5 things I wish undergraduate programs taught me

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Most of the people in my circle know I teach 4th grade in my spare time. (HA! It actually takes up most of my time). It’s an amazing job, profession, career, whatever you want to call it, I absolutely love it. But just because I love it does not mean by any sense that is is easy. Teaching is actually the hardest job I’ve ever had to do. (And I worked in the restaurant business for awhile).

So, let me fill you in on a little secret: teaching programs in college can only teach you so much. In other words there are many, and I mean many, things that teaching programs do not teach you. I’ve learned these so far from my year and a half teaching career. Hopefully they help you get started!

So, let me fill you in on a little secret: teaching programs in college can only teach you so much.

  1. Classroom management is way more important than the teaching itself. 

Most college undergraduate programs for teachers do not teach a class on classroom management. You take your teaching methods courses, math, science, reading & writing, and social studies. However, there is not a methods course for how to manage 30 little humans in one classroom. In many ways, this is like learning how to drive. You take a few classes, learn the basics, learn the content you need to know to take a driving test, but you don’t really learn how to drive until you are alone on the freeway figuring out how to cross two lanes to take the exit you are supposed to take. In this way, teaching is very much like learning how to drive.

There is not a methods course for how to manage 30 little humans in one classroom.

Surely, my program gave me the basics. They had me read many articles and exposed me to some strategies of how to teach content. I can tell you a couple great strategies for teaching social studies with primary sources. But could I tell you any strategies I learned from my program on how to manage the students in my classroom? No.  Classroom management is so important. If you can’t stand up in the front of the room to give directions without half the class talking over you, there is no way you can instruct a class to be successful. Being able to round up the 30 students transitioned from class to another takes years of experience.

A few tips from a beginner:

  • Routines will save your life. Within the first week you should have established concrete routines for your students that happen every day. I cannot stress this. If you try one routine one day and a different one each day following your class will lose it.
  • Something simple: I use a big red clock timer similar to this one I linked here on amazon. This clock is visible for every kid to see. I set the timer for snack, a set the timer for 5 minutes left of work time, I set the timer for how much time they have to finish a writing task, etc. A timer keeps me on track, but also I noticed my students respond super well to this. This helps with management.
  • Have a signal to call for attention and practice, practice, practice it. Students won’t learn something or do it correctly unless we teach them how to do it and give them time to practice it. My signal is a count down from 5…4….3…..2….1… I use my hand to show the seconds as well as my voice. Then I leave my hand up and students have to put their hand up, like mine, and that’s how I know if they are listening and ready. But guess what? We practiced this so many times the first couple of weeks. I will probably practice again after longer breaks. Students need time to practice the routines you put in place. Yet, no one told me this before I started teaching….

2. Relationships with your students should be the focus of your job at the beginning of the year. 

My teaching courses explained how important it is to differentiate and create lessons based on every learning style in your classroom, every interest level, etc. This is great. However every year you will need to get to know 30 or more new students. They do not teach you concrete examples of how to do this each year. Luckily, my mom, a teacher of 33 years, always taught me that relationships are super important. If a teacher does not try to get to know each student individually, students will not try very hard in your class.

To me this makes sense intuitively, but it doesn’t always come so easy. My first year, I was so excited just to have my first class on my own that I put in the extra effort to get to know each student. That was easy the first year. The real challenge are the years to follow. Or for me, the first year to follow, my second year. Now I have a whole new set of students with different interests, different families, and different learning styles. No one taught me best practices in getting to know my students or to create a safe, classroom community.

Tips from a beginner:

  • Play interactive games that allow you to get to know each other. I tried the first year and second year a game called “Who Remembers?” This is from the book: The First Six Weeks of School. So in the activity we are all in a big circle on the floor or standing up. The first round each student goes around says their name and their favorite food, or in my class we did their favorite thing to do after school. Then the second round we play the remembering part. As each child goes through the second round they have to say their name, what they like, and then another person’s like and their name, and then as more and more kids continue to go, they have to include every person’s name and what they like. So by the end of the game, the last person to go has to try to remember 30 students’ names and likes.
  • I also play Frog Detective. Again, all down on the floor in a big circle. One person is the detective who must leave the room while we decide who the Frog Killer is. The Frog Killer “kills” someone by making eye contact and sticking their tongue out at them. The person killed has to lay down for the remaining of the game. The detective comes back in the center of the circle and the game begins. The detective has three guesses to decide who the killer is. Students love it and we build a fun community in the classroom.

These are suggestions that I have tried, and I can tell my students learn a lot from each other through these activities, something super important for the rest of the year. If students feel comfortable with the teacher and their peers the class will be more likely to participate in the rest of the activities you plan for the year.

3. Teaching your students is not the only thing they expect you to do. 

I’ve learned this one this year. When you are going to be evaluated by your principal or vice principal they want see you show “leadership.” They want you to do this by joining some committee at the school showing you care more than just in your own class. This requires a lot of outside time to get this done. You have tot show up to weekly meetings to show you are participating.

  • Only say yes to one. I overbooked myself this year by saying yes to too many extra things. Don’t do that. Trust, me you’ve got enough to worry about.

I guess your first year they cut you some slack on this one. But as your years progress you have to show that you are showing leadership by some other extra activity. Some teachers choose to run an after school club, or you can join one of the various committees at the school. In my opinion, I’m not sure we get paid enough for that.

Tips from the beginner:

  • Join one that won’t stress you out.
  • Join a committee with people who are like you.
  • Only say yes to one. I overbooked myself this year by saying yes to too many extra things. Don’t do that. Trust, me you’ve got enough to worry about.

4. Teaching goals are measured by student tests.

Another aspect of being evaluated is that they rely solely on your students’ test scores to see if you are doing a good job. At my school we use a progress monitoring test called iReady. This test is meant to be used to track student growth. We are required to make what is called a “growth goal” to show that we are improving our student’s scores. Students take the student once at the beginning of the year, one in the middle, and one at the end. If students do not show enough growth on that one test, we don’t make our goal.

  • Teach the best you can, do not teach to the test.

Then of course we have the State Standardized Test.  They tell us not to stress about the Test at the end of the year. They say that every school has to take it to see if its making progress. Each year you think they won’t make a big deal about it, and the following year all you do is look at those previous year’s scores and see what went wrong. All based one test. There is something inherently wrong with focusing on one test, but I’ll save that rant for another post.

Tips from the beginner:

  • Don’t let it stress you out.
  • Teach the best you can, do not teach to the test.
  • Pump up your kids about the test. Help them feel relaxed about it.
  • Teach testing strategies, not “this will be on the test.”
  • Give them enough breaks while taking the test. Research shows that the more movement that is incorporated while students are learning, the more they actually learn.

5. Be in partnership with parents. 

Undergraduate programs do not teach you to be in partnership with your parents. Student-teaching only prepared me a little for communicating and dealing with parents of your students. The best thing I can say about this one is be on their side.

The best thing I can say about this one is be on their side.

Tips from the beginner:

  • Have a weekly email update, it seems annoying to have to do it every week. But just little tidbits about what you learned that week can go a long way.
  • A call is better than an email, especially if its about behavior. When something happens and a kid has been acting poorly, my school has taught me to always call and explain. If a parent hears your soft, gentle voice explaining rather than an email that could be interpreted differently, it will go so much better for you and for them.
  • Always come from a place that shows you are on the same side as them. Especially with your struggling student at conferences, come from a place that shows you care as much as them and just want the best for the student.


Overall, we learn from experiences. And that is the downside of teaching programs. The theory about teaching and the actual teaching are so drastically different that it is hard to imagine a way to teach how to teach. Yes, we have student-teaching, and I learned a lot from student teaching. But the bottomline about student-teaching is that it is not your class, it is not your teaching style. You dive into this classroom that has already been established by the master teacher. You dive into a classroom that is not solely your responsibility. It is truly when you are given your own reigns that you begin to learn what teaching is like. Just like the learning to drive metaphor I explained earlier.

I hope this was helpful to starting teachers rather than a rant. I wish I would have known these five things before I started. There have been many a phone call with my mom being like why didn’t they teach me this!?! And ultimately, it should get easier as I get more experience, but hopefully you don’t fall into the same feeling that I did my first year and a half. Teaching is a beautiful profession and comes with many things to learn! That’s why we say we are all lifelong learners. 🙂

*Please! If you agree or disagree with me respond back to me. Would love to have a connection with other teachers out there!




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