Monday, August 21, 2017

Preparing for a New School Year: Lessons Learned

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

Ah, August. These are the final hurried weeks before a new school year for some of us, and for a few of us, these are the nervous, nail-biting, nauseating and sleepless weeks before our first official teaching positions.

I remember my first-day-of-school anxiety before my “maiden voyage” as a middle school English teacher over fifteen years ago. I spent much of my time trying to anticipate every possible situation and devising plans to overcome any obstacle. I hoped that if I thought of every scenario, then perhaps I would have a smooth first year. But alas, we cannot predict the unpredictable. Each class and every student are unique, an infinite number of variables that are constantly changing. Every day brings new interruptions, necessitating sudden modifications to lesson plans, adapting to unforeseen situations. I learned that flexibility was not only a skill but a necessary tool for survival.

Since my first day, I have taught in public and private schools, from elementary through college. Though many of the lessons I have learned over the years may pertain to particular situations, a few rules of thumb apply to nearly every instructor. Perhaps I can help other teachers avoid a few of the pitfalls I have encountered by sharing a little advice.

1. “You are the teacher.” This was something my mentor said to me many years ago while I was an undergrad embarking on student teaching. These four words are heavy with meaning: I was in charge; I made the choices; I was not to let an unruly student take over my class. Most importantly, my sanity mattered as it affected my students’ experiences in my class and my own longevity in the profession. Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between high teacher stress and ineffective teaching (Greenfield 2015, p. 53). Some teachers may feel guilty if they do not spend hours after school, preparing dazzling lesson plans that only use original material, ignoring pleas from family and friends to relax once in a while. Even without assigning themselves additional work, teachers have plenty of paperwork to do. “You are the teacher” was not only a reminder that I was captain of my classroom, but also that it is my responsibility to take care of myself.

2. Document, document, document. Document conversations with students and use direct quotes as often as possible. Remain as objective as possible, too. Once I had an adult student ask for an unusual consideration in a class. I understood the request to have been approved of by the director of my department. Had I not documented the conversation with the student, I would not have had any record to refer to when I discussed the suggested change with my director. It turns out that the director had not approved any request, and the request went against the school’s policies, which I had not been aware of.

Documenting takes on more importance when teaching minors. Record unusual behavior to track patterns. Perhaps a student is just having an off day, or perhaps a student is exhibiting signs of abuse or changes in self-esteem. A student’s behavior may change so slightly that a downward trend will only be noticed by analyzing a record. A record may also be helpful should legal action need to be taken.

3. Avoid burnout by socializing with coworkers. Sometimes it is difficult to mingle with our coworkers after school because of other responsibilities, but we can eat lunch with our colleagues or attend professional development classes together. Like many teachers, I often prefer to make copies or input grades during breaks, but these singular activities are not rejuvenating, if I’m honest. Though I may not have to stay after class to catch up on work, I do not give myself the benefits of peer-to-peer interaction. Not only do we build friendships when we venture into the faculty workroom, but we create a supportive network for each other. Teachers may feel burned out when they do not feel supported by their colleagues (Perry et al., 2015, p. 8). And it is hard to feel supported if we do not offer support ourselves; we never know when someone needs a lifeline or when we will need one.

4. My final piece of advice is one that I learned recently, despite my many years in education, and this lesson abolished a prejudice I had against a seemingly corny practice: Reflection. I had thought reflection was the fuzzy side of lesson evaluation, which any good teacher does. “What went well with this lesson? What needs to be changed?” Actually, reflection is a far more austere action than I had first imagined. Reflection is required for true learning, as we must look much closer for meaning and find that meaning in ourselves. Greenfield says when teachers reflect on a bad experience (especially in the classroom), they can analyze the factors from a distance, look for the causes of these events, and then learn from the experience (p. 59). Taking the perspective of looking for ways to grow, teachers can reduce the impulse of blaming themselves. The painful part of reflecting is realizing our mistakes may have been made by our own false assumptions or neglecting to incorporate students’ points of view into our thinking. This I know from experience.

A while back, I had my students take a writing quiz, which consisted of them responding to a prompt using a formulaic paragraph that was required by the school; most of the students failed. My first instinct was to reteach the paragraph and hope they improved in time for the next quiz, but I realized that if I looked at the situation from my students’ perspective, I might learn something. After a moment of reflection, I recognized I had not given them enough authentic practice. Though the students had the rubric I used, they did not have enough practice using it effectively. So I wrote a paragraph with many mistakes, gave the students a chance to grade it using the rubric,and then we compared their results and discussed why they had scored my paragraph as they did. This exercise seemed to help them make the connection between their own writing and the scores they received, giving students a better idea of their weaknesses and where to improve. Since I realized I had failed to help my students see this connection before the quiz, I let them take the quiz again.

As with any advice you receive, you should consider taking mine with the proverbial grain of salt. Regardless if you are starting a new academic year, a new career, or are already in the throes of a term, I wish you smooth sailing.

Greenfield, B. (2015). How can teacher resilience be protected and promoted?
Educational & Child Psychology, 32(4), 52-68.

Perry, N. E., Brenner, C. A., Collie, R. J., Hofer, G. (2015). Thriving on challenge:
Examining one teacher’s view on sources for support for motivation and well-
being. Exceptionality Education International, 25(1), 6-34.

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