As an Instructional Technology Facilitator, I have the immense privilege of seeing my school from a pretty unique perspective. I taught Social Studies for five years, and I’ll be honest: my purview of the educational landscape rarely extended beyond my own classroom (and when it did, it only ever meaningfully grew to include my teaching team). Some days it was all I could do to keep my head above water. Others, I felt like I had conquered the world. Time, experience, and perspective help give clarity to what can sometimes feel like chaos. And while I’m far from finished with my professional journey, perhaps some of the things I’ve learned along the way might afford you a more favorable starting point.
1. Commit to making positive, personal contact with the parents of every student you teach within the first 30 days of school.
How you do this isn’t as consequential; send an email, make a phone call, write a hand-written note — do it however feels most natural to you. It’s important that you individualize your outreach. It’s a lot of work, but trust me, it’ll pay dividends down the line. Not only does this give parents a sense of personal connection to their child’s teacher, it’ll make your kids feel like you’ve noticed them during one of the most crucial times of the year. Prove that you care early, and any potentially difficult conversation will be a lot more productive later.
2. If they say it can’t be done, respectfully disagree, then find creative ways to make it happen.
Facebook’s old mantra was “Move fast and break things”. That’s pretty sexy, but not at the expense of getting it right. Their new one, “Move fast with stable infra” speaks more to what I mean. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. There will be times in your first few years that you’ll be told it can’t be done simply because nobody has done it before. Inexperience is your greatest shortcoming and your greatest asset. Know the difference, and use it to its fullest extent.
3. Seek out technology that makes teaching easier, more engaging, more efficient, and more effective. Drop anything that doesn’t.
Surprising as it may seem coming from me, technology honestly isn’tmy biggest priority. My heart is in the classroom. It’s teaching. There’s a lot of great tech out there, and a lot of it’s free or really cheap. It can have immense impact on the outcomes of your classroom, and I can help you find the good stuff. Don’t waste your time on things that are more work than they’re worth. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean it’ll suit your needs.
4. Apply for an easily-attainable grant before the first two weeks are up.
Donor’s Choose is a great place to start. Keep your original goal small, and let your family and friends know what you’re up to via social media. This will help you leverage your network, and it’ll earn you valuable donor’s choose points that you can use to fund larger projects that’ll cost more down the line. If you work in Wake County, be sure to fill out this easy one-page form.
5. Build flexibility into your lessons.
It’s going to happen: the logins won’t work, the wifi will be spotty, the batteries won’t be charged. Don’t fall victim to being left without some sort of backup plan. After an edtech crash and burn, it’s tempting to write it off entirely, preferring to stick with more traditional tools that are subject to less variability. Resist that urge. Even in its most frustrating moments, reimagining the possibilities with edtech is worth it. We’re charged with preparing kids for their future, not resorting to the comfort and convenience of our past.
6. Leverage (professional) social media.
Social media is not evil. I repeat: social media is not evil. Clearly, you have to be smart about how you use it. Don’t friend your students with your personal account(s). Do live in the reality that social media is continually re-shaping our world. Over 70% of online adults in America use Facebook. Use it to reach out to parents. It’s no secret that social media is where kids spend most of their online time. Use it to get them thinking critically outside of school. Start a school hashtag (we use #wendellhowlout), blast congrats on a school’s fan page, (or create one if it doesn’t exist!), leverage things like Remind and Kinvolved. Extend your impact beyond the classroom!
7. Expect to work hard. Expect it to be worth it.
This work is some of the most difficult and important in the world. I believe that. It’s often thankless, frustrating, and exhausting, but don’t underestimate it’s place, or your own. You have the power to shape outcomes — to give kids life chances. This work matters, and so do you.
8. Take time for yourself. Create spaces where work is off-limits.
Teacher burnout is a real problem, particularly within the first five years. For all the work you’ll do, it’s crucial to take time for yourself. Be intentional about carving out time to rest, relax, and do things that you enjoy. You’ll be better for your students if you’re good to yourself first.
9. Don’t do it all by yourself.
Technology affords unprecedented opportunities for collaboration. Use them! Foster professional relationships that encourage you to lean on your colleagues, and allow your colleagues to lean on you. We’re a lot more powerful as a team than we are as individual silos.
10. Be humble.
You’re not here to save anybody. And while your value-add might be wrapped up in your new and fresh ideas, how you communicate them matters. Recognize the strengths in your colleagues and what they uniquely bring to this profession. Strive to learn something from every staff member at your school — even (perhaps especially) those you may not always agree with.
11. Make a plan that helps you quickly and conveniently gather data.
Whether you use tools like Socrative, Plickers, or Google Forms, this is one of the most important places technology has the potential to completely redefine the classroom. And don’t just limit yourself to gathering student data! Place a couple computers out for Parent-Teacher open house, and request the most up-to-date contact info from families. Leave a space where parents can inform teachers about things they want you to know about their child (and when you reach out to parents later, reference those tidbits to solidify those important connections).
13. Map out your year in a broad sense. Then fill in the details as the year progresses.
One of those educational buzzwords you’re bound to hear — if you haven’t already — is Backward Design (or the Understanding by Design Framework). I don’t know about you, but buzzwords irk me. The ideas behind them though, shouldn’t. Backward Design is just good planning, and it’s a fantastic way to think about how to plan. Your first year is bound to be tough enough. Don’t do yourself the disservice of treading water through most of it. A journey without a clear destination (and solid checkpoints along the way) won’t do you or your students any favors.
14. Affirm, validate, and celebrate your students as unique individuals, but recognize larger systems that may affect them inside and outside your classroom.
Identity is such an important part of what it means to grow up. Kids are constantly engaging in introspection and self-interrogation, asking themselves who and what they are, who and what they want to be, and how they fit into their larger contexts. It’s a constant balancing act between how they see, and how they’re seen. Give them a space to explore that. Affirm it. Validate it. Join them in the process while you’re at it!
15. Expect to get a lot of advice as a new teacher. Listen to it. Trust it. And trust yourself, too.
Education is a fascinatingly frustrating field. We’re charged with creating the kind of conditions that inspire learning. We cannot impose it by sheer force of will. WB Yeats famously quipped that education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame. How do we best do that?
As long we’ve had public education, there have been people devoting their lives to it, debating it’s proper direction along the way. There’s so much to know, so much to learn, and the climate within which it exists is continuously in flux. This at once gives me a sense nearly insurmountable obstacles, and a sense of overwhelming hope. It reminds me that there’s an incredible amount of important work that has been and is being done every single day in classrooms all across America. It also reminds me that we haven’t entirely figured this thing out yet. And for my part, I can assure you: if I ever get to the point where I feel like I have, I’ll quietly see my way out.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Medium.
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