Lessons for new teachers

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Joanna Howerton Stevens
Joanna Howerton Stevens

As the second semester begins, many schools are welcoming student teachers. Four years ago, I was getting ready to embark on my own student teaching experience. I had survived the stress of papers, exams, projects, and observations to prepare me for this moment.  I was consumed with nerves and anxiety, ready to start the final step in my journey of becoming a real teacher.

Four years later, I’ve learned a few things that I didn’t know as a new college graduate.  Correction: After four years in the classroom, I’ve learned A LOT about my profession that I didn’t realize when I began student teaching.  I’ve compiled a list of some things I’ve learned.  Whether you are a student teacher, a cooperating teacher, or somewhere in between, take a moment to consider and reflect upon the “Top 10 Things New Teachers May Not Have Learned in College.”

10. Respect your colleagues. 

Let’s start simple.  This may seem common sense, but make an effort to get to know your administration, counselors, and fellow teachers.  Your faculty and staff will help you more than you can imagine. You never know when you will need a colleague to make copies for you or cover your class. Don’t shut your door and keep to yourself.  Work with those who have more experience and seek their advice. 

Respecting your coworkers also includes getting to know your instructional aides, administrative assistants, custodians, and food service employees.  To respect your custodian, try to pick up your room as much as possible. Your custodian will appreciate it and spend their time doing other things for you. Because my room is always orderly, the custodian gives me any pencils he finds in other classrooms. Students always need pencils and, thanks to my custodian, I always have a supply. If they know you keep a nice classroom, when you have a maintenance request they will be more likely to answer it quickly because you have demonstrated that you care for your classroom.  More importantly, a clean classroom contributes to a positive learning environment for your students.

9. Focus on building relationships with your students and their families from day one. 

The more you learn about your students, the more they will learn about your content. The more you respect your students, the more they will respect you. This starts on day one: be creative with your get-to-know-you activity.  Since students are heavily involved in social media, I have used Twitter to learn information about them.  Students create a pretend profile for Twitter based on their math knowledge.  Their profile picture is a face that represents how they feel about math.  I “tweet” questions to gain insight into their interests and activities outside of the classroom, as well as their learning preferences in the classroom. 

I am dedicated to not only serving my students, but also their families.  I rely on different resources to develop a strong communication system with them. To promote communication with families, I send home a monthly newsletter to share information about our current unit of study, ACT registration and test dates, and my contact information.  The newsletter also features excerpts on our after-school tutoring services and invitations to family events, such as the parent-teacher conference and winter showcases. 

Students and the majority of their parents are involved in social media.  To embrace this phenomenon, I have a class twitter account where I have a mixture of students, parents, and colleagues as followers.  I carefully use twitter to send reminders about upcoming tests and activities, share pictures of student work, and distribute nerdy math facts.  Students benefit from the twitter account because it provides a fun way to ask me questions about homework and class activities outside of the classroom. 

I keep an updated webpage with our curriculum, notes, activities, and assignments.  Students rely on the website to retrieve materials when they are absent from class.  Parents are also welcome and encouraged to explore the site to be informed on what is occurring in our classroom daily. 

To help build and sustain relationships with your students, I encourage you to attend events where your students are participating. I’ve attended numerous sporting events and several musical performances to support my students.  I’m also active in community organizations that work with teenagers. 

As their teacher, you are more than an instructor – you are their role model, encourager, supporter, listener, confidant, and more.  The relationships begin on the first day of class, but they last for years, long after the last bell rings. 

8. Continue to be a lifelong learner

Accept that you are going to make mistakes. Your lessons will fail and sometimes you will make the wrong decision in a tough situation. The key is making sure you learn from those mistakes. Let your students know that you are a lifelong learner and you are striving to be the best teacher you can be, just like they should strive to be the best student that they can be.

Let your students have a voice in class decisions. During the school year, I periodically give my students a time to confer and reflect upon my role as their teacher.  I use a student voice survey, as well as a Plus/Delta system for students to communicate “pluses”: things going well for them in the classroom; as well as “deltas”‘ that are hindering their education and need to change.  I also use the student voice survey to ensure that I am reaching my potential as an educator.

During my childhood, I was very active in the 4-H club and the slogan of the organization is to “make the best better.”  As lifelong learners, teachers should be open to change to improve their instruction.  Sometimes the changes may be difficult or uncomfortable and you may greet it with resistance.  For example: I was hesitant to use standards-based grading, but after research and discussion with respected colleagues, I implemented the grading system and I have never looked back.  I have even led other teachers in our district to implement the grading strategy in their classrooms.

7. Focus on being proactive rather than reactive. 

Spend your time and energy providing strong instruction and an engaging classroom environment.  Don’t focus entirely on discipline and punishing kids. A classroom that is engaged with strong instructional practices is a classroom with fewer discipline problems.

Be creative in your classroom and don’t be afraid to be silly.  I never imagined that I would sing, dance, and dress-up as a high school mathematics teacher.  I have used the “Walking Dead” to study series and sequences, competitive eating events to study rational equations, and video games to study exponential functions.  We have put our paper and pencils aside and relied on play dough, patty paper, spaghetti noodles, marshmallows, Twizzlers, and toothpicks to investigate mathematical theorems.  We’ve played BINGO, Connect 4, Tic-Tac-Toe, Jeopardy, Powerball, Relays, Amazing Race, and Who Wants to be a Mathionaire?  An outstanding teacher strives to make learning fun, interesting, and enjoyable.

To truly be proactive, make sure you are prepared with your curriculum, instructional strategies, and formative and summative assessments, along with plans for communicating with stakeholders and classroom management.

6. With everything you do, focus on improving student learning. 

Teachers have many things to check off their to-do lists.  With each obligation, ask yourself “How can I use this to improve student learning?”  “What is best for my students?” KTIP, program reviews, data analysis, and supervision duties were among the tasks that I initially dreaded, but have truly improved my teaching. Here are some tasks that I initially dreaded, but have improved my teaching. 

It might seem like KTIP is a hoop you have to jump through.  I encourage you though to fully engage in the assigned tasks to improve your instruction.  I had an outstanding KTIP experience and I am certain it made me a better teacher.

Program Reviews are now part of our school accountability system.  While I was not initially excited about the incorporation of writing, arts and humanities, and practical living studies in the math classroom, it is now one of my favorite parts of my unit plans and my students enjoy the break from the numbers, graphs, and equations. 

As a teacher, you will analyze data.  While data analysis is thought-provoking, the effect can only be maximized if you use it to drive your instruction. In addition to asking, “What is the data telling you?”, ask yourself “What are you going to do with the data?” 

Supervision duties are time consuming and sometimes they seem pointless. However, this is a great time to develop and build student relationships. Instructional time is precious and there is little time to converse with the students about things outside of the content.  However, my cafeteria duty gives me time to observe students interacting with their peers and converse with them about non-mathematical topics, even it is about chicken patties. 

5. Teaching will get easier…in some ways.

With experience, you will get better as a teacher. You will be more comfortable in the classroom.  Teaching will get easier. However, circumstances might make it harder. You will change schools, you will teach new preps, your state will adopt new curriculum or assessments, or you will take on new responsibilities at school that will increase your workload.  You might even be working on a graduate degree or National Board Certification.  I am still waiting for an “easier” year.

4. Be Passionate

Outstanding teachers are passionate about their subject matter and their school.  I hope my enthusiasm for mathematics is contagious for my students. I strive to get my students intrigued by mathematics by demonstrating the numerous functions it serves in our lives.

In addition to being passionate about your subject matter, be passionate about your school.  I was very excited when I was given the opportunity to teach at my alma mater and give back to the community that contributed so much to my education.  Shortly after my first school year began, our school was identified as a Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) school.  As an alumna and current educator, I was disappointed in the PLA label and our test scores.  When we received our PLA classification we were ranked in the bottom 15th percentile in the state.  Our teachers and students rallied to intentionally focus on student growth.  Two years later, our ranking has improved and we now fall in the 83rd percentile and boast a Proficient classification.  We take pride in our turnaround and we have celebrated this growth with our students as continue to set high goals for them.  We recognize that it is a group effort that involves passionate stakeholders.

3.  24 hours a day / 7 days a week

As the daughter of a teacher, I was aware that teaching was not an 8:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. profession. I knew the career was filled with numerous meetings, emails, and phone calls and I witnessed my mother spend countless hours lesson planning and grading.  It was evident that she cared for her students, but I didn’t fully grasp the responsibilities of a teacher until I took on the role myself.  I do not hesitate to report that I am a teacher 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea or because I am worrying about a student.  I stay up late lesson planning and get up early to ensure I am prepared for the day. When shopping, I wonder if the outfit is suitable for teaching.  Every time I enter a store, I check their sticker inventory so I can restock.  When I am on social media, I am following educational sites and organizations to get new ideas. I often suffer from physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.

2. Some days you will cry and want to quit your job. 

There are days when I leave feeling disappointed and helpless. It is frustrating to spend a great deal of time and effort to plan a lesson, only for it to flop when you try to execute it. When my students perform poorly on a test, I take it personally and feel like a failure. Sometimes the to-do list is too overwhelming and I am left discouraged.  It is difficult to differentiate instruction to all students and to teach the entire curriculum in the limited time available.  I’ll admit that I have left school hopeless and searched for jobs that seemed less stressful.  However, I never take the plunge and leave teaching because. . .

1. You have an awesome job.

The job is tough, but it is more rewarding than anything else I have ever experienced. I wouldn’t trade my experiences during the past four years for anything. Here are some of my treasured memories:

  • During my first graduation ceremony as an educator, I was not prepared for the tears that flooded my eyes when my students walked across the stage to receive their high school diplomas.  Some of these students were the first students in their families to complete high school and I was beaming with pride.  Since that first graduation ceremony, I now come prepared to graduation ceremonies with a package of Kleenex tissues! 
  • On a student voice survey at the end of the year, one student summarized my devotion with the following phrase:  “Mrs. Stevens treats us like her own children.”  Another student wrote,  “Mrs. Stevens inspires me and I aspire to be like her one day.” 
  • Former students approached me about scheduling a Geometry reunion.  The students from the course scheduled an evening of food, board games, and reminiscing about some of their favorite class memories.  I could have never predicted I would host a “math reunion.” 
  • A student tweeted me on Christmas morning that Santa brought her a new graphing calculator–and she was excited!  
  • Basketball players tweet pictures of doing mathematics on the whiteboard in the locker room. 
  • A parent emailed to tell me her daughter wants to be a math teacher just like Mrs. Stevens.

I could continue to list examples of students’ excitement after reaching their ACT goal or getting accepted into the Governor’s Scholars Program.  However, the best reward of teaching is the long-lasting impact that you can make.  You are using your talents and skills to maximize the intelligence and creativity of your students.  Your students will go on to impact others to improve our school, our community, and our world.

I have given you the top 10 things new teachers may not have learned in college.  They are the top 10 things that I didn’t know four years ago.

To summarize my four years in the classroom, I would like to share the words of Peter Parker and Uncle Ben from the motion picture, “Spider Man.”

With great power, comes great responsibility.

While you may not physically resemble Spider Man, as a teacher, you are a superhero in the truest sense. Your classroom provides you with the medium to change the world by shaping lives, changing lives, and saving lives. Your power and influence can impact your students for years after they complete your course.  As a teacher, you are responsible for preparing and equipping our future. You are a superhero for embarking on this journey.  Go change the world!

Joanna Howerton Stevens, a mathematics teacher Lincoln County High School, was named the 2014 High School Teacher of the Year on October 16, 2013. She will write occasional columns for Kentucky Teacher during her year-long reign. 

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