Sunday, December 6, 2015

A note to myself as a first year teacher

This is a slightly edited version of a post I wrote a few years ago for my other blog. The original was inspired by Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist.  In it he gives advice about creativity by thinking of what he would tell his younger self.

If you’re interested more about good activities or questions for reflection, please see:

After 21 years in public education, what would be the most important tips I'd tell myself?  I boiled it down to the list of six things below.  They're personal, but I think others can find some application in them for their own situations.

To set the scene I have to admit that the first half of my teaching experience was rough for me.  I did not enjoy much about teaching high school math.  There was plenty to be thankful for and a lot of students liked my classes, but dealing with difficult students and seeing my inability to reach all of them was tough. I felt like a failure many days.

Here's my list of what I'd tell my 25-years-old self, in that first year.

1)  Be realistic about what you're getting into.  The students you will be asked to teach are coming in with poor math skills and a poor attitude toward the subject.  Very few of them will see math class as the positive experience that you did.  Be prepared for this!  Set realistic goals of what you can accomplish in those first years as you are learning to be a good teacher.

2)  Take the work seriously, but don't forget about the relationships you are building everyday with your students.  You tend to get focused on the job and forget about people, but they are most important.  Even the difficult ones will respect you for your hard work if they also know you care about them.

Years after the class is over you'll see some of them.  They'll remember that you cared and worked hard more than they ever will the details of lessons, rough days, all those assignments or the grades they got.

3)  Start a game club right away.  That love you always had for games will be a highlight of your time working with students.  A lot of them won't fit in anywhere else, but they'll hang out with you at lunch.  Buy a few more of those games no one else has heard of and use them to connect with the students as much as you can.  Meet every couple weeks or so after school for gaming.  You'll like that extra-curricular work a lot more than organizing the prom.  (For the good of all, tell them you don't want to be a class sponsor!)

4)  Keep up on the technology.  You're kind of a traditionalist and in the debate of calculators versus no calculators you'll be tempted to keep it old school.  Instead, remember that many kids can learn the concept better if they come at it differently than you did.  It doesn't have to be all pencil and paper and a ton of steps.

Keep an open mind on that and use technology to give them a conceptual understanding useful for problem solving. When the principal asks you to try more with technology, do it.  Doors will open for you and you'll enjoy the change as the best years of your career.

5)  Assign creative projects, even in math.  Your department will focus almost exclusively on the state MEAP test, but don't let that drain your classroom of creativity.  You'll be busy and it will be easier to just keep it simple and routine, but things like the video assignment, personalized story problems and the artistic projects are vital.  Keep developing those assignments.  Add a new one every semester so that when students think back to your class, they remember those things they made.  You'll like it best when students say you're not like the other math teachers.

6)  Remember that you felt called to teach.  In frustrating times you'll think you should have gone into programming instead of working with kids who don't want to be there.

All those visions of being an amazing teacher will be shattered by reality and you'll think you misunderstood what you were supposed to do with your life.  But just like you did that day when you got the unexpected call and they offered you the job, trust that God knows what he's doing.  You are supposed to be there.

You won't reach everyone personally or with the math, but you'll connect with many students.  You'll remind them that life is exciting when chasing a dream.  They'll take notes when you talk about what true success looks like and many will thank you.  Among other things, you were called to pass on those messages.  Let them flow through all aspects of your work.

Here's the key to success you'll eventually share with them:
Always do your best
At what's most important
Whether you feel like it or not

You and many others will be thankful for the lesson.

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