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A Few Minutes of Reflection

February 20, 2012

It’s Sunday and I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop sketching out my next Geometry unit. On paper and in the textbook, the heading would be ‘Similar Triangles’. In my mind, the heading is ‘Finally getting over a fear of fractions, learning to solving proportional algebra problems, and solving really cool indirect measurement problems’. Anyway – I thought I’d take a minute to put down on paper (or, I guess, on ‘text box’, since that’s how the WordPress post interface works) some things that have been floating around in my head.

(1) Earlier this year I had a conversation with an amazing elementary school teacher who was starting her 2nd year. We were sharing first-year teacher stories when she said something to the effect of: “You know, they always say ‘It’s okay – it’ll be so much easier your second year. It gets better’. But they never tell you how it gets better, so I always wondered what it was – what’s this secret thing that happens between your first year and second year that somehow makes it easier. And I still don’t quite know what it is, but I’m in my second year and they’re right – it somehow is easier, but I can’t explain why”.

I’ve been thinking about that because I’m in my second semester and it’s going incredibly smooth and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’ve pinpointed several little things that really just have to do with personal comfort – I now know how my school and administration works (especially discipline procedures); I know how my own work and sleep schedule works; I know approximately how long it will take to grade papers or make worksheets; I know how my organization works (what things need to be kept within arms reach at all times and what things can be stored in a filing cabinet across the room) – essentially, I know more about myself as a teacher than I did last semester.

Actually, I think that last sentence really describes all parts of this, because I’m also a lot more comfortable and confident with the activities and problems I give in the classroom. I remember experimenting a lot last semester and a year ago during student teaching – am I a teacher who has students come up to the board and do problems? Am I a teacher who uses slates? Am I a teacher who assigns homework every night (note: I’m still working on this one)? Am I a teacher who tolerates electronics in the classroom – and if so, during what times is that okay and during what times is that not okay? The hardest ones to figure out were the little housekeeping procedures – how do I keep track of tardies? Of attendence? Of late work? I was still figuring all of this out last year, but now I have my set list of activities and procedures during class. You could say I have an idea of what my ‘default classroom’ looks like. If we need to do guided practice, I have my 1-2 stock routines to use. If we do an inquiry-based lesson, I have my 1-2 group structures for them to use. I’m no longer experimenting with group roles, participation quizzes, jigsaw activities, scavenger hunts, solve-crumple-toss, or other cool things I could be doing that work well for other teachers but bombed for me (for example: have students come up with their own definitions of geometric objects ala Dan Meyer and MissCalcul8? Totally Bombed). Instead, I’ve found the ones I like and have started just focusing on improving them. Which is a nice feeling. Maybe next year I’ll branch out and try these other strategies again.

By the way – I don’t think I’d be this comfortable now if I didn’t take so many opportunities to experiment when I was in my education classes at the U of A or during Student Teaching (or, honestly, during my first semester – sorry first-semester students, you were the guinea pigs for many of those lessons). I was never the preservice teacher who planned a straightforward lesson to present to my peers – I always experimented with some questioning strategy or group structure. And most of the time it bombed, but at least it bombed in a safe environment instead of in front of 30 grumbling teenagers. And because of that, I learned a lot and made a ton of improvements, so when I tried it the second time, it worked well enough that I could call it a moderate success. Then usually the 3rd time I’ve worked out all the procedural kinks (bad/missing directions, misjudged the amount of time it would take, how explicit to be with modeling, prerequisite knowledge, etc). Anyway, the point of this paragraph is: if you are a preservice teacher, I highly highly highly advise you to take as many risks as possible when you’re still preservice – all it takes is one run-through to get some very concrete data about directions, modeling, and how much time it’ll take. And it’ll make you better by the time you get to inservice.

(2) I mentioned earlier: this semester seems to be going incredibly smooth. I have almost no discipline/management problems. I’m comfortable with the pace I’m going at. My students’ test averages keep going up. On paper and in my head, there’s a lot of good stuff happening…

This is freaking me out. I’m a first year teacher working in a high-needs school. I keep thinking to myself that there is no way my classes should be going this wellI’m quietly waiting for everything to come crashing down somehow – for me to discover that my students have been cheating on every one of my tests, or that they’ve discovered how the ‘play the game of my classroom’, which means getting good grades without actually needed to learn the material. Actually, my biggest fear as a teacher is that my perception of my classroom stops being the reality of my classroom. I’ve seen so many experienced teachers fall into this illusion and I’ll always be scared that it’ll happen to me – I don’t want to be that teacher who stands at the front of the room and asks for a choral response, the same 3 students answer, and I move on because I assume the entire class is paying attention (when really they’re asleep or texting on their cell phones). And then when I do my formative assessments, half the class copies off each other without me noticing so I think the data represents comprehension, when really it represents a lack of attention on my part. I don’t think I’ve become that, but the lightness I feel towards this semester is something I’ve only ever experienced with teachers who have built up this illusion around their classrooms (A colleague of mine has dubbed this illusion Fantasy Teaching, which I think is a good description for it).

I guess another way to express this fear is the following: I know this semester is better than last semester, but I don’t know if it’s good or great or adequate or terrible – I can’t get an objective picture of my classroom. And I fear that if I become complacent with better,  then I might also be becoming complacent with adequate  or mediocre, which isn’t what I want. And it scares me that since I’m always at the center of my classroom, I will never be the person who sees it objectively. I’ll always need an administrator or peppy student teacher to come along and point out the things I’ve started to overlook. Or I guess to be videotaped every so often and watch my classroom like a coach watches his team – nitpicking all the details that you can only see once you’re removed from the game.

(3) I’m still closely watching my students and their grades and their understanding with my switch to exit tickets and the removal of homework. If there’s one thing that I’m concerned about, it’s that they might not be getting as much practice as they need. I need to be very careful about when I do assign homework so I make sure they get enough concrete practice outside of class. So far, everything’s been going pretty smooth – I feel like I’ve established an understanding of ‘You may not have to do much work outside of class, but you will give me your  best effort while you are physically in my room and you will work the entire class period”. What I’m trying to establish now is “When I do give you work outside of class, you will take it seriously and complete it correctly on time”, which is a battle I’m fighting not only with the default state of any teenager (‘I’m lazy and just don’t want to do it’), but also the homework culture of my class from last semester (where I didn’t really care about homework so they started not to care too). Homework turnin still isn’t great, but the students who do turn it in on time have been my A/B students or my hardworking B/C students – which means the data I get from the homework is important. These are problems every student should be able to answer, so if this subset of students gets them incorrect, I can assume my slightly-lost, still figuring it out subgroup of students will miss these too. Which means I should go over them the next day and make sure everyone does them correctly, which benefits both my A students and my struggling students. This is the first time for me as a teacher that homework has had a direct impact on how I teach, and I like that.

Anyway, my current assessment cycle is: Bellwork & Exit tickets pretty much every day (formative assessments), Homework once every 1.5 weeks (evaluative assessment with written feedback and rapid turnaround), Exams at end of unit (summative), and retake packets to allow students to retake any test any time. My underlying philosophy regarding assessments is: I don’t care how long it takes or how many times it takes – just learn the material. This is something I’ve sorta gleaned from the philosophy of Standards Based Grading and their focus on mastery and reassessment. I’m liking it so far, but we’ll see what happens.

So… that’s pretty much where I am. I’m about 2/3 of the way through my first year – hope you’ve been enjoying the journey.

  1. I’m in my third year of teaching and it’s just settling down to the point where I can stop and reflect about what I’m doing well and not well. I’ve been in such a haze of “just get it done fast because I’ve already been at school for 12 hours” that there’s been no space for thinking about whether what I’m doing is what I should be doing. I felt like last year was easier in that I felt comfortable with the job, but I didn’t have room for doubt. This year I’m all about doubt. It seems like there’s so much out there and it’s so hard to tell what really does work. I’m also really struggling with the question of how I can objectively view my classroom. I know that there’s always room for improvement in everything, but I can beat myself up so much about what can still be improved that it’s hard to see what is working. Students tell me that they like my class, but what does that mean when they have no basis for comparison? I wonder if I will ever feel fully comfortable in this profession (which is something I really want to be- comfortable) or if it makes me a better teacher to live with discomfort and doubt because it forces me to try new things. Everyone around here tells me it gets better after 5 years. Maybe becoming a good teacher is like becoming an adult- you just keep hoping and pretending and trying until by the time you’re 70 you realize you’ve always been trying to be an adult and never felt like one, but you think you were one all along. (This is what my grandma has said.) I think though, as long as we keep asking ourselves “what am I missing and what can still be improved?” we will never become those teachers who pat ourselves on the back while our students snooze.

  2. I’m amazed that you’re in your first year and it seems to be going quite smoothly – I was an absolute wreck in my first year of teaching!

    I’ve found that the most interesting thing about teaching is that you never think that you’ll learn as much the year after has you have in the current year. Of course, you end up learning much more!

    I’ve never heard of ‘Bellwork and Exit tickets’ before. Would you mind explaining that to me?

    • Hey Dan,

      Bellwork is a series of problems/questions that my students answer as soon as they enter class and the bell rings. For me, it’s part routine/structure so my class doesn’t start with chaos, but I also use it as a formative assessment. It has other names, such as “Do Now”, “Warm-Up”, “Fast 5”, “Anticipatory Set”, etc. To give you a visual: if you walked into my classroom as a student, you would say hi to me at the door then look at the smartboard and see 4-5 problems with a timer in the corner. You would take your seat and take out a piece of paper (and then, realistically, talk with your friends until the bell rings). Once the bell rings, I walk into the classroom and say “Good day ladies and gentlemen – I have some bellwork for you up on the board. Many of you have already started and I thank you for that – the rest of you have (x) minutes”. Then I start the timer and let the class settle into the routine.

      Oh – here’s a good video showing a cool way you could use bellwork in your class (which I first saw from Kate Nowak’s blog):

      Oh – another interesting way to start class – instead of giving kids a question and asking them to answer it, why not give them an answer and ask them to come up with the question?

      Exit tickets are questions that students complete at the end of class and hand to you on the way out the door. I use them in place of homework most of the time, so my exit tickets are usually problems that I would expect them to complete by the end of class. But, a lot of teachers use them sporadically to get a feeling for how the class is going by asking reflective questions like “What’s one thing you still don’t understand? What’s one thing you feel you understand very well? What do you think Mr S should talk about tomorrow?”. Sam Shah has a great post about how he used exit tickets to really dig into how his students’ understanding at a conceptual level:

      Hope this helps =). Thanks for reading

      -Dan Schneider

  3. Thank you Dan for the detailed reply.

    I like the bellwork activity from the link you recommended, it has many good features! There are however some details regarding that method which I need to think about for a while. For example, if the students don’t write their names on the sheets then can’t the teacher take them in and simply hand them out to different pairs to discuss. Then after 2 minutes of discussion she could ask groups to volunteer mistakes and improvements to some of the methods. I really don’t like that wait time that takes pace out of the lesson while she sorts the cards – just trying to think of a way around it.

    The exit ticket idea is also interesting. It’s possible that I’ve neglected pleanaries that test students knowlegde in favour of plenaries which summarise and extend the lesson. May need to think about this as well.

    Dan Pearcy


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