New teachers have a lot of questions—but they don’t have extra time to sift through years of college textbooks and notes every day for the answers. We put together a list of questions and answers with new teacher tips that help solve the top challenges you face. We found all the solutions in Mentoring Minds’ Teacher Success Toolkit, where you can find even more tips, tricks, ideas, and strategies to help answer hundreds of classroom conundrums—without needing to keep your mentor teacher on speed dial!

1. What are some inexpensive ways that I can reward my students?

We get it. New teachers don’t have the funds to keep the treasure chest overflowing with goodies. Luckily, there are lots of intangible things you can do to reward your students. Let well-behaved students work with a friend or lead the line to lunch. Instead of reserving phone calls and notes sent home for communicating bad behavior, make sure parents also know when their kids have done something positive at school. Better yet, write special notes directly to your students and leave them on their desks or send them home via the good ol’ USPS—kids love getting mail! Sometimes, simply encouraging your class to cheer, clap, or give each other compliments is a huge reward. You can also give a thumbs-up or shake hands to congratulate a student.

2. How can I make sure students are paying attention? After I give directions, my class looks at me like a deer in headlights!

deer in headlights

Before giving directions, get your students’ undivided attention by using a signal—try a clapping pattern, ringing a bell, raising your hand, or playing music. After you give directions, wait five seconds without talking to allow students to absorb the information. If you want to check for understanding, ask kids to turn and talk to a partner and rephrase the directions. Then, if needed, repeat the directions again or let a student repeat them to the class. If you know you have a particular student who struggles to follow directions, stand close by and try to make eye contact while you’re talking.

3. What are some ways I can check for understanding of concepts without always giving tests or quizzes?

To do quick assessments throughout the day, you can ask students to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to communicate their understanding. You can also have them use dry-erase boards or turn and talk to a partner to share answers. If you want to see if students understand something they read, use book-response journals and ask them to write short or extended reactions. You can follow up with individual conferences to discuss what they’ve written. You can also try using performance-based activities—like oral presentations or role-playing—to see how much of the content they’ve grasped.

4. What are some fun ways I can help my students learn vocabulary?

Sure, being able to look up words in the dictionary and define them is an important skill, but there are lots of different (and more exciting) ways to learn vocabulary. You can let kids make a picture collage to illustrate a word or play a game of charades to guess a word and explain its meaning. Incorporate music or creative writing into your vocabulary lessons by having students create a poem, rap, or song about words and their meanings.

5. What’s the best way to get behavior under control when kids (e.g., the class clown or tattletale) are constantly interrupting my lessons?

child dressed as clown

This is one of our favorite new teacher tips. Try helping a class clown channel humorous talent into something productive—perhaps a few minutes of comedy at the end of the period or day. To get tattling under control, make a tattle box, where students can submit their tattling remarks instead of interrupting class. You can also use a stoplight system to deal with tattling (i.e., red light: think about what was said; yellow light: decide if it’s telling or tattling; green light: tell if it would cause harm or injury).

6. What can I do to help my students stay organized and get their work done on time?

Show your students how to use assignment sheets or student planners to keep track of their work. Model how to write a to-do list each day and then cross off things that are complete. You can also use a color-coded organizational system; for example, use blue pocket folders for math, yellow for reading, etc.

7. Do you have any recommendations for ways to build technology into my lessons?

Teacher holding tablet in school class, over shoulder view

Let kids do online research on a topic by designing or using ready-made online scavenger hunts or WebQuests. Jazz up your regular PowerPoint presentations with online tools like Prezi. Use Skype to host a virtual field trip with a class across the country—or the world! If you have a 1:1 classroom, try using apps like Show of Hands to take a class poll or quickly figure out which students understand a concept.

8. Many of my students just don’t seem “into” my lessons. What can I do to make sure I’m reaching all of them?

First, give your class an “interest inventory” to figure out what motivates and interests each student. Then, whenever possible, try to offer choices that appeal to different learning styles and interests. If a student loves acting, let them present the next book they read as a skit instead of a report. If a kid is into dinosaurs, try recommending books they can read on that topic. During class, you can also provide different ways for kids to access the same information, like hands-on learning stations or computers. If some kids still need a challenge, let them do independent research or passion projects in their spare time.

9. What are some ways I can get students engaged without using an interactive whiteboard?

Make use of color! You can use colored dry-erase markers or chalk, removable highlighting tape or sticky notes on your whiteboard or chalkboard. If you want to draw students’ attention to key words you’ve already written on the board, use a laser or stick pointer or try turning off the lights and shining a flashlight on the board.

10. What questions can I ask to encourage critical thinking?

We don’t want our students to turn into robots who just memorize and regurgitate facts, so we need to give them an opportunity to answer critical thinking questions that allow them to analyze, evaluate, and create information. Ask questions like: What changes could you make to this science experiment to make it work better? Or, do you agree or disagree with the author—why? The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge have lots of question stems you can use to help kids process info at different levels of thinking.

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