When I first I attended that training, I was entering my first year of teaching. I am now about to enter my tenth. I've been reflecting a lot lately about some of the things I have learned along the way. Recently a few first-year teachers have asked me for advice. For them, I am writing the advice that I wish someone had given me. Like most of my best ideas about teaching, much of the thoughts I will share began by hearing the words of others, particularly this TMC15 keynote address by Fawn Nguyen and this blog post by Meg Craig. I cannot say I have perfected any of these ideas, but in writing this I hope to remind myself of the goals that I aspire to and the teacher that I wish to become. As Fawn Nguyen said, "I’m not exactly sure what good teaching is. But I know what Bad Teaching is. Bad Teaching is NOT knowing that your lessons could be better, much better, therefore these teachers do not seek to improve."
"Building Relationships so that teaching is not about surviving in the classroom, it's about thriving in the classroom." (Fawn Nguyen)
The relationships you build with your students are more important than the content you teach them. "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship" (James Comer). Your students will come to you either liking or disliking math. There is nearly always a complicated history behind that. You can't change history. But you get to have a hand in writing this chapter. "Kids don't learn from people they don't like" (Rita Pierson). I find that rather than focusing on getting students to like me, it is more important for me to learn to like them. Usually the one will follow the other. Learn to like your students. Liking your students is different from caring about them. It's harder. I cared about my students before I took the job. But it took me my entire first year of teaching to learn to like my students. The more 'difficult' a student is, the more important it is for me to learn to like them. This will probably take significant time and effort. When I started teaching, I thought 'once this student behaves better in class, then I will like him/her'. However, I have found that the reverse is much more likely to be true, "Once I learn to like this student, then he/she will change his/her behavior."
Laugh with Them
For me, the easiest way to learn to like my students is to laugh with them. For the past few years, I kept one of my whiteboards as a dedicated "Quote Wall". Whenever someone said something in class that made us laugh, we wrote it on the quote wall. What you put on your walls shows what you value. My students learned that, as a class, we value laughing. Students loved having their words and names on the quote wall. I think this made them feel much more comfortable in sharing their true selves in my class because they seemed to just be more comfortable saying the random, off-the-wall, thoughts running through their head in my room than in other classes. This year, I've reclaimed the whiteboard for student work/practice space but I've created a google doc to share with students because I think it's so important to celebrate and record the moments where we laugh and have fun in math class. Sometimes students will try to be funny just to get on the quote wall - they learn pretty quickly that this doesn't work. It's my quote wall and I have the ultimate say on whether or not we will write something on it. As a class, we value authenticity.
In your social media and personal life, maintain boundaries. Talk with your administration about district policies regarding interactions with your students and their families outside of the classroom. Always err on the side of caution. In your classroom management, maintain boundaries. Certain behaviors simply are not allowed. Do not argue with students. I want to say 'yes' to my students' requests whenever I can, but I when I say 'no', I mean it. I have found the phrase, "I'm not arguing" to be very effective. When I need a student to do something immediately and they begin to tell me the reasons why he or she does not need to do what I say, I repeat the instruction and say, "I'm not arguing" and then silently wait for the student to do what was asked. If the student does not comply, I seek assistance from administration. I recognize that the student may have valid reasons for what he or she feels is right. I value these and I want to hear them. Later. But sometimes I need a problem solved and situation diffused immediately. As the adult in the room, it is my responsibility to make that happen.
It is impossible to separate the message from the messenger. If we are trying to be someone else or sell someone else's ideas that we do not agree with, our students will know it and they will call us on it. They may not verbalize it, but they will tell us by their behavior that they feel that we are being disingenuous.
There are a lot of ideas about how best to manage a classroom, how to present a lesson, how to connect with students, etc. . Frequently I can't say whether something will work for me or not until I try it. If there seems to be good research supporting an idea, I will almost always give it a shot. Last year, after returning home from TMC14, I was so excited to try everything I tried in Elizabeth's Group Work Working Group session. I tried out her classroom circles and my students looked at me like I was asking them to do yoga in math class. It didn't work because it just didn't fit me and my students. Next, I tried out Talking Points. It didn't work perfectly, but I still liked what I saw and I tweaked the structure a bit to help my students remember to justify each statement. Nearly everything that works well in my class is something that I learned from someone else and then tweaked it to fit my personality and the needs of my students.
Sometimes a lesson will just crash and burn. It happens. And it is always fixable. Be kind to yourself. The best teachers are students too. We tell students that we don't always expect them to get things right on their first attempt. Making mistakes is how we learn. Admitting our mistakes to our students and apologizing when needed demonstrates that we really do value mistakes and that the slogan "Errors are Opportunities" is not just a sign that we hang on the wall. The best teachers never stop being students.
Pay attention to the language that you use with your students. Do not say it unless you can own it. To say to a student "I understand", without taking the time to listen to them and to try to understand them is false and damaging to relationships. Much better would be to say "Help me to understand". Listen to your students. Sarcasm is hurtful. Praising one student as a means of shaming another student into behaving is harmful. Please, Thank-You, and I'm Sorry can heal chasms of hurt. Do not speak unkind words about other teachers, administration, or faculty. Do not allow students to speak unkind words about them in your presence. Unkind words are damaging to our souls. Remember that "We as teachers are all trying, to the best of our ability, to have students reach the best of their ability" (Meg Craig). Oh how I wish I could take back some of the unkind, insensitive things that I have said to/about others. Words matter.
Use the Smallest Intervention Possible
Here are a few of my 'best' classroom management strategies that I have learned/adapted along the way:
- If a class is talking excessively at an inappropriate time, we take a moment to 'practice' being quiet. I tell them, "OK. You guys owe me 15 seconds of silence practice." If anyone talks, we restart it. I do this right in the moment, not at the end of class. It's not a punishment. It's just practice. And at the end of 15 seconds, they are usually refocused and ready to listen. I also think it's good to take a look at what was happening in your instruction at this moment to see if you can prevent future occurrences. Was it during a transition? Maybe using music cues could help. Was it during a lecture? How long had it been since students had been given a chance to share an idea with a neighbor?
- If one or two individuals are talking when I am teaching, I address this by asking them "Is there something that you need?" Not always, but sometimes, there is a legitimate reason students are talking at times that might not seem appropriate to me. Sometimes their pencil broke and they are asking a neighbor for a new one. Sometimes they are asking a neighbor to clarify something I said. By asking this question, I give them a chance to explain and I give myself a chance to not be 'that jerk teacher' who doesn't understand.
- If I have a class that has a really hard time with transitions and talking at inappropriate times, I use a music box. At the beginning of the week, I wind up the music box (usually about 2 min of music). Students know that I need their attention when I open the music box and they hear the music. As soon as the room is quiet, I close the box. At the end of the week, if there is still music left in the box, students get to 'spin' for a reward.
- For students who like to blurt out answers or comments at inappropriate times, I find that they often are unaware of how frequently they do this. Track how many times they blurt in a day. This is difficult to do while teaching, so I might ask an admin or teacher to come observe my class and track the behavior for me. If I track that a student blurts 7 times in a day, I then give this student 6 sticky notes. Every time the student blurts in class, I remove a sticky note. If the student has at least one remaining sticky note at the end of the day, they earn a point toward some goal. Once the student is able to consistently be successful with 6 sticky notes, decrease them to 5, etc. This same strategy can be applied to target other problem behaviors, but only target one behavior at a time. Be sure to contact the parents and get their support.
Make Your Grades Matter
If, like me, you are required to give students grades, make the grades matter. Do not offer grade-related rewards (free homework pass, dropping a low test score, etc) for good behavior. This sends the message to students that learning is a punishment and that you are rewarding them by removing this punishment.
Be Willing to Seek Help
If there is one rule that saved me as a first-year teacher, it is this one: I will not cry alone. I cried a lot as a first-year teacher. That's how I deal with pain - and I was in a lot of pain in both my professional and personal life. I learned that when I was in pain, I needed to reach out to others to help me heal and to help me find solutions to my problems. I am eternally indebted to the wonderful coworkers, friends and family who helped me through that awful year. The offered help, advice, strategies, lesson plans and so much more. They didn't judge me, they just listened. They believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself. I am so grateful.
While you will probably have some hard times as a first-year teacher, I also believe that you can experience a lot of success and joy this year. I am grateful for my horrible first year of teaching because it allows me to respond to empathy to the struggles of others. When things do get hard, and they will, please don't try go it alone. Find a community that offers you the support that you need. I hope you can find that at your school. Lately I have found some of my best support and problem-solving within the MathTwitterBlogoSphere (#MTBoS). We want you to be successful. Please let us help you in your journey because we know that surely you will someday help us in ours.
Do you teach math in Utah? We would love for you to write a guest blog post. Please fill out this form and we'll contact you ASAP