Anita is a first year Spanish teacher in a suburban school near Chicago. She is sharing her thoughts and experiences all this year with our readers. NCLRC would like to hear your reaction to the diary entries – please share your questions, advice or comments with us via the response box below
February | March | April | June
August | December
Whew, I made it! And I had a great year! I learned a ton about how schools work, about myself, my students, and my role as a teacher. Here is a quick list of what I learned or rather, what I wish I had known in September:
Teaching is fun.
Throughout the year, as I became more comfortable with myself, I learned to relax and actually enjoy the teaching experience. There is no way that I could have been taught to relax and enjoy teaching, but I figured out that it can be fun and pleasant. If you are bored, chances are that the students are even more bored. But, if you’re having fun (because you plan interesting and varied activities) the students will have fun too.
Be yourself. Smile.
Before day 1, I was advised not to smile until Christmas, because if I did the students would see me as a softy and the room would be chaos. I tried to follow this stern advice, afraid that I would have behavior management issues if I didn’t. I started out being serious and strict, but soon learned that my smile was my best management tool. Once my students realized that I was not out to get them, that I cared about teaching and their learning, we became partners in learning and, I think, we had a great time. As I became more comfortable with myself in the role of teacher, I let more of the real Anita emerge. I became goofier, I danced a little, and I added some strange inflections to certain phrases. Along the way I learned that not only did this flamboyance get the student’s attention and make them laugh, but they were more likely to copy what I said while I was goofy. In mimicking me, they were practicing Spanish and we began to share something of an inside joke.
In the evaluations that I asked students to fill out at the end of the year the most common response to the prompt, “I like it when Srta. Anita ____”, was ‘smiles.’ By years end, I was almost always smiling. The students could tell that I was enjoying myself, but most importantly, that I was enjoying them. The best part of the year came on the last day of the last final as the students hugged me as they walked out of my classroom and towards their summer vacation!
It is Ok to ask for help from someone outside of your department of school.
In the beginning of the school year, I wrote that I had followed the advice from my teacher program to beg, borrow, and steal from other teachers. Well, it didn’t work too well for me. Without getting into the nitty gritty, I had a lot of trouble getting support, let alone the amount of support that a first-year teacher should receive, and I ended up creating everything from scratch often staying at work until 7PM. Every day, I was the first person in my department to report to work and the last one to leave. Although my Department Chair saw this and knew this, and knew that I was struggling, she said, “Oh, I haven’t taught that level in years” when I asked her for help. I also asked the Staff Development Teacher who told me, “Well, you’re not technically on my caseload this year.” After a few more unsuccessful attempts to get help from my Department Chair and others, I gave up and continued doing what I had been doing, working late and alone. It was not until I ran into another young, vivacious teacher at a conference that I realized that what was happening to me was not typical. This other teacher bent over backwards to support me and immediately sent me a disc with all of her documents and files so that I would have something from which to plan, design, and teach. Hooray! I started going home around 4:30 instead of 7PM! What I learned is that even though there are supports in place for teachers, not all of those supporters care enough to spend the time. Luckily, there were others, many of whom had no direct responsibilities to me, but were willing to spend time in order to reduce mine. There are good, helpful educators out there, so don’t get frustrated if those immediately around you are useless. Find out who they are, avoid them, and seek help elsewhere. Sadly, it took me until the second semester to realize that some people just need to be avoided completely. But, this is a lesson learned. Check. √.
Stay on the periphery until you know where people stand:
From the beginning of the year, a group of young, fun teachers kept inviting me to Friday happy hours. While I appreciated the invitations, I was too exhausted on Fridays to do anything but sleep. Then, mid year, I found out that I had inadvertently saved myself some headaches, because when I finally made it to a happy hour I found out that they are just “bitch sessions,” where the teachers simply complain and gossip about students and other teachers. Now, I like to gossip as much as the next person, but doing so every Friday, with a crowd of “non-growing” teachers would not have sent the right message about who I want to be as a teacher. I want to be considered serious, a future leader and for that I needed to steer clear of the negative Nancys. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like the teachers as people, but that I won’t be a frequent happy hour attendee because, and we know that we lump our students too, the company you keep says a lot about who you are.
To recap, I had a tough, strenuous, stressful, and fun year. Although I am not looking forward to the end of summer, I am excited to continue honing the skills that I attained this year, my first year as a high school Spanish teacher. I have said this before, but never with such pride and gumption: I am a teacher!
Oh how I adore my classroom routines! My last entry was about how much my upper-level Spanish students drove me slightly crazy. It is a large, talkative class, and I was new to the majority of them who had another teacher first semester. The difference however, from the beginning of the semester to now is quite impressive. Although the students remain chatty, they know what to do, when to do it, and how long to spend settling down when they are finished. Per usual, they were testing me, their new teacher, to see what they could get away with. The routines were set from the beginning of the semester, but it took the students awhile to realize that they were routines and get used to following them. They have learned, and so have I. And now, I love them almost as much as my other level, who have known me since August!
Now, when I set them loose for an activity I know that when the bell rings after the specified amount of time, they will be back in their seats facing front in about 30 seconds. Impressive! I don’t have to say a word, and then we can move on to the next activity. I love it, and I’m pretty sure that the students do too! Well, maybe not love, but I’m sure that they appreciate the organized manner in which I run my class. In fact, I just received an award (done each quarter) from a student who said about me, “she is passionate about teaching and she is always organized!”
I learned during my year teaching rambunctious first graders, that children thrive on routines. If they know what to do, what is expected of them, and how to meet those expectations, they have a better chance at being successful. And, I have a better chance at teaching them while maintaining my sanity. Older students need routines as well; they also thrive on a structured classroom. I discovered this by accident. I am a highly organized person so that is how I run my classroom; it has simply been a byproduct that the students, at any age, appreciate the structure as well. So, if you haven’t established routines, do so, because I promise, they are wonderful for the teacher and the student.
Following are some of my routines:
• The agenda, objective, and homework are always up on the white board each day along with the date.
• There is a warm-up waiting for the students when they come in.
• As soon as the bell rings, I close my door and greet the students.
• They then have between 3 and 5 minutes to complete the warm-up.
• During the warm-up I spot-check homework. When homework is spot-checked, students know to put it on the left-hand corner of their desks so that I can check it as I walk around the classroom.
• When home or other work is handed in, the papers come from the back of the row to the front and are then passed from left to right until they are in one place (this makes them easier to pass back as well).
• Each day I go over the objective, agenda, and homework. I find that the students are quietest when I go over the objective and agenda. They really want to know how they will be spending their time in Spanish!
• After the class has been working in pair or groups, and the closing bell rings, the students know that they should return to their seats and wait the following instructions and they do.
• I always close with a summary of what the students should walk away with, and remind them of their homework if there is any.
Next year, I will tweak some of these routines, but as long as there is something in place, the students will have the best opportunity to learn, and I will have the best opportunity to teach!
At the beginning of second semester I was assigned a new schedule of classes. My Spanish 2s are mostly the same, but because there is another Spanish 4 teacher, I have large group of new Spanish 4s. With 33 students, I must admit that thus far it has not been my favorite class.
Whereas I highly enjoy my Spanish 2s, who are still interested, easily impressed, and fun, my Spanish 4s seem complacent, spoiled, and bored. Half of the class is in the IB program, so perhaps my expectations were too high (is that possible?), but this is not the type of scholar I expect to see in IB.
The IB program at my Illinois school is new. I have heard rumors that as long as the students wish to partake in the program the coordinator and administration will not turn them away – having a large IB program looks good, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t necessarily the best thing for some students. IB students have to get through five years of a foreign language. Five years is a long time for a student who is not a language person and who hates Spanish. I have had students tell me, "I’m only here because of IB. I hate Spanish!" This form of extrinsic motivation doesn’t seem to work. The students are miserable in class, they misbehave, they distract other students, and have contempt for me! I have, of course, tried to level with my new students and remind them that a "C" or "D" in Spanish doesn’t look good. I have tried to cajole them "Wouldn’t you want to be able to communicate with a lovely young lady who only speaks Spanish?"
First things first - I realize that I need to improve my classroom management. My 33 students are a vivacious bunch, so I have had to start marking students unexcused tardy if they are not in their seats when the bell rings. I have switched to English to explain how their chatter wastes my precious time and theirs. I am in the middle of these discipline challenges, and I hope that once we come out on the other side, we can continue with the relationship building and the instilling-a-love-of Spanish part of teaching.
I suppose this proves how important relationship building is. I spent all of first semester working with my 2s, and now we understand each other. They know the routines, recognize my high expectations and seem to be rising to meet them I didn’t realize how important it was to start again with the 4s so I believe that the behavior and frustrations are just as much my fault as that of the students.
My newly-instilled management tactics are working, but still, I did not expect behavior and attention issues in IB Spanish 4. I wonder if this is a common experience?
Our readers sent in messages of support to Anita after her previous entry.
Sometimes you can't do it all. As a veteran teacher of more than 30 years, I have seen many students like the ones you described. It does not make the job any easier. I think the students, in my case, just need to accept the situation as they have created it. Taking responsibility is a daunting task for some students as they have not had to do this yet as parents. friends and family have bailed them out more than once. Now it seems that no one can and they don't know how to handle the situation. Don't give up on them but do accept tha fact that you cannot reach everyone in the same manner or at the same level. Concentrate on the positive kids and maybe the others will come along. Good luck for the rest of the year.
I know that you're right, that I can't reach every kid, and certainly not the same way. I will not give up on them. Thank you for your comments.
I learned this saying when I was doing my studies (way back in the 70's and through the years have found it to be generally true): Some students will learn your subject matter no matter what you do, some won't learn your subject matter no matter what you do, but the large majority will learn depending upon what you do. It sounds like these 10 students may be in the second category. The important thing is that you don't let their "sad state" affect your teaching in a negative fashion; don't focus your teaching(methods,attention in class, etc.) entirely on them. ¡Buena suerte!
Thank you for your insights. I will remember your saying - it makes good sense. I won't give up on them, but I also won't focus all of my efforts on them. Again, thank you for sharing with me.
I am going to tell you what a great presenter told us new teachers 10 years ago: 90% of students are great, they will do whatever you ask; 7% of students are testing you, they are good but they will be lost if you do not work hard with them, 3% of students will end in jail, whatever you do or try, there is nothing you can do.
This does not mean to give up on the kids, just means that we are not God, we will have a few students every year whom will not pass and will not be motivated.
"¡Hola Anita! No, you're not wrong. The best advice I got when I started teaching 24 years ago was from my father, a math teacher getting ready for retirement. He told me not to get discouraged and frustrated if I did not reach 100% of the kids, because that's impossible.
You have done everything right. The reality that that small group of kids doesn't care has nothing to do with you or your teaching. It has to do with other things in their lives which you have no control over. You can't "save" them. You can only continue to treat them with the positivity and dignity which it sounds like you have up to this point. If they do not pass, it is no reflection on your teaching. If about 100 had failed for the first semester, I would wonder if you had set the bar too high. But since it's 10, it sounds like your expectations for them are reasonable and appropriate. My own experience suggests
that the ones who repeat the course with you next year will pass the second time because they will know they wasted the first opportunity and don't want to repeat that mistake. Plus they will be a year more mature.
Keep your great attitude, take pleasure in your successes, and don't consider that the ten students who failed represent a failure on your part. Good luck!"
It’s February! One semester down, one to go! I am totally looking forward to this semester. I am more comfortable in my teacher skin, my bag-o-tricks is growing, I know how to use the gradebook and other programs, and I have good working relationships with everyone in the building. There is only one problem I wish I knew how to deal with.
I look forward to the units scheduled for this semester as well as continuing with the students whom I have gotten to know over the past months. I really enjoy my students and most of them are meeting my high expectations. However, I have about 10 students who failed first quarter, second quarter, and the midterm exam. Even though they failed first semester and are not prepared for the upcoming material, they are in my class again because there is nowhere else for them to go.
Every day I wonder why I haven’t been able to reach these students. In terms of relationship building, I always greet them with a smile, I have attended some of their sporting events, and have complimented new hairstyles or shoes, etc. In terms of efficacy, I have contacted coaches and parents, and have let the students know that I will not give up on them. Academically, I have tried to engage them by trying traditional and non-traditional methods; I created multiple intelligence-based activities, we played games, I supplied personal anecdotes, brought in music, etc. Finally, I asked these students to spend time with me during lunch, to visit me during my office hours, to please see me for help. They were not interested. What am I to do?
I have not given up on these students, but I am frustrated. This class, their second year of foreign language, is needed for graduation. The class is not offered in summer school, night school, or Saturday school, something that I have made clear since September. Besides taking the course again next year, passing this year with me is the only option. I like to think that I am a fairly good teacher; I am young and energetic, I use technology, I use different instructional methods, etc. Nonetheless, I cannot seem to reach these students.
It’s hard to admit this in such a public medium, but I am totally frustrated. I haven’t given up on them, but I do feel that these students need to take responsibility for themselves. I’m no longer willing to put forth 150% for students who don’t put forth any of their own effort. I feel that they should at least meet me half way. Am I wrong? How can I reach these students?
I have been a teacher for 31 school days now. In some ways it seems like no time at all, but in reality it seems like ages since I have been getting up at 5:30 and teaching at 7:30
Unless you are a teacher, you can’t understand what it really means to be a teacher. Even I didn’t truly get it until this year. When I talk about my long days and how hard I am working, my non-teacher friends give me sympathetic looks, pat my hand, and say things like “I’m sure you’re an amazing teacher” or “I could never do that.” Contrarily, my teacher friends, especially those who are 3-4 years in the know, nod knowingly and commiserate the long days and other frustrations.
My biggest frustration to date is easy to pin down. My teacher program keeps telling us not to reinvent the wheel, to work smarter, and to beg, borrow, and steal from other teachers. I took this sage advice from these educational leaders and tried my luck, but have found that it isn’t easy going. If it were, perhaps my days wouldn’t be so long; perhaps I wouldn’t be creating lessons from scratch; perhaps I would actually have real support; perhaps I would have a life outside of SCHOOL.
As it is, I am the only Spanish 3 teacher in my school. The lesson plans from the last three years cannot be found, and other teachers have not offered me much support. Furthermore, my Department Chair doesn’t like the textbook and suggests that I ignore it all together. When I asked her for help planning my second unit she said, “Wow, I haven’t taught that level in about 15 years, ask [last year’s teacher].” Helpful. Supportive. Thanks. So what is left to do but create lessons from scratch everyday?
In one way, this lack of support is relaxing, because I am left to my own devices; my class is my own, and I can see how I might appreciate this once my confidence increases and I am more comfortable as a teacher, but right now I would prefer the support, the brainstorming, and the help that is supposed to accompany a first-year teacher.
In three weeks I start a new job as a high school Spanish teacher, and I’m ready. I’m so ready! I have taken Spanish since the 5th grade, have lived in a Spanish-speaking country, have almost completed my Masters of Education, and received rave reviews during my internship last year. Everyone keeps telling me that I’m ready, that my top-notch program has prepared me, and I do feel ready, but I am having trouble sleeping at night. My brain simply won’t allow itself to be turned off and I end up worrying about everything:
- How will I arrange the desks? Should my desk be in front of the student desks or behind them? How do I hook up my computer to the TV?
- How will I put all of this educational theory into practice?
- Will I be able to differentiate enough?
- What if I make a grammar mistake or forget an accent mark?
- Will I have time to call all of the parents before the first day of school?
- What if the administration is disorganized and/or unsupportive?
- How will I relate to kids who don’t care about Spanish and would rather be anywhere but in my classroom?
- Will I be too tough or not tough enough?
- Where will I find the time to do everything for school and maintain my own life?
And, of course, what should I wear on the first day?
On the other hand, however, I am also extremely eager. Unlike some of my other cohort members, who are still looking for a job, I have one and I am lucky enough to have my own classroom. Individual classrooms are becoming less common as enrollment rises and space decreases, so I’m thrilled. Also, my school is going “tech mod,” which means that the entire school’s computer network will be upgraded and I have been promised a Smart Board when we receive them in October!
Another reason I have trouble sleeping at night is somewhat positive and that’s because I am constantly turning over planning, instruction, and assessment ideas. It’s at night, when all else is quiet, and I should be asleep, that my most brilliant ideas come to the forefront of my teacher brain, and I wonder if I will be able to implement them…
The answer is yes. Yes! I simply need to remind myself that I have been taking education classes with some of the field’s leaders at one of the top universities in the country, that I know how to match activities and assessments to my objectives, that I will have support from my RT and colleagues, and that everything is OK. It’s OK to make a mistake. It’s OK not to be perfect. It’s Ok to say, “I don’t know.” As a first year teacher, I have tons to figure out, and I will, most likely with some bumps along the way. But, I’ll be a good teacher; I’ll figure it out. I’m ready.
In the meantime I have to figure out how I will get myself out of bed at 5:30 AM.
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