Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Year Two Down - Lessons Learned from Teaching So Far!

I just finished my second year teaching third grade at a title I school in Florida. Craziness! My mom taught for 30 years, and I spent countless summer days and afternoons in her classroom while growing up. I watched her spend Sunday afternoons working on lesson plans for the upcoming week. I watched her invest so much of her own money to make her classroom a home away from home or buying materials to make lessons more engaging. I watched her connect with students and have them come back years later to tell her of her impact. I grew up in the shadow of an incredible teacher, and saw all of the difficulties of public education firsthand. But, nothing can fully prepare you for what it's like to be a public school teacher until you have your own classroom and you are the one responsible for those students walking in each morning.

I'll never be a first year or a second year teacher again, and the fact that I've packed up my classroom and I'm getting ready to close out this season in Florida that jump started my career blows my mind. There have been days where I have left my classroom so frustrated that I chose teaching, and other days where I couldn't wait to tell my mom or Alex about what happened at school and how much I enjoyed teaching that day.

Before I start my third year in third grade (but in a new state!), I want to make sure I reflect on some of the lessons I've learned during my first two years. Maybe a student teacher will read this or someone who is spending his or her summer dreaming and preparing about the group of students that will enter their first classroom ever in August. Either way, here's a glimpse into what I've learned during my first two years teaching.

1. Don't Compare Yourself to Others 

Ah man! This one is something that I think all teachers struggle with, but it can be especially debilitating for new teachers. You come out of college with a thousand different ideas and strategies that you want to implement. Your district will no doubt have new programs or assessments or whatever else that they're implementing. You will see ideas on Pinterest and teacher blogs that are phenomenal that you will want to implement right away. You will have veteran teachers on your grade level that are doing incredible things that you will want to make happen in your classroom too. As a new teacher, I have definitely struggled with wanting to be able to do it all, and then feeling defeated when my best efforts fell short and my classroom didn't look like so and so's or when my science block wasn't as "good" as the teacher bloggers. JUST STOP. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to pick one thing at a time to become an "expert" on. Pick one aspect of your teaching that you really want to hone in on, and become really good at that before moving onto something else. Last year, I chose to become an "expert" on math small group instruction. Next year, I want to focus on integrating science and social studies into math and reading more. Never stop learning and growing as a teacher, but realize that comparing yourself to other teachers is a waste of time. You have a set of skills and strengths that are uniquely yours.

2. Don't Be Afraid to Ask Lots of Questions

How do I take attendance? What does DEA stand for? Where do my students go for rainy day dismissal? How do I look up STAR assessment data? What do I do to help a student who has TERRIBLE handwriting? What can I do to deal with a student with this type of behavior problem? How do I contact DCF about suspected abuse/neglect? You will have no less than a million questions throughout the year. Don't be afraid to ask them. Other teachers and people at your school are usually more than willing to help you in whatever ways they can. There was a time when they had to ask the same questions. It's how we learn. There is so much newness that comes with teaching, and you learn by asking questions.

3. Have Fun With Your Students 

There is plenty of time throughout the year when you're in "business" mode, so it is totally okay to take time to let them be kids. My kids love doing brain breaks (GoNoodle is the best!) throughout the day when we transition subjects. I always dance and sing along with my kids during the brain breaks. If you're using manipulatives (i.e. Geoboards) as part of a math lesson, give your kids a few minutes before you get started to "explore" and play with the materials. Plan lessons that are engaging and fun! Get your students up and moving frequently. Even if it's as simple as getting them up for 30 seconds to do jumping jacks or hopping like a frog. If I ask my kids what they remember about our year they often say things like "when we made ice cream!" or "when we had a rounding snowball fight" or "when we dabbed during a brain break!"

That one time I dressed up as Katniss for "Book Character Day." 

Brain breaks = awesome
Any lesson that is edible is a good one!

4. You Need a Personal Life

It's okay to turn off "teacher brain" on the weekends. In fact, you need this time! There are going to be times in the school year that are extra busy (back to school and February for some reason!) and require you to work extra on the weekends. But, for the most part, you NEED time to step away from thinking about teaching in order to really thrive when you are at school. Use your planning times efficiently so that you can take less work home with you.

5. It's All About Relationships 

Get to know your kids. Ask them questions about their home life. Find out what games they like to play or what shows they like to watch. Find out if they love Minecraft or Pokemon the most. Kids are forever telling stories so pay attention to their ramblings (at least some of the time, lol!) because they will teach you a lot about who that kid is beyond just being a student. Within appropriate bounds, open up and share about your personal life. Kids love to know what their teacher does outside of school. One of the coolest things this year was getting to share about my engagement with my kids because they had heard about Alex all year long. Being a teacher is so much more than just impacting their academic growth! You get to spend 180 days with them. Make them count.

One of the students that made my first year teaching so memorable!
One of the most fun days this year was when I got to bring Alex to work with me. My kids loved having him there

6. Always Look for How You Can Learn and Grow 

When a lesson goes wrong and then the fire drill goes off. When you get a complaint from a parent. When you get a new student in April that speaks zero English. When a student cries because a new concept is so challenging for her. When a student drops his pencil box and everything in it goes EVERYWHERE. When some sort of hot mess happens at dismissal and you end up crying in front of a grandparent.

Things are going to happen that no class in college could ever really prepare you for. One of the best things that my mom has done whenever I call to tell her these stories is to ask me "how can you learn from this?" Even in the situations where I'm frustrated and feel like I'm not in the wrong she'll have me reflect on how I can learn and grow from it. This has been huge! Everything that happens is meant to grow you as an educator and person. A fun bonus is that you can usually find some sort of meme or quote to relate to any situation that will make you laugh about the situation.



7. The Full Moon Effect is LEGIT

I don't know what it is, but there is something about kids' behavior when there is a full moon. Also, the craziness before Halloween, Christmas break, Valentine's Day, and spring break is unparalleled. I don't need to say much more other than that you can pretty much always tell when there is a full moon. You'll understand once you've been in the classroom!

8. You Are Never "Just a Teacher" 

Most people will never see how hard you work and all the hours that you put in, and that's okay, but don't fall into the trap of saying "I'm just a teacher." There is no one else that can teach those kids entrusted to you like you can! You will mess up and make mistakes. You will have to apologize to your kids sometimes. You will fulfill a million different roles (nurse, counselor, problem solver, organizer, etc.). You will learn and grow and be stretched more than you thought was possible. But, you will also get some things right and it will make your whole year when a parent tells you that this is the first year that her son has loved coming to school.

Now to enjoy the rest and relaxation of summer vacation, and to get recharged for starting year three in August! 

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