I just completed my first year of teaching public school–middle school special education, to be precise. Granted, this was not my first experience standing in front of a classroom. But this past school year was my first year in the U.S. public school system, not just as a teacher. It was also my first time teaching full-time, five days a week, without much time to prepare in advance, because I got hired only a few weeks before the start of the school year. To be honest, realizing how much I did not know when I startet teaching makes me fully understand why district interns are considered “underprepared teachers.” However—and this is the last thing I thought I would say at the end of my first year as a special education teacher at a Title-1 middle school: What saved me was my experience in higher education, both as an instructor and and a doctoral candidate. I will write more about how graduate work can be beneficial for a career in public school teaching in a later post. In this post, I want to talk about some of the resources and strategies that helped me during my first year as a public school teacher. I hope other new teachers, especially those who are still earning their credential while already in the classroom full-time, will find this useful. This is part one of a three-part weekly series of posts.
1) Supervisors vs. Mentors
Having a trusted mentor can make a huge difference in our experience as new teachers. Depending on your credentialing program, i.e. university-based or alternative, you will already have an academic advisor and/or a practicum supervisor. While an advisor’s/supervisor’s work can be limited to supervising your academic and/or professional progress, the role of a mentor is more complex. A mentor is a person who should not only be an expert in your field, but also someone you feel comfortable approaching about anything from professional challenges and concerns to career advice. I’ve been fortunate to have my practicum supervisor become one of my two most important mentors on this teaching journey. However, this may not always be the case. So it is important to proactively seek out support. If you feel comfortable doing so, you may already ask about supports for new teachers during your job interview. That is what I did, and it worked out well for me. There is a teacher shortage, and many of us are barely prepared when we enter the classroom. Veteran teachers know that, and knowing one’s limits and when to ask for help is just as important as hitting the ground running once the school year starts. What’s more, through working with several more experienced teachers, you will eventually find out who you connect with and thus identify potential mentors.
2) Your Cohort is Your Support Network
No matter in what kind of credentialing program you are or were a part of when you start teaching, your cohort is another valuable source of both professional and emotional support. I see my classmates two evenings a week during class time. And the opportunity to exchange experiences, vent, and ask for advice is just as important as the actual content of our classes. I found it helpful to have a sympathetic outlet for that first-year teacher anxiety and a network of individuals going through similar experiences, outside of my immediate work environment.
3) Get Organized!
There is never enough time for lesson planning. That is especially true for first-year teachers who have no previous lesson plans to fall back on. In the case of special education teachers, there is the constant stream of IEP-related tasks in addition to our instructional duties. Research has shown that the tension between lesson planning and IEP-related duties is one of the biggest challenges for special education teachers across career stages. So the earlier we find ways of dealing with this tension, the better. This may sound obvious, but planning helps. Depending on your district, you might have a conference period, but especially during your first year of teaching, this time may be better spent taking care of tasks that require the support of another teacher. Besides, one period a day is not enough to plan and grade for five periods. I was pretty much drowning in lesson planning and grading all the way until winter break. Having almost a month off finally allowed me to do what I would ideally have done before the beginning of the school year: planning several weeks ahead of time. By the time winter break rolled around, I had also gotten a good sense of how much it takes me to plan for each subject. In my case, it was roughly one hour per subject, per week (excluding grading). So in order to lesson plan for an entire week, I need five hours. And the best way to make sure I make enough time is to block those five hours in my agenda. For me personally, it’s difficult to spend more than one or two hours at once planning. So I made sure to block one- or two-hour periods and to set a clear goal (e.g. plan social studies for the week) for each of them. The same is true for grading. Do not put it off until the last minute! In my district, we have four grading deadlines per semester, and the first time around I ended up spending an entire weekend grading assignments I had not graded over a period of almost two months. Don’t be that teacher. Grading is not pleasant as it is, but as a new teacher, binge grading adds an additional layer of stress you really don’t need. Once you have an idea of how long it takes you to grade your assignments, make sure to allocate enough time for grading each week, and then stick to that schedule. And if you’re looking for more specific advice around effective planning from someone who’s spent some time exploring the issue in his personal life and in his academic work, take a look at Cal Newport’s blog.
4) Classroom Rules You Are Actually Going to Enforce
Coming from college teaching, I wasn’t used to providing—and enforcing!—anything more than common-sense rules: turn of your phones, don’t be disruptive, focus. I learned pretty quickly that all of these things are not only rules that need to be enforced in order to be effective in a middle school classroom, but they may also require extensive modeling. If one of my students in a college classroom was checking Facebook instead of paying attention to class, I could be sure they didn’t do so because they didn’t understand what I meant when I asked them to focus. For younger students, especially in elementary and early middle school, these instructions may be less clear. Thus, modeling is key. In addition, setting up a rule you are not willing or able to enforce will highlight your lack of consistency and may thus do more harm than not having the rule at all. For me, that meant doing something I would not recommend anyone do unless they really have to: modifying rewards and consequences half-way through the school year. My biggest take-away from this experience has been to keep the rules few, simple, and manageable and to make sure they have one goal: to promote student learning in a safe and welcoming environment. For instance, I do tell my students to keep their hands and feet to themselves, for the sake of respect for others’ personal space. However, I do not care how exactly my students sit in their chairs. If something helps a student focus without interrupting another student, then there is no reason for policing that behavior. There is plenty of research to support the argument that a restrictive physical environment negatively affects student learning. And as new teachers, we should be conscious of the motivations guiding our behavior management approach. I like to ask myself: Do I find this rule important because it promotes student learning, or is it simply a way for me to deal with my own insecurities as a new teacher? Finally, I feel torn about having students come up with their own rules. Even though this approach has been much talked about, there is, in fact, little empirical evidence to suggest that students will actually be more willing to follow these rules. Personally, I’ve been skeptical about this approach, because there is an element of dishonesty embedded in a process that is not fully open-ended from the beginning. Instead, I have found creating the rules collaboratively and explaining the rationale behind certain rules that are non-negotiable in my classroom (such as a strict no-cellphone policy) to be a workable approach.
5) Teachers Pay Teachers Is Your Friend
I was considering not even including this piece of advice, because anyone who’s spent so much as a few days in K-12 education, knowns that Teachers Pay Teachers can be a lifesaver. And it definitely has been for me. So if there is just one person out there who does not know about this resource yet, make sure to check it out! That being said, I’ve also found it important to modify the lessons to accommodate my students’ needs and make them fit the broader units. Most of the lesson plans have been designed with general education students working at grade level in mind. However, many of them also provide a great supplement and/or starting point to create lessons that allow students with learning gaps and/or challenges to access the general education curriculum. Teachers Pay Teachers is a particularly great resource if you are looking for materials that work with interactive notebooks, a tool I will be talking about in my next post.