It feels strange to think about it, but I've nearly finished my first half of my first year of teaching. Already I can claim to know more things then when I started (such as where the button is on the photocopier to make it do things, how to tactically ignore year 8 students who wish to pull you into their melodramatics, and exactly which teacher has a secret stash of chocolate in their office.) At the same time, there are still so many things which I still have only the smallest, tiniest clues about. How to motivate a student who doesn't care about school. How to effectively teach and engage a class which contains students at multiple ability levels. How in the world you can reach, teach and maintain positive working relationships with 150 students at once. Whilst being extremely sleep-deprived. And sometimes hormonal.
But, in the spirit of distilling my many, many minutes of experience into bite-sized pieces of wisdom-y goodness, let me give you my top 6 things I have learnt from my first six months of graduate teaching. Three of these things will be in this post, watch out for the next post for the next three
In no particular order (drumroll)
I wish I'd known the importance of procedures and routines
I completed my teaching training over one year postgraduate, which meant that I had only 12 weeks of school placement in which to observe, teach and learn about school life. Most importantly, none of these experiences took place at the very beginning of the school year, or even the beginning of semester. So, when you walk into a classroom to teach and observe, you are entering a place where routines and procedures for how to behave and act are already in place. Most of the time, the classrooms I went into were set up so well that I didn't even notice the subtle ways in which the teacher was running the show.
So how did that translate into my experience? Sure, I knew the importance of 'never smiling before Easter', and I tried my darnedest to be a 'tough teacher' at the start of the year. But I spent half a lesson on rules for each of my classes, then got annoyed when my students didn't seem to understand my expectations. What I should have done was spend two weeks practising, reinforcing and reminding students of the rules and expectations. How to enter the classroom. What happens when someone swears. Where and how to hand in assessment tasks. What to do if you forget your pen or book. When to ask to go to the toilet or grab a drink. And because I didn't really teach these expectations, I wasn't really sure of what they were anyway, which led to me being inconsistent with my reinforcement of rules. Which of course, led to a few classes being less then ideal when it came to classroom behaviour.
Next semester I will be starting again, and you can be sure I will be spending the first two weeks at least going over these things. And I will be reading 'The First Days of School' by Harry Wong. Despite the fact that it is written mainly for primary school teachers, I have heard lots of good things about its' usefulness in setting up a classroom.
I wish I'd understood how students learn
Somehow, in the sunshiny world of university, good teaching equates to 'kinasthetic-inquiry-based-Bloom's level-affirming-group work' learning. I came out of uni with the expectation that if I could only hook my students in with a thought-provoking lesson opening and create brilliant lessons where students constructed their knowledge from nothing more then a sentence prompt, I would be teaching. And more importantly, they would be learning.
That particular teaching bent lasted for all of about one week.Which was about the time it took for me to be falling asleep on every conceivable horizontal surface at 4pm. Floor. Table. Couch. My desk.
Not only is creating those types of lessons exhausting, it's also completely unnecessary. Inquiry based lessons are like dark chocolate, you only want to have a little of it, and make sure it's good quality. Basic talk and chalk lessons should be your meat and potatoes, with some guided and independent practise thrown in. In my short experience students cope very well with it, I have never seen a student throw up their hands and say 'Miss, my pedagogical variety and learning style needs have not been met by this lesson'. (BTW, don't get me started on learning styles. I will be committing a whole post to that particular brand of snake oil soonish).
And guess what? Students actually learn from this type of lesson. It is too easy for inquiry based lessons to be really vague in what students were supposed to learn, whereas a well structured lessons allows for revision, review and repetition, all actions which enforce memory and recall for facts and general knowledge. Facts and general knowledge act as the foundation for students to build more abstract concepts later on.
Read Daniel T Willingham's 'Why Student's Don't Like School'. Then read Hattie for real (don't just skim the summary pages) and see what he has to say about the effectiveness of direct instruction. Do your research. Don't believe it just because it's the latest education fad.
I wish I'd been easier on myself
This might be a personality thing, but I expected a lot from myself in that first term. My particular situation meant that I had 6 different class groups to prepare for (as in different year levels, different subject, different topic) over a 4 day allocation, within a faculty that had no head. My subject had very little written curriculum and lacked school based resources. I'm not saying this to bash my school, which has been generally wonderful, but to put things in perspective for myself. That's a tough gig, even without being a first year teacher with an healthy dose of naive optimism. I spent the first couple of weeks freaking out that I was doing a terrible job and that some day the principle would burst into my classroom and demand that I leave! Instead, I should have chilled the flip out and stopped trying to be the best teacher in the universe (seriously, I somehow thought I would achieve that in first year), and focused on being at least an adequate teacher. Now, I work on one thing at a time that I want to improve, and I don't expect things to change overnight, or even over a term.
First year is so difficult precisely because some in the profession, and sometimes parents, can expect you to act the same way as a teacher with 20 years of experience. On your first day. It's unfair, but you need to temper those expectations and just do the best job you are capable of at the time. You will seek continual improvement naturally, it's part of being young and idealist and an educator. Face the fact that it will take probably 3 years to get really comfortable with your job.
Whew, that's enough for now, Part Two will be out sometime soonish...