Monday, August 11, 2008

My advice to the rooks

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Well, I'm about to jump into my eighth year as a teacher, and I felt that I can now dump this whole "new teacher" label and start to impart some wisdom on the generation that is entering the profession.  No, I'm not trying to say that my way is the best way or that I'm a master teacher extraordinaire.  What I'm trying to do is impart some wisdom to teachers from someone who still has the fresh memories of rookie teacherdom on the mind.  I also come at from a different point of view.  I'm a passionate teacher that loves his job and I think that I'm pretty good at it.  I think that it is important that young teachers realize that passion for teaching really matters and that the profession, regardless of how society or the media portray us, is the most important on Earth.

-The most important aspect of teaching is the understanding that you are doing what is best for the kids.  Your love of the subject matter must come second.  Your patriotism must come second.  Your "fight the power" mentality must come second.  Everything other reason must come second to the primary reason that you are in that classroom; to help kids.  All of it is for the kids.  Now, this means that often you will know what is better for the kids than almost anyone, even parents.  It doesn't mean that you have the right to override decisions by the admin, district or parents, but you have the power to make your classroom a place that benefits kids, even indirectly.  Don't ever forget that.

-Mistakes happen.  Don't beat yourself over them too much.  However there is a very simple solution to a lot of mistakes that will often get you forgiveness from the admin.  Hard work.  Nothing beats hard work.  In fact, much can be forgiven if you work hard and show that you can change the mistakes you made in the past.  A good administration will notice that even though you are making some errors in your first years, that you are working your butt off to make sure that they don't happen again.  If your admin doesn't see that, teach somewhere else.  However, realize that hard work means exactly that, hard work.  You arrive early, stay late, and yes, work on your own time to better your craft (more about that later).

-Preparation is one of the best solutions to classroom issues.  Don't simply be "pretty ready", be hyper-prepared.  Have everything so ready, so far in advance that you can focus on the most important aspect of teaching, the classroom portion.  All that prep takes time and be ready to spend weekends and evenings getting ready for what's about to happen in classroom.  The rewards are well worth it.  First, you can focus on the kids, not the paperwork.  Second, your necessity to be ultra-prepared will be diminished as the years roll on because, guess what, you have it done already!

-You will learn that classroom management and election campaigns have a lot in common.  You need to know where and when to pick your battles.  It is very easy to make a simple situation an explosive one with teenagers.  You have to remember that they are kids and you are the professional.  Not every profane word is worth a referral.  Every smart ass comment should not be acknowledged.  Yes, kids are going to be kids and you can't constantly go to war over small transgressions.  Don't take things personally.  Be consistent and immediate when doling out consequences, both negative and positive.  The more professional you are, the greater respect they will have for you.

-Document everything.  Meet with a counselor?  Document it.  Talk with a parent on the phone?  Document it.  Toss a kid from class?  Document it.  The more paperwork that you have, the more you will be taken seriously by all parties involved.  Unfortunately, teachers take the brunt of the blame for student failure, regardless of the situation.  Document phone calls, e-mails, meetings, student behavior, everything.  It makes meetings much quicker and easier when you can simply open a binder and show the evidence.  This becomes more important when dealing with 504's and IEP's.  Document every possible method that you use to implement a special education learning plan.  It could save a lot of hassle, and litigation.

-You must find your own style of teaching and it must fit who you are.  Any teacher that says that a certain teaching style is completely right or completely wrong is full of shit.  Lectures work.  Group projects work.  Self assessment works.  Lots of different techniques work and it will take a few years until you get it down to something you are comfortable with.  It will sound like everyone wants to throw things at you and tell you that it is golden.  Fine.  Take it under advisement and adjust it to what you need to do to make it work.  Or chuck it out the door.  Better yet, save it for down the road when you find the rhythm.  Be patient and don't listen to the idiot pundits that think that becoming a great teacher happens in one year.  You'll find it.

-Students are some of the best judges of good teaching that exist.  95% of all students actually want to learn.  They tell you in means that are not typical but will tell you immediately if you are doing it "wrong".  They are going to resist some because they are kids, but that isn't nearly as bad as wasting their time.  Make every minute of class a meaningful experience for the students.  It doesn't have to be all show and no substance because kids can sniff out stuff that has no merit (like STAR tests).  However students will always have a positive response to work they find meaningful.  I make my Seniors work at the end of their Senior year harder than any teacher on campus on two, that's TWO, major projects.  Know what they remember fondly when they come talk to me years later?  That's right.  The two projects.  And they thank me for it.

-Find someone who knows the ropes and figure out what really matters.  I was fortunate to work next to someone about my age that had been doing the job for about five years, but really knew the in's and out's of the school, the department, and the town.  It really gave me an edge on figuring out my priorities and how to tread around certain members of the school. 

-Regardless of what you hear from administrators, union lackeys, media, or citizens from the town you live in, nothing is more important than the work that you do in the classroom.  Professional Learning Communities, online grade programs, pay raises, union grievances, department conflicts, athletic programs, PTA's..............nothing will matter more than what you do with the time you have with kids in class. Always remember that.

And some smaller, yet still important (and risky) items:

-District driven professional development is pointless.  Avoid if you can and collaborate with other teachers.  That is the best professional development.

-Unions will not save your job.  Good administrators will help you grow to the point of not needing "saving".  Remember what is important.

-Homework is overrated.  Thinking is not.  I'm not saying that you should eliminate all homework, but it better be of high value.

-Create a classroom setting that does two things; reflect who you are, and show off student work.

-Don't accept late work.  It just means more work for you and it enables students and parents.

-You will not be able to get to everyone.  Some students will be beyond your help and you need to be able to focus on those that need (and want) your help.  Otherwise, you will drive yourself insane.

Well, maybe that helps and maybe it doesn't.  I just figured that it should be said on my own terms and in a mode that I would relate to a new teacher.  Good luck to those that are starting in a new world.  I hope that after seven years, you love it as much as I do.

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