5 Profound Mistakes Every Teacher Should Avoid in Their Career

female teacher in front of class

Recently I hosted three other teachers at my home for dinner. We’d all taught together, and we have about 100 years of combined teaching experience.

While we had different teaching styles, different strengths, and different weaknesses, what we shared was exceptional proficiency as educators.

After journaling and thinking about the ideas we shared, I distilled the thoughts into 5 profound mistakes every teacher should avoid in their career.

Let’s dive in:

Mistake #1: Believing It’s Not About Content

Too often, teachers are told that it’s all about relationships, not content.

They focus most on the soft skills of teaching. They believe content mastery isn’t that important, only to end up finding out that they’re one class period ahead of the kids. The stress that causes damages the very relationships they’re trying to build.

This has been a topic of research, and it turns out that if you’re teaching history, you should know history. Sounds revolutionary, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t, of course, but we are living in a time where people tell us that as long as we love the students and make everyone happy to come to school, it’s okay if we don’t actually teach anything.

Don’t believe it.

Instead, teachers should be focused on a balance of social/emotional development and content expertise.

Keep those content area skills honed while you develop relationships. One thing that leads to strong relationships in classrooms is students’ trust that the teacher knows what he/she is talking about, especially with high-ability students.

This is what ends up leading to student achievement, excellent classroom culture, and teacher confidence.

Mistake #2: Not Reading the Room

Schools have a unique professional ecosystem.

The campus social food web can be very confusing. Who’s got power? Who doesn’t?

The politics of “Teacher of the Year” are more confusing than a national election.

One of the biggest mistakes I made was not realizing that my department chair wielded extraordinary power because of her husband’s role as the athletic director. Getting on her bad side was professionally expensive.

The movie “Mean Girls” could just have easily been made about the teachers as the students, and that’s no exaggeration.

Don’t get it confused: they say it’s all about kids, but it’s about adults, too.

Be careful about being too quick to try to impose all the ideas you got in college on experienced teachers before you know what you’re talking about. Don’t dismiss an idea because the teacher who shared it has been teaching since the Mesozoic era and has been using the same lesson for 57 years.

Longevity doesn’t necessarily mean archaic.

At the same time, worry less about what other teachers tell you that you should be doing and be a scientist of your own teaching.

Gather and analyze your own data about what works and what doesn’t.

Key idea: Pay attention to the social environment, but don’t let it distract you from who you are meant to be as a teacher. If you find that you can’t do both, you’re in the wrong school.

Mistake #3: Coasting Too Soon

Until you’ve taught for five years, don’t take your eye off the ball.

I read a study once that said that teacher quality improves drastically the first five years. I believe it.

I still wish I could go back and apologize to the students I had my first year teaching. I had a lot of enthusiasm, but my skills were not great.

After three years, I felt confident enough that I started to make mistakes.

I allowed myself to get frustrated at professional development instead of looking for the one takeaway I could use.

I stopped reading the research because I was so done with college. So done.

I stopped asking more experienced teachers for suggestions and advice.

I became judgmental about other teachers’ lack of skill (even though I was still lacking in dozens of ways).

I shudder just thinking about it.

I love quotes, and what I wished I’d remembered was this gem:

“Let the improvement of yourself keep you so busy that you have no time to criticize others.” ― Roy T. Bennett

This is where the idea of being a positive deviant can be very helpful.

You’ll be getting better every year, but don’t let yourself get overconfident. Keep focused on constant improvement. Seek feedback and act on it.

Mistake #4: Certifying in Content/Grades You Don’t Love

Traditional wisdom says that you will increase your ability to get/keep a job if you have a lot of certifications.

But that’s only helpful if you do two things correctly:

  • Make sure that everything you certify in is something you can really show up for every day without wanting to stick a hot poker in your eye.
  • Make sure you have strong competency in the areas of certification. Passing the certification exam only to be underwater all year is no victory.

If you do those two things, broad certification works great.

Mistake #5: Neglecting the Physical

We all think we can do an end run around physiology.

We all think we have unlimited passion that will trump everything else.

We all think we are immune to catastrophic exhaustion.

But the truth is, we’re not.

My first year teaching, I’d frequently be working until the wee hours. I’d run up to school at every opportunity. I was burning the candle at both ends and then lighting the melted wax on fire, too.

Teacher burnout is much greater when you are tired all the time, when you never exercise (except typing!), and eat whatever is quickest to grab.

It’s much better to protect your sleep, your exercise, and your nutrition.

Prioritize health. You will be a better, healthier, more effective teacher, and you will be able to teach longer.

What we can learn from the five mistakes teachers shouldn’t make

If I could sum it up in one word, it would be “humility.” Be humble about your physical, social, and professional limits. Be humble about your place in the campus. Be humble about your relationships. Be open to growth. Be open to others.

As you maintain humility in the face of ever-increasing skill, you will avoid having a ceiling placed on your growth as a teacher.

You will be able to continue to expand your skills, and you will find much greater enjoyment in your career than you ever imagined possible.

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