Part of the ongoing 1 Thing series.
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about those first few years of teaching and the things that really helped me. I really can’t narrow it down to one thing. Please feel free to choose your one thing from this list!
I can say that new programs or curricular packages never helped. There were a few workshops that helped but not as much as watching a great teacher teach. What did help was reflecting on my performance, my choices and my personal biases. When things got tough I had to reconnect with why I chose this profession in the first place. I stopped to remember what it meant to me and why I knew I was in the right place. From there I tried to take stock of where I was and make a plan for improvement. I really did come to understand that “I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather” (Ginnot). This was scary to consider but empowering also. Throughout this process, a few simple things really made all the difference.
Give yourself permission to master one thing before beginning another. It is very difficult to learn to do all the things you need to do to be a great teacher, therefore, prioritize them and actually write this down. Don’t try to be superman or superwoman. Pick the most important thing for you (for me it was having students write in a daily journal) and master that. After you have this one down pat, layer on the next thing, master it and so on. What component of your teaching is really important to you?
Be ready before the students arrive. Days always go better when we can greet our students calmly and confidently rather than being frantic about getting the morning work ready or getting to the copier. Learn that the school hours are the students’ hours, not the teachers’ hours. You should always be there before them and leave after them. Even 30 minutes in the classroom at the end of the day paves the way for a smoother beginning to the next school day. One part of this is to always have your desk or work area organized before you leave. The lesson plans and materials for the next day should be set up before you leave for the day.
Ask yourself why. Why are you doing certain activities? Why are you spending children’s time doing what you are doing? Is it because the district says to? Is it because you don’t know what else to do? Is it because another teacher does it and she seems to know what’s going on? There is a reason but we want to make sure it’s a really good reason. Encourage your students to ask why also. It’s nice to know the answers but even nicer to raise questions. We all need to challenge the way things are and seek new solutions. If we don’t, things might stay the same!
Learn to stop when you need to. When you feel overwhelmed (and you will) simply stop for a couple of minutes and gather your thoughts. It is fine to tell your students this is what you are doing; in fact it is a wonderful strategy to model for children. We want our students to STOP and THINK rather than acting out in anger or not working productively. I used an egg timer for this. I simply stated that I was going to set the timer for 2 minutes and I needed to think. I would not be able to talk with them during that time. They could read, write or draw but could not be on the floor. Usually I said a prayer, collected my thoughts and moved forward. I do know that I was more effective after my “time-out” than I was before it.
Surround yourself with positive people. I don’t mean to just be a “Pollyanna” and pretend to be cheerful all the time, nor do I want to sound as if we don’t need to vent to someone. I am saying that you can find people to talk to who will help you solve problems—find solutions rather than wallow in misery and stagnation. If this means staying out of the teacher’s lounge, so be it. Negativity brings us all down and affects our performance adversely, on the other hand positivity does the opposite. How can you begin to associate with positive people?
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