June 21, 2012

Welcome to Teaching

Math bloggers from all over have joined forces to greet new teachers with our best nuggets of wisdom. Check out the ever growing #matheme page to see them all.

Hello, and welcome to teaching!

Congratulations on deciding to step into the classroom.  Teaching is a wonderful profession and we are so thrilled to have you.  It is a challenging but rewarding job that will take over your life (in the best way, we'll try to make sure you still get to have a life outside of it though).  You may think you have all the answers, and you're right.  Whether you've completed a full teaching program with hundreds of hours of observations or are jumping in with your memories of being a student, you know enough to get through today.  And if you're here reading this letter you know to seek advice.  So, you know everything you need to right now and you are able to find all the answers you might want later.  Be confident, if you chose to teach you know what you're doing enough to get started.

To become a great teacher you absolutely must be flexible: things won't go as expected, sometimes better and sometimes worse than anticipated, either way you have to have to have to be able to go with the flow.  Flexibility is my number one characteristic of a good teacher- figure out what gets you frazzled and then figure out how to keep it together.  When you're teaching you are usually the only one in charge in a room of up to 30 teenagers; you have to know now that things won't go as you expected and make your peace with that.  If you can be flexible - adjust in the moment or announce that you need a moment - then everything else will come in time.  

To keep yourself sane: Get out of your classroom at lunch- unless the faculty room is filled with grumpy complainers, avoid them when they're venting but don't write them off as bad teachers.  I always take Saturdays off from all school work, come up with a schedule that works for you.  Try to go out with friends after school on Friday (form a new teacher crew during orientation and trade phone numbers immediately, you might not see each other in school for the next several months!) but Friday nights feel free to go to bed early.  Sometimes it's better to just sit down quietly at your desk when class is totally out of control- either the kids will realize they're being insane, the few who are with you will come get any help they need or you'll lose the rest of the period.  No matter what happens, if you sit down you aren't yelling, saying something you'll regret or making rash decisions- next class you will come in with a plan and the students will recognize that they weren't with you and the vast majority will feel bad about it if you've built any sort of relationship with the class.  Certainly try other strategies first, but when you reach that point- sitting down isn't admitting failure, it's giving yourself the opportunity to regroup.

Put up some positive reminders: I keep a quote in my desk drawer that I only find when I'm digging through the drawer for something I can't find, I leave a few positive emails in my inbox and I put up these fan posters right next to my desk.  Do whatever works for you, but find ways to give yourself a boost when you're drained (you will be- teaching is tiring!).

I give you permission to work all the time: you'll be thinking about your lesson plan in the shower, re-hashing that conversation with a kid while driving, and writing emails mentally while you search for groceries.  It's okay, you'll know when it's not and find a way to not think about work (for me it takes crocheting and an engaging TV show - eyes, hands and ears busy - to get my brain fully shut off).

Talk to people: whine to friends about your crazy situation, find a mentor with the same prep as you (my first year I spent one prep every day in my unofficial mentor's classroom- bless him for giving up that precious time to talk to me!), talk to twitter, read blogs and comment, write your own blog and ask for comments.

SMILE.  As soon as I walk into the building I plaster a smile onto my face.  If I'm not quite awake enough to be thrilled to be there, the act of smiling sends feedback to my brain which concludes I must be happy (based on actual scientific research as well as personal experience).  Your students may not get a lot of genuine "good to see you"s outside of school- try your hardest to look happy to have them in your classroom or glad to pass them in the hallway.  This also works well for discipline- if I'm always smiling, students know something is really wrong when the smile has been wiped off my face.  I can't solve all problems with a look, but it really helps when your stern look is dramatically different from your usual facial expression!  The "no smiling until Thanksgiving" rule is bogus (but the underlying intention of being stricter at the start of the year is valid).

A few more practical thoughts: reflect on every aspect of your day and take notes on those reflections (I need to do this, if you find a good format for it please let me in on the secret!).  Read the archives of a blog of someone who teaches your course and ask people for resources (I've taught nearly all the standard high school courses and have a neatly organized dropbox folder for each one- if you ask for something I will send you the link, but I probably won't send unsolicited documents in the way I'm giving out unsolicited advice!).

But most of all, have fun! Be silly, enthusiastic, sarcastic- whatever your personality is, let it shine through.  When the kids see you being honest with them they are much more willing to go out on a limb for you or admit they don't get it.  No need to do a song and dance every day, make sure to let the kids do the brunt of the work - teaching is, after all, about them, not you - but share a bit of yourself with them.  If nothing else, it will make you smile when at the end of the year a student asks "do you even watch TV?" and a voice from the back of the room pipes in with "she only watches Netflix and Hulu." They are listening, always, even with their heads down, headphones in or eyes rolling.  You matter to them, let them matter to you and you'll reap great rewards.

Good luck and I can't wait to hear what you learn along this exciting journey!


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