My first year of teaching was twenty-nine years ago, so when one of our newly hired colleagues emailed last spring requesting advice and ideas for starting the school year, I appreciated the opportunity to provide her with a few thoughts and to remind myself about these lessons learned over the years.
1. Get to know your students right away. Learning their names is a top priority. See your students as individuals rather than as a composite roster. Choose activities that will help students get to know you and vice versa. Games are good. Books can be distributed later. For some possibilities, see Tom Jackson’s Activities that Teach (Red Rock Publishing, 1993) and its follow-up editions. They are full of get-to-know-you activities and other lessons that can be used for curricular material. Feel free to adapt them for your own style and students.
2. Begin your new year with a unit that is comfortable for you. Do you have a particular intellectual passion or a favorite book that you’ve always wanted to teach? If so, start with that! Your enthusiasm will be contagious, and your students will be excited too. If your school’s curriculum is more “lockstep,” and you don’t have the flexibility to choose the order of your units, just do your best to present the required material in your own way.
3. Respect your students. Don’t fear them. For example, let’s say your students request an extension for an assignment or test. A new teacher who fears students might give in, hoping that they will cooperate and behave in the future if she or he is “cool” enough. A new teacher who respects students will listen to their concerns and rationales and perhaps make an adjustment (or not) based on their reasoning and its presentation. The test or assignment can be moved in either instance, but each approach will have implications for the new teacher’s classroom atmosphere from that moment on.
4. Learn the First Law of Human Reality: People vary (and that’s a good thing). Multiple intelligence theory has made educators more aware of different ways that humans experience the world, and teachers should use this awareness to bring out the best that each student has to offer. For a quick, accessible book on multiple intelligence theory, take a look at Thomas Armstrong’s Seven Kinds of Smart (Plume, 1999). Recognizing the differences in students is particularly important for English and Language Arts teachers. As we teach each student to render sophisticated personal responses to literature and develop a distinctive writing voice, we are honoring individuality and creating a more independent communicator. Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing 2008, 2013), a writing textbook I co-authored with Tony Romano, is full of ways to differentiate high school writing assignments to develop each student’s unique voice and perspective.
5. Don’t confuse students’ grades with their identities. Students who earn D’s or F’s are not losers. Plenty of troubled students earn A’s and B’s, but that’s not automatic either. Grades and identities are very separate phenomena.
6. Enjoy exploring the value in your assignments, activities, and presentations. What you do in your class should be meaningful for both you and your students. As you choose, plan, and organize your materials, be highly aware of their personal and curricular value for your students. Help your students see the value too. Go ahead and say, “Here’s why this is important and why you should care about it.” If students recognize personal relevance in your class activities, they will work harder and learn more. If you realize that an activity or presentation has no value, dump it.
7. Have fun! We’ve all had classes and teachers that were fun, as well as classes and teachers that were the opposite of fun. Do you really want to spend the next few decades being un-fun? Look for ways to bring surprises and humor into your classroom. When something funny happens, it’s OK to laugh.
8. Remember that your ability to motivate students is at least as important as your subject matter knowledge. The familiarity, respect, and relevance already mentioned are inherently motivating for students, but look for ways to add personal touches to your interactions with your classes. For example, mail a brief “Way to Go” note or postcard to a student who has perfect attendance for a semester, shows improvement in a skill or attitude, or demonstrates compassion, tact, or helpfulness. Call a student’s parent with positive news. This feels really good after a session of making bad news phone calls. When you make these efforts, the student on the receiving end will immediately show a positive response. Reward your students for arriving on time or bringing their textbooks. (High school literature textbooks are notoriously heavy. See if you can live without them, or at least tell your students when they need to bring their books and when they can be left in lockers.) One of my favorite motivators is providing pizza when class members read 100 books. Each day, we record progress toward the goal on a thermometer chart and do quick reviews as we finish books. (Yes, my reading counts toward their goal. Modeling is important.) The best motivational strategies are ones where everybody wins.
9. Allow your classroom persona to be unique. Not goofy, just unique. Don’t try to be anybody else. Inauthenticity is a new teacher’s greatest enemy. Be the best You, and everything will be fine. Continue to grow personally, and you’ll grow as a teacher. Consider reading some memoirs of teachers who made a difference in their schools, but don’t attempt to duplicate their feats. Be inspired by them, but find your own way. Excellent books in this genre include Esmé Raji Codell’s Educating Esmé (Algonquin Books, 2001), Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man (Scribner, 2005), Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide (Dial Press, 2002), and The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell (Main Street Books, 1999). Then, next summer, write your own memoir!
10. Learn from your colleagues, but adapt their materials and approaches to your needs and personality. Materials given to you by well-intentioned colleagues can be a lifeline in your first year, but begin the habit right away of somehow personalizing those handouts and tests to make them your own, even if the changes are small. With your personal touches, these materials will become more meaningful to you and, in turn, your students. Students can tell when a teacher is recycling someone else’s assignments, and this perception has implications for the inauthenticity issue mentioned above.
11. Know that your job is important, but the rest of your life is important too. You will need to keep a balance between your job and the rest of your life, even though new teachers work very, very hard. Stay connected to your family and friends. Actively pursue your hobbies and other interests. Read at least a few pages every day of a book or magazine you enjoy. Your school’s atmosphere can vary from year to year due to economic factors, legislation,
administrative/personnel changes, or national trends. When those inevitable shifts occur, your job satisfaction can fluctuate. Those transitions can be less intense if you have solid anchors in your life outside of school.
12. Realize that perfection is not the standard in a school—not for students, not for teachers. Progress is much more important than perfection.
Reprinted with gracious permission from Kentucky English Bulletin. Vol. 57 (Winter/Spring, 2008)
Cross-posted at English Companion