The 5 things I Learned as a TeacherBeing a teacher is to enter into a career with the highest highs and the lowest lows. When you witness your students grow over the course of one year, it can be inspiring and rewarding. But, it can also be heart wrenching to see a student struggle or fail despite your best efforts. But being a teacher isn’t only about your students growing- you wind up seeing a lot of personal growth as well. Here are five things that I learned from being a teacher:
1. Students learn best from hands on activities. One of the most important lessons you may learn as a teacher is that students will not learn if you simply stand in front of the board and speak to them. “Chalk and talk” as this is usually called. The tough part is, most people imagine a classroom this way. I bet if you did a Google image search for “teacher”, you’d see hundreds of images with teachers in front of a classroom! In reality, students learn best when they are doing something. Doing the talking, doing the problems, doing the lab experiment.
2. A student’s growth happens inside and outside of the classroom. Don’t forget that our students are learning outside of the classroom as well. Sure, not all of them are watching the Nature show or even the nightly news. But they are having experiences outside of the classroom. How can you tap into those experiences to get them interested in your content? That’s a question that teachers constantly ask themselves.
3. Don’t be afraid to change your teaching practices mid-year. Especially during your first year. If something isn’t working, change it. Over the course of your first year, you will see many different teaching styles, classroom routines, and classroom management strategies. Try them all! See which ones work for you, and begin to assemble a toolbox of strategies.
4. It’s OK if a student does not like your subject! You may find that student behaves or performs poorly in your class, while in other classes he or she does very well. Don’t take this personally. Students have preferences on which subjects they like more than others. Try to connect to these students by connecting your subject to others. For example, what was going on in American history while Niels Bohr was working on his model of the atom?
5. Patience is a virtue. When dealing with a difficult student, have patience. You don’t want to be the one to lose your cool. Try to understand what the other person has a problem with, and acknowledge that you may have done something wrong. And remember that a student who is mad may simply be taking their anger out on you from something that happened earlier in the day. By being humble and listening, you can reason with them on solving the problem in a way that benefits everyone. Yelling at a student or going out of your way to criticize how they feel is not the solution.
Jesse, NYC Teaching Fellow
What Was Your Worst Day of TeachingMy worst day of work was the day that Landon cried. Landon is seven and has Autism, but also has so comorbid psychiatric issues. He is a brilliant science student, wears the coolest bowties, and always makes me laugh. I look forward to his banter in class, and I can always count on him to know the science facts that no one else does.
Over a period of two weeks Landon changed drastically. He started act out and seemed distracted. His classroom teacher wrote notes home to his mom, who said she was noticing the same thing at home. The school counselor worked tirelessly to find out what had changed. No one seemed to have any answers. It felt like Landon was slipping away. His speech changed. He withdrew. There seemed to be nothing anyone could do.
In the middle of my science class he had a complete meltdown one day. He tried to hurt the adult working with him, me, and anyone else near by. I cleared the room of other students and tried to remain calm. It was so difficult to look at one of my favorite students self-destructing. His class had spent the last two weeks making butterfly lifecycle costumes out of construction paper and paper machete. Landon started to cry as I reminded him that he was going to be an amazing chrysalis in the performance the next week. In a moment of rage he ripped the costume down the middle and then sat down on the floor sobbing.
I joined him on the floor and patted his back. He finally stopped crying and looked up at me. “He’s gone, and he isn’t coming back,” he said through his tears. When I asked who, it ended up that an older neighbor in his building had passed away a few weeks before. He and Landon were really close, but his mom didn’t realize that Landon was so upset.
We spent the next recess rebuilding the chrysalis costume, Landon got grief counseling through the counselor, and I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes it take a while to figure out what a student needs at that moment. You have to try different approaches, give a lot of energy, and sometimes just wait until they are ready to talk about it.
Cassie, NYC Teaching Fellows
A New York City Teaching Fellow Tells Us What Makes Her a Good Teacher
What Makes You a Good Teacher?
It would be easy enough to just post my resume here, wouldn’t it? Classroom teacher for eight years. Grade team and department leader. Curriculum writer. Teacher development coach. Committee member. Club advisor. Field trip chaperone. (And, sure, amateur social worker, nurse, life coach, interior designer, vintage-infused-business-casual fashion maven…the list goes on.) But are bullets on a resume really what make you a good teacher? Maybe not. So let me tell you what I think really makes me (or anyone) a good teacher: a commitment to professional and personal growth; keeping relationships with students at the center of what you do; and staying humble and grateful.
I stay committed to professional and personal growth as I move into being (I can hardly believe it!) a mid-career National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT). Being a NBCT (a voluntary, rigorous, national certification for which you can apply after you have earned tenure) means that you are willing and able to regularly reflect on your practice and use a wide variety of tools to improve your practice, ultimately and always in the service of improving outcomes for students. I continue to attend trainings and professional development, read blogs and books, and work with my own instructional coach (even as I’ve begun coaching other teachers myself!) to get better results for my kids.
Professional and personal growth will be obvious to you as you begin your career. You will need, of course, to read textbooks and articles, write papers, attended professional development sessions, and visit your more experienced colleagues. You will need to be honest with yourself every day that you are a tiny part of a vast and pixelated picture, but, as you make your tiny part of the picture clearer and sharper and brighter, you really are improving the whole picture. And you need to keep doing that, too, even (especially!) once you start to think you know it all! (Here’s some good news: you will, in the midst of bad days, sometimes have good days, too, ones will make you think that you, teacher, are full of awesome like no one has ever been.)
That leads me to the issue of personal growth. I’ve grown a lot through my career, and I think a lot of that is actually because I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I would have been forced to develop as much patience, compassion, circumspection, and curiosity if I’d stayed in my career in publishing. You need all of those things to work with students, of course, but you need them to work with yourself, too. I still have to remind myself that the kids who need love the most will often ask for it in the most unloving ways, and that maybe they more than anyone else need to see a calm, smiling face that says, “Good morning. It’s nice to see you. Ready to get out your notebook and get started? Thank you.” That might feel thankless a lot of the time, even most of the time, but it won’t feel thankless when those students graduate and start college because you and your colleagues did that, every single day.
That true story, and others, reminds me that we all have to keep relationships with students at the heart of what we do. A student who feels demeaned, frustrated, and ignored isn’t going to learn much. A student who feels welcomed, understood, and supported, on the other hand, will keep coming back, keep trying, and will ultimately succeed. I’ve heard kids express frustration with teachers who don’t maintain high behavioral standards in their classroom. But all kids like to feel like the teacher is happy to see them; they secretly like the teacher who, for example, stands at the door and smiles and says “Good morning!” and compliments those new sneakers. I look for opportunities to have those small, warm moments with kids, to enjoy the in-jokes that grow out of classes, to go on trips, to chat in the hallways with kids who are sluggish and shepherd them gently but firmly to class.
As I think about how to conclude this post, maybe my reaction to being asked to write about “What makes you a good teacher?” suggests one more criterion for being one. I thought, “Well, I work hard, and I care about kids, and my students have achieved great things, but boy, do I still have some bad days! Thank heavens I work in an excellent school with a lot of terrific kids and I get to teach with books I love so much.” So I try to stay humble and grateful. Take pride in your hard work and enjoy the kids, but expect that, as skilled and comfortable as you will (eventually!) become in your role, you, too, will still have bad days and will still have things to learn. Express gratitude for the support offered by your colleagues and for the unexpected kindnesses you will receive from kids and their families. Treasure the notes in which kids write that you were always there for them, took the time to slow down when they didn’t understand, and helped them feel strong, smart, and successful.
If you commit to being a lifelong learner, keep relationships with students at the heart of what you do, and stay humble and grateful, you can and will have a wonderful career as an educator. Am I a good teacher? Well, only to the extent that I do all of those things. If I do them, and I keep doing them, I think I’m doing all right!
Write a Greek Inspired Teacher Myth!
Since the beginning of the year (January 2014), students in my class have been reading Greek myths and exploring the Greek pantheon of gods. Students also explored the reasons motivations behind why mythology was told. My students also learned the conventions of Greek mythology — usually the tragic sort — and were tasked to write their own. This is their second self-written myth, each about a teacher and the lesson she or he learns from the gods due to some rather undesirable character traits. Do they become better teachers as a result? Will you learn from their mistakes? While not every single myth is complete, read on to find out what happens to “bad” teachers!
—Binh, NYC Teaching Fellow
The Adventures of Aene and Spirodermus
In an ancient Greek classroom, there was a beautiful teacher named Aene. She was new and didn’t know how to adjust the lessons for the kids. Alternatively, Aene tried the “old fashioned” way which is asking them to take notes on what she said. One child, Spirodermus, who had a creative mind was fast asleep in the first few minutes of class. Aene said with a stern voice, “Class, pay attention the principal is coming to see how we work!” The kids were so bored that if they didn’t doze off they were praying to Hypnos, the god of sleep for them to doze off. Shortly after, Aene was shouting her head off for them to wake up and pay attention. The first child to wake up was named Zeno an average child and Spirodermus woke up and he said, “What is going on here?” Aene replied with a hint of sarcasm, “You are in your bed and dreaming. No you’re in class learning.” Soon after, everyone woke up and they were bored again. They decided to throw papyrus around and ink. Moments later, all the kids’ togas were drenched in ink with papyrus that they were supposed to take notes with in their inky hands. Just moments after that, it was lunch and the principal called Aene out for a special meeting. The principal said, “Aene, your class has been in a frenzy asleep and throwing around ink, what are you doing in that class?” Aene replied, “I am just telling them to take notes of what I say?” The principal said, “It is like Sparta in there. Your class is unruly! You need to find a way to make it more interesting or you’re fired!” Aene squeaked, “Yes sir, I will try to make it better.” Right after lunch, Aene came in the class asking, “Class, what would you like for me to do to make the class more fun for you?” The class replied, “Less work.” Aene apologized, “Sorry class I can’t do that for you. Anything else?” “No!” Soon after, most of the class fell asleep but the awake ones were throwing anything they could find. When the class was dismissed, Aene said to the principal, “Am I fired?” the principal nodded. That one nod made Aene lose hope. She sprinted home sobbing and prayed, “Athena, since you are the goddess of wisdom, please give me some advice.” The next day the principal came in and said, “Aene, you can work at the school but you will be a cafeteria lady serving the kids food and calming them down.” Aene was in total shock she would have a job; with crazy kids hungry and running around throwing things. Aene yelled with pride, “I will come back!” The following day, Aene came back and Spirodermus’s eyes lit up and he questioned, “Why are you back, Aene?” Aene replied, “I missed working here, teaching the kids and well, not much else.” The day went on and by the end of the day, Aene was spattered in ink and blood (long story). She wanted to quit but right after Aene thought that someone came in and said, “I am Athena, the goddess of wisdom. I have come to say that you should go to the principal and ask for your job back. Give the kids a quiz on what they want some kids will help you revolutionize teaching forever.” The next day, Aene got her job back and gave them the quiz. During lunch, she checked the quizzes and they all had the same answers which was that they wanted interesting ways to learn. When she finished eating Aene looked up the face of the one and only Spriodermus was there and said cheerfully, “I am here to help you because I thought you could be a great teacher and I had some ideas of what to do to make this a great class!” Aene said, “Thank you, Spirodermus, you will be a great help to me and the class.” Over the next few days, Spirodermus told her what he would have liked and then Aene would tweak it to the lessons. After a month, no one was asleep or fooling around but, they were learning and having fun. At dusk, the principal came in and said, “Aene, look what you did I will show every teacher in Greece what you are doing.” Moons later the mayor of Athens came and said, “Aene and Spirodermus you are heroes! You shall have all the wealth Athens can supply!” Many days later, the kids got a new teacher, because Aene had to teach teachers, and the ink came flying back with some blood in it. Spirodermus became a successful playwright in Athens and wrote a play about going to the school and meeting Aene. Aene wanted become a politician but, due to the fact that women had no rights, she became a principal and helped some politicians lead in education. Aene and Spirodermus would meet every month. Aene would teach Spirodermus and Spriodermus would help Aene make the teachers of her school be more creative and kid-friendly.
Creative Ways to Engage StudentsA great way to engage students more deeply in the act of self-reflecting and self-managing their work is to involve them in creating rubrics—guidelines by which work can be graded. In this image, one of my students is working in a small group to create a rubric in student-friendly language that aligns with the Advanced Placement (AP) essay rubric. Students also love making posters! It’s a way to involve students who might be more visually oriented in learning. (And if you are not artistically inclined, the kids will often do a better job than you will!)
The Hawthorne Effect refers to the effect that simply being observed can have on a group. Many students love to have their pictures taken and love showing off their work—use the occasional shutter time to motivate students to do their best and build group cohesion! This is another shot from my previous entry on student-generated rubrics; as you can see, this group of students made a beautiful poster to illustrate the high standards for a domain of the AP rubric. And even though you can’t see their faces, you can see Conor (on the right) hamming it up for the camera. The more you can inspire students to work together and take pride in what they produce, the more they will learn—and the more they will respect you, even as you push them to do more than they ever thought possible.
Abigail, New York City Teaching Fellow
Bringing The Holidays Into Your ClassroomI love incorporating the holidays into my classroom. Even though this may seem more challenging with older students (my students are in high school), they still appreciate a little holiday cheer!
One way I always bring in the holidays is in the Do Now. A Do Now is a short writing prompt at the beginning of a lesson. The point of a Do Now is to get students focused, working, and writing immediately when they come into the classroom. For Thanksgiving this year, my English co-teacher and I asked students to write what they appreciate in our classroom and in their personal lives. In previous years, I have asked students to write about family traditions and meals, favorite Halloween costumes, and New Year’s resolutions.
The day before a holiday break, I always plan a holiday themed lesson. In Algebra this year, this has really been a hit. I find holiday themed connect the dot activities in which students have to plot points on a coordinate plane and connect them to create a picture. For Halloween this year, students plotted and graphed a bat, witch’s hat, or pumpkin. For Thanksgiving, they created the Mayflower, a pilgrim hat, or a turkey. I also always find a holiday themed logic puzzle. Students have to use logic, reason, and teamwork to figure out what person brought what dish or what their favorite candy is using clues. Students love our holiday days and have a good time showing off their work or working together to solve a challenging puzzle. In English, we usually do holiday story starters. Students read the first sentence of the story, then add on a sentence. Next, they pass the story to the next person in their group. The process continues. At the end, we share out our crazy holiday stories. They can be pretty hilarious.
The best thing about holiday themed lessons is that students think we are just having a good time, but in reality, they are still using their math skills, working as a team, improving their writing, sharing in front of the class, and getting to know each other. Holidays really bring families and friends together, and they also bring my students together!
Corey, NYC Teaching Fellow
Using the Holidays to Teach Culture and ToleranceAs a teacher I have learned that the holidays are the perfect opportunity to teach my students about culture and tolerance. It is very easy for my student to see the differences between them and other races and cultures. Many of them have not experienced anything outside of their communities, therefore, I use the holidays to expose my students to the world’s communities. Celebration of similar holidays is something all cultures have in common such as Diwali, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Dia de Los Reyes, and of course Christmas.
I like to take the last two weeks of school during December to teach daily lessons on how children (my student’s age) celebrate their holiday. I bring in decorations that are typical for each cultures holiday, and show pictures of children dancing and celebrating just as my students celebrate Christmas. On the last day of class before winter break, I along with other Fellow teachers bring food that represent the different holidays as our student presents on each culture’s holiday and how it is similar to the American Christmas. It has become our school’s holiday tradition and the kids enjoy learning about it every year.
Marilyn, New York City Teaching Fellow
A Fellow Tells Us What She’s Thankful ForI am thankful that I am a New York City Teaching Fellow for many reasons. I love being a teacher in a high-need school. I also enjoy working for the Fellows in various roles. Finally, I have met many people and developed lasting friendships with other Fellows.
I love working in a high-need school. Every day, I truly feel I am making a difference in the lives of children. I love designing engaging and interactive lessons that will get my students excited about learning new things. I cherish the moments when students thank me for my help, go up to the board to solve a problem, or give me a big smile when they earn a great grade on a test. I am thankful that I have the opportunity to work with my students each day.
I am also thankful for the opportunities I have had through the Fellows program. Two summers ago, I was a coach and last year I was a session leader in the Spring Classroom Apprenticeship. As a coach, I observed and gave feedback to Fellows in their summer school placements. In the spring, I met with a group of Fellows once a week to teach them new techniques and strategies and share what I was doing in my classroom. I loved working with new teachers, answering their questions, and sharing my experiences and student work. I am thankful for these opportunities because I learned a lot through the training and working with them, as well as developing many lasting friendships and relationships.
Finally, I am most thankful for the wonderful people I have met through the Fellows program. When I was in the Fellows program, I became close friends with the people in my graduate classes. To this day, we still have reunions, reach out to each other about jobs, and always run into each other at various DOE related events. I also still see the Fellows from the summer and spring, and we try to meet up every few months. I have met some of the most amazing people and developed great friendships through the Fellows. I am very thankful for that. —Corey, Fellow since 2008
Tips for Inspiring Your Students: Get Them Excited to LearnI love when students truly get into and excited about a topic I am teaching. In order for this to occur, I usually start out by asking my students what they want to learn.
During my first and second year of teaching, I taught self-contained special education students global history. Self-contained special education classes are smaller classes that provide students with more support and structure. My students were very interested in belief systems and had many questions about Judaism. I asked them to write down their questions and hand them in. I told them I would do my best to answer them along the way. Their questions inspired me to find pictures, movies, articles, and even plan a trip to the Jewish Heritage Museum. Students were excited to learn new things and have their questions answered.
During my third year of teaching, I taught self-contained science. I had to teach body systems. Again, I had students ask questions that they had. Their questions shaped my unit. I found videos on injuries and diseases, showed them the birth of a baby, created awesome experiments and projects, and concluded with a trip to the Bodies exhibit. I was so proud when they were pointing out organs, naming their functions, and discussing how they worked together while at the exhibit.
Over the years, I have learned that I need to get students excited about the topics I am teaching them. As I mentioned above, I usually start with finding out what students know about a topic and what they want to learn. Along the way, I try to reach them and present material to them in a variety of ways. Finally, I always try to end a unit with a field trip or a project. It gives students something to look forward to as well as to show off or synthesize their new knowledge.
Corey, Fellow Since 2008
Good Teachers Impact Lives: A Student StoryNine years ago I had my first day as a New York City Teaching Fellow. I started my career in the classroom by leading a class of first year high school students through an introductory lesson on biology. Up front and center sat Angel, who was a commanding presence in any classroom he was in. He has a big body, a big voice, and a big personality that filled every session in room 326 with energy.
His all-around bigness could sometimes be a challenge to work with. His strong opinions and natural lack of reticence often led to disagreements with teachers and classmates, and he wasn’t shy about testing the strength of his ideas through debate. Some kids and colleagues just weren’t sure how to take him. Sometimes, he would get frustrated and shut down in class, disengaging himself from others in frustration. My instincts (since I didn’t have a lot of experience to draw upon) led me to think that Angel’s natural intellectual restlessness was an ideal pick for the lock of the unknown. All he needed were questions big enough to match his outsized need to assert himself. What he needed was philosophy.
Following my hunch, I offered a course on western philosophy in my second semester, to share something I loved and to put an undergraduate minor degree to work. I bought books in Angel’s native Spanish to help make the abstract texts more accessible. We organized the class around discussion, to engage with the ideas, and create a space for student voice. More than I would have hoped possible, Angel ran with it. Soon, he was expressing his own questioning sensibility in terms of the Socratic Method. He cast classroom rules in terms of Kant’s categorical imperative. He started reading Nietzsche on his own time, lingering at lunch to discuss passages from books he borrowed from the classroom library.
Lately, many of my first-(and lately second-year) students have returned home as college graduates, having navigated the demands of both high school and university, and Angel is among them. Angel studied philosophy at Bard, and found work in the City University system. He is living the life of the mind he yearned for, even all those years ago. It is humbling to know that even in the earliest days of one’s teaching, you can have such a profound effect on the shape of a young person’s trajectory.
Anthony, Fellow since 2005