Dear Future Teachers,
As I've suggested in my previous post, So You Want To Become a Teacher... Now What?, gaining experience with school-aged children is necessary before committing to a career of teaching. You can take as many Education courses as you want, but nothing teaches you more than first-hand experience with students. This is a career where you constantly learn on the job, and there are always growth areas every teacher can improve on! I have worked in an after-school/summer camp program with elementary aged children, and more recently I've become involved in a nonprofit organization working with middle school students.The Summer Academy with my middle schoolers is structured much like a normal school day, and I had the privilege of teaching 6th grade Science following my first year of college. Unfortunately, this year we could not host our Summer Academy due to COVID-19, so instead, I wanted to share 10 things I learned my first summer teaching middle schoolers.
1. Greet students by name
Learning names of new groups of students may be tricky at first, but it's important to put an effort in early. Calling students by their names shows that you respect them and that you see them. To help me learn, I would ask my students to line up outside of my classroom before class started, and I'd greet each of them individually. The first day or two, I would ask that they share their name, and I'd repeat it back to them in greeting, accompanied by a high five or handshake. The rest of the summer I would always greet each child with "Hello, X, how are you?" Take it a step further and make sure your students are calling each other by name, not referring to each other as "he, she, they". Using a students name may seem like a small act, but it DOES make a difference.
2. Start off strong
Your classroom should have classroom procedures to help manage behavior and keep the class consistent in a routine. You might require that a designated student passes out the supplies for that day, or everyone must clean their space and sit quietly before dismissed. Whatever your procedures may be, enforce them strongly and consistently in the early weeks. If you let little behaviors slide, your structure will fall apart. For example, I made the mistake of letting my students leave the room before picking up pencils off of the floor one day, and then I spent the rest of the summer picking up pencils and paper at the end of each day after the kids had left. Making classroom procedures clear at the BEGINNING is a lot easier than trying to teach procedures a month in.
3. Move around the room
While giving a lesson, you should walk around the room rather than stay stagnant. When I was in school, I knew I could sneakily use my phone in some classes because certain teachers never left their podium. Not only does walking around the room while teaching allow you to keep students accountable, but it shows that you are actively engaged in teaching. If you look passive while teaching, what makes students think they should be active in learning?
4. Don't take it personal!
When working with middle school students, you're working with developing humans! They are discovering who they are, balancing the emotional stress of physical and hormonal changes to their bodies, and gaining more responsibility in their lives. On top of that, they may be facing individual challenges at home. Middle school students are not always going to be happy and and bubbly, and they definitely aren't always going to do what you say the first time you say it. However, most of the time, it's not about you! If they enter the classroom a little frazzled and if they act out a little during a lesson, recognize that they may be juggling something on their mind and haven't discovered how to address their feelings quite yet. Try to reflect on how you were during middle school, and realize that a student acting out isn't a plot to hurt you; they might be upset by something else going on!
5. Be flexible
It would be a perfect would if each and every lesson plan teachers prepared went exactly as planned. However, the reality is things might not go as planned every day. Sometimes, the activities you prepared don't take as long as you thought, or the resources you used to teach content didn't work out, or not all of the students grasped the intended lesson. Whatever the reason, it pays off to be flexible and quickly adapt to change. I learned to have backup-plans in case a lesson went quicker than I believed it would. I also prepare multiple resources (YouTube Videos, articles, activities) in case my original resources didn't help get my point across. It's okay if lessons don't always go as planned; you'll get the hang of it!
6. Utilize hands-on activities!
It should go without saying, taking notes isn't the most engaging classroom activity. I had my kiddos take notes using "fold-ables", which are more engaging and organized. I also planned hands-on activities and projects for students to visualize the concepts I taught to them. I taught Science, so my projects included plant dissections, edible soil profiles, and pocket solar systems! The students enjoy hands-on activities and are more likely to be engaged when they are able to create something in the classroom.
(Image uploaded to Pinterest by Liz Bradley)
7. Work with your fellow teachers!
Teaching should be collaborative, especially if you share content areas or students. There were two 6th grade Science teachers at the Summer Academy, and we would lesson plan together consistently. We would share what worked and what didn't work in our respective classes, come up with new ideas for different lessons, and send resources to each other. Having another perspective is refreshing and saves you from figuring things out alone! It's also beneficial to work with your teammates if you have questions about individual students you both share. Maybe one of your students is having trouble focusing in class, but one of your coworkers has discovered that the student works best sitting in the front of the room. Collaboration is key!
8. Kids want to learn
Even if students insist that they hate school, it does not mean their desire to learn is absent. Some of my favorite moments while teaching was seeing the faces of students light up when they gave a correct answer or when they grasp a new idea for the first time. Celebrate with students as they learn, and encourage them to continue seeking knowledge.
9. Talk, don't punish
When I was growing up, students who misbehaved were given an array of punishments. Some were given a "refocus" sheet that had to be signed by parents and returned to teachers, some received "silent lunch", and others were assigned to in-school-suspension or out-of-school suspension. I don't recall teachers ever following up with students after these instances, I just remember feeling embarrassed if I were called out for misbehaving. While working with 6th graders, the organization I work for practices restorative justice, which was new to me. It was a learning curve but I'm so grateful for being introduced to alternative ways of discipline. One student of mine had given his teachers some trouble at the beginning of the summer, and he shut down or lashed out if his behavior was addressed. It took many conversations, and constant reassurance for him to open up to us when he was upset. By the end of the summer, we were able to have conversations with him and ease him into the school day without making him feel like he was being punished or that we were against him. We were on his side, and he became aware of that, which made all the difference.
10. Encourage discussion and asking questions
Most students don't want to be lectured for an entire class period on content. It is important to give them time to speak, share ideas, and ask questions. There have been several instances where students have asked me questions that were related to the content, but I definitely wasn't prepared to answer right away. It blew me away to see how their minds worked and how it could drive class discussion. For example, the very first week of the summer, I was teaching about plants and photosynthesis. Halfway through the lesson, one student raised his hand and asked if we could build machines that harnessed the same properties as plants to produce oxygen in the event of extreme changes in the environment due to deforestation. This question prompted research as a class where, together, we discovered that there are artificial light sources that can aid photosynthesis! You never know what you and your class can learn by giving students more of a voice in the learning process!
I learned a lot my first summer working with students in a classroom setting, and I'm looking forward to learning more as I continue my path as an educator. Current and former teachers, I would like to hear more from you all! Send in one or two things you learned your first year of teaching, or one or two things you wish you knew before entering the teaching profession! Looking forward to hearing your stories and consolidating them in a future post! Stories can be submitted through the Contact Form at the bottom of my Home Page.