Things You Won't Learn About Teaching in Grad School

This could probably fill a book, but we'll start smaller.

future educator finishing grad school

A traditional description of graduate school for education might go something like this:

“One to two years spent learning pedagogy, talking about behavior scenarios, and reading recent research on what kids today need.”

An alternative one might read:

“A nice resume boost and another requirement for the state to put on future educators.”

While I am being facetious with the latter description of grad school, I have found that the majority of my most useful teaching lessons came from actually leading a classroom, not being a student in one. Here are the four biggest areas where grad school was not enough preparation.

1. What Curriculum?

The first teaching job I got after grad school is the one I still have four years later, but Year One looked different than Year Four.

Going into a school with no established math or reading curricula left a lot open to interpretation. In grad school, you spend time learning about the principles behind teaching math and reading, most of which are embedded within various curricula. As a new teacher, I had to figure out what to do when there is no curriculum.

The solution? I found that sometimes you can wing it using a combination of resources from other teachers, pieces of vetted curriculum, and your own knowledge. You can also search for free programs online (such as the Engage NY math program).

You make it work, but no grad school class can prepare you for a lack of resources!

2. Bodily Issues

There are zero things that can prepare you for a child throwing up all over herself, her desk, and the floor 10 minutes into your math lesson the day after a vacation. Similarly, nothing in a book prepares you for when a kid gets a bloody nose so bad he drips all over the rug. Additionally, no one warns you about kids having accidents, or breaking a leg and being unable to get up the stairs in your elevator-less building from 150 years ago.

In short: things happen. Sometimes all you can do is laugh (after the vomit has been cleaned up) and know that there will be new challenges tomorrow!

3. Parents

The most difficult experiences I’ve had teaching have been with parents. I signed up to be a teacher to work with kids — not adults — but with kids come their parents.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that it is always, always, always better to communicate via phone or in person rather than email. If you have even the slightest hesitation of how something could be construed, do not put it in an email. If it is a tough conversation you know will elicit emotion, do not put it in an email.

Conclusion: voice, tone, body language, and emotion are best conveyed in-person or on the phone.

4. Behavioral Issues

Behavior is one of the hardest issues to deal with in the classroom because while you can discuss the subject in theory for hours on end, the reality is often a completely different story.

Sometimes, a student will refuse to leave the room for a specialist. Maybe he will rip up his test after completing it because the last question is too hard. Or how about deleting all of his reading and writing folders on his Chromebook so none of the work is recoverable? Often, there are behavior issues among children at unstructured times of the day, such as lunch or recess, where you as the teacher may not be physically present.

What I’ve found helpful is to be proactive rather than reactive. Create a strong classroom culture and feelings of trust, respect, and community among your students. Take the time to get to know them as individuals and let them know that you care about them. Talk with them and let them talk to you when they need to. Care and love go a very long way in the classroom.

Teaching is the greatest thing I have ever done in my life and not a day goes by that anything truly goes according to plan, but that’s part of what makes it so exhilarating.

I have learned more in the four years of teaching than ever before in my life — about human nature, anxiety, love, and fear — and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Remain patient, calm, and look at issues through multiple perspectives. Know that you aren’t in it alone and there is always someone to give you advice when you aren’t sure.

The final, best piece of advice a coworker ever gave me: fake it til you make it!


What do you wish you had learned in grad school? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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Want more from this author? Check out Lisa's favorite classroom apps or her advice on creating meaningful classroom rules with your students.
Author Bio:

Lisa Koplik is a fourth-grade teacher at the Greenwood School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. She loves teaching math, reading intense read-aloud books that promote complaints when she has to stop reading, and figuring out educational games to play with her students. Check out her video series on classroom management!

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