A Letter to My First-Year Teacher Self
I’ve started to think a bit about how I want to plan this summer compared to how I planned last summer (which, spoiler alert, turned out to not be super effective). I had the idea to share these thoughts in the form of a fake letter to myself – a time-travel paradox where my current self sends a letter of advice to my first-year teacher self. I thought that might be kinda clever and fun to write, and I had started writing it when this happened:
Bowman Dickson made a Call for Advice for New Teachers. A few people have already answered. I guess what follows is my response to this call, but with a twist. I’m still addressing the new teacher that I was a year ago, which may be different than the new teacher that you are now. But this is some concrete advice I wish I had received when I was just beginning the daunting task of planning and preparing a curriculum and starting at a brand new school.
Dear First-Year Dan,
Look at you – bright eyed and jumping at the bit to start up your first year. You have so many ideas! You’ve been reading blogs. You’ve been watching poor teachers and thinking of ways to ‘fix’ their classrooms. You’ve been watching amazing teachers and trying to remember every little thing they did so you can copy them. You’ve been a ‘TA’ or ‘Observer’ for long enough and you’re sick of it – you’re ready to enter your very own classroom with whatever rules and procedures you want. Pretty awesome, right?
But it’s summer right now – you don’t have your classroom yet. You don’t know your kids. You don’t know what their incoming level will be. It’s almost paralyzing – knowing you have so much to do and not knowing where to start.
First piece of advice: A syllabus is not the very first thing you need to create. In fact, it’s probably the last. It’s a culmination of all the things you’ll be thinking about this summer – of classroom procedures, of grading policies, of discipline procedures, of pacing guides. Write this thing last – don’t stress out because you’re trying to write it first.
Second piece of advice: Don’t try and write all of your lessons and activities and projects all at once over the summer. It’s intimidating because some teachers say they have their whole year in a notebook that they just look at – that’s wonderful, but that isn’t you. Nowhere close. Don’t feel pressured to create specific problems and homework assignments and nitty-gritty details of the day-to-day lessons in your classroom. You’ll throw most of these out anyway.
Instead, try to come up with a list of topics that you need to cover. Base them in the state standards. Then try and arrange them in an order that makes sense to you. Look at your textbook as a reference on sequence. Try to make these topics measurable – things that can be assessed with certain problems or projects. Then start collecting problems that exemplify these topics. Look at your textbook for a reference on problems. Look online for references. If you find some you like but can’t find enough of them, create your own. By the end of this process, you should have a list of topics that say to you ‘This is the heart of my subject – students who pass this class should be able to do these things. If they can do this, they will be ready for the next level’. And for each topic, you should have a few problems that say ‘I want my students to be able to solve this type of problem accurately and consistently. This is what I am building towards. These are the finish line’.
After this, don’t go into any more detail. You have a sequence and the outline for your summative assessments – I don’t recommend doing much more over summer. If you want, continue to collect ‘finish line’ problems, but don’t start planning individual lessons or individual assignments. They’ll probably change. Your students are unpredictable. You are unpredictable – it’s your first year and you don’t know how long it will take you to teach each particular topic. You don’t know how in-depth you’ll need to go. You don’t need to feel locked into a particular time frame just because that’s what you guessed it would take over the summer, or that’s how long your textbook guesses it should take to teach that subject. As the first week approaches, start to plan your lessons for that week (and since it’s the first week, overplan it). Outline what you’ll do for the next week. Then play the rest of it by ear. But don’t worry – you know where you’re going – you already spent all summer coming up with the key topics and finish-line problems you’re working towards.
Third piece of advice: Find the document for your school that outlines discipline procedures and read it thoroughly. Know the language that the document uses. Know the levels for each offense. Did you know ‘lying’ is an offense that warrants disciplinary action at your school? So is ‘making out’ in the hallways. These are things that are on the books – they are ingrained in the system – you don’t need to feel awkward for enforcing these, even if no one else is. Get to know the security people. Get their phone numbers – put them in your cell phone. Find the female hall monitor and get her cell phone number so you can text her when a young female student has a dress code violation and she can come in and take care of it – it’s always slightly awkward when a male teacher calls a female student on a dress code violation. I still haven’t figured out the best way to handle that – don’t want to say something inappropriate.
Fourth piece of advice: Stop stressing out about the first day of school. I know what you’re thinking – you’re not sure how to start a classroom. This is the one area of teaching that you’ve never experienced. Up until now, you’ve only ever jumped in the middle of a classroom – a culture that some other teacher has already established and that you get to react to. Starting that culture from scratch is intimidating – you’ve never seen a first day before. This is your biggest fear – those first impressions and first days – how they will define your classroom. And you’re scared to death of making a mistake.
Well – don’t be. Stop it. It’s a waste of your energy. You’ll get through that first week and there will be things that you like and things that you don’t and you’ll deal with it just like you did in your student teaching. And you’ll look at blogs and talk to teachers and they’ll all give you advice and you’ll fix whatever it is you want to fix and you’ll be on your way to a more concrete idea of your classroom. But you have to start somewhere, so keep your expectations high and overplan everything for that first week, but don’t stress out when things don’t go perfectly. You’ll fix it in a week and it’ll be fine.
Last Piece of Advice: Read literature that’s grounded in research. I know you’ve never heard of this guy before, but start reading some things by Robert Marzano – he’s a big deal in the education research world. Use his bibliography to find other authors to read – I enjoy Fischer & Frey, Blankstein, and DuFour, but there are others. You’re not reading this for ideas on how to teach (although it will help) – you’re reading these to give yourself ammunition when other teachers question your radical ideas. You need to say, with confidence, that research supports groupwork. That research supports performance-based assessments. That research supports reassessment. And you can quote the percentile gains.
Of course, you already know what good teaching looks like – you care about teaching and you’ve been reading blogs, so you already know what exceptional, reflective, collaborative teaching looks like. But you’re a first year teacher, so it will be hard. Incredibly hard. And you’ll need support to keep going. So add the research to your arsenal. And keep reading blogs and being inspired by the fact that you’re not the only one trying new and adventurous things, and you’re also not the only one who isn’t being successful with them.
See you in a year,