Note: Please excuse this excessively long post. I have spent weeks writing it and preparing all the graphic elements. Thank you if you read all of it.
As a new teacher in the building, it is often a struggle at first to get to know the students — to figure out what motivates them. It's also true that students like to push the boundaries with the new teacher — Is she going to let us talk all hour with no consequences? Will she let me get out of doing any work if I show up without a pencil? Hey — if we can make her yell at us, maybe we can get good video for YouTube!
Okay, maybe that's not how students really think, but somewhere in their subconsciouses, they'll pushing those boundaries to found out exactly where they are. Children (even the ones I birthed) are wired to do this.
Once those students realize that you're not budging, and that the administration and their parents are going to back you up, they settle down and return to the business of learning. In my experience, your second year at a school is much better because the kids have all heard what you're about.
I say all this because this year started off a bit rough. While most of my classes were fairly well behaved overall, and the students had a fun reward to work toward at the end of the year, I had “that class” with almost 30 kids. (I also had a class with many kids who hated reading, were struggling with bullying, and trust issues.) A handful of them wanted to spend the hour talking and roaming the room. A couple more needed copious amounts of adult attention, which they demanded by asking questions about everything. (What color is the sky? What page are we on? I don't understand anything you just said. Why do we have to write so much?) A quarter of the class wanted to be entertained by the handful. The rest of the class sat quietly and dutifully waited for the other half to get real already.
After several months, a flurry of phone calls home, referrals, and a couple kids being moved out of that class, they had settled down and became my best class. All of them were (and still are!) very smart — they just needed some discipline — and not just in my class! At least one of the students in that class (and two in the other class I mentioned) showed significant emotional and behavioral growth over the year. I'd say that my work with these classes produced excellent results.
I tell this story, because reflecting on situations like this is what helps us grow — as people, as educators, as writers.
More than 80 percent of my students passed the state reading test.
I had two sections of 7th grade literature: One full of kids who hated, or barely tolerated reading, and the other an “honors” class full of kids who loved reading or were at least strongly encouraged to read at home. We worked hard reading, creating our interactive notebooks, and writing in response to reading. While I think I can do better in terms of reading more and giving students more choice (I love the reading workshop format promoted by Donalyn Miller!), I think they really pulled this one out. I'd love to celebrate, but I can't help thinking about those students who worked hard all year, who completed every assignment, who waited patiently while others acted out, who exhibited discipline beyond their years, but missed proficient by a point or two. What are we teaching these kids?!
That being said, my percentage is up from the last two years (about 50-60 percent of those students passed) because I moved to a school closer to my home, and down from my first school where 92 percent passed their English II EOI.
Glowing evaluations. While my points were down a tenth from last year, I felt the evaluation was more meaningful because the principal spent more time in my class and more time reflecting on what he actually saw. I was able to go to his office after the observation or evaluation and discuss each element. I felt that the principal was honest with me, and was trying to help me become a better teacher. I felt as if he were investing in my career, as well. This is the kind of feedback from administration that is crucial to growing rock-star teachers.
From these evaluations and based, in part, on student feedback and the reading test, I'd say here are some of my strengths and weaknesses. For the record, I went over this list with my principal and department head in a reflective interview and both agreed with my list.
I spent a significant amount of time networking with educators both inside and outside my school. If you're a part of #oklaed, you've seen me around. If you have an education blog, I probably read it. I understand that the best way to grow is with a community, and I crave that interaction. The amount of time I invested shows in my TLE score for Professional Development and
I did a better job this year of planning both short- and long-term goals for myself and my students. I started over the summer making my own curriculum maps and planning the broad strokes of each unit. Then, during the school year, I used feedback from STAR testing, Alpha+ testing, student feedback, and my own observations to adjust those units.
During the school year, I make plans for the following week or two and post them to PlanBook.com. I then shared the link to my plans with my principal. The nice thing about Plan Book is that I can shift, extend or bump my lessons as needed.
If I had to do it all over again though, I'd do a better job of planning for the publication stage of the writing process.
I spent time refreshing my content knowledge by reading blogs written by published authors and editors. I have dreamed of writing a novel since I was in middle school. As a matter of fact, I got in trouble in English class once for writing a book. (I was supposed to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird in class, but I'd finished it in three days. For the record, I aced the test over it.) I have still not written a book yet. Why? For many years, I thought my ideas stunk. Now that I've worked my way past that, and am devising interesting ideas, I am beset by the notion that what I write has to be perfect right now. I have spent this year reading about the processes I need to take to work past this (I am definitely a plotter, not a pantser…) and reminded my students — I mean myself — that the first draft can be trash, and that's OK. The trick is to revise and edit until it's great. This was my classroom mantra: REVISE and EDIT! While some kids hated this process, most of them eventually saw the value in it.
I set clear expectations for my students. This includes classroom procedure and behavioral expectations. I must give thanks to my wonderful co-teacher from the previous two years. She has more than 35 years of experience as a special education teacher, and she invested in helping me create classroom procedures that help students be successful. I learned to do things like assign row leaders, make assignments the ticket out the door (so all of them would be turned in), create a hand signal system so that kids can quietly let me know that they need to sharpen their pencil or use the restroom, organize places in my room for students to keep binders, folders and composition books. She also taught me how to be consistent but fair in my expectations, and how to communicate those expectations to my students in a loving way. That said, I still need to work on that last part. I still need to work on maintaining patience, particularly toward the end of the year when we're all seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Overall, my evaluation shows that her investment in me paid off for my students, especially those who wanted to learn, and who appreciated a well-ordered classroom in which to think and write:
I am constantly looking for ways to improve. I want to be the best teacher I can possibly be. I know I have limitations. I'm not the exuberant teacher who breaks out in song in the middle of class, or the rebel teacher who subverts the system just enough to get the kids on their side. I'm also not the statuesque teacher who the kids follow just because of their physical stature. I'm a tough teacher, I have high expectations, but I also care enough about my kids to provide as must scaffolding as I can so that any child who wants to can be successful in my class.
You struggle with behaving in class? I'm happy to remind you as often as needed to help you stay on task. You struggle with organization? I'll help you with your binder, and provide a place for you to keep it in my class. You struggle with the content? I'll provide you with opportunities to revise your work, and ask me questions until you get it right.
I want all my kids to be successful students so they can catch their dreams.
I embedded technology into my classroom instructions beyond just putting words on the interactive whiteboard. I used to own a web design and hosting company. Before that, I served as a newspaper reporter. Before that, I was a student fascinated by computers. Somewhere in my house is a picture of several 8th grade yearbook staff members discussing a layout. You can see me in the background working on an old Apple computer. So it's natural for me to want to embed technology into my class. Fortunately, I had an interactive whiteboard that worked all year, and access to Safari Montage, for great videos. My students created PowerPoints, and worked on filming some tutorials. I'd love to take tech further via Google Docs, blogging (I started to set this up, but we ran out of time), and social media. But that will take time and school buy-in to develop.
I sought feedback from multiple sources, including educators from across the state, and from my students themselves. Not only do I ask for student feedback in the context of class, but I also look for those non-verbal cues and ask them directly in written form. Sometimes I ask for feedback via bell work, other times through exit tickets. My favorite end of year activity is to ask students for feedback for next year — and also for them to give advice to my students for the next year. This year, I
stole borrowed an idea from an Oklahoma math teacher. You can read about her end-of-year feedback activity in which students suggest things she should keep, change, start, and stop.
I worked well in teams — I can adapt to the needs of the team, whether I need to be a leader, or support the vision of the person who is leading.
Sometimes a team needs a leader; other times, the team needs people to work. I can fulfill both roles, as needed. There are some people who have to lead, and who will do everything they can to push out other leaders. And then there are people who are locked into following. While we definitely need leaders and followers, we need people who can fulfill either function for the benefit of the group, or to reach a goal.
I made it clear to my students that I am there to help them, both individually, or as a group. That said, help does not mean giving them the answers. It means teaching them how to find the answers themselves. Give a kid an answer, and he learns for a moment. Teach a kid how to find the answers, and he learns for a lifetime. If he can learn anything, he can become anything. A few years ago, my son's class made pictures of themselves holding up signs to describe their mothers. One of my son's signs said, “You're awesome.” Later, I asked him what he meant by that. What was awesome about me? He replied that I had wanted to be several things — a writer, a business owner, a teacher — and I had caught all of those dreams. He thought that was awesome. I want my students to be awesome, too!
I have high content and behavior expectations for all my students, and I am happy to provide them with the supports they need to reach those expectations. I just had a conversation with my mother the other day about classroom discipline. Now, I know this context is completely different, but my mom was a 3rd and 4th grade Sunday School teacher for many years. She modeled having high discipline expectations. During our conversation yesterday, she called herself a disciplinarian, and I realized that I am, too. That said, we are not inflexible, unemotional, or uncaring. But we both realize how important it is for kids to be able to pay attention and focus on their work.
I also understand that, unlike my mom, I am teaching a large number of students, many of whom come from families that are poverty stricken. They need a lot more support in the classroom to be successful, and so I, with copious input from my administration, developed a behavior management system that provided supports for students while also holding them accountable for their choices. Classroom management systems must be fair, consistent, and used in order to be effective. Sometimes, that means one of the good kids gets caught up in it on a bad day. Sometimes, that means a kid gets redirect and assigned consequences frequently. I based my classroom management plan on Smart Classroom Management, the advice and direction of my administration, and lessons I learned from the co-teacher I mentioned earlier.
I will say that by the time testing season rolled around, my kids were much more successful as students than they were at the beginning of the year, and I had gained the respect of two very hard to reach cases. I gained their respect by building a relationship built on fairness, consistency, and professionalism, on my part. I try very hard to work my classroom management system without getting angry and yelling, I try to show the kids that I am not wanting to “get them in trouble,” but want them to be successful. I think my Student Success Game helped with this. I also am not afraid to admit when I have made mistakes, and to apologize, both privately, and in public.
I will never forget those two, and I hope I have made positive impact on all of their lives.
Naturally, it is equally important for me to look at my weaknesses so that I can work to improve in those areas.
I seriously need to work on my paper and time organization. I start out with a nice, neat desk, a filing system for the papers I think I'll receive, and then about a week later, my desk looks like a tornado hit it (minus the tigers…). I have always struggled with this, and will continue to do so until I die. I am hoping that, by then, my struggle will have resulted in significant improvement. At home, that means I need to throw more stuff away. At school, this means I must have a place where everything belongs, and put it there ASAP.
That said, there are some things that I successfully organized, like my student's papers. I have a system which ensures that nothing gets lost. If that paper was turned in, I have it, and it's with all the other turned in papers.
As for time organization, I do sometimes get locked into doing what I love — like reading educational blogs, planning inspirational lessons, tracking student statistics — and end up getting a couple of weeks behind on the things that I hate doing, like grading papers. I love giving students feedback, and seeing them implement my suggestions, or what they have learned based on our discussion. But I hate sitting down at home or school and trying to qualify a student's work and put a number or letter grade on it. I also took longer with this process because I kept a paper gradebook, in addition to the online grades. I was not required to do this, but I have had entire websites eaten by servers before, so I'd rather be safe than sorry. That paper gradebook did save us one time, so it was worth it… In the future, I will work on grading smaller chunks of student work, grading only one aspect of the work, and spending more time giving students actionable feedback.
I need to find more ways to celebrate success with my students. Last year, we had a certain systems in place that made it easy to celebrate success. I didn't have that structure this year, so I struggled with providing a fair and consistent success measure. I think I also allowed the behavior issues to affect my perceptions, so I'll need to guard against this in the future. I think one way I can do this is to gamify some of my lessons — like maybe the writing process — perhaps a giant game board with the writing process mapped out and kids can keep track of their progress. Since this was my first year at this school, I spent so much time getting to know the existing culture and people that I didn't have the time or energy to invest in creating this strategy. This is something I'd like to work on in the future.
I need to remember to summarize my lessons at the end of the class period. This is something my principal looked for specifically in his observations, and I often got caught up in the end-of-class, oh-my-goodness-the-bell-is-about-to-ring procedures and didn't summarize. That said, I wrote a reminder into my lesson plans, and encouraged students to summarize verbally or in writing, as much as possible. I will say that I did remember to start each lesson with a refresher from the previous day, or a previous lesson, so we eventually did summarize. Just not necessarily at the end of that class period.
I need to find more ways to meet the needs of my gifted students. Over the past three years, I have spent a significant amount of time learning how to scaffold for and support my struggling students. But I haven't invested as much time as I need to in meeting the needs of the kid who is bored in class because he's already figured out the lesson in five minutes. I am thinking AP training may help this. Or reading resources published by teachers who regularly work with gifted and talented students. At any rate, this is definitely an area I'd like to improve.
I am still trying digest everything I have learned and experienced this year. But overall, I know I have grown as a teacher, and that is often all we as human beings can do. My eyes are open, and I am looking forward to seeing what next year brings.