I’ll bet that some of you are reading this blog post in an attempt to distract yourself from the crushing amount of work you need to do. Perhaps it’s [10:00] PM, and you still don’t know what you’re teaching tomorrow.
Even worse, it’s now [11:00] PM, you don’t know what you’re teaching tomorrow, and you have a 1-month old stack of papers to grade – and they’re constantly on your mind.
This morning you received an irate email from a parent demanding to know his son has a D in your class.
Yesterday, you underplanned your lesson, couldn’t figure out what to fill the time with, and your students knew it. You had to suffer through the longest 10 minutes of your existence while you tried to keep some semblance of order until the end of class.
The day before that, you gave a test that everyone bombed, and your students became frustrated. You had to reteach the concept, which threw off your pacing.
You dread that tomorrow you face that class or that student that gives you hell. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
The plight of a first-year teacher
Can you tell that this was a glimpse of my teaching at some point in my career? I remember that sense of terror as I walked into school without an ounce of confidence in what I was going to teach.
The falling sensation down the rabbit hole became the norm as I not only tried to do everything but also be good at it all. Overwhelmed and feeling like I wasn’t making any progress, I always felt like I was tripping over my toes and choking on air throughout the school year.
What also made those first few years particularly agonizing was that I felt like I should’ve known what to do. I mean, after going to college, doing student teaching, and getting my credential, I should be ready to conquer this, right?
Narrow your focus
As I previously mentioned, you don’t need to master everything at once, especially in the beginning. Attempting this results in poor or mediocre performance rather than proficiency in anything (just like your students!).
You simply can’t be good at everything now. Just remember this: progress, NOT perfection!
Does this mean you should give up trying? Of course not! It just means that if you focus on the essential aspects of teaching and build upon them, you’ll continually improve.
Whenever I mentor teachers, I have them concentrate on what I consider to be the six keystones of teaching. Six may seem like a huge number at first, but luckily each intertwines and strengthens the others.
NOTE: The best way to get these six keystones down pat while still having time to unwind on the weekends is with a mentor or instructional coach.
New teachers employed in my district are lucky enough to be part of a Beginning Teacher Induction program. This involves two years of intense workshops and 1-on-1 mentoring in order to clear their credential in California.
Last year, the Induction program took a poll of both new teachers and principals.
- When asked what they felt most confident about in their teaching, the vast majority of new teachers mentioned classroom environment and management.
- When asked what they felt new teachers needed to improve upon the most, principals resoundingly chose classroom environment and management.
The most important thing you must master as a teacher before you move on to anything else is classroom management. You simply cannot develop any other aspect of your teaching if your classroom isn’t in control.
And by control, I don’t mean silent, looking forward, with their hands folded on their desk. I mean that the way in which you teach and run your classroom creates an ideal environment for learning.
2. Lesson planning
I remember when I taught band, I chose literature that I thought the students would enjoy, that spanned different musical genres, and were appropriate for their skill level.
Now, I thought I was a pretty good teacher since my band sounded…pretty good. However, we never seemed to get past a certain score when we performed at band festivals. Since all of the other bands were comprised of students with the same level of experience, I knew that it was my teaching that was the problem – not the band.
This was due in part to the fact I didn’t have a clear map of where they needed to be skill-wise. I chose repertoire that I personally wanted to teach, and just taught whatever skills were appropriate within that piece. I did this again when I switched to English, because I wanted to teach a story that I enjoyed, and then I decided which standards aligned with it.
This didn’t help my students grow because, by the end of the year, they had a mish-mash of standards and skills I’d taught them with no real cohesion. I basically lacked the big picture planning that leads to real student growth.
Effective lesson planning doesn’t necessarily come naturally – it’s an art that’s developed as you get to know your content area, grade level, and students over time. You begin to see which skills can be expected for the students you teach, and at what level. From there, you work backward and create a plan on how you’re going to get them there.
When you know exactly what you want your students to demonstrate at the end of a lesson or unit, you can begin to see the logical steps to get there. Your lessons just fall into place, even if you have to add them on the fly.
There are many, many students that absolutely loathe reading and writing. They deem any sort of reading as soul-sucking, and writing as the work of Hades.
So how is it that I’m magically their favorite teacher and that (gasp!) English is their favorite class?
It’s all about my delivery.
There are many components to my teaching, but what stands out is my energy and passion for education. Some might say my humor, but I really believe that just goes hand-in-hand with my love for teaching and for my students.
I want to relate what we’re talking about to something humorous or create an analogy with something in their lives. I want to find a way to relate everything to food or cats (my two favorite subjects)! If you intentionally connect the material to your students’ prior knowledge and current interests, your material suddenly becomes sticky.
Does this mean that I’m loud, animated, and gesticulating wildly while I teach? Absolutely not!
But it does mean that if you want student engagement, you have to teach the subject matter in a way that makes them care because they see how much you care.
I remember going into the land of English Language Arts wondering what formative and summative assessments really were. I thought they just were different forms multiple-choice tests, given at different times.
It took me a year to really understand the point of them and appreciate their value. Assessments not only give us an indication of students’ progress along the way, but they also let us knowing how we’re doing as teachers.
It’s like when you bake brownies. At some point, you’ll pull them out and check their doneness with a toothpick to see if it comes out clean. That’s your formative assessment.
When they’re out, cooled, and cut, you try them. Whether they came out underdone, are burnt, or are the perfect combination of soft chewiness with a crisp edge is the summative assessment. It’s the desired outcome upon which you measure your students’ work.
However, if I’d never eaten a brownie, I wouldn’t know what to look for when the timer went off. Similarly, you shouldn’t be the only one who knows what’s being assessed. Students should also understand where they’re at in their learning, and how far they need to go.
Grading is a subject that I care deeply about, and I’ve written quite a few posts about it. In fact, I counted nine blog posts that have some form of the word “grade” in the title. I could write and talk ad nauseum about grades and grading philosophies.
It’s a pretty big deal to me.
And it’s not because I think grades are the be-all and end-all of education. No, what concerns me the most is the way grades are implemented, and how many grading policies and philosophies are more punitive than informative.
It’s far more than just letters, numbers, and percentages. Those are seemingly arbitrary marks we use to quantify a student’s progress. However, the ultimate focus of grades should be the communication of how a student is progressing academically.
As a new teacher, you need to decide what grades mean to you. Obviously, this is fluid and will change, but you have to start forming a grading philosophy that you can stand behind, that communicates progress, and that serves your students.
Teachers have such wildly varying grading policies, and they’ll justify every single point and percentage. While it can become a numbers game, just keep your students in your mind when you’re figuring it out.
I’ve actually touched on this quite a bit recently since I think that communicating with fellow adults is crucial. We do not teach on an island, nor should we try to teach in isolation.
If you’re new, there’s a good chance that you spend an exorbitant amount of time in your classroom during lunch and/or other breaks. If I were a fly on the wall, I bet I’d find you on Instagram, taking the ever-important selfie for the day, or working through your only free time in the day. Hopefully, you’re just decompressing.
If you’re anything like I was when I started out, you might also have some anxiety about approaching other teachers. Perhaps you had a bad run-in with one of them in the halls, or maybe you’re concerned about bothering them with your questions.
Or maybe you have a crippling fear of dealing with parents (I remember I was!). Knowing how to communicate without offending anyone is tricky, especially via email!
These are all valid concerns, especially when there are so many other aspects of teaching vying for your time and attention. But knowing how to strengthen these relationships in order to better serve your students is something you have to do right off the bat.
These people need to be part of a team effort to support your students. Going at this alone isn’t only unnecessary, it’s a disservice to those kids.
And while it can be scary and intimidating to work with others who may be difficult or adversarial in nature, you need to put your big kid pants on and just do it. Because you need these people on your team more than you know.
So now what?
You might’ve wondered if I had these in a particular order. Aside from classroom management, which is always your number one priority early on, the rest ebb and flow around each other.
But what are you supposed to do with this knowledge? I’m sure you already knew about this from your college classes. You’re probably thinking, Kim, this is nothing new to me. I had to write several papers on this!
Here’s the thing: yes you know about this, but do you have a plan for how to tackle it? Or are you trying to randomly piece it together without knowing what really works?
Are you working with a mentor or coach on how to best cultivate these without going crazy? Because if you aren’t, you’re going to be spinning your wheels for a while.
Don’t do this alone. As a new teacher, nobody expects you to get it, but we do want you to ask for help when needed!