My advice to new teachers at the start of the school year


I first posted this in 2011, but I still stand by this advice. There are also some really great comments at the bottom that contain additional advice:

1) Be yourself (unless your “self” is rude, obnoxious, spiteful, arrogant, or similarly unpleasant in which case you should rethink your chosen profession anyway). When I first started teaching I worked very hard at adopting my “teacher persona.” I believe this was a result of some benign advice from an associate teacher or a professor at the faculty of education. The thing is, it’s exhausting and the kids see right through it. I tried to copy the teaching styles of teachers I respected and admired, and I suppose that’s not a bad way to start. It actually helped me figure out the kind of teacher that I’m not. I am not a stern no-nonsense disciplinarian. I am silly, laid-back, and occasionally irreverent. That doesn’t mean my students run amok, but I had to find my own way to “be a teacher.”

2) Dress up. A little. But dress your age. If you, like me, barreled on through your undergrad and straight into teacher’s college and then were lucky enough to get a position the next school year (I know… very lucky), then you’re… what… 23? Wow. You’re not much older than the grade 12s and you won’t look much older. You’re not going to fool anyone into thinking that you’re an ancient 30 something like I am, but when you’re 23, it’s embarrassing and awkward to be mistaken for a student (When you’re 32, it rocks). So, judge the vibe of your school. Some schools are more casual than others, but don’t think you can get away with the board short and flip-flop look that the eccentric, close-to-retirement, history teacher is “rocking” (questionably). If you dress up a little bit, it sends a signal that you think this important enough to dress up for and that helps–but don’t be afraid to out your own stamp on it that says “hey I’m not 32 yet.”

3) Don’t do stupid things. You’ve probably already been so scared by faculty of education lectures and gossipy horror stories that spread through your social foundations class about teachers who did foolish things on social media and were then fired. That’s not what I’m here to do. I do not want you to decide to erase your web presence and ban technology from the classroom because you’re afraid of all the horrible things that could happen to you. We are in an interesting place in our history right now and I suspect 20 years from now (I hope) we’ll all laugh about the angst we were having in education over social media. Rather than trying to eliminate your web presence, create a professional one. Start a professional blog where you reflect on and share evidence of your learning. Get on Twitter and start following other teachers (Not sure how to get started? Go here.). They will be a great support network for you and can help you out when it’s 1:00am and you really can’t hash out ideas with your department head and your girlfriend is sick of hearing about how stressed out you are. Don’t friend students on Facebook (I know some teachers who do and I have the utmost faith that they are extremely professional with their students but I won’t ever advise you to do it), but you may consider setting up a Facebook page for your class. If you teach in the Waterloo board in fact, it’s encouraged. That way you can keep in touch with students in with a medium they use, but they don’t have access to your personal information. Bottom line: never post anything online that you wouldn’t say in front of the class or in front of your principal. If you must vent, save it for direct messages and emails to your friends.

4) Cut yourself some slack. You won’t be a perfect teacher in your first year. Actually you’ll never be a perfect teacher. That’s okay. Think of your goal for your first year as being one of survival and harm reduction. Do as little harm as possible to yourself and your students, and you’re off to a good start in my opinion. If you’re a good teacher, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions you made, coming up with different ways you could have but didn’t handle a situation, and generally berating yourself for sucking. You probably don’t suck. Lighten up. Have a beer. Go for a night out with your non-teacher friends (do you still have those?) and don’t talk about school–they won’t get it and it’s not healthy for you to talk about it all the time.

This is hardly an exhaustive list but you probably have enough people giving you advice. Hang in there. Have some fun. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Thoughts on bells, whistles, and frivolity


Recently, I’ve had  teachers ask me questions about teaching using social networking sites like Ning and,  and I’ve noticed a trend. They like what social networking sites seem to make possible and they want to use technology to increase student engagement, but they’ve expressed concern over the fact that the sites have a lot of bells and whistles. I think they’re concerned that students will confuse the educational sites with the social sites they use outside the classroom.

I understand this concern because I am well aware that students behave inappropriately on sites like Myspace and Facebook, but if you decide to use a site like Schoology or Edmodo (which are cool–don’t get me wrong) because you don’t want to use something that looks too much like Facebook, then aren’t you kind of defeating the purpose? Aren’t you missing out on opportunities to teach appropriate use of social media? If you want to have students create Facebook-like profile pages for characters in a novel you’re studying, but you don’t want to use a site that mimics what Facebook can do because it doesn’t look “educational” … then why bother? If the goal is to increase student engagement then you should use a tool that’s … well … engaging. Shouldn’t you?

Now, I’m not saying Edmodo and Schoology are not engaging. They are. I’ve used Edmodo and my students have thought it was cool. I’ve checked out Schoology and it looks pretty useful too, but you need to really think about what you’re trying to achieve and then choose the best tool for that task.

I’ve had teachers tell me before that they tried blogging with their students but they weren’t really into it. When they tell me what tools they’re using for blogging, then I get it. The tools are boring. Yawn…. Appearance matters, okay?

I think some of the concern comes from teachers worrying that other teachers, administrators, or parents might not think that students are learning when using a site that looks too “social”. My response? Invite those teachers, administrators, and parents to join your site. People fear what they don’t understand (duh), so let them in.

And who says education can’t be fun? Bring on the bells and whistles, I say. 

The Mouse Potatoes are LEARNING

And you thought they were just checking out inappropriate pictures of each other on Facebook.

A new study out of the US shows that all that time kids spend on social networking sites is actually helping them learn. The study’s researcher says, “spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

The way that teens socialize and learn from each other online raises questions and possiblities about the way in which we teach.

Some of the key findings in the study are:

  • There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
    • Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
    • Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
  • Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
    • Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
    • The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
  • Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
    • The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
    • Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
  • Most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet.
    • Most youth use the Internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
    • Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
    • “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.

    I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that teens prefer learning from each other. Maybe we should be looking for ways to use this to our benefit rather than search for ways to block sites from our school networks.