Mistakes rookies should avoid

9 02 2013


It is the beginning of the school year here in the southern hemisphere and many EFL teachers around are starting their first year ever, or are perhaps teaching in a totally new context, so I thought of writing something for new teachers. 

In the May, 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, Gary Rubinstein, a high school math teacher in the U.S. and author of Beyond Survival l: How to Thrive in Middle and High School for Beginning and Improving Teachers (2010), discusses 10 mistakes a rookie should avoid. He starts his article arguing that though numerous books about teaching advise teachers to phrase classroom rules positively, he believes that rules are rules and need to be stated in the clearest way possible, as are most of the important rules adults have to abide by, such as “No dogs allowed” or “Do not disturb”. He also believes that new teachers need more clarity regarding what they should and shouldn’t do, rather than vague recommendations and several options that they might not have the professional maturity to choose from. It is true that in teacher training, we are many times afraid of being prescriptive and saying “Do this!” or “Don´t do that!” But this might just be what novices need, at least regarding certain more managerial aspects.

I’m going to summarize and add my personal comments on sixi of Gary Rubinstein´s ten no-nos for rookies.

          1- Don’t try to teach too much in one day.

New teachers have high expectations and sometimes create lessons that are too difficult, too long, or developmentally inappropriate. The result is that they have to spend the next day reteaching.

In ELT, I notice that new teachers tend to hide behind their overcrowded lesson plan, which serves as a sort of security blanket. They also tend to focus too much on the teaching but not enough on the practicing time, sometimes hurrying through activities and not giving students extensive opportunities for practice. It is not uncommon to see new teachers way ahead of schedule because they rushed through the materials.

          2- Don’t teach a lesson without a student activity.

Of course, Rubinstein wrote about teachers and subjects in general. In an EFL/ESL class, it’s harder to teach a lesson without student activity, at least when you use a communicative curriculum and a social-interactive pedagogical approach. Nevertheless, it is very common for the new teacher to over-plan and then not have enough time for the most interesting, communicative, interactive activity on the lesson plan and have to either drop it or rush through it. I would recommend dumping other parts of the lesson, but not this type of activity. Write down on your plan what can be postponed for the following class (a more mechanical exercise, for example), keep track of time, and if you notice you’re running short of time, drop it to allow time for meaningful student production.

          3- Don’t send kids to the office.

shout an order

This is one of my favorite! According to Rubinstein, “ when you send kids out, that’s the only thing they’ll respond to” (pg. 51), and I couldn’t agree more. Though he doesn’t have a magic bullet for discipline problems, he states that avoiding the problems on his list already helps prevent discipline problems. It’s true. Discipline problems many times stem from students being restless because the pace of the class is too slow or too fast, or bored because they are not actively engaged. Students might also misbehave when they feel they are not getting as much attention as the others, or when the teacher gives them too much attention, singling them out. All of this is solved with good classroom management – use of time, resources, student-calling and student-interaction strategies. I also think that when you send kids to the office, you are implicitly stating that you cannot handle the situation, and this is when you really lose your students’ respect. Of course, no one is suggesting that you should never ever send kids to the office. The idea is that you try out other strategies and use the office one as a very last resort.

          4- Don’t allow students to shout out answers.

What feels like a class buzzing with discussion is really just a few kids speaking up while the rest pretend to listen” (pg. 51). The author argues that expert teachers pose thought-provoking questions, give time for students to think and for plenty of hands to go up, and only then pick a volunteer and sometimes a non-volunteer, too. Erickson (2004) refers to these kids who are always shouting answers as “sharks” and explains that the other students, the fish, feel hopeless because they have no chance of competing with the sharks. Thus, teachers must organize participation systems. There are plenty of suggestions around in ELT, such as the think-pair-share technique, group discussions, one student calling the next to answer, name cards, and now websites such as SuperTeacherTools that randomly select participants! For homework correction, I particularly like the “now someone who hasn’t answered yet” technique. Just be sure to use the right participation system for each task. When you pose a difficult question, for example, make sure the person you call on is able to answer the question. Call on struggling learners after they’ve had the chance to observe other peers participating, so they can have a greater chance of being successful in their responses.

          5- Don’t try to be a buddy.


Another favorite! Rubinstein mentions that irrational movies depicting teacher-heroes give the idea that to get through to certain kids, you have to be their buddy. He also states that though teacher training programs advise teachers against trying to be students’ friends, new teachers start the year or semester well but give in too soon. He does see the value of carefully “crossing the buddy line for a short visit before returning back” but suggests this be done later on in the school year or semester.

I believe there’s a difference between being friendly and being students’ friend. A friendly person – or teacher – will also be respectful to students, treat them well, show interest in their lives and opinions, praise them when praise is deserved, make jokes, laugh, etc. A friend, on the other hand, is the person who cuts us some slack, gives us a break when we think we need it – such as an undeserved or unjustified extension on a deadline – or overlooks our disobeying of school rules, for example. That’s what friends are for, goes the old saying! Teenagers get confused when the teacher acts like their friend in certain situations but not in others, when the teacher has to be … well… a teacher! “Doesn’t she like me anymore?” they may wonder. So friendly, yes; a friend, no!

          6- Don’t dress too casually.

If you look like a teacher, they will treat you like a teacher. Not appearing like a professional is way too big a risk”, says Rubinstein (p. 52). I know that many people will disagree with me on this, but I tend to think that, especially when we’re young (and insecure), looking a bit more formal and serious can be helpful sometimes. Of course, how formal will depend on the teaching context and culture and the students’ profile. I just think that when you teach teens or young adults, you have to be very good at classroom management to look like one of them.  Whether you like it or not, it’s harder for people to respect you when you’re wearing your old sneakers, ragged jeans and a white t-shirt.

These are only some tips for rookies and I’m sure there are many others. I would love to hear what my colleagues from around the world have to say about these ideas and also other tips they have. I would also like to know if my colleagues think that these tips are too prescriptive or if they agree with me that it’s okay to warn rookies against pitfalls that can be easily avoided.


Erickson, F. (2004). Talk and social theory: Ecologies of speaking and listening in everyday life. Cambridge UK: Polity Press

Rubinstein, G. (2012). The Do’s and Don’ts of Teaching. Educational Leadership, vol. 69 no 8.

Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

i If you’re curious about the other four tips the author gives, here they are: Don’t make tests too hard; Don’t be indecisive; Don’t tell a student you’re calling home; Don’t babble. I chose the ones that matched my opinion and experience, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily disagree with the ones I left out.




12 responses

11 02 2013

I’ve only been a teacher for 2 years, and learning how to teach effectively reminds me of learning to drive a car. We fight the losing battle of trying to focus on everything! It helps to hear from experienced educators about the key ideas to keep in mind. I’m guilty of losing sight of the forest for the trees. After a couple years, I can now “make left-hand turns” without thinking, which helps me to focus on the more delicate situations that require more concentration. Of this list, suggestion #2 is the best. I would add: think about what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the lesson and that should dictate how to plan your lesson.

11 02 2013
Isabela Villas Boas

Hey, Derrick, it´s a great metaphor. It is indeed like learning to drive a car and it´s hard at first to focus your attention on everything at the same time. It takes time, but a few tips help, too! Thanks for your comments

11 02 2013
Edmilson M Chagas

I’ve been in the classroom for nearly 30 years now and and just wish I’d had been ‘taught’ these tips or had the chance to read this when I first started.

As for it being a bit too prescriptive, I really don’t think there is anything wrong with that at all. Quite on the contrary. During feedback sessions held at the end of several Teacher Training Courses in which I was the trainer, the vast majority of the participants mentioned the fact that my being a little prescriptive at times helped them become more confident and also worked as a kind of flashlight that helped them move along the sometimes dark path of becoming an ELT professional.

I like tips # 1 and 2 the best. I believe novices are often so eager to teach that they overteach (unfortunately to the detriment of practice/use activities, in which the students take the leading role).

Finally, and in order to minimize the teacher’s work (!) and maximize the students’ participation, I suggest that the teacher should always ask themselves this question, “What can the students do that I DON’T HAVE to do?” This includes such silly things as writing/typing things on the (Interactive) whiteboard, sticking things on the classroom bulletin board, handing out worksheets and marked written assignments (if you don’t use EDMODO) etc. In my experience, not only does this increase the students’ sense of their own importance in the learning process, but it will also make them more (physically) active. As a result, your classes will hopefully become more student-centerd, STT will be increased and the combination of these factors might help to keep boredom at bay.

11 02 2013

Hi, Edmilson
What a pleasure to read your comments here. I´m glad you agree that prescription is indeed what rookies sometimes need and desire. I also think your tip is an extremely valuable one. We should indeed get out of the way and allow as much activity from students as possible. I love your suggestions of things teachers do that can be handed over to students.
Thank you for the great tip!

20 02 2013
Paula Pacheco

Great post, Isabela. It reminded me of the time when I started teaching – 22 years ago. I guess I made most of the mistakes mentioned in the post.

20 02 2013

Hi, Paula
Thank you for your feedback. Yes, I guess we all have made some, if not all, of the mistakes mentioned. Why not help our new colleagues avoid them, right? Of course, mistakes are part of the learning process, but some of these here can be easily avoided.

26 02 2013
Marian Sucena

What a great post Isabela! I am sure new teachers will profit from it.
Thank you for sharing this with us!

27 02 2013

Thank you, Mariana. I’m glad you like it.

1 03 2013
Michelle Valério

I loved the tips you shared and I`ll try to use them all.
Thank you Isabela!

1 03 2013

Thanks, Michelle. Glad you like them!

3 03 2013
Julia Clark

Great post! This is so helpful to me as a new teacher. I especially agree with rules number 3 and 5 (not sending kids to the office and being friendly but not their friend).
Thanks for the tips! 🙂

3 03 2013

Nice to see you here, Julia. I’m glad I helped you somehow.

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