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Top 10 Tips for New Math Teachers


I have been teaching high school math for over 20 years. I have taught at 5 different schools: two public schools, two international schools overseas, and a private school in the States. (Read this post to read more about my international school experience read this post.) Here is a collection of some tips for someone who is just starting out their teaching career.



1) Establish class norms

I know everyone says that you should discuss your class rules on the first day of school. It's even trendy now to share your class rules using memes. Yes, that's clever and may appeal to the students, but what about giving the students some say in how the class is run? 

I'm not suggesting that if the students say, "We get to sit where we want and have our phones all the time," then you should agree to that. 

What I mean is, if you are the one that is always making the decisions, then you are establishing an authoritative style of leadership which is less effective than, say, a coaching style of leadership.

So instead of listing your class rules on the first day, ask the students some questions like, "How should we approach learning?" or "What should our classroom discussions look like?" (I highly recommend the book High-Impact Instruction by Jim Knight - chapters 10 and 13 will give you some ideas for how to establish expectations in your classroom). 

Maybe your school has some established norms that you *must* cover on the first day. That's fine. Don't survey them on the first day. Give yourselves a week or two to get used to each other and then survey them about the class climate.

Let's continue the conversation. Join me in my Facebook group.

Some other specific questions you should think about are:
  • How are you going to allow students to answer questions? Will you do cold calling? Will you put their names on popsicle sticks or in some random name generator (flippity.net)? Will you only call on students whose hands are raised?
  • Will you allow test corrections or retakes? How much will they be worth?
  • Will you allow smartphones in your classes? How will you handle it if a student is caught with a phone in his or her hand?  My recommendation is to NOT allow the use of phones during class. Have a box or a pouch where students store their phones as soon as they walk into the room. 
A photo of my classroom in 2019.
You can see the photo storage pouch next to the door.
You can find a similar phone storage chart here.

If you establish class norms early and consistently follow through, this will cut back on many discipline issues. And don't be afraid to change the norms. We are all human and make mistakes. If you have established a norm about cold calling on students and this is not working for you, tell the students that it's not working and you want to try something different.

Addendum. I am not a "no smile until Christmas" kind of teacher (I tried that once, and it backfired - I got called into the principal's office). I am firm, but I am reasonable. I will let a student break a rule, but if they or other students try to take advantage of me, I will call them out on it. (I'm looking at you, "T," who took 20 minutes to go to the bathroom.)


2) Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." 

And be sure to follow up. Even after 2 decades in the classroom I still get stumped by some questions. If I don't know the answer, or I need more time to sit down and think about the solution (there's nothing like 20 pairs of eyes staring at you while you try to concentrate, amiright?), I will make a quick note (scrap piece of paper, sticky note, send myself an email). When I have time, I will find the answer to the question, and then I put it as part of my agenda for the next time I have that class.

3) Be silent

Let the students do most of the talking. I remember when I was student teaching, I asked the students a question, and one of them said, "I don't know, but I'm sure you're going to tell us." 

Now, I make sure that if I ask the students a question, I will pause after I ask it while I wait for an answer. Often students will realize that I'm waiting for an answer, and someone will ask me to repeat the question (because they weren't listening). 

Giving students time to process the question and then think of their response is essential.  Imagine if someone asked you, "What do you think we should do about the economic crisis?" and then waited only 1 second before answering the question himself. You would probably think that person is not really interested in your opinions. (This is a good life lesson, too. Give others time to think and respond.)

4) Don't raise your voice

If your students are talking a lot and their voices are getting louder, you should get quieter. Trying to talk over them is tempting, but that is never a successful technique. The students will get even louder. 

I remember years ago, I lost my voice after having a cold. I tried to talk loudly, but I just couldn't. I tried to say something to the students, but they couldn't hear me. Someone in the front of the room shouted, "Be quiet! She's trying to talk!" It was the quietest that class had ever been!

5) Make eye contact

To me, this is an obvious one. If you're talking to someone, you should make eye contact with them. And, of course, try to spread your eye contact around the room. It's tempting to keep eye contact with only the people looking at you, but be sure that you look at the students who are not looking at you.

We once had a teacher come in for an interview. As part of the interview process, a candidate has to teach a lesson. I was in the room during his lesson. When the candidate wasn't looking at the board, he looked at the ceiling at the opposite end of the room. He rarely looked at the students. I kept turning around to look at the ceiling, wondering what he was looking at. It was strange. 

6) Use "I" statements 

This is particularly important when you are dealing with discipline issues. Talk about how the student(s) behavior affects you or the other students in the class. Also, make sure you comment on the student's behavior and not the student's personality. 

Say, "I did not like how you were talking when I was talking," instead of "you are always talking while I am talking." 

Say, "I would like you to do your homework more often" instead of "you are lazy." 


7) Ask positive questions or give positive commands

A simple rephrasing of a question or command can change the tone of the question and therefore change the kind of response you get. 

Say "quiet please" instead of "stop talking." I once heard that if you give negative commands, like "stop talking," the last word you say is what the students hear. In this case, they would hear the word "talking" and are likely to continue talking. Make the command what you do want them to do instead of what you don't want them to do.

Say, "What are your questions?" instead of "Do you have any questions?" I like this one. I heard this at a teaching conference once. If someone asks you, "Do you have any questions?" the first word that probably comes to your mind is, "No." Saying, "Do you have any questions?" often shuts down the student. If you phrase it "What are your questions?" then you are assuming they have questions and are open to hearing what they are. 

Do you know who else does this well? Starbucks. The other day I went to Starbucks, I ordered a high-calorie cold dessert-disguised-as-coffee drink, and after I said what I wanted the barista said, "What else can I get you?" The question opened me up to ordering something else. If they had said, "Is that it?" I probably would have said, "Yes," and not given them any more of my money.

8) Don't be their friend

This one can be tough if you are in your early to mid-20s and teaching 11th and 12th graders. You were in their shoes not too long ago. You feel they could benefit from the wisdom you have gained since you were their age. And the students are probably interested in you and your life. But you must remember that you are not their friend. 

You are their teacher. You are more like a mentor. Like an older sibling - or even better, the mysterious friend of the older sibling that you would never dare attempt to call or text.

Don't befriend your students on social media. Don't follow your students on Instagram or Tik Tok or Snapchat, or whatever platform is popular with the students. Don't allow your students to follow you. 

You run into dangerous territory if you cross the student/teacher relationship line. Students will respect you more if you maintain a level of privacy about your life and don't open up to them like you are their friend. (Also, be careful about how much interest you take in their personal lives. You don't want to be that creepy adult who is privy to the high school social drama.)

I always keep my private life private from my students, even when I was 22 years old and first starting out. My college and student teaching experience really scared me about the dangers of getting too close or personal with the students. We were told the stories of accusations of assault, lawsuits, lost jobs, revoked teaching licenses, and being banished from teaching forever. Be aware of where the boundaries are and do not cross them.

9) Be sensitive to learning differences

I now have more students with learning differences and disabilities than when I started teaching over 20 years ago. And while some folks are skeptical of these diagnoses ("I didn't need accommodations, and I turned out fine"), in my experience, most students that have accommodations genuinely benefit from them. I have seen students with the skills and intelligence but slow processing time. 

One year I had a student who, more than once, asked me a question about a problem that I had discussed 5 minutes before. So while I'm thinking, "Why is she still thinking about that problem? We have moved on from that," she found an error or a new approach to the solution more than once. I realized that there is a legitimate reason why she gets extra time on assessments.

Be sure to avoid making shameful comments about students who get accommodations, and make sure that you read students' learning profiles, IEPs, or 504s *before* you meet them.


10) Fake it until you make it

Often new teachers will experience "imposter syndrome." We feel that we don't belong there, we shouldn't be in charge, and that these kids shouldn't be listening to us. I know I felt that when I was 22 years old and had a class with 17 and 18-year-old students in it! Even if you *feel* that you don't belong there, *act* like you do belong there. One of my acting teachers told me once, "If you cannot be confident, act confident." Good advice in many life situations!

Let's continue the conversation. Join me in my Facebook group.