The 10 Commandments for New Teachers (and all new staff in general)

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Written by Suzanne Gonsalves

The rules contained herein can be extrapolated to any workplace. Just replace teacher with workmate, principal with boss and student with client

I  Thou shalt have sub plans ready the first day of school
No matter what, you WILL get sick, hard and often, during the first weeks of work.  You are entering a petri dish of disease.  Students are not known for religious hand washing, infection control, or staying home from school when their siblings are ill.  They attend school when they are most contagious.  They touch all the door knobs, window latches, pencils, papers, and instruments.  They hug you and you really can’t stop them from holding your hand during games.

As the year progresses, redo your plans.  Incorporate games and songs that the students can teach the sub. Have a student in charge in each class.  That person will help the sub learn the games.
DO NOT use word jumbles or crosswords for plans.
DO NOT force students, even older ones, to stay in a seated position for the whole time.

II  Thou shalt know the person who is your boss and treat them well.

A friend recently told me, “I was working  for 3 years before I figured out who my boss was.”

In many larger organisations, the person who hires you is NOT the person who determines how long you stay employed.  Where there is a coordinator or  head or the like, that person will usually be the one who chairs the committee to hire you.  They will look for expertise, professional development, and perhaps watch you teach a sample lesson.  The principal of the school may or MAY NOT be on your hiring committee, but that principal will determine your evaluation and renewal status.  Principals are monarchs over their schools, they are responsible for what happens there and they have the authority to determine who works in their school.  It is your principal’s impression of you that matters, not the parents, other teachers, or your administrator.

Until you get off probation , the principal could not renew your contract and give no reason for it.   The principal can reject you simply because they don’t like something trivial about you.  If you can prove racial, gender, sexual orientation, or other illegal discrimination, you might have a chance to appeal your status, but this is very very rarely successful.  The fate of your career rests with the principal.  If you do not get along well with your principal, act accordingly.  If you think your principal does not like you based on an illegal discrimination, document all contact with your principal and include witnesses and quotes.

The best course of action is to develop a cordial and friendly relationship with your principal from the first day of your employment.  Don’t wait for them to introduce themselves to you, seek them out.  Act as though meeting them is the highlight of your day.  Take interest in them as a leader, colleague, and person.  Ask them questions about themselves.  If the interest is genuine, it will come across well.  This is not kissing up, this is emotional intelligence!  Be smart!  People matter!

III  Thou shalt learn (and embrace) the traditions of thy school.
Every school has quirky traditions that effect the music teacher and her curriculum.  Are you expected to do a percussion parade during the Chinese New Year celebration in January?  Is there a Thanksgiving feast where Native American and colonial music is expected?  Does the school celebrate Earth Day?  Is there an extra curricular activity that is really the heart of your job, but on paper is an add-on ?  Sit down with the principal, a veteran teacher in that building, and a parent and go through the calendar month-by-month.  Do this at separate, informal meetings and figure out what the expectations are.

YOU WILL NOT CHANGE THE EXPECTATIONS!!!!!  If you cannot tolerate the expectations, don’t take the job.  MAKE NO MAJOR CHANGES IN YOUR FIRST YEAR.  Make the foundational changes in your curriculum so that you can implement changes in years to come.  Get the faculty and staff on your side first.

If you teach in a building where there is a stark difference between student age groups, meet with veteran teachers from all the age groups.  For instance, if your school is K-8, meet with a veteran Kindergarten, third, and seventh grade teacher.  If the principal is new beware.  He/she doesn’t know the traditions.  In this case, meet with the principal last and inform him/her of the traditions you learned.  Be that principal’s ally and helper.  In this way you will show your competence and help ensure renewal of your contract!

Discipline: Some schools have a universal silent signal, weekly assemblies, and jargon for discipline and positive reinforcement.  You NEED to learn this.  It will help you manage your classroom better and it will help your students behave better.  Better behavior makes everyone feel more successful.

IV. Thou shalt care for thyself
Sleep, good nutrition, exercise, time with family and friends, prayer, and fun give your life balance.  Without balance, you will be unable to bring your best to the classroom.

Transition time: Many people need to “decompress” or “transition” from office to home.  Activities like a long commute with books on tape, exercise classes, walking the dog, or meeting a friend for coffee can all serve as transition.

It’s easy to overwork at the beginning of your first year.  But please listen to me, overwork leads to burnout.  You want a long and productive career.  Set working hours for yourself.  Start off with 50-60 hours per week.  Make sure you get 24 hours a week of NO WORK AT ALL.

Mental Health:  You are about to be part of some amazing lives, not all of them happy ones.  Encountering the stress of your students'(or client’s) lives can be very difficult and stressful for you.  Don’t underestimate the impact that your students/clients will have on your life.  Without good plans for your health, you will lose lots of sleep, gain lots of weight, and otherwise make yourself sick. Good nutrition and exercise have been proven to improve mood and bring mental stability in stressful times.

Sometimes you just need a day off to go to the movies, take in a museum, go fishing, or otherwise get away.  That’s when you take a personal day.  You can also take days for closing on a house, doctor’s appointments, caring for family members, or whatever else comes your way.  USE THESE DAYS.  They don’t roll over from year to year and you only get 2-3 of them.  Taking a half-day can feel like taking a full one.  If you’re hesitant to take a full day, try taking the morning or afternoon instead.

Sick Days: You can get 10-15 sick days each year if you are a full-time employee.  These days roll over from year to year.  This is a fantastic resource and one you should definitely use when you need it.  When I first started I never imagined I’d need half the days I was given, much less all of them.  I thought I’d never marry or have children, but I was mistaken.  I mentioned your ability to get mighty sick in your first years  in Commandment #1, but there are other reasons to use these days.  Here are a few.

  • your child is ill with a cold or something more serious
  • your spouse is ill with a cold or something more serious
  • you become very ill and need some months off in year 10 of teaching
  • your parent becomes ill and needs you to care for them
  • Paternity /Maternity leave

The family and medical leave act does not allow for paid time off, it just prevents you from being fired for taking the time.  It’s amazing how quickly a cancer diagnosis or sick parent can take several sick days from your bank.  Without that bank of days, your family might be in serious financial distress if you take time from work.  Some employers have supplemental insurance for medical and family leave.  If you have the option, GET IT.

Going to work with the flu does nobody a favor.  You will only spread the virus and lower the quality of life for everybody around you.  You will also do some lousy work.  Stay home and take care of yourself.

Bereavement: If you lose a close family relative, you will be eligible for a week of bereavement leave. You will need this time to arrange for funeral and memorial services, comfort family members, and attend services.  Take the full week, even if you feel fine.  Sometimes this week can feel like a vacation if it comes after a long and difficult death process.  Give yourself some rest to recover from the death.  You may be surprised at how good your sleep is.  After my mother died, I was so released from the stress of her death that I slept really well.  I was able to be stronger for other family members.  NEVER, EVER, EVER BE A HERO AT WORK AT THE EXPENSE OF YOUR FAMILY.  Especially when death is concerned.  You only die once!

V. Thou shalt plan and document thy professional development
Without certification you can’t demand the highest salaries   Getting and keeping certification will be a goal for you for the rest of your career.  It’s not that difficult,but it can seem complicated.

 The development you document need not be work related.

$Money$:
Both public and private organizations offer money for professional development.  USE IT.  It does not roll over from year to year and is usually quite generous.  I’ve worked in situations varying from $300-$2000 of annual professional development money for each teacher.

VI. Thou shalt map thy curriculum
Most Kodaly level courses are taught on the Hungarian model.  This model assumes  instruction 3 times per week.   It is unrealistic to assume that you can fit 120 lessons into 40 lessons!   Set modest goals for yourself.  If there will be a swath of weeks dedicated to a school festival, intense concert rehearsal, or vacation, take that into account when mapping your curriculum.  Also keep in mind how many days your classes might be canceled or postponed because of Monday or Friday holidays.  It’s easy for your Monday students to fall months behind other classes by the end of the year because of Monday holidays.

Don’t forget to map performance skills too.  How do you want the children’s conducting to progress?  What about expressive singing?  How will movement be incorporated in performance and rehearsal?  How many consecutive lessons can you do in the fall to facilitate your first composition-intensive lesson?

Don’t forget that you WILL be sick for a few lessons.  Keep that in mind when you plan.  What skills can a substitute work on?  Assume that students can do everything better than the sub.  Students lead the substitute in the most successful lessons.


VII. Thou shalt be flexible
There are loads of times when you will be asked to change your routine, put off a unit to do something else, or loan your space or equipment to other departments within the school.  As a general rule, you should say “yes” to these requests.

Sometimes, however, the request would really effect the education or safety of the children in a negative way.  In these cases, negotiation and discussion are necessary.  Here are some request challenges that I and some of my colleagues have negotiated and discussed.


VIII. Thou shalt learn thy students
Classroom management:  If you cannot manage your class’ behavior, you cannot teach anything!

It is very important that you STEAL EVERYTHING YOU CAN FROM OTHER TEACHERS. Learn how they teach a particular song and how classroom management is handled in that teaching technique.  Structure is everything.  Have an opening activity.  Have a structured way for each lesson to unfold.  Have a closing activity that sums up what was learned today.  Make expectations clear for progress to be made between lessons.  Be clear in all things!

Name: If you’ve never learned 500-1000 new names in a month, you soon will.  It’s not easy the first time and you need to ask for forgiveness many times before you master the names.  Every teacher has tricks and short cuts to help them learn the names.  Seating charts are very helpful and you need to write them out and keep them.  Play games  that use children’s names during the first weeks of school to help you and the children learn all the names in their class.

Every business success course will tell you that people find their own names to be very beautiful.  Children need you to know them.  If you struggle with a child’s name, learn more about them and it will cover any future memory loss.  Here’s an example:

“Oh gee, I know who you are, but I can’t remember your name.  I know you want to be a veterinarian, you love blue, and you had the most awesome socks last week.  Hmmmmm, I give up, does it begin with a “K”?”

If you remember them but forget their name, they are more likely to forgive your error.


IX. Thou shalt say only positive things about thy school
There is no perfect workplace.  There is no perfect administrator.  There is no perfect student.  And, most importantly,There is no perfect teacher.

THAT MEANS YOU!

I guarantee that, during the course of your career, you will do things to annoy, inconvenience, and possibly even anger your colleagues.  You may not know the error of your ways for days or even years after you commit the misstep.  Do you really want that colleague to bad-mouth you?  Even if what they say is true?  Gossip, innuendo, information swapping, or bad-mouthing is not becoming to the person who says it.  These utterances create enmity between staff members and color their impressions of one another in a negative way.  If you say negative things about your workplace, it just reflects poorly on you, and it can easily cost you your job, your reputation, and your livelihood!

Saying what you think is unwise unless there is an official reason for you to do so.  Will the students be positively impacted by your opinion being given right now?  Why does this person need to know my opinion?  Why does this person care about my impression of (administrator, colleague, parent, etc).

Gossip leads to lack of trust.  It also hardens you to your peers and dehumanizes them in your eyes.  Don’t get in the habit!  If you cannot avoid gossip in the staff room, eat  quietly in your personal space.  If you cannot change the topic in a conversation from gossip, remove yourself from the conversation.  This is the best thing for you as a person and a professional.

Here are some examples.

   Athena (chose her name because she’s the goddess of wisdom) is a specialist between two schools.  One school has a principal who always wanted her to be there, the other has a principal who needed her to justify the need for that kind of specialist in the system at all.  Both principals were always cordial to Athena, but Athena knew that, since both were needed to keep her employed, she’d have to win over the second principal to hold onto her job.  

Athena made herself so visible to both principals and caused such a difference in her special needs students’ quality of education and ability to perform in class, that now both schools want a full-time specialist and Athena has to choose which school she will work in.  

What should Athena say when the principals or staff ask her, “which school will you choose?”  

Athena is wise.  “I love them the same.  I might flip a coin or draw a name from a hat,” say she.  

Does she have an opinion about her choice?  Sure!  Is she going to share that until it is absolutely necessary?  NO!  Maybe there will be budget cuts or a change in fiscal thinking and her option could be taken away before the end of the year.  School budgets are capricious.  If that happened and she had made a choice or bad-mouthed the second principal, her life would become quite difficult afterward.  Be like Athena!

You may ask, “what if the most veteran teachers in my school got that way because they knew the most and therefore knew how to play the game?”  My answer is simple.  If you are in a place where simply doing your job, treating others really well, being fair, and looking out for the clients is not enough to maintain employment and status, get another job .  Sure, these schools exist, but they are the minority.  If you keep going from place to place and encounter this “politics” and never fit in, perhaps the problem is you.  You are the common denominator in your life experiences, so if you keep getting the same treatment everywhere and it is unfair, perhaps you are the problem.  In the absence of illegal and unfair discrimination, your exercise of The Golden Rule should be enough to sustain your career.  The teachers who gossip in order to get by are not trusted by other teachers and ultimately don’t engender the love and respect from their peers and their students that you would like to cultivate for yourself.

If you are at a workshop,  meeting, or on the web, keep you negative opinions to yourself.  Words can hurt, and the one they will probably hurt is you!

 Here’s a cautionary tale.  One that as relayed to me when I told a colleague that I was writing these commandments.

Judy was a new teacher.  She had “issues” with some conditions in her room and with her administrator.  She was at a workshop at the administrative offices and was the only one at her school at that meeting.  She privately told a new acquaintance about her frustrations.  Her words got back to her building.  She was not renewed for employment the following year.  

X. Thou shalt find joy in each day and share that joy with everyone you encounter
You are blessed!   Having and keeping a cheerful disposition is crucial to your effectiveness as a worker.  When you start to have problems controlling your class (and you will,)  when you find yourself dreading certain students (and you will,) when you are at a loss for dealing with a colleague or a parent (and you will be,) have a support system in place to discuss these issues and find resolution so you don’t lose sleep and break commandments.  The best person to help is your college professor, spouse, veteran teacher who inspired you to teach in the first place, or other discrete mentor.  Frustration, anger, feelings of failure, and anxiety are all wonderful gifts for your teaching.  These feelings tell you that you are doing something wrong.  Without them, you don’t change for the better.  Embrace your many failures in your first years of teaching.  Don’t plan on making mistakes, but forgive yourself quickly and always have a plan to address a problem.

With a solid support system, good self-care, keeping up with paper work, building relationships at school, and positive talk, I’m sure you will find joy and peace in your new profession.

Good Luck and God Bless You!!!!!

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