Before the holidays we posted an email from a struggling new teacher asking for advice. I asked for your input—and our comments section now has some very specific techniques that should be helpful. I think one of Nick R.'s comments really speaks to the opportunity for this teacher: "With 172 kids your school has a unique opportunity to build a family of learners - and you'll need teachers, administrators, relatives, students, and the rest of your community to make that happen."
The New Year is a good time to start fresh—and start building that "family of learners." So, as promised in my previous post, I've got some suggestions for "Trying to Get Better at Teaching for the Sake of My Students" to try this first week back from break.
You're doing all the right things:
- Working on classroom management (in a positive way)
- Working collaboratively with your principal
- Trying to work collaboratively with parents
- Working with other teachers to manage behavior issues
Over time you, your principal, and fellow teachers will be able to work together to create the school culture that you want. Your school culture will support your classroom culture and make your job much more manageable. With the caveats that different strategies work better in different situations, here are some ideas for next steps:
- Be consistent. By yourself, decide on your classroom boundaries for yourself and your students. Communicate these clearly with students the first week back after winter break. Even better, have them help you write them, and create a class contract. This usually works best when students can see why following the rules is better. For example, you want to do a really cool art project with them in two weeks (e.g. that involves cameras), and you need to see that they are ready to handle that responsibility. Or…some teachers take the opposite tactic. Give more freedom, and take it away if need be. You will have to try a few things and see what works for you and your students. Most important part, keep trying! Watch this one minute video for one quick idea.
- Be positive. It sounds like you have a system in your room to let students know they have warnings when they're not taking correct actions. Try the opposite! Nick R. suggested using narration. Say out loud, "I see Kristina taking out her colored pencils," and write her name on the board under some positive title (Art Stars? I dunno, come up with something fun!). Then keep looking for kids who are doing the right things. Say out loud to the class (narrate) that you see them, and write their name up on the positive board. Let students earn positive phone calls or notes home to their parents. Not only will this help reinforce positives with your kids, but it will also help keep you positive. Your class will move more quickly in the right direction if you keep looking for what's going right! For more information on narration and other classroom management techniques, check out this book from Lee Canter.
- Use body language. When you see a student starting to move off track, but you're on the other side of the room, give that student eye contact, and turn your body to face them. If that still doesn't work, start walking in their direction. Often walking to a student veering off track and just putting your hand on their desk can help. Saying less can be more. If you do have to say something negative to a student, make sure it's private (whenever possible). Teenagers don't like to feel embarrassed. Making them feel embarrassed in front of peers can make them act out even more. Everything I know about this, I learned from Fred Jones book Tools for Teaching. It's very good! Ask your principal if he will order a copy for the school.
- Use routines. When kids know what to expect, they're better at doing what you want them to do. Choose a daily routine in your class, and stick to it (as much as possible). This doesn't have to be complicated, but you do have to teach kids what to do and have them practice it until they get it right. For example: first thing every day your kids walk into class, grab their art notebook from the shelf, grab a box of pastels, and sit down at their desk to do free drawing for five minutes. Maybe you put a theme or drawing challenge up on the board. Getting kids settled at the beginning of class is the most important part. If they get settled and working at the beginning, they're much more likely to keep working! I like Doug Lemov's book, Teach Like a Champion, for these ideas.
And it's not too late to make these changes this year! The first week back after break is a perfect opportunity! Try to find a reason to call or send a positive note home to every parent of every one of your students within the first two weeks. This will also help enlist the parents, and it will also help the kids know you're on their team.
Just keep doing what you're clearly already doing. Seek advice and feedback, try ideas in your class, and try again, try again, try again! Keep trying new things until you figure out what works for you and your students. Take a look at our New Teacher Survival Guide for lots of useful ideas.
And, as hard as it can be... I definitely recommend filming your teaching. I learned a ton in my first few years doing this. Watch the film with trusted colleagues.
Hang in there! And, let us know how you are doing.