Friday, July 8, 2011

What I learned from my first year teaching...

After completing my first year of teaching I was tempted to write immediately everything that came to my mind so as to capture the emotions, feelings, thoughts, and so forth that accompany the end of such a life-changing experience. Two immediate things hindered the process. First I left for a week in Washington D.C. to celebrate the end of the school year/the 4th of July/hang out with lots of Hillsdale friends. Second I recognized that I needed time to sit and think about the end of the year… to let it all sink in, and consider what things I learned and how I learned them. What follows is certainly not an exhaustive list but rather a summary of the most prominent things I learned from one year, my first year of teaching, at an urban charter school, roughly five miles outside Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from friends who are either already teachers, or who also just completed their first year of teaching are welcome. I would love to hear feedback and comparisons. If you are considering teaching at this time, your feedback is also welcome. Although this post reflects my own experience, I would say that I found very little during my first year that many other teachers at various types of schools and situations also found to be true.

1. Teaching is a rewarding experience.
For my job I get to teach 7th graders American History, which many of you know is the time period that interests me most. My students are generally around 12-13 years of age and are just beginning to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills. There is much about teaching that is rewarding… from the student or the class who comprehends a difficult concept, to the student who shows either drastic or steady academic improvement. Also rewarding are the small displays of appreciation and affection kids show you. Whether it is a kind word, a picture, or some other random sign that your students appreciate you and your efforts, your students will be the ones who will drive you to do your very best each day.

2. Teaching shows you how little you know about your content. Admittedly as a mere recent undergraduate I know very little about the actual subject matter even if I did receive a great education and studied American History very closely at Hillsdale. Countless times this year did I have to go back and do my own research, both for my lesson plans, and to respond to student questions/points posed inside and outside class. I can see how as a teacher, you never really stop learning your own content. At the same time, I received good advice which reminded me to always fall back on my content, for when teaching became difficult, I could always rely on the thing that I knew how to do very well.

3. Teaching is a humbling experience, personally the most humbling of my entire life. I remember being humbled often at Hillsdale by the character and intelligence of professors and peers around me. Teaching provided a slightly different kind of humbling experience in that I had to come face to face with my insufficiencies and weaknesses each day. I know my own weaknesses, but very few jobs make them so transparent to yourself and your students. My students appreciated and recognized when I was honest with them, when I had felt I had made a mistake or handled or situation wrongly, or when I asked for their extra patience during a more difficult day/week. With that said, make an effort to connect with your students. I connected with one of my more difficult students with a one-on-one game of basketball over lunch. It did not solve all our problems, but it did allow us to have a workable relationship. If you connect with your students, you will win with them. The words of my principal stuck with me this year. Whereas in most occupations you might be able to hide in your cubicle or workshop for the day, teaching requires you to go out and put on your best face for your 119 students, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing.

4. Teaching is a physically, emotionally, and mentally draining experience. In my limited lifetime I have experienced the five day academic week and the five day work week. Neither has been half as training as the five day school week. Each day is the same cycle of early morning, long school day, and then home to GRADE and LESSON PLAN for the next day, before finally collapsing into bed only to do it all over again in a few hours. Not to mention the actual work day itself filled with 7th graders from beginning to end. My free periods were my life saver, but all that aside I consistently worked 10 hour days and then came home to another 2-4 hours of work each night. Teachers have lots of paperwork, and I also had a home room this year which is another 2 hours a day with my students in addition to teaching history. I also tend to work hard to invest myself in others, which I learned was a trait many good, effective teachers have. This also has a downside of being especially tiring especially during the long days and the long school year begins to wear down on both teachers and students.

5. Teaching involves discipline. Establishing yourself as a person of authority is vital to maintaining oneself as an effective teacher. This was an important line for me to draw as I tend to focus on building relationships with my students over being their authority figure. But this was a necessary line for me to learn and continue to learn. Learning to become a firm but fair disciplinarian inside and outside the classroom gives students a clear expectation of what their behavior should be. I learned the importance of consistency because students will 100% of the time notice when teachers are not being consistent about when and what rules they enforce. I learned to set CLEAR and HIGH behavioral expectations so when students did not meet such expectations, they could not blame my lack of clarity nor that I did not care how they acted. I learned that the saying “What you permit, you promote” is entirely true, so by being a proactive teacher in how I presented my own example my students, I could also demand their adherence to the rules. I learned, especially for my age group, to take the time to “have it out” with a student. Maybe I would have an exhausting 45 minute conversation with one of my students who was having a difficult time following directions/rules. I learned it is fine to reason with the kids and try to get them to see my viewpoint as a teacher. I learned to not take things personally when they acted out, made bad decisions, or expressed their dislike of me. Kids are kids and they make mistakes. In general, they are also forgiving and do a good job starting the next day over as if nothing happened. This year I learned the importance of being calm but always quick to react, strict but never mean, firm but never rude, and patiently always willing to forgive while still enforcing consequences.

6. Teaching is an art. The beauty of managing a classroom is as fine a skill as anything else in the world to obtain. It is very difficult to manage a class of 30 students at different levels, perspectives, backgrounds, needs, strengths, weaknesses, etc and doing so effectively was a steep learning curve. I felt like I learned more about classroom management each day and I definitely became stronger and more comfortable as the year progressed. Conveying the content in an enjoyable, understandable, and challenging way was a difficult assignment. Even though I had four sections of the same class, each section was drastically different and each section had differences within the section itself. Fundamentally, I had to learn how to be an effective teacher both in managing the behavior and actions of my students, and in ensuring they understood the content at the best level possible.

7. Teaching gives you a very good understanding of human nature.
In children you can see both the good and bad aspects of human nature. On the positive side, you can see the mind open to the power of education, the power of reason, the taking up of responsibility, the virtuous treatment of others, and the willingness to serve and grow as a human. But you can also see the negative aspects of our nature, the desire to avoid responsibility, to seek our own gain at the expense of others, to reject authority, and to treat others in a dehumanizing way. Unfortunately, 13 year olds tend to be very much influenced by the pleasure-seeking/anti-responsibility traits of modern American society. To fight against these trends, the job of parents and teachers becomes that much more difficult.

8. Teaching shows you the importance of good families. I consider it a blessing to teach at a fairly large, urban charter school. I love having classrooms full of all races, colors, ethnicities, religions, income levels, abilities, etc. If there was one trait, however, that was most apparent, it was which students came from stable families. It did not matter their religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, or even honestly their sexuality. Generally speaking, two parent homes active in their child’s school life led to well-behaved, smart, and relatively mature 13 year olds. In almost every case, the students we had the most difficulty with came from rough family lives. It was almost too easy to discern which students did not have at least one parent at home (almost always a FATHER). For the most part, my experience with parents was positive. Parents who supported the schools and the teachers and who realized their role in their child’s education made our job easier with the results being mostly positive for their own families. The results were almost entirely opposite if the situation at home was not as positive or stable.

9. Teaching and education in general, is misunderstood. Education has unfortunately become a politicized issue which means that neither the right nor the left is close to actually dealing with the problems in America’s education system. I am a strong believer that education, even public education, can be reformed and redirected to improve the health of our society. To do so, we need to reevaluate our ways of thinking and pursue solutions in the classroom that work. No school system or method of schooling is perfect. Just as my own school has its short comings and deficiencies, I am confident that other teachers in other districts and types of schools could also note the faults in their own systems. What matters is that people work to find solutions and answers that might serve to improve; we must strive to get better if we ever want to be better. Whereas the left goes too far in making education a special interest, specifically through their obnoxious support of teacher unions, the right makes a critical error in either refusing to support public education or remaining unsure of how to go about it. Because of the right’s trepidation with words like “centralization,” it misses the opportunity to support the work of former mayor Adrian Fenty’s work in Washington D.C. Yes he centralized the schools under a chancellor, but he also turned around the entire city’s public school system by implementing many key “conservative” principles. Our society is also so utilitarian that we have forgotten to treasure and value education as much as it deserves to be. Both the right and the left share blame for this if we look at it from a historical perspective. It is also worth noting that many people consider teaching a “stepping stool” or something temporary to do if you don’t find anything else better. More than one friend of mine has whined that “I get summers off” thus making teaching the easiest job ever naturally. Good teachers should be incentivized and rewarded to stay good teachers. More often than not, good teachers leave teaching because they can make more money elsewhere. Other good teachers leave or become bad teachers because the system is seriously broken. Also we need to rethink how we view the teaching profession. Rather than consider teaching a sort of “leftover” job to be pursued when there are no other options, we should encourage our nation’s finest and best to consider a career of service and sacrifice. The first step to fixing the system is to first bring in good teachers, then, to keep and maintain them.

10. Teaching is a really serious thing to do. I have a lot of quick advice… Be passionate. Throw yourself into it. Enjoy it and have fun. Be firm in your expectations. Love your students. Teaching is definitely not for everyone but it can be a rewarding thing for a wide variety of people and personalities. Take it seriously and learn from the job. It will certainly give you a lot to think about.
P.S. And I do very much plan to enjoy my summer vacation… although I am excited for next year too!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Almost there...

I'm a half day away from finishing my first year of teaching. 200 school days later I feel like I'm finally growing up...

I am looking forward to a busy but restful summer. I get the feeling it will go too quickly although I will be ready to get back to the classroom when it is time...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy New Year!

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and because it is a federal holiday, we also enjoy a day off of school. Although the day off is appreciated, it does follow last week which featured not only a half day for professional development, but also a snow day! Snow is in the forecast tomorrow and you can bet that very few teachers are hoping for another day off. With midterms beginning on Wednesday, a delay in the schedule would only throw things into a chaotic state of confusion and disarray. Regardless, it is nice to enjoy a day off and catch up on some grading, lesson planning, and a little bit of studying for my first of two tests I need to pass in order to be a teacher in Massachusetts. This coming test is on Saturday and should not be too difficult... the one in March I am dreading already... But we take it one day at a time and I refuse to let it worry me now...

Since returning to Boston, my housemates and I have enjoyed the company of visitors. After a week with my cousin, Tom Sawyer also came out for a week leaving yesterday. We also met up with James Wegmann who rode the train up to Boston from the nation's capital on a "spur of the moment" trip. I am also looking forward to a visit from Nichole in about a week and a half...

The New Year brings two major resolutions: Survive my first year teaching and successfully file my taxes online by myself. I am actually more worried about the second one. I already look forward to warmer weather and lower heating bills. Walking around Boston yesterday reminded me how much I do love living here and how beautiful the city can be, even in the middle of winter.

Time to go back to lesson planning... Louisiana Purchase here I come!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thankful for a reminder...

Sometimes I seem to get lucky... or fortunate... the Calvinist in me suggests that the powerful hand of providence hits me in the face! But every once in a while I will stumble on something... generally an idea or a reading... that will reignite a powerful message of something I have previously learned and considered. Kiernan provides the welcome gift this time through her delightful and insightful blog post on John Henry Newman's Fifth Discourse from The Idea of a University. Like Kiernan, I too was obsessing over the real purpose of liberal education during the spring semester of our junior year. Also like Kiernan, the rug was pull from beneath my feet with Newman's answer and exposition as to what "knowledge for it's own sake" truly means. I have come to despise the way our modern minds think of education. This is a disease that can hardly be blamed on my soulless, utilitarian seventh graders. Proponents of vocational, useful, and efficient education seem to have won the cultural battle over the definition and purpose of education. For now I guess this makes me more determined to present a different perspective regardless of whether twelve year olds can grasp a different concept. Yet as for me, a good reminder of the purpose of liberal education and the development of a philosophic habit of mind was a welcome encouragement against the discouraging tide of utilitarianism in education. And yes, I still love my job for no matter how hard it has been, teaching the subject I love to great kids make each day an exciting and a rewarding challenge.

Additionally Kiernan and Julie's recent posts about their Hillsdale experiences were great reminders of my own experience at school. Settling into life post-Hillsdale, while not easy, has been smoother than expected. I miss the people even more than I thought I would and hope to see many of them sooner rather than later. But it is not like there is too big of a void post-Hillsdale. I am thankful for the new changes in my life including my job, Nichole, and a new church family. This will be the first time away from my family for the holiday season. For some of my Hillsdale friends, returning home for Thanksgiving and perhaps even Christmas, did not happen every year during college. I remember feeling bad for them considering that if I were in their position it would be a bit difficult not being with family. This year it is my turn to be away... I am certainly thankful for close friends in the area here to spend Thanksgiving with. But it will not be the same. Maybe that is ok... but still... it is a weird adjustment.

We have school Monday, Tuesday, and a half day on Wednesday this week. Break will be so wonderful indeed. A Blessed Thanksgiving to you all!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Done with church shopping... finally...?

I think I have finally decided on a church. It is located in Cambridge which is awesome although my reasons for deciding on this particular church are more meaningful I hope. Gone are the days in which I had either a five minute drive or a five minute walk from church. It is important that I get plugged into a church, however, and that I find something other than work to throw my time and energy into.

Going to church in Cambridge will help ensure that I make it to downtown Boston at least once a week, which is a good thing. It is a beautiful city and every time I go downtown I am more convinced of it. After church I met Bethany for lunch here:

The breakfast burrito was delicious!

The long weekend has been good to catch up on rest and relaxation although the UM/MSU game on Saturday did not do anything for my blood pressure. I did go to the high school game on Friday night. Although we got killed by our opponents, it was fun to hang out with some of my students at the game. They also talked me into going to the 7th and 8th grade football game the follow morning which was fun because we won! Starting tomorrow we will push ourselves to Thanksgiving. I am starting to realize what 200 school days actually means. At this point I can barely stand to think about what it will be like come next June. But we take it one week at a time...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

My new look...

This is me as a teddy bear. Apparently, several students have named this infamous teddy bear after me. Now hopefully they do not blow it up...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Boston is finally starting to feel like home...

It has been nearly two months since I moved to Boston. Time continues to fly. The school week is so compacted... it hardly ever seems like you leave because you are there for 10 hours a day and then you come home to work more on the things you failed to get done at school. But... as of now, I love it. Being a teacher has been great, especially because every day I feel a little more adjusted and comfortable in the classroom. Controlling a classroom has been the biggest learning experience. I wish we had smaller classes but the reality is that we do not. I am proud to say that I can now quiet my students down and get (mostly) their full attention for the majority of the class. Each day is different though and some days certain sections are better than others. Either way, I've learned to appreciate my students as fundamentally good kids who sometimes make poor choices. In that sense, they are no different than the rest of us...

On Saturday Ian and Bethany and I visited the Harpoon Brewery before wandering around the Boston Common and Public Garden on a beautiful unseasonably warm day. We continued our wandering to an awesome used book store. The city, for the first time, began to feel like home even though I do not know it as well as I want to someday. It will take time and more wandering I think before I really begin to feel comfortable. I like living in big cities but they do take their adjustments. All in all... a fantastic way to end the week and get ready for the next one.