A Good Start: Advice for Beginning Teachers
By Joseph M. Serviss, MBA
As a beginning teacher I have come to the realization that there is no perfect method and that there is no secret sauce that will make us effective teachers. When it comes down to it kids will be kids right? Teachers will be teachers Right? Wrong! As a business professional that made a lateral move into the field of education from the professional business world I was stunned to realize how well I fit into my new career. It was almost like I was meant to be there and I was meant to be building the relationships I have been building over the past two years.
Education is hard work, long hours, poor pay and for some (not me) poor working conditions. It’s volunteering to help out at school events such as sporting events, concerts, plays, and dances. It’s starting your day at 5:00AM and getting home just in time for the 10:00PM news. It’s working through behaviors, unhappy colleagues, and angry parents. It’s also something that I couldn’t live without. It’s an amazing experience to be able to work with so many wonderful educators, so many amazing children and so many parents that are dedicated to their child’s development.
My first experiences as a teacher were the most challenging months of my life to date. I was in a new atmosphere teaching basic Marketing and Finance theory to 14-18 year olds thinking to myself that these children aren’t getting it, couldn’t care less , and don’t want to work. That’s when it hit me. It’s not them. It’s me! This was the first moment I thought myself a failure in education. I went home that day with tears in my eyes contemplating if this was the right move for me, and for my family. I sat in my garage just about the entire night with the door open staring into the sky hoping the answer would drop out of nowhere like a fairy tale.
The next morning a student came to me to talk to me about some issues that were going on in her life and asking for advice and help. This student felt close enough to me to share something personal and ask for guidance. How could I deny this since after all it is in my nature to help out people in need! So we chatted for about 25 minutes and I gave her some insight and even told a little story based on personal experiences and offered some advice to help her through the situation. By the end of the 25 minutes she was laughing and smiling again and she went back to her table and began working on her days assignments. That’s when it really hit me! Not only am I in the right place but I need to stop trying to be something I am not. I am not a teacher! I am a mentor and a trainer and from that moment on I embraced it. I was an effective teacher that day not because of the finance lesson that I taught her, I was an effective teacher because I was compassionate, told engaging stories, and built rapport with her, showed her support and remained patient throughout the entire process. I was there for her when she needed someone the most and she became my first student mentee and would not be the last, not by a long shot. Her performance has improved so significantly that I can no longer get passed her mother without a hug and a thank you! It is the best feeling in the world.
After careful consideration and discussion I decided to write this journal article to offer assistance to beginning teachers and maybe even offer some insight to veteran teachers who already figured it out but forgot a little bit along the way. Teaching isn’t just about the material we are required to present to our students via curriculum, standards, and school improvement standards. It’s about creating relationships with individuals that rely on you to guide them, train them, and help them develop into individuals that will contribute positively to society. My way isn’t the only way and I will never claim that. Everyone has to discover a method that works for them, but my way works for me and works for my students and it may point you in the right direction. It is reflective in dedication, mutual respect, integrity and a massive lack of behavioral problems within my classroom. My secret to classroom management is simple. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel I am simply trying to make it turn with as little resistance as possible. I would like to offer you my recipe for success. These key ingredients have made me successful with students, families, and my colleagues. I hope it helps and wish you all the best throughout your career.
Compassion: Showing compassion for our students is not a sign of weakness. It is a gesture of understanding. Knowing what students are going through and understanding the things that prevent them from success is a vital tool in removing those hindrances and sometimes all it takes is listening and offering a little advice. We have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, what it was like to have a first love, to lose a boyfriend or girlfriend, to fight or argue with our parents, to not meet or exceed expectations and the overall stresses of being a teenager in general. As we age we realize how unimportant those moments were however those moments are the reason you feel that way in the first place. In order to understand what is important you first have to understand what is not so important. You may not realize it but just by showing compassion for your students you have already won half the battle.
Engagement: Keeping students motivated and excited about curriculum related material is often very difficult. How many of us can admit to creating lessons that completely lack engagement? Students need someone who is motivated by what they are teaching, motivated by the students in the classroom. That motivation spreads like wildfire. Students who are bored won’t learn! Don’t you remember? I personally use blended and flipped learning models to initially engage my students from a curriculum perspective but then we talk about life, the future and all its possibilities which add the building blocks needed for an engaging environment and exciting learning environment.
Rapport: Relationship building is another key to success as previously stated and having an environment that is free of behavioral problems is based on the rapport you build with your students. I know it may sound a little crazy but I have very few classroom rules and run my classroom on an implied rules structure which teachers students how to make ethical choices without actually asking them. What is right and what is wrong? 99% of the time students choose the right option because of the mutual respect we build with one another. Do students sometimes take advantage? Absolutely but that can be addressed and corrected with ease and with little conflict because they understand and respect you and can accept that what they are doing is incorrect.
Support: Students need a support system and I love working with colleagues to help students attain their goals. As a student mentor I consistently look for students that are having issues with certain classes and work with colleagues to develop action plans that will help that student succeed and in the long run pass their classes and graduate. It is amazing what one teacher can do to change a life but a team of teachers is a recipe for success. Some students don’t have support and just by being a caring and supportive teacher you can change their lives. Parents who are involved also add to the support system. Nothing beats a teacher and a parent working together. I recommend creating relationships with parents through e-mail, and through phone calls and if possible in person. Share the positives, the successes and the wins of their children with them. Negativity manifests negativity.
Patience: Our students will try our nerves, they will push our buttons, they will give up on themselves, and they will do stupid things. I have one solution for this. Forgiveness! Every single time we must forgive them. We have to be patient because we have to teach them not to give up, and how to make the right decisions. I don’t tell students, “You did it wrong! Fix it!” I tell students, “this is what you did wrong, this is why it’s incorrect, what can we do to make a better decision or choice in the future…” This is a teachable moment for any student and even any adult for that matter. We need to be patient and we must be able to adapt to many different students, and situations both good and bad. I have had students let me down before but I have never told them they let me down. I always talk about how they are letting themselves down, and give them ideas on how they can get back up again.
Regularity: Students need consistency. Does that mean rules? Yes and No! Like I said earlier I work on an implied rule system and I am extremely lenient. Consistency for my classroom means that students know what they have to do every day they enter my classroom, they know where to look for assignments, they know what material we are covering, and they know due dates. My class structure allows for me to roam my room freely to work with each student every single day. Students know that I will rotate the room which is a deterrent of poor behavior and creates a self-created accountability for students. Students choose between right and wrong in these situations. Should I do my work or should I watch music videos on the internet?
My rule is simple on technology use and is the reverse of what you would think. I encourage and want my students to listen to music while they work. I want them to check their text message. I want them to take a break and laugh at a funny video. All of these things are ingredients needed for an engaging environment built on trust and mutual respect. I want to engage students through this technology and use it to my benefit as a teacher and their benefit as students who will soon be working in the 21st century marketplace. If a student checks a text and I have a conversation with them I wasted my breath, and my time. If the student talked back we now have a conflict. The student is written up which takes more time, the student is suspended which means they will learn absolutely nothing for an entire day. Some would argue they would learn to not use their phone and I would argue that you should go a day without using your phone then! By not saying a word, the student finishes their message, there is no conflict, and they get back to work and have an effective day working. Now, this is at the High School level. If I was a Middle School teacher I would have to change my approach but I would still run a classroom based on ethics. Students need to know right from wrong and telling them what is right and wrong teaches them nothing. They have to be able to decipher it themselves. As I tell my students: The importance of this is that after High School administrators and teachers become judges and police officers and those decisions about right or wrong if not made properly will lead to much worse than just administrative action. Learning to make good decisions can be taught at any stage of life and is the most important lesson we can teach students that can use every minute of every day for the rest of their lives.
I hope this helps you get started. Questions, comments, e-mail Joseph.Serviss@gmail.com