I've written some recent posts in response to a query from a former student who was about to begin his student teaching. He asked for advice; so far, all I've given him--a bunch of stories (posted here) about my own experiences with it. But I haven't really answered his question directly. So ... here goes. These are not in any particular order--well, they're in the order I thought of them. Great organization!
- Keep up with your work. It is really easy to fall behind with all the planning, grading, and whatever that's associated with teaching. It took me years before I finally figured out a schedule for doing everything--and I quickly learned that if I deviated from that schedule, I would soon be so far behind that a Cloud of Depression would settle over me until I caught up. One example: student essays. When I taught in a public middle school (and always had more than 100 students/day), I gave myself a week to return essays: The kids turned them in on Friday; I returned them the following Friday. I divided the number of essays by the number of days and graded that many every day--without fail. I did not go to bed until I'd finished. As a result, I did not get behind--although I did get awfully tired some weeks--especially during the times I was working on play productions.
- Plan carefully. As the years went on, I didn't need to write down so much, but even the last week of my career I was making lists of things I wanted to cover and accomplish each period, questions I wanted ask, problems I wanted to raise, detours I wanted to take ...
- Be as specific as you can about your expectations--for the year, the term, the week, the day. By the end of my career (and even somewhat earlier) I passed out (at the beginning of the year) an outline of our topics and my general expectations for them (promptness, etc..)--and for me. Each new marking period I would distribute a tentative calendar of our activities; at the end of each week I would give them a list of assignments for the following week. It's so easy nowadays to post this stuff on school sites--Moodle, Blackboard, whatever--so kids (and parents) can see what's coming. And it also eliminates the old I-left-it-at-wherever excuse. Go to Moodle; print out another one.
- Give kids lots of chances for grades--and be specific about how you calculate your grades. The fewer the grades, the harder it is for a kid to recover from a (very normal) screw-up. I always tried to give lots of assignments and would drop the lowest grade or two each marking period. I think the kids appreciated that.
- Keep kids informed about their progress. I liked to give students (every week or so) a slip of paper showing them their grade ... so far. This helped control some problems later on.
- Be both predictable and unpredictable. Don't do the same thing every day; mix it up. I even tried to avoid doing a single thing all period; mix it up. Kids should know what's going on--but they love surprises, too (pleasant ones).
- Vary your media. Use films, YouTube, audio, and mother media. Go on field trips with them. Each method appeals to certain (not all) kids--for, as you know, they all learn in different ways.
- Be flexible. Sometimes a kid's question or comment will take you somewhere you didn't expect. Go there. I had colleagues (like Mrs. Kutinsky, a supremely gifted science teacher) who were much better at this than I, but I did learn from her not to be so rigid about my planning. The unexpected lead to revelation.
- Have fun. I enjoyed myself in class, after I learned to relax a bit. I laughed with kids pretty much every day--and they were wondrous about dragging me out of dark moods. I would be sitting in my room before school, feeling depressed about something, and here would come the kids, swarming in, teasing, laughing, happy to see me (for the most part!). And I found myself ... buoyed. It never failed.
- Realize that misbehavior is going to happen--and that it probably has nothing to do with you or your class. This one took me some time to learn, too. Early in my career I was offended by student misbehavior--assumed it was directed at me. But almost always this was not true. Something had happened at home, on the bus, in the hall, out at lunch, on the playground, in a previous class ... And my room became the stage where the performance commenced or continued. That's all. Once I stopped taking it all personally, I found I was able to deal with things more calmly--and effectively (though not always, of course!).
- Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm is the basis of a lot of our humor, but it's hurtful. Early in my career I used it all the time. Then one day--at lunch--I heard a kid say, "Mr. Dyer can cut anybody down!" A quick surge of pride was followed by a longer tsunami of guilt. How am I making kids feel? I eased off, tried to eliminate it altogether, failed, but did much better.
- Be kind. The Golden Rule is golden for a reason.
- Don't be afraid to apologize to kids. I did it more and more often as the years went on--apologizing for something I'd said, done, not done. (Be surprised for some shocked looks around the room!)
- Don't be afraid to admit you don't know. I had a problem with this one--early and late (insecure?). But I think kids can tell when you're bluffing--or lying--so it's better to just say you don't know and then show them how you would go about finding out. (I had a high school teacher who would make us look up anything she didn't know--that wasn't exactly a reward, was it?)
- Find out who the best teachers in the school are and stick to them like barnacles. Early in my career I was fortunate to have in the building a solid core of outstanding veteran teachers--folks whose names will mean nothing to most of you, but to me? They are on my Educators' Mt. Rushmore. Mrs. Thomas (reading), Mrs. Kutinsky (science), Mr. Wright (math). And some others. I watched how they worked with kids, how they planned, how they earned the kids' deep respect. I wanted to be like them.
- Develop your own style--one that's consistent with your knowledge, skill, personality. There's no such thing as the best way to teach. There are myriads of ways--despite our current love affair with standardization. An example: Mrs. Shirkey was a veteran English teacher who joined our faculty when I was just a puppy. She was very traditional, very conservative. We clashed, early on, in department meetings. But ... she nominated me for department chair (!!), and as the years went on, I learned a tremendous amount from her. I could never have taught in her style, but I learned from her that conviction--belief--in what you are doing is a powerful trait to have. She had students who adored her, who flourished in her class--who would not have flourished, necessarily, with me. (This, by the way, is yet another argument against the standardization of teaching styles: Kids need a variety of folks in the building--need to experience the varieties of teaching excellence. Kids connect with some teachers, not with others. And if there's only one kind of teacher in the building, guess what happens?)
- Read, study, travel, go to museums, films, plays, etc. Keep yourself interesting. Go back to school. Subscribe to interesting magazines. Cut stuff out of newspapers (remember them?) Go into class every day and talk about something you just read-learned-saw-thought about. Show kids that learning is fun--an essential part of your life--all through your life. I always liked to go see things related to what I was teaching. In the summers, Joyce and I drove all over the country to visit the homes of famous writers, to stand by their graves, to view scenes they'd written about. I toured Shakespeare's house, climbed the Chilkoot Pass (a prominent route in The Call of the Wild), visited the Anne Frank House and Castle Frankenstein and the British Museum and the beach where the body of the poor drowned Shelley washed up and the house where Mary Shelley first got the idea for Frankenstein and the homes of Edgar Poe and Willa Cather and Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville and Hemingway and ...
There are surely some other things I've forgotten--maybe I'll revisit this topic in a later post.
And of course there's this: If I were 21 again, I'm not sure I would even go into teaching nowadays, now that academic freedom is disappearing, now that standardized tests are driving everything, now that school can be such an unsmiling, deadly serious place, now that creative teachers are a problem, not a boon.
But maybe it will take a strong new generation of young teachers to stand up, to reclaim the vast territories surrendered in recent decades to the Unsmiling Ones, the Testers, and Procrusteans. I hope so. Studying and learning have been among the great excitements in my life. How I hope they will be so for the youngsters of today!