them, so what feels like a class buzzing
with discussion is really just a few kids
speaking up while the rest pretend to
listen. Instead, expert teachers pose
thoughtful questions, wait for plenty of
hands to go up, and then call on a volunteer—or even a nonvolunteer.
5. Don’t make tests too hard.
Although teachers use tests to gauge
how well students are learning, students
often use a test to gauge how well the
teacher is teaching. If you accidentally—
or purposely—make a test too hard,
neither thing will be accurately measured. You might realize that the
students underperformed on your too-difficult test, but students might just
assume that you didn’t teach well. This
will make them less enthusiastic about
learning from you.
When I finish making a test, I often
cut out about 25 percent of the test to
make it more manageable. One way to
do this is to assign a priority level of 1,
2, or 3 to each question, with 1 being
high priority and 3 lower priority. Then
you can keep all the 1s and cut all the
3s. Kids are not insulted by an “easy”
test. It gives them confidence.
7. Don’t tell a student
you’re calling home.
When you’ve decided, in your mind,
that you’ve had enough, keep that information to yourself. Calling home is one
of the best things you can do to respond
to student misbehavior, but it must
always be a surprise.
When you warn a student you’re
calling home, that student often
increases his misbehavior because he
wants his classmates to think that he
doesn’t care, even if he does. Also, if you
warn a student, she will get a chance to
intercept your call, warn her parent, or
distort the facts. Finally, you’ll look like
someone who can’t follow through on
a threat if, for whatever reason, you are
unable to reach the parent that evening.
9. Don’t dress too casually.
New teachers often intentionally dress
so that they don’t look like the typical
teacher, believing that a traditional-looking teacher will have trouble
reaching certain kids. A new teacher
with a casual personal style outside the
schoolhouse may genuinely believe, “If
I’m not myself, these kids will pick up
on it immediately.” I disagree. If you
look like a teacher, they will treat you
like a teacher. Not appearing like a professional is way too big a risk.
10. Don’t babble.
New teachers are usually nervous, and
nervous people often babble. The more
words you say, the less value each word
has. I once heard that teachers get to say
about 10,000 words before the students
stop listening, and that new teachers use
up their words in the first week. Choose
your words carefully.
6. Don’t be indecisive.
Although this could certainly be
phrased more positively (“be decisive”),
I phrased it this way to emphasize that
teachers must actively avoid indecisive
behavior. When a student asks a
question like, “Can I do my test in
red ink?” you have three seconds
to pause, consider the question,
and answer yes or no. There is no
wrong answer, only a wrong way
of saying it.
If you conclude you’ve made
a bad decision, it’s possible to
reverse it the next day. Even your
reversal, however, must be done
decisively: “I thought that, but
now I think this. Let’s move on.”
8. Don’t try to be a buddy.
Another mistake we learn from inspirational movies is that to get through
to certain kids, you’ve got to be their
buddy. Although all teacher training
programs warn about the problems with
trying to be a student’s friend, it is still a
common new teacher mistake.
New teachers may follow the prohibition in the beginning of the year but
let up on it way too soon, when things
are going well. I suggest you mark on
the calendar a random day, some day in
February, to be the first time you carefully cross the buddy line for a short
visit before returning back.
Fewer Mistakes = More Learning
The urgency of avoiding mistakes is
stronger in teaching than in most professions. The only profession where it’s
more difficult to salvage your mistakes
is tightrope walking. Because we deal
with students, who hold on to first
impressions, teachers don’t get to start
over with a fresh slate after making
numerous mistakes, the way a waiter
Being aware of these 10 mistakes
doesn’t mean that you’ll never make
them. Even after 20 years of teaching, I
still struggle daily to avoid these
blunders. But every mistake you avoid
will lead to a better learning experience
for your students. As teachers, we might
learn from our mistakes. Our students
Gary Rubinstein teaches math at
Stuyvesant High School in New York
City. He is the author of Beyond Survival
(McGraw-Hill, 2010); garyrubinstein@