10 Learnings in a Decade of Teachings

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

10 Years.  10 YEARS!  It’s amazing to think that I’ve been teaching for a decade.  When I think back to the naive 22 year old I was when I embarked on my teaching career, I chuckle.  10 years of working with middle schoolers certainly will give you some perspective.  It will also allow you the opportunity to learn a few things.

  1. Listen more; talk less.  At the beginning of my career, I was that teacher.  You know, the one fresh out of one of the best schools of ed in the country, who had four months experience as a practicum teacher, who knew absolutely everything about teaching and wanted to share that knowledge with all of her colleagues.  Yup, that one. Gosh, I must have been annoying.   Sure, I had a good background in “pedagogy,” but to think I knew everything was rather silly of me.  I quickly realized that people get very tired very quickly of hearing someone on a soapbox or worse – a know-it-all.  As I’ve grown as a teacher, I’ve worked hard to listen more – especially to experienced teachers – and talk less.  I have realized I don’t know everything about teaching and never will.  When I do speak, I rely on both my own knowledge and experience to guide me.  And what I’ve learned, people are often more likely to listen to your ideas when they don’t hear your voice all the time.
  2. Be wary of fads and companies trying to make a buck.  I’ll admit it.  This has happened to me a couple of times.  That amazing online writing program the publishing company is marketing?  Tried it.  Ended up hating it.  Apps that really have no educational merit but look really cool and are marketed at an edtech conference?  Yup, downloaded those too.  Through the years, I’ve learned there are a lot of people making a lot of money in the world of education. That does not mean that what they are trying to sell you is actually worthwhile.  My advice: always try something first before committing to it.  Really think about whether or not the tool or book or program will benefit your students and is not gimmicky.  Consider all the possible negatives or problems before latching on.  If it really is something that will make a difference for students, go for it.  Just be wary: many tools that look great on paper are quite ugly in the classroom.  And if you have doubts, trust them, or else it could be a very expensive mistake.
  3. Learn what works for you.  I’ll admit it – I am not a fan of the smart board; to me, it is an expensive overhead projector.  Yes, I know that it is a powerful tool for some educators, but it just doesn’t work for me.  I find it clunky and time consuming and have not found a lot of great uses for it in my classroom.  Although I have given it a try and still consider how it might be useful in my class and will use it if it makes sense, I’m okay with not being a smart board user.  I know some people might not agree with my approach, who believe if I have access to this expensive tool that I should transform my teaching to make it fit in – after all this is the 21st century! Expensive technology does not equal learning, however, something my experience has shown me. And I would much rather use techniques and strategies that I know will benefit my students than something flashy and expensive just because it is flashy and expensive.
  4. Sarcasm is not my friend. This is one I’m still working on.  My natural defense mechanism is to be sarcastic, always has been.  When my middle school students drive me a little batty (as middle school students are often prone to do), I have been known to respond in sarcastic, sometimes even biting ways.  This was especially true early on in my career when I didn’t really know how to handle the talking out or talking back.  I have since realized that firm looks, quiet re-directions, and talkings to about disappointment after class get the job done far better.  It’s not always easy to refrain from the sarcasm and it does slip in – sometimes the middlers really do bring it out in me – but I at least have learned that it isn’t going to get me very far.
  5. Risk failure. I want my students to take risks, to challenge themselves, to even fail from time to time.  As a teacher, I have learned that in order to get my students to do this, I have to model it for them.  I love to try new things and tell them why I am doing it.  Although I don’t love making mistakes in front of my students – who likes to be publicly reminded that they mixed up their and there on the board again! – I realize that by doing so, I am giving them the permission to do so as well.  When a lesson or idea I have fails, I’ll talk about it with them and together we can often find a way to improve it.  I am an educator who believes that I constantly need to be thinking about ways to better my teaching but doing so implies trying things that may not work.  And that’s ok.  Especially because those mistakes often lead to something even more amazing.
  6. Boston College was right to drive home reflection.  When I was an education student at BC, it seemed like all we did was reflect.  Written self-reflection was required after every lesson taught during our practicum.  As a student teacher, I really didn’t grasp the reasoning behind doing what we did, and honestly found it quite annoying.  Now that I’ve been teaching for awhile, I realize how important it is to self-assess what I am doing each day and each year.  Yes, failure is inevitable and mistakes will happen, but that doesn’t mean I want them to happen twice.  Taking the time to actually think about what is and isn’t working allows me to better my practice from day to day and year to year.  No one will ever get better if they don’t stop and take the time to think about what better might actually be.  So thanks BC, for teaching me that and for helping me become better each year.
  7. Respect is so much more important than being liked.  When I started my teaching career, I really wanted my students to like me.  I wanted to be that teacher – the stylish, hilarious, “cool” one that they would remember for the rest of their lives.  I wanted to be the teacher that everyone loved.  You know, the one from the movies! This didn’t get me very far.  Kids won’t always like you.  No matter what, there’s always that one or two students in the room who really don’t get you, who find you incredibly annoying, or worse nuts.  What I’ve realized in the past ten years however is that though it is great to be liked and it sure can help some in the classroom, being respected is far more important.  If my students don’t respect me, don’t see that I am there to challenge them, don’t value my role in the classroom, aren’t their best person in my room then their like for me means nothing.  When a student respects you regardless of their personal opinion of you, when they see that your role is to guide them and to never give up on them, that you are fair and hold everyone accountable and to high standards, they will work for you and they will grow.
  8. With that being said, be likable, be real, and get to know your students.  No, I’m not contradicting myself.  I would rather be respected than liked.  But, I also teach middle school students.  When they like you, life is MUCH easier.  I love to joke around with students and have a good time in class.  I also will talk to students (without oversharing) about my own life.  Kids need to see that you are a person who has good days and bad days and has a life outside of school.  They need to know that you are real.  I also want my students to see that I really, genuinely enjoy what I do and that, something bewildering to my elementary and high school colleagues, I love teaching middle school.  I work hard to get to know each one of my students, to know how many siblings they have, what their favorite activities are, who’s acting in the play, when their teams are playing after school.  Getting involved in the lives of your students helps build the respect I previously talked about and it ensures that students don’t just see you as someone who deals with them for fifty minutes a day but as someone who is invested in the persons they are to become.
  9. Plan, Plan, Plan. We’ve all been there.  You waited until the last minute to create the test, and it’s two minutes before class starts.  You head to the copy machine knowing you are going to be a few minutes late but thinking of it as an extra study gift to your students and then you see the sign.  “Copier will be down until Monday.” Yup, nothing better than Murphy’s Law coming through once again.  Whether it’s photocopying ahead of time, planning thorough lessons, or using templates to create units, one thing I’ve realized about teaching is that the more I am planned, the better the results.  Sure, I’ve had a couple of great off the cuff lessons and being willing to change things up at the drop of a hat is also an essential skill, but solid planning leads to more successful teaching.  Most importantly, being pro-active is a must.  Thinking about what could possibly go wrong and actively trying to prevent it saves time, aggravation, and energy – three essentials for a middle school teacher.
  10. Teaching is hard and exhausting. I won’t pretend I didn’t know this as a new graduate, but I guess I thought it would at some point get easier and less tiring.  Truth is though, teaching will always be hard work. Sure certain things have gotten easier –  I am more control of what I am doing in the classroom, and I have a better sense of what things will work and what won’t –  but it’s still hard.  Every day is a different day.  Every week brings a different challenge.  Every year brings a different way for middle school students to get in trouble.  It’s exhausting, it’s trying, it’s emotional, it’s sometimes even heartbreaking.  And I wouldn’t change it for a bit.

Here’s to the next decade!