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Veteran teacher offers advice to new teachers, parents as new school year begins

Posted at 5:50 PM, Aug 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-16 04:49:23-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- As hundreds of brand new teachers enter the Palm Beach County School District, thousands more are still in their first years of their teaching career. Betty Lou McCray Wells has been teaching more than 46 years, she's one of the longest-employed in the 13th largest district in the U.S.

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Three generations of students have known Ms. Wells in math class, and many say she became one of the most influential teachers they'd known. Her experience has translated into successful formula she often shares with newer educators and curious parents.

"If you're a strong advocate of child first and doing what needs to be done, then you can get the job done," she said.

Her grandmother, who died at the age of 104, told Wells she must do the best job she could with any challenge, even when it wasn't pleasant.  Teaching has been a deeply-rooted passion for Wells her entire life, and several of her family members are teachers too.  WPTV featured Wells's unique collection of chairs in 2013, and how it relates to her family history.

"Be adamant about what you're doing.  Is this a career that you really want to be involved in?  If this is not the career, then you need to move on. Because the children have changed, parents have changed, and I'm quite sure that administrative teams have changed. Management have changed.  But you've got to get accustomed to what's going on," she said.


1.) Dress with intention.  Wells wears a signature wardrobe of colorful pieces. It commands attention, but it's also an intentional effort to be professional.  She suggests teachers and parents alike consider what they wear to the school.  "My grandmother instilled in both my sister and me, to always dress professional because you don't know who you're going to meet and that way you don't have to make excuses as to why you're an unfettered person, so to dress professional."

2.) "Be on time.  If you're going to be hired for any school site, be on time. Don't make excuses. If you have excuses, make sure that you have contacted the office so they are aware of that.  You have children, fine and well, most of us have children. You know what you have to do prior to coming to school.  Take care of your business."

3.) Keep communication with parents open.  "New teachers, don't be afraid to contact parents. Make sure they know exactly what the child is doing, the progress.  And if the child is doing well, let them know that.  Don't always call home for negative things, call for positive things."

4.) Be prepared for parent-teacher conferences.  "Don't come with nothing in your hand.  Have all of the necessary documentation.  Because documentation is your key.  You can always go back and certify, I contacted you."  Wells says you can refer to your notes and give a parent an exact date if necessary.

5.) "Listen to your colleagues.  Your colleagues have good advice.  I have good advice.  I'm not the best, but I also listen to my coworkers.  Yes, I probably am the longest veteran probably in the district, but I can still learn.  Every day is a learning experience.  I tell my children, excuses are tools of incompetence, built on monuments of nothingness, those who specialize in using them, seldom amount to anything else.  So it pays to listen, focus, then implement.  If it doesn't work for you, change it.  Change it.  Children are different, parents are different, people as a whole are different. And it's changing every day."

6.) "Be flexible. Be organized.  Don't fumble.  When you come to your classroom, make sure everything is organized, because if you want the children to be organized, then you yourself have to set that example."

7.) Parents, just like teachers, must set a good example.  "They implement what they see. So when they do something, negative, 9 times out of 10, some of it is your fault.  Because they are gathering from the model that they're looking at."

8.) "Establish your ground rules at the beginning.  Don't wait until later, now let me see what we're going to do now.  How I can change this.  No, have everything prepared.  And then if it doesn't work, then go back and tweak."

9.) "Learn to listen.  Teachers don't always have the answers.  We are here for learning and we are learning every day."  Wells says it's important to listen to parents and make sure you have the whole story. Parents, at times, will want to fight, Wells says, but hearing them out can help.  "The parent has a right to come up and talk to you about the issue.  Don't be afraid to talk with the parent," she said.  Wells has also traveled to communities as far as Loxahatchee to reach families of students in her West Palm Beach classroom.  "If you get to the parent, you get to the child."

10.) "Know the students' names as quickly as you can.  If you can't, I call them, hi Ms. Johnson, Mr. Jones.  It makes them feel good that they are important.  They are important."

11.) "Avoid confrontations in the classroom. You're going to have little Johnny who wants to take over the classroom.  Go over and talk to him.  Lean down and tell him something nice.  And he sits up.  Oh my goodness, he's ready now.  He's not so apt to destroy what you're trying to do in the classroom."  Wells says telling a student something positive about their performance and calling attention to the act in front of the class works wonders.

12.) "Strive for excellence, not perfection.  Reflect, reflect and constantly reflect.  Modify following reflections."

13.) Wells took inspiration from titles of soap operas for one slice of advice. "For as the world turns, that guiding light, is still shining bright for all of our children.  Some are lying in general hospital.  You know why? Because they didn't listen to the wise words that were given to them.  But with one life to live, and with all Ryan’s hope, we are sitting here in another world searching for tomorrow.  With the young and the restless, the bold and the beautiful, remember young people as well as our older crew, these are the days of our lives. For our veteran teachers, as well as our incoming teachers, you never fail until you stop trying."