As classes begin, 10 tips for young teachers from a veteran PBC educator

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Mike Dowling

Mike Dowling, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Emerald Cove Middle School in Wellington, began his 26th year in the classroom this week. Seven years ago he wrote 10 “Be’s” for young teachers.

This week he posted the list on his Facebook page, and we are re-publishing it with his permission.

Ten “Be’s” for New Teachers

By Mike Dowling

1. Be honest.

Don’t pretend you are something you are not. If you’re new, don’t pretend to be a veteran. You may be new, but many of your parents are coming through with their second, third, or fourth child. They have a grapevine and if you pretend to be something you are not, soon the word will go out that you are untrustworthy.

Your success will depend on an open and honest relationship with your parents. There may come a time when you will have to have difficult conversations with parents. You will need to have established an open and trusting relationship to work in the best interest of the child.

2. Be yourself.

We’re embarking on a long ride, and while you may be able to fool the parents, you don’t stand a chance of fooling the kids. Don’t let this freak you out, but there will be a bunch of eyes watching your every move and a bunch of ears listening to your every word.

It has been my experience that they will forgive you for the many mistakes you will make — or at least the many mistakes I have made and will continue to make — so long as they can trust you.

3. Be responsible.

Treasure every child as the individual that he or she is. Ignore the pressure to focus on testing. Remember “in loco parentis” not as a legal term, but as a philosophy.

I’m a bald-headed, bearded middle-aged man, but for a few hours every day, I’m also a second mom. Engage everyone, especially those students who want to hide. Keep a running total in your head (it’s easier than it sounds) to make sure everybody gets called on. Make sure E-V-E-R-Y child is highlighted.

Find something in every child that makes you glad he or she is with you. (I promise you it isn’t hard) Respect the responsibility you have.

4. Be open-minded.

You are not the parent. You will see many different types of parenting; some you will be inspired by, others will horrify you. You are a very important part of a child’s life, but only for a short period in the child’s life.

Respect the fact that, while your role is very important, it is only temporary.

5. Be alert.

If you see something wrong, you are obliged to act. In the state of Florida, it our job to report—not to investigate—any suspicion of abuse. In my career, I’ve had to call the Department of Children and Family Services four times. Each time my hands shook and my throat went dry because I was not positive of what I observed.

The calls are anonymous, but parents may be able to guess who made the call. Tough! Your responsibility is to the child. Nobody says the parents have to like you, and the law is clear in saying you must report any suspicions.

6. Be proactive.

Call every parent the first week. Exchange contact information, and if you are a veteran teacher, set your expectations. The parent does not expect you to know their child the first week, so you can establish a friendly rapport before there are any discipline issues. You may also get first-hand information about any concerns long before the official paperwork makes it to your desk.

The 504 plan, the IEP, or the EP tells you the minimum you must do, but an open relationship with the parent can help to maximize every child’s potential.

7. Be visible.

Stand outside your door at the beginning of class — even when the principal isn’t around. I’ve always told my students that they are entering my home, and I owe them the respect of greeting them by name.

“Keep telling me your name until I know it — don’t let me get away with ‘buddy’ or some other generic name. Make sure I know you as the special person you are.”

If that sounds corny, get over it.

8. Be diligent.

Keep records of every phone call or parent contact. It doesn’t matter if you keep it in a notebook, or scraps of paper or in your grade book. Ninety-nine percent of parents will be on your side and willing to forgive your mistakes, but always be prepared to demonstrate to your principal that you have done your job.

9. Be transparent.

Don’t make empty threats because the kids and the parents will soon learn to ignore them.

10. Be brave.

Even after twenty-five rounds, I’ll have a twinge in my stomach as that first group comes in. Don’t worry too much because they’re a lot more afraid of you than you are of them.

Teaching is an unbelievably challenging job. Don’t bother going to the doctor, it is natural that you’ll need a lot more sleep the first few days or weeks. Your mind and your body will have been engaged all day. But remember, this is what you signed up for, and I can tell you from experience that becoming a teacher is the best decision I have ever made in my life.

The first few days are a bear, but it won’t take long for you to find out if this is the job and the life for you. If it is, I guarantee you’ll have a blast.

I have.

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