The importance of new teachers learning from seasoned veterans

I’m currently in the midst of my 7th year of teaching, and as we move into a new year, I’ve been reflecting on my education career thus far. I cannot believe how much I have grown as a teacher since my first year; honestly, I wouldn’t even recognize that guy if I were able to go back in time and sit in on one of my earlier classes. My classroom management skills would have been cringeworthy and hard to stomach (full disclosure: I don’t recall going over my expectations at the start of the year with my first class). I’m positive that the units and lessons that my students experienced were somewhat disjointed, even though they most certainly were put together with the best of intentions. The way I taught writing back then – both argument and narrative – looks absolutely nothing like how I teach it now (thankfully).

Quite simply, I’ve improved. I’ve been a reflective educator for seven years now, and it’s definitely paying off. I’ve taken well-researched and effective pedagogical strategies from countless professional learning opportunities as well as social media and implemented them into my classroom. My students today are getting far better reading and writing instruction and supports today than they were 7 years ago.

I’m also so much better at managing classroom behaviors now it’s not even funny.  During my initial year of teaching middle school, I was blessed to have two veteran colleagues in rooms both next to and across from mine, and I picked their brains daily on how they would have handled scenarios that were surfacing in my class.  We were working in a high-poverty Title I school where being able to manage a classroom was critical to being an effective teacher, and these two women were absolute professionals. For the entire year, I was a sponge soaking up as much as I could from my coworkers, and I am eternally grateful for all they taught me about running an effective lesson. My second year, my classroom was far less chaotic and WAY more learning occurred. By my third year, I was even better.

I know that high-stakes testing can be a nasty word in education, but I do like to look at the growth that my students are making and use it as one piece of data when I’m assessing the job that I am doing.  My first year of middle school was my first year of teaching a grade level that took an end-of-year assessment, and my students experienced a growth percentile of 50, which is smack dab in the middle: 50% of my students outgrew their peers, while 50% did not. These results were pedestrian on my part, and I am by no means proud of them.

However, the next year my growth percentiles were in the 60s. The following year they hovered between 60s and 70s, and then they started to routinely be in the high 60s, 70s and 80s; for multiple years now, the majority of my students have been achieving high-growth on their end-of-year assessments.

I’m not telling you this to toot my own horn; I’m providing this information to prove a point: when I began teaching, I really wasn’t that great, but through a lot of hard work, learning and reflection, I’ve improved a lot as an educator, which makes me more valuable to my students.

Veteran teachers were HUGE contributors to my growth as an educator, and that’s something that not enough new teachers understand. Believe me, I remember going into my first year thinking that I was going to be the one to make learning exciting again. I’d seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”; I was going to be Michelle Pfeiffer. I came into teaching thinking that I knew best how to create a successful learning environment; I saw older teachers as “stuck in their ways” and unable to connect with students.

But now that I’m a veteran teacher, I realize just how wrong I was back then. My absolute favorite part of being a teacher is still unequivocally the relationships that I get to form with all of my various students. Even in year seven, that hasn’t changed one bit. I want all the same things for my students that I did when I was first starting out, but now, I understand how to make those things more accessible to them.

I suppose my reason for writing this reflection is to encourage first-year teachers to find that mentor on the hallway that you can learn from on a daily basis. Notice how teachers in your school interact with students, and find the one that seems to be engaging them positively on a near constant basis, both in the classroom as well as in the hallways. Locate that teacher that has classes that routinely engage in lively, on-topic discussions. Find these people within your school and LEARN from them. Ask them questions as often as you can. I promise it will make you a better educator, which will make you better for your students. The teachers at your school that have been doing this for a while have something that is immeasurable, something that cannot be taught to you in any preservice program, and that is EXPERIENCE.

Advertisements

Reflecting with 7th graders

 

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the the word reflect as “to think quietly and calmly”.  I’d go a step further and add that reflecting also involves some analysis of the topic: what went well? What didn’t? How could we improve?  Reflection is the process of taking a critical look at the things that we do and deciding if what we are doing is working or not.

As teachers, reflection is key to determining how successful we are at reaching our students both as learners and as people.  Are the students grasping concepts? Are they inspired to push topics further on their own? Are we presenting the material to them in an engaging manner? Are we building meaningful relationships with the kids in our room?  These are questions that I cycle through on a daily basis: during lessons, after lessons, between lessons, in the car, while running, while hiking, while sleeping.  Reflection is a sign that we are invested in learning how to get better at the things that we endeavor in.

As we approach the impending winter break, I wanted my students to engage in some reflective writing.  In English classes, we regularly reflect on books, essays and current events, but we rarely ask the students to reflect on themselves and the lives they are living.  On Friday, I had each of my Language Arts classes begin class with 5 minutes of reflective writing on the following topic:

“Think about the year 2017: what did you do or accomplish that you are most proud of? What could you have done better? What did you want to accomplish, but couldn’t? Finally, what is something that you want to achieve in 2018?”

In an attempt to show solidarity and take part in the activity as well, I told each of my classes that I summited three 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) last year while hiking in Colorado, and my goal this year was to do five or more.  Most of my students have never been hiking in the wilderness, so my response of course led into a longer-than-intended discussion about steepness, elevation and the time it takes to summit a mountain.  Also, a lot of kids wanted an explanation as to why anyone would WANT to hike a 14er.

Eventually I got them back on track and writing about the aforementioned topic, and I allowed students the opportunity to share their reflections. The overwhelming majority of the responses were things like:

“I made A/B Honor Roll.”

“I made better grades this year.”

“I improved my behavior.”

“I want to make all A’s next year.”

“I want to get in less trouble.”

Other than a few kids who mentioned goals related to sports, almost all of my students focused their reflections around issues concerning school.  I was a little surprised.  I suppose I had forgotten that a 12 or 13 year-old’s world is still relatively small.  The main focus of their lives at this point is school.  Because of their age, many of them haven’t yet developed outside interests like traveling, running, hiking, biking, sewing, cooking, dancing, yoga-ing and all the other things that we (adults) aspire to do during our free time.

As they grow older, my students will hopefully find time to explore hobbies and interests that will help make them more well-rounded people.  But right now, at this moment, school is their main squeeze.  And I have to remember that.  Teachers have to remember that.  For these kids – whether we like it or not – we play a significant part in their lives.  They are awake for 12 to 14 hours a day (hopefully not too much more than that), and we get to see them for 8 more hours of that time frame.  While I have a number of outside interests and personal goals aligned with them that I want to achieve, I have to remember that my students aren’t there yet. They have dreams and goals and aspirations, and they depend on my colleagues and I to help them reach them.

I realize it’s cliche, but this week reminded me of just how important teachers are to their students.  I know as teachers we all have crowded classrooms packed full of students, but we must not forget that they have only one of us.

As I look forward to 2018, my students’ reflections have led me to reflect, and I now have another resolution to add to my list for the upcoming year: be mindful every day of the role you play in the lives of all of your students.