As I’m preparing to leave teaching after 3 years of teaching 4th grade in Glendale, AZ, I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve learned over the past few years a lot lately. I was talking about this with Bryan the other day actually, as we discussed some of my fears about starting law school. I know that the first year of law school there is going to be an extremely steep learning curve. All of the vocabulary, content, environments, and mindsets are going to be completely different than what I’ve become used to as a teacher in Arizona. Bryan reminded me, though, that I knew nothing about teaching when I started, and now I feel like a veteran. There is no teaching discussion that I feel left out of, or that I have nothing to say about. I know so much more than I did 3 years ago, and I also know what it is that I don’t know, which I think is really important when you are a teacher. So here is some of what I have learned. One caveat–I know that most of you are not teachers, but I also know that some of you are and I hope that some of what I learned can help others who are new to the career.
1. Find comfortable teacher shoes before you enter the classroom, and buy them in as many different colors as you can. I can’t tell you how many different pairs of shoes I have gone through over the last 3 years in my neverending search for comfortable shoes. Heels, kitten heels, flats, ugly purple crocs, Skechers, sneakers, sandals, flip-flops…I have tried everything. No matter what shoe I wore though, it seemed that I went home practically limping from being on my feet every day. The final winner: Mary Jane (thus, more subtle than the traditional version) style Crocs. They are soft, breathable, and don’t give me blisters. The only problem–I bought them one size too small (they don’t come in half sizes). If I were to stay in teaching, I would buy 3 more pairs in a larger size and throw away every other pair of teacher shoes that I have tried.
2. No matter how many ideas you have about what you are going to do when you are a teacher, keep it simple. I was just like all the rest. I was so excited to have my own classroom, and I had so many ideas of what I was going to do in my own little world as a teacher. I kept a notebook of my ideas and never doubted that I would be able to accomplish most, if not all, of them. The reality: some of my ideas were good, most of them were impractical, and it is impossible to do everything you want to do your first year. (Actually, after completing three, I am starting to think it is impossible to do everything you want to do as a teacher, ever). I will never forget the day I spent in the week before the students arrived that we had to prepare our classrooms hand-drawing a bulletin board-sized replica of the cover of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go. What was the purpose of this? There might have been one, but I don’t remember what it was now, other than that I had some dream of having a Dr. Seuss “theme” to my classroom. As a new teacher, you must learn to work SMART, not hard. Every time you are doing something, ask yourself–How is this going to impact my students? If the answer is neglibile, step away from the scissors, construction paper, and glitter and start planning a unit.
which leads me to number three…
3. The most effective way to spend your time is to plan a thematic unit. Pick a theme that you think will have a real impact on your students (social justice, social studies, or science are the best, in my opinion), and plan an integrated unit that centers around that theme. Plan how you are going to tie in literature, social studies, science, writing, math, etc. Map out your daily objectives, plan every single lesson, create every single document, and keep everything in a binder AND in an electronic copy in a file on your computer. I spent too much time planning lessons and focusing on one subject at a time, when I should have been focused on what my students were going to walk away really having internalized. Do not stress about covering every single standard (especially in reading and writing, where standards-based instruction should be more of a guide than a rule).
The only thing that makes this really hard are when you have District benchmark exams and a scope & sequence to follow, but this usually only applies to math, which is the subject that can really fit into any thematic unit (cover your standards according to the scope & sequence, but try whenever you can to fit in math that applies to your thematic unit).
4. Pick a daily arrival and departure time and STICK TO THEM. My advice is to decide if you are going to have more energy before or after school. Decide which time of day you will want to get the majority of your work done, and plan to spend more time at school during that chunk of the day. But understand this–you will never, EVER, finish all of your work. There is no “done” in teaching. Save your sanity, energy, and health by arriving at the same time, leaving at the same time, and working smart (i.e., on things that will have the great impact on your students) in between.
5. Work out in the morning before school. It took me three years to figure this one out, but I finally realized that the day that I actually have enough energy after a full day of teaching to feel motivated enough to go to the gym will be the day pigs fly. I do, however, have a lot of energy in the morning. My third year I began waking up at 4:30 am, getting to the gym by 5:00 am, and squeezing a workout in before school. It makes me feel good for the rest of the day. I used to feel a sense of dread all day, knowing that I would end up skipping the workout I had planned for, due to lack of energy. I can’t dread something I’ve already done though! Any teacher that does have enough energy after a day of teaching to exercise is probably not working hard enough at their job during the day.
My tendency for verbosity is making me realize that finishing all 25 things I’ve learned would turn into a novel, so I’m going to leave it at 5 for today. 5 more things I’ve learned about teaching will be com ing soon! (And for all the non-teachers who are reading this, I promise that the teacher-talk will diminish as soon as those kids leave on May 28).
Teachers: What is the biggest thing you have learned since you became a teacher?