Ten Things I Wish I’d Known in My First Teaching-Year

“Oh, man. I was a rookie. I got sent deep. There was no way I could be ready for that.”  Screenshot 2013-12-01 at 9.48.40 PM

“I just ran and ran and kept running, throwing back everything I could – explosions are fires all around.”

“Afterwards, I spent four months in a fetal position.”

“I still have nightmares.”

Teachers who survive their first year of teaching share memories like battle-weary soldiers in an 80’s “Nam” movie. There is a faraway look in their eye – like they saw something very, very ugly, something they wish they could forget.

I, for one, had a very, very rough first year. It was not unlike going into battle. Adrenaline. Fear. Nightmares. Running down a hallway with an armload of books and a stack of photocopies because I didn’t yet think of time in terms of “blocks.” And as the months went by and years turned into a decade, I began to see this battle as many things: sometimes, it was showbiz. Sometimes, it was a journey. Sometimes, it was a fireside chat. Sometimes, it was a roller-coaster ride. But teaching continues, always, to be a battle.

It’s still a battle, but the thing that has changed, for me, is that the enemy, is no-longer the students. Or the material. Or the schedule. Or the photocopier. The enemy has become my own doubt about what is possible in the classroom, and what is possible for a roomful of people to accomplish in 55 minutes.

This battle is one I am happy to fight, each day.

  • Each time I try something new, unafraid about whether it will work, I have won.
  • Each time I bring energy to the classroom, when it’s been a long, long week, I have won.
  • Each time I find the patience to help a stumbling student, I have won.

Looking back, I couldn’t have known how much it would get better, but it does.

That is the first of 10 things I wish I had known in my first year of teaching: it gets better.

Here are another nine.

Two: Don’t stay up all night lesson planning, reviewing the material, correcting papers, or searching for the perfect Youtube Clip.

Balance your desire to “get it done” or “make it perfect” with the fact that you need your energy tomorrow, and also the day after. The day is long, the week is long, the year is long, and the only person who will care if you don’t show that Youtube clip is you.

Three: never yell.

Sometimes, you will speak firmly, forcefully, boldly, and clearly. Sometimes you will even need to put your hands down on the desk and lean onto your elbows so you look like an angry bulldog, but the moment you yell, it’s over. You lost.

personaFour: create a persona — an authentic persona.

First, here is how to create a persona:

Take your last name, add Ms., Mr., or Mrs. to it. Done.

Then, do research. As you teach, note which behaviors feel good. Which don’t. The ones that work, add them to this image of who you are in the classroom. Then, when you’re in a pinch, you will know what to do or say: what would this patient, thoughtful, flexible persona (that you’ve created) do? Like every other venue in life, you need to be authentic. But authentic can also mean vulnerable, prone to moodswings, fickle. None of this belongs in a classroom. Students need someone consistent. Someone they can count on. For me, I leave “Evan” at the door.

When I’m at work, I’m “Mr. Wolk.”

He is much more patient than Evan.

For a deeper dive into the power of a professional persona, click here.

Five: handle “problem students” on your turf.

I’ll start by saying there is no such thing as a problem student…but here’s how to handle them, should you have one.

Invite him/her, via email or a quiet comment as s/he is packing up, to chat with you for a few minutes – preferably at your desk, at whatever time today is convenient for him or her.

Start the conversation asking how things are, and if everything is okay.

Then, ask permission to speak freely: use the line, “When I look at you, I see a student who can often be very (insert positive traits here), but who, time to time, has problems with (insert problematic behaviors here). Would you help me figure out how to solve this problem?”

Very often, this student will switch sides: s/he will begin to see you as a full human being, or will so fear authentic conversation that the problem behaviors will taper off.

Repeat as necessary.

Six: memorize “mini speeches.” Use and repeat as needed.

For students, memorizing is the lowest form of learning. For teachers, it’s a lifesaver. Check it out:

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

(This reminds me of how, in my first post-college job as a Wedding DJ, we were taught to start every microphoned speech with, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is [name] from Music-4-You…” – since no one hears the first 10 words of a speech, anyhow.

To see this tool in action, check out this cartoon I created on Goanimate.com.

Seven: Reveal the Personal, Never the Private

Your rapport with students depends on them feeling a bit connected to your persona. It is not, however, an equal relationship, and no matter how grown up they act, students are children. Think of them as brilliant babies. Don’t tell them anything you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard. They will do so.

Eight: Give the Benefit of the Doubt

You will be played. You will be taken advantage of. Your good nature will allow students to “get away” with things. And though you will not intentionally “let students get away with things,” no student’s life has ever been transformed by a teacher whose main goal was to be right, catch him in the act, or prove a point. At times, embrace being a loving, supportive, nurturing sucker – one that students might feel shameful to disappoint – not because you’re naive. Because you’re good.

Nine: Have Great Policies and Know What They Are

Nothing depletes your credibility and energy like not knowing what the response is for various actions. Write up a very thorough “class guide” for the Second Day of Class. Know the rules. Be sure they’re firm and fair.

For a deeper dive into the first two weeks of class, click here.

Ten: Find and Eradicate Catch 22s.

Nothing is more debilitating to a teacher than a catch 22. Catch 22s can make you feel like a fool, they can knock your confidence, they can make you feel like you have no integrity. But it’s not your fault – it’s a catch 22.

Example 1: A project requires students to work in groups, but a student misses a day.

Q: Upon the students’ return, does s/he rejoin the group that has already gone ahead, possibly being lost and disrupting workflow…or does he do a different task, and lose out on the benefit of the group work?

Example 2: A student forgets to study for a quiz.

The student has struggled in the past. If she takes the quiz now, it will be a humiliating failure for her, and content-learning will be lost. If she takes it later, she has an advantage over the other students.

Q: Do you offer an extension with a built in penalty? Do you insist she take the quiz, but allow a re-take where you average the scores?

Example 3: At the end of class, a student is slowly packing his things.

Q: If you leave him in the room, he is unsupervised in a classroom – against school policy. If you wait, you will be late for class. If you rush him/her, you will likely not accomplish anything.

What do you do?

Not-quite-an-answer:  In every case, decide, in advance, how you handle these things. Whatever you come up with, flawed as it is, it’s less stressful and harmful – and more creative in its scope — than suffering through that catch-22 again, unprepared, again. And again.

Suggestion to Example 1: As you design the group lesson, build into each day what absent students’ roles will be so you won’t be surprised. Whatever you chose will be fine. Just don’t make yourself choose on the spot.

Suggestion to Case 2: Have an a-priori policy that a student who declines to take a quiz can retake it with a 15 percent penalty. It is recorded as a zero. This – and other policies that allow choice – often aid students in feeling responsible for their grades.

Suggestion to Case 3: The first time, you’ll have to stick it out and be late. The second time, set up an appointment to help the student plan the class “exit” – with rules such as: no conversations with classmates until the desk is cleared and the bag is packed.

Conclusion: Of course, it took me 12 years to develop these principles. I’m not sure I could have “known them” in my first year. But hey, we believe that education and reflection can accelerate personal growth, right? So if they are helpful to you, great. As for me, I hope that If I reflect on them a little bit each day, by teaching-year number-24, I’ll have ten fewer things to worry about.


For 10 Things to Remember at the End of the School Year: Click Here.

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4 thoughts on “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known in My First Teaching-Year

  1. Hi Evan, I enjoyed this post! It popped up as a suggestion for a “related article” as I was typing my post about resolutions, so I included it, especially because I feel like some of your 10 lessons could apply to other realms beyond teaching (e.g., parenthood, being a supervisor in an office, etc.). Here’s the link in which you’re included at the bottom: http://www.joyfullygreen.com/2013/12/resolutions-for-the-new-year-more-or-less.html. Liked your cartoon as well!

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