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!


Mitch Klingenberg said...

Great post, Matt.

Julie Robison said...

Matt! This is such a great post. Thank you for sharing your wisdom! I think it, like most great things, transcends the actual subject and can be applied to many things. Mucho gracias!

Heidi Jackson said...

Matt, I especially appreciated #5: "Teaching Requires Discipline"...right up there with consistency. I found this to be one of my biggest challenges this past year. Namely this: how do I stay consistent with a group of 22 sixth grade boys who, quite frankly, make me exhausted? Somehow, I managed. And somehow, they learned Latin.

One thing I did find with disciplining kids, though, was that I couldn't do the same thing all the time. They got used to it and then it didn't matter.

One day during tutoring (with 10 of the said 22 boys) the boys were out of control; they had drawn all over my board (forbidden!), were loud, obnoxious, and not paying attention. So I finally sent them to their class and had a good chat with a teacher next door, who gave me the following advice: there have to be consequences, and they have to be new.

The next day in class those particular boys had a particularly difficult Latin translation to work on during the entire class period...and yes, I expected them to catch up with the rest of the class on their own time. It got through to some and not to others, but I made my point: regardless of how it was perceived, there were consequences.

It's one step at a time, one day at a time. Thanks for posting, Matt. I didn't (and still don't) have the time or courage to post my first-year reflections. :)