Bob Sonju

Bob Sonju is an award-winning educational leader, author, and educational consultant, recognized for his energetic commitment to building effective teams, developing RTI structures that support teachers and students, and creating an effective school culture committed to learning for all students. Bob was formerly the principal of nationally recognized Fossil Ridge Intermediate School and has also served as a high school administrator and special education teacher. Most recently, Bob was the executive director of teaching and learning for Washington County School District. After six years as a district-level administrator, Bob’s deep desire to work together with teachers and students again led him back to school as principal of Washington Fields Intermediate.

Legendary Lessons I Wish I’d Known My First Year of Teaching

I recently spent time with my parents for our weekly lunch date. Amid our customary conversations about the state of our nation’s political system and where the best senior citizen lunch discounts can be found, we began to muse about life lessons that I had learned during my formative years. After much time had passed, these lessons (and the resulting consequences) are now looked back upon with some measure of fondness. But during the time they occurred, these lessons and consequences evoked the same emotional reaction as losing my favorite George Brett baseball card.


As the three of us dined on our customary 99 cent burgers, we again relived some of the finer “teaching” points of my childhood. Like the now legendary lesson to never, ever, EVER write your name in motor oil on the neighbor’s driveway (no matter how awesome your 1st grade cursive looks.) Next came one of my personal favorite lessons: It is never a great idea to hurl thousands of rotting apricots against a garage, even if the resulting “splat” designs were seriously the coolest thing you had ever seen in your eight years of life!


As our conversations moved from motor oil and artistic fruit patterns to lessons learned later in life, I was nostalgically moved by the years of experience, patience, and wisdom of my parents. Lazily drifting through memories of the past, I wondered what wisdom I might share if I were able to write a letter to myself as a first-year teacher preparing to enter the profession. I imagine my letter might sound something like this:


Dear Bob,


First off, congratulations on getting your first job as a teacher. Even though you changed your major seven times, I knew that you would end up in education. It really is the most fulfilling career in the world.


Regarding your professional practice, there are few important things you need to know that will help you hit the ground running as a new teacher:


  1. Focus your efforts on student learning. Trust me, you will be inclined to spend a lot of your professional time and energy focusing on teaching, but remember that learning is the key. Instead of focusing so much on teaching, spend time contemplating how your teaching impacts student learning. You weren’t hired to stand in front of kids and toss out your personal pearls of knowledge for thirty years. You were hired to make sure students learn.
  2. Work closely with your team. Let’s face it. You and I both know that you don’t know everything. As talented as you (or any teacher) might be, you don’t have all of the skills needed to meet the diverse needs of the thousands of students that will call you their teacher. So why would you go at it alone? The most effective organizations in the world function at their highest level when they work in teams; why should you be any different? Resist the urge to shut your door and do your own thing. You will have to rely on your team and school to make sure that not only your students, but ALL of the students in the school learn at high levels. Set SMART goals with your team that focus on student learning, and for heaven’s sake, develop norms with your team to make your collaboration time efficient and effective. (Trust me, you and your team will need them!)
  3. Come to a consensus with your team on what is essential in the curriculum. Resist the urge to run down the hallway blurting profanities when you see the massive amount of standards and curriculum that you will be asked to teach - there is a lot! Instead, take time with your team and decide what the “absolutes” are within the curriculum; those absolute essentials that every student will need to demonstrate proficiency in order to be successful in the course and unit. Keep in mind that you will still deliver the curriculum, but your team will need to focus on those absolutely essential elements of the curriculum that every student must know. This will provide your team a much clearer focus for your collective work and make your collaborative efforts more productive. Which reminds me...
  4. Collaboration time. As much as you might want to, don’t use your valuable collaboration time to calendar items, to talk about what variation of chicken that is being served for school lunch that day, or endlessly discuss “those” kids that are driving you nuts in class. Instead, use this time to identify what is essential in the curriculum, unit by unit. Collaborate about how your team will formatively assess which students demonstrated proficiency in the identified essentials, and use data to determine which students need extra time and support. And while you’re at it, use data to help guide the discussions about which member of your team is best to provide the support for the students who need it.
  5. Use assessments for more than just a score in the book. Believe me, it’s easier to give an assessment, put a score in the book, and move on to the next unit. Like writing your name in motor oil, this seems like a great idea. But don’t! Instead, use your assessments like a doctor would: to identify and diagnose who is proficient and who needs extra time and support with an essential. Can you imagine if you went to a doctor and he told you that you were 78% healthy?! You would have quite a few questions:

a.              Is the 22% that is not healthy kind of...oh, I don’t know...IMPORTANT?

b.              What specifically am I sick with?

c.              Are you going to treat me?

d.              Tell me again why I’m paying a co-pay?

Keep in mind that students will feel the same way if they receive a 78% on their assessment. Instead, use your team’s assessments to identify and diagnose. It will take some time but you will get the hang of it, and it will make a huge difference in your team’s effectiveness.


And finally, a few last pieces of advice. You don’t need to have the answers for everything - but please have the courage to do the right things. Remember that the students who walk into your class each year come from so many different backgrounds and diverse upbringings. Some will do amazing things in class while others will make poor choices, like creating an apricot collage on the side of a garage for no logical reason. Regardless, always, ALWAYS remember that they deserve yours and your team’s very best, collective efforts.  You are their teacher.


You will work harder than you ever thought you would, be moved to tears more often than you could have anticipated, and will have countless opportunities to laugh at yourself. In all of this, I promise you that when you see learning take place, all of the work, tears, and laughable mistakes will be worth it; commit to the right things and your team will make a difference.


Take care and good luck.



P.S. One more thing, no matter how busy that you might be, always take time to go to lunch with your parents. They love to hear what’s happening in your classroom and the cost of a 99 cent hamburger is an inexpensive reminder of valuable life lessons.


Jessica Foxworthy

Working closely with my team is something I really wish I would have learned sooner! I spent the majority of my first year teaching hiding in my classroom for fear that my colleagues would find me incompetent. I am so thankful that over the next few years, our department strengthened and grew into a community that could share instructional strategies and troubleshoot problems and concerns with each other!

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Tara Duran

Funny how everything happens for a reason...I am a first year teacher who really needed to hear these important things! Thank you for sharing!

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Mara Cravens

I am just starting my third year of teaching, and I definitely wish that I had written myself a letter exactly like the one you have in this article! All five points are so true to today's educational world. Collaboration with colleagues is so essential when creating and analyzing assessments. I loved that you started with a need for a focus on student learning. That was a hard lesson for me to learn as a first year teacher. My degree program was so focused on content that I thought my job was going to be all about presenting my knowledge. Since I have shifted my focus to my students' learning first, I have noticed so many more things falling into place.

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Hope Sowders

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this letter. I am in my fifth year of teaching and love the idea of writing a letter to yourself. Everything that you wrote is so true and I can really relate to all of it. I love the very end where you said no matter how busy you are spend time with you parents. Sometimes during the school year I get so busy that I forget to spend time with those that matter the most. This was great reminder as I start a new school year.

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Emily Matuska

I truly appreciate your comments about assessments being more than just a score in a book. How can you build on prior learning if the students didn't actually learn what they needed for the next lesson? Thanks for the reminder as we get ready for a new school year to begin.

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Joseph Ianora

Great job - thanks for sharing this! Joe

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