25 April 2007

Advice to Student and New Teachers

This is a list I've been keeping on PLANS, that charmingly old-fashioned Grinnellians only site. I started it after watching a bunch of first year teachers (often TFA people) struggling with things that seem obvious once you know them, but maybe aren't so obvious when you don't. And then I kept adding to it because that's what I do. I archive.

It's not a complete list, but no list of advice could be. Think of it as a work in progress... add comments of your own.

Advice to Student and New Teachers

As a young teacher, you're going to have to do it cleaner and better than the next guy. Dress professionally, arrive early, stay late. Don't gossip.

Observe as many parent conferences as you can. Notice how teachers talk to parents. Practice this on your own. Talk to your students' parents. Role play with your teaching friends. No kidding, knowing how to talk to parents is a huge thing.

Take a how-to-teach-reading class, even if you're secondary, even if you're not an English teacher. Even (especially?) if you're a math teacher. I can pretty much guarentee you that you'll have students who can't read, and you won't be able to teach them with the textbook or fancy handouts or anything if they can't read. One of the most frequent things I hear my colleagues say is, "I don't know how to teach reading in the content area! I can't teach reading... I was never trained to teach reading." Lack of training isn't an excuse. You'll have to teach reading. Learn to love it.

Spend time observing how different teachers around you handle classroom management and discipline. At Grinnell, we like to believe that as long as your lessons are engaging and authentic, you won't really need classroom management. Wrong! The most engaging lesson in the world won't help with a kid who has to see his mom having sex for meth at night or his dad get carted off to prison or whatever, and who comes to school itching for a fight. If the school where you're teaching has a discipline matrix, make a copy and stick it in your files. In fact, share them with your classmates and collect as many discipline ideas as possible, because you very well may end up in a school where budget cuts have destroyed whatever system they had and now they have no system and are looking for one. Be ready to do all your discipline and management by yourself, and plan not to rely too heavily on the office to help you out.

There is some truth in the old saying "Never smile before Christmas." Start the year strict and ease up as you go, because it will be nearly impossible to GET strict midway through the year.

Do NOT try to be friends with the kids. You are an adult in their lives. Regardless of how young you feel, regardless of how tiny the difference in years between your students and you, regardless of how much you still feel like a middle schooler, you are an authority figure. Behave accordingly. Do NOT have students over to your house, do not gossip with them, do not give them advice on what chicks they should take to Prom. We all rolled our eyes during the lecture on ethics, but (especially if you're teaching middle school or high school) some of your students will be incredibly fun and cool people, and it's not that hard to forget the difference between you -- for you. Your STUDENTS, on the other hand, will never forget the fact that you're their teacher. Have fun with your students, but never forget your place.

NEVER talk smack about the teachers/administrators/staff to any member of school community. Don't gossip to other teachers, or kids, or parents. If you must vent, call someone who has no connection to the school at all, like your dad. Or my dad. He's great about that stuff.

When you observe teachers, ask to see their gradebooks and see if they'll explain their system of grading to you. Personally, I grade on a points system, where every assignment is worth points in multiples of fives (to make the math easier for myself). I have a system of circles and highlighting that makes sense -- immediately -- to me. Other people keep track of absences in their gradebooks. Some people give participation grades. I give grades only for work toward mastery of state standards. Figure out what works for you and hone it.

Keep your grades on paper, even if the school makes you keep them on the computer. Our school switched to a terrible grade program this year, and the couple of naive new teachers who kept their grades on the computer only suffered when the program broke down (again and again!).

Keep all the pretend lessons you make to teach your classmates. Keep all the lessons your classmates teach you. Keep everything.

Make friends with parents. Think of ways to get them in your classroom. I've had parents come in and do dramatic readings of poems (they like to do Poe at Halloween), and other parents come in and talk to my classes about how they use reading and writing on the job. Meet with them as often as possible (but don't kill yourself to do so). Be professional and friendly.

Stop thinking you're going to be a great teacher right out of the gate. I know other people will say this, but you'll secretly think "Well, most people can't be great right away, but I'm different. I can be, if I just work hard enough." You're wrong. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and everyone sucks their first year. Be okay with that.

Do not spend too much time at school! Hang out with your friends sometimes! Talk to adults. Get sleep! Take care of yourself, because no one else will, and if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be much help to anyone else.

Smile. Laugh. Keep a record of all the good & funny things that happen, or you may not want to keep going back. Play with the kids sometimes. Hang out with them. Have some fun once in a while. Let the kids know you like them.

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