Advice to New Teachers: Clothing Matters

When parents meet you for the first time, they want to have a sense that their children are in safe hands. Your colleagues want to know that you are someone who can be relied upon to do a good job and your students want to have a teacher they can respect. I truly wish we lived in a world where people didn’t judge others by their appearance, but the sad reality is we don’t, so it pays to be mindful of the impression you leave upon others. Yes, clothing matters.

This doesn’t mean you have to hide your own personality and style, but depending on what yours is, you may need to tone things down or dress things up a little for the work environment.

While many private schools will have a clearly defined dress code, NSW government school teachers are simply asked to dress professionally – interpretations of which vary greatly from school to school and teacher to teacher. Most NSW government schools teachers wear neat, casual attire.

Here are some general guidelines, which should keep you out of trouble. What you wear is a personal choice, so feel free to follow or ignore.

  • Men – a collared shirt or polo is a good safe option.

    English: Example of a common dress code for ma...

    Business and Smart Casual are typical in NSW public schools. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Australian summers are hot, and many schools are not air-conditioned, so in my opinion shorts are acceptable so long as they are neat and tailored. Avoid wearing these on the first day, however.
  • Be a role model – this means wearing your hat on playground duty (most NSW schools have a no hat no play rule as part of their sun-safe policy) and avoid shoe string straps – follow the  same sun-safe guidelines expected of your students.
  • Thongs  (the footwear, NOT the underwear) are never acceptable. For non-Australian readers, thongs are also known as flip-flops or jandals.
  • Ladies – avoid necklines that will expose your bra when you are leaning over to help students with their work.
  • Primary teachers – avoid hemlines that won’t allow you to sit on low classroom chairs, or sit on the floor with a group of students
  • If you like wearing high heels, choose wedges for days when you will be doing playground duty on the oval.
  • Wear clothing that can be washed easily – especially if you work with small children, paint or other messy substances.
  • Wear shoes you can stand up in for a long time.
  • Choose clothing appropriate for the work you will be doing that day. If your day includes teaching dance, or sport, wear or pack something appropriate.
  • Smart jeans in a dark denim are acceptable in most NSW public schools, but ripped, torn or frayed jeans are best avoided.

Update: Since writing this post, a number of readers have commented on the dress code requirements for private schools. Find out more about what private schools like their teachers to wear in the comments section.

This was the fourth post in a series of advice for new teachers. For more, see my New Teachers page.


Advice for New Teachers from Twitter

In the first post of this series for new teachers, You Are Not Alone,  I mentioned that Twitter allows you to connect with a great support network of teachers. As a great example of that, here is what some of the teachers in my network had to say when I asked them what advice they would give to a teacher about to take on their very first class.

Oh and if you are thinking of using Twitter to connect with other teachers, you might like to start by following some of these terrific teachers. You might also find this article useful.

  1. A lot of new teachers are about to take their very first class in NSW next week. What advice would you give them? #ozedchat #ntchat
  2. @corisel students need you to be a teacher, they don’t need a friend (they have enough of them) students engage better with good leadership
  3. @corisel dont be afraid to ask questions of others around you, be organised – start with routines & timetable #ozedchat #ntchat
  4. @corisel #ozedchat #ntchat Don’t be afraid to take risks-this is your best time to experiment & reflect; show that you love learning. Enjoy!
  5. @corisel that was the advice my sponsor teacher gave me-he also gave me a lot of freedom, so valuable.
  6. @corisel be prepared to get things wrong, we all do, but we learn from the things we get wrong. Don’t think you have to know everything!
  7. @corisel if in elementary-my sponsor teacher also gave me 3 ‘rules’: don’t eat anything a kid gives you, wash your hands a lot, and lastly..
  8. @corisel don’t kneel below the kids desks-lice jumps down but not up ��
  9. @corisel #ozedchat #ntchat don’t be afraid to make mistakes, look to make connections, use Twitter 4 ur PL, enjoy urself, take time 4 urself
  10. @corisel so true sadly- finding great people to share/mentor helps
  11. no question is ever studied, no answer is ever the end-all-and-be-all #ozedchat
  12. sorry that tweet failed to make sense! No question is ever STUPID! #oops #ozedchat
  13. @corisel oh and a biggie: take the time to learn your craft (teaching) before you spread your wings & don’t be too eager to take on roles 🙂
  14. @corisel Share *who* you are with kids..if they see you as open,human &, most importantly; *fair*: they will go with you #ntchat #ozedchat
  15. tell stories, real stories about yourself and ur life. Be real and be a listener. Listen to kids, parents colleagues. #ozedchat
  16. be prepared to fail look forward to it! To fail is to learn. Learn to fail or u will fail to learn – teach kids to learn from it #ozedchat
  17. @glendagregory @corisel And the custodians, SEAs, & secretariesreally run the school �� they can be huge assets ! Learn from them too!
  18. be kind to yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day but each day, something was achieved. (And definitely laugh lots. Lots and lots.) #ozedchat
  19. @corisel build positive relationships with all staff and where possible key parents.
  20. @corisel ask lots of questions, listen to switched on staff, get to know your kids, join twitter
  21. @corisel listen, share (that doesn’t mean tell) and be positive and friendly
  22. @MichaelJSky @corisel last point so important! Look after yourself, maintain hobbies, make time for friendships and find ways to unwind
  23. @corisel All of the above!! Plus don’t be afraid to say no. Look after yourself as well as the kids – no one will thank you if you don’t.
  24. @corisel @michaeljsky true, it’s hard to maintain a balance. Too often I think we leave these things to the holiday breaks!
  25. @Sharon_McD @corisel so easy 2 b overwhelmed by how much there is 2 do, need 2 realise there’s always stuff 2 do, u …
  26. @corisel #ozedchat also, don’t allow urself 2 get caught up in a neg mindset, 2 many do and they can bring a new …
  27. @corisel get 2 know your kids individually, build relationships. Be open, fair & inclusive with them & their learning. #ozedchat
  28. @corisel be calm, consistent and cheerful. Remember your class is a mirror of yourself. #ozedchat
  29. @corisel Be organised, don’t be kids best friend. Ask for help/advice on any students/parents to be aware of before first day.
  30. @corisel don’t try too many things at one time and aim for at least one really good lesson a day. Be persistent with group work #ozedchat
  31. @corisel the relationships you build with students are essential. You are not a friend but you must display a positive unconditional regard!
  32. @corisel #ozedchat most importantly -expect disaster, laugh at mistakes and know everyone has been there before! NO exceptions!
  33. @AnnCaro1 @corisel if they are going to learn with you they need to trust you. No confidence = no learning.
  34. @wardj72 @ValerieLeessd36 @corisel tie them certainly! Just wash hands thoroughly afterwards!
  35. @corisel I would be ready to Make a Difference #TFtmd and pace yourself its a long 11 weeks
  36. @corisel different stresses. Teaching much more intense. Less boozy lunches
  37. @corisel learn students names fast as u can(&anything about them that is nothing2do with your subject). smile. Model how you’d like them2b
  38. @corisel Be positive! A smile goes a long way even if you are having a ‘bad’ day!
  39. @corisel take up meditation. It’s brilliant for stress relief and for putting things into perspective.
  40. @ttivalien @corisel Yes let your students know you really care about them as people &!want what’s best for them.
  41. @wardj72 @corisel Nip problems in the bud. Don’t leave nasty surprises til p/t night. Phone home at night if you have to.
  42. @wardj72 @corisel Have a support person with you for any P/T chats early on & ALWAYS if there’s a big problem.
  43. @wardj72 @corisel Join your union, become an active member & use its services.
  44. @AnnCaro1 @corisel Build relationships with colleagues. Sometimes laughing & crying together is all that gets you through!
  45. @corisel keep the work/ social/home life balance equal!Don’t burn yourself out. It’s important to keep interests out of school too #ozedchat
  46. @corisel don’t quit after your first yr. I did but had great mentors who made me go back to classroom. It gets easier each year #ozedchat
  47. @corisel LISTEN – to your students, to your colleagues, to yourself, to your body
  48. @corisel More advice for new teachers – remember to work to live not live to work. Maintain work/life balance
  49. @corisel Read kids’ suggested books, or play handball with them, or something. Teaching can be fun if you don’t mind having a bit. #ozedchat

12 Tips for New Teachers

Today’s post is the second in a series offering advice to new teachers. It comes to you from Mark O’Sullivan who has been teaching high school English in Australia for 17 years. He blogs over at and you can follow him on Twitter – @mountainmoss.

Considering that the owner of this blog is a primary teacher (whom I have known since university), the first thing you should know – I am a high school teacher, so my advice might be slightly different in tone and emphasis than the others.

1. Know Your Strengths.

We all have particular strengths as people and the same goes for us as teachers.  Be honest with yourself and know what your strengths might well be as a beginning teacher. That might be communicating with people, knowing subject matter, having empathy with the children you are about to teach.  It’s not arrogance to know what you’re good at.  It’s a good idea, however, to not say you have these strengths to everyone. Your mentor, though, is a good person to discuss these strengths with.

2. Know Your Weaknesses.

The flipside is that we all have weaknesses. Every teacher, even the so-called Super Teachers (and they exist) has a weakness.  If you haven’t identified a weakness before you walk in the door, you’ll soon find them. Be honest to yourself about them and work on strategies to minimise the difficulties they will cause you. Importantly, be honest with a mentor about those weaknesses. Guaranteed a good mentor will understand.

3. Know Your Class.

Knowing children is very important to them, especially their names – but even more so, their interests. They hold their interests very dearly, so get interested. I even pretended to like rugby league to endear myself to students. Believe me, that’s commitment.

4. Establishing Routines is Important.

One thing I remember about going into the workplace that was a school, it was difficult for me to get into routines and realise that routines are a crucial part of teaching.  I am a more creative soul than many and the idea of sticking to things was an anathema to me. Your students, though, will thrive if they understand that there are routines and a direction to what is happening.  You will be happier too if you recognise that there are important routines like coffee and lunch.

5. Your Food. Important.

Lunch, by the way, is an important thing to work out. Home made? Canteen? If you don’t get your food intake worked out, your energy levels will be an issue, especially as primary school aged children are exhausting.  You will find out pretty quickly that the 10 week term makes different demands on you than the part time jobs you will have done in university.

6. Money.

Yes, money is important.  One of the biggest mistakes I made as a first year out teacher living at home was not saving much money. I hadn’t had a full time salary before and whammo, I just spent like crazy.

7. Clothes.

Children notice clothes and will quickly point out if you wear the same clothes too often, plus will notice your style. So, have a style in mind and fit into it.  But it must be practical, especially on days when mess is in the lesson plan.

8. Technology.

Many of your students will be using all variety of technology at home, possibly much more than even you – especially tablets. My two children have had their ipads for a year now and they are fully conversant with movie making, Minecraft and various other apps. Your school’s technology policy and way of working with technology will probably be quickly evolving from the time you arrive.

9. Listen.

The first year of teaching should be a listening year – listening to other teachers, listening to students, listening to parents. It’s a good idea to respond, of course, but it’s crucial that you take in everything, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything you hear at first. Opinions are best formed as a response to time and a wealth of material. Those around you will respect your opinion more if it based on a variety of sources and time reflecting.  One of the best young teachers I have worked with barely spoke in the staffroom in his first year – because he was listening. Four years later, he gained more respect from his colleagues than many of those with twice his experience.

10. Reinvent the Wheel – Your Way.

One of the most annoying questions I hear as a teacher is “why waste time reinventing the wheel?”. You will hear it from time poor teachers wanting to do things the way they have always been done.  It is important that you as a teacher customise your teaching to fit your context – that is, as someone who knows your class and knows how best things will work. The “wheel” actually needs to be shod with a Pirelli, Michelin or Bridgestone with a particular tread.

11. Parents Can Be a Great Ally.

Parents can be a great ally, especially if you get an opportunity to understand how parents work with your students at home.  I have always enjoyed parent teacher meetings, because you get an insight into what your students are like away from the classroom, which is vital information to help you connect with the student. If parents are difficult, asking for the specifics of their concerns is important – and learn from them, if the concerns are valid.

12. Have Fun.

Teaching should be fun some days – for some, every day. Your students should give you energy and you should embrace those moments where you know you’ve made a difference – that they have learnt something from you.   And they learn from you in terms of what you are saying as well as from who you are. You’re in this gig because you care. Kids get that, and appreciate it.

Bio – I’m Mark O’Sullivan, English Teacher for 17 years. I’m about to embark upon a new adventure, leaving a school where I had been teaching for 10 years and starting at Domremy College in Five Dock.  I occasionally blog at and am also known as @mountainmoss


Advice for New Teachers – You Are Not Alone

This poignant ad from NSW Teachers Federation is about a teacher’s first day.

There’s one week to go until the school year begins in NSW. Students will move into new grades and classes. Kindergarten students will begin their school journey. Hundreds of new teachers will start teaching their own classes for the first time.

It’s an exciting but overwhelming time.

There is so much to learn, to be responsible for and to do.

This is the first in a series of posts that I hope will help teachers who are getting started on their careers. It won’t be just my advice: I have some awesome guest bloggers lined up,  each of whom bring a unique perspective.

To keep up with the  series,  you might like to subscribe using the link on the sidebar.

The most important piece of advice I want to give you right from the start is this:

You are not alone

Teaching is rewarding and meaningful work. It is fun, creative and challenging. But it is also incredibly difficult at times.

When you start, you have to get your head around the curriculum requirements for your students and how to cater for their individual learning needs. You’ll need to write a program, develop units of work and find resources to make these programs happen.

You have to learn to manage your class and deal with the different behaviour, emotional and social issues that go along with it. There are routines to figure out, and organisational issues, like where to house all those resources and how to deal with the deluge of paperwork that will inundate you from day one.

You will have to learn how to build positive relationships not only with your students, but with their parents and your colleagues. There will some difficult people and  conversations.

But you don’t have to face or figure out any of this by yourself. Your colleagues are either going through the same thing with you, or have been there before. Don’t be afraid to talk with them about what you are going through.

It is a stressful role at times, and it’s our colleagues who get us through. No one expects you to know everything and be able to do everything on the first day. In fact, no one expects that after twenty years. We are continually learning and developing as teachers no matter what stage of our career we are in.

So take up opportunities to build a support network with your colleagues.

If you work in a small school, or are finding it difficult to build a support network within your own school, you still don’t have to be isolated.

Networks for New Teachers

There are several supportive networks you can be a part of.

Join Twitter and start following other teachers – you’ll find a very engaged, friendly and supportive community there who will happily offer help, share ideas and discuss issues.

If you are working for  NSW DEC you can also join the Yammer network – sign up using your DEC email address but replace the letters DET with TAFE. Yammer is a private social network. Just post a question and you will usually find several people willing to answer. People are also very generous in sharing programs and resources.

Join your union. Unions work hard to support their members, so find out what services your one offers new teachers. If you are a NSW Public School Teacher, you can join the NSW Teachers Federation. Here is a link to some of their resources for new teachers.

What really motivates our students?

After School Learning

After School Learning (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)

As I argued in my earlier post, merit pay is a massive disincentive for many teachers. Dangling a bonus in front of me is not going to make me more productive or a better teacher. And reward schemes for students don’t foster intrinsic motivation. In fact, Alfie Kohn argues in his book ‘Punished by Rewards‘ that they have the exact opposite effect. Interest and engagement declines after rewards, or even certain types of praise, are given for student performance.

How can we motivate people to engage in tasks or learning that they do not find intrinsically rewarding? 

Reflecting on my own habits I can tell you it’s not money.

If I think about how I motivate myself to do what I don’t like to do, it comes down to having my vision fixed on the bigger picture. I want my students to learn to read, so I put the hard yards in planning, programming, diagnosing, assessing, researching ways of supporting students having difficulty, finding new resources etc. The reward comes in when I see the fruits of my labour – my struggling readers becoming confident and learning to enjoy reading.

I don’t like to clean my house, but I love to be in a clean and peaceful environment, so I focus on that, not the irksome tasks it takes to get there. I hate ironing clothes, but I today I’ll  do some because I have a new dress I’m excited about wearing out tonight.

Perhaps a similar approach will help motivate students. If the end they are working towards is something they are excited about, then they’ll be more willing to complete the mundane tasks that get them there. This does not mean an external award – like a class party if they all complete an assignment. The work itself has to have a direct and meaningful link to the outcome.

Project Based and Passion Based Learning

Project and Passion Based Learning may be the answer. Last year as an interest project, one of my students, who was not a good writer, decided he wanted to learn how to make a website. I gave him a Weebly account and he went to work. In his enthusiasm for building a website about science, he created pages for the different science ideas he was interested in – and then he had to write for them. Not only did he have to write, he had to proofread, checking his work for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Oh, and while he was at it, he had to think about navigation. Would his website be linear or non-linear? Would links open up in the same page or in a new page? Should he include a home button on each page? Then there was attribution. He had to learn about acknowledging his sources and creative commons. Throughout the whole process he was learning how to be a better writer.

But I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of awards and merits entirely – which seems to be what Kohn is suggesting (though I haven’t finished his book yet). And there is NO WAY I would suggest that to a Kindergarten teacher about to start the year with a group of 20 wild, unschooled 4 and 5 year olds. In fact, I’d be encouraging them to use every incentive plan they can think of!

For information about Project Based and Passion Based Learning, check out the links below.


Merit Pay – is it an incentive or an insult?

Merit systems to improve  teacher quality in public schools often appear in discussions of education reform by Australia’s politicians. The carrot on offer is bonus pay either for the highest performing teachers or for the teachers at highest performing schools.

The idea is popular – except amongst teachers themselves.

There are many reasons we don’t like it. We understand that students’ educational success does not come down to individual teachers. Most teachers don’t work alone. We work with each other, developing strategies, writing programs and sharing the teaching load. We work in partnership with students’ families. It seems ridiculous to reward individual teachers for the work of many.

Oh, and can we not forget the role of the student in their own education?

But perhaps the main reason that teachers like me object to bonus pay is that it is insulting.

To suggest we need a carrot in order to become quality teachers assumes that we are not already working hard to be the best teachers we can be. It suggests that we are withholding our best work and don’t care about our students. it assumes we are unprofessional. Rather than valuing our work, the idea seems to cheapen it.

So I wonder, how do our students feel when we offer rewards in class? Does this insult them as well?

I’m reading ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn at the moment. He raises this issue and more.


The Problem with Merit Systems

For a while now, I’ve been questioning the use of positive reward and merit systems in my class and in my school. I’ve used them for years, developing  and promoting their use in school for behaviour modification, classroom management and as a whole school strategy to encourage desirable behaviours and values. But lately I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy.

There have always been some concerns:

  • We want our students to be intrinsically motivated, rather than working for reward.
  • If we start to reward desirable behaviours such as picking up rubbish, does that mean students will only do it if they are rewarded?
  • There seems to be a lack of fairness – often less compliant students seem to earn more rewards – the moment we catch them doing the right thing, we provide a reinforcement to try to encourage that positive behaviour, whereas more compliant students exhibit the same behaviours with no reward.
  • The scarcity issue – we can’t reward all positive behaviours all the time or it devalues the rewards. Therefore, we build in scarcity and ration the number of awards we give,  which means some students miss out when they have exhibited the same behaviours as those who were awarded.

At my school it is further complicated by the fact we have a whole school token reward program. Teachers give out tokens for positive behaviours. When the student accrues ten of these, they earn a merit award. Ten merits lead to a higher award and as they continue earning, they achieve further awards of increasing value.

This leads to issues such as:

  • lack of consistency between teachers. Students in one class may receive many more than students in another. 
  • parental anxiety  and teacher stress. If a parent perceives that their child has not received enough tokens there will often be a call to the principal, or a meeting with the teacher. There is usually the suggestion that the teacher is not encouraging the students enough.

But on the flip side we’ve seen many positive benefits:

  • successful* behaviour modification programs 
  • successful* classroom management programs
  • the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate students’ effort, values and citizenship. All our students are able to earn awards, not just those who are particularly talented in academic, artistic or sporting endeavours.

*While these programs certainly appear successful, Alfie Kohn’s research in his book ‘Punished by Rewards’ would suggest that the positive effects are short term.

In 2012 I had a dream Year 2 class. Almost every one of my students were  intrinsically motivated. They LOVED coming to school and engaging in learning. They enjoyed exploring, experimenting with and discussing ideas. They willingly reflected on their learning, and set themselves goals which they liked working towards. They didn’t need token rewards to encourage good work or effort.

They were also a very compliant class, willing to cooperate with me and each other. They worked well as a team and didn’t need tokens to encourage cooperation or sharing.

This made it rather difficult to decide what I should be giving the tokens for. I had to give them out because they fed into our whole school system, but I struggled with it. The tokens were tied to the school merit system, they had to be rationed to around 5 per day.

How could I choose 5 students  for an award and leave the others?

I tried all sorts of things such as:

  • catching the first 5 students who were ‘ready’, helping or doing something positive.
  • keeping a secret list and crossing off the names of students who were behaving inappropriately – I only crossed off one name though.
  • asking students to set their own targets, and earn a token when they had achieved it.
  • catching 5 students a day who showed improvement in their work
  • randomly giving out 5 each day and just ensuring that different students received them each day

I wasn’t  happy with these approaches. Choosing 5 students each day who were doing something positive seemed unfair to the other well-behaved students. Giving them out to students who kept their name on a list seemed a punishment to those who missed out. Goal setting and showing improvement was better, but it was hard to manage, and the students ended up getting fewer awards than before. The random distribution of tokens just seemed pointless.

But my biggest concern of all was that my students didn’t need these tokens. They were highly motivated by the intrinsic rewards of what they were doing.  My students were motivated by their love of learning, the excitement of new discoveries and ideas, by the pleasure of being part of a happy, harmonious class community. Giving them a little token seemed to cheapen that. It took their attention away from what was truly important, and onto measuring their value by the amount of tokens they collected.

Last year I blogged about a student of mine who in one week was selected as a class spokesperson for the school open day, was given a public blog – the first child in our school to be given that opportunity, and had spent special mentoring sessions with me to develop her writing. The same week her mother complained to the principal that she had not received many tokens and was worried her daughter was not being encouraged enough.

So what really is the lesson that our  students and their parents are learning from our positive award systems?

To explore this idea further, this holidays I’m reading ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn. I expect I’ll be blogging some more about it soon.