27 August 2008

Advice for New Teachers

My first year as a teacher was the worst year of my life. I took a job in a terrible school because I was desperate to begin working so that I could move out of my parents' house. An argument could have been made for many alternatives, but the fact that I made it through that year is something I am very proud of. Most teachers find the first year to be full of many emotions and experiences, good and bad. On the eve of another school year, I thought I'd share some of my suggestions.

  • Find friends on the faculty. It’s a good idea to find someone else who is also new, because while some of us still find our first year memories vivid and sharp, it’s not the same as someone who’s going through it with you. But it’s also absolutely critical to include in your circle someone who’s experienced, preferably someone who has been in that school and knows its culture. It may not be a great idea to latch onto the first person who offers you advice. I have found that the less skilled, more insecure teachers tend to swoop down on the new teachers, and it has more to do with what they want than what you need. Ask to observe other teachers’ classes. Initially it may help to focus on the management aspect rather than the instructional side. You cannot teach without management, but it’s something that many of us are not good at when we start. We all have our own unique ways of working with our kids, but I can say that my approaches are a mix of my own ideas and things I’ve seen other teachers do, which I’ve personalized to fit my needs and those of my students.
  • Don’t take ridiculous amounts of work home. It seems to be a badge of honor among new teachers, to come in and remark that they stayed up until the wee hours writing lessons and grading papers. I recall my own student teaching days, when I would spend hours writing lessons on Julius Caesar and The Old Man and the Sea. It was, and still sometimes is, a necessity. The advent of the internet , however, has made lesson planning much easier. In fact, as early as 1996 I found a wonderful document online called “Seven Steps to The Old Man and the Sea” that resulted in me spending only two hours writing a lesson rather than four. The ‘net is a wonderful resource; while I have never used a lesson verbatim, I have taken great ideas and reworked them so that they were more effective for my students and suited the materials that I had available. It’s a wonderful timesaver. I also bought Jim Burke’s Teacher’s Daybook (Link) and he suggests that you should not take more home to grade than you can do in one night. More specifically, he says you should not take more home than you should do in one night. You should not take 80 papers home to grade in one night. You should break that pile down and do a few at home, a few on a prep, until they are done. Grading marathons are exhausting, and you owe it to the children to give each of them your full attention when you are at your best. Bleary-eyed grading is a disservice to everyone.
  • Cover your ass whenever possible. It’s sad that I have to write this, because as teachers we are only one part of the equation, but we are the only part held accountable. Parents and children are not. If you call a parent, use your cell phone. This way you have a record of the call even if you never speak to Mom or Dad and you don’t have to make an additional log, which is also more easily disputed. Expect parents to get defensive and say you never let him or her know that Junior likes to throw books out the window and does not work. Also, keep excellent attendance records of your own. This past year I was called to the carpet about my students’ performance on the state test, and my principal commented on one student in particular who missed, on average, six days of school a month. I pointed this out to him, but it would have been a stronger argument if I had my own record of attendance. A behavior log is also important, at least for the more challenging kids; it’s not necessary to keep one for every kid (I hope!) I’m still grappling myself with the best way to maintain conduct records. Paperwork isn’t my strong suit.
  • Use the students to help you. Kids love to help their teachers. It can be a good motivator for those kids who are good at heart but immature and just need a little something to put them in a positive light for others to see. If you are keeping additional unofficial attendance for yourself, which I strongly recommend, use a student monitor. (Though I don’t know if I’d suggest this in high school). Only a teacher can take official attendance, but if it’s for your own records it’s ok if a student does it. Simple tasks like handing out papers, collecting homework, setting up overheads and maintaining the class library are great tasks for kids. We have enough to do and if you travel between rooms, it’s easier to get started if you can hand off things to the kids so you can get right into teaching.
  • Ask for help. Don’t let anyone- be it a principal, AP, coach or lead teacher, come into your room and tell you that you are doing ____ wrong without making them accountable as well. It is their job to help you. If you are told that something in your teaching is lacking, ask the person making this judgment to come in and model a lesson for you. One of two things will happen: said higher-up , if he or she is truly invested in making you a better teacher, will follow up and model a lesson, or at the very least, observe you and give you true feedback. Or that person will high-tail it from your room and will not darken your door again. The principle of covering your behind comes into play here as well; if you ask for help from a coach or lead teacher, put it in writing for your own records and cc your principal. My own opinion of coaches and LTs is a bit sour, but since I was a coach for two years I think I am entitled. If criticism about your performance is raised at any time, you will have these documents as proof that you asked for support. I was constantly asking for support with curriculum planning for much of last year, and got no help, so any requests I make this year will be in writing.
  • Have a life outside school. I made the mistake my first year of really isolating myself from my friends. Most of them thought I was nuts for taking a job at a SURR school in the South Bronx and I hated to admit that they may have been right. It’s hard to go out during the week; even as a college student with a passion for jello shots I really only went out on weekends. But I really think that regardless of where we are in our careers that we could all use some kind of weeknight diversion. I belong to a book club, and though it only meets once a month, I always come home energized because I got to be around adults and there was no mention of standardized testing.
  • Don’t yell. It’s undignified, which I know sounds ironic coming from a blogger who uses the f-bomb as often as I do. Find your own gimmick and stick to it, whether it’s counting backward from five or flipping the lights. I have a sheet with all the kids names, and I make notations on that. Sometimes, to mess with them, I might look intently at a chatty kid, and pretend to make a mark. Sometimes I really do make a mark. I might yell when in a noisy room to get the kids’ attention, but I never single students out. It’s a bad idea. A few years ago, I had a student who told her mother that I screamed at her all the time. She interpreted my reprimands as screaming; I never raised my voice. When her mother came in to meet with me, ready to rip into me, my AP was able to back me up, as were other kids in the class (yes, it did come to getting kids out of class as witnesses because the mother did not believe the AP either.) It’s also very useful, when trying to settle kids, to emphasize the ones who are on board rather than the ones who are not. I usually say “I see Joseph is ready to work, I see Michelle and Lance are ready to work.” Overall, that tactic is effective, especially when I give out “good” checks.
  • Be organized. This is still a struggle for me; I must be honest. This year, I put together a binder with my Teacher’s Daybook (as suggested by The Man Himself, Jim Burke) and a section for each class where I will keep grades, anecdotal records, parent contact info, lessons and handouts. There are also some pocket folders, which I will use for things that I need to have copied and the other myriad handouts that I seem to receive. My students’ folders are organized into hanging file crates, one per class. I spent a lot of time during this past school year organizing everything worthwhile into sheet protectors and binders. Halfway through last year I also began using an online grading program, a huge time-saver. No more number-crunching at report card time- it was all done for me. TeacherEase and Engrade are a few popular ones. My entire teaching career has been condensed into five three-inch binders organized by topic- some specific (my units on Bull Run and other novels) and some more general (Essay Writing) and one entire binder is entirely devoted to poetry. Though I’ve not done as much as I wanted, it has been easy so far to find things I needed. My determination to document more this year will also make this a bigger challenge than usual. I’m sharing my ideas just as an additional resource; there are many ways to get organized. I know from my past struggles that coming up with a system is not the hard part, sticking to it is.


NYC Educator said...

Actually, I yell sometimes, but never in anger. I yell at odd times to grab attention, to awaken sleepers and potential sleepers, and I issue agonized cries of pain and fall on the floor when my students fail to yield to laws of subject-verb agreement.

Your voice can be a great tool and asset. But using it in anger--well, you've lost the battle before you've even coldly calculated how to begin.

FidgetyTeach said...

Good advice for a perfect world. I have spent years keeping logs, journals, daily records. It means nothing when a principal is out to get you. As for the telephone calls, anytime I've ever used my own cell phone to call a parent, they have jotted down my number and called me sporadically throughout the year. When I have blocked my number, no one answers. Isn't it time we have telephones in the classroom?

Education Maze said...

Thanks for the advice. I hope I can use it this week!