Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Advice for First Year Teachers (or anyone)

I wanted to do something a little different today. Rather than blog about something I've tried in my classroom recently, I wanted to get down some things I've been thinking about recently in regards to teaching. I'm sitting here at the bookstore, drinking coffee, with a tote full of papers to grade over break that have gone untouched today. And it got me thinking about some things I've learned over these 5 years in the classroom that I wish my first-year teacher self would have known. So here goes.

Mrs. L's Unsolicited Advice for First Year Teachers or Any Teacher Going Crazy Right Now

1. Know that everyone struggles and it's OK

I spent the majority of my first year teaching looking and feeling like this:

You feel unsure where to begin, pulled in 1000 different directions, you're stressed, overtired, and can never keep up with the lesson planning and grading.

I looked to veteran teachers who never seemed to have a care in the world, and I now realize two things. 1) They may have been struggling and I just had no idea because they hid it better than me. 2) They knew when to just let go and go with the flow instead of getting overly stressed.

They had also done this a lot longer than me. But now, as a more experienced teacher, I still struggle to keep up with the paperwork, the data, the testing, the kids, the extra stuff I volunteer for, etc. It is a lot. Know that everyone has been in your shoes and the vast majority of people are willing to help you out. Which brings me to #2.

2. Teaching is about beg, borrow, steal

DO NOT try to reinvent the wheel! There are way too many good resources out there to do that for every single lesson.  Whether that means taking to the Internet, teacher blogs, or other teachers in your school, USE the resources you are given. If you haven't been given any, ASK!

Do not be ashamed to go to the teacher next door and say, "Hey, do you have any activities that you use to teach Romeo and Juliet?" Chances are they do and they will share. If they refuse to share, kick them in the shin. (kidding)

I can honestly say I have never asked and been denied help by anyone in my building. Take their resources, tweak them, and make them work for your classroom. I also have found a wealth of information on the Web. Sometimes I just simply Google something like "lesson plans for The Old Man and the Sea" and you'd be surprised how many sites come up. I sift through to find things that look interesting to me and make them my own (if the sites I find are fine with taking and sharing). 

Yes, I still make up many handouts, tests, quizzes and projects myself. But I often take an idea I hear elsewhere and use that as a starting point. On the flip side, I am always super happy to share my ideas and handouts with other teachers in my building or on here. Sharing is caring :)

3. Realize dealing with parents is tough and you'll get through it

I won't lie. My first year of teaching was HARD. Really really hard and a big part of that was learning how to handle upset parents. We all have them and for a variety of reasons. If you have supportive administration like I do/did, it makes it easier but you're still on your own for a lot of it.

Find your preferred method of communication and try to use that. I prefer e-mail because it allows me to think about what I want to say before saying it, re-read, re-word, etc. I can also mull over what someone says to me before responding. It's also just logistically easier because I can send off an e-mail real quickly on lunch or during study hall supervision, etc. 

Remain calm even if the parent is upset and realize they (most likely) just want the best for their kid, which is what you want. If a parent gets heated on the phone, in an email, or in person, I always go back to that common ground: I remind them we both have the same person's interest at heart and want the same thing. If a parent screams at you, remain calm and don't scream back. I have seen this used so many times and it WORKS. People feel silly yelling at you while you sit there calmly and talk in a soft voice. It immediately diffuses the situation.

If the student is present, I always bring it back to them. Mom or Dad is angry because of a grade on a paper? I have the paper with me and, looking at the student, ask him or her why he or she did XYZ on the paper when they knew that wasn't the instruction. Or why they turned it in late when they knew that would mean half credit. I put it on them and the vast majority of the time, they admit blame and voila. Mom and Dad now realize they should be talking to their kid about responsibility and consequences, not yelling at me.

If all else fails, sometimes you need to get your dept. chair or principal involved to help mediate the situation and don't feel badly about doing so.

4. Prioritize paper grading so you don't look like this

Especially as an English teacher,  I felt like the mound of papers I had to grade never ended. I would either stay late at school or end up hauling a load of papers home with me virtually every night and every single weekend, on top of lesson planning. This is part of the teaching game, yes, and I have never found a way to NEVER take ANY papers home, despite conferences I've attended that say this is possible. But I HAVE found ways to make this much more manageable so I don't want to rip my eyes out.

First, set realistic expectations for yourself and let your students know these. Meaning, if you assign a 4 page essay and 50 students are turning in that essay on the same day, don't think you'll have these done in two days. That's not realistic unless every waking spare hour is spent grading.

Here is what I tell all my students on the first day of class in terms of returning essays:

"Depending on the length of essay and how many sections are completing this essay, expect at least a week's turnaround time, but no more than two. Sometimes I'll be able to get them done faster; sometimes it will take me the whole time. Just as you have multiple classes you are taking, I have multiple classes I am grading. I do not want to rush through grading these essays that you have spent so many hours working on and making them the best you can. They deserve my full, undivided attention. When I grade an essay, I read through it at least twice, if not three times. I take time in writing thoughtful comments and completing the rubric. Your essay and you deserve that. It would not be possible nor practical to give the papers the time I want to and return them in one or two days."

I have had a very positive reaction to this, and even though I occasionally get that kid that asks me 7th hour if the papers they turned in 3rd hour got graded yet, that is few and far between.

5. Be creative with due dates

One way to manage your paper load is to not have everything come in on the same day. I know this is sometimes not possible. Last fall, I had five preps, meaning 5 totally separate classes. Sometimes, it happened that three classes each had a big project due the same day or within one day of each other. But I try to not let this happen.

If you are teaching the same section multiple times per day, stagger the due dates of each major essay/project. 
So 1st hour may be due on Tues., while 3rd hour is due on Thurs. Then you have two days to get ahead on 1st hour's essays. The next time you have an essay due, reverse the due dates, so it's fair.

I also sometimes offer an extra point or two (not enough to make a HUGE difference) to students turning their papers in early. Many teachers deduct points for late essays, so I figure, why not add a point or two for an early essay? This encourages students to submit before the due date, and I try really hard to get early essays graded before the rest of the pack comes in. 

I also don't collect every single thing the students work on and grade it individually. Many times for homework, I walk around the room and use my Facebook "like" stamp to stamp complete papers, then record that on my roster. In my classes, homework is practice, so while it's important students do it and do it completely, I rarely grade for accuracy on homework. That's what I use tests, quizzes, projects, and essays to assess. I very rarely take home homework papers to grade individually. If a student doesn't have it done or it's incomplete, they don't get the credit for it or get partial credit. They're still accountable for completing homework, but I want it to be risk-free so they aren't afraid of messing up at that stage in the learning process.

6. Find another teacher you trust to serve as a mentor

I was fortunate to begin my teaching career at the school where I student taught. I was also fortunate that our district has a two-year mentoring program for all new teachers where you are paired up with a veteran teacher (I am actually serving as a mentor now for a new teacher in our dept. How the tables have turned!) My mentor was my student teaching cooperating teacher who I LOVED and miss every day (she has since retired).

If you don't have this, ask your principal for a recommendation for a teacher who would be good to go to with basic questions, either about the school or your subject matter. This should be a teacher you bond with, can trust, and can be open with. It's nice to just have someone to bounce an idea off of or even ask basic questions like, "What's the procedure for Homecoming week?", things veteran teachers forget might be confusing to a new person in the school.

I don't think I could have survived my first year without the support of my mentor teacher, quite honestly. She was a godsend. It is such a relief to have a fellow teacher you can talk to, cry to, complain to, or rejoice with who truly understands what you are going through. I am lucky that my husband is a teacher also because he "gets me" too. 

7. This is the most important: Don't give up your life!

Teaching is a lifestyle and is a career that doesn't end when you go home. We know that when we sign up. But you canNOT lose you.
My first year, I would go home and think about school all night and all weekend. If I had a bad day at school, it followed me home and hung over me like a dark cloud. I know it's easier said than done, but over the years, I have gotten a lot better and separating work from home life. Your spouses, kids, pets, and friends will thank you for this too.

You can't be a good teacher if you don't take care of yourself. If you don't get enough sleep, take time to de-stress and take time away from the job, you won't be effective in the classroom. You will be tired, cranky, impatient, and more likely to snap at students. You won't be fun to be around for the adults, either.

Find something you like that relaxes you. For me, it's reading, going for walks, playing with my dog or watching TV shows with my husband. Find time to do that thing EVERY NIGHT. I'm serious. Every night and every weekend take time away from the grading, planning, and answering e-mails. If you bring papers home to grade one night that don't get done, do not beat yourself up. You can do them tomorrow and they will still get done and the world will continue turning. I promise. Realize that your health and well-being must come first.

I hope you find some of these things helpful; I wish I would have realized all this sooner and not beaten myself up so much as a beginning teacher. If you have any advice to add, leave a comment!

1 comment:

  1. This is great advice. I'm in my seventh year, but sometimes I still need some of these reminders too!