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5 Lessons I Learned from My First Year of Teaching

Just four weeks ago, I completed my first year of teaching. Somehow, within the chaos, self-doubt, sleepless nights, and shimmering moments of success, I managed to continue to learn and grow as both an educator and an individual. In fact, I think I learned more from my students, my colleagues, and my own experience than my students managed to learn from me. Regardless, I know that the wisdom I gained in my first year will serve to make the coming years more enriching, more successful, and more fulfilling for both my students and myself. What follows is only five of the countless lessons I learned, which apply not only to my classroom, but to my everyday life. 

1. Specificity is Key

When I first started teaching, I had no idea what I wanted my classroom to look like. I didn’t know how I wanted my desks arranged, how I wanted papers handed in, or even how I wanted students to label their assignments. As a result, I was rarely specific or consistent. My desk arrangement changed at least every quarter, students handed their papers in upside down, backwards, and slantways, and sometimes, I had no idea which assignment I was grading because I never taught my students how to write a proper heading. I learned, the hard way, that being specific about everything in my classroom was the key to managing it effectively. There is power in being specific: specificity shows that you know exactly what you want and how you want it; you are in control.

2. Raise the Bar

I cannot count the times that I toned down the difficulty level of assignments because I thought it was “too much” for my kids. What I didn’t realize is that students will rise, or fall, to meet their teacher’s expectations. In the words of Harry Wong, “Students tend to learn as little or as much as their teachers expect.” When the expectations are high, students exert the effort and energy to rise up and meet them. If the expectations are low, so too is students’ effort and energy, creating a culture of apathy and negativity. Raising the bar, then, is crucial for students’ success both in the classroom and in life.

I asked my students to create a poetry book that contained examples of each poetic device we studied. Expect quality and that's what you get!

I asked my students to create a poetry book that contained examples of each poetic device we studied. This particular student went above and beyond expectations!

3. Don’t React, Respond

When I look back at how I handled disruptive situations in my classroom,  I’m a little embarrassed. It was rare that I managed to stop and think before reacting to something that happened in my classroom. If a student did something hilarious, it wasn’t uncommon for me to burst out laughing, completely derailing class so that I could collect myself. If my most challenging class was completely out of control, I often reacted with explosive, harsh fury. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the school year that I was able to change my behavior from reactive to responsive. Calculating a mature and controlled response to a given situation is much more effective than unleashing whatever gut reaction arrived initially. This sets a precedent that disruptive situations will be handled calmly and effectively each time they arise. It also reduces tension between teacher and student and shifts control back to the teacher. Pause. Breathe. Respond.

4. Try Again Differently

Sometimes I left school at the end of the day feeling successful, like I’d achieved what I set out to do and manifested my intentions. Other times I felt deflated, like I’d failed to turn my vision into reality and let my kids down. It was in these moments that I had to remind myself that I could try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, I had the chance to try again differently. If my lesson didn’t go as planned or the students didn’t connect to the material, I could revisit the same concept tomorrow using alternate methods. I could give them a different task or read a different poem; I could explain something with a real-life example or show a video. I realized that I had options, and each day was a new opportunity to start over. There are few jobs that allow you to simply forget about yesterday and start anew. That’s one thing I love about teaching: everyday at 3:30 pm I can let my students go home knowing that the next day at 8:00 am I’ll see them again, and together we’ll try again, hopefully a little better than the day before.

5. Never Stop Learning

If there is one thing I am proud of about my first year, it is that I never stopped looking at my teaching with a critical eye and asking myself, “how can I do this more effectively?” I took risks, and I was never too proud or afraid to incorporate suggestions from my colleagues and my students. As a result, my classroom was constantly evolving, and I was constantly learning—learning from my successes, my mistakes, and my failures.

Whether you are a school teacher, a professor, a yoga instructor, or a coach, never stop being a student. As teachers, we must be students first. We must forever cultivate our curiosity. We must always keep an open mind. We must be brave enough to experiment, knowing that if we are not successful, we have not failed— we have merely learned an invaluable lesson for tomorrow.

K(now) W(onder) L(earned) charts are an activity that I learned from one of my fellow teachers. It turned into a great way to engage my students in what they are reading!

K(now) W(onder) L(earned) charts are an activity that I learned from one of my fellow teachers. It turned into a great way to engage my students in what they are reading!

Fellow teachers, what are some lessons you’ve learned throughout your career? Share them in the comments below!

Learn on,

Savannah

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Filed under Prose, Teaching

Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

Never in my life has winter break seemed so necessary. Not even when I was recovering from my first semester in the stifling libraries of Sciences-Po, my eyes aching from staring intensely at the pages of academic articles and mes dissertations, did this small window of repose feel so crucial. Teaching is really fucking hard.

I grew up in classrooms. During my elementary years, I went immediately from my own school to the larger, more intimidating campuses of my uncles and my mother. The bell rang, I got on the bus, and I bounced and chattered through every stop until there was only me and the driver. Then I moved up to the front of the bus to chat with her (or was it a him?) as we neared the middle school. From there I would either go to my uncle’s classroom on the middle school campus, or walk over to the high school on the other end of the football field. I sat out the remainder of the afternoons in the back of the room watching my uncle or my mother teach. My most vivid memories are of my mom’s Advanced Placement English classes. The Scarlet Letter. “The Graduate.” “The Fall of the House of Usher.” These were the works of my childhood, the prose, intertwined with the melancholy voices of Simon and Garfunkel, weaving a refrain in the background of my thoughts. I don’t know when I fell in love with literature and words and storytelling. But those countless days spent in the back of my mother’s classroom listening to her dive head first into the often dark and gruesome tales of humanity had something to do with it. They also had something to do with me becoming a teacher.

The adults in my life modeled teaching, and so I mimicked them. As soon as my little sister could take on the role of my pupil I set up a school for her in the basement. I wrote on the chalkboard my parents had bought us as she sat in a red antique desk copying my letters and numbers onto paper. We practiced the ABCs and counting to 10. We learned colors, sang songs, played games. It was all a game, really, but for me it was very real. I was her teacher and she was my student. I loved every minute of it.

I would not say today that I love every minute of teaching. On the contrary, I spend much of my time being very uncomfortable, especially when it comes to discipline. I’ve found that yelling at students actually makes me feel dirty. It has somewhat of a dementor effect, as if some dark force swooped down upon me and sucked out my soul. I try not to yell or “be mean,” and in turn my students take advantage of my compassion. I’m learning, though, to use discipline in a more constructive and effective way, and as I become more comfortable with it, to use it as a tool rather than a whip. It still requires and immeasurable amount of energy, though. Teaching takes all of me, from lesson planning, to grading, to being up in front of a class for five hours a day. I plan five different hour-long presentations everyday, five days a week, for an audience that doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t want to listen. If you didn’t get it the first time, teaching is really fucking hard.

That is why these two weeks of break are so needed. That is also why it’s been three months since I posted anything on this blog. By the end of the day, I’ve been talking for so long that I have no words left. Each day I am emptied. Only yoga and food and booze and sleep can replenish me. Well, only that and my students.

Ironically enough, the very soul-sucking, heart-wrenching, energy-depleting creatures that torment me all day are also the source of my happiness. Just as they make every day miserable, they make every day worth it. I live for the small moments—a student grasping a concept for the first time, a group of boys who are typically fighting working happily together, a student finding a typo in my own writing (we call them “word crimes”), a girl who used to be rude and disruptive slowly transforming into a kind and caring young woman, hugs and hellos from little ones who aren’t even my students, baking 84 Christmas cookies and watching my students eat them gleefully. The list is endless.

And so, during these two weeks, the truth is I will never set aside my teacher hat. I will think of my students, my lessons, books I’m teaching next quarter, things I need to do, activities to plan. I will talk about teaching at Christmas dinner, over coffee with old friends, here on this blog. I will tell stories and relive the worst and best moments of the past five months. Ms. Martin will not disappear. But in all honesty, she’s always been there, and she’s here to stay.

Smiles and all the best,

Savannah

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Filed under Prose, Teaching