Hundreds of new teachers head into classrooms every year, and thousands return to classrooms wanting to do a better job than they did last year. As I think of those things that I want to remind myself to do as I start another year, I want to share them with you. Before you ever encounter your students, you need to determine how you are going to handle yourself and your classroom.
I know, that sounds so trite, but it is true. The better prepared you are for each day, the better each day will be. The typical school day lasts six hours; expect to spend two hours after school wrapping up from today and preparing for tomorrow. Yes, sometimes you will be able to following the students out the door, and sometimes you will spend more than two hours after school, but make two hours your standard planning time after school. Prepare more activities than you think you will need because sometimes things just don’t go as planned… and you need to make a change, or an activity you expected to take 20 minutes is wrapped up in 10. You will enjoy your day and your time with your students much more with less stress and anxiety if you are well prepared.
I’m sure you’ve heard that you should “not put off until tomorrow things that you can do today,” and this is essential for teachers. When something needs to be put away, do it. When something needs to be cleaned up, do it. When something needs to be graded, do it! Remember every day produces more work, so anything you put off will only add to tomorrow’s work. It compounds like a snowball rolling downhill and will result in a cluttered classroom and a Sunday grading marathon. Both will cause you extra stress that you do not need! Be diligent in the classroom to stay in a work mode and take care of things as they come up. Procrastination will only add stress and anxiety.
Students can spot a fake just like dogs can smell fear – a mile away! Of course you need to be full of positive energy, but don’t be fake. You will not be able to maintain an attitude or a perspective that is not true. No, of course, you do not want to complain to them about things in your life or in school, those things are not their business, but if you are overly happy and overly positive, they won’t believe you. Be cheerful, be positive, be happy… but be honest. If you are a little grumpy, blame it on your lack of coffee and move forward.
Several years ago I was taking my son to a sports event of some kind at a location that was new to me. We did not have gps at the time, so we were dependent upon maps and directions from benevolent gas station attendants. I stopped, of course, at a gas station and made a purchase so that while paying I could ask for directions. The question I asked, though, did not produce the answer that I needed: “Do you know where ABC School is?” The very astute clerk responded, “Yes, I do.” That was the appropriate answer for the question I asked. I did not ask her to provide direction for me, I asked if she knew where it is. So, I smiled and restated my question: “Could you please direct me to ABC School?” and she did so.
When you ask a question of a class, as the question that will produce the answer you seek. Instead of “Any questions?” ask “Who would like to ask a question about the lesson?” By doing this you are modeling the skill of questioning. To solidify this in the minds of my students, I do a few things with them. First, when a student needs an item, the usual question is, “Do you have a pencil?” and I respond, “Yes, I do.” and I teach them the lesson the gas station attendant taught me.
I was an English teacher for many years, so I have heard students lament: “I don’t get it!” after reading (or not reading) an assignment. I learned to put the ownership of the learning and understanding back on them, and I taught them to ask a specific question about the text. How did I do that? I would respond, “Ask me a question.” At first I would hear complaining, but I was persistent. “Ask me a question.” The students would finally return to the text, discuss it in the group, and then return to me with a question worthy of a thoughtful answer.
James reminds us to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (James 5:12). You are spending time every day with children who will believe anything you tell them… until they don’t… and then you are done. They need to trust that you will do what you say you will do. If you promise an activity or a reward, deliver! If you tell a student you will assign a detention, do it! Don’t give them false hope, empty promises, or ridiculous threats.
When I was rearing my children, I taught them my definition of the word NO: NO means NO, absolutely NO, don’t ask again. If my daughter or son would pester me about a question to which I had already said NO, I would require him or her to recite the definition of NO. The hard part to this is that you cannot change your mind! If you say NO, it has to stay NO. If you cave to the persistence of the class, they will never believe you when you say NO. IF I responded, “maybe” or “let me think about it” and the children started bugging me about it, I would ask, “Do you want it to be NO?” Then they would stop pestering me. Conversely, when you say YES, you MUST deliver. Now, will there be times when you cannot do what you promised? Of course, then you apologize and explain.
They need to know that they can TRUST you… and you must be worthy of their TRUST.
Quite often when English teachers give encouragement to their student writers, they remind them to “Show, Don’t Tell!” Teachers need to take this same advice. Too often teachers take the “Do as I say, not as I do” attitude in the classroom, and that just won’t work – it’s not authentic or trustworthy. You must model the behavior you expect from you students. Demonstrate the behaviors in the classroom that you want them to develop. Your actions speak much louder than your words.
Take this same advice into your lessons. When I taught writing, I would use my document camera to compose right in front of them. I would start a paragraph, change it, fix it, cross it out, ask for their suggestions, and demonstrate to them that writing is a process. SHOW them that you don’t write perfectly the first time either. If you assign a presentation to the class, complete one yourself first. Demonstrate to the students what you are looking for. Your demonstration will encourage their thoughts and imaginations more than a list of directions ever will!
If you aren’t having a good time; if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, why should your students? Sure, occasionally you will have a bad day, but if the students are used to seeing you as an upbeat, enthusiastic teacher, they will step up to the plate and help you to get out of your funk! Enjoy your students! Enjoy your job! Enjoy your life! and your students will enjoy their time with you!
If this is your first year, take heart, we all had a first year. If this is your twentieth year, make it your best year ever! Happy New Year, TEACHERS! Go and BE awesome!