What College Never Taught Me About Teaching


What College Never Taught Me About Teaching

by Abigail Dahlman & Josh Patterson

After the very first week of school, I asked one of my first year teachers to write down some of her biggest takeaways.  What things did you least expect?  What did your 3rd grade students teach you?  While your time in college prepared you for much, what things came as a surprise?

1. You have to adapt, and then adapt some more. 

Abigail: It’s hard to be a teacher of 23 students when they aren’t actually present for the instruction I’ve planned. The time you will spend with all 23 students in your classroom is about 20 minutes.

In creating group activities, I soon realized that several students were missing because of resource, RTI, ESOL, or other reasons.  This shift in numbers has forced me to change my plans, teaching me to be flexible and calm in my response.  Remaining flexible can be my greatest victory.  When something isn’t working, change the direction and try something new!  Failing isn’t giving up but finding another path I didn’t take the first time.

Josh: Don’t be too hard on yourself.  As you learn to adapt to your students’ schedules, you’ll come to appreciate the power of guided instruction and differentiation.  Keep your groups flexible and work to personalize instruction to meet students’ varying needs.  If this seem too overwhelming, take it slow.  Start with a single station, model it, allow students to practice, and give them feedback.  And remember, the one doing the most work is the one doing the most learning.

2) Organization is everything.

Abigail: Initially, I bought nine different files to store papers, thinking surely this would be enough.  However, I am convinced that even if I had a castle filled with files it wouldn’t be enough. I tend to reach for a post-it note every five minutes so that I can label another handout, office paper, or finished student work.  With all this paperwork, organization will be an important skill for me to develop.

Josh: There is no doubt that organization is important.  From running records, parent/teacher communication, your daily calendar, and a seemingly endless pile of assessments, everything requires its proper place.  Depending on the season, some weeks will be better than others.  Be sure to talk to veteran teachers about their organizational methods and find a system that works for you.  After 15 years, I’m still working on this one!

3) You will deal with more injuries than any professional sport has ever seen.

Abigail: All of these phrases seem to be a popular choice for the third graders in room 304. “My eye is burning.” “My cheek hurts.” “I pinched my arm in the swing.” “I hit my knee.” “He pushed me.” “My throat hurts.” “I got a paper cut.” “My head hurts.” Thank goodness for the paper towel with cold water. I have learned that 99% of the time it is the magic cure!

Josh: Truth!  See how quick you’re catching on!  The important thing here is to do everything you can to minimize distractions.  With each day’s “emergencies,” attempt to determine the ones that truly require your attention and the ones can be “cured” with a wet paper towel or a sip of water.

4) Your planning “period” seems to last about one minute.

Abigail: After I drop off my sweet kids to our wonderful activity teachers, I feel like a minute later I am running down the hall to pick them up again.  I struggle to complete the items on my ever growing checklists.  Time is a battle.  But I’ve come to realize how important it is to set boundaries for myself.

I have classroom priorities and personal priorities.  I must draw the line between those so that one doesn’t invade the other.  I know I will be a better teacher in my classroom if I step away from my teacher checklist and step on to the treadmill for thirty minutes.  When I am refreshed with “me” time, I love my students better…even if I enter the classroom to find my checklists remain unfinished.

Josh: Finding a balance in your work and personal life is hard.  You are wise to acknowledge the importance of this.  Having a growth mindset requires that we reflect often and take baby steps toward continuous, incremental improvement.  In the fight against burnout, we must remain mindful of our mind, heart, and soul.  Your students (and our profession) need you at your best…each day.

5) Students love to show love.

Abigail: I have been most pleasantly surprised with all the love my students have shown me through their hugs.

I am convinced that teachers don’t get paid enough in dollars, but the students make up for that through their hugs. There is no dollar value that you can put on building a relationship with a child. These children have stories, families, memories, lives, and hearts that they tend to wear on their sleeve. I wouldn’t dare imagine my life apart from theirs now that I know the abundant love they so willingly extend through a hug.

Josh: Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  As a teacher, you will experience difficulty.  Pouring, investing, and attempting to better the lives of 20-something children over a relatively short period of time can be messy and difficult.  However, your impact will be potentially greater than you can imagine.  Treat this tremendous responsibility with care, never hesitating to communicate unconditional love to your students.

Abigail Dahlman is a 3rd grade teacher at Oakland Elementary School (Spartanburg, SC).  A recent graduate of Furman University, Abigail is in her first year of teaching.  Connect with Dahlman on Twitter @abigaildahlman.

Josh Patterson, PhD is the principal of Oakland Elementary School.  He is a graduate of Furman University and the University of South Carolina, a Class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader, and a South Carolina ASCD board member.  Connect with Patterson on Twitter @ACE_Patterson.