"Never again," I said to myself as my mentor teacher exited my classroom. It was my first year of teaching, and she had just completed one of her final observations of my classroom. The observation was a disaster. I felt good about my instruction, but my students' behavior was, well, less than angelic. Some were blatantly not paying attention, others refused to participate when called on, and one student, when I asked him where his workbook was, responded "at home" with no shortage of sarcasm.
My students' behavior wasn't this poor every day, but neither was this situation entirely uncommon in my classroom. What's worse was that both of my classes behaved much better when they were with my partner teacher, who taught ELA and social studies while I taught math and science. I had known that the behavior in my classroom was an issue, but it didn’t really hit me until this evaluation. For the rest of the school year I tried out different classroom management techniques; they didn't solve my problem, but some of them did help me survive that first year. I realized that if I didn't master classroom management I was not going to make it in my chosen career. So that summer, I decided to reinvent myself as a teacher.
For me, classroom management was my biggest weakness. For you, it may be direct instruction, planning, organization, or something else. No matter what skill you are trying to improve, follow these steps to reinvent yourself as a teacher so that next year can be your best school year yet!
1. Determine what went well
This might seem counterintuitive, but you don't want to proverbially throw the baby out with the bathwater. As you reflect on the area or areas that you need to improve, ask yourself what went right too.
For me, I knew I had developed a good rapport with my students. They trusted me and would confide in me about things that were going on at home. I was also confident that my instruction was solid. My students' state assessment results and growth from the previous year were really good, and I knew those results could be even better if I didn't have behavior issues taking time away from teaching and learning.
2. Determine what went wrong
Now that you've determined what did go well, it’s time to think about where the breakdown occurred. For instance, if your issue is instruction, maybe you realized that the content you were presenting worked, but the whole group direct instruction you provided was too long. Or if your issue is organization, maybe your overall system was solid, but you didn't adequately communicate expectations to your students.
Where I went wrong can be summed up in one word: consistency. In my first-year teacher eagerness, and after reading "The First Days of School" by Harry Wong, I had started out using some classroom management techniques that could have worked. But, I didn't implement them consistently so I never saw the benefits.
3. Research ways to improve
One of the wonderful things about living in the information age is, well, the information. If you do a Google search on how to improve the area that you are struggling with, you’ll almost certainly find thousands of results. To avoid getting overwhelmed, start by trying this Google search terminology: "What's the best book about [Your Topic]?" Read a few of the reviews on some of the titles that come up in your search results and narrow it down to the top 3 to 5 options that seem most relevant. Once you have done that, find the authors’ websites—many offer lots of free content like blog posts, videos, and maybe even downloadable resources that you can use in your classroom. Then, you can decide whether or not you need, or want, to purchase books from one or more of the experts whose content you have consumed.
4. Decide what you will implement
In your research, you will likely uncover a number of strategies for improving the area that you want to work on. Since you can't implement every strategy or technique that you think may help, focus on techniques that are easy to implement and that can have the greatest impact. Determine what those strategies may be by breaking the area you would like to improve on down into small sub-areas and then focusing on implementing discrete solutions. Then, you will be able to decide which solutions it makes sense to implement.
When I was working on improving my classroom management I focused on a few specific areas: expectations during whole group instruction, expectations when travelling in a line outside of the classroom, and expectations for when a visitor entered the classroom or I needed to talk to another adult. Then, I went back to the research I had done and looked for solutions to those particular problems and chose the ones that fit best with my personality and teaching style.
Once you’ve done the research, put it to work! Use the new school year as an opportunity to implement what you have learned. It may sound easier to simply keep doing what you’ve been doing, but if you have read this far, then you know something needs to change. Try out the techniques and strategies you've put so much effort into learning.
You can't understand how well a technique or strategy is working if you don't intentionally evaluate the results. Try asking yourself this question: "Has [new technique] improved [your area of improvement]?" If you believe the answer is yes, then follow up by asking "How?" and then "How can I further improve?" If the answer to the first question is no, then ask "Is the issue the strategy itself, or is it the way that I'm implementing it?" Based on the answer to that question, decide whether you should abandon the strategy and try a new one, or stick with it and improve the way that you are implementing it.
Teaching truly is a practice—yours will always be evolving, and it’s important to remember you don't have to be the same teacher you were last year. Using these steps as a blueprint, you can make intentional and meaningful improvements in the areas you struggle with in order to be the best educator that you can be.
Looking for more professional development tips? Check out this blog on Evaluating Your Own Performance as an Educator!