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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: What Educators Wish They Knew When They Began Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 30, 2016 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

This week’s question is:

Now that you have taught your first year, five years, or are about to retire, what do you wish you had been told or prepared for in the beginning of your career?

There has been an enormous amount of interest in this question, and I’ve been receiving tons of responses of readers. All of them will be shared in the third post in this series, so there is still time to contribute.

Today, Roxanna Elden, Dave Stuart Jr., Julia Thompson and Jennifer Gonzalez share their thoughts. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Dave and Julia on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Before I shared those contributions from my guests, I thought I’d briefly share my own response.

For me, I think a better understanding that life isn’t “either/or” - and neither is life in the classroom - would have been helpful to me. You can be a great believer in discovery or assisted-discovery education, yet sometimes direct instruction is going to be the best way to go. Yes, you want to emphasize intrinsic motivation, but if you have to use a points system on a tough class for awhile, that’s okay, too. Flexibility is key - minimize the number of beliefs you turn into “principles” that can’t be compromised.

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. More recently, she has created the “Disillusionment Power Pack,” a free, one-month series of emails for new teachers in which she shares journal pages, stories, and insights she would have shared with the first-year-teacher version of herself. Emails begin with signup and arrive every few days for one month. Roxanna has also published a new children’s book, Rudy’s New Human:.

Early in my career, I wish someone had told me early to focus on becoming a good teacher instead of worrying about being a great teacher.

As a new teacher, the sense of needing to be great at everything can be somewhat paralyzing. You’re trying to remember everything you’ve learned and put it into practice in real time, all while making a constant stream of judgment calls you’ve never had to make before. In the process, you get constant reminders of how important your job is. Teachers make all other professions possible! 2 Teach is to touch lives 4ever! And, most importantly, Failure is not an option!

This can be counterproductive.

Think about learning to drive a car. When new drivers first get behind the wheel, we’d never tell them they have to be great. We’d never ask them to win a race, or be better than the other drivers on the road, who represent the unacceptable status quo of driving. And it would certainly be a bad idea to constantly, urgently remind them what’s at stake if they mess up. Luckily, most of us know better than to do this to beginning drivers. Instead, we tell them to stay calm and focus on getting the most important things right. Get to be adequate as fast as possible. Then work on becoming good. Great can wait.

So let me be the first to say it: teachers do not need to be great at everything. We need to be adequate at everything. We need to be good at the things that most affect our classrooms. Then we should strive to be great at a few things that give us that extra spark as teachers.

More specifically: we need to be adequate at things like turning in professional development paperwork and seeming attentive during meetings. We need to be good at classroom management, giving students feedback on their work, and planning lessons.

As we develop the skills above, we can also try to channel the personal strengths that might make us great.

But first, a warning: there are many different traits that can make a great teacher. No one has them all, and some of them can even contradict one another. Whether it’s charisma or creativity, our passion for our subject matter or patience for listening, our authoritative voice or our attention to detail, the aim here is not to be perfect. It is to identify our natural assets and put them to work on behalf of our students.

The sooner we learn to be good teachers in the way that comes most naturally, the sooner we make room for moments of greatness to creep in. And good teachers with occasional moments of greatness might be what we’re actually talking about when we talk about great teachers, anyway.

Response From Dave Stuart Jr.

Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) is a high school teacher who also writes and researches about literacy instruction, character strengths, and teacher flourishing. His work is read by over 35,000 people each month, and he gives keynote speeches and workshops around the country. He believes that all students and teachers can flourish, and he hopes his work helps you toward that goal:

I wish that, at the start of my career, I had been told these three truths: failure = progress; simplicity trumps complexity; and the point is long-term flourishing.

Failure = progress

As a student teacher, I floundered. My students hardly listened to me; I couldn’t get them to follow through on assignments; lessons that should have taken twenty minutes took two days; I was a poor classroom manager.

Thankfully, I had an epiphany about the rotten time I was having while sitting, of all places, in one of Ann Arbor’s bars with my student teaching comrades. We were sitting there, drinking watery beer, and commiserating when I spoke up, sayingsomething like, “Well, at least every time we fail we learn one more thing that doesn’t work.”

I’m sure the conversation moved on without hesitation, but I remember zoning out at that moment, just sitting there, jaw ajar, at the profundity of what I had said. (I promise I’m not often so impressed with myself.) It was true: failure didn’t have to be a loss; it could be an advancement in my craft and a victory in my professional knowledge. A loss today could mean a win tomorrow.

Essentially, I had tapped into the power of growth mindset nearly a decade before I would even hear the term. As Carol Dweck and others have demonstrated, this mindset is hugely predictive of growth and success over time.

Simplicity trumps complexity

Let’s go back to those needlessly long lessons I taught as a student teacher.

When I started teaching, I brought with me the belief that complex lessons and projects were best. I now know that the opposite is true: time is the classroom’s most precious resource, and, as such, the most efficient path to successfully meeting an objective is the best one.

Notice: this doesn’t mean that we ought to set superficial, easily reached objectives; rather, it means that so much of the art of teaching lies in finding the simplest paths to the profoundest places.

The point is long-term flourishing

I entered the profession in 2006 at the height of No Child Left Behind’s punitive measures, and I taught in a school that hadn’t met AYP in a few years. As a result, the temptation to teach to the test was always there.

And yet, as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve found that the key to teaching well and trusting that the scores will take care of themselves is in adopting a long-term lens for viewing my work. Decisions about everything from daily instruction to seating charts ought to be filtered through one question: What will best promote the long-term flourishing of my students? (“Long-term” because I got into teaching to positively affect my kids twenty years after they’d been in my class; “flourishing” because it’s broad enough to encompass the many ways there are to earn a living, and to the many things outside of employability that I hope my class will help me students toward.)

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

At the beginning of my career, I was well-prepared in terms of content knowledge, lesson planning, and basic classroom management. What I did not have even a tiny a clue about is something that still plagues teachers everywhere today--learning how to manage the paperwork efficiently. It takes time and careful thought and serious effort to learn how to be an efficient teacher, but the reward makes it worth it.

Teachers who are on top of their paperwork have time to focus on the important things: interesting lessons, tweaking assignments to meet the needs of all learners, and cultivating solid relationships. Being on top of the paperwork enables us to return papers quickly so that students receive the feedback they need. It also allows us to successfully manage one of the tedious parts of our daily responsibilities so that we can keep our personal and professional lives in balance. Here’s what I know now about classroom paperwork that I wish I had known then.

  • Create a method of correcting student work that is simple for your students to understand and then use it consistently. Use the same editing and proofreading marks or comments each time, for example.

  • Make sure that students understand exactly what they are supposed to do before they begin working on an assignment.

  • Create very specific checklists or rubrics that guide students as they complete assignments. This allows students to know what they have to do to succeed

  • Build in opportunities for peer editing before students turn in their work.

  • Stagger due dates if you teach more than one class.

  • Don’t mark every possible error in an assignment unless you want to overwhelm and dishearten students.

  • Don’t focus only on the errors that your students have made. Use a highlighter to point things they did particularly well.

  • Compile a list of the most common mistakes you find your students making. Spend time teaching and reteaching this material so that students are less inclined to make these errors again.

  • Do not try to grade too many papers in one sitting. Divide the work into smaller groups and tackle these systematically.

  • Reward yourself when you have finished grading an onerous set of papers. This will encourage you to work quickly and efficiently.

Response From Jennifer Gonzalez

Jennifer Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher and editor-in-chief at Cult of Pedagogy, where she shares fantastic resources to help all teachers do their work better. She is co-author of Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School:

I wish I had been taught how not to work harder than my students. I always, ALWAYS worked harder than my students. If desks needed to be arranged a certain way, I would come in early and set up the room myself. If a packet of materials required stapling, I did it--the pages would never be lined up right if the kids did it for me, and what if they missed a page? Disaster! Hundreds of tasks like these always had to be handled by me, because I was the only one who could do them just right. Plus, I wanted to conserve as much class time as possible for real learning, not the manual labor stuff. So I took attendance. I watered the plants. I handed out the papers. I organized the shelves.

This practice carried over to academic work. I was the one marking areas of concern in student writing. I highlighted the rubrics, gave feedback for improvement, and checked revisions later. Every homework assignment, every quiz, every piece of work students did came through my hands and my hands only. I knew deep down that students were supposed to be learning to self-assess, that I should be getting their input when designing assignments or creating rubrics, but I tried that, and it didn’t work. No one did it as well as me.

I was exhausted. On a practical level, being a control freak in your classroom is impossible to sustain. And it has more serious consequences as well: Doing everything for your students means they never learn to do anything for themselves. By working harder than your students, you’re ultimately not doing your job.

So if I could go back and talk to myself as a first-year teacher, here’s what I would say: Don’t do anything yourself if your students could do it almost as well. This includes the manual and clerical duties around the classroom--taking responsibility for their space, working as a team, stepping up when help is needed--those skills all contribute significantly to building a whole person; they are not wasted time. It also applies to serious academic tasks. Students need to be shown how to look critically at their work, how to self-assess and peer-assess. Early attempts will be messy and you’ll be tempted to take over. Resist the temptation; it’s better for them.

By making this shift, you’ll conserve your energy for the harder things, work that requires the skilled hand of an expert. And don’t kid yourself--if you’re teaching students to be self-sufficient learners, the list of things only you can do is smaller than you think. If you do your job well, students will ultimately run the classroom and direct their own learning. You’ll just be the icing on the cake.

Thanks to Roxanna, Dave, Julia and Jennifer for their contributions!

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