Every seasoned teacher will tell a new one that the first year is the hardest, and understandably so. First-year teachers face an insurmountable challenge of trying to balance classroom culture, classroom management, teaching to the standards, assessment, professional development, staff responsibilities, and home life, to name a few. However, part of surviving that first year and being excited about the subsequent years is knowing how to prioritize and focus on what’s important. The problem is, many new teachers don’t know what they need to work on right now. Here are 5 things I wish someone had told me when I started teaching.
1) Collect and use data
As I mentioned in my Digging into Data series, collecting data is paramount to your teaching. A person has to know where they’re coming from in order to how far they’ve travelled. Students arrive in our classes like a monthly subscription box – even though we’re not quite sure what’s inside, we still look forward to it.
When I started teaching, I thought grades were the only data I needed. However, it never dawned on me that, at the time, grades were my subjective evaluation of how a student was doing. Back then, an A in the gradebook was a combination of skill and participation. Because of this, it was often difficult for me to articulate how a student was doing because, with 182 students, I didn’t remember the details on each and every one of them. I didn’t have much data on them.
Additionally, I couldn’t formulate a plan to differentiate for my students. I’d vaguely remember who needed more help on mechanics, and who needed more help on spelling. Creating purposeful groups was difficult. If only I had thought to take the time to collect data at the beginning of the year, then more of my students would have learned more from me.
Ask yourself: How well do I know my students? What data have I collected about them? What data can I collect and examine right now?
2) When planning, think in terms of overall skills rather than covering every standard
Before the Common Core, California had a LONG and exhausting list of standards. I remember that the practice in my school was checking off standards to ensure that they were covered. This was essential because the standardized test at the time (CST) had multiple choice questions for each and every standard, which encouraged more of a drill and kill mentality. Not surprisingly, students were trained to memorize the concepts with little application. There just wasn’t time.
With the Common Core, the standards are broader, and they focus on building skills, particularly ones that prepare students to be College and Career ready. This too should be your focus when planning. Have in mind the bigger picture of what you want your students to produce or be able to accomplish within a semester, and also within a school year.
How this applies to my teaching
For example, I want my 7th grade students to produce a well-written paragraph. In that paragraph, I want them to properly cite sources, elaborate on the significance of that evidence, and use transitional words to connect ideas. In other words, I want them to clearly communicate to the reader. That’s my big end-goal. Of course I want them to also spell, use proper grammar, write an introduction and conclusion, discuss the development of the theme of a story, etc., but for me, everything points to that paragraph.
Thinking this way with your curriculum will simplify your planning, because all of your content standards are written as a means to an end. All of the English Language Arts standards point to communicating effectively, both in writing and speaking. Even if they’re reading a novel, they’re not reading in isolation. There’s an educational purpose to it, usually in the forms of writing and discussion. But they need to learn how to communicate their thoughts in an effective way, which is where that paragraph comes in.
Ask yourself: What do I want my students to ultimately accomplish? What skills do I want them to possess so that I feel good about sending them off to the next grade?
3) You don’t need to assess EVERYTHING in an assignment
I really, really, really wish I didn’t grade every single thing when I switched to English. I drove myself absolutely crazy, and my grading and feedback became sloppy because I was overwhelmed. During my first few years, I spent my time being a copy editor and marking up EVERY SINGLE MISTAKE on everything they produced. We’re talking punctuation, spelling, spacing, word choice, etc. And these are middle schoolers, who are still developing as writers.
Typically beginning teachers have a pretty high standard for student work compared to what students can actually accomplish. I suspect this is due to the fact that they are coming right out of the rigors of higher education and don’t understand the brains of their students just yet. It took me a few years to get a grasp on what the typical 7th grader is capable of producing. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have low expectations of them, and I still hold the bar high. However I have reasonable expectations, and it has made the difference in my teaching.
Again, it’s all about the skills
Going along with focusing on skills, I encourage teachers to focus on grading a few skills at a time. When a student produces a paragraph for me, they know ahead of time exactly which skills I plan to assess, and it’s usually no more than three. If I tried to grade for every single skill, 1) it would take too long, and the students wouldn’t receive timely feedback, 2) they would be discouraged by the amount of mistakes I’d find, and 3) it would be difficult to track progress of those skills.Focusing on a few skills also allows you to adjust your pacing and know precisely what students are struggling with. Click To Tweet
Focusing on a few skills also allows you to adjust your pacing and know precisely what students are struggling with. Good math teachers can spot or even better, predict, which of the steps in a math problem will give students the most difficulty. If the majority of students answer correctly, then they know that skill is mastered and can move on. If not, then it’s time for more review and practice.
Ask yourself: How can I break up my assignments so that I’m only assessing a few standards or skills at a time? What would it look like to give smaller assignments, but faster feedback?
4) Grading should be purposeful and not a form of punishment
This idea may be a point of contention for some teachers. A popular school of thought is that poor grades are a natural consequence of lack of effort. If you don’t do the work, then your grade should suffer. It makes sense – no work, no score, which results in a bad grade. However, at the end of the grading period, can you truly tell a student’s skill level, or only their willingness to complete assignments? Yes, it’s much, much easier to just give them a zero for doing nothing. But if our end goal is to educate, should we really go the easy route?
I’m going to be honest with you – I used to punish students with grades. If they were a lump on a log and not doing anything, I thought, Fine. Be that way. You get an F. Haha, I win! Well guess what? Both the student and I lost. I lost an opportunity to really reach a student and help them produce small but significant gains in their learning. And that student lost because I was another teacher that gave up on them. It’s not something I’m proud of.
You accomplish nothing by using grades as a punishment. No, you didn’t show THEM that you mean business, and now they’ve learned their lesson. If anything, you just affirmed their personal belief that they’re worthless and incapable of success. When in doubt, refer to #2 and #3 in terms of having grades and assignments tied to skills, NOT effort. If you need to, create another category for participation and effort, but make your grades truly mean something.
Ask yourself: What are my beliefs about grades and assessment? How have my previous experiences in school affected the way I grade today? What is the purpose of grades anyway?
5) Classroom management isn’t about control
I know this sounds strange, but stay with me.
We typically think of a teacher with strong classroom management as being able to control the behaviors of their students. This is done for the sake of maintaining a calm and effective learning environment.
Some do it with a closed fist, fear, and anger. The teacher scolds and belittles students for misbehaving or not participating. While the students are compliant, they rarely feel empowered to take control of their learning. They rarely feel true passion for the subject because they’re more concerned about avoiding punishment. And for some, this setting is perfect for them to enact their shenanigans and laugh at the angry teacher.
Another type of teacher with strong classroom management has a classroom with generally engaged students. These students happily comply with requests because they respect the teacher, as well as understand the purpose behind every activity. They lead collaborative conversations, and feel safe enough to take risks. The teacher rarely has to use threats because the students are compelled to contribute to and own their own learning. They’re not necessarily rowdy and talking all of the time, and may in fact be silent while engaged. But the truth of the matter is they are participants in the process rather than just being receivers of knowledge.
Which way is better?
Classroom management is about teaching students how to behave properly. It’s a skill they need to learn, just like any other skill in any subject matter. In science, classroom management involves students knowing how to behave in a lab. In physical education, how to be sportsmanlike and safe during activities. In music, knowing when it’s one’s turn to play and when to patiently wait. Classroom management isn’t control – it’s managing behaviors for an optimal learning experience.
While every teacher has their own teaching style and way of maintaining order, the one truth is that your management style must align with our personality. You can’t fake being more laid back and lighthearted if that’s now who you are in real life, and you can’t fake being strict if you’re not. I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work. Whichever style your utilize, it must be implemented for the sake of empowering students, teaching them to be better people, and foster a positive learning environment. But the most important thing is that your teaching style leaves every single student with their sense of belonging and dignity. Anything you do that takes away any of those factors should be eliminated.
Ask yourself: How does my teaching style instruct students to behave properly? Does my teaching style communicate mutual respect? Are my expectations apparent while still being forgiving? Am I fostering or severing relationships with my students?
I know I said five things, but here’s one more truth: you CANNOT and SHOULD NOT try to do everything well your first year.
First, it’s not possible. You’ll end up doing everything in a mediocre way and feel like a failure at the end of the year. You must focus on building one to two skills at a time over the course of the year. Then reflect and see how you can improve just a little the following year. You’re the equivalent of an elementary student in regards to teaching. You wouldn’t expect a first grader to write a proof for calculus, so don’t expect to have the perfect lessons, the Pinterest-worthy classroom, and everything graded during your duty day. That’s ridiculous.
Second, your focus in those first few years should be on perfecting classroom culture. Figure out how you truly want your classroom to run. Get your classroom management down. Everything else will easily fall into place if your classroom feels like YOUR classroom. I know there’s so much amazing stuff that you want to do, but teaching will feel like a nightmare if culture and management aren’t down pat.
Finally, you don’t want to burn out in your first few years. You spent all of that time and money earning your credential. Teaching is an awesome profession, and there are so many rewards if you stick with it. Trying to do too much too soon will just ensure that your teaching career will be cut short. Those statistics about new teachers leaving within the first five years? They’re true. Don’t be a statistic.
For any veteran teachers reading this, I’d LOVE for you to weigh in. What are YOUR five things you wish you knew? For the beginning teachers, are any of these resonating with you yet?
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