Back to School: Tips for First-Time Teachers Thousands of rookie teachers across the country nervously contemplate study plans and wonder if they can live up to the expectations of students, parents, the principal and themselves. Classroom veterans offer advice to the new teachers.
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Back to School: Tips for First-Time Teachers

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Back to School: Tips for First-Time Teachers

Back to School: Tips for First-Time Teachers

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's your first day in a new school. You don't have any friends. You don't know the hallways. Kids look at you funny. Well, that's 'cause you're the new teacher at school, the rookie. After a summer of preparation and training, you just hope you're ready to step up in front of the class.

New teachers pack enthusiasm, fresh ideas and lofty ambitions for their new jobs, but they bring along a lot of worries, too. What if the kids get out of control? How do you establish authority? How do you make it fun? And how do you fit your goals within the guidelines promulgated by the principal? And how do you cope with the sense of responsibility that can be overwhelming--responsibility to yourself, to your students, to their parents and to the school administration?

Some of the best advice will come from experienced colleagues, and while teaching high school may be completely different from third grade, and English as a second language may be nothing like calculus, there are some basic tenets to effective teaching that stretch across the profession.

Later in the program, the beginning of the end for some military bases, a last-minute reprieve for others, as the base closure committee makes its first recommendations, and a school district figures money is an awfully good incentive to learn.

But first: advice for rookie teachers. If you're a newbie, what do you worry about? If you're a vet, what one piece of advice would you impart? We also want tips from students and former students. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

Joining us now is Jennifer Westra, a recent college graduate who starts teaching the second grade at an elementary school in Clark County, Nevada, on Monday. She's with us today from the studios of member station KNPR in Las Vegas.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. JENNIFER WESTRA (Second-Grade Teacher): Thank you. I'm very excited to be here.

CONAN: And are you excited about that first day of class?

Ms. WESTRA: I am very excited and extremely overwhelmed. Yeah.

CONAN: Little worried?

Ms. WESTRA: I look forward to it.

CONAN: Well, what specifically are you worried about?

Ms. WESTRA: One of the things I'm really worried about is just building a relationship with my parents. I want the parents to know that they can come to me with any issues they may have. I also want them to take responsibility for the students' learning at home. It's very difficult to get anything reinforced in the classroom if it's not being reinforced at home, and so I really just want to build a relationship with my parents and empower them with the skills they will need in order to benefit their child's education.

CONAN: What's your academic goal?

Ms. WESTRA: My academic goal is I really want my students to feel comfortable with themselves as learners. I want them to engage in new styles of learning. I want them to succeed in all levels of curriculum. I really hope that they can build a sense of test-taking skills. When I was in school, I always had a fear of testing, and just since I graduated from college, I still have that fear of testing. So I really want to impart some different skills and ways to feel comfortable with the testing situation. And so those are a few of my goals this year.

CONAN: Obviously, testing more important than ever in schools with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely.

CONAN: What does your principal say about that?

Ms. WESTRA: My principal's been great. He has prepared us with tons of different techniques in the classroom to help us prepare the students better. We're also incorporating different programs to help the students with life skills and math and language and so forth. And so my principal's been really a wonderful tool to help me feel comfortable with it being my first year, and also to prepare the students. And so I've been very fortunate.

CONAN: And I wonder--have you gone through in your head--have you rehearsed what you're going to do as you walk in front of the class for the first time as the teacher? And what are you going to say? Are you going to write `Ms. Westra' up on the blackboard?

Ms. WESTRA: I plan on writing my name up on the blackboard, yes. There's definitely going to be a script that I would love to follow. I've received some scripts from past teachers and what they kind of went through the first day. The first day is where you set your precedent for the whole year. It's the most important day of the year. And I just plan--I've planned a lot of different activities to build a community within my classroom so that they can feel comfortable and safe in the classroom climate, and I hope that I am able to portray to them that I am capable of teaching, that I'm excited about learning, and I hope my excitement will be passed on to them as well.

CONAN: And are you also concerned what's going to happen when that first spitball flies or you notice...

Ms. WESTRA: Oh, definitely.

CONAN: ...the first kids staring out the window?

Ms. WESTRA: I hope that my procedures in my assessment, my individual accountability--I will not have any spitballs, but, of course, there's always that one chance. So hopefully I don't have to deal with that, but you never know. We'll find out when it comes.

CONAN: Joining us now is a teacher who's won many national awards, as among the most celebrated teachers in the country. Rafe Esquith has been teaching for 24 years, the last 15 teaching fifth-graders in Los Angeles. He's also the author of "There Are Not Shortcuts," and he joins us now from the studios of NPR West in California.

Great to have you on the program.

Mr. RAFE ESQUITH (Teacher; Author, "There Are No Shortcuts"): Thanks for having me on, Neal.

CONAN: You've been listening, I know, to Jennifer Westra. I wonder, what's the most important piece of advice you might offer to her?

Mr. ESQUITH: Well, a couple for Jennifer. First of all, she already touched on it. You're going to have some bad days...

Ms. WESTRA: Yeah.

Mr. ESQUITH: ...even when you do everything right. You do everything right and you'll still have bad days, and even though you lay out a plan, not all the parents are going to buy what you're selling, and not all the kids are going to buy what you're selling. But what makes good teachers good is when they get knocked down and when they come home really discouraged, they get off the mat and they come back the next day and try to do even better and learn from their mistakes. And I think that's why I've improved as a teacher is I've made a million mistakes; I just try to learn from them.

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely.

CONAN: If there was one mistake you made on your first day or in your first year, Rafe Esquith, what was it?

Mr. ESQUITH: Well, it's funny; we touched on it. I wouldn't be too crazy about the test-taking craze. Testing is important to me. I certainly want to assess the children's ability, but it's not the be-all and end-all of their existence. And one of the reasons that my students score so incredibly high on tests is that I tell them they're not that important. I think it's our job as teachers to take the pressure off them and let them understand that testing is simply an assessment of a skill that they're supposed to know, and if they don't do well on the test, all it means is that I'm going to teach them what they don't know. It doesn't mean they're bad kids. It doesn't mean that--I hear third-graders who've been told by their teachers, `This is your life on the line, man!' Hey, it's not their life on the line. It's a multiplication test. So let's try and keep things real with the students.

CONAN: Hmm. Jennifer, is that your impression of the tests?

Ms. WESTRA: That's definitely the impression. When I was in school, it was if you didn't pass this test, you didn't--you weren't going to do well. And so I want students to feel comfortable. Taking a test is not something they have to be terrified of. It's an assessment of what they've learned. If they haven't learned that skill, then, by all means, that's what I'm going to work on so that they can learn that skill. So I just want them to be more comfortable with taking tests and feel that, you know, it's not the end of the world; we can always work on different skills to better them.

CONAN: Rafe Esquith, Jennifer Westra was also talking about the importance of the relationship with the parents. You think she's right on that?

Mr. ESQUITH: She's absolutely right, and I'll tell you who your best salespeople are going to be, Jennifer. It's not you; it's your students, because when your kids come home every day saying, `Mom, this is the greatest class. I can't wait to get to school,' the parents will be coming to you. You know, it's the `If you build it, they will come.'

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely.

Mr. ESQUITH: Now I have a class that volunteers to start school at 6:30 in the morning, and they stay till 5 in the afternoon and they come on Saturdays and they come every day of their vacation. So they--I mean, the parents flock to me, going, `What in the world--this is so wonderful. I've never seen my kid so excited about school.' So I really feel that when you put those kids first and they're excited about your classroom, the parents will be right behind them.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. (800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is And we'll begin with Colin, Colin calling us from New London, Connecticut.

Mr. COLIN BENNETT (Caller): Hi.


Mr. BENNETT: Actually, when I first became a full-time teacher, I heard Rafe on "The Diane Rehm Show," and I remember listening to him and saying, `Wow, if I could be like that I will probably be doing a pretty good job.' And now that I've been a full-time teacher for a couple of years, I do think I'm doing a pretty good job, not because of my own opinion, but because what the parents and the students tell me. And I know this might sound kind of silly, but if you're familiar with the movie "School of Rock," where Jack Black plays a substitute teacher...

Mr. ESQUITH: Of course.

Mr. BENNETT: ...that's kind of what I emulate, where I don't think of the students as my students; I think of them as peers. And, like, I can learn almost just as much from them as they can learn from me. And I try to connect with them and make them feel equals in the classroom, and I think they really appreciate that, where they come to school and they actually look forward to coming to school, because it's not all about learning; it's about the experience of being there where they can feel comfortable and where they can feel like they can share and they can feel that they can learn, and not just sitting in a class taking a test. So my advice is to just make the personal connections with the student. And like Rafe said, the parents will come. When you make the students feel comfortable and make them feel welcome and make them feel like part of a whole, then the parents will come to you, and they'll be willing to help you after that.

CONAN: Is there some way that you know how to do that, Colin, that works for you?

Mr. BENNETT: I--for me, there's a few things I do. Like I sit with my students at lunch. Like I'll sit and eat with my students every single day at lunch, whereas, like, some of the other teachers--and I know they have--they're busy; they'll go make copies or sit with other teachers. I sit with my students. And then, even better than that, I go out and I play recess with them, which is, you know, fun for them. They love having me on their kickball team or their dodgeball team, but it's fun for me as well. So, like, it brings--it builds a community between me, myself, and my students. And then the kids can say, `Oh, Mr. Bennett's on my team,' and it makes everybody feel great. And they see that, like, I actually care about them as people, not just as--like, you know, it's my job to come there and teach them.

CONAN: Rafe Esquith, are those good ideas?

Mr. ESQUITH: I think they're some real good ideas. And I wanted to tell something to Jennifer. You know, Colin brings up a good point, which is, you know, there are a lot of great teachers out there, Jennifer, but I've got to warn you: There's going to be a group of teachers in your school--and they're in every school--and I'm going to describe them to you. They usually hang out in the parking lot or the lunch room. They hate teaching. They hate their kids. They hate their principal, and they spend most of their day complaining about how horrible their job is. And the advice I have for you is: Stay away from these people. And in the same...

Ms. WESTRA: Yeah. Don't hang out in the teachers' lounge.

Mr. ESQUITH: Yeah, it's true. It's like, you know, in the same way that you're telling your children to hang out with the right kids, you've got to hang out with the right teachers. And I'm a lucky teacher...

Ms. WESTRA: Don't want to be around.

Mr. ESQUITH: Yeah. You know, I'm a...

Ms. WESTRA: You don't want to be around people bringing you down or...

Mr. ESQUITH: Exactly. You know, I...

CONAN: Especially if they smoke, you know?

Mr. ESQUITH: You know, I'm a lucky teacher, Jennifer, and there are a million teachers out there who never get their name in the paper and they don't have movies made about them, and they're great teachers. They're in the classroom every day for 20 years, helping the kid do the best they can be. And these are the teachers you want to hang out with and the ones that you want to observe when you have a day off, to see how they get their class to the level they get them.

Ms. WESTRA: Exactly. Well, I thought what Colin said was--sitting with the students at lunch and playing with them at recess--when I was doing my student teaching, I did both of those things, and the students would just kind of be around me constantly and respect me more, as opposed to their cooperating teachers. And they kind of said, you know, `You don't have to do that with the students. You don't have to be with them all the time.' And it wasn't a matter of having to; it was just a matter--I wanted to. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to spend that time with them and see them outside of the learning environment, with their peers during recess. And so I thought that was funny that he said that, 'cause if he just thought it was--that I was crazy...

Mr. ESQUITH: He's exactly right. You know, I have a really tough kid this year that everybody finds in our school to be unteachable. But he happens to be a very good baseball player, and I love baseball. And because he and I have a baseball connection, he is now much more willing to listen during math time and during literature time, because we have a connection at another part of the day. The more time you spend with your children, the more chance there is you're going to connect with them.

CONAN: Colin, thanks very much for the phone call, and I guess some of your parents might have gotten good news today with the decision by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission...

COLIN: Yeah.

CONAN: keep that submarine base in New London open.

COLIN: Definitely. A lot of people will be happy.

CONAN: Yeah. Thanks for the call.

COLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we're going to have more on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission later in the program. When we come back from a break, though, we're going to continue taking your phone calls on advice for first-time teachers. We want to hear from veteran teachers and, of course, from veteran students as well. (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

If you're to stand at the head of a classroom for the first time this fall, knees shaking, I guess that's a little understandable. There are enormous pressures inside the classroom: discipline, effective teaching, even remembering the students' names. Outside the classroom, there's pressure from parents, administrators and those who track standardized tests. How do you handle it all? Join the discussion. New teachers, what are you worried about? What advice do you want? Old-timers, what do you wish you'd known from that first day? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address,

Our guests are Rafe Esquith, the author of "There Are No Shortcuts" and a longtime fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles; also with us is Jennifer Westra, who's going to begin teaching the second grade on Monday in Clark County in Nevada.

And, Rafe Esquith, let me ask you--you were talking before the break about, well, there's a certain set of teachers you may not want to hang out with. How do you deal with school administrators?

Mr. ESQUITH: That's a great question. Especially for the young teachers, you know, you're going to come in there with a lot of great ideas and you'll want to save the world, and many of your ideas are good ones. But before you try to reinvent the wheel, what you want to do with your administrators is show them that you're competent. People know that I'm a wild man in the classroom and my kids do unabridged Shakespeare plays and follow--you know, travel all over the world, but we didn't do that in my first two years of teaching. My first two years of teaching, I showed them that I had a great reading program and a great math program. The kids were having a great time and they were focused. And just like with the parents, rather than try and sell the administrators on anything, I just went in there and put my nose down and did the job. And once the administrators saw that, they were more willing to go along with some of my crazier ideas.

CONAN: Do you have any crazy ideas, Jennifer Westra?

Ms. WESTRA: I hope they're not crazy. I think a lot of...

Mr. ESQUITH: Well, of course they're not, but people will tell you you are. That's the problem, Jennifer.

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely, yes. That's what I'm worried about. I think from dealing with different situations throughout my schooling, I've picked up a lot of ideas, but it's not so much stuff that I'm going to implement the very first year. Once I've kind of gotten the basics down and, of course, shown my competence, then I would, you know, try to implement those throughout the school years to come.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Paul, Paul in Chino (pronounced CHEHno) Valley, Arizona--is that right?

PAUL (Caller): That's Chino (pronounced CHEEno) Valley, Arizona.

CONAN: Chino (pronounced CHEEno) Valley. Go ahead.

PAUL: Chino Valley. Thank you. I was a band director 31 years in Arizona here. My main thing I would say is you need to be best friends with the head secretary and the head maintenance man. They can make...


Mr. ESQUITH: Smart teacher.

PAUL: ...your life miserable if they want to.

CONAN: And they actually turn out to run the school, don't they?

PAUL: Of course they do. Of course they do. The head secretary is basically the principal, when you come right down to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAUL: And something else I would say is, for a first-year teacher or any teacher, the first day of class, you have got to gain control immediately. You have to be the boss. It can't be all chiefs and no Indians. You've got to be the boss, and they need to know that immediately.

CONAN: Hm. Does that concern you, Jennifer, that idea of being the boss? These are younger kids, too.

Ms. WESTRA: I can definitely handle being the boss. I like being in charge. I will set precedents. I will set standards from the very beginning, and I've always been told from other people you never smile the first, like, month of school. That's not my personality. I'm a smiling person, but I'm still a very strict person. And I feel that it's going to benefit these children, especially in the area in which I will be teaching in, to have some goals to live up to, to have some standards, to have some rules to live up to, because they don't generally have that at home. And so if I'm the strict person and the person who, you know, is always following through, that will be the one person in their life that--they'll remember that I followed through with everything. So I can handle being the bad guy in that sense, that I have to be in control. But I take that role with open arms.

Mr. ESQUITH: Well, let me--can I just tell Jennifer--you know, you really can smile the first day. They are a bunch of kids.

Ms. WESTRA: Yes. Yes, I know.

Mr. ESQUITH: The way I would phrase it to you is, remember this: Kids don't mind a tough teacher. They despise an unfair one.

Ms. WESTRA: Yes.

Mr. ESQUITH: So if your consequences are logical and the kids feel you're being fair, you can smile and still be tough at the same time.

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call.

PAUL: Thank you. You're very welcome. My pleasure.

CONAN: Not all new teachers are fresh out of college. In New York, a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows program trains people who may have spent decades in a completely different career to become public schoolteachers. David Espinosa took that challenge up a year ago. He left a 15-year career in hotel administration. He is now preparing for his second year to teach freshman math at Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, and he joins us from NPR's bureau in New York City.

Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. DAVID ESPINOSA (Teacher): Hi. Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well.

Mr. ESPINOSA: Such an...

CONAN: I wonder, what did you learn in one year of teaching that a 15-year career in business didn't teach you?

Mr. ESPINOSA: Well, first of all, that you don't have the support you have in a corporation to just stand out--you know, open your door and say, `Hey, can I have 30 copies of this in, like, five minutes?' No. You have to be very, very prepared for what you're going to deliver to these kids--very prepared. And always tell the truth. You're selling something that they don't want to buy, that they don't think they need, and you've got to give it to them every single day, with a smile, creatively and with a lot of fun, actually.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It also strikes me that in a business career, well, you have effect on a lot of people, but not quite the same kind of an effect you can have on students.

Mr. ESPINOSA: No, this--these are--the effect you can have on students could be damaging if you don't do it right, if you don't say the right things, if you--it's just unbelievable, you know, that I go home sometimes and I'm frightened that I'm going to ruin somebody's life if I do the wrong thing, and they're just kids, you know? They're just kids, whereas when you work in the corporate world, you're a supervisor, you just do things because you have to do them. You don't think twice about what you're saying or the jobs that you're giving somebody to do.

CONAN: Yeah. On the other hand, you have some opportunity to inspire some kid to do great things.

Mr. ESPINOSA: Absolutely. You can unleash so much creativity in those that were afraid to do things before; if you get them to do it, they could be just marvelous, marvelous, marvelous contributors to society.

CONAN: What one piece of advice, if there is just one--but if there's one piece of advice you could offer to Jennifer Westra, who's starting her first class next week, what would it be?

Mr. ESPINOSA: Well, there are several I have, but I just--my golden rules of teaching that I got from one of my profs at grad school was there are--it's just always tell the truth. Always tell the truth. Treat the children as if they're your own. Treat them as if they're your own children. And if you taught them, then they know it.

CONAN: Now did you...

Ms. WESTRA: Thank you for that.

CONAN: OK. I wonder--did you feel prepared when you went into class that first day? How'd it go for you?

Mr. ESPINOSA: I felt prepared. I was confident that I knew everything I needed to know to get on that first day. When I sat up in front of those kids, I just about fell out of my--just fell out. It--there's nothing can prepare you for those first words that you're going to say to a group of kids that are looking at you like you know everything. Just nothing can prepare you for that.

CONAN: And did you get over it?

Mr. ESPINOSA: Very quickly. Very, very quickly. Very quickly.

CONAN: David Espinosa, good luck. You're teaching math again?

Mr. ESPINOSA: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Math teacher at Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, and he was kind enough to join us today from NPR's bureau in New York City. We wish him the best.

Mr. ESPINOSA: Thank you.

CONAN: By the way, before you leave, any regrets at your career switch?

Mr. ESPINOSA: Oh, absolutely not. My only regret is that I didn't do it earlier.

CONAN: Huh. Really?

Mr. ESQUITH: All right.


CONAN: All right. Maybe that was not necessarily a financial analysis or...

Mr. ESPINOSA: Not at all.

CONAN: OK. We appreciate it again, David. Appreciate it.

Mr. ESPINOSA: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's get some more callers on the line. This is Liane(ph), Liane calling from Stoughton, Wisconsin.

LIANE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LIANE: The only piece of advice I would give to especially new teachers is that--be careful of the words that you use with your kids, because they take everything to heart. And my son is just now going into fourth grade, and when he was in first grade--he's always had his own sense of dress, his own sense of style, and one day he rolled up one pantleg and left the other one down. And his first-grade teacher said, `You look like you're in a gang.' And he came home and he said, `Mom, what's a gang?' And I just think that teachers don't always realize the impact of each and every thing that they say to kids, what it has--you know, the impact it has on them. So I have great respect for teachers, and way to go and best of luck to you, but just, you know, maybe think about the words that you use when you're talking to the kids, because sometimes it can be way over their head. And he still remembers that. He still talks about--`That teacher thought I was in a gang,' you know?

CONAN: Well, that ought to relax you, Jennifer.

Ms. WESTRA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIANE: Yeah. Sorry.

Ms. WESTRA: I hope I say things that are appropriate. I try to.

Mr. ESQUITH: But you know what? I think, Jennifer, David pointed out a really good thing about that whole trust issue, which is--what I tell my students on the first day of classes--most classes are run on fear, and we run ours on trust. I always tell the truth. I want the truth from them. Anything else--any mistake they make, blown homework assignments, bad tests--it's all fixable. But when you start lying, that's an irreparable sin. You can never get back that trust that you've lost. I thought David's point about having a classroom based on trust and truth--and, you know, one day you are going to say something that a child misunderstands, and you apologize and you move on. But you are--you know, you can't always say things right. It's a tough job.

CONAN: How...

Ms. WESTRA: I think that...

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Ms. WESTRA: I'm sorry.

CONAN: No, go, please.

Ms. WESTRA: I think that if you guild that relationship with the students, you don't have to be as cynical with every little word that you say.

Mr. ESQUITH: That's right.

Ms. WESTRA: You can be--you can know where your boundaries are with that particular child. And so with the last caller, her son and his teacher may not have had that relationship...

Mr. ESQUITH: Exactly.

Ms. WESTRA: ...where she could say something like that to him, which is unfortunate. So I hope to build really good relationships with my students, because I want to be able to, you know, joke with them, have them joke back with me...

Mr. ESQUITH: Exactly.

Ms. WESTRA: ...and feel comfortable enough to do that.

CONAN: Thanks, Liane, for the call.

LIANE: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Rafe, I did want to ask you about that sense of responsibility that David Espinosa was talking about as well. You can have tremendous impact, positive and negative, on these kids' lives.

Mr. ESQUITH: It's true. And I wanted to tell all the new teachers, you know, sometimes you think you're having no effect at all because you look at the calendar and you think, gee, by the end of the year, they have to know all these things and many of them don't, and you feel like you've failed. But remember, their life continues on. And many of the children that you work with will take the lessons that you've given them, and maybe those lessons will kick in three years later, four years later, five years later, and you'll never know that. And that child may never write you a thank-you note. But you have to understand that you have to keep trying to teach the lessons of excellence, both as human beings and in school. And don't worry if you don't think they've got everything by the end of the year. That doesn't mean you failed. You failed if you quit trying to teach those lessons.

Ms. WESTRA: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. Shayna(ph). Shayna calling from San Antonio.

SHAYNA (Caller): Hi, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

SHAYNA: I just wanted to tell a story about a teacher that I had in fourth grade that I've never forgotten. Her name was Mrs. Hass(ph). And she had just graduated from college, she was very young, and I think she was really involved in cheerleading in high school and in college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAYNA: And I remember that she taught us how to spell the word success, which was always very hard for me because I didn't know the double C's and the double S's. But what she did is she came in one day and she put on a cheerleading uniform, and I just can never get out of my mind S-U-C-C-E-S-S as she kind of used her pom-poms and did a little dance for us. And the lesson to it, other than you want to be careful not to make a fool of yourself, is that she used her personal talent to really have fun with us and to use it to teach us. And that would just be my advice to new teachers, is to think about what their own talents are and to integrate them into the curriculum and make it fun and entertaining. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Shayna, by the way, there is a career for people who never learned how to spell. It's called radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAYNA: Well, I'll leave my number at the end of the conversation.

CONAN: OK. Appreciate it. I still have to go M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. It's those mnemonics that--they're the only ones who survive. Success I could never get through.

We're talking about advice from veteran teachers. Our veteran is Rafe Esquith, author of "There Are No Shortcuts," a longtime fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles who's won many national awards. Our rookie is Jennifer Westra, a first-time teacher who starts teaching the second grade on Monday in Clark County in Nevada.

If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Rita, Rita calling us from Kansas City.

RITA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello, you're on the air, Rita.

RITA: Yes. Just a hint. I have been a substitute teacher for the last five years, and I deal with children of all ages. And what has worked most for me is when the class is out of control, you become completely quiet for the next four or five minutes and the class dies down by itself.

CONAN: Really?

RITA: Yes.

CONAN: That works for you.

RITA: Yes.

CONAN: Rafe, what do you do?

Mr. ESQUITH: Well, first of all, I think that's a great point, because the whole key is you have to be the person you want the kids to be. And if you want them to be calm and in control, then you have to be calm and in control. You can't scream at children to settle down because you're not settled down. If I want my kids to be nice, I got to be the nicest guy they've ever met every day. And if I want them to work hard and be focused, then that has to be me. My whole role model of teaching is Atticus Finch from "To Kill A Mockingbird." He was the father that Jem and Scout needed, and I have to be the teacher that my students need. I think the caller makes a good point.

RITA: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Rita.

Ms. WESTRA: One of my mentors, Dave Grohl(ph), always said to me that his students best understood what he had to say when he whispered it, because if you're screaming at the top of your lungs, they're not going to be paying attention, they're just going to be shocked at what you're having to say, but they're not respecting you and not listening and really wanting to implement what it is you're saying. So I'm grateful to him...

Mr. ESQUITH: It's so true. I mean, Jennifer, did you like it when the teacher screamed at you?

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely not.

Mr. ESQUITH: And I didn't either.

Ms. WESTRA: Definitely.

Mr. ESQUITH: So we've got to remember that.

CONAN: I wonder, have you noticed--I'm just curious about this--is there a connection between disruptive behavior or rowdiness and blood sugar levels? In other words, right before lunch is it worse?

Mr. ESQUITH: I mean, I've noticed that. I mean, certainly, the kids' diet affects their behavior, especially at the elementary school level when, you know, you have kids having Twinkies for breakfast.

CONAN: So be careful about that.

Anyway, let's get another caller on the line. Sharmin(ph), Sharmin calling from San Mateo, California.

SHARMIN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just--as a former teacher and--who quit to raise my four kids, I just want to remind Jennifer that the parents have ultimate responsibility for their kids, and teaching is such a noble, you know, profession and we go into it because we believe we can do a good thing. But we need to remember that we can't micromanage the kids' lives through their parents. We can make suggestions, we can, you know, tell them, you know, perhaps, you know, that these are our rules, but we can't assume that they don't have rules at home. And I think that sometimes teachers feel that because they have these kids so many hours of the day that they need to then tell the parents what to do with them after hours. Like, `Oh, it's no TV week. You know, turn off your TVs.' Well, that's ultimately the parents' judgment. We can make suggestions of teachers, but I think we just need to remember that the parents will ultimately answer for their children and it's their responsibility, and they love their children and they want to do their best for their children as well.

CONAN: Jennifer, as you talk about getting to know your parents--the parents of your kids, obviously--is that something you're concerned about?

Ms. WESTRA: It definitely is something I'm concerned about. I feel that if I have a relationship with the parents, they're going to be more willing to listen to what I suggest for the students. But by no means am I telling them how to raise their children. We're just in different...

CONAN: At the same time you've got to be looking out for malnutrition and even potential abuse.

Ms. WESTRA: Yes. Yes. My main goal is to look out for the students. I want to make sure that they're safe. I want to make sure that they're fed. And I can't control that, unfortunately. I wish I could. But I just--I wish that I could have a relationship with my parents that they know that I am there for the students. I want the best for them. And if they have that understanding, I think they'll be more willing to hear whatever I suggest, or they may be more willing to implement different programs at home, if they would like.

CONAN: Sharmin, thanks very much for the call.

SHARMIN: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an e-mail, quickly. `For your first year'--this from Craig and Ellen. `For your first year, organize and arrange the classroom so it's comfortable for you. You'll be at ease and the students will understand you're in charge about seating charts. Took me years to figure it out. If you have two troublesome students in the room, seat one at the top of the row and the other at the bottom of the same row. This restricts talking and eye contact. Good luck and God bless.' That from Ellen Eden.

And I think, Jennifer Westra, you're getting a lot of good advice from a lot of our callers. Thanks very much for being with us today. We wish you the best of luck.

Ms. WESTRA: Thank you. I really appreciate all that has been said and this opportunity.

CONAN: Jennifer Westra, first-time teacher, starts on second grade on Monday in Clark County, Nevada.

And, Rafe Esquith, thank you so much for at least a small portion of your wisdom today.

Mr. ESQUITH: Well, it was a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: Rafe Esquith is the author of "There Are No Shortcuts," a longtime fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles and the winner of many national awards for teaching.

When we come back from a short break, the latest innovation to get students to be on time and present every day: cash. And the final recommendations from the military base closure meetings. A few cities cheering good luck, many others wondering how they are going to fill the gap left behind.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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