My advice to new teachers at the start of the school year

1) Be yourself (unless your “self” is rude, obnoxious, spiteful, arrogant, or similarly unpleasant in which case you should rethink your chosen profession anyway). When I first started teaching I worked very hard at adopting my “teacher persona.” I believe this was a result of some benign advice from an associate teacher or a professor at the faculty of education. The thing is, it’s exhausting and the kids see right through it. I tried to copy the teaching styles of teachers I respected and admired, and I suppose that’s not a bad way to start. It actually helped me figure out the kind of teacher that I’m not. I am not a stern no-nonsense disciplinarian. I am silly, laid-back, and occasionally irreverent. That doesn’t mean my students run amok, but I had to find my own way to “be a teacher.”

2) Dress up. A little. But dress your age. If you, like me, barreled on through your undergrad and straight into teacher’s college and then were lucky enough to get a position the next school year (I know… very lucky), then you’re… what… 23? Wow. You’re not much older than the grade 12s and you won’t look much older. You’re not going to fool anyone into thinking that you’re an ancient 30 something like I am, but when you’re 23, it’s embarrassing and awkward to be mistaken for a student (When you’re 32, it rocks). So, judge the vibe of your school. Some schools are more casual than others, but don’t think you can get away with the board short and flip-flop look that the eccentric, close-to-retirement, history teacher is “rocking” (questionably). If you dress up a little bit, it sends a signal that you think this important enough to dress up for and that helps–but don’t be afraid to out your own stamp on it that says “hey I’m not 32 yet.”

3) Don’t do stupid things. You’ve probably already been so scared by faculty of education lectures and gossipy horror stories that spread through your social foundations class about teachers who did foolish things on social media and were then fired. That’s not what I’m here to do. I do not want you to decide to erase your web presence and ban technology from the classroom because you’re afraid of all the horrible things that could happen to you. We are in an interesting place in our history right now and I suspect 20 years from now (I hope) we’ll all laugh about the angst we were having in education over social media. Rather than trying to eliminate your web presence, create a professional one. Start a professional blog where you reflect on and share evidence of your learning. Get on Twitter and start following other teachers (Not sure how to get started? Go here.). They will be a great support network for you and can help you out when it’s 1:00am and you really can’t hash out ideas with your department head and your girlfriend is sick of hearing about how stressed out you are. Don’t friend students on Facebook (I know some teachers who do and I have the utmost faith that they are extremely professional with their students but I won’t ever advise you to do it), but you may consider setting up a Facebook page for your class. If you teach in the Waterloo board in fact, it’s encouraged. That way you can keep in touch with students in with a medium they use, but they don’t have access to your personal information. Bottom line: never post anything online that you wouldn’t say in front of the class or in front of your principal. If you must vent, save it for direct messages and emails to your friends.

4) Cut yourself some slack. You won’t be a perfect teacher in your first year. Actually you’ll never be a perfect teacher. That’s okay. Think of your goal for your first year as being one of survival and harm reduction. Do as little harm as possible to yourself and your students, and you’re off to a good start in my opinion. If you’re a good teacher, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions you made, coming up with different ways you could have but didn’t handle a situation, and generally berating yourself for sucking. You probably don’t suck. Lighten up. Have a beer. Go for a night out with your non-teacher friends (do you still have those?) and don’t talk about school–they won’t get it and it’s not healthy for you to talk about it all the time.

This is hardly an exhaustive list but you probably have enough people giving you advice. Hang in there. Have some fun. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Assessment and evaluation conformity woes: a partial solution?

My stance on this subject is about as secret as it is neutral. I do not believe that teachers should have to use the same assessment and evaluation strategies simply because they are teaching different sections of the same course. To say that this practice ensures fairness may be accurate (although probably not) but this practice does not ensure equity. Here’s what often happens with this practice:

  • evaluations are determined well before students’ needs have ever been assessed
  • junior teachers are made to feel that they have to use the assessments of senior teachers because “they know better”
  • little to no differentiated based on student needs, strengths, or interests

In a perfect world, department members would find plenty of time to collaborate and constant revise this evaluations, but we all know how challenging it is to find this time.

So in an effort to please the powers that be who insist on uniformity across sections* I’ve come up with a plan:

Using our computerized grade book program, “Markbook,” we can assign different mark sets. In the past, I created a Term mark set, a Final Exam mark set, and a Course Culminating Activity (ISP, CCA… etc. Choose your acronym) mark set. Each mark set was weighted according to the percentages we use to calculate the final mark.

  • Term: 70%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

(These numbers are determined by our board)

So now, all I’ve done is add one more mark set. Ready for it?

Here we go!

  • Formative: 20%
  • Summative: 50%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

See what I did there? It doesn’t solve all the problems and of course we still need to be striving for at least the “appearance” of uniformity, but… now it doesn’t matter if teacher A records 15 different formative assessments and teacher B records 4 formative assessments; the summative assessments will be worth the same because of their weighting.

See this is where things were getting tricky in our department. We agreed that major assessments would be the same, (well… I didn’t agree but I don’t have a choice in the matter) but we also agreed that formative assessments could differ depending on the class (I did agree with this). But if Teacher A had 15 different formative assessments and Teacher B only had 4, then Teacher B’s summative assessment would be worth proportionately way more than Teacher A. Trying to get all the weightings to line up in Markbook is just ridiculous and doesn’t allow for much freedom in designing formative assessments UNLESS you do what I did.

So is it a perfect fix? No. But at least we can clearly show that regardless of the types and variety of formative assessments (or “rehearsals” if you like), the summative tasks (“performances”) are still worth the same percentage of the overall mark.

The only real challenge with this is that in the very early progress reports, the marks will be skewed (although, the are anyway). So we might have to play around with the weighting of the mark sets in the early stages to give students and parents a more accurate understanding of their progress. By midterm, however, we should be able to use the actual weightings.

We’ll see how this goes! Let me know what you think of the plan, or if you’ve tried something similar.

 

 

*… for perfectly understandable reasons, I should add: Students and parents complain when there is a perception that one teacher is “marking differently” than another teacher. The perception is that students in one  class are not receiving the same treatment as students in another class. Now, having students complete the same assessment doesn’t alleviate this problem; it just helps with the perception.

Procrastination or process?

When I’m planning for something new (a course, a big paper, etc.) I tend to spend a lot of time doing what looks like unproductive work. I beat myself up about it and it fills me with anxiety and dread, particularly when I have a looming deadline. I stare at the computer screen or blank piece of paper and berate myself saying, “Come ON! Just DO something! MAKE something! Stop wasting time!” I click through links on Twitter, check Facebook, end up with 15 different tabs open on my browser, spend time that later seems completely unnecessary writing things on post it notes and scattering them all over the desk top, wall, cat….

But eventually the inspiration hits. The flow starts. I create stuff.

So is it procrastination or part of the process?