Category Archives: First-year teacher

Security Deposit

Dear First-Year Teacher,

“I don’t got no pencil!”

Every teacher knows that refrain, and every teacher has a different way of responding to it.

Some teachers shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh, well. Responsible workers bring their tools to the job site, but since you didn’t bring yours, I guess you won’t be able to do any work today—and if you don’t do it today, you’ll have twice as much to do tomorrow.”

Some teachers send the pencil-less kid to the office, where there’s a machine that dispenses pencils for a quarter.

And some teachers keep a supply of pencils on hand and hand them out freely to the kid (and it’s usually the same one) who shows up without one.

I try a variation on the third approach. I keep a supply of sharpened pencils on hand for kids who show up empty-handed, but I don’t give them away. Instead, I lend them—and the student has to secure the loan with an item of value. Here’s how the system works:

“Teacher, I don’t got no pencil!”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Gimme a pencil!”

“I’ll lend you a pencil until the end of class.”

“OK! Now, gimme the pencil!”

“Not so fast. What are you going to give me as a security deposit?”


“Well, when you get older and want to rent an apartment, the landlord or manager is going to ask you for a security deposit. That’s an amount of money equal to a month’s rent. If you leave the apartment in good condition when you move out, you get your deposit back. So, what are you going to give me as a security deposit?”

“I don’t got no money.”

“What else do you have?”

“I dunno.”

“How about your cell phone?”

“My cell phone?!!”

“Sure, why not? I know you’ll want your cell phone back, and you’ll get it when you give me my pencil back. Deal?”

“Aw, OK.”

Workers should have their own set of tools, and students should come to class with their own pencils. But the reality is that sometimes they don’t. That’s when you need a backup plan. You really don’t want Cassandra or Carlos to sit through a 60- or 90-minute class period doing nothing.

You’ll figure out a system that works for you, of course, but I like mine, because I think it teaches kids responsibility.

Yours for innovation in the classroom,
Magical Mystical Teacher

The Sweetest Deal of All

Dear First-Year Teacher,

You may not get much respect in the state where you live, but if you’re a teacher in Georgia, you just might. Let me explain.

I was driving to Las Vegas for a brief vacation a few days ago when I found myself behind a car bearing a license plate from Georgia. From where I was on the freeway, I could see that the license plate had some sort of fruit on it. A peach? Probably, since Georgia is known as the Peach State.

But traffic patterns changed, the Georgia car slowed down and I overtook it. That’s when I discovered to my delight that the fruit was not a peach, but an apple. Surrounding the apple were the words “Educators Make a Difference.” Imagine that—a state that makes a license plate especially for teachers!

If you happen to want one, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to own one. You have to fork over $25 to have the plate manufactured and you have to pay the annual registration fee of $20, but you don’t have to pay an annual special tag fee. After your initial investment of $45, you’re going to pay only $20 per year to show the world that you’re a teacher. Isn’t that a sweet deal?

Of course, the sweetest deal for a teacher, respect or no respect, is the privilege of working with children—and you don’t need a license plate on your car to know just how sweet it is.

Yours for the sweetest deal of all,
Magical Mystical Teacher


Dear First-Year Teacher,

Summer is finally here and you’re thinking you just might be able to handle another year of teaching. A couple of months ago, however, you weren’t so sure. One Sunday you wrote: “I am dreading going back to school. I only have eight days until spring break, but I don’t feel like I can make it.”

You were filled with a sense of hopelessness as you looked back over the school year: “I just feel like there are so many things I did wrong in the beginning of the year that are making my job so much harder than it needs to be. I wasn’t strict enough, I didn’t establish a good routine, and I don’t think I’ve really taught them much of anything.”

However, even in your distress, you were reflecting on your practice, identifying the things that didn’t go well, and thinking about the changes you could make. Reflection that leads to positive change is the mark of an effective teacher. (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you’ve already revamped your routines and procedures for next year.)

Oh, sure, there will be times when you feel as though you’re faking it, and that you can’t understand why you still have a job—because (you think) if the principal knew how little you know, she’d fire you in a heartbeat.

But guess what? You weren’t pink-slipped and you weren’t let go at the end of the year. In fact, you’ve already signed a new contract. Obviously your principal believes that you can do the job you were hired to do—so do it!

But not now. Summer’s here. You need a break. Rejuvenate your body, mind and spirit. Only then will you be ready for the first day of school.

Yours for reflection and rejuvenation,
Magical Mystical Teacher

Exercise Your Power: Ask!

Dear First-Year Teacher,

The first day you step into a classroom full of kids as the teacher of record may be the hardest day of your life, because that’s the day you’ll probably discover how little you actually know. That’s why many school districts assign a mentor teacher to the newbies—someone who can answer your big and little questions about teaching in a particular school.

However, you may not feel comfortable asking your mentor teacher questions several times a week—or at all. Let’s face it, just because someone is supposed to be available to answer your questions doesn’t mean that person likes what he or she is supposed to do. (Some mentor teachers get paid a small stipend, and to them it’s “just a job.”) So, if you don’t hit it off with the mentor who’s been assigned to you, find someone else you can talk to freely.

I had to do that. The first year I taught fourth grade, a mentor teacher was assigned to me. For some reason, we just didn’t click. She seemed to resent my asking even the simplest questions. She never turned me away, and she always answered my questions, but her body language displayed her impatience with my “ignorance.”

Fortunately, I discovered that the fourth-grade teacher next door to my classroom, a veteran who was about ready to retire, was eager to help. It didn’t matter how many questions I had or how “infantile” they seemed, “Sally” would help me find the answers. She was never too busy to help. There’s a “Sally” or “Sam” at every school. Keep your eyes and ears open. You’ll soon discover her or him. (More likely, Sally or Sam will discover you; they seem to be attracted to floundering newbies.)

Still, there will be times when you’ll want to ask questions anonymously. That’s when you need to go online. At Teachers.Net, for example, you’ll find dozens of chatboards where other teachers are eager to share their expertise with you. It’s all free, and you never have to divulge your name or the name of your school.

It’s such a relief to be able to turn to your fellow teachers online and ask questions you wouldn’t dare voice aloud to your mentor teacher or anyone else at your school. For example, one beginning teacher was accused of grabbing a student. He wrote:

I was reprimanding a student. I had him in the back of the
room in the corner. I was waving my finger in his face.
Some students told the principal that I grabbed his shirt
by the neck. No one can really see my hand. But now the
student is saying I did it. How do I prove I didn’t do it?
Or do I just accept getting written up and move on? What
would you do?

One of his chatboard colleagues suggested getting in touch with the local union rep immediately. Another wrote:

It is really difficult to fight what students say because it
becomes a they-said, teacher-said situation. The next time you
have to correct a student do not do it in the corner of the room in
front of other students. Never ever put your finger in a student’s
face and never ever invade the student’s space when you talk to
him. You do need to write up what happened. Be prepared for the
principal to interview every student in class.

If you don’t like the idea of going to Teachers.Net, start your own blog and post your questions there. Your colleagues will respond—I know that from experience. I’ve been blogging for three and a half years now. The advice I’ve received from fellow teachers has been my lifeline—and all I had to do was ask!

The most powerful learning tool available to anyone—student or teacher—is the ability to ask questions.

Exercise your power. Ask!

Yours for exercising your power,
Magical Mystical Teacher

Ignoring Dumb Advice

Dear First-Year Teacher,

In a few years you’ll be able to look back and say, “That was some of the dumbest advice I ever received.”

I don’t know what dumb advice you’ll get in your first couple of years in the classroom, but there’s plenty of it out there and some of it’s bound to come your way.

For example, one of the dumbest things anyone ever said to me in my first year of teaching was: “Man, you need to get a real job—this one’s too easy.”

I felt like punching that person!

Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world—and one of the most rewarding.

It’s hard because it seems as though there just aren’t enough hours in the day (or a lifetime) to adequately prepare for the next performance. (Make no mistake about it, every lesson you present to your students is a performance—and the teaching of the lesson is the only dress rehearsal you’ll ever get!)

It’s rewarding because there is absolutely nothing better than seeing the light start glowing on the face of a child who finally “gets” it.

Sure, teachers have several weeks off during the summer—but they don’t get paid for them. (I’ve seen my last paycheck until August.)

Besides, how many teachers are able to step completely out of “teacher mode” even on vacation? It’s June, and most of us are thinking of ways to improve our performance in the classroom next year. We know we can do better. We’re determined to do better.

Most of us are working, even though we aren’t being paid. Some of us are even taking classes to make sure that we don’t lose our edge. We don’t want to stumble into our classrooms (like some of our students do) dull and glassy-eyed after a summer of staring at the TV eight or ten hours a day.

For dedicated educators, education never ends.

So the next time someone offers you some dumb advice, the best thing you can possibly do is to ignore it. Don’t argue with it. Don’t start thinking it’s not as bad as it really is. Don’t file it in your mind to take out and examine at a later date, hoping that like fine wine it will improve with age. It won’t.

“Fish and visitors smell in three days,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack. Dumb advice doesn’t take three days to smell—it stinks right away and the stench is unmistakable. Hold your nose, walk away from it—and you’ll be on your way to becoming a better teacher.

Yours for ignoring dumb advice,
Magical Mystical Teacher

Controlling the Paper Beast

Dear First-Year Teacher,

Here’s a little hint that will save your sanity: You don’t have to grade all the papers that cross your desk—you don’t even have to look at many of them!

My first year in the classroom I nearly drowned in students’ papers—until I re-discovered one of humankind’s most marvelous inventions: the circular file (also known as the wastebasket or trashcan). After I started shoveling mountains of inconsequential paperwork into the trash (recycling would have been even better), I breathed a sigh of relief—and you can too. Just follow these three simple rules for controlling the Paper Beast:

Grade the most important papers—the quizzes, the tests, the essays. Record the grades, and hand the papers back to the students as soon as possible.

Glance at homework. If you assign ten problems, look at only two of them to see if the students are getting the concept or if you need to re-teach.

Get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter—bellwork, for example, or the sheet of paper on which a loquacious student has been compelled to write one hundred times, “I will not talk in class without permission.”

Ruthlessly divest yourself of excess paper and your reward will be a clear (or nearly clear) desktop and an uncluttered mind—two requisites for keeping your sanity in the classroom.

Yours for controlling the Paper Beast,
Magical Mystical Teacher

Advice for the Job Hunt

Dear First-Year Teacher,

In the spring, you were pink-slipped. You held your breath, hoping to beat the odds and get your job back, but when your district decided to close down your school and three others, you knew there wasn’t a chance.

So now you’re on a job hunt.

You e-mailed me a few days ago to tell me that you had sent out 15 applications—and that was enough for one day. “I’ll do more tomorrow,” you wrote. “My butt is numb from this dang chair!”

The next day (presumably after the numbness left your butt) you sent out more applications. In this precarious economic climate you knew you couldn’t afford to apply to only a handful of schools.

A question on one of the applications puzzled you: “Why do you want to work for XYZ School District?”

Maybe, I suggested, you can find something in the district’s mission statement that you can parrot back to them and say, “And that’s why I want to work for you.” As far as I know, you took my advice.

You haven’t been invited to interview in that district yet, but you did receive another invitation to interview—in a district that you’re not terribly thrilled about.

“Great!” I e-mailed. “That was quick! When is your interview? And—need I say?—if they ask you to work for them, you’d better snap it up. This is not the economic climate to be to picky in.”

“Yeah,” you replied, “I know to take the job even if I don’t want it. Grr! There were some places that viewed my app and I really want them to call me. This sucks.”

Life does suck sometimes. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we don’t even come close to getting what we want—and this may be one of those times for you.

I hope that you don’t have to settle for working in district number fifteen on your list, and that you get hired in the district of your choice. There are few things more satisfying than landing the job of your dreams.

But with the competition for teaching jobs so stiff, there’s an excellent chance that the position you really want will be offered to a more experienced teacher. If so, then an attitude adjustment can help to sweeten the bitterness of disappointment, because even if we don’t get what we want, we can learn to want what we get.

Yours for a successful job hunt,
Magical Mystical Teacher