I think it would be appropriate for my first blog post ever to tell you my readers how I nearly quit teaching in my first month on the job. Some of you may be able to relate to some of these mistakes, or if you are a newbie maybe you can learn a few things.
My first year teaching was a very challenging experience for me for a number of reasons.
Mostly it was my false expectations of what teaching really was, my lack of preparation (I was called in two weeks after the school year had already started) and my erroneous idea that having a first degree in chemistry was enough for teaching high school chemistry (Spoiler! I was dead wrong).
Here are a few mistakes that I made during my first four years on the job and what I have taken away from those experiences. And no I didn't quit, not until about a decade later … but that's for another day.
Mistake Number 1
Taking outdated advice
I got a lot of advice in my first week on the job, some of it good and some of it bad.
But the one I remember clearly, mostly due to the disastrous effect it had was this one:
“Don’t smile. Otherwise they will walk all over you”
So I readied myself with my best “I mean business face” and walked into a classroom of teenagers and… let's just say it did not go well. There was an explosive confrontation with a female student which ended in the principal's office.
It went downhill from there. Students refused to approach me after that “incident”. I started receiving quit a few calls from concerned parents who were getting complaints from their children that they just didn't like chemistry anymore.
I never had a good rapport with that particular class, after that and I spent most of the year anticipating graduation.
Here's What I learned
1. Don't take advice from teachers who have not updated their classroom management strategies since the 1980s.
Now don’t get me wrong... I did get some great advice. And I will be forever grateful to those who took time out of their busy schedules to point me in the right direction. But, the fact is your students will typically respond to you with the same energy that you give them. Coming on too strong with the " I mean business attitude" only creates an us versus them attitude in the classroom and that won't do anyone any good.
2. It is definitely okay to smile.
Contrary to popular belief, smiling on the first day doesn’t communicate weakness or suggest that you are a push over (not doing what you say you are going to do does). A smile communicates above all else that you are kind, and polite and it makes a good first impression.
Mistake Number 2
Weak Lesson Planning
As I mentioned earlier, I was called in for my first teaching job two weeks into the the beginning of the school year. I was fresh out of university and I had never stepped foot in a classroom before. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing and I mistakenly believed that getting students to “know the content” was my ultimate goal as a teacher.
I walked into class with two sheets of paper with paragraphs upon paragraphs of content on acids and alkalis, a few diagrams here and there and a few hastily written objectives ( I had about 7 written).
When I was finally done after 40 min I turned to the class and asked “ Do you understand?” all I got back were blank stares.
I soon learned, from the head of the science department that my students were complaining that they were completely lost in my class.
My advice to you
Ensure that you have a great lesson planned for your first day (No pressure) !
It makes a great first impression and gets your students excited for your class. There is no room to leave your students bored and uninspired...especially in the first week of classes when they are most excited.
Mistake Number 3
Neglecting formative assessments
If you’re like I was and you don’t know the difference between a formative and summative assessment then I've got you:
A formative assessment is method used to monitor student learning during a lesson or unit and a summative assessment is used to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit.
Formative assessments are important for both teachers and students. Teachers can find ways to improve their teaching strategy, focus on student problem areas or review concepts that need clarification. Similarly, student can become aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
I knew that checking for student understanding was necessary, but in my mind that didn't go beyond asking " Do you understand?". And when I did administer quizzes or gave my students assignments I never looked for trends in the marks (like most of them having difficulty answering a particular question) or when I did notice, I rarely ever did anything about it.
So of course when end of term results came about their performances were... lackluster to say the least.
My advice to you
1. Formative assessments should be part of EVERY lesson.
Asking students whether or not they understand something is not enough. Most of them will just say yes, and those who don't won't say anything at all.
A lot of the time, students don't realize they have difficulty with a concept until they are quizzed on it it.
2. Administer different forms of low stakes assessments which are aligned with the lesson objectives.
These include creating concept maps, writing up summaries or forming groups where they are required to share their ideas or explain concepts to their peers.
Mistake Number 4
I did not have a classroom management plan
I'm not sure where on the list this mistake should be, I debated putting this as mistake number 1 because of how important it is to have a classroom management plan. After years of teaching I now believe that having a robust classroom management plan is even more important than having a good lesson plan.
The way I see it, no matter how brilliant your lesson is , you won't get anything done if you have to constantly stop you class to deal with behavioral issues.
Of course I knew having class rules were important, but in my mind that meant me telling my students what not to do rather than what I expected them to do (there is definitely a difference).
For example, instead of telling my students “ You should raise your hands when you have a question” I instead told them “Do not speak when I am speaking”. And when it came to my policy on home-work and assignments, I proceeded to tell them:
“There is only one excuse for not doing my home work and that is death… your death”
I am not proud of that moment. Outside of getting a laugh out of a few students, it of course made absolutely no difference. I constantly got assignments and homework submitted late… in fact, it was so bad that I was convinced it was being done deliberately.
Here's What I learned
1. Having a solid and detailed classroom management plan is a definite requirement as it promotes an organized and engaging learning environment.
Not only does it set the tone for the school year, having a clear and detailed classroom management plan can save you lots of time and energy so you spend more time teaching rather than constantly dealing with disciplinary issues.
2. As much as possible write your rules and expectations as affirmative statements. Instead of telling students what they should not do, tell them exactly what they should be doing.
3. There should be clearly outlined consequences for violations of class rules
Having a plan is one thing enforcing it is another. Interventions should be in place to deal with behavioral issues such as letters/ meeting with parents detentions time out (if dealing with younger students) etc.
4. And most importantly, be consistent.
There is no point in having consequences for violations of class rules if you aren’t going to stick to them. If you tell students that late assignments three times in a row will warrant a letter to their parents and you have not sent that letter after the fifth infraction then your students will know you do not mean what you say and they won't trust you.
Mistake Number 5
I believed that Knowing the Content was enough
You haven’t taught until they've learned - John Wooden.
When I decided to take my first teaching job I was confident that having a first degree in biochemistry and chemistry was all I needed, (clearly the administration thought so too since I was hired for the job with zero teaching experience or training). In my country it is often times difficult to get teachers who are trained and also have science degrees.
I knew the content and I had the erroneous idea that my main goal as a teacher was getting my students to also know the content. I believed that once I stood in front of a classroom and ran my mouth for 40 minutes that constituted teaching. I was genuinely shocked at the end of the school year when almost half of my class had grades below 50%.
It took me some time and reflection to realize that teaching is not simply the transfer of knowledge from the head of the teacher into the heads of the students. That is just not how the brain works. Its an art form really, that requires care and patience... some thing I was lacking in the beginning of my career.
Here's what I learned
Teaching is more about teaching children how to learn rather than what to learn.
To be a good teacher means helping students form connections, to relate new knowledge to what they already know and to help them apply new knowledge to new situations.
In Chemistry, I find more meaningful learning occurs when I show my students something rather than overwhelm them with abstract information.
Teaching goes way beyond just knowing the content.
If you are new to teaching or you just want some tips and advice from a flawed teacher who went from learning on the job to deep diving into the realm of educational research be sure to stick around for much much more.