Measures of Success

Three weeks of school and although I am excited about having made it through, there needs to be another way to measure success.

Making it through the day without losing the class, that is step one for measuring success as a brand new teacher. It is a good feeling to know that, at least for that day, you were engaging and managing the class well enough. This is often how far it goes with substitute teaching unless the assignment is for an extended amount of time.

The second measure of success is having a lesson go very well. It is not perfect, but the students were focused, working hard, and management became much simpler. This really speaks to having a quality lesson plan is the best form of management. Students want to do well, they want to learn, they want to feel successful on some level, but often we face a variety of disinterest, attention-seeking behaviors, or behaviors to ward off failure. It is a difficult balance that, once you start to understand where your students are, you can meet them there and build successes to move them far beyond that.

The best lesson I have had so far was actually with kindergarten. Because of their age and lack of experience in a school setting, having many different activities that involve as many as possible or all is very helpful. We moved from one activity quickly to the next, I repeated a transition that was noisy after explaining my expectations, and everything we did, all musical concepts of course, was presented as a game. So far this works for every grade, as long as it is appropriate for their age. The fifth graders will be offended if they find something too babyish.

That was one lesson out of the three weeks I have taught. Granted I have had many others that I felt went well or worked out, yet there were always moments that slipped away or were not effectively placed. Reflecting on these experiences, I have been making adjustments and really that is exactly what a good teacher should be doing. Each group of students presents different challenges and it will simply take time to find the best ways to navigate a lesson on any given day. What a job!

Moving past using a single lesson as a measure of success in the classroom, what would be next? As someone who likes to set small goals to feed into a larger one, I will be striving to have an entire day of solid lessons. That means the lesson plans were put together well, the transitions and explanations were thought through, management was quick and effective, the atmosphere remained positive, and the students were engaged from ‘bell-to-bell.’ The next goal would be to create a string of these days.

With the nature of school, every day will be different. My position has me teaching the same lessons four days in a row, but just because a lesson works well with one group of third graders, does not mean it will work just as well with the next. Each classroom has its own dynamic and as much as I can try to be prepared, there will be times where it just will not work as well. I have to be mindful that I have known these students for three weeks, most of which I have seen three, maybe four forty-five minute class periods. Instead of seeing those lessons as a mistake or failure, it has to be taken in stride. Make note of what happened, figure out why, and make adjustments for that group next time.

As I have yet to reach that next tier of successes as a teacher, in my mind at least, I can only ponder the next pieces. Long term lesson planning, assessing goals and more individualized benchmarks, performance opportunities to build community within the school; there will be time to work on those parts. For now it is great to keep those in mind while working to refine my skills.

The musician in me cannot help but to relate all of this to that of learning an instrument. Years spent continually working on the fundamental skills, then scaffolding in new terminology, techniques, and more focused practice. Eventually there will come a point where it feels like a terrific performance. After going over these two measures again and again, changing the tempo, varying the articulations, you finally have the chance to go back to the beginning and just play with everything in context. You just play. And all the pieces you fine-tuned in those hundred times flow together, the sound bouncing off the walls, feeling completely involved in the moment and completely certain of where it is leading. Understanding the ebbs and sways of the composition, intuitively performing the physiological responses to communicate the interpretation; I imagine it will feel like that. Not to mention the amazing interactions with students. It is awesome to see their faces light up!

Three weeks in and this is where I am. Perhaps it is part of the survival stage as all of these lessons are new and finding the resources to match is time-consuming, but one day at a time! Moving along and looking forward to the weeks and successes to come!

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When Does Surviving Turn to Thriving?

The first week of school as a first year teacher is in the books!

Celebrated this successful use of my degree by going to the laundromat and heading to bed before 10…  Really!  This is a demanding, tiring, exciting position and I cannot wait to see where it goes!

A few details about what I have encountered over this week.  Kids are awesome!  Lots of energy and the elementary kids are (mostly) excited to learn new things.  They definitely push boundaries and I expect that to be more so next week.  Transitions between activities must be thought through!  Have a variety of activities and ways of working with different learning styles.  Kindergarteners are completely different to work with than any other grade.  Effective pacing and solid lessons are the best form of management.  Every class is different and some combinations of students produce very different results.  Veteran teachers are a gold mine of information about working with students.

In any case, the beginning of the school year is incredibly important.  The beginning is where expectations, procedures, and first impressions are formed.  Any teaching literature will say the same thing, this is what sets the tone for the rest of the year.  So, I did my best to focus on that truism and created interactive lessons where we went over rules and I had a chance to assess where my students are.  It took the week to meet everyone at the school, nearly 600 students, all of which I am responsible for, and I think overall it went quite well.  (How well I will see in the coming months.)

Some things I have realized:

  • No class will ever fully prepare you for this job
  • You cannot be friends with your students, there must be clear teacher and student roles
  • It is so very very easy to justify not following through with discipline
  • School is a community and you have to be part of it
  • Ask many many questions because no one will remember to fill you in on everything

I have what feels like a great, supportive, and competitive team of teachers, support staff, and administrators to work with.  The most difficult class I taught this week, was in fifth grade.  This group had a cluster of girls with bad attitudes, did not want to participate, just laugh and talk when I was talking.  After a warning, having two of them sit out, and separating them in my seating chart, it just felt that their attitude issue was creating a negative atmosphere in my classroom.  It’s music, it should be fun and a great place to be expressive and try new things.  I do not want to spend that time putting out fires when there were plenty of kids who wanted to participate and try what I asked.  During lunch and after school I took some time to talk with the fifth grade classroom teachers, the counselor, and I will speak with the assistant principal on Monday morning.  The advice was to be very firm and get rid of warnings, they are in fifth grade, at this point behavior expectations are clear and if they are being ignored, quick consequences are the best strategy.  Maybe I’ll be sending a couple folks to the office next week.

First year teaching articles/graphics all describe much of the year as surviving.  Developing your own curriculum, learning what lessons and methods work with students, and then discovering what the school and district you work in expect.  It feels like a constant learning curve to be navigated with flexibility.  I wonder when that will turn into confidence and being ready for anything.  Although, I have to say it doesn’t feel like I am just surviving right now.  I have an idea of where I want to go, it is more a matter of collecting and using the resources to make it happen.  Lots of legwork, but hopefully we will have a great year!

Now I have lesson planning to do!  And I might go enjoy the sunshine this weekend a bit, too!

Anticipation

Three days until school begins.  It’s going to be a wild ride!

Reading articles about first year teachers and what they experience, this is the anticipation stage.  Preparation, lesson planning and replanning, staff meetings, classroom setup, and so many binders of information to read.  The amount of logistical pieces that go into preparing for school as a teacher is staggering.  Not only that, but the list grows daily as new information from veteran teachers and administration is discussed.  Did you set up the voicemail system?  Did you find out how many copies you are allowed to make?  When do you have meetings?  Have you read through the district curriculum?

And we’re starting school when??

Much of the education for teachers prior to graduating and licensure is focused on content and developing a teaching philosophy.  My classmates and I talked regularly about what area of music we wanted to teach and what age group.  Did we believe marching band could develop solid musicians and the effectiveness of Orff or Kodaly methodology beyond general music.  It was a great atmosphere and we had numerous opportunities to observe teachers out in the trenches.  I believe that was the most beneficial aspect of my education (teaching side anyway), actually seeing teachers in action.  That is where we are finally exposed to classroom management, pacing, transitions, and organization skills.

Content is able to be learned when procedures and management are effective.  Substitute teaching was a fabulous experience.  Every day was a new day to practice management skills.  When students feel secure in their environment, knowing the expectations and consequences, both positive and negative, everyone can accomplish more.  Obviously having engaging lesson plans makes a big difference, but even the best lessons are no substitute for strong management.  The beginning of a school year is where those procedures are introduced and demonstrated.  It has to be from the first moment consistent, fair, and quick.  It will take weeks to establish, particularly since I see each group just once or twice a week, but will become easier to work with as the year continues.

Meeting the other teachers and staff of the school is also super important.  It’s a community and being able to work with these folks from the beginning will make life easier when issues arise.  As a new person in the building, I want to be flexible with extra duties or expectations thrown my way.  The principal’s secretary, building engineer, building secretary, and paraprofessionals are some of the most important people to know (and perhaps bring chocolate to).  Then, be ready because “your time” during a school day is still part of a contracted time that will probably be used for other things that cannot be anticipated.  Parents, detention, other teachers, administrators will be calling.  They all know where your classroom is, too.  (And let’s not mention the assessments and evaluations I’ll be experiencing.)

So with all that in mind, I head into the first week of school with hope, lots of excitement, and anxiety.  The second stage of a first year teacher, survival.  Let’s see how far I make it before this happens!!  Hah!

Happy teaching!