20 Things I’ve Learned From Teaching 20 Years

It is hard to believe that as of September I will have been teaching twenty years. My experiences have led me from middle school to elementary school, and college level teaching across the Northeast. For the past ten years I have been grounded in Westchester County, New York. Just like the posters that highlight “All You Ever Need to Know, You Learned in Kindergarten,” I have reflected in this post twenty key ideas that shape my teaching philosophies.

1. Smile and Greet Your Students at the Door EVERYDAY


Research reports that positive interactions with students lead to increased engagement. Teachers can interact with students by verbally greeting them or offer nonverbal positive interactions like a High 5 or head nod with eye contact.

2. It’s not about the content, rather building skills


Everything is Googleable in this day and age. No matter what content you teach, you are a literacy teacher. All that you teach requires students to be better readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and critical thinkers.  

3. It’s got to be relevant and authentic


Students need to know why what they are learning matters and how it will help them beyond a test score. Students can detect fake as fast as you can detect BS. If it’s not relevant leave it out.

4. Technology doesn’t make everything better


There are so many great tech tools available and new ones added daily. Integrating and utilizing technology is a thoughtful application. It’s not about using technology for the sake of using technology. Decide what you want students to learn and what the outcomes should be. Then, choose the tool that suits the desired objectives.

5. No matter how you dress it up, a worksheet is still a worksheet

Revision Passport 3

At the end of the year it’s going in the garbage if not before than. Think about the paper you distribute to your students. Decide what is truly necessary. Utilize Google Classroom and digital tools to help communicate the same ideas and activities. Be earth friendly.

6. Teaching is 24/7  


I get so tired of non educators telling me how great my job is because I have my “summers off” and am finished working by 3. In fact, I know little to none who don’t work throughout the summer or take their work home daily. Just look at the amazing professional developing happening on Twitter every second of the day, there are millions of teachers online looking and discussing self improvement in education. So, let’s get the record straight, teachers bring their work home – sometimes 100 essays to read and evaluate in one weekend — and work throughout their summer.

7. You learn something everyday and never stop learning


I love learning. I think a part of me became a teacher so I could never stop learning.  I have grown into the teacher I am today because of the countless professional development opportunities I have participated in. Twitter has only made it cost friendly and easily accessible. Attending conferences and reading professional books expands my knowledge, resources, and inspires my teaching.   As much as I learn from other educators, my students teach me as well. My students have given me great ideas for activities and even remind me to teach in a way that supports all the learners in my class.

8. Students Acting Out are Actually Reaching Out


If a student is acting out or withdrawn then something is going on. I ask parents to email me when work is difficult or something is going on at home so that I more aware their whole situation. All of our students have baggage and it impacts their behavior and actions in school. Be considerate of this and know that your class is not the center of their world. Also, the support staff at schools are great resources to help with these matters.

9. Students need routines, but tedious repetitive work is just boring


Scholastic.com states, “When routines and procedures are carefully taught, modeled, and established in the classroom, children know what’s expected of them and how to do certain things on their own. Having these predictable patterns in place allows teachers to spend more time in meaningful instruction.” Be careful, though. Ending every class with an exit ticket becomes rote and boring for our students.

10. Play nice with your colleagues. In life, we often have to deal with difficult people


My grandmother used to tell me, “Kill them with kindness.” Be nice to everyone, even if they are rude to you. That has been my adopted motto for my entire teaching career. Kindness matters and gets you a lot further than meanness, anger, and rage.

11. Take care of yourself.


Carve out a little time for yourself every day to do what you love – mediate, cook, exercise, spend time with your family, read. Your health and well being is vital to your success as a teacher.  Stress is harmful and eats away at your health. You must take care of yourself, eat right, exercise, and get a good night’s sleep to be a productive person.

  1. Continuously Build Your PLN – Professional Learning Network


Who are your cheerleaders? Who are your mentors? Who are the people who inspire you and encourage you to do and be your best? Surround yourself with those people. Use social media to continuously build a professional learning network to help you reach your professional goals and push you to be a better person/teacher.

  1. Classroom Aesthetics Matter


How you set up your classroom is a reflection of who you are and what you value. Think about what you put on your walls and the arrangement of student desks. If you haven’t changed up the materials on the walls in more than a year, change it up. Color, lighting, air quality, pictures, decorations matter. I am a proponent of brain compatible learning and know that the classroom environment affects learning 100%. It is important to create a classroom environment that is inviting, calm and without clutter for all the learners in your classroom. Bring in furniture, plants, and calming colors that are comfortable and promote learning.

  1.  Tap into Multiple Intelligences


Ask students to sing, dance, act, build, and illustrate in addition to the reading and writing everyday. Movement is important and helpful to students. Allow students to show what they know in ways that highlight their strengths. Encourage students to act out a scene from a text or create videos that explain how to solve a problem. Students can put into song their understanding of a historical event and even create a dance about cell mitosis. When conducting a survey, poll students by asking them to stand up if they agree. Sitting and listening can be torturous for and at school students are sitting for more than 4.5 hours a day!

  1.   Families can do Without Homework


As a parent of a middle school student and an elementary school student I see how homework can bring added stress, competition, and anger among families. As a teacher I have removed homework knowing my students are over scheduled outside of school with extra curriculars and family time. My only request is that my students read for 30 minutes or more every night. All my student’s writing and work is done in class. There is less stress on students and parents when homework is eliminated. I know what my students are capable of and what skills I need to address to make them better readers and writers. I see their actual work, not the work of mom, dad, or the tutor.

  1. Would You Want to Be A Student in Your Classroom?

Genius Hour

In everything you plan and everything you do in your classroom ask yourself, “How would I feel if I was a student in my own classroom?” If you are bored with any aspect of your lesson, then so will your students. Now, every lesson does not have to be edutainment. But, think about all those young people looking and listening to you – in addition to tapping into multiple intelligences, make sure your lessons are authentic, engaging, hands-on and minds-on so that your students are actively engaged with the lesson.

  1. Keep a Hugs & Kisses File


Keep a file for the cards, thank yous, positive notes and warm fuzzies that you collect while teaching. At the same time, I also have an “Asshole File” with emails of parents telling me off because of a grade or score on their child’s assignment – this might make a great book one day!. It is always great to go back to these artifacts every now and again to read the messages that parents, students, and administrators in honor of you.

  1. Learning Happens Beyond the Walls of the Classroom

California Museum of Science

Learning is not only confined to the walls of school. Learning happens everywhere and anywhere. In fact, I would say one place I learn the most is when I am driving in my car to and from work listening to NPR (National Public Radio). Listening to the radio shows and podcasts has inspired my thinking and teaching. I have listened to RadioLab so much to deconstruct the format as a five paragraph essay that I wrote about in Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age: Inspiration for All Levels and Literacies (ISTE, 2014).  I am also a huge proponent of field trips and leaving the classroom to learn about the world around us. Visit art and science museums, farms, parks, and research labs with your students. Can’t get out, then virtual field trips or bring the field trip into your classroom.

  1. It’s Gotta Be Fun (at least) 80% of the Time

Paper Towel Brainstorm

If you are not having fun, if you don’t love your job, if you are photocopying the same packets and worksheets year after year, it’s time for a sabbatical or maybe a new career. Amazing teachers I know are passionate, caring, have incredible energy, and their students always look like they are having fun learning. Your attitude is everything. As Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate states, “Teaching in a way that empowers students, develops a love of learning, sparks curiosity, encourages an Innovator’s Mindset, embraces risk-taking, and encourages persistence in the face of obstacles has a LIFE-CHANGING impact on our students.” This is the teacher I strive to be and want to be known for.

  1.  laugh-thi3

At least once a day have a good laugh – not at the spite of others. Have fun. Laugh often. From the scientific perspective, laughter is an elegant mind-body phenomenon that reduces the production of stress hormones and boosts the immune system.


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One thought on “20 Things I’ve Learned From Teaching 20 Years

  1. bjneary says:

    I loved this thoughtful post and I know I would love being in your classroom! Your love of learning, technology & reading, excitement, thoughtfulness, kindness, laughter and your smile will continue to bring “learning is fun” to the many students you will continue to have an impact on, keep up your tireless philosophies, your students will BENEFIT!

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