Guest Post: Letter to a First Year Teacher from Emily
*I had a few friends submit letters that do not have blogs, and I couldn’t figure out a great way to include them other than just making a post on my blog with their awesome advice.*
This is from Emily H, who teaches history at the same school as I do in Jordan and is a dear friend of mine.
Dear first year teacher,
I’ve heard somewhere that the first three years of teaching will determine whether or not someone stays in the profession – if you make it past three years and still have a passion for it, then chances are you will remain a teacher for the majority of your career. I suppose it is because I just finished my third year of teaching that this fact came to mind when I thought about what to write in this letter – why is it after three years I have decided to continue teaching? Why has it not lost any charm, and in fact why do I feel even more secure about my decision to be a teacher than I did my first year? Because I can tell you that I had some experience teaching at university before I chose to teach at a high school, and when I put my pen to my contract and decided to teach at a high school, I had literally no idea how I was going to feel about it, or whether I would stay longer than a year. So now, as twenty-seven months or so of teaching are behind me, I want to reflect on why thankfully this has been a successful journey and offer advice to you, because in all honesty I am not sure this profession would have been as rewarding without the help and advice from the other great teachers, both young and old, that I have had the privilege of working with. The organization of my ideas below is rather random, but I hope they provide you with both theoretical and practical advice.
There is only one word you need to know about teenagers: “I”
Before I left my former job to start teaching high school, I had a lovely farewell lunch with my employers, one of whom had a wife who worked as an educational consultant. Her advice above in bold was one of the first I ever got about high school age students, and it has proven to be extremely helpful to remember the image of her telling me this over our food. The essence of her advice is that teenagers are going through a phase of their life in which everything is about them – they will make mountains out of molehills because they can only see a problem from their own point of view, and they will explain everything from only their point of view. This little piece of advice has helped me find eternal patience when dealing with students who are otherwise frustrating – it helps me to remember that they are (depending on the extent to which their parents have encouraged this kind of self-involvement) incapable of thinking beyond themselves sometimes.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t the case with every teenager, but it does help to remember that it is our job as adults to not only provide them with the ‘traditional’ education of knowledge and skills, but also with a moral compass that guides them to thinking that the world is in fact not always just about them. So when you find yourself completely unable to fathom why a student is behaving the way they are, it is helpful to remember this little piece of advice and have a little patience, because in fact it is often those kids who are most self-involved that need the most mentoring.
Do not underestimate how important it is to set the right tone the first week of class. The most important thing you can do from the start is to get the students to trust you. You need them to trust you both in terms of knowing that your class will be productive and that you will, in general, be predictable both in expectations and content. So put time into thinking about how you will structure the class – will you give them a guideline at the start of every week that explains what they will learn and the homework in advance? Will you always write the topics to be covered on the board before class? What routine can you create so that students know it is time for class to start?
Think of yourself as a coach more than a teacher. You want your class to work as a team as much as possible, so don’t ever have what’s meant to be a class discussion, for example, without the whole class listening. In fact, that will role model that you want them to practice the skill of listening. The more you can create a climate in which everyone feels like they are responsible for the material, the better your class will run.
Don’t be afraid of silence! If you ask a question and there is an awkward silence, have patience. The students may simply be thinking. This means you want to avoid calling on the people who immediately have their hand up (if I don’t have to think because I know someone else will always be chosen to answer, I won’t) and when lecturing don’t hesitate to pause and give students a chance to write – it may feel awkward for you up front, but for the students it shows that you value their ability to be engaged.
Be aware of what every single student is doing during class. This is easier said than done if you are in a room with over twenty students, but the more you are able to do this, the more your students will come to trust that you are there to ensure they are learning. If students know they can get away with playing on their computer for half of class, they will. If they know they can disappear to the bathroom for over ten minutes, they will. Students know in what class a teacher is more likely to be aware that they are engaged, so do not get so caught up in getting through class that you lose what is even more important: as much of their attention as possible.
If students are chatty in your class, it is completely unproductive to yell over them. One of the best methods of classroom management that I learned before I started, and which has proved completely invaluable to me, is using silence as a way to control the room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to get students to calm down and focus is to actually remain silent in front or use less hand gestures to individual students so that they are quiet. This strategy is also great because it role models calmness and patience rather than frustration, and it also allows the leaders in the class to silence their own peers.
Get advice from other teachers
I was lucky to work with colleagues who enjoy talking about teaching and who offer practical feedback. If you have others as a resource, take advantage of them! Visit their classes, talk about your problems and or successes over dinner – this has probably been the greatest key to my success because the ability to bounce ideas off of people helps us get excited about getting back into the classroom. If you feel embarrassed to either ask for or share information, this honestly may not be the right profession for you. And don’t just talk to people in your field – some of the best lessons I have ever developed came from talking to teachers in completely different subjects.
Think about who you are
I was once told that in high school the teacher’s personality is of fundamental importance to how much a student will engage in a class. Now I know that may sound awful, and it’s an ugly fact, but to a certain extent it is true. As I said in the first bolded bullet point, teenagers are very self-involved, and so they will allow themselves to gravitate toward those whom they feel they can be most comfortable with, and they will be less forgiving if they do not like you, even if we all know that is very selfish. So it is really important that you are comfortable with yourself before you step into a room of teenagers – you will be dissected more than you have probably ever been, more than even on any first date, but if you are ready for it and can remain true to yourself, I can guarantee the students will like you. It is when you are uncomfortable, or try too hard, or try too little, that they get turned off.
Variety doesn’t mean effective teaching
Don’t feel like your lessons need to have a huge amount of variety and don’t be afraid to be simple. While it is smart to have lots of tools when making lesson plans, don’t be too experimental and irregular your first year because it could make you lose what really matters. Always focus on how your plans allow students to most effectively: 1. understand your expectations 2. reflect on and 3. be able to articulate and/or apply what they have learned. Students may say they want a lot of song and dances in order to do this, but really what they need is a good framework into which they can put content and skills. Mike Schmoker is an author with good advice on this.
Be ready to change the way you teach a subject every year. This doesn’t mean that you completely revamp a class every year, but my best teachers have always been those who constantly reflected on their classes and tweaked it both during and after the year was over in order to consider what would actually work best given new circumstances or information. My worst teachers were always those who stuck to a formula and never changed it – firstly that is bad role modeling if we expect our students to become reflective adults, and second that will make this profession a lot more tedious.
Be ready to think on your feet
This is advice that applies particularly during your first year, but then also for the rest of your professional life. I think the best teachers are those who find the somewhat paradoxical balance that leads to structured classes which encourage the development of organic discussion and learning. You can’t hesitate to let go of what you may have planned nor of letting the class develop into a student-centric place, but you also can’t hesitate to rein in students and know when it’s time to take the lead as well. Finding this balance may not come immediately, but with practice it will become easier.
Don’t hesitate to listen to students
Teaching requires thick skin – there are days when students will validate your very existence with their profusion of gratitude, and then there are days when you feel like you are achieving absolutely nothing and that your students are unbelievably frustrating people. Yet overall it is important that you listen to them. Don’t hesitate to give anonymous surveys in the middle and end of the year – you will often be pleasantly be surprised by how helpful student feedback can be, particularly if you have created enough trust as a team that they are unafraid to offer both unconditional praise and productive criticism. Yet I will also recommend you design the surveys yourself and tailor it to your class. Do your research and consider what kinds of questions make for productive feedback.
Don’t expect immediate results
If you are someone who wants immediate results, whether it be in expecting students’ writing and thinking to improve or to know that you have made an impact on a student in some way, this may not be the right profession for you. This is not to say you won’t actually witness such transformations – I certainly have and they have made this job incredibly rewarding – but you also need to remember that you may be doing a lot of good that won’t be recognized for years to come, so always keep that perspective in mind.
Finally, to end, I will offer one last piece of advice: keep a journal of how your teaching went. There are a couple of ways you can do this, I am sure, and I will suggest two. First, you can try to update it daily, even if it’s just a few sentences, so that you can reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Or, secondly, one friend of mine keeps a journal only with those teaching moments that were positive. She decided to do this because anytime she got frustrated she could pull out the journal and remember why she is doing this, and her journal has gotten pretty long. May that will be the case with you as well, and good luck!