5 things I wish I knew as a beginning teacher about working with adults

June 15, 2013

in classroom management

Most of our training as teachers is centered around working with students. But the biggest occupational hazard can sometimes be the adults! Here are five tips for building relationships and establishing a rapport with your coworkers, principal and other administrators, and your students’ parents:

tips for teachers on getting along with coworkers and other adults

1. Never say anything bad about anyone in the school system, especially  during your first year.

When I was in high school, I worked part time at a daycare. My third week there, I went to a woman I viewed as a friend to complain about how rude another teacher was to me. Her response? “Oh, you mean Mrs. Smith? You know that’s my mom, right?” I was mortified, and learned (though not once and for all) to keep my mouth shut.

When you’re new, you don’t know the interpersonal dynamics of the school system yet, and they can be extremely complex. It takes a lot of quiet observation to learn who is friends with whom, who had a falling out years ago and is still bitter, and so on.  It also takes awhile to figure out who is genuinely helpful, since almost everyone you meet will be polite initially.

Remind yourself that you’re still figuring out who has a big mouth or big connections, and be careful about saying anything negative or revealing too much personal information. We are all supposed to be there “for the children”, but it’s naive to think that teachers aren’t human too, and the educational system can be just as cutthroat as the business world. Let your motto be, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

2. Don’t speak negatively about yourself, either.

The whole school does not need to know about your argument with a parent or the bad behaviors in your classroom. People you don’t know well should see and hear mostly good things about what’s going on in your classroom, because very few people ever get to see for themselves–you will be judged as a good teacher or a bad one based on your reputation. It doesn’t do any good to constantly tell everyone how overwhelmed and exhausted you are.

It’s important to establish a small trust-worthy support system. My advice is to pick one confidante as your mentor and tell only that person your problems. After you’ve been in a school for a few weeks and start to get a feel for your colleagues’ personalities, you can choose someone you feel is trustworthy and confide what you must in him or her. But don’t forget that negativity feeds on itself, and complaining rarely accomplishes anything.  Every workplace has a person who never has anything good to say about anything, and being that person (or around that person) will cause you to burn out, so try to keep the majority of your conversations focused on productive topics.

3. Pick your battles with administration.

If your principal asks you to do something that is too much for you to handle or goes against what you believe is appropriate for your class, think very carefully about how to handle the situation. Sometimes your best option is to nod your head and then “close your door and teach”, as the saying goes. If you openly resist every mandate that is passed down, you will be unhappy a lot and viewed as difficult.  Speak up only on the things that you MUST.

I usually tried see my principal no more than once or twice a year, at most, with problems. When I saw him or her in the hallway or in meetings, I tried to be cheerful, friendly, and positive (rather than answering questions like “How are you?” with a joking “Ughh–how many more days left before break?”) My hope was that this gave me the reputation of being easygoing and cooperative. Then, when something was really bothering me, my principal was much more likely to take me seriously because she or he knew that I didn’t complain about much.

Bonus tip: secretaries and custodians really do run the school!

4. Accomodate students’ parents as much as possible.

As a new teacher, I was repeatedly advised to do just the opposite: I was told to draw a firm line in the sand with students’ parents and let them know I called the shots and knew what was best because I was the expert. Over the years, I realized that was not the type of relationship I wanted to foster. Most of the time, parents and teachers want the same thing–what’s best for the child–so if you approach conflicts with that mindset, it’s much easier to find a solution. Even when I’m unable to accomodate parents’ requests, I try to make sure they end the discussion with the feeling that they were heard and their opinions were validated.

Do everything you can to contribute to a good working relationship with your students’ parents–thinking that you don’t have the time or energy to do this is really shooting yourself in the foot. Learn which parents want updates on everything, and be sure to keep them in the loop as much as possible.  If you know you are going to get a phone call later about something, head them off at the pass with a note or phone call to explain your side of the story before any misunderstandings occur. Show grace to parents who are less involved and be kind and welcoming when they do make an effort to support their kids’ education.

And as a side note: come to terms with the fact that you will not be able to please some parents no matter what.  I used to beat myself up about it, thinking if only I was a better teacher, all the parents would like me. It took me years to figure out that it’s pretty normal for teachers have at least one parent every year who cusses at them, or goes over their head to the principal, or disrespects them in a myriad of subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Be prepared and don’t take it personally! This happens to EVERY teacher, whether or not they tell the world about it (remember tip #2?) Do your best and remind yourself–it’s only for ten months. You can handle anything for ten months.

5.  Document E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

I kept horrible records my first year of teaching, which resulted in several uncomfortable parent confrontations, insufficient anecdotes during special ed referral meetings, and constant self-questioning as I tried to remember little details about every aspect of my job.  I learned to keep a file on each child in my classroom and put EVERY note from home inside, even the insignificant ones like early dismissal notifications. I tried to type my responses to parents so I could keep a copy for my files. And whenever approaching a potentially controversial subject (such as grades, attendance, or behavior), I sent a copy of the note to my principal to initial first.  This way, the note held more weight with the parent, and if the parent decided to go over my head about it anyway, I knew I was in the clear because the principal already had a heads up .

Keeping detailed lesson plans is more important in some schools than in others, but I think it’s safe to say that every teacher should be familiar with the learning standards and feel confident about the evidence that his or her lessons are aligned with them. It’s also good to have a paper trail for your differentiation methods: reading group lessons, above-grade-level student contracts for independent study, anecdotal records for kids with IEPs, etc. Talk with a colleague you respect about how these types of documentation are handled in your school and what you can do to make it easier on yourself.

Documentation for students learning is important, too. Have students fill out missing work forms to justify your homework and classwork grades–you will be able to show parents exactly what was not done, when, and why, in the child’s own words. Photocopy low test scores and poor/ incomplete classwork samples before sending them home for students that you think will get below a C on their report cards, just in case the evidence “disappears” between school and home. Be sure to send out progress reports midway into the quarter so parents aren’t shocked and have time to intervene–there’s nothing worse than a parent finding out their child is failing after it’s too late to do anything about it. Keep your documentation through the following school year in case the next teacher needs them or a liability issue arises (you never know what you will be held accountable for, or when.)

You don’t have to stress out about documentation, just get in the routine of keeping good records.  Refrain from making comments such as, “My desk is always such a mess” and “I can never find anything”, and really have your stuff together for parents at Back to School Night–you will develop a reputation for being well-organized and people will be far less likely to question you.

What are your thoughts–is my advice too jaded or cynical? What do you wish someone had someone had told YOU about getting along with colleagues, administrators, and parents when you were new to teaching? 

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Doug Johnson June 15, 2013 at 10:45 am

Hi Angela,

Love your list. This question about what I wish I knew as a beginning teacher made the rounds as a meme about 5 years ago also. Here was my response:

http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2008/10/8/10-things-i-wish-i-knew-as-a-first-year-teacher.html

Oh, I would add “computer technician” to your list of people with whom you should make your friends.

Always enjoy your posts!

Doug

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2 Angela Watson June 17, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Thanks, Doug! And you’re right–the school’s IT person is DEFINITELY someone you want to be friends with!

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3 Beth Bo. June 15, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Wow! This is great advice. I especially liked what you had to say about everyone having a parent that is difficult. How I wish I would have known that my first year teaching! It would have helped me to not take things so personally. I made so many mistakes and I sure am thankful for those who gave me grace when they might have preferred to chew me out.

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4 Angela Watson June 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm

It takes a long time to learn that lesson, doesn’t it? I don’t think I really got it until I saw that another teacher whom I *really* respect had issues with one or two parents each year, too. I’m talking about the model teacher, the one you wish your own kids would have…and still people complained. Rather than feeling discouraged when I realized you can’t win sometimes, it was actually kind of comforting because I wasn’t the only one going through it.

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5 Denise June 15, 2013 at 9:09 pm

I absolutely agree with all of these! I have worked in four different schools of a wide range of sizes (from 150 7-12 to 3,500 9-12), and at all four schools there were a web of relatives working at each! Every time I’ve started at a new school I’ve wished for a map showing me all the relations between staff, teachers, students, etc.

Luckily, during my teacher training they frequently preached about befriending secretaries and maintenance staff. As the FACS teacher, I’ve found that a couple pans of homemade cinnamon rolls delivered to the summer maintenance staff smooths the way for the rest of the year for clean rooms and getting things fixed – and very often somehow getting bumped to the top of the list :).

Awesome list for new teachers! (and veteran ones who have a big learning curve)

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6 Angela Watson June 17, 2013 at 6:55 pm

What a sweet way to show appreciation to your maintenance staff! They usually feel just as under-appreciated as teachers.

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7 Sally DeCost June 15, 2013 at 10:31 pm

I wish I had read this list 35 years ago! I was pretty naive back in those days!

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8 Angela Watson June 17, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I was, too, Sally! Thanks for sharing that this info resonated with you.

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9 Mel the Literacy Coach June 16, 2013 at 5:19 am

Hey Angela,
No, not at all jaded! Spot on. I especially agree with your bonus tip about making friends with the support staff at the school. I would add teacher aides to the list. Teachers really can’t do without them. Someone told me when I was a pre-service teacher to make sure I knew the names of the janitor and the cleaners because they could help you with things you might never think about. I have always remembered that and I remember having to run to the cleaners one morning (while on pre-service prac teaching) to ask if I could borrow a bucket for my measuring lesson that day. I had left my bucket by the front door. She was more than happy to help because we had already met and chatted on a few occasions. She saved my lesson!!! Great advice! Mel. :)

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10 Angela Watson June 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Thanks, Mel! And good point about teacher aides. They, too, can be extremely helpful and rarely get the recognition they deserve.

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11 Heidi Butkus June 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm

This is an awesome post, and good advice for all of us, whether or not we are new teachers! Thank you so much.
Heidi Butkus

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12 Angela Watson June 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

You’re welcome, Heidi!

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13 Cass LaPlume June 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Being a southern girl, I like to use this example when referencing peer interactions at school….. When you step outside your classroom door, it’s like walking across a cow pasture. Be careful where you step, or you may end up with somebody else’s mess on your fancy new boots!

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14 Mrs G June 17, 2013 at 8:22 pm

GREAT article! I totally agree with your points and don’t think they are jaded in the least.

I just finished my first year working at a public school. The three years prior to that I worked at for-profit elementary schools where the climate it completely different. Teachers really have to sell themselves more at for-profit schools. I think my public school admin team appreciates my business-oriented approach. My motto is “make the kids smart and keep the parents happy”.

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15 Danielle June 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Great post! This was all extremely helpful information. I will be starting my first year of teaching this Fall. Thanks for the tips! :)

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16 Sarah H June 17, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Add to #3….the cafeteria workers! My dad, a 38+ yr. veteran teacher, told me before I started teaching that the three people in the building to make friends with were the secretaries, the custodians and the cafeteria workers. If those 3 groups of people thought highly of you, your position in the building was secure. Also, NEVER leave the building for any reason without letting the secretary know!

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17 Anna June 17, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Good list! Something I’ve learned along the way: In your first year, accept offers for help from your colleagues. You don’t have to let your students see how much you have to learn and how green you really are, but your fellow teachers KNOW you’re going to need help and probably WANT to help you — so let them. Not every piece of ‘advice’ will be good advice, but when someone offers real, actual help that makes your load lighter– take them up on it and then look for ways to reciprocate, even if it’s next year when you’re feeling more confident and less overwhelmed.

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18 Gretta Williams June 17, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Your points are “on point” ! Thanks for the article. I agree wholeheartedly about serving the parents fully. Their children are our clients and the reason we have our jobs. Most of the time when contacted by a parent, we can rest assured that it has emanated from the parents’ desire to make things right for their child. They want the best for their son or daughter. Who wouldn’t want the best each day for their child ? Something small , but healing, is to always thank the parent for the email or the phone call or note, no matter how hard the details may be to contend with. Thanking them informs them that you are open and appreciative of their COMMUNICATION. Without communication, teachers are working with half of the supplies needed to help the child. Another practice of mine is to always contact the parent when I have had to discipline their child in any remarkable manner: taking a cell phone or other device, breaking up a fight, correcting use of profanity, and so on. I tell them what happened and ask if they have any questions or concerns about what I have shared. In closing the conversation, I ask what they would like for me to do in future similar incidences. I do this to learn what the parental standards for behavior are. I have learned over time that they want me to make the decision since I am the one in the room with the behavior. They just like to be kept in the loop. Communication again! It’s all wonderful. I enjoy reading your posts and articles. Thank you so much.

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19 Kay Mason June 18, 2013 at 12:32 am

Addition to #1–I recently moved between schools in a very small district (not my decision), and throughout the first year I could tell my coworkers were waiting for me to compare my new school unfavorably with my former one. I made a conscious effort to never do that and the second year I was much more accepted.

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20 B. Loyd June 18, 2013 at 8:27 am

I loved this article. I work with beginning teachers and I will have them read this. Number 5 is especially important and not just for novice teachers. I keep stressing the importance of documentation with all the teachers. In today’s climate in which teachers are under fire, it is especially important. You must be able to prove that you gave information, report cards, work packets, and notes to students as well as prove that you not only have summative grades but formative assessments that guide your instruction. Thanks for sharing.

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21 Heather June 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

I am not a teacher. However, this list is GREAT for any job and profession. These are LIFE skills!
Thank you!

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22 Mrs. C. June 18, 2013 at 10:16 am

My first year, I found the three teachers whose style I admired the most. I shadowed them and questioned them and asked for advice/comments on almost everything I did. I listened. 15 years later, we are all best friends and take annual trips together. Also, I strongly agree on letting the secretary know if you leave the building. You never know when someone needs you. Also, #4 on the list about accommodating parents. Sometimes a parent just needs to know they are heard. My thinking is that I will always do what I feel is in the best interest of the child. Parents know and can provide information on their child that you may not know or understand. After all, the parent is the child’s first teacher. We desperately need the parent on our side.

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23 Lauren June 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Truly excellent tips! As a teacher finishing my 9th year of teaching, I agree 110% with everything you stated here.

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24 KJ June 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm

GREAT information! I think a lot of this is true for beginner teachers as well as teachers who are new to a district/building.
#1 and #2: TRUE TRUE TRUE. You never know who is best friends with that first grade teacher you can’t stand…whose kids play ball together in the evenings…or who goes to church with the PE teacher.

#3: Seriously. TRUE. For any beginning teachers who are reading this: go back and read #3 until you are ready to live it and breathe it.

#4: TRUTH. Sometimes parents just need to know that they are being heard. Be an active listener! Another thing that has worked well for me: anytime you see a parent act like your best friend just walked in the door. Look them in the eye, put on a big grin, smile with your eyes and say “Hi!!’ as if you are excited to see them. (You have to be sincere or it doesn’t work!) It makes people feel good and sets a positive tone for the upcoming interaction. People like to be liked!

#5: Seriously. Write down everything.

BRILLIANT Article.

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25 Amanda @ A Latte Learn June 19, 2013 at 11:45 pm

This is awesome advice; I especially like your suggestions for documentation and parents. This will technically be the start of my 3rd year of teaching, but my first year starting the beginning of the year with my own group (I taught a year coming in after 1st quarter and another year in Title 1 small group reading pull-out) and initiating that parent/teacher rapport right off of the bat. Parents are probably one of the things I’m most nervous about!

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26 Bess June 25, 2013 at 10:00 am

I would add that when approaching the principal with a problem, have one or two viable solutions.

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27 Carmen Sanchez July 5, 2013 at 10:19 am

Angela, I agree with your post and with adding the IT person :) I taught for 31 years and can tell you that accommodating the parents was the best thing I ever did! By this I mean scheduling conferences when it was convenient for them, such as before or after work. Many times I went to their homes if it was important for me to meet with them. Establishing good rapport with students and their families is crucial if you want to teach the whole child. There were very few times when I had meetings after 6, and the custodians checked on me often and walked me to my car!

Great advice for beginning teachers and a terrific reminder for anyone else :)

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28 Angela Watson July 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Thank you, Carmen! Three cheers for IT workers! Where would we be without them?

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29 Christina Kosmidou July 29, 2013 at 8:39 am

It is very encouraging to read your significant advice about how a taecher can communicate efficiently with the adults. I found your work very usefull. Thank you!

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30 Christina Kosmidou July 29, 2013 at 8:53 am

It is very encouraging to read your significant advice about how a teacher can communicate efficiently with adults. I found your work very usefull. Thank you!

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31 Liane December 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I was def. interested in the working title of this blog. Very good advice. I’d like more advice on working with co-teachers in the classroom. I can never keep my mouth shut forever and frequently seem to have a different viewpoint than other teachers.

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