Working in a School as a Teacher: What They Don’t Teach You in College

I’m sure that many teachers reading this article can relate with the fact that many of the real world skills necessary for teaching and working in schools are not taught in college teacher programs. This is one of my biggest complaints about teacher programs. I did learn a lot about teaching theory, academic fundamentals, preparing single lesson plans, and gathering teacher resources in both my undergraduate and graduate programs. However, I did not learn a lot about real world skills, both for the classroom and for working in a school in general. I feel like this was especially true for special education, but that’s a whole other topic. I will address more general teacher issues in this hub. I hope that this will be a valuable resource for all teachers, particularly those of you who are just starting out in the field.

I have included as many resources here as I can, but there is not a lot out there on any of the aspects of working in a school that I’ve covered here. This is another reason why I was inspired to write this article. This is information that teachers really need! If anyone has any helpful resources for any of the following topics, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

We did address this topic in a little detail in my graduate program where most students were currently teaching special education. I was able to swap stories and advice with a lot of my classmates as well as get some insight from my teachers. Keep in mind that conferences are not a time to bring up major problems or other big issues, particularly if you have not mentioned them to the parents previously. Most conference slots are only 10-15 minutes long. If you need to talk about an issue, discuss this with parents ahead of time and schedule a longer conference.

Many conferences will go smoothly. Parents will be satisfied with an overview of how things are going in the classroom that includes examples of work and positive attributes about their child. However, many teachers will have to prepare for at least one difficult conference. Most likely by the time you get to the first round of conferences, you will know which one this will be. If you are especially worried, have someone else there, such as a guidance counselor or principal. I also recommend having an escape call or page from the office or another conference immediately following that one. This will decrease the chances of things spiraling out of control and taking much longer than necessary.

I learned a lot about short term lesson planning, particularly in my undergrad program. I could write great single lesson plans. This is an important skill, but I had very little preparation for developing long term plans, which is just as important. You will get to develop this skill a little during student teaching, but typically this experience still doesn’t encompass an entire school year.

The same advice that I gave about planning for the first year of teaching special education applies to just about all first year teachers. There will be a lot of day to day planning your first year that you simply cannot avoid. However, it is still important to sit down at the beginning of each school year and develop a general plan for each subject. This includes outlining your units for each month and defining goals for the entire year. This can be really difficult for special education teachers who have multiple grade levels and/or multiple difficulty levels. At least make an outline for all areas that you will be teaching. This may still seem like an overwhelming process when you start, but it will get easier with subsequent years. It will also make the rest of the school year go more smoothly as you start to fill in weekly and daily plans within those bigger units.

Anyone who has had a job in any type of setting with a secretary or secretaries knows just how useful they can be with more situations that you ever would have imagined. This is no exception in schools. Secretaries interact with more administrators, students, parents, and teachers than anyone else in the building throughout each week. They are a great go to resource for advice about any number of co-workers, parents, students, supplies, and much more.

It is important to stay on good terms with your secretary because you never know she will be able to help you out. For example, a secretary is a great person to provide an “out” for you at the end of a difficult conference with a page to the office or a phone call. In the last building where I taught, we consistently ran out of white copy paper at the end of each school year. The secretary always saved an extra ream or two for the special education department’s IEPs so we wouldn’t be forced to provide our own paper.

Thanks to a reader for this suggestion! Becoming friends with your custodian is such an important aspect of many jobs. Again, schools are no exception. There will be a number of occasions throughout a school year when you need a custodian to clean up or help you with an issue NOW. If you have established a good rapport with this person, he is much more likely to respond positively to these requests as well as day to day requests such as extra paper towels, more board cleaner, etc.

Similar to secretaries, you never know when a custodian may be able to help you out with any number of random requests. When I left my last school, my custodian got the kitchen crew to help collect boxes for me both for packing up my classroom and packing up my and my husband’s condo. We didn’t have to pay for a single moving box for our move to Milwaukee.

If you have had experiences with at least two different schools, you know that not all principals are the same. There is no single set of rules that applies to interacting with principals because their preferences, work styles, personalities, etc. can vary so much. Learn how and when to approach him. Develop a strong method for getting things accomplished with him. Depending on your principal, this may be very easy or it may takes weeks or months of patience, observation, and consultation with other staff.

This same advice applies to other administrators and higher ups in your district or school system, particularly if you are part of a larger system. For example, you may deal more frequently with your curriculum director, education director, department head, etc. than you do with your principal.

Any primarily female work environment will come with a certain level of cattiness. The degree of the cattiness can vary widely, depending on a number of factors. Nonetheless, it is still an issue in many school settings. Be professional as much as possible. Try to stay away from cliques. I know that this can be very tough, especially if you are in a school with lots of tight teacher groups. It may involve a sacrifice of less work friends for the sake of a more professional reputation with your administrators and parents. Hopefully you will never be in a situation this extreme, but I have seen it happen on more than one occasion.

Some fellow teachers and administrators are much more open to this than others. You will most likely learn who you can and can’t go to within the first couple months of the school year. It is really important to know who will be an ally when you have tough situations. Almost all teachers will encounter situations that require advice from fellow teachers to address properly. Make sure that you know who you can trust.

My undergrad program touched on this subject, but we were never given any solid advice or specifics about any systems. We were just given a general overview. Having never taught general education on my own, I don’t have a lot of specific advice about this topic, particularly grade books. Most of my data keeping in special education revolve around the IEPs. It is important to develop a system for this data collection as well (see my survival tips article to get you started).

There is no perfect system out there for grade books or planners. You need to find out what works best from you. Consult with other teachers in your school or elsewhere to see what they use and what they do and don’t like. You will have to decide if you want to work with paper books or computer/online systems. You may need to try both to decide which you like better.

Consider a daily planning template that you can use in Microsoft Word or a similar program. Once you have one developed, you can use it over and over again throughout the school year. Many teachers in my last school district, both general and special education, developed these type of templates. It is much easier to change plans in an electronic form for unexpected changes (i.e. fire alarms, special assemblies, late starts/early outs for weather, snow days) than a paper form.