Just four weeks ago, I completed my first year of teaching. Somehow, within the chaos, self-doubt, sleepless nights, and shimmering moments of success, I managed to continue to learn and grow as both an educator and an individual. In fact, I think I learned more from my students, my colleagues, and my own experience than my students managed to learn from me. Regardless, I know that the wisdom I gained in my first year will serve to make the coming years more enriching, more successful, and more fulfilling for both my students and myself. What follows is only five of the countless lessons I learned, which apply not only to my classroom, but to my everyday life.
1. Specificity is Key
When I first started teaching, I had no idea what I wanted my classroom to look like. I didn’t know how I wanted my desks arranged, how I wanted papers handed in, or even how I wanted students to label their assignments. As a result, I was rarely specific or consistent. My desk arrangement changed at least every quarter, students handed their papers in upside down, backwards, and slantways, and sometimes, I had no idea which assignment I was grading because I never taught my students how to write a proper heading. I learned, the hard way, that being specific about everything in my classroom was the key to managing it effectively. There is power in being specific: specificity shows that you know exactly what you want and how you want it; you are in control.
2. Raise the Bar
I cannot count the times that I toned down the difficulty level of assignments because I thought it was “too much” for my kids. What I didn’t realize is that students will rise, or fall, to meet their teacher’s expectations. In the words of Harry Wong, “Students tend to learn as little or as much as their teachers expect.” When the expectations are high, students exert the effort and energy to rise up and meet them. If the expectations are low, so too is students’ effort and energy, creating a culture of apathy and negativity. Raising the bar, then, is crucial for students’ success both in the classroom and in life.
I asked my students to create a poetry book that contained examples of each poetic device we studied. This particular student went above and beyond expectations!
3. Don’t React, Respond
When I look back at how I handled disruptive situations in my classroom, I’m a little embarrassed. It was rare that I managed to stop and think before reacting to something that happened in my classroom. If a student did something hilarious, it wasn’t uncommon for me to burst out laughing, completely derailing class so that I could collect myself. If my most challenging class was completely out of control, I often reacted with explosive, harsh fury. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the school year that I was able to change my behavior from reactive to responsive. Calculating a mature and controlled response to a given situation is much more effective than unleashing whatever gut reaction arrived initially. This sets a precedent that disruptive situations will be handled calmly and effectively each time they arise. It also reduces tension between teacher and student and shifts control back to the teacher. Pause. Breathe. Respond.
4. Try Again Differently
Sometimes I left school at the end of the day feeling successful, like I’d achieved what I set out to do and manifested my intentions. Other times I felt deflated, like I’d failed to turn my vision into reality and let my kids down. It was in these moments that I had to remind myself that I could try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, I had the chance to try again differently. If my lesson didn’t go as planned or the students didn’t connect to the material, I could revisit the same concept tomorrow using alternate methods. I could give them a different task or read a different poem; I could explain something with a real-life example or show a video. I realized that I had options, and each day was a new opportunity to start over. There are few jobs that allow you to simply forget about yesterday and start anew. That’s one thing I love about teaching: everyday at 3:30 pm I can let my students go home knowing that the next day at 8:00 am I’ll see them again, and together we’ll try again, hopefully a little better than the day before.
5. Never Stop Learning
If there is one thing I am proud of about my first year, it is that I never stopped looking at my teaching with a critical eye and asking myself, “how can I do this more effectively?” I took risks, and I was never too proud or afraid to incorporate suggestions from my colleagues and my students. As a result, my classroom was constantly evolving, and I was constantly learning—learning from my successes, my mistakes, and my failures.
Whether you are a school teacher, a professor, a yoga instructor, or a coach, never stop being a student. As teachers, we must be students first. We must forever cultivate our curiosity. We must always keep an open mind. We must be brave enough to experiment, knowing that if we are not successful, we have not failed— we have merely learned an invaluable lesson for tomorrow.
K(now) W(onder) L(earned) charts are an activity that I learned from one of my fellow teachers. It turned into a great way to engage my students in what they are reading!
Fellow teachers, what are some lessons you’ve learned throughout your career? Share them in the comments below!