I’m in my third year out of university. The first six months of this year I took a detour away from teaching via a Master of Speech Pathology. Like many beginning teachers I had found the first two years of my career extremely challenging; both on a professional and a personal level. I was frustrated, bored, and wanted out. I’ve had an interest in health for many years (I planned on being either a journalist, doctor and/or volcanologist from age five), and Speech seemed to align with my interest in neuroplasticity, cognition and neuroscience in general. However, the time I spent in Speech, far away from schools and education research reignited my interest in education. I rediscovered my love for education research, for a career in academia, and for mathematics teaching.
I decided to abandon my studies in Speech at the end of the semester and increased my enrollment in research to full-time. I’ve been able to spend lots of time reading and writing, as well as reflecting of what I learnt in my first two years of full-time teaching. This is a collection of some of the things I learnt in my first two years of teaching.
I started my career wanting to appear really confident. I figured if I faked confidence it would eventually flow-over into my work. I didn’t want to show signs of weakness. The issue with this was that I didn’t ask for help when I need it, and because my colleagues thought that every was under control, they didn’t offer it.
New teachers: don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and mentoring. Discuss lesson plan ideas with senior colleagues and ask for suggestions on how they teach particular concepts. At the same time don’t assume that more experience colleagues have all the answers. I spent a long time thinking that my colleagues wouldn’t be interested in my ideas of how to teach: after thirty years in the classroom they’d have everything down pat. When I eventually had some conversations I began to realise that they enjoyed hearing fresh ideas and getting different perspectives. We had much to learn from each other.
Invite feedback. I’m very self-critical. I tend to assume I’m doing a terrible job until proven otherwise: I certainly felt that way about my teaching. Consequently, I decided to ask a range of more senior teachers and members of the school executive to watch some of my lessons and provide me with feedback of areas I could improve. I was pleasantly surprised. Feedback is useful for refining your teaching practice, allowing the identification of areas of strength and weakness. Positive feedback can provide beginning teachers with a confidence boost: it let me know that established teachers thought I was doing a ‘good’ job. Constructive criticism allows you to strategically target the most pressing concerns in practice, facilitating more rapid improvements.
Early in my first year of teaching I went to a professional development workshop where I was told ‘don’t work harder than your students.’ This is something I’ve endeavored to do. Whilst I believe that lessons should be carefully planned to target students interests and needs, I found little benefit in spending endless hours labouring on lesson plans and creating resources.
Enthusiasm is infectious: if you love your subject the students will notice and appreciate it. Similarly, if you don’t love what you’re teach, they’re gonna notice.
I was fortunate in that I was extremely comfortable with the material I was teaching, and hence I didn’t need to spend hours reviewing concepts and content before class. Where I do spend significant time is careful consideration of how to explain, in multiple ways, individual ideas. Many students need material explained a number of times, or in a number of ways, until they find a way that ‘clicks’ for them.
Always know ‘why’ you’re teaching a concept.
Make friends with other beginning teachers (and ideally teachers a few years out). Their support and common understanding is invaluable.
Students want to be known, valued and respected. If you treat others with dignity and kindness you’ll receive it.
Maintain a balance. Continue to play sports, go to concerts, knit, make doilies, create coat-hanger sculptures or whatever floats your boat.
Maintain your personal life. This is becomming more challenging with social media. My rule for social media is I don’t post something I wouldn’t be happy to show my grandmother or my principal.
Determine your classroom expectations and spend considerable time contemplating how you will deal with unexpected classroom situations before you enter the room. Know the school’s discipline policies and work with them. Liaise with your senior teachers. Not all issues can be solved by one teacher: many require a team-based approach. Requiring support for discipline issues does not make you a weak, ineffective teacher.
Finally, a few trends I noticed:
- If it’s windy the kids may go troppo
- If it’s hot the kids may go troppo
- If it’s about to storm the kids may go troppo
- If they’ve just had PE the kids may go troppo
- If it’s a casual clothes day the kids may go troppo
- If it’s a Friday afternoon or after lunch or one of them’s had a bad day, they may go troppo
Don’t take it personally, have the capacity to adjust your lessons at a moment’s notice, and keep some perspective.
And enjoy the process.