Ask a Teacher

Mary Goggins Selke

Education Professor Shares Advice for First-Year Teachers

Mary Goggins Selke taught middle school for several years and served as an elementary school principal prior to earning her doctoral degree in educational administration and supervision at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Now a full-time faculty member and professor at Northcentral University’s School of Education, Selke offers some insight from her experience in education to first-year teachers just beginning their careers.

Reflecting back to your first year as an educator, what is one thing you wish you would’ve known/been told in college?

Selke: “Actually, most of what I needed to know I had been told – which I realized when I read back through my notes after being out of school and teaching for a year or two. However, the problem back when I went through my teacher preparation program was that we didn’t see much of real school settings until we student-taught.”

“We were well-versed in content knowledge and ‘how-to’ information, but did not have much opportunity to apply it, to operationalize it. That’s changed now. In most teacher preparation programs, teaching candidates are involved with field experiences in school settings beginning with their initial education courses.”

In today’s time where many public school districts are eliminating programs in elementary schools, how do you feel about them beginning with fine arts programs? Do you think fine arts programs are important for young children?

Selke: “Absolutely. Eliminating arts programs in elementary schools is evidence of educational shortsightedness. I am firmly convinced that fine arts experiences are highly valuable for a wide range of aesthetic and educational reasons, based on the extensive research in this area and on a personal perspective grounded in the knowledge base of practice.”

“In all but one of my years as an elementary or middle school teacher, I was a vocal/general music teacher. Choral music experience gave children ways to experience collaboration and contributing individual efforts to a common goal. Music students tended to gain self-confidence as they began to develop talents they had not previously been able to see in themselves.”

“In many instances, even when working with kids who were having trouble with attendance or academics, success in music began to transfer to success in other areas, including the academic realm.”

Several school districts have had to make budget cuts in recent years, which include laying off teachers. In this time of uncertainty in the workforce, why do you think it’s still a good investment to pursue a degree in education?

Selke: “There is uncertainty across the workforce. Unfortunately education jobs are not exempt from this. That being said, in many instances the challenge is more one of distribution or location of available jobs than of an actual shortage of positions.”

“My suggestion for beginning teachers is to be willing to drive a bit or relocate to find a position, especially an initial teaching position. It also helps to have certification endorsements in addition to your major area of certification and to be willing to take on co-curricular or extracurricular activities.”

What disciplinary methods do you find to be the most effective?

Selke: “I did find setting a short, fair, concise list of expectations (rules); being firm but fair and compassionate in enforcing them; and being disappointed and hopeful rather than angry when students’ behaviors did not yet meet expectations went a long way.”

Being a new teacher can be a bit nerve-wracking. Any tips to ease the first-year jitters?

Selke: “Secure one or more mentors (who do not evaluate you) to help you keep perspective. Learn who you can trust and who you can’t. Be open to and respectful of experienced teachers who are willing to share ideas, lessons, or materials.”

“Focus on substantive lessons that can be individualized to meet needs of your students. Vary them and be open to trying new things but not every lesson has to be super-spectacular: be gentle with yourself.”

“Plan to set some time aside every weekend to enjoy favorite hobbies, pastimes, and sports. When you get back to school-related tasks you will be refreshed and more productive. Get enough sleep, get some fresh air, and be wise about nutrition and staying healthy.”

“Remain in close touch with friends and family – you need your support system more than ever. If at all possible, focus on working through your first year of teaching and postpone any additional major life changes for that year.”

Do you still have the same perspective on teaching as when you started?

Selke: “Yes and no. I still believe in students first. I like the traditional saying that ‘students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, but my perspectives have deepened and expanded.”

“Some of my middle school music students are now middle school music teachers or parents who have kids in music programs. Did I set a good example for what a teacher should be to her students and their families? I never thought about that as a beginning teacher. I was too busy learning the art and science of teaching!”

“I would think about that now, have thought about it when working with children’s music groups at church. And I see educational issues in broader contexts, tend to look at what research tells us, and I often look for patterns, trends, connections, or correlations.”

How do you stay motivated throughout the school year?

Selke: “Give yourself and your students things to look forward to. Celebrate successes, even small ones. I found it helps keep yourself motivated to plan ahead.”

“Avoid the trap of planning no further ahead than the end of the week – or the end of the day. An experienced colleague actually mapped out the topics to be addressed during the year, by week, and had it on a cork board by her desk where she could literally see the big picture every day. I tried that and found it helpful.”

“I also kept my long-version lesson plans in a notebook or computer file and made notes afterward on what worked, what didn’t go as well as I had hoped, and what I wanted to revise or be sure to keep when teaching a similar lesson in the future.”

“As I mentioned above, be gentle with yourself. Everyone makes honest mistakes. The key is to learn from them, work through them, and be respectful of your students, yourself, and the colleagues and families with whom you work.”

“Remember: Teaching is the root of every other discipline. You have chosen one of the most important professions in existence. Although I am now a university professor I still list ‘teacher’ when asked to complete forms that ask for my job title. Why? Whether you teach kindergarten or college, teaching is not just something you do: it is a vital part of who you are.”

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