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Teaching Secrets: Tips for New English Teachers

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Brand new English teachers have much to learn as they boldly walk into a classroom for the first time. Fortunately, others have gone before us all, and we should learn from them. Looking back over my 20 years in the classroom, there have been four truly enduring lessons that have helped me to be a successful teacher, and I urge not only English teachers, but anyone entering our profession to consider them as they navigate their maiden voyage.

1. Join or create a supportive professional network.

Thanks to years of persistent hard work, professional learning communities and other types of teacher networks are more numerous and accepted than they were even a decade ago. I have been part of several such learning communities, and each of them has provided me tremendous information and encouragement. Not everything that calls itself a “learning community” is a truly supportive or collaborative environment for bringing out the very best in teachers, so some searching may be necessary. Nevertheless, it is worth the time to seek out a group within which a new (or veteran) teacher can ask important questions about daily classroom practice and get thoughtful, helpful feedback.

Hopefully, such a network will exist in your school building or district, but that may not be the case. Fortunately, there are other options, including social media networks, which are increasingly becoming the professional development venue of choice for proactive teachers. Teacher networks and learning communities are powerful incubators of both teaching quality and genuine educational innovation. (They are also extremely helpful for accomplishing points #2 and #3 below). Some that have been especially helpful to me include: English Companion Ning and my carefully developed professional network on Twitter. Another popular site with teacher “cred” is Classroom 2.0.

2. Develop a deep working cultural knowledge of your students and their communities.

I have done extensive classroom research on culturally engaged instruction. That research has led me to this belief: Empowering language arts instruction is a dynamic practice. It is shaped by informed and collaborative analysis of the particular cultural experiences, strengths, and learning goals of a specific group of students within a particular community. I refer to this type of teaching practice as Culturally Engaged Instruction (CEI). [Read more about CEI at my research website].

One method I used to accomplish Culturally Engaged Instruction is the Personal English Plan (PEP). The PEP is an individualized learning plan that I have developed with each student in my high school English classes. Starting with a series of diagnostics that I designed, the students and I develop their learning goals for the year. The student him- or herself is responsible for monitoring progress on the PEP. However, I also ask each student to select one significant adult to act as a mentor for the school year. (This could be the parent, but not necessarily). A few helpful tips should you want to try a similar method:

• This type of planning can be overwhelming at first, especially if you are teaching on a six or seven-period day. The first school year, I only developed plans with one class, until I worked out the logistics.

• Having students working in reading/writing workshops facilitates having the individual planning conferences.

• Be open-minded in developing the goals. Don’t limit the student (or yourself) to adopting just the goals from the list of state objectives, but help them set realistic timelines.

For my classes at the community college, I use a modified form of this same process.

3. Explore technology and other teaching tools, even the initially unlikely ones.

Find out as early as possible what the tech possibilities and limitations are at your new school. Then determine how those options might help you and your students. Don’t be discouraged if you have to push your administrators, or your colleagues, or even your students at first to work with some forms of technology. It is a myth that all young people are into technology and know how to use it better than their teachers—just as it is a myth that most teachers are anti-new technology and don’t want to use it. Beware of teaching myths in general; many a novice teacher has been shipwrecked by relying on inaccurate information about students and new co-workers.

This is another area in which networking can be immensely helpful. There are hundreds of teachers who are using technology in myriad forms under all types of conditions, and documenting their work. Some of my bookmarks include: Ted Nellen’s CyberEnglish; Bill Ferriter’s Digitally Speaking; and Jennifer Barnett’s Web Wardrobe. These teacher-created resources address a range of grade levels (readers, feel free to add others in the Comments) and can help you apply tech knowledge to your own work, making you more effective and efficient in the classroom.

4. Resolve to have and fiercely protect designated family and rest time for yourself.

Don’t let either a teaching contract or a sense of moral obligation turn you into a white-collar sharecropper. (Cultural reference: a sharecropper is a tenant farmer who works someone else’s land, hoping each year for enough surplus from the harvest to cover expenses owed to the landlord and provide for his/her own family, which never happens).

Contrary to yet another myth about teaching (often fanned by the media), most new teachers, regardless of their route into the profession, enter enthusiastic, committed, and determined to make a difference for their students. They tend to overreach, take on too many extra duties, and seriously underestimate the amount of physical and emotional energy real teaching requires.

English/language arts teachers often grossly underestimate the amount of time outside school they will need to spend on preparation, evaluation, and feedback to students. New teachers too often push through the school year at a breakneck pace, neglecting their health and their families. Those of us who are parents have to remember that our own children will only grow up once: with or without us. This awareness of the need to protect family time is especially important for those teachers who are also single parents.

To be truly effective over the long haul for students, accomplished teachers learn to balance their lives. I have taught over 2000 children, but I also had to raise 11 in my own house, including two who were special needs students at school. One of my personal mentors, a wise 40-year English teaching veteran gave me this memorable advice my first year in a high school position:

“Renee, you will need to give up one of your breaks (part of Christmas or Spring) to read and grade research papers because they take so much longer. Decide ahead of time, which one, but never give up both. One belongs to you and your family.”

Teach long and prosper.

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