesson plan.
2. Be resourceful
Where do you go for lesson ideas? After your teaching degree, do you have a clear understanding of the places you can get great content and find resources? Or will you be scrambling to create everything from scratch in your first year?
Do not re-invent the wheel. Adopt and modify resources available at your school. Keep learning on YouTube to refine your teaching.
These are some popular websites to find Maths teaching resources:
For Senior Mathematics subjects, often sample programs provided by your teaching authority have great resource ideas. Utilise and adapt it!
3. Murphy’s Law
Murphy’s Law states that whatever can happen will happen. If you truly embody this, then there are no surprises. Essentially, plan for the worst case scenario. This will make your day run more smoothly.
When considering Murphy’s Law, I think about a Ted-Talk by Chris Hadfield, an ex-astronaut, who speaks about fear. Astronauts train for worst case situations so that when it happens, they do not panic because they have already experienced it before. How can we train ourselves to be better equipped for the classroom?
4. Plan classroom management
Know what your rules are, how you will implement them and the consequences for each of your classes. Choose rules that you believe in because you will need to follow through with your decisions. It is also important to plan specific management techniques for specific students. This comes after you get to know who your students are and why they may be disengaging or interrupting your lessons.
Classroom management is the preventative measure and needs to be implemented every lesson. It should be implemented in a positive manner to make the learning space supportive for all learners. An experienced teacher told me that you should say 3 positives for each improvement you tell your class. Remember to consistently refer back to school procedures and rules to reinforce good behaviour in your classroom and around the school.
Part 2: Your well-being is everything
5. You create the classroom environment
The class works at your pace. You create the place of learning. So smile to your students when you greet them and show them you are happy to be there. Be excited about your subject. The energy rubs off!
Do not rush your explanation because a student is bugging you to. Do not fall into the trap of having the students dictate the environment of the class. You are the adult in the room.
6. Give from a position of abundance
A principal once told me that when we enter the teaching profession, we all have our candles burning bright. In this profession, we give our time and energy into our work and our students. We can only give from a position of abundance. We cannot give if our flames have been extinguished and we are burnt out. Our priority should be ourselves first. Without a positive mindset, even the most simply tasks becomes incredibly difficult. So ensure you refuel!
7. Debrief with a trusted friend/colleague/partner
A lot will happen in one day and before you know it, you have reached the end of the week. Don’t let your days fly by unnoticed and unanalysed. Be purposeful in your days. This will lead to improvements and more positive experiences in the future. Talk about your days with people who will listen. Listen to other people’s days too.
8. Numbers do not lie
It is well known that around half the teachers that enter the profession leave within their first 10 years of service, even though most teachers consider teaching as a life-long career (Some surveys suggest a shorter period of service!). Trust these numbers. There is good reason why these statistics are so shocking. Do not consider yourself unique to these statistics. Take extra precautions to ensure that you are giving the best chance for yourself to enjoy your work.
9. Have a life
Enjoy your weekends. Go to the beach. Make time to have lunch with your friends. Go for a jog. These are the things that heal your spirit and return your energy to a balanced state allowing you to hit the ground running in your next week. Take every opportunity to refuel. Take care of yourself like your life depends on it (because it does!).
Part 3: Be proactive
10. You will make mistakes
Mistakes are inevitable. It is what you do after that really counts. Have you learnt from these mistakes. Do you know how to better manage and mitigate these errors in the future?
For me, being proactive is my number 1 rule. I picked it up from Stephen R. Convey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I am still learning to master this fundamental habit. Being proactive is the first of his seven habits. Asking more questions is one strategy I use frequently to become more proactive. It takes real skill to identify problems before they occur. Developing this skill takes time and intentional practice. Hence, take every mistake as an opportunity to better yourself.
11. Learn from mentors
Make it a priority to find a good mentor in your work place. If you are lucky as I was, you may be partnered with another teacher who will work closely with you to learn school procedures and processes. If not, ask for help from people you want to learn from. Everyone was a beginner at one point. Especially in the teaching profession, you will find that people are willing to help those who are serious about taking on board advice and feedback.
12. Bring your hobbies to the school
My first school was an all-girls school and I noticed that at break time the students were mainly sitting around on their phones. This was a huge contrast from my own experience of high school, where there were many people were playing sports and running around. I saw an opportunity to start a club where students could come and get active. That was the beginning of Volleyball Club, which has since extended to Friday afternoon training sessions and weekend competitions. I chose volleyball because I played at university and knew enough about it to teach beginners.
Taking on this initiative and being involved in the school community allowed me to gain so much from my work. Especially when the teaching weeks became stressful with assessments and deadlines, I looked forward to mentoring students in volleyball and providing an opportunity for students to develop a love for sport and experience competition. It has been incredibly rewarding, and I will always remember how that feels.
Think about what clubs you might like to bring to your school. Get involved. You really get back what you put in. You could make a club from just about anything of interest e.g. Amity (kindness) club, Anime/Film club, Crystal-growing club etc. Make it your own!
Part 4: It gets better… because you get better
Do not forget to look back to see how far you have come. Think about your first lesson and compare it with your lessons now. With proper reflection, you will work closer towards your goals.
14. Define success by establishing goals
Success is measured by your ability to achieve your goals. Setting goals allows you to improve systematically and incrementally. It empowers you to take ownership of your actions.
“I want to improve my attention to detail and accuracy by double checking documents and reading aloud (25/5/19)”. This was one of my personal goals. Due to the large amount of emails I was sending out, it was very important to me to develop a strong professionalism in my emails. Hence, I made it a priority for myself to double and triple check my emails.
A teaching goal I had for myself was to have one great lesson per class per week. That is, the lesson had to be experimental/inquiry-based, uses physical manipulatives or game etc. These are the lessons that students remember and enjoy. It is important to me that students enjoy their learning and find it meaningful and, as much as possible, fun.
15. Join and contribute to online communities
Online communities can help you maintain your passion for teaching as you are able to explore the amazing things teachers from around the world are doing in their classes. It can inspire you to learn and implement new activities in your classrooms. If you are a Mathematics teacher working in Australia, the MANSW (Mathematics Association of NSW) Facebook group is an incredibly important resource for you.
16. Share ideas e.g. blog, insta, twitter
Give back to the online community! I like to blog to reflect on my journey and to share what I have learnt. If blogging isn’t for you, consider social media! Participating on the online community brings another dimension to teaching that you may find helps you to love teaching even more!
These have been the hard truths I have learnt in my first 2 years of teaching. I hope they have been helpful!