Posted in brilliant ideas, Getting Started, High School, Teaching

12 basic abilities I use every day as a teacher

To anyone going to school to be a teacher: this is for you.

I have a friend my age who recently went back to school and is doing her student teaching to be an English teacher (like me) and I thought, “Wow to be a first-year teacher again… Wait I would never go back to that…”

Being a first-year teacher is kind of like being a teenager: it’s awkward and difficult and it’s a lot of trying to prove that you have it together when you really have no idea what’s going on.

So I’ve been thinking lately about my friend and about learning how to be a teacher and the things that I do everyday that I probably do without thinking now I have been teaching  for 14 years and it really doesn’t seem like it’s been that long at all…

There was my first year  teaching 7th grade in Utah

And then there were the three years after that at another school while also trying to be the head coach of the debate team.

And then there was the year before I got married where I didn’t coach at all and realized that I had gotten used to prepping my entire day in 15 minutes.

And then the years ever since that have included four pregnancies and going from full time to part time where I learned that I was very grateful that I can prep my whole day in 15 minutes because my life was a whole lot busier.

And somehow during that time, and those years, and those different schools, I have learned to leave it all at work. Where I used to think about my classes all the time and where I used to be constantly planning units and doing lesson plans in my head as I woke up in the morning and during every spare moment…..

Now I forget sometimes that I am a teacher at all. Monday rolls around and I think “oh yeah I have to go to work…”. Not joking! 

Part of that I attribute to going from being single and fresh out of college to being married with four children under the age of 8. My brain is occupied with many other things besides school but still I think even without the kids and the lack of brain cells, I have learned to take care of work at work and have things handling  themselves. 

So how did I do that? That’s what I’ve been asking myself because not to say that I’m some perfect teacher but I feel like of all the areas of my life, teaching is something that I have figured out. Again not that I’m perfect but for the most part teaching is not something that I stress about or worry about or wonder if I’m good at anymore

I got this. I have it figured out and it’s not that I’ve taught the same thing for years necessarily either but there are some things that I have taught many times before and constantly improve so I’m not making up things from scratch but then again I am, I do do new units all the time and add new stuff to the stuff I already have done so it’s not like I’m just leaning on past years either, but yet I am…

So I’ve been thinking about what things I do that make it so that my job flows easily and this is what I’ve come up with and this is what I wanted to share to my friend who was starting out teaching and to anyone who starting out teaching that hopefully in the busy craziness of those first couple years of teaching, you can figure out some kind of order and a way to stay sane in what normally is a pretty crazy time.

1. Learn to type crazy fast

I don’t know how many times I have had to come up with things at the last minute or type up a quiz or enter grades or type an email or write a note super fast and being able to do it super-fast has made such a difference it has saved my lessons my life and my sanity 

However fast you type right now? double it because that will be your salvation.

2. Develop cycle systems

School involves paper.

No matter how much we are going digital it still involves paper and the transfer of information from teacher to student so you need to develop Cycle Systems 

The kids need to have a constant way to turn something in 

You need a constant way to keep the work cycling through and being corrected (Yaya for TAs!)

You need a cycle to manage the paperwork and then from there you need a way to enter it into the computer so that the kids can know what their grade is and what they’re missing.

and then from there you need a way to hand it back to them and do it without losing things 

and then  hand it back to them again  after the kids who were absent are back 

You also need a system for keeping track  of what people missed while they were absent.

There needs to be a way to cycle paper, tons and tons of it everyday every class. Every second you need to organize the paper that will be flowing in and out constantly.

I have 4 different sets (one for each class period) of bins that I fill and empty and fill and empty on a regular basis. 

I also have a file cabinet, two file drawers, a cabinet full of binders and two bookcases that hold all of my copies for the year, not to mention the table for the TAs to correct work and two different sets of file boxes to hold the kids work:one that they use and one that I use.

The kids have a daily folder that they use to organize their work and that they hand in to me once a week.

I have a folder for each unit that we are doing up front, plus a main file back at my desk.

And that doesn’t include all the papers that I get from the office about upcoming events or themes or rallies or fundraisers or news or even advertisements.

Paper in school is no joke. Come up with a system or you will drown in it.

3. Learn to Shake It Off

No matter how crazy one class is and no matter how awful your lesson was: it doesn’t matter.

Learn to be able to shake it off and to become new when your next class of totally innocent kids walk in the room and have no idea that you wanted to kill all the kids that were just sitting in those seats haha

That next class deserves your full energy and your whole attitude and they don’t deserve to be yelled at or to have a grumpy teacher and besides you being a grumpy cheer for them will make them worse because you set the weather so if you want your life to get harder then be grumpy! (And that’s not always a bad thing your kids need to know that Mom has her limits)

but if you want your kids to be happy until work harder for you you have to be happy which means you have to Shake It Off and you have to learn to not let one thing lead to another 

you have to be able to smile and fake it and not be in a bad mood over one kid or one experience or 1 lesson going bad

4. Learn to read super fast

I don’t know how people do it when they read at a normal speed I read between 1000 and 1500 words per minute which is like 10 times as fast as most people just because I don’t know how to not do it

I have to read essays

I have to check papers as they leave the door

I have to read emails 

I have to read assignments 

I have to read so many things and I don’t have all day to do it 

I have a lot of students and I don’t have a lot of time. 50 minutes! That’s it!

I read Crazy Fast all the time and not because it’s uncomfortable and not because I’m stressed out because I don’t want to take all day doing it! I just don’t and it saves me so much time to not have to take all day to correct essays or to grade papers or two great assignments. I can read it fast know that they did it or not and get on about my day.

5. Follow basic lesson plan structures

When you first become a teacher they always make you type your lesson plans and plan them out and I always thought it was the biggest pain because I hated typing everything out and I hated planning because for the most part I do things well in my head 

But it was good to always be practicing doing that structure because it really is effective 

You always need an introduction to the class: if the kids just walk in and you’re like so today we’re going to talk about…. that’s stupid. Everyone’s going to be like that is going to be horrible lesson you have to have an introduction 

You need to have a activity for all of you to do together to show them how 

you need to have specific structure an independent study and partner work all of that needs to be something that’s included in every lesson and even though maybe it’s a lot of work sometimes and maybe it’s something that you don’t think of when you first become a teacher 

As an older teacher that’s how I plan all my lessons just naturally. That’s how they all are and even though I don’t write them anymore they still have that structure and its better

Things go better if I consistently have all the pieces that way they’re supposed to and if I slack off and forget and think I won’t do a conclusion today that’s when I become more irritated and more bugged with my students and with their performance when really in the end it’s actually more my fault than theirs.

6. Keep them busy and keep them challenged

The worse the students the busier they need to be and the more specific you need to be in your goals and expectations.

 Higher level kids will work well on their own and basically set their own goals for getting things done. 

Lower level students will not in fact they will do what seems to be like the opposite of Common Sense 

You need to set goals for them and set specific expectations of when the work needs to be done and how they will give it to you

If you want them to write a paper you can’t just say it’s due next week and same thing if you want them to write a rough draft you can’t just say it’s due at the end of the period because for a lot of kids that means that they’ll waste the entire time and then try to write it in the last 2 minutes 

There’s all kinds of ways to motivate them to get a little part of it done at a time: games you can play, competitions you can run, things that aren’t wild and crazy and running around that are in their seats but still motivating and ways to keep them on track 

but keep them after, threaten them, bribe them, any way to get them to get more work done in one class.

But whatever you do, dont let them just sit there. 

7. Be Human

Be the person you are teaching them to be.

I heard one time that you as a teacher may be the only person your kids know that has a college degree.

I’m not saying be their best friend, but they should LIKE you, they should want to be someone who is like you, who has what you have. They should like how you are.

And if all you are is a stuck up jerk who yells at them all the time and after 10 months together still acts like a stranger, why would they want a college degree? So they can grow up to be an jerk like you? Probably not.

I’ve found that the more I tell stories, the better things go. The more the class knows about me as a real person, the more we can all relax and get to work. As a person, I share less with strangers than I do with friends. So if I get so concentrated on the work that I don’t ever stop and tell them about how I  (the teacher) work into all this info, they don’t really care about me or the work in the end. 

8. Show More Movies

When I was in college I worked at a middle school as an “Advocate” is what it was called, but basically like a teacher’s assistant? or an instructional aide? but instead of assisting the teacher, I assisted the students so I went in and out of classrooms depending on where my students were that I was helping, not based on the teachers if that makes sense. So one day I could be in math and the next in Science for that class period. In a 4 hour time period I was in and out of probably 10 different classes.

One of the teachers that I went in and out quite a bit was a science class for 7th graders. I always liked going and helping in her class because she did the funnest lessons ever.  As an adult I always wished that I could just attend her class because it was always so interesting and fun. They watch video clips, they cut and pasted, thet colored, they put things together, they did labs, they did all kinds of fun things. 

For one of my classes in college, I was supposed to talk to a few teachers and ask for advice and so I asked her what she would advise new teachers to do and her response was: “show more movies.” 

I thought that was the oddest response knowing what I did about her class and how amazing it was but she went on to explain:

When I was a beginning teacher I thought that every lesson had to be perfect and that I should be attending to my students every second of every class. And I finally came to realize that it’s ok to show a movie so that I can get things ready for the next event or it’s ok to show a movie so that I can get my grades done or a unit put together for them.

It’s not cheating to do work at work and I don’t need to be up here doing a circus performance every second of every class. It’s ok to show a movie, it’s okay to have some down time where the show is not all about me. Plan to have time to plan and get things ready for them: show more movies.  

From one overachiever to the other, I thought that was pretty good advice.

9. Keep shoes under your desk 

You laugh but this has saved me over and over.

Lessons can be faked, classes can watch a movie, things can be made up at the last minute but no matter what, at some point, you are gonna need to stand up in front of class with SHOES on. 🙂

High School doesn’t have the highest standards as far as dress code this is certain but no matter where you are and no matter what day it is that’s still the basic rule: you have to wear shoes and there have been several times in my career where the shoes I was wearing broke and of course they broke about 2 minutes before my class was about to start.

Keep spare shoes under your desk or in a drawer. Just trust me. You’ll be grateful for this advice one day.

10. Make a decision already

I’ve heard also lots of times that teaching is about making decisions constantly. Every second of every day someone is asking you a question and you need to come up with an answer:

Do you want this in pen or pencil? Do you want their class period underneath their name? Can we write on both sides of the paper? Do we need to write in full sentences? Do you want us to write the question? When is this due? Can I turn it in tomorrow? What happens if I don’t finish? Do you get points if it’s late? Do you have another copy? Can I go to the office? What are we doing today? What are we doing tomorrow? What are we doing all next week? I’m going to be gone. What’s the homework? Do you have a pen I can borrow?  Do you have any extra paper ? 

Most of these questions are easy to answer…the first time.

The key here is to answer them the same way every time even though in one day you will be asked these questions a dozen times. Just because it’s the 50th time that someone has asked you if they should put their name on their paper doesn’t mean that it’s ok to snap at them even though it is obnoxious.

The kids are going to ask you questions and a lot of them are going to be really stupid ones. I know they say there’s no such thing as a stupid question but believe me there are a lot of stupid questions

But in order for you to keep the environment and the mood that you want in your class, you have to be able to smile and answer the same question again in the same patient wonderful manner that you did the first time.

Make the decision to be in a good mood and to be nice even when you want to wring their little necks 🙂

11. Stop acting like this is High School 

Anyone can be a teacher, that’s true. A college education helps and it helps to prepare you so that you have more of an idea of what to do.But when it comes down to it, anyone can be a teacher at any age and a college degree really doesn’t matter. 

The good teachers are the ones that can manage relationships and can manage different types of students. 

Growing up you had a certain type of friend. I’m sure you were maybe in a certain type of group of people in high school but now that you’re a teacher. You’re supposed to be a part of every group. You’re supposed to be able to relate to every type of person not just the ones that you liked in high school.

You need to be able to have a relationship with the Geeks, the Stoners, the jocks, the pretty girls, the shy girls, the band members, the overachievers, The Slackers and the people who have no group. Because the thing that all of these kids have in common is you and you have a unique opportunity for them to listen to you and to learn from you and if they think that you are one of “them” they’re not going to even give you the time of day

12. No one cares.

One afternoon after a shoe  incident right before class, I was in the copy room with some other teachers telling them about how terrible my experience had been and how I was wearing flip-flops that day and a couple of them of course laughed and commented to make me feel better and consoled me I guess. I wasn’t that upset but it was a funny story

As the story ended, one of the teachers came and stood right next to me and told me very quietly: “Can I tell you something? nobody gives a s***”

I was kind of shocked at that response but she went on to explain:

“Chances are that no one noticed your shoes at all today. The students don’t care what you’re wearing. You could be wearing anything up there. High school students are not observant and they don’t care. 

When it comes down to it it doesn’t matter what you look like and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. What’s important here is the students and their education and getting them to learn and to understand better.”

Throughout my career as a teacher I’ve had several times when my skirt was on backwards, my shoes were my slippers that I only wore at home that I forgot to take off, I had one hair sticking straight up all day or I only did my makeup on one eye. 

There was a time once when I was pregnant and for some reason I couldn’t walk because I had this piercing pain in my side and so I sat ob my stool up front  all day and just ordered my students to bring things to me.

I have been so nauseous from morning sickness that I felt green to my toes. 

I’ve hung things from the ceiling as decorations for holidays and had no one even look up or notice them for days and days at a time.

One day I developed an ear infection and by 3rd period, (about 10:30am), I was completely deaf. I went all that period And the rest of the next not being able to hear at all. In fact I heard a really loud feedback everytime I spoke.

And you know what? In every single instance I don’t think that anyone noticed at all. I had a kid look at me funny the one time I was Deaf from the ear infection but he didn’t say anything. No one noticed that I’m aware of and I don’t think anyone cared either.

So stop worrying about what you look like, stop worrying if your outfit is perfect or if your shoes match your dress. 

No one cares. 

What they care about is your relationship and they care about whether or not you care about them; that’s all.

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