When the principal unlocked my first classroom a few weeks before school started, we literally couldn’t walk in. The entire space was jammed with two classrooms worth of desks and tables piled on top of each other. Undeterred, he shoved his way across the room to the closet, pried the door open, and hunted down teachers’ manuals for me. I naively expected three manuals, one for each class, but he kept handing me more “good stuff”. I hauled out enough material to fill the back of my station wagon and was utterly overwhelmed.
Six years later, I had the same problem. Four days before school started, my new 2nd/3rd grade classroom was loaded with boxes of computer parts. No desks, no materials, and no one else had a combination class. Then the district sent me eighteen different teacher books, and I would receive at least ten more during the school year. How was I supposed to read all of this? I had a classroom to create and students to teach. This time, I knew the answer. Listen to yourself.
In your heart, what do you know is important to teach? Why? Tell yourself in a few short sentences. If it takes longer, you aren’t at the core yet. For me, the list is…
- Reading, because it’s a source of joy and because they face a lifetime of struggle without it.
- Writing, because to be inarticulate creates rage.
- Math, because understanding patterns grants control over your world and because identifying rip-offs allays suspicion about it.
- Integrity, because our society crumbles without it.
- Group work, because no one works alone anymore.
Of course, there are many more subjects and character traits to teach. They are important and I will teach them, but when I listen to myself, this is my core. This is where I start.
My list is a mixture of content (reading, writing, math) and context (integrity, group work). While governments are happy to supply content standards, the unwritten expectation of every school is that we will also, in old-fashioned terms, improve a child’s character. Thus, the plethora of character, behavior, and citizenship programs for school to choose from. As teachers, we would do it anyway. Classrooms full of poorly behaved children don’t function. Nobody learns. Most of my lessons for integrity and group work, however, won’t be in any lesson plan. They happen during morning meeting and teachable moments.
Most states, provinces, and countries do have content standards, long lists of expectations for each subject at each grade level. I find them helpful, confusing, detailed, and ridiculous, in turn. I have seen new teachers use it to make their curriculum plan for the year. They take an entire set of standards, cut it apart, devise lessons for various chunks, and jam the leftover bits in wherever there is a distant connection. They sigh with relief because they have a plan, but is it worth teaching?
One state writing standard that I was supposed to teach read, “Use colons after the salutation in business letters.” There was no other standard remotely related to it. Students didn’t even write business letters for two more years. And who writes business letters anymore anyway? After retiring from fourteen years in industry, I knew that we e-mailed everything. Even lawyers sent electronic documents. Still trying to be thorough, I put together a cogent set of lessons. After it was over, I thought, “Yippee. Now my students can get one more question right on the state test.” I never taught it again. Colons in salutations do not make students more articulate.
The standards are a good place to start, but know what is important. Get help. If your teacher training program is good, use it, especially if it comes with a mentor. Some training programs were once useful but have been so thickened by meetings and paperwork that they are a serious strain. I remember telling my principal, “It is now December, I have been yanked out of my classroom by an average of one training a week since August. I wish they would leave me alone so I could teach!” I absolutely loved my mentor, but I was so disgusted by a training program that repeated my teaching credential that, with my mentor’s encouragement, I signed myself out of it after the first year. I’m glad I did. They next year, the powers that be added the requirement that you teach a lesson based on every training, whether it applied to you or not, and turn in a written lesson plan and reflection. As if new teachers don’t have enough to do.
Some subjects, like math and social studies, come with a textbook that has the year planned. Others, like writing and art, present you with options that are mind-blowingly wide open. Find a teacher who has taught your subject. Borrow curriculum plans, lesson plans, and great ideas. I still thank my 6th grade partner, who during my first year, let me put my page one over her pages two to four of her curriculum plan. I could envision one quarter, but not four. One warning. Some teachers are reluctant to share. One told me it was because no one had helped her, and she had crafted great lessons on her own. Respect this. Find the ones who are enthusiastic and love them for it. Thank them effusively with chocolate, or better yet, cover their yard duty for a day or two.
You will need help with much more than planning. Near the end of my first quarter, I was so overwhelmed with papers to grade that I wasn’t sleeping. A mentor teacher gave me permission to stop assigning so much work. Not everything that children produce needs to be on paper. Obvious, but I needed to know that was okay. After I moved to a new state, I never expected to need my middle school skills in an elementary setting, but I did and on the first day, too. After a few months, I had run through my entire repertoire and was feeling frustrated and ineffective. Fortunately, schools are full of wise teachers and two of them helped me come up with a plan that I still keep in my back pocket. Get help.
One more thing about listening to yourself. There will be teachers, particularly in large schools, who like to make pronouncements. Two of my favorites were, “New teachers should be required to eat lunch in the faculty room,” and “New teachers should not be allowed to work late. They need to go home.” All I could think was, “Are you kidding me? I can barely remember to breathe, and you’re telling me when I can work?” Stop, think about what is important in your heart, and listen to yourself.