Education Opinion

How I survived my first year and taught a lot at the same time

By Jessica Shyu — May 06, 2008 3 min read
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I wrote this for Teacher Magazine’s new discussion forum. Join in on the talk and copy some titles down for the next Amazon order!


This book, Teaching Phonics And Word Study In The Intermediate Grades, lit the light at the end of the tunnel for me in my first year of teaching middle school special ed. For someone who managed to inpsire friends and family to donate over 1,000 books over two years to my classroom, it’s pretty embarassing to admit that for the first two months, my reading class consisted of students rolling around the floor and listening blankly to my explanations of prefixes and root words. None of kiddos could decode words at the third grade level and most didn’t know what a long-a sound made. It was bad and I didn’t have a concrete way to break down basic decoding instruction. Then I went to a fabulous Teach For America session where I was introduced to the wonderful world of chunking, prefixes and sight words. This is a great book for those looking for a ground-up way to teach decoding to older students. The lists of high-frequency words, most common roots/prefixes/suffixes, and chunking examples are great lists to photocopy for student centers.

Behavior Management

Hitting, yelling, profanity, sexual harassment, truancy and refusal to do anything at all, etc., are common problems all teachers face and have to learn to control in their own classroom. Be consistent. Have explicit expectations. Follow through. Fine. Done. I learned quickly, however, that the real problem with behavior management happened outside of my classroom, and at first, seemingly out of my control. When a 11-year-old attacks another student in my classroom and threatens everyone else, that wasn’t quite something I could contain with a phone call home. The problem was that there were no clear school policies, and rarely an administrator available to uphold any logical policies we devised. As a result, students learned quickly that few consequences would be upheld outside of the teachers’ classroom (in cases where the teachers actually upheld consequences, of course). I couldn’t stand the chaos and anarchy by January. Luckily I wasn’t the only one. I teamed up with the dorm counselor (my dear, dear friend Dawn), and a bunch of teachers ready to make changes, and we initiated the Positive Behavior Intervention Supports program in our school. It wasn’t easy-- it took much cajoling of the school board and principals for their financial and professional support and it’s still a struggle to get teacher, family and student buy-in-- but the infrastructure was developed, we started the program and we can be proud to say that we didn’t just sit around and complain-- we initiated change. Change can be slow, but the impact is there. Shout out to Dr. Frankland of Western New Mexico University for introducing it to me and the rest of her management class!

Differentiating Novels

It wasn’t exactly a book for teaching, but it was a lifesaver when it came to teaching special ed and differentiating effectively in reading class. I am a huge fan of Barnes and Noble’s abridged copies of classic novels. With these leveled books(Tom Sawyer at 2nd-3rd, 3rd-4th, and 5th-6th grade levels), my students with disabilities ranging from mild learning disabilities to mental retardation were able to engage in tear-jerkingly high level discussions about race, author’s purpose and morality.

At the same time, these kids were incredibly invested in deeply understanding literature they knew college students read. They began discussing these high level concepts outside of class to impress their general ed peers. And impress them they did. Talk about developing life skills. Alas, I only did this my second year of teaching. But their end-of-year gift and summer reading assignment? Huckleberry Finn at their appropriate reading level. I have never seen so many teenagers cradle their Mark Twain novels like they did with their PS3’s (or whatever kids call those newfangled toys these days).

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The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.