New Teacher Series/ Question 7: Should I create a classroom policy list or go by school policy?

Policies, procedures, and protocols. Oh my!  These words seem to have floated out of the business world and right into the classroom in the last decade.  They provide neat working labels for all the tasks that ensure the efficient and effective operation of your classroom.  Let me state from the get-go:  It doesn’t matter what you call them – rules, expectations, contracts, policies, norms, agreements— they only work if you enforce them with consistency and fairness.

These boundaries and parameters aren’t designed to create fascism in the classroom.  In fact, just the opposite.  When the infrastructure of organization and management are communicated and observed, the real meat of the classroom—learning and discovery—happen more smoothly.  Here are three levels of management that need to be communicated to your classroom early and often: expectations, procedures, and policies.

Expectations:  Expectations are broad, general statements that set the tone of your classroom. Expectations form the philosophy or the guiding mission/ vision statement of the classroom. They also establish the culture of the room, and create a”this is who we are” declaration.  Expectations might be something like:  Respect yourself and others; Be on time and prepared; Always do your best; Follow directions the first time they’re given. I only have three expectations in my class, which are directed at me as much as they are for my kids.

  1. Civility: I will treat each of you with respect, courtesy, and support; I expect each one of you to extend that same respect and support to me, to my teaching assistants, and to each other.
  2. Commitment: I will push each of you to achieve your potential. I will follow up on homework assignments, contact parents, and encourage you to be the best writer you can be.   I want you to make a commitment to become a more creative, independent, and powerful writer.
  3. Community: We are a team.  We are a family. A success for one of us is a success for all of us.  We are all going to become better writers this year, and we are going to be kind and supportive toward each other.

Procedures:  Procedures represent the “this is how we do” of your class.  Establishing procedures will save you hours of directing, correcting, and re-directing.  Figure out the following procedures for your classroom and communicate these to your students during the first week and every day afterward until it becomes automatic:

  • entering and exiting the room
  • passing in seatwork
  • turning in homework
  • turning in late work
  • turning in school forms
  • picking up graded work
  • picking up make-up work
  • picking up school forms
  • signing out for a restroom pass
  • using cell phones
  • checking out technology
  • collecting money for field trips/fund raisers
  • requesting assistance for seat work
  • requesting assistance for after-school tutoring
  • managing noise levels for seat work
  • managing noise levels group work
  • calling on students for answers
  • selecting students for group work
  • moving in and out of small groups
  • moving in and out of whole group activities
  • bus/fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drills

In 2008, I counted up 22 different procedures in my classroom.  Some were scripted, some were posted; some were just understood.  All of the procedures were consistent so kids knew the ropes of the classroom without having to rely on me to tell them.

Policies:  When I hear the word “policies,” I mostly think about the rules that govern the student body and apply to all students, but many teachers have classroom policies that are separate from their expectations and their procedures.  These are mostly classroom rules that are aligned with the larger school policy for that particular issue.  For example, if the school policy states that no hats are to be worn in the building, then your classroom policy should uphold that.  School policies are often determined by the district or a school’s site-based council as they relate to the entire organization.  Issues such as the dress code, absences, tardiness, cheating, plagarism, fighting, profanity, sexual harrassment, and drug use will have a policy listed in the student handbook. At my school, every class watches a school policy Powerpoint, which explains the policies of the school and the consequences for breaking those policies, during the first week of school.

So, to answer your question, “Should I create a classroom policy list or just go by the schools?” The answer is yes!   Always follow and uphold the school policies and also establish broad philosophical expectations and the very specific procedures.

New Teacher Series/Question 6: How regimented should I be during the first few days of school?

Regimented, as in organized, controlled, and on top of your game? Yes. Regimented as in mean, militaristic, and Machiavellian?  No, no, no.

There should be clear consequences of ignoring your classroom expectations, and you should be ready to address those during the first two weeks when students test your boundaries, but how you address those behaviors will set the tone of trust, respect and positivity for the rest of the year.

New teachers are often told “don’t smile until Christmas,” and several very successful teachers I know run their class like a boot camp until October, but ultimately, every teacher works out her management style through trial and error. Personally, I could not drive to a job every day for five months where I couldn’t smile.  And even though I can be very intimidating, I have zero drill sergeant skills, so boot camping is not an option for me.

My approach is more like, “I’m a professional teacher who wants to arm you with the tools for a better life and help you discover and respect your own mind.  I will expect nothing less than your best. I will honor that by bringing my best. I will not waste your time with busy work, but you will not waste my time with drama and trifling. In this class, we are about learning, as individuals and as a community.  I take my role very seriously, and you should know your role too.  You will be a better thinker, writer, reader, and human being for having been in my class.”

Think this to yourself every day.  Walk into that classroom with this disposition on your face.  Then make it happen. Exude positivity and confidence.  You can truly change their lives.  Believe that.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Connect with every kid that first week. This could be a home visit, a letter, or a call home just to say hello to her parents. Ask your bandies what instrument they play. Ask your ballers about their strengths. Ask your corner reader if she has read X; if she hasn’t, give her a copy to take home.  These small things state an important message to kids:   I see you. I see you as an individual.  I know you.  In high school, especially, kids can move through the day and never have a meaningful conversation with an adult if they don’t want to. Make sure every kid is on your radar every day.
  2. Greet kids by name, welcome them, and then immediately engage them. If you haven’t read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, you need to read it.  Wong suggests you stand at your door and welcome kids with smiles and instructions. They will be nervous that first day.  Be positive, be inviting.  Check out these step-by-step scripts for a smooth first day.
  3. Good idea – Always explain why a rule is a rule. Better idea – let the kids create the classroom norms. They will create seriously good rules, and there’s immediate buy-in because they’ve established their own boundaries.   Make sure kids see why the rules you (or they) have chosen serve the community. Make sure they understand how the rules protect and aid everyone.
  4. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. They’re watching you. Students want to know if you’re one of those teachers who has rules, but doesn’t really enforce them.  They’ll know this in two days.   Address every infraction in a calm, confident and firm manner.  Remember, you are the adult in the room. You don’t have to threaten, scream, or belittle kids; deal with everything explicitly, stating this is what you’re doing, this is the rule, this is what I expect.  And don’t wear everybody out with giving a dozen warnings. Act fairly and decisively.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  5. Make the consequence match the offense. The consequences should be established long before the rule is broken. Deal with small offenses in your classroom, and lean on your administrators for the big stuff. Don’t send kids to the office because they didn’t bring a pencil. And always be fair.  If your favorite kid in the class is breaking a rule, exact the same consequence as if another kid had broken it.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  6. Always be alert. You can sense a shift from positive to negative energy.  When you feel that shift, move quickly to bring things back in line with your lesson.  Step into a group, shift focus, crack a joke.   Every kid in that room is just as exhausted by drama as you are.  They want you to deal with the issue.
  7. Never create a show-down with a student. If you yell across the room at a kid for doing something, all heads swivel.  You’ve now put her in the position to either comply or tell you to go jump in the lake.  You can imagine which one she’ll choose.  Don’t ask kids to make choices like that; you will lose.   Move in close, address the offender quietly by name, tell her exactly how she can get back on task. State the offending behavior, state the correct behavior, give her an opportunity to change.
  8. Being prepared, professional, and positive will curb 95% of all classroom management issues. Being prepared will guarantee your students are engaged which cuts down on chicanery.   Sometime between now and when school starts, read Teach Like a Champion 2.0 , which offers 62 strategies for engaging students and maintaining high expectations.  The book also comes with a DVD with over 70 videos of real teachers using these strategies.
  9. Don’t let kids talk over you. I’m always surprised by how many teachers allow this. If I’m giving instructions or explaining something, I expect all kids to be listening. Do not tax them with long, boring lectures, but expect them to listen when you are speaking.   Deal with the offenders individually; don’t punish the whole class.
  10. Always be real, which sometimes means pretending you’re a better person than you really are. To paraphrase Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. Every teacher must know when to use the hammer and when to use the kid gloves. You need to be versatile and self-aware enough to tap into which persona the situation demands:  the magician, the healer, the listener, the guru, the crazy aunt, the wise sage, the storyteller, the performer, or the professional.  And at the center of all these multitudes is an authentic person who is honest and caring, led by an ethical vision that far exceeds whatever is educationally trendy.

 

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 5: How do I gauge student learning with 100 kids?

To do this, you will need to employ an edu-darling term, “formative assessment,” which is a fancy way of saying figure out where your kids are, either two inches or two miles away, from the standard, then give them clear feedback on how to take the next step toward it.

The first lesson of formative assessment: it’s not a thing; it’s a state of mind.  Formative assessment is not a grade in the gradebook or an activity to pass the time until the test comes around. It is the sum of all knowledge you own about the students. It is the collected and analyzed product of bell ringers, exit slips, writing notebooks, open ended responses, lab reports, quizlets, classroom observations, student interviews, homework, and portfolios.   It’s the answer to the question: where do my kids stand in relation to  where they need to be?

No one method of formative assessment is better than the next because, like a piece of exercise equipment, the best form of formative assessment is one you actually use.  Sometimes administrators force teachers to track student growth goals, but assessing kids just for the purpose of data collection doesn’t move them closer to the goals. It’s analyzing that data and modifying your teaching to move the kids up, back, right or left toward the goal that’s important.

Standards are static; kids are dynamic. Figure out where your shifting, ranging, all-over-the-map kids are in relation to those immovable standards. Think of a ladder as you map out the small steps that leads toward mastery of the standard. The correct edu-term for this is a “learning progression.”

Let’s say you have Standard A, which is a giant standard.  You break it down into 10 smaller learning goals, or ten rungs on the ladder, and design ten clear lessons to address those smaller chunks.  Each lesson should allow for multiple attempts, lots of feedback, and practice, practice, practice. Better yet, get your kids in on the action, and let them map out the ladder, wrestle with the smaller steps, connect to the ladder through their own interests.

Early in the process, design a formative assessment tool that asks questions about all ten smaller goals.  You could use a quick Google form, which provides you with immediate and collated feedback, or you could use a simple thumbs up/ thumbs down method too, as long as you get the data you need.  You analyze it and discover 25% of your class has only mastered two of the ten rungs required to climb the ladder while 50% of your class has mastered six of the ten and the last 25% have mastered eight rungs on the ladder.

Of course, it will never be exactly this easy because standards don’t necessarily distribute themselves into ten clean, small goals. Nor is the ladder always straight or OSHA certified.  And students’ abilities aren’t divided neatly into three categories (although it’s surprising how often they do.)

However, enlisting these three steps – breaking down the standard in smaller pieces, assessing the kidlets, then analyzing that data- will established a great starting place to meet their needs.   By matching an appropriate lesson to the students’ readiness, you have created differentiation.  You can also create more student ownership and investment by asking students to

  • set goals in relation to their progress and their own interests,
  • create their own rubric for meeting proficiency,
  • develop their own questions for the final exam based on the standard,
  • maintain their own spreadsheet or other visual representation of growth, and
  • analyze their own progress.

Give students many, many opportunities to apply the skills and concepts in your class to gain proficiency. Learning is not one and done.  Learning is trying, failing, re-adjustment, trying again.  Your job is to encourage, evaluate, modify, and assist. (Book recommendation: Read Robyn Jackson’s great book Never Work Harder Than Your Students about motivating kids to own their learning experience in order to create independence and autonomy.)

To assess learning, you don’t have to give a formal quiz or test.  It could be as simple as a day-to-day student reflection that you collect at the end of class.  Get tech savvy, which will save you time. Use a classroom response system, like a clicker system, that records and prints out numerical data easily. Use online Google forms that collect and display data in linear scales, pie charts, and graphs.  Check out Alice Keeler’s website. She is the master of the Google classroom and has written two books and produced numerous videos to help you figure out how to use the Google suite of utilities to gather, analyze, and reflect on your growing, but manageable data of student wants and needs.

Remember, data is not the enemy.  Unanalyzed, empty data, whose production is washed in the tears of over-tested youth, is the enemy.  Data that builds the ladders for your students to make gains is your absolute BFF.

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 4: What system do you use for planning?

On average, a new teacher hits her lesson planning and teaching stride during her third year.  Don’t despair.  It will feel like you are drowning, flailing to stay just two days ahead of the kids. This is normal.  It doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It means you are a good teacher getting better to become great.

I’m a big picture planner, and even though I know daily what I’m shooting for (often called a learning objective or learning goal), I hate making rigid lesson plans.  If your plan is too exacting, it may leave no room for speeding up and slowing down, for the teachable moment or for the re-teachable moment.  An unexpected detour can often be the most productive part of the day.

Sometimes a lesson plan can be like a train you force your students to board. You’re the crazy engineer yelling, “We’re on this train, and no one’s getting off until the test!” That feels damaging to me because it doesn’t allow for student choice, intervention, or enrichment.

As a new teacher, every time I committed to some rigid plan, dragging the kids along with me, it failed.   Learning isn’t neat; it doesn’t often happen on a timeline, in a nice tidy box.  That’s both the reason you have a plan, and the reason you develop the versatility to abandon the plan for a better one.

Here’s a simple planning equation:  Know your standards + Know your students = Plan accordingly.  I know how irritatingly simple that sounds, but that’s basically it:    deeply understand the skill or concept you are teaching, then figure out what your students know and don’t know about that concept or skill through inquiry, then build a bridge between those two camps.

“Backward design” describes developing lessons based on the end goals or the desired results.   When teachers use backward design to develop curriculum, they start with the goals of their unit and work backwards to determine what lessons need to be mastered to achieve the goals. Share this term with students. Ask them how they might learn the content best. Start the unit by giving the students the unit test.  It’s not “teaching the test,” but teaching toward the test and allowing students to gain proficiencies as they master those standards.

Let’s say you are charged by the commissioner of education to teach kids how to make delicious mashed potatoes.  The standard states:  Students will produce savory mashed potatoes with a smooth, fluffy texture and a nice white-golden tone.

Here are ten tips for planning that:

  1. Know how to make mashed potatoes yourself. Teach yourself if necessary, but never attempt to teach a skill or concept that you don’t deeply understand.  Kids will figure out you’re a faker in about two minutes.
  2. Figure out exactly what your students know about taters. Create an assessment, either verbal or paper/pencil, that gives you some data about their prior knowledge and their mashed potato readiness.  There will be kids that don’t know the difference between a turnip and a tater while other kids already know how to make mashed potatoes while dancing the mashed potato. It’s your job to engage them all; welcome to public education.
  3. Tap into students’ prior knowledge and interests. This is important.  Students have to know why mashed potatoes are important to their lives. One cannot divorce the process of learning from the person who is learning, and if the plan does not address the learner, then even the best planned lesson will be useless.
  4. Break down the skill or concept into its smallest components and develop smaller lessons that lead students toward proficiency. This is a potato. This is butter. This is how you boil water.  Some kids will already know that, so you’ll need a different approach for them.
  5. Plan lessons that allow students multiple opportunities to apply the skill and practice. You will then create a new lesson (sometimes on the fly) to give feedback, reteach, ferret out misunderstandings, maybe reteach a third or fourth time. Give them as much practice as possible with feedback, not failure.
  6. Don’t absent-mindedly print a worksheet or an activity offline without understanding how it helps your students meet their goals.At the same time, don’t re-invent the wheel. Beg, borrow and steal all good lesson plans and tailor them for your kids.
  7. Don’t plan a lesson that you wouldn’t want to do yourself. Think of yourself as a teen in your class. Would this lesson make you want to hurl yourself out the window?
  8. Design lessons that hit multiple skills and concepts at once. Skills should not be taught in isolation.  One rich project-based assignment can hit dozens of standards.
  9. Some plans fail miserably; others succeed brilliantly. A lesson plan that worked fantastically first period will almost always fail after lunch. Be willing and able to abandon the plan mid-lesson and adapt on the fly.
  10. Struggle is good for students, but if you see students struggling to the point of frustration, stop everyone and say, “Hold up, what’s going on, why are you guys struggling with this?” You develop this intuition through failure, but don’t let that defeat you. The lesson plan is only as good as the reflection that follows it.

New Teacher Series/ Question 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was king.  If you didn’t know what to teach, you just started on page one and taught through Modernism or, in the case of Social Studies, the Vietnam war.  But luckily we live in an age of standards.  Standards are not “the test” nor are they curriculum; they are the expectations for what students will master by each grade level.  For teachers in the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Academic Standards, a 745-page behemoth, lists the skills and content a student should master at each grade level, as she progresses toward graduation.

These standards are what we teach; curriculum, on the other hand, is how we teach it. In Kentucky, our standards are the same from Paducah to Pikeville, but our curriculum may be different from classroom to classroom.  A teacher’s curriculum includes “scope and sequence,” which is edu-speak for how deep and wide you teach a concept (scope) and the order in which you teach the elements of that concept to enhance comprehension (sequence). As an English teacher, you will be responsible for teaching the standards in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.  What you teach is established by the state; how you teach it is often determined by your teaching style, the students who populate your classroom, and the instructional resources available within your district.

Good districts create, maintain, and communicate to all teachers a large picture of all the moving bits of curriculum – instructional resources, materials, lessons, units, modules, assessments— that support their learning objectives and goals.  This big picture is called a curriculum map.  The curriculum map shows how the standards are taught in each grade and how the curriculum aligns vertically, so that the fifth grade math teachers know what the fourth grade math teachers covered, and the fourth grade math teachers know what the third grade math teachers covered, and so on.  The purpose of mapping and aligning the curriculum is two-fold:  so students have no gaps as they progress to graduation, and so students aren’t taught the same thing every single year.  Each year their learning should build on the skills they mastered the previous year.

Regardless of whether the teacher in the previous grade level did or didn’t teach the standards he was supposed to, it is now up to you to figure out what those kids sitting in your classroom know and don’t know. Tip: There’s nothing lamer than a high school teacher blaming the middle school teachers, unless it’s a middle school teacher blaming his student’s deficiencies on the elementary school teachers.  Impugning other teachers helps no one. Be solutions-oriented, not a blame artist.

Here are some more tips:

  • Know your grade level/content standards like a lover’s face. For an 8th grade ELA teacher, there are only 42. Learn them inside and out.  The current college and career ready standards were developed by a non-partisan task force of education commissioners, governors, CEOs, business leaders, and teachers like you.  They were designed to make American students globally competitive, and they were adopted by 42 of the 50 states.   They are quality standards. Don’t just cut/slap them onto a lesson plan template, but know them deeply and widely, and understand why these standards are appropriate and beneficial for students.
  • Do not re-invent the wheel. First, ask another teacher, your department chair or your principal for the district’s or school’s curriculum map in your content area. If this is not available, Google is your friend. There are literally hundreds of curriculum maps online. Download four or five, and use them to build your own scope and sequence.
  • Figure out what your students know. All good teaching starts there. Without knowing what your students already know, you will not be able to move them to master the skills they don’t know.  In edu-circles, this is called “formative assessment,” but I call it relationship building. This kind of data gathering can be a pencil/paper test, a thumbs up/down comprehension check, or a longer conversation that helps you begin to grasp each student’s intellectual and academic profile.
  • Be transparent and get the kids in on the gig. Give them the standards. Ask them to analyze and break the standards down into learning goals of their own.  Charge your students with calling you on any activity that isn’t connected with one of these standards.
  • Everything you teach should be related to the mastery of one of those 42 standards. Every activity and assignment should be intentional.  You only have 177 days of instruction; every lesson, every activity, every unit must count.

 

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 2: Should I create a website?

Absolutely.  This isn’t the dark ages of 2010, after all.  Creating a positive and professional web presence says to the world:   I’m a 21st century educator, and my teacher game is strong.  However, there are a lot of options out there in the virtual world, and the key, like buying a good pencil skirt, is choosing one that both flatters and fits.

School directory page:  Many school districts host teacher directory pages that are linked from the main page by school, then grade/department, then teacher.  This is a great place to provide basic information:   a brief professional bio with a current (and/or ironic, depending on how you roll) picture, your class schedule, your email address, a supplies or book list, your school phone number and the best times of day to call, and also links to your blog, larger classroom website, Twitter feed, or any other social media tool you might use.  If your district has this page, definitely occupy it even if it’s a simple profile without much appeal. It’s most likely the first place a parent or student will look for you.

Classroom website: Some teachers choose to create websites through popular platforms like  Edmodo  which do not require knowledge of coding or programming to set up.  WordPress and Weebly also offer web templates so easy you can whip up a nice-looking site in less than an hour.   Another website building favorite is Google, which provides teachers with Google Sites, Google Classroom, and other Google Apps for Education (GAFE). A well-maintained and up-to-date website can be a great way to make announcements, post newsletters, and update calendars for parents.  Posting homework assignments, test info, vocab/spelling words, and supplemental instructional web links can also reduce paper copies while providing additional resources to students.

Classroom blog: While you might not have time during your first year of teaching to launch a  teacher blog, allowing your students to create their own blogs is a great collaborative publishing tool.  Blogger, which is Google’s blog option, is free and easy to use and manage. Kidblog and Edublogs, powered by WordPress, both offer a safe space for students to publish their work while offering options for secure teacher management of discussion, comments, and content.

Social media:  Some teachers elect to create a teacher fan page or a classroom page on Facebook or maintain a class page on Twitter.  Social media outlets are great for club sponsors, coaches, and parent-teacher organizations to make announcements, post reminders, and alert students to schedule or location changes for games or meets.  By creating a classroom or teacher fan page, you can also avoid the awkwardness of parents and students friend requesting your personal page.

Online classroom:  Online learning management systems (LMS) which are free and easy-to-use are also an option.  These systems have embedded facilities that can transform your site into an online classroom.  If you’ve just recently graduated from college, you most likely took an online course managed by a popular LMS, like Canvas or Blackboard, which now offers a free K-12 system called CourseSites.  Others like Moodle, Schoology, and Weebly provide a private and secure location for teacher assignment pages, homework submissions, chat rooms with threaded discussions and time stamps, collaborative group pages, and embedded gradebooks.  Even though LMS are great for online instruction, systems can become clunky or impossible if the application does not play well with your school district’s student information system (SIS) or pass your district’s privacy standards.   Shoot an email to your school or district technology director for the 411 on what is kosher within your district.

Whether you decide to create a website, Facebook page, blog, or launch an online class, here are a few digital cautions to observe:

  • Diamonds can get lost or stolen, but the Internet is forever. Never, ever, ever post anything online that you would not want Sam Dick to read on Channel 27 at 6:00.
  • Know your district and your school’s social media policy. Never post a student’s picture, class work, or name unless you have permission or a release form from their parents to do so.
  • Before you invest a lot of time in designing an online classroom, check with your district/school’s technology director to find out which systems work best with your district’s SIS.
  • Understand how to protect the privacy of your students while giving parents access.
  • Avoid private Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter communication with students.
  • Make sure website page titles, headings, and sub-headings are well-organized and logically sequenced.
  • With online content, prefer quality over quantity. Do not make parents endure twenty inspirational cat memes when they just want your classroom calendar. Post information that is relevant and useful for school or classroom business, instruction, intervention, or enrichment.
  • Just as you would with parent letters, hand-outs, homework assignments, or PowerPoints, make sure your online content is free of grammatical and spelling errors, no matter what you teach. Hook up with another webby teacher and proofread each other’s posts/pages before you publish them online.

One last thing:  while all the above information is about professional online use, you should also be judicious about anything you personally post or are tagged in online, regardless of your privacy settings.  Districts use Google to vet potential teachers.  If Insta’ing your drunken beer-pong victory feels vital to your existence, teaching might not be the right place for you at the moment.

Below are three links to help you on your virtual conquest.  Good luck!!

Create an Impressive Class Website in Under an Hour

Ten Excellent Platforms to Create Your Classroom Website

Online Resources for Teachers

New Teacher Series/Question 1: What were your biggest mistakes as a new teacher?

I was 23 years old with a degree in English and a Kentucky teaching certificate.  Just legal enough to be dangerous. My first job was in a rural, independent school with grades K-12 in one building. The graduating class had 32 kids. I was given no syllabus, no curriculum, only a textbook, a student handbook, and a calendar from the Army recruiter who stopped by my room while I cleaned the four inches of chalk dust that had settled on everything in sight.

I started that first day with some games and journaling prompts with zero instructional value or connection. My college of ed professor had promised these would promote “a robust marketplace of ideas.” Those students indulged my lameness for exactly two days, then the honeymoon was over. For weeks, they defied me openly or ignored me and went to sleep.  When I tried to get control of the class, they were angry with me for not going along with the no- expectations contract I had unknowingly signed that first day.

As bad as that school year was for me, I’m sure it was even worse for my students.  I was immature, unprepared, and inexperienced. I didn’t feel like a real teacher, so I didn’t act like one.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t understand the gravity of my role.  I didn’t even have appropriate clothes.  I didn’t understand how to communicate effectively, how to forge relationships, how to be empathetic while also being emphatic.

In no particular order, and leaving out about 200 more, here are my five biggest first-year mistakes, and my suggestions for avoiding them:

  • I had no idea how to actually teach anything. In college I studied literature and composition. I had exactly six education classes (one which taught us how to put a cassette in a tape player and push “on”) plus student teaching.  I knew how to write a lesson plan. I knew how to write a philosophy of education statement. I was a proficient reader and writer, but I had no idea how to take what I did intuitively and break it down in steps to help someone who was struggling.

Tip: Learning occurs at the intersection of desire and need, so get to know your students. Figure out what they need, what they want, and what they care about.  Tap into their prior knowledge and help them make connections.  Teach skills in the context of student interests and ask open-ended questions.  Learn how to break down a complex concept like reading or writing into its elemental components, and explain those components in clear, simple language, so a 17-year-old who reads on a second grade level can understand you and still maintain his dignity.

  • I did not set clear expectations for my classroom, my students, or myself. Setting clear and high expectations for academic success and helping your students meet those expectations is the cornerstone of education. Expectations are not rules; they are statements that set the bar and establish the culture of your classroom’s community.

Tip: Expectations should be both high and simple.  They should be posted and communicated to your students in positive language.   Don’t be a hypocrite; make sure you model those expectations every day by how you talk, dress, prepare lessons, and conduct business.

  • I did not establish classroom protocols. The organizational side of teaching with its hundred moving parts can murder, bury and say Mass over a new teacher.  I was cluttered, disorganized and frantic, which was exhausting and crazy-making.  Instead of establishing procedures that would have provided peace and stability, I made contradictory, from-the-hip decisions and was forced to put out the fires my inexperience had started.

Tip: Establish a simple procedure for every element of classroom business (how to deal with cell phones, make-up work, homework collection and return, tardiness, plagiarism, cheating, hall passes, attendance, tutoring, parent contacts, detention, etc.) Communicate these procedures also in positive language to students.  Once you’ve established simple, efficient protocols, maintain them from the first week onward.

  • I didn’t understand how to manage my time – either in class or in my private life. Transitions between activities took longer than I expected or an activity was finished in 15 minutes, and I had 30 minutes of dead air on my hands. I didn’t understand how to stall or accelerate an activity on the fly, and I didn’t yet have a compendium of exercises I could whip out to manage dead time. Also, that first year, I worked at least 80 hours a week. Every teaching day was a 14-hour day, and I would spend my weekends planning lessons and grading homework.

Tip: Do every activity you plan for your students and time yourself; figure out how much time students need to transition from one activity to the next.  In your private life, practice self-care. Indulge in a non-teaching hobby. The world will not stop spinning if you don’t finish grading that last set of essay questions. Get 8 hours of sleep.  Exercise, drink plenty of water, and go out with friends who make you laugh hysterically.   When you are with kids all day, sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be an adult.

  • I didn’t know how to connect with students. I took everything personally.  I fell into two speeds – either passive and avoidant so I could just get through the day or furious and volatile, exacting punishments on the whole classroom when only one kid was out of line. After the first semester when I cried once a week, the second semester I got bitter and mean. I hated those kids, and they hated me.

Tip:  See student outbursts for what they are:  frustrations at life, of which you are only a very, very small part. Do not get defensive. Be patient, kind, and slow to blame.  Be curious, not furious when a student acts out.  Set emotional and physical boundaries for yourself to avoid being sucked into student drama. Learn to disengage while practicing empathy and support.