Tomorrow (Wednesday) is my last day of vacation, and I intend to savor it like a reforming smoker enjoys the final drags of his last cigarette. New teacher orientation for CMSD teachers is being held this week at the Cleveland IX Center. Although asked to be a presenter for the event, I selfishly declined. More enticing than the extra pay is the luxury of extending my summer a few days more.
Slap me if I'm lying, but I'm kind of looking forward to the coming school year. I had a really fun group of students last year in the 10th and 11th grades who will be juniors and seniors this year, and several of them are actually talented. I think I might even have enough interested students to have a decent art club, so I'm planning some after-school studio and gallery visits. I have a couple of local artists who will be working in the shops, and will also be resurrecting the visiting artist discussion series.
During the month of August, I always notice an unusually high number of new readers who find this blog by Googling "Teachers' First Day of School". Over the years I've written about my first day as a new student teacher, my first day back in class after summer vacation, as well as my observations of kids on their first day back at school, but I have a feeling many of those Googlers are probably looking for something else. The search words seem to indicate nervous rookies who need a little advice before they stand alone in front of a room full of students for the first time.
Whether a college student intern, or an experienced veteran in a new job, the first day is usually a mix of excitement and apprehension. I have served as a mentor teacher for quite a few student interns over the course of my career, and they all have very similar concerns before they teach their first lesson.
What advice do I have for new teachers as they prepare for opening day?
You are most certainly armed with lesson plans, unit goals, curriculum maps, assessment tools, and classroom management strategies. You have reviewed your textbooks, copied your work sheets and printed your hand outs. Now what?
I am going to tell you a secret. This bit of advice is rarely included in any teachers ed course, but it is the simplest thing in the world, and it will make the all the difference not only for your first day, but for the duration of your career:
I had a professor in college who advised his eduction classes, "Don't smile for the first three months of school. Your students will see it as a sign of weakness." He obviously took his own advice. It was no surprise Dr. Grimace was no longer in a classroom with kids. He may have had a PhD in education, but he was not inspirational, or passionate, or remotely interesting. He most definitely couldn't teach. The most valuable lesson I took away from that class was what NOT to do.
Most people respond to a smile positively. Students will do just about anything for a teacher who likes them. If kids thinks a teacher doesn't care, or if the teacher acts aloof or superior, students (especially in middle and high school) will inevitably see that attitude as an invitation to make the instructor miserable, knock him down a notch or two. Power plays don't work as discipline strategies, neither does anger. Bitchiness begets more of the same. Kindness is the most effective classroom management strategy, but it isn't always easy.
There are going to be days when you feel cranky. Fake the smile. Like a used car salesman, consider it part of the job. The surprising benefit is, you will start feeling better.
Now, I'm sure this is sounding awfully Pollyanna...but, that's just the way it is. I realize there will be students in your class who are difficult to like. Some kids are annoying, some are mean, others are insolent. Try your hardest to find something good about them, and if you can't, once again...Fake it. Make the effort to spend a little time with them one on one, get to know their story, figure them out. Since these are the kids whose behavior will undoubtedly elicit the phrase, "I need to see you after class", surprise them by starting a friendly conversation instead of launching a diatribe about appropriate behavior. These kids are used to being yelled at, and they've built up an immunity to it. Rather than delivering a punishment, don't even bring up the infraction, ask what they did over the summer. You might discover the elusive "likable" something that isn't evident when the whole class is around. It is also quite possible you will be the first adult to ever act interested in them.
I've had colleagues who would sit in the teachers lounge day after day complaining about students, some would even be bragging about how many "F's" they gave out. Stay away from these people. Good teachers don't hate kids. Don't ever confuse being a "tough" teacher with being a good teacher. If a high percentage of a teacher's students fail the class, that teacher has failed to teach a whole lot of their students.
In the manufacturing industry, if a company fails to deliver a product it either improves its practice to satisfy the customer, or it goes out of business. In education when we fail to deliver, we blame the students (or their parents) and keep on being disfunctional. Is it no surprise urban schools have drop out rates hovering around 50%?
Next, find a good teacher on the staff, and make a friend. If you want to know who the best teachers are, ask the kids. That teacher will be the one who will also have the time to help you. There will be a lot of paperwork, and new procedures. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Develop a camaraderie with your peers. If the staff goes out after school, join them. You will learn more over a beer and basket of wings than you did in any college course.
Finally, try not to take things home with you. Get as much work done at school as you can, and do your best to leave your students problems back in the classroom. This can be really difficult, especially if you work in a district like Cleveland where poverty is the norm. Remember, you have your own life, and if you don't, for God's sake get busy and make one.