Twenty-one years ago, I welcomed my first class of students to kick off my career as a classroom teacher. I learned so many lessons, both big and small that year. During that first year, both my students and Midge, an incredible mentor in the room next door, guided my decisions, constantly reminded me of what’s instructionally important, and provided the support and community I needed as a new teacher. Those lessons learned that year have evolved over time and have become refined into three guiding principles I often share with new teachers. I turn to again and again when needed, even twenty years later.
Guiding Principle #1: Teach children, not programs.
“We teach children, not programs,” Midge reminded me when I asked her if I could skip the next lesson in a reading program’s sequence because I felt my students just did not need it. Midge continued, “Follow the lead of the kids. Ask yourself what they need, and then provide it.” These words had such an impact that I wrote them down on a note card and taped it to my desk.
Programs and curriculums should be used as tools to meet the strengths and needs of the children in your classroom; they should not be used as a fixed sequence of lessons from which you cannot deviate. The exact sequence of a program will not meet all your students’ strengths and needs at all times. Additionally, classroom library books, small group books, and other resources will also be valuable tools in your instructional practice. Just like with a mechanic fixing a car or a chef preparing a meal, a teacher needs multiple tools to get the job done at different times.
To ground your thinking in teaching students, not programs, consider the flow and three guiding questions seen here.
- What are my students doing and understanding?
- How should I respond?
- Is my response supporting my students’ ability to do and understand?
Make frequent use of formative assessment to inform your instructional decision making. I’m not referring to only referring to computerized program data or standardized test scores. Rather, I recommend observing students reading and writing in class. Based on what you see and hear from your students, what do they need? Based on what they are doing in the moment or patterns over time, which instruction should be prioritized? The answers to these questions will vary day to day and week to week. To learn more about formative assessment, chapter four of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading can help. That entire chapter is devoted to practical, classroom-tested, research-backed formative assessment information, tips, tools, and how-to.
Guiding Principle #2: Say yes/and, not either/or.
In that first year I spent with Midge as my mentor, I had the opportunity to observe her read aloud beloved picture books, give direct instruction in the craft of writing, lead targeted small group reading instruction, and much more. I learned that good teaching utilizes many different methods and comes in various forms.
Today, mixed messages on how to best meet the needs of young students are bombarding teachers from all directions. New and veteran teachers alike are hearing and reading proclamations claiming you must do this or you should never do that. It can be terribly confusing! Instead of completely discarding a practice or prioritizing one thing over another, it is important for all teachers to make space for the multiple types of instruction and learning that are needed for our youngest readers and writers.
It’s true that children need to be taught how to decode words accurately. It’s equally true that they need to choose their own books to read and enjoy. Both of these practices — and many others — should be taking place in every classroom every day. Each time I need to ground myself in what matters, I return to a seminal piece of writing in literacy education by Drs. Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel, Every Child, Every Day. Allington and Gabriel outline and explain six literacy experiences that children should engage in each day at school: every child reads something they choose, reads accurately, reads something they understand, writes about something personally meaningful, talks with peers about reading and writing, and listens to a fluent adult read aloud (Allington and Gabriel, 2012).
If you have not yet read this piece, bookmark it and find a time to savor the research-based guidance from these two experts in our field. Then, ask yourself how you can put it into practice; we all have had to do some adjusting at one time or another! Say yes/and to instructional practices and methods that you see working for your students. Block out the noise that proclaims you must choose either/or.
Guiding Principle #3: When in doubt, seek out support.
You don’t have to do this work alone. While you will likely spend much of your time in your classroom solo with your students, you always have support that is just a door or click away. Sometimes that support comes in the form of the colleague in the room next door. I have been fortunate: I had support from my mentor Midge while I was a first-year teacher, and over 20 years later I work with a collaborative grade level team and a supportive principal. Yet, I understand the support you need may not always be in the same building.
Sometimes, collegial support comes from mentors and groups outside of your school. Joining a well-respected professional organization like The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) or The International Literacy Association (ILA) has the power to give you the support and community you need while you navigate your first years as a teacher. Joining NCTE has helped me grow my practice and knowledge base as a literacy educator, and it has connected me with many like-minded teachers across the country who are now also my friends. Support and community make a huge difference. Sometimes that support is in your own building, other times it is just a mouse-click or a text message away.
Over 20 years ago, Midge took the time and care to offer the support I needed as a new teacher. She was there for my classroom successes and offered the advice I needed in times of frustration. As you move through the early part of your teaching career, you’ll experience many highs, some lows, joyful moments, and times of frustration. Cherish those joyful moments. In the tougher moments, always remember that there will be more joys to come. As Midge taught me all those years ago, it also helps to let the children lead the way, hold tight to what’s instructionally sound, and lean on the support and community you have, or take steps to seek it out.
Nosek, C. (2022). Answers to Your Biggest Questions Aout Teaching Elementary Reading. Corwin.
Allington, R. & Gabriel, R. (2012). Every Child, Every Day. Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A 69(6)