The thirteen things I wish I’d known when I started teaching ten years ago: (Why 13? Because it’s my lucky number!)
- Don’t do anything but assess the first month of the school year. I only discovered this wonderful piece of advice in the last couple years, and it has really changed my teaching. Instead of diving right in to whatever curriculum or text you’re given, spend the first weeks assessing students’ abilities in your field. I’m a high-school English teacher, so I spent the first month of teaching grade 9 by asking students to do things like annotate their texts as they read by using post-its, but I didn’t tell them how I wanted them to do it. Once I checked their homework and saw the general ability level, I knew I had to go back to square one and teach them annotation 101, so I did. I also asked them to write a multi-paragraph essay in response to the prompt: “Is it true that you can never fully trust anyone?” I did not grade or even mark up the essays, but I did read every one and note them in my grade book as being average, above average, and below average. There were a few that were off the charts low this year, and it was a red flag from the second day of school that helped me keep tabs on students that were quite weak and would likely need extra support and more communication from me. This essay stays in their portfolio in class as a baseline essay against which we can compare their future writing, and the kids feel no stress about it since it didn’t count. I waited a full six weeks into the term to give a single major grade, which allowed the students to adjust to new standards and expectations in high school English and allowed me to help identify weakness and work to strengthen their skills before a single grade is given.
- Start student portfolios on the first day of school into which all assessed work goes. This may be old news to education students, but it was brand new news to me, since I had little formal training when I started teaching at 23. I’ve had students keep simple manila folder portfolios, bursting with the year’s writing and rubrics, in the back of the room; I’ve had students in a fancy private school in the Middle East keep e-portfolios of all their work, including video and sound clips. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, as long as there is a place where the students’ progress and your feedback on it can be kept in one spot. They are wonderful to peruse before doing grades, and great fodder for parent-teacher meetings. At the end of the year, students can review the portfolio’s contents and do a written evaluation of their growth – it’s nice to see them compare a year’s worth of their work and really acknowledge their challenges and accomplishments.
- Keep a paper trail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been grateful for starting and keeping an email folder for all parent communication. I bcc myself on all communication I send to parents via email and pop it in that folder, along with any replies I get. The result is that I have an excellent, irrefutable record of communication attempts from my end. The few times I’ve needed this paper trail, I was very grateful I had it (for example, when a student in my class was in jeopardy of not graduating because of his results in my class senior year; the paper trail I had from me to his parents was long and extensive, and the administration was able to use it to make the case to the parents that he would have to change radically or not graduate.)
- Don’t mistake your role as teacher for friend, family, or savior. It can be tempting to help those students who seem most in need of a support network by befriending them, or trying to “save” them from their problems. I made this mistake early in my career. I had a student who was drawn to me and wanted to talk regularly about her problems, and I – twenty-three and flattered, thinking I could really help her through her tough times – found myself quickly in over my head with a student who had far deeper problems than I was prepared to handle. I realized, humbled, that those deeper psychological or family issues a student has are best left to counseling and mental health professionals. The next time a different young student explained that she felt comfortable around me and wanted to talk with me about some of her problems, I politely explained that I loved being her teacher but that if she needed to talk about her problems, she could make an appointment with the counselors who are better equipped to help her. I still had a nice relationship with this girl, but the boundaries were clear and healthy for both of us. Model your role on that of pediatrician rather than confidante or savior – a professional working toward her students’ educational wellbeing.
- Don’t assume students know how to do even the most basic study skills. I still make this mistake. Begin the first weeks by showing them how to do exactly what it is you want them to do – model clearly what it is and don’t just say it. For example, if you want students to annotate in their book, either on the page or by using Post-its, it’s not enough to ask them to do that. Spend time showing them exactly how to do this – putting the notes in the book as you read, saying the many kinds of notes you might write. I came up with an acronym for annotation in HS English: SCRAP-Q to help them try various strategies on their notes (Summary, Connections, Reactions, Predictions, and Questions). Suddenly, they no longer had excuses that they didn’t know what to say, because they had several simple strategies to use. If you want your students to study for vocab quizzes using flash cards, show them how to make the cards and self-quiz using three piles for the words they know cold, the ones they almost always get, and the ones they don’t know yet. If you want them to take bullet-point summary notes of their reading, show them how by practicing it in class. Give them tools that will help them, like Cornell Notes, annotation hows and whys, and how to review in math or language by self-testing a little previous content every night. I often erroneously assume that students know the most basic skills, like reading the dictionary to find a word’s origin or part of speech, and I’m often reminded that they need more direct guidance from us in these simple but important tasks.
- Understand that assessment is not the same as grading. It was a ways into my career before I understood the power of this. Much like #1, assessment is a way to measure your students against standards and criteria (yours, your school’s, or the state’s); grading is assigning a value to the assessment outcome. Good teachers assess often by measuring where their students are against standards and criteria and then readjust their teaching based on those assessments. An in-class essay for my grade 9 English class usually comes after several informal writing sessions with verbal feedback, then a practice essay in a timed setting with feedback from me and a grade that doesn’t count, and then the real essay with a grade that counts. Assessing and recording all the data this way has given me far more info on their strengths and weaknesses, and it has shown me that students can improve greatly from one round of assessment with feedback to the next.
- If giving a timed assignment, write down the amount of time each student took to complete it on the upper corner when the student submits it to you. I have found that this is helpful feedback when a student has rushed through and done poorly, or when I see that a student always takes the maximum amount of time and still doesn’t finish. It helps me better know and address the students’ challenges in a timed test setting.
- Record everything in hard copy in your grade book. I keep track of attendance, all grades, and even all formative assessments (those assessments that are graded but not counted), participation attempts – everything. This helps me greatly with parent-teacher conferences. It helps me see at a glance whose writing is consistently weak, even when it doesn’t count. It helps me see if attendance corresponds with grades, and it shows me how participation links to these elements. I like to code for situations. For example, I will make a “c” in my grade book next to an assignment that wasn’t up to par to note that the student and I chatted about why and how she can do better next time. That way, when I see her poor performance next time, I can check the book and say, “We chatted last time about how you needed to work better on this area, and you still haven’t. Why not?” I code for things like late submissions, excused absences and assignments, difficulty following directions, and when students mostly summarize rather than synthesize (something of increasing importance as they move through high school). This coding helps immensely for comment writing and parent-teacher conferences. In the digital age, this might be redundant for some, but I find that technology is not always foolproof; more than once I have been saved by having my backup hard copy on hand when the tech went down. Either way, keeping clear, consistent records is such a boon to your communication with students and parents.
- Make the kids do the work. Six years ago, I was hired by a Harkness school, a high school where students are encouraged (and in fact graded on their ability) to lead class discussions. Essentially, students work in a Socratic seminar environment across the curriculum, and they are expected to participate equally and substantively, exploring their way as a group through the curriculum, while the teacher is mainly silent, working as observer, feedback giver, and guide. Teaching in that Harkness school was the biggest gift I ever received as an educator, and probably the biggest gift my future students could have received. It showed me how, during all the preceding years of my career, I had been spoon-feeding to my students what was most important, what I wanted them to understand. When forced to sit back and watch them work their way – awkwardly at first – together through the material, I saw to my surprise that they were almost always able to discover what was important on their own. Without my interference, students were doing deep, meaningful inquiry together, which resulted in a much more ethical, balanced classroom – a team of players working together with their coach off to the side. Now I come in to my high-school English classes to watch how the students tackle their reading head on in a Spider Web Discussion. I often don’t say a word for an hour as they work through the most salient, pertinent aspects of the texts. I might jump in with a provocative question, or I might redirect them to a passage I think they need to examine and haven’t yet. But often I find they get so good at this practice after only a couple months that I mostly get to go in and enjoy seeing what their astute, curious brains have uncovered. Often they pick up on something I did not, or travel down a fascinating path of ethical debate, back and forth, inspired by their shared inquiry. I’ve learned that they, not I, should do the bulk of the thinking, and that a classroom built on these principles rewards them more in the day-to-day through engaging discussions, and more in the long run by surreptitiously teaching them group problem solving, critical reading and thinking, and public speaking.
- Observe Colleagues. The best PD is free and right next door: watch your colleagues teach. It’s easy, painless, and inspires great collaboration through follow-up discussions. At one of the international schools I taught at in Asia, instead of being formally observed by a department head, we were paired up with teaching colleagues in our department and asked to observe each other several times throughout the year and share our feedback with one another. I learned a lot from these sessions, and it was great to see how she interacted with her students. She had a very different approach to assessment than I’d ever seen, and I was only introduced to it because I got to pair up with and observe her. If possible, arrange to see colleagues in other specialties and subject areas as well as colleagues in yours; you’d be amazed what high school teachers can learn from first-grade teachers (multi-tasking anyone?), and math teachers can learn from English teachers (why can’t math class be discussion-based?). It’s also good to have more exposure to the day-to-day reality of our students’ academic careers, from beginning to end and across all subjects, so we can truly start to teach them as if they are in a continuum, not just “in our class this year.”
- Use Twitter. I wasn’t sure how to use Twitter to my liking until I decided to make it solely for education and pedagogy purposes. Then I discovered its power. I follow all sorts of interesting education policy wonks, bloggers, teachers, and writers and get dozens of links to great articles every day. There is never a day that goes by when I don’t find something fascinating and completely relevant to my craft in my Twitter feed. I often incorporate them immediately into my classroom, which means Twitter is another totally free, easy way to get great PD. It also is a wonderful communication tool if you’re inclined to share your (140-character) education musings with the world. This can result in interesting collaborations across the medium, such as when someone tweets something like, “Anyone have experience/success using music and math together?” and you reply, “Yes! What do you want to know?”
- Get feedback often, from a variety of sources. I was lucky, because early in my career I was introduced to the power of feedback, and I never developed a fear of it as a result. My motto is, “How can I be better?” and feedback has never failed to help me in answering that question.First, solicit feedback regularly from your students. Don’t wait until the end of the course – what a missed opportunity. If your school requires year-end feedback, do it informally on your own. The best way is completely anonymously – via the computer. I found that when I switched from hand-written feedback forms to computer ones, the feedback became a lot more honest, since they were no longer afraid I could recognize their writing. I use Survey Monkey every month to check in with students on how they find the texts, pace, teaching style, class dynamic, and grading. Survey Monkey provides data and graphs that are really convenient; within seconds of students’ finishing, I’ve got a bar graph showing how many of them love the current book and how many would be happy to burn it. And this is the part where I encourage you to steel yourself and ask some uncomfortable questions, like, “Does the teacher play favorites?” I’m always surprised when a small percentage of students respond that they think I do, but it’s valuable feedback; it makes me reconsider how I interact with kids and what they might perceive from those interactions. Much of the feedback on these surveys is reaffirming, too. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many students reported “loving” English class this year, so sometimes the results just help me know I am on the right track.
Second, pair up with a colleague, much like the situation I described in point #10. Find a friendly colleague whose feedback you trust and ask if he can observe you two or three times throughout the year and give you general feedback, as well as his observations of any specific areas you’re looking to improve upon. This kind of informal peer observation can be so informative and is much less threatening than having your supervisor observe you.
Last, get a video camera and film your teaching. Watch it – see what your students see. Watch an hour-long class and chart the level of student interest and engagement; watch how often you call on which students; see how much you talk versus they do; observe how often you write or draw on the board to help deepen a concept. Few people like to see themselves on film, but steel yourself a second time, because there’s much to be learned from self-observation. It’s also an easy way to ease into feedback, since no one else is involved besides you and no one else has to see it.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Give yourself two or three years to feel like you are treading water. Give yourself five to feel like you can swim. The first couple years of teaching can be nothing short of overwhelming. I remember lots of tears my first year (and second, and fifth…) and many moments when I wanted to leave the profession. But the more experienced I grew, the more I was able to take the long, more patient view. There are many highs and lows in a teacher’s year. The trick is seeing the mountain range, not only the peak or valley before us. Most importantly, don’t get bogged down by what you can’t change. Instead, focus on what you can do and attack it with fervor and love.