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Virginia Journal of Education

Getting Better Every Day

A Charlottesville educator offers some advice for new teachers.

by Susan S. Muse

Recently, I was among a group of five experienced teachers asked to talk to students from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. The class we were invited to focused on classroom management and teacher collegiality, and we were supposed to listen to the lecture and then answer students’ questions from the perspective of “real” teachers. Fascinated, I listened to the latest research on subjects that these soon-to-be-teachers were learning. The professor warned us that there might not be many questions for us because “the class is already a long one, and the students want to leave by the end of the lecture.”

So, when we took the seats in the front of the auditorium, we expected lethargy from the crowd of students. Instead, we got hit with demanding questions, not just about the two subjects of the day, but also about the everyday grind they were soon to face in their own classrooms. Subjects included setting up the classroom and how to arrange desks, but most questions pertained to behavior and classroom management. What do you do if a child won’t comply with your rules? What do you do if a student continues to disrupt the learning environment? We’ve been told that if you send the student out, we as teachers have lost control of our classroom. Is that true? What about parents? How do you deal with one student’s behavior yet still have the rest engaged? How do you even start the school year?

How could we “real” teachers give concrete answers for these almost-novice teachers? After all, every situation is unique. The challenges are not only singular to each child and to each situation; there are also differences in how each teacher may choose to handle them. Unless you’ve “been there,” it’s hard to convey this. Part of being a teacher is thinking on your feet and making a decision that is best for that specific child at that specific moment.

Hearing the concerns and questions of these almost-graduates gave me pause. Not only did I detect panic in their voices, I also heard almost a sense of doom. One pointed out that many of them had just finished their student teaching, but had not yet been hired for the fall. There were real concerns that they had been in school for five years and now faced the possibility of not being able to find a job. As they pointed out, they were already exhausted from the grueling demands of student teaching, and they had not even entered their own classrooms yet. Looking around the room, I saw fatigue, defeat and fear. Embarking on this journey seemed overwhelming to them. Yes, they had heard the latest research on classroom management and teacher collegiality. What they needed was a little advice, support and encouragement about getting started, and to hear something about the positive aspects of being a teacher.

With this in mind, I offered some of the following ideas, which have worked well for me in my middle school classroom, to these new teachers:

It’s in the mail.
Every year before the orientation for rising seventh graders, I send a handwritten postcard to each of my students. This helps me learn their names, and it’s a way to welcome them to my classroom. It’s also a reminder to them to attend orientation so they can “introduce me to their friends. I don’t know anyone!” When orientation rolls around, students are curious to meet the teacher who sent them a postcard in the mail--addressed to them!
A running start.
Both parents and students roam around at orientation, acquainting themselves with my classroom and me, demanding my attention, asking questions, and wanting to tell me something about themselves. Although this is not the time for a one-on-one parent-teacher conference, I do keep a clipboard nearby and jot down notes about what I am learning at this event. If a student mentions her true love is swimming, I scribble that down. If two students are attached like Siamese twins, I make a note to question their seating in my class--maybe they will work well together, maybe not. I have a sign-in sheet that asks for parents’ names, their child’s name, their address, and all pertinent contact information. I also provide either my business card or a printed sheet with all my contact information on it. Parents and guardians know how to stay in touch from this point on. One more sheet I make available is a list of supplies needed for my class.

Day one.
On the first school day, I greet every student at the door and try to call them by name. After showing them around my room, we review the classroom rules. I pass out copies of the rules in a contract form, which becomes the night’s homework. When the contract is signed and returned the next day, I add my signature. As we look over the contract, I’m practicing their names. When the principal comes in to greet students on the first day, I try to “introduce” my students by name. They love this, and are always ready to catch me making a mistake. Laughter always follows.

Day two.
The next day, I play “Four Facts and a Fib” with the class. I list five statements about myself, four facts and one fib. To elevate this lesson, and to introduce one way of taking notes, I have students use Cornell Notes, which require them to ask higher-level thinking questions to find out what may be true and what may be false about me. If a question is too “low-level,” I insist the student rethink the question and then reword it. Once the class has discovered the fib about me, I turn the assignment around and have them do it on themselves. We spend the rest of the period and part of the next day having them present their four facts and a fib to the class, which gives me another opportunity to learn more about them.

Laying the foundation.
Between orientation and the first two days of school, I now have quite a bit of background information on each of my students, which is very helpful in building the kind of relationship I want to have with them. A solid relationship helps ensure success in my classroom, not failure. Later, I also ask each student to complete the front of a file folder with all parent contact information. I explain that this is for contacting a parent in an emergency when the computer system is down. Often, this is the most accurate contact information that the school gets.

Making the call.
I call each parent or guardian during the first week and talk about something positive that happened in my classroom. Parents love hearing from me so soon and, of course, they love hearing something positive about their child. Usually, they offer advice or support (“Call me if anything changes,” or “He’s been known to be a talker” or “She struggles with _____”), and I remind them that Back to School Night is coming up. With this contact, I’m building a meaningful relationship with the parent. Touching base now helps, too. If I have to call back with a behavioral or academic concern later, they’re more receptive because they know I’ve already seen their student in a positive light.
The best-laid plans.
Break up lessons into sections, depending on the length of the period. I have a 48-minute class, and usually have three activities planned that I know we’ll finish. Part of classroom management is making sure there is no “down time.” Besides helping maintain a sense of order in the classroom, this allows you to spend all your class time on academics. I also have additional activities planned, like a game on the board that pertains to the content area. For example, one puzzle may be a question like, “Can you name all the parts of speech?” Another may be “What are at least two commonly used words that begin with ‘dw’ in the English language? There are only three.” Students love these challenges and look forward to my puzzles each day. I also have something to read aloud to my students, in case there is time.

Establish a routine.
Make your classroom as organized as possible. If someone new came in, would he know right away what your plan of the day is from reading your board?  My students learn to enter the classroom, immediately get their homework out and put it on the corner of their desks for pick-up, and then begin the “Do Now” on the board. This activity may be a review of what we did yesterday, or it may assess what they already know about today’s lesson. From there, we move into the main lesson. At the end of the period, there is an exit pass or some type of assessment that lets me know how I did as a teacher that day. This indicates what strategies I need to use tomorrow to correct learning or to offer more information. It also lets me know who needs extra help or alerts me to other possibilities, like the need for a child study.

Just because it’s a routine, it doesn’t have to be boring. Vary your presentation; there are thousands of ways to introduce material and to teach. Your job is to find out what works to engage the students in front of you each day. Remember, next year you’ll have to reconfigure the material to meet the needs of the students you have then.

Don’t let them forget.
What I covered last week is incorporated into today’s lesson. So is what was taught yesterday. I’m always spiraling what we’ve already done, rolling it over from day to day, from lesson to lesson. Each student learns differently, and his or her unique way of “getting it” is what you must discover. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Terms of engagement.
I use a variety of strategies to keep students engaged. I use their names on all assignments and tests. Searching for their names, they are delighted that I’ve recognized them. It’s a small moment in a day, but these acknowledgements mean a lot to students. I also involve students by assigning one as a helper to assist me with such tasks as handing out our class novel or collecting homework. The helper changes daily. If one student is particularly good at grammar, for example, I ask her to teach the class, or she might help a struggling student. If there are oral presentations, I let the class know that they’re being graded as an audience member as well as for their project and presentation. They’re to write down one positive comment about each presentation and then one constructive comment. This way, the comments come from peers, who do a great job of critiquing work. Whatever we do in class, the students are kept actively engaged in the process of learning. They celebrate their own victories and those of their classmates. We do the “wave” in honor of those who are successful, or we do a silent clap or a “happy dance.” This helps break up the routine, but more importantly, it celebrates successes, however minor.

Also, use technology: Smart boards, laptops, iPods and clickers are just a few ways to engage your learners.
On their best behavior.
Keeping lessons interesting is the primary way to involve students in the learning process. If you can do this, most behavior issues are pretty minor. Redirecting a student usually can be done with a gentle reminder, such as placing a hand on his desk or by standing near the offending student. Another technique is to walk throughout the room constantly so that my physical proximity keeps the playfulness or talking at bay. I also keep a pad of sticky notes with me. If I see a student who has been disruptive in the past doing what he is supposed to do today, I write a quick note: “I like how you are raising your hand to talk today,” or “You are adding many valuable comments to our discussion. Thank you!” or “Keep up the good work!” Slapping that note on his desk as I walk by is intriguing to middle-schoolers. I have not interrupted the flow of learning for other students, yet I’ve reinforced positive behavior in the student who needs it. This works well for all students, but it’s a strategy that’s been particularly successful with students who don’t want to be known as “smart” to their peers. Review the classroom rules after a holiday break to remind the students of your expectations. If necessary, bring the contract back out to remind them that they agreed to follow your rules by signing their name. Remind them “their word is their bond.”

Change of scenery.
If a student becomes constantly disruptive to the learning environment or disrespectful to me or another student, and he is not redirectable, I ask that he leave the classroom. If a referral needs to be written, I have a standing request to the administration to let me talk with the student when he has calmed down. This has never failed to bring about positive change and a productive relationship between the student and me. Many times students show off for their peers, but they become more compliant when they know that they will have to have a “face-to-face” chat with me later.

Say it out loud.
Students of all ages love for the teacher to read aloud to them. This allows those who don’t read well to hear the correct pronunciation of words and to hear the inflections and tones of the characters in a story. Even if you teach math or science, find a picture book that relates to your subject, and read it out loud. Research tells us that reading aloud is a valuable way to help students learn: It increases vocabulary, develops the ability to listen well, enhances creativity and imagination, builds background knowledge, and increases fluency and comprehension.
To all of you graduates who are now new teachers, I will share with you what I share with my students each year: I hope you will be better today than you were yesterday. By this, I mean that I want both my students and you to grow personally, academically and emotionally during the school year.

From one year to the next, you too will become better each day by learning how to adapt lessons to meet the needs of the students in your classroom, and by helping them learn how to learn. In so doing, you will become a teacher. Yet you will always remain a student. In reality, you never really “graduate”; you keep on learning how to teach every day you step into the classroom, because every student in your care brings new challenges that will stretch you.
 I envy this new beginning each of you has. Over the next years, you not only have the opportunity to change the world, one child at a time; you have the chance to learn, and in so doing, become a better teacher today than you were yesterday.

Muse, a member of the Charlottesville Education Association, is a seventh grade English teacher at Buford Middle School.   



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