The Don’ts and Don’ts of Teaching

I’ll take a break from my relentless critique of TFA to offer some teaching advice to the new corps members.  Having written two books of teaching advice, I was invited, a few months ago, to write a short article for Educational Leadership Magazine with the best advice I’d give to new teachers.

I decided to focus on common rookie mistakes which you want to avoid.  Here is the beginning of the article ‘The Don’ts and Don’ts of Teaching.’  You can click on the link to read the rest.  Also, teachers are welcome to add their own mistakes to avoid in the comments.

The Don’ts and Don’ts of Teaching

One piece of advice that I’ve seen in numerous books about teaching is to always phrase classroom rules positively. Instead of phrasing a rule as “no talking,” for instance, teachers should phrase it as “talk in turn.” The theory, I suppose, is that when students are told not to do one thing without being told what they should do instead, they may not know their options. Proponents also argue that phrasing rules in the positive is less confrontational; rebellious students will be less apt to break a positively stated procedure than a negatively worded rule.

I don’t buy this. For new teachers, especially, classroom rules need to be rules, and a rule should be stated in the clearest way possible. Many of the most important rules adults have to abide by are written in the negative: No parking. No dogs allowed. Do not disturb. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars. Thou shalt not kill.

The same books that suggest this positive approach to rule making often take a similar approach to the rules they suggest new teachers should abide by. But just as it’s wrong to be too subtle when instructing children, it’s wrong to be too subtle when instructing new teachers. This is particularly true when the teachers are trained through a crash-course alternative certification program.

Click here to read the rest


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8 Responses to The Don’ts and Don’ts of Teaching

  1. Mr. K says:

    These are great. I also remember reading something you wrote about not posting consequences and letting kids use their imaginations instead—I used that for most of this year and it was incredibly effective.

  2. nontfateacher says:

    Houston teachers use the CHAMPS behavior management system. I think it does a great job of keeping those rowdy kids in check.

  3. James says:

    For TFA CMs that may watch too many videos of superstar CMs introducing the ‘big goal’ with all the hoopla of a circus or Britney Spears concert, remember that your students are more likely to remember the Britney Spears concert-associated action than the ‘achieve 80 per cent or higher on the NCLB-mandated test that really only matters to the bureaucrats punching numbers into Microsoft Excel.’ And, if they do only remember the Britney Spears concert-associated action, then the first day of school appears more like a party than a time to get serious about learning and establish the teacher’s presence. Better yet, consider Gary’s intelligent advice that setting a number of small goals might be the better way to go.

  4. Prof W says:

    Great ideas! I can’t speak to secondary education, but I have to disagree about Don’t Rules for younger kids.

    Young children are just learning socially acceptable behaviors and they need to be taught them explicitly. We can’t just assume they will deduce what we are expecting of them. For example, “No Shouting Out Answers” doesn’t tell kids how the teacher expects them to respond to questions, while the Do Rule, “Raise Your Hand if You Want to Answer” does. It’s important to teach these kinds of thing because some kids enter class with either no frame of reference for such an expectation, or with prior experiences in classes with other teachers who had different expectations.

    For young children, it’s not enough to expect kids to memorize rules, too. They need hands-on opportunities to rehearse doing what’s expected as well. For example, little kids need to be taught playground safety, including how to use equipment appropriately, so teachers establish the Do Rule for using the slide, “Sit on Your Bottom with Your Feet in Front of You”, and have each child actually go down the slide this way, before having free play (with refreshers occasionally at the beginning of recess or as needed).

    This is considered developmentally approrpriate practice (DAP) in Early Childhood Education (ECE), but I learned it the hard way, my first year of teaching (before DAP was established), when my Don’t Rules were not working and often resulted in confusion and sometimes injuries. For example, the rule, “Don’t Walk in Front of the Swing” did not convey to children what they should do if they wanted a turn on the swings, so they didn’t follow the rule and some got kicked in the head. Kids more readily complied with Do Rules and injuries were reduced dramatically.

    As children learn more about cause and effect, as well as socially appropriate behaviors, they can participate in classroom rule-making, too. I found that to be especially effective when I taught a split Kindergarten/1st Grade class, as it fit with my focus on building a sense of community and establishing a peer conflict resolution program.

    I have since witnessed such practices implemented effectively in many, many preschool and elementary school classrooms.

    I also want to underscore that, as you intimated, an engaging activity is often one of the best deterents to behavior problems.

  5. meghank says:

    Don’t ever eliminate your class’s recess time. Even if your principal discourages recess, work around it. Plant some flowers outside for science and let them play while they’re out there to water them. There are ways to work around it. And the children need to know there will always be 15 minutes a day when they can act wild and not get in trouble. The kids who want to get in trouble will still act up, but at least they won’t get the better-behaved ones on their side, too.

  6. James says:

    Another tip is not to feel like you have to be a drill sargeant about enagement of 100 per cent of students. Is one student — who also just might happen to be that student prone to ‘blowing up’ and getting loud and angry — putting his/her head on the desk and not paying attention/doing anything? Fine, that student is ‘opting out’ and choosing not to learn at the moment. Pushing him/her to turn the page, answer a question, or complete the math problem will likely just lead to a ‘blow up’ that disturbs things for 29 other students. It’s not worth the battle.

  7. Gretel says:

    Don’t hold grudges. While it’s fine to recognize patterns in students’ behavior, be very careful making predictions based on those patterns. Kids need to be able to start fresh. Otherwise, if they screw up on the first unit or lose their temper or just have a bad day / week / month, they will feel they’re unrecoverable and give up for the rest of the year. Most kids appreciate if when they walk in, you’re not still angry with them from yesterday.

  8. Mike Byster says:

    As an educator myself, I can relate to this post. I agree that there needs to be set rules in a classroom. However, I also think teachers need to realize the importance of having fun and letting students express themselves. I have traveled the country talking at various schools about training the brain and having fun while doing it. I use my award winning math and memory system Brainetics ( as tool to help kids learn in a fun and exciting way. All in all, rules are important. But so is having fun and keeping learning exciting!

    Great article,

    Mike Byster
    Educator, Inventor of Brainetics, Author of Genius, Mathematician

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