New Teacher Magic - Be Yourself!

Lately I've been seeing a ton of "I just got hired!" and "passed my edTPA!" posts and I'm loving it. I love all the, "What can I do to get ready?" questions and the excitement that accompanies them. I love teaching. I love being in the classroom. For me personally, I feel like a new teacher for the first time in forever (there'll be magic, there'll be fun) as I'm moving schools, subjects and grade levels. So, this is the perfect time to look at some tips for new teachers. I don't want their spark to burn out. I want them to teach with magic. Hope you enjoy the series!

Whenever I'm asked to give advice to teachers, new or not, I say, "Be yourself!" As I explain in greater detail in Chapter 8 of Teach with Magic, I did not know until recently that was also an Imagineering mantra - Avoid Contradictions, Maintain Identity.

For new teachers in particular, this is very difficult. I still remember coming out of my teacher ed program 20 years ago thinking that all I had to do to be a great teacher was be Harry Wong. Nothing against Mr. Wong, but that was the lesson drilled into my head in class after class.

Spend days setting up procedures. Lay out detailed instructions. Greet kids at the door. DONE!

Of course, I picked up tips from other veteran instructors (whom I can't call teachers since most hadn't been in a classroom in decades) about not smiling until Christmas, requiring call and response for directions and the incredible power of the Jigsaw method of teaching.

As the kids say...

Yeah... no.

I didn't know to say "no" at that point, however. I spent my first three years trying to be everything they showed me. Some of it worked. I absolutely still greet kids at the door every day (though that is more due to the modeling of my mentor teacher decades ago) and... and... well that's about it really.

I think spending time on procedures, at least in secondary, is a huge waste of early days excitement.

I think detailed, multi-step instructions take the show out of teaching and the discovery out of learning.

I smile all the time.

Call and response seems childish.

Jigsaw should never be used in any subject, for any type of learning, ever.

Maybe you disagree with me on some or all of those beliefs. Good! You do you!

But, you ask, how do I know who am I as a teacher when I'm just starting out?

Well, that's the secret really. I don't know why it's a secret, but it is. Nobody seems to talk about this. It never comes up in training. In fact, I've known plenty of teachers who will flat out deny it to be true. They're wrong. Are you ready? Here's the ultimate secret to being a great teacher and loving what you do:

Who you are as a human is who you should be as a teacher.

I'm going to imagine that's the secret to being good at anything but since all I've done is teach, I'll stick to that. I'll also add, that if you are not happy with you who are as a person then, and I'll say this as kindly as possible, maybe you aren't ready to be a teacher. You are on stage 6 hours a day, 5 days a week in this profession. You can't fake it consistently without destroying yourself. You've got to be you.

This manifests in your classroom in nearly everything you do and every decision you make. I, for example, am a meticulous planner. I can be spontaneous (to an extent) from moment to moment but I have to go into a situation with a plan in mind. I plan waaaaaay ahead on my teaching calendar. I literally cannot sleep if I'm not planned for the week. So, for me, planning is hugely important (and will be the subject of the next post in this series). My colleague next door? Quite the opposite. He has no problem showing up, figuring something out, and making it great. Neither way makes a better teacher automatically but I am a much better teacher when I plan ahead. I have to be myself.

Classroom management, similarly, has to fit your personality. This is where I most had to diverge from Harry Wong. There are simply a ton of things that happen in the classroom that some teachers would identify as misbehaviors that I truly couldn't care less about. I don't care when a student gets up to sharpen a pencil. I don't care when a student writes in pink. I don't care where a student puts their name on a paper or if they include the date. I really don't care when a student sarcastically jokes with me, even if I'm teaching at the time.

Yet, when I started, I felt I had to (over)react to every possible infraction for the first few weeks or my students would go all Lord of the Flies on me. That was me trying to be someone else. If you don't care about a behavior, why are you stressing over trying to stop it? I tried. It made me miserable. (You can read some examples of how poorly it went in the book.) Now, I don't even go over rules in the beginning of the year. Kids know how to be students. I can deal with issues as they come if they bother me (like tardiness) but I do it in a way that is authentic to me.

So, along with that, make sure you know what does bother you. You do need to manage your classroom, especially if you want it to run differently than the more traditional classes most teachers are trying to emulate. I am sure to be very clear with students about things that I will not accept in my class. When I tell them why, they are fine with it. They understand why tardies bother me so much when I explain to them my need to plan situations. It's real to them. It isn't an arbitrary rule that I enforce just to show my authority. Be yourself!

On this note, your classroom is what most students are going to first judge you on, even if they don't do so consciously. When they walk into my classroom, they see me. They see my video game toys on my desk. They see my Disney-inspired posters around the room. They see little to no empty wall space anywhere. They also, on the first day, see play-do on their desk. They get a taste very quickly of who I am and, in turn, what my class is going to be. I've written about the importance of the first day and even the first seconds of your class many times so I won't do another in this New Teacher series, but it is of the utmost importance that you show your students who are you from the get go.

If you are constantly looking to bring your interests and self into your class you won't need to worry about the VASTLY OVERRATED issue of relevance for students. Seriously, I laugh inside every time I hear some education consultant talk about making a lesson relevant to students. I've never had the issue in my class. My lessons are relevant because they are me. Even if the topic is completely irrelevant, (and it often is since I teach Medieval World History) kids are engaged because I always put a bit of Roughton magic into them. Whether it is inserting video game characters as our guide, over-reacting to random information or just professing my desire to marry the Declaration of Independence, I'm bringing my own personality into it.

The reality is you are a performer. Whether you're doing 5 to 6 shows a day in secondary or a single hours-long monologue in primary, you're on stage. If you want your audience, your students, to be engaged then you need to be engaging. That is only going to happen when you let yourself be yourself. Bring in all your joys, all your quirks and all your loves into your classroom and watch the success follow!

I hope you found this helpful and encouraging. I'll get more into a nuts and bolts set of tips next time as I look at how I handle planning!