Whew, my first few years as an educator were an adventure! Here's me after year one of teaching:
If you know me personally or professionally, you probably responded to that statement with an aggressive head-nod or laugh. My first few years of teaching were full of ups and downs with deep reflections and even deeper feelings of gratitude at the end of each year. I am SO thankful for everything that I have learned, and every student that I've had the privilege of teaching. I am so grateful for the humbling experiences, resources, professional developments, and fellow teacher baes that shaped me into the education professional that I am today. Education is an ever-changing field, so my evolution will be constantly ongoing -- always incomplete. Nevertheless, here are some lessons that I will always carry with me.
I Come First
I come before any student, staff member, or deliverable. I say this as the teacher who used to arrive at 6:30am and use all of my preps for lesson planning/internalization, decorating, cleaning, and many other tasks. By the end of the day I was dehydrated and hungry, and of course I still stayed late! Sometimes I would leave the building with the cleaning crew, who on average left between 8:30 and 9:00pm.
I didn't think my inability to put myself first had an influence on my classroom culture until I considered how this impacted my students. Read some of the affects below.
My classroom began to lack joy. My students could sense that I was stressed. I was less bubbly and excited while teaching, and this led to a decrease in their own excitement and participation.
Some off task behaviors began to flourish. I had less engagement in my lessons which meant my students had more time to talk and play in ways that were not aligned to the lesson objectives.
I was not eating regularly. When I did, it was usually something quick and unhealthy since I was always eating late at night after I decided to leave work. This caused me to gain weight. I didn't mind the weight at all, but I knew I was gaining it due to poor habits.
Stress and poor eating habits caused me to become ill easily. There are a plethora of germs that circulate within an elementary school, some of which took advantage of my weakened immune system.
In a nutshell, I learned to properly care for myself so that I’d be able to care for my students. One of the ways that I accomplished this was by creating a schedule that listed the tasks that I needed to complete during the week and assigned myself 1-3 tasks each day.
If a task was to take longer than an hour, it would have its own day. For example, my guided reading lesson plans are very detailed and differentiated. They usually take me 2-3 hours. After I completed these plans, I was done for the day. Shortly after I began to do this I realized I had completed all of my tasks by the close of the week.
Secondly, I used one prep per day for eating and personal tasks. I'd sit down and use that entire block to eat a healthy lunch and handle personal business (whether that be paying a bill, making a nail appointment, journaling, etc). Over time I realized I was happier, getting more accomplished, and had more structure in my day. This not only led to the restoration of my own happiness, but also allowed me to see more joy in my classroom as things went back to normal.
Setting the Tone
I've learned that routines set the tone for everything that you will do in your classroom. On my first day of my first year teaching, I smiled as soon as I saw my class and told them all about the great year we were going to have. A few minutes later as I was teaching, one of my students got out of his seat and left to use the bathroom. I was livid because I thought that he should know not to leave the classroom without permission. However, my anger was misplaced because I had not put a procedure in place for students to communicate that they needed to use the restroom. Check out this
visual of some procedures that I used in my classroom prior to quarantine (placed above if you are viewing from a mobile device).
This builds off of the previous section. When thinking about what routines I needed, I also began to think through what each routine would look and sound like. I thought about every component of the lessons I taught and considered what I wanted my students to do and how. This sounds like a lot, but became easier with consistent practice and the integration of these routines into my lesson planning process. For instance, this past year, I taught reading in the mornings on the carpet. When my students first came into the classroom, they were sitting at their desks. Below are a few of the routines I had to script into my lesson plan to not only get my students to the carpet successfully but also to engage in the lesson.
Transitioning to the carpet by table
Each student sitting in their designated carpet spot
Partner talking procedures
Transitioning back to their seats
Exit ticket distribution and collection
By far the most important lesson I've learned over the years! Building relationships is more than exchanging details about ourselves. It is when we take the time to listen to, learn, encourage, and love on our students. As educators, we know that this takes time. However, once these relationships are established, they will yield positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for students. Consider the example below. Side note: the student that I am referring to is actually one of the girls I‘m hugging in this photo! She is truly missed.
This year there was a student in my class who performed below grade level due to her extremely timid nature. In the beginning of the school year, she did not participate in classroom discourse and always doubted herself. She was afraid to share out and always assumed her answers were incorrect. This obviously impacted her academic performance, and caused me to believe that she was reading three levels below grade level due to her unwillingness to push herself.
Shortly after Fountas and Pinnell assessments were finished and students were sorted into their differentiated reading groups, she was placed in mine. We spent a bulk of our time reading and doing word work, but our remaining time was spent talking about our families, favorite foods, weekend activities, etc. Over time she became more comfortable talking to me. This transitioned into me being able to call on her during reading lessons, her engaging in partner talk with peers, and having more confidence in her responses (both written and verbal). I was also very intentional about praising her efforts by giving her very specific, positive feedback. In the beginning of the year, she was reading at a level A (the BOY target for 1st grade is D). As of March 2020, she is reading at a level J - right on track for 2nd grade! *drops mic*
I truly believe that her confidence and comfort were the two influential factors in her academic success. She possessed the intellectual capabilities since the first day of school. She just needed to feel like my classroom was a safe space for her to not only challenge herself, but also to showcase her knowledge.
Give & Be Receptive to Feedback
We give our students feedback based on glows and grows, so we need to keep that same energy when it comes to our teaching. When someone gives me constructive feedback with a goal of making me a better educator, I TAKE IT. If I don't like what was said, I'll process their thoughts for at least 24 hours and then circle back if I still disagree. In addition, I prefer to implement feedback almost immediately, so that I can move on to the next task. My school supports this by providing real-time coaching and modeling next steps within my classroom when necessary.
While teachers need guidance through coaching and feedback to inform their practices, I also know that it is equally important that teachers give feedback to leadership and coaches so they know how to best support us.
Know When to Leave
When whoever said "Everything isn't for everybody", they meant jobs too! Every school isn't a perfect fit. Sometimes we know this after a tour. Other times this doesn't become evident until after we've been employed at this school for some time. Nevertheless, it's very important to me that I know when to let go and let God. Here are some signs that it may be time to get that resignation letter ready:
Unhappiness: Do you no longer find joy in working at your school anymore?
Insufficient support: Is your success being stifled due to lack of support in instructional delivery, classroom management, or other areas?
Growth: Do you feel like you won't be able to grow in this space?
NOTE: If you can answer yes to these questions, it's extremely important to be proactive in communicating these issues with leadership so that they can provide supports and assist you in resolving these issues. It is also helpful to create an action plan prior to reaching out to your leadership team to see if you can resolve some of these problems on your own.
Thank you deeply for reading my thoughts and lessons as I reflect on the years I've spent in this field. May this next year bring forth more lessons, growth, and success to all of us!