I began teaching much later in life than most teachers. I returned to college when my kids were little and, instead of pursuing the MBA I thought I would complete, I was drawn back to the idea of teaching. Having been counseled out of the teaching program when I began my junior year in college because of the slim chance I could get a job in the flooded market of teachers at the time, I recognized that returning to school at that point in my life was the time to realize my dream of becoming a teacher!
Returning to college in my early 30’s was something I had to balance with having three small children (I would have a fourth before I completed my coursework). However, then, as now, I loved being a student. I loved my classes. I loved learning about teaching. Unlike my first trip through college after high school, studying came more easily, and so did getting good grades. My experience as a non-traditional student taught me that going right off to college might be the best choice for some people, but returning to college as a grown-up definitely has its benefits as well.
I completed my student teaching in an urban setting, a fifth grade classroom where the classroom teacher’s name was the same as mine, Mrs. McNally…it was a great experience! After that, I was fortunate enough to get a long-term sub position in the same school where I had interned that went for the rest of the school year. I got another long-term sub position in the same district the next fall; it was a fifth grade classroom, but in a different building from where I had interned. Again…another great experience. I learned as much, if not more, from the wonderful teacher I long-term subbed for as I had from my mentor teacher, Mrs. McNally. For the rest of that year, I subbed both in the district I had been subbing in and in the district I lived in. The next fall, I was hired in the district where I had interned and long-term subbed.
Have you subscribed to NEVER STOP LEARNING? Once you have shared your email address with me, I will let you know each time I publish a new blog or upload a new teaching video to the NEVER STOP LEARNING YouTube Channel.
As a thank you for sharing your email with me, I will send you my QUICK START GUIDE TO CONTENT AREA WRITING absolutely free!
Before you read on, or at any point while you are reading this article, just fill in your name and email in the form (to the right of this posting on desktop, below the posting on mobile) and I will keep in touch with you!
Being a Teacher…Learning for Myself
My first teaching position was as a Title I reading teacher at a grades 4-8 middle school. Unlike the student teaching and long-term sub positions, I was immediately left on my own to figure out what needed to be done. I took the place of a teacher who had been in the job for many years and retired. Since my job was not that of a regular classroom teacher (the first year I only taught one middle school “reading” class for seventh grade students—I have no idea how the principal chose who would be in the class), I planned my day based on the requests of the fourth and fifth grade teachers at my middle school, who by the way, were wonderful to work with. I learned so much in those first couple of years of teaching about how to work with struggling readers, knowledge that would serve me well throughout my teaching career.
Over the next several years, I took on more “reading” classes (sixth and seventh grade, mostly) and continued to work with Title I students in fourth and fifth grades. Eventually, grades four and five were moved to the elementary across the street, so my focus shifted to supporting sixth, seventh, and eighth grade readers and writers. I got involved in School Improvement and became an instructional coach, working at first with teacher teams in my building, then with individual teachers at my and two other middle schools in our district. At the same time, I began working as an intern coordinator for middle school intern teachers in our district for a local university.
It seemed like, more and more, I was working with adults more than children. That was not what I had gone into teaching to do. I would not trade my time as a teacher coach and intern coordinator because I learned so much through the experiences, but I really wanted to be in the classroom full time, so that’s what I set my sights on.
My district had begun a “gifted and talented” program during the time I was working as an instructional coach. I began teaching one class, then two, and then totally phased in to being the English Language Arts teacher for the program. I looped with students 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Our program grew rapidly, drawing students from across our district and students from other districts as well—since the program was unique in our area, and soon there were two classes at each grade level. I had completed my Master’s degree in English many years earlier, but went back to school again, this time on-line through Purdue, one of the best gifted and talented programs in the country, so I would be qualified to teach gifted and talented children (even though my state does not offer the certification).
My years teaching in the REACH program were the best of my teaching career. I loved the students, got to know the families, and really felt like I was making a difference. I was able to attend professional development that was relevant to my students’ needs and saw countless students excel both in our middle school program and in their high school and college careers. I taught in this program until I retired, two years ago. I still keep in touch with many of my former students and parents.
Being Retired…Sharing What I’ve Learned with Others
Obviously, I’m not RETIRED, retired. After all, I have this blog/website and my YouTube channel, and I still teach SAT prep classes, but I have had a lot of time to ponder being a teacher. Lots of time just to think about teaching. Moreover, I’ve come to a few conclusions that I would like to share with those of you still in the trenches. This is the “REAL TALK ABOUT TEACHING” part of the blog!
Most of the following points are simply ideas that I wish I had realized as I began and continued through my teaching career. For what it’s worth, here are conclusions from my experience. Bits of wisdom for the ages…?
- Always focus on the learning rather than the teaching. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but my point here is to keep your focus on what the students are learning, indeed on IF they are learning! Make everything you have students do in your classroom formative assessments of their learning, even practice activities. Determine ahead of time what you expect them to be able to do and how you will deal with deviations from your expectations. I know you need to focus on the teaching in your planning, but don’t become so attached to your teaching plans that you cannot adapt to the students’ needs as learners. Don’t ever let yourself say, “I TAUGHT it; I don’t know why they didn’t LEARN it”!
- Get to know your students and their families. Be sure to provide opportunities wherein students can reveal themselves—class building, teambuilding, writing, speaking, and cooperative activities where students get to know each other and you. Don’t be afraid to share the real you with students (yet, don’t feel like you need to share everything). Getting to know families, though phone calls, emails, face to face meetings, will go a long way toward you having their support should the going get rough with their students! I found the more invested I made myself in getting to know my students and their families, the more invested I was in assuring their success in my classroom.
- You don’t have to read everything your students write. Think back here…did your music teacher hear every note you played? Don’t burn yourself out reading every single word your students write. Yes, feedback is important, but so is practice. You did not get feedback on every little ditty you ever played when you were learning to play that saxophone, yet you still learned to play it (or whatever instrument you learned). Structure some assignments to be credit/no credit and give your kids credit for just doing it!
- You don’t have to grade everything your students do. I used credit/no credit to score start-up and most practice activities as well as homework with a low number of points assigned to these credit/no credit scores. As a result, I felt that my students’ grades did actually reflect their understanding of content, since the vast part of their actual grades were summative grades from projects, quizzes (obviously, these were worth fewer points than the tests), compositions, and tests. Though effort is important, effort that pays off in actual learning is the goal. Penalizing students’ grade because they didn’t “get it” at first, but then went on to “get it” does not make sense. Formative assessment should not affect summative grades negatively, especially if the students do end up learning the material.
- Always have the big picture in mind. As a middle school English teacher, because I taught advanced/accelerated students, I was aware of what students in grades above those I taught had to know and be able to do because I taught high school content to middle school students. However, even if you are not teaching advanced/accelerated students it is important to know what will be expected of your students in the coming grades once they leave your classroom so that you can prepare them for what is ahead. For instance, I always used to wish that elementary teachers had understood middle school writing better. Maybe they would not have taught the students to skip lines between paragraphs and write in the first person when writing informative/expository texts. It is especially important, whatever content you teach, to become familiar with what is expected of students on the SAT and the ACT and begin preparing them even in your class for success on those make or break assessments.
- Do take advantage of EVERY opportunity to better yourself and your teaching. Attend conferences, serve on curriculum committees, and take the lead when you can. When I first started teaching, and throughout most of my teaching career, my district was great about sending teachers to a wide variety of national and state conferences. Though I was not happy to leave my classroom, I learned to come up with worthwhile activities for my students to do with substitutes. What I got in return was priceless. Many of my great memories from teaching are those of getting to know my colleagues and learning with them at summer institutes and learning conferences! There did come a time, however, when my district could no longer afford to send teachers outside the district for professional development, and indeed had to limit offerings within the district as well. So…treat each conference you are able to go to as possibly the last you will ever be able to attend and make the most of it!
- Commit to making sure that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, you have your students do is worthwhile and contributes to their LEARNING! In the weeks to come, I’ll be sharing more with you about Deep Processing, but here’s a link to a video from the NEVER STOP LEARNING YouTube channel to wet your whistle for the idea:
Don’t be the teacher who settles for just keeping your students busy. You have precious little time with them, in the long run, to make a difference in their learning and in their lives.
What truths about teaching and being a teacher have you learned in your teaching career? I’d love to hear about them. Please share your wisdom in the comments section below!