What I Wish I Knew as a New Teacher

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When I was observed as a new teacher by administrators and other people, they noted that I had a good rapport with the students, that I knew my content, that I stayed in the target language a good portion of the time, but that I needed to work on my classroom management. Our post-observation conference would go something like this:

Them: You just need to work on your classroom management.

Me: How do I do that?

Them: Oh, you’ll figure that out.

Me: ???

Fast forward several years, moves and schools later, and I’m a department leader and a school mentor who has not only interviewed new teachers in my own department, but I’m also mentoring a good friend, who decided to become a Spanish teacher in Brooklyn. I have plenty to learn myself, but what do I say to new teachers when they ask me about how they can improve their classroom management? Or what about developing rapport with their students? Or how can they adjust their lesson plan to help students without sacrificing the lesson pacing?

Here are four things I’ve learned over the years that I wish I’d known during my first year of teaching.

  • Ask. Ask how someone more experienced handles a particular situation in order to help you manage your classroom. Soon, you’ll have a tackle box of ways to help you manage your class. Ask about workshops and conferences that you could attend in order to in order to see how the theory you’ve learned can be applied in the classroom you’re now in charge of, then ask those presenters and practitioners questions about how they arrived at their process because quite often it’s been a process from when they started to what they presented. I often  say, “It’s a whole lot different being in front of the desks than in them.”
  • Experiment. The reason you were hired is because you have an energy and a willingness to try something new, so remember to experiment in your classroom even when the going gets tough. Even when others in your department say “We’ve never done it that way; this is the way you should do it,” keep experimenting based on the needs of your students and what you know will help your students according to what you’ve learned about proficiency-based instruction. If something doesn’t work, then tweak it or toss it. Since new teachers are often given one or two levels to teach at most, there’s time during the school day to tweak the delivery or pacing often before tossing an entire activity, so that’s a benefit. Plus the results from your class might convince others in your department to try something different and reinvigorate their teaching. If the focus is truly on the students and their learning, then the methods won’t matter as much as the students’ results.
  • Roll with the punches. There will be days when you need to set aside the lesson plan and let your students know they are in a safe space to process what is going on in their world. I had a wise teacher in high school say that she does not distinguish after graduation as being “the real world” because what we’re experiencing as students is “the real world” because it is real to us. Sometimes our students’ fears of their home situation or that final exam may impede their concentration in our class, and they just need an adult who cares for them and will listen to them for a few minutes in order to get that weight off their shoulders. Sometimes it’s taking an entire class period to remember a beloved former teacher who passed away unexpectedly and setting up an impromptu tribute on your door because he used to teach in your classroom. Sometimes rolling with the punches involves letting your students process their emotions after a hotly contested election and how they feel about the future of their nation–whether their preferred candidate won or lost. However you roll with the punches, it is important for your students to feel loved and safe in your class because your class period may be the only time they have anyone in their life who tells them they’re doing a good job, or who may be a positive role model of their same ethnicity or gender. Your class period may be the only time during the day where they feel like themselves because you allow them the time and space during your lesson, but also the trust that they can approach you with a question about the topic or about something else.
  • You have more impact than you know. There may be times when students flat-out disobey you, challenge your authority, fight in your classroom, tear up an assignment, leave class without your permission, threaten to sue you for harassment, draw X-rated graffiti of you on the wall outside your classroom, slander you, or even call into question your sexual identity in front of the entire class. And those are just a few of the things that have happened to me in my teaching career. But those instances don’t define me. When those things happen, I have to remember the “power of the pause,” as my friend Meredith White (and fellow Path 2 Proficiency blogger) says and remember that the impact of my being a teacher is more than teaching my students merely how to say some words in another language, but rather to engage with someone different. I love those moments when I have students come in the next morning and say they helped some Spanish-speaking customers at their job the night before. The feeling of hearing a student tell you he wants to transfer out of your class then later in the semester tell you he wants to minor in Spanish is indescribable. Nor can I describe the feeling when I have students say they want to go on a study abroad program so they can travel and engage with Spanish-speakers; they are so proud of how they communicated–and that the other person didn’t need to slow down for them!

I don’t know that I’ve ever met a teacher who wasn’t a perfectionist or total enthusiast for their topic, so we want to make sure that we have all of our ducks in a row for our classes, and we take it so personally when we have students in our classes who don’t share our same gut-wrenching passion for language learning. The truth is, no matter how many years we have under our belt, there’s always something new to learn, so there’s always someplace to grow. Let’s not lose sight, though, of the fact that as we improve in our craft of teaching year after year, our students are kids, and they want to know that we care about them as individuals.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment with something different as you roll with the punches or ask your colleagues how they did something because that’s how we all learn and collaborate. The impact will be greater–so much greater–when we do.

Paul Jennemann is the coordinator of an elementary school dual language immersion magnet program, has served on the…

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What I Wish I Knew as a New Teacher

by Paul Jennemann time to read: 5 min
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