I’ve worked in 10 school districts with hundreds of teachers, and I’ve learned you must stay positive. When on staff with a negative teacher, be nice, but don't let their assessments ruin yours. Also take time to be friends with all school personnel. The custodians, clerks, secretaries and aides are well worth knowing. In one Canadian school where I worked, the printer malfunctioned and the other teachers didn't have an answer. I walked by the school custodian, told him my concern, and he said, “You know we have an extra one in the storage area.” Ah, the benefits of staying positive with everyone!
When in college, I had a professor who could not find my term paper. I not only handed it in, I gave a presentation about it. Being disorganized is a problem for teachers with large classes. If you teach nearly 200 students, as I do, this is no easy task. But I use a system that includes recording the date the assignment was handed in and a check with the student the same day if not completed. It takes time, but create a system that works and can provide a heads-up when a student may need help or kudos.
I also knew a German teacher who thought he was good at teaching, but had very little class discipline. He preferred to tell jokes and be a friend. As a result, struggling students weren't given extra help. The grading system and homework were not explained well also. While humor is essential, you must know when it’s time to be serious. This teacher hadn't mastered that vital trait after decades in the classroom. From the first day of school, make sure students know how the class is run, the grading and homework requirements, and when you are available to help them.
Make procedures clear and be consistent. I write homework assignments a week in advance on the board and have students write it on their calendars. I post instructions on the board and leave them there for a few days. When they come in the room, they get out their notebooks and get ready to work. They are told to use pens, how to format their papers, how to take notes using the Cornell method, and what the attendance and tardy rules are as well as the consequences. I post them on the bulletin board with the discipline rules. Finally, during the first week of school, I contact every parent by e-mail or phone. During the Back-to-School event, I provide a handout with the rules for parents to keep. Also list what the State requirements are for the class and how to contact you.
Next, show interest in students. I remember in elementary school, students would bring in things that interested them, including a fair amount of insects, snakes, and other creepy crawlers. One teacher showed great disdain for these and lost an opportunity to reach the students. They soon discovered the custodian was a storehouse of knowledge about such things. The students didn't even bother showing them to the teacher, but found the custodian who would tell them about their care, what they were, and whether the “pet” should be kept or released.
A book written about teaching in a tough New York school showed how a teacher used rodents to provoke student interest. The same interest should be shown to all subjects. In my class, a bullied student brought in a caterpillar and a carrying case. I let him keep it in the room and other students found it and asked him questions. He soon became the expert, and the bullying stopped. So show interest. It is that powerful.
I knew one teacher who was quite likeable; he loved the theater. His class was enjoyable, but didn’t offer anything of substance. He would come dressed in period costumes and give performances that provided insights into characters’ thoughts. The lessons were like a primary resource. They were interesting, but unless you knew the background, the value was limited. The performances needed the proper setting and more pre and post lessons to focus the presentations. Remember, what an adult finds illuminating may only amuse a student. Take time to make lessons relevant.
When I was teaching in St. John's Newfoundland, I watched as one student dominated a class. The teacher never checked for class understanding as long as this student got the right answer. But you must check learning for the entire class. Tests work, and research has shown the more tests you give, within reason, the better students learn. Even having the students exchange tests is a good learning experience.
Finally, a lesson I learned by watching videos of myself teaching -- the strategies and methods I learned in college, reading, and other sources are now obsolete. What I was doing was not always relevant to students. So I started taking classes in technology and world cultures. I joined online groups and kept a log of things to try.
Within a few years, almost all my lessons and printouts were recycled. Now my lessons include: reading, writing, an online lesson, videos, slideshows, and much more. Technology Magazine honored me with a Leadership Award, my students' work represented the United States in a technology competition in Rome, and our City of the Future placed third in a contest for National Engineering Week. And I don't teach in any of those areas. So seek out new ideas and look at ways you can improve yourself.
Alan Haskvitz teaches at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, California, and makes staff development presentations nationwide. He serves as an educational consultant, curriculum developer and author.