First Year Teachers: Survival Tips

Nothing prepares for you for the first day of school. Everything you think you learned seems to be gone, sucked into a wild vortex of anxiety, energy and idealism. 

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When the ball drops signaling a fresh school year, a newly minted class of novice teachers will be behind the desk and whether spent with wide-eyed kindergartners or seniors chaffing to meet the “real world,” the first months of teaching can be like the mood swings of middle school. One day, you’re riding that perfect wave of elation, high on authentic discovery that took on a life of its own. The next day, you forgot to take attendance, tripped over the trash can and left your lunch on the kitchen counter.

A little advice…please?

 

1. Find a mentor.

This might be the single most important tip for first year teachers. Nobody flies solo during the first year. You need a go-to person who is willing to hold your hand, applaud your successes and have a supply of tissues available. A  good mentor can be your cultural GPS, routing you around predictable pitfalls and obstacles, leading you through meetings and paperwork.  You lower the likelihood you will drop out of the profession if you have a trusted mentor.  And if you are really lucky–as I was– you might even make a friend for life.

2. Pace yourself: put management first.

You have great ideas for sight words or the Age of Exploration, but you aren’t going to do it all on Day 1 or in the first month or even during your first year.  It is estimated that it requires five full years of experience before teachers get into the instructional zone. Most veterans agree: Open with management. Establishing predictable routines and explicitly modeling behavioral expectations will be worth the time invested. Creating a few, carefully thought-out ground rules early on means you will be more able to tackle fractions or the nervous system or The Crucible later.

3. Do not grandstand.

When asked about what not to do, experienced teachers warn against trying too hard to grab the spotlight. There is a fine line between showcasing your achievements–you want to be asked back so you can be a second year teacher–and showing off.  A certain amount of self-promotion is necessary for self-preservation. It is when first-year teachers forget they are members of a team of instructional professionals that they can wander into a danger zone.  Support is reciprocal; respect is mutual.  Self-aggrandizement gets ugly quickly, especially if it comes at someone else’s expense.

4. Communicate.

You expect to communicate with your students. You must also expect to communicate with their families. Keeping parents tactfully informed of their children’s progress in your class is a significant factor in first year teacher success. If parents feel comfortable with you, they are less likely to go over your head to your department chairman or building administrators.  You must also communicate with colleagues. Even though we are stars of our own daily classroom productions, schools function best when all involved share ideas and concerns.

 

5. Find ways to leave your classroom behind.

Finally–and for the idealistic newbie, this will be tough–you have to carve out non-teaching time in your life.  Outside interests, your family, your friends all play a vital role in your overall health. Teaching can be consuming and you need other activities to maintain a balance. For first year teachers, this is challenging as you try to juggle the seemingly endless demands of planning, collaborating, grading, committees, meetings. Having something specific scheduled for your weekend forces you to put down the red pen and close the plan book. It also helps you with perspective.

 

The first day. It is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.  With a little help from your friends, you can live to teach another day.  Image result for teacher images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Values That Distinguish Great Schools

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Make no mistake: money can buy the things that contribute to student achievement. It may be called the root of all evil, but schools need cold, hard cash. Funding teacher salaries, technology and facilities are  absolute necessities when creating a good school.

But what truly sets the great schools apart are the  human values that define them. 

1. Integrity.

Any organization functions best when all participants are held to high standards of personal honesty.  In great schools, integrity is woven into the fabric of every day interactions from the top down.  Reliable administrative transparency creates a climate for staff and students to do the right thing even when the right thing might be hard to do. Teachers model integrity with one another and with their classes.  Growing integrity–an abstract and often elusive value– is a respected process in every great school.

2. Safety

Physical safety is a given in all schools. Parents trust schools to care for their children and there can be no negotiating that responsibility. But great schools are places where students and staff feel safe to stretch their intellectual muscles, where all feel secure enough to take on challenges without a guarantee of success. Great schools daily demonstrate that success is defined by what is learned not by numerical assessment, and provide all participants with the requisite safety to take intellectual and instructional risks.

3. Personal Accountability

Reasonable school rules are necessary for both safety and for effective instruction.  Great schools create communities where individuals understand their roles as members of the whole and see beyond a list of “what not to do.” Great schools guide staff, families and students to be accountable to one another and to value behavioral expectations as part of that shared responsibility.  Students learn that to err is human, but they must accept responsibility when missteps inevitably happen. Content area aside, this might be the most practical lesson students learn in great schools.

4. Respect

Many of these values overlap and respect walks alongside integrity, safety and personal accountability. However, respect is a value earned and nurtured among the participants in great schools. Respect boils down to mutual admiration. In great schools, success is shared. There is no need for self-promotion because students, staff and families have pride in their collective accomplishments and in one another’s contributions to the whole. The idealism of the novice and the experience of the veteran aren’t competing for attention but rather equally lauded for the parts each will play in the effective, efficient outcome.

5. Compassion and Empathy

Finally, even with all of the above values in place, a school cannot be great without compassion and empathy. In every school, there are sad kids, hungry kids, sick kids, kids who, for whatever reason. exist on the periphery of the social constructs. Great school build cultures that support every member of the learning community.  Great schools inspire students to care about people, to walk in someone else’s shoes for a time, to use their talents and skills and interests in ways that will benefit the world at large.

 

Good schools can get kids to produce strong test scores and good schools can prepare students to apply to respected colleges and universities. Building a great school isn’t easy and the work never ends.  Great schools, however, make kids into life long learners who care about the people and the world around them.

 

Good Morning, Boys and Girls!

I cannot wait!

The Nothing Expert

jony-ariadi-197568

In early 2016, I retired from teaching and consulting after working for 45 years, thirty as an elementary school teacher, and fifteen more as an educational consultant. I posted occasionally to The Nothing Expert, but I was not focused; I wrote about Everything and Nothing.

Perhaps I was afraid to write about education.

I’m not afraid anymore.

To warm up for my new focus on education, I wrote a list of my best days in schools.  When I say best, I mean the days you relive over and over and sit there smiling to yourself as you remember your pride, your absolute wonderfulness!

Take a minute, dear Reader, and remember one of your own wonderful work days. Savor it. Pleasure in it. Ahh!

To continue my pre-writing I made another list of my worst days in schools. When I say worst I mean the days you want to bury…

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Middle School Ninja Warrior

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I love middle school.

My high school teacher friends think I am slightly crazy and my elementary colleagues don’t understand. But it is true.

Middle school rocks.

As I take my place in that hormonal primordial stew seasoned with Axe and bravado, I know I am home. And there is no place like home. It isn’t always smooth sailing and there is typically more than one person  ready to tell you what you do not know. But home is where the heart is and as devoted middle school teachers will tell you, there is no shortage of heart among their students.

Middle school kids still laugh at the obvious. They may have one foot in childhood and the other in the grown-up world, but they are still young at heart. Their  unbounded energy is contagious. They are exploring their interests and their capacity for empathy. They are beginning to make the essential link between work and success. They are old enough to be responsible and simultaneously young enough to care.

Yes, they are a volatile potion of combustible elements. Yes, they are a fragile package of contradictions. But there is also unmatched enthusiasm, life and curiosity resulting in passion, animation, and discovery.

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Success in middle school isn’t necessarily quantifiable. The data doesn’t always reside on a spread sheet. Success in middle school is measured in moments, those tangible experiences when kids find their voices, discover their talents.  Facilitating the journey into adolescence is as rewarding as it is exhausting. It is a lot like mastering the obstacles on American Ninja Warrior. You need to be smart, flexible and strong. You must effectively manage your allotted time. Above all else, you need to be committed to being the best you can be every day.  Middle school, like the warp wall, is not for the weak.  It can be all consuming.

It’s a work out. But then you hit the buzzer. And suddenly, it is all worth it.

 

 

 

Getting Your Child Off to a Successful First Day of School: People to Thank

What a great first day salute from a fellow blogger! thanks!

The Nothing Expert

Looking out my living room window at the kids and their parents waiting for the school bus, I am remembering my own first days—as a parent, and as a teacher. No one has asked, but I am prepared to say, “Thank these folks.”

  • School Staff who are also parents of young kids: Many of them left their own kids in the hands of spouses, grandparents, and neighbors so they could be there for your kids.
  • Those wonderful spouses, grandparents, and neighbors who stepped up for all working parents.
  • The Boss who said, “It’s OK to come in late. Bring in photos!
  • The municipal workers who protected my child.
  • Your school’s: aides, nurses, social workers, office staff, janitors, bus drivers, crossing guards, and those truly wonderful cafeteria ladies.
  • The school’s administrators, who got about an hour of sleep last night, if they were lucky.
  • Your school’s teachers who are experiencing “the…

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Making Summer Reading Relevant

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Summer reading.

For as long as I can remember–as a student, as a parent, and as a teacher– summer reading has remained a mysterious entity. In theory, the value of summer reading is clear.  It makes sense that kids should be reading over the long summer break: it slows summer slide, it presents the challenge to take on a text independently, it offers topics that kids might not otherwise explore.  A kid can read at her own pace and can discuss what she reads with her family. Educational studies support summer reading.

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But like most things in life, theory doesn’t always sync with reality. Kids often wait until the last possible minute to actually do the reading. Then it is rushed and becomes far less meaningful than it could be. Parents  sometimes end up having to nag their children to get to the reading, so instead of those rich conversations, summer reading becomes a source of family contention. Teachers frequently do not know what to do with the reading kids have been asked to do while out of the classroom and it ends up–at best– an add-on to existing instruction, a tacit game of Make Believe: kids pretend they have carefully read the assigned texts and teachers pretend to believe the kids. Then everyone moves on.

But there are ways to make this reading relevant.

First, the texts must be explicitly embedded in curriculum, chosen for the value added to instruction. They must be simultaneously challenging and accessible, no easy feat. Finding the right readings demands attention to curriculum design. The texts then become the first unit of study, seamless entities of the year that is to unfold.  On this note, I would also limit the assigned texts to one for middle school students, two to high school kids.

Second, teachers have to be willing to devote more than passing acknowledgement of the texts. Again, this is no simple task given the increasingly complex instructional demands teacher face annually.But with the right text and well-designed exercises, summer reading can support Common Core state standards.  This means allowing for two to three weeks of meaningful activities that can be vehicles to introduce/review themes of the year. This is why choosing texts becomes so important. If the assigned reading is going to be a lead-in, an organic element of instruction, then the time involved is productive. This also means that at some point every student will need his/her own copy of the text.  In a middle school English classroom, if treated as a unit of study, summer reading can take kids back to the five basic literary elements: plot, setting, conflict, character and theme. Summer reading can allow chances to explicitly apply reading comprehension tools and activities: graphic organizers, annotation and close reading, word attack skills. With the right text, summer reading is the threshold into the academic year.

Finally, and I know I will get hate mail about this part, teachers must be prepared for the fact that kids may not have read the texts or that if they did read, they didn’t necessarily “get it.” This is reality.  So it is important to create instructional activities that will give these kids a chance to catch up. When kids can read or re-read without fear of penalty, everyone gets off to a positive start. Activities that call for basic plot recaps can support all readers. Graphic organizers focused on conflict and character serve a similar purpose. The unit can culminate in Common Core style short and extended responses that provide base line writing samples to start the year.

It is true that when kids see that their work is valued they are more likely to respect the assignments.  This might be one way to validate summer reading. It is also a way for teachers to make productive use of this work.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

If asked to pinpoint our decision to try yoga, it would have to be when we just happened upon a couple of mats on sale for an impossibly low price at Kohls. A blue one for Dom, purple for me. We were in need of some stretching and structured exercise. Suddenly, two random, very fine looking mats had appeared in our path. Call it fate. Call it destiny. 

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It isn’t that we didn’t believe yoga was real work. We did, which is why we decided to give it a go. We talked about it for a month, then another month. The mats, still in the Kohls bag, still in the car, waited patiently. Finally, we googled yoga in Westchester, ready to pull the trigger.

Who knew there were so many different names for yoga? Or so many places to “practice” it? Web sites all whispered persuasively: peace, fitness, flexibility. We focused on those sites that repeated the mantra “Practitioners of all levels welcome.”  Each beckoned seductively through gentle color schemes, special introductory offers, free parking.

What’s a newbie to do?

“Check the reviews,” Dom suggested.

“OK, here is one,” I said with authority. It was close enough to home and the class schedule offered lots of options. Every review was positive: clean studio, friendly staff, private showers and even a little yoga shop where practitioners of all levels could purchase the necessary accessories of the discipline. What more could we ask for? Giddy, we unfurled the blue and purple mats and, as the site instructed, found a couple of colorful beach towels.

And when we showed up at our first yoga experience, a ninety minute Birkram class, we were sure we were on our way to inner peace and new found strength. What we didn’t know? So much.

The parking was free as promised.

As promised, every single person associated with the studio was nice, from the barefooted boy who gave us the senior discount even before we asked to the woman who would orchestrate our torture.

And though I never got to check it out, there was, as promised, a little shop of yoga, too.

The first clue that we were out of our league was the dress–or rather the lack of dress–of our fellow practitioners. A shirtless man with a German accent smiled so broadly that I almost didn’t notice he was wearing nothing more than a black Speedo. Sports bras and minimal spandex shorts, clothing that looked more like underwear than yoga wear. In gym gear, we were woefully overdressed.

It was when we opened the double doors to the studio, though, that we should have sprinted for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts. One hundred and seven degrees. 40% humidity. If we accepted the sale on mats as our reason to give yoga a chance, we missed the equally obvious message that maybe Bikram wasn’t the yoga we were meant to practice.

But they say you see what you want to see and what we saw was downward dog, lotus flowers. The heat aside, I think we still believed we could fight the good fight. The first couple of activities were sort-of, kind of, do-able. But this was the tease, the baby stuff, a warm up for our descent into the fire and rain of hot yoga hell.

Instead of finding inner peace, my mind wandered and I wondered how many people passed out during a single ninety minute session or how many threw up. I tried to focus. But the challenge to grab a sweaty left ankle with an equally sweaty right hand was too much for me. I could see the clock in the mirror. I might have confessed to any number of sins or crimes if I thought that would make the clock read 5:30.

Then it was over. We didn’t puke or faint. On some level, there was temporary euphoria at having survived, at having passed this cosmic test of endurance. But I knew I would not set foot again in a hot yoga studio.

The lesson? Do your homework. Master the basics. Don’t quit.

Tomorrow, we return to yoga. When we open our mats, we hope to feel the burn, but not the heat.