This post was inspired by an article that Lisa Dabs wrote on Edutopia back in the fall of 2011. I’ve stolen some of the tips from her, but also added others that I think are important. As another semester and school year draws to a close, I thought it would be beneficial to add to her article, and also focus some of the suggestions a bit more on specific advice for social studies teachers. A lot of these suggestions are things I wish I would’ve known when I entered the profession in the fall of 2007.
1. Find a Mentor
The great thing about the teaching profession is that you will be surrounded by experienced professionals who have vast amounts of wisdom to share with you. Your responsibility is to approach these people, ask them questions and learn from them. If you can find someone with experience, whose philosophy of education matches up closely with yours, be sure to utilize their expertise. If you have a vague idea of a lesson you’d like to try, run the idea by them and ask them for feedback. If you’re having problems with a student, and you’re not sure about how to proceed, ask them how they would handle the situation. If you’re about to be observed by an administrator, ask them to observe you first to give you feedback. In comic book terms, think of this person as your “Professor X.”
At the end of each work day, make a note of what seemed to work with each lesson plan. Also write some notes of things that could be done to improve the lesson in the future. You should keep a page set aside to jot-down random ideas you have for upcoming lessons or activities. I like to use a pocket Moleskin notebook and a Google Doc for this. These ideas may come at strange times and strange places, this is why it’s helpful to keep a pocket journal or use a smartphone to record these ideas.
3. Keep a Quote Book
Kids will say some amazing things in your room. Occasionally, you will get a student who seems to has a knack for saying off-the-wall things on a routine basis. Every time a student says something that causes you or the class to laugh and lose your focus, it’s probably worth writing down. Whenever you’re having a bad day and need a good laugh in the future, pull out the quote book and basque in the memories. Here’s a recent one from my class:
Me – “How do you think people found information before Google?”
7th Grade Student – “They used dictionaries and old people.”
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
If you’re not failing, you’re not trying. The first time I tried to do History Day projects with my students, they flopped. 90% of the class didn’t finish because I didn’t set aside enough class time for them. In my 4th year of teaching, I tried to get 7th grade Geography students to do a Choices simulation – it was WAY too difficult for their age level. This year, I tried a mercantilism simulation that I will never attempt again. In each of these situations, I learned some valuable lessons that continue to inform my lesson planning. Each activity also pushed me beyond my comfort zone and allowed me to practice my skills at adapting lesson plans that are over-the-head or too complex for students.
5. Take Some Time to Sit and Think
Once the school day starts, it seems like it can be a rat race until the final bell. Every free moment can be eaten up by grading papers, checking e-mail, planning future lessons, standing in line at the copy machine, making copies at the copy machine, un-jamming the copy machine, racing to the bathroom during passing time or inhaling a lunch in as few bites as possible. Before this chaos starts, take 5-10 minutes and visualize how you want your lessons to progress for that day. What’s the big idea you want students to learn? What points do you really need to emphasize? What questions will ignite the most curiosity amongst your students? Take a deep breath and relax before the chaos ensues.
6. Observe as Many Teachers as You Can
The more ideas and abilities you expose yourself to as a new teacher, the more you increase your ability to adapt and evolve. I’ve picked up some of my favorite lesson plans by stealing from other educators I’ve had the privilege of observing. I’ve also learned the most about classroom management by watching how other teachers work a classroom of 30+ students. There are a lot of nuances you can only pick up and learn by watching other professionals interact with students.
7. Read, Read, Read
Again, this tip comes back to the idea of “exposure.” The more knowledge you expose yourself to, the better teacher you become. The only way to improve your content knowledge is to read. If you’re going to become a history teacher, read Sam Wineburg’s “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” and Bruce Lesh’s “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us The Answer?” Both books encourage history teachers to break free from the traditional approach of having students memorize dates and names. If you plan on teaching Geography, read Ian Bremmer’s “The J Curve” and George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years.” Both books emphasize the importance of global awareness. Make a list of books you would like to read each year and try to read at least one/week in the summer and one/month during the school year. The idea for my “Causes of the American Revolution” game came to me while I was reading a mix of history and pedagogy books one summer.
8. Read and Subscribe to Teaching Blogs
Use an RSS feed like Feedly to track and follow teacher blogs. This will allow you to learn and steal from educators who may not teach in your building. For Social Studies teachers, make sure you read Eric Langhorst’s Speaking of History and Glenn Wiebe’s History Tech. This is where the journey begins. Once you start reading a few, and start following more social studies teachers on Twitter, you will unlock a whole world of quality teaching blogs.
9. Put in a Few Hours of Work on Sundays
During my first year of teaching, I used to spend each morning scrambling to develop that day’s lesson plans. Students would ask me what we would be doing 2 or 3 days later, and I would have no answer for them. I was a fish out of water. I would try to do some planning at the end of the school day, but usually found myself with a mountain of paperwork to grade and little or no energy to put together a lesson for the next school day. That’s also assuming that you’re not a coach who has practice or games immediately after school. Halfway into the school year, I decided to go to school on Sundays and plan out the whole week. This saved me a countless amount of stress and also made me a much more organized educator.
10. Walk/Workout Consistently
This is not a revolutionary idea – working out will increase your energy, improve your mood and decrease your stress. This makes you a better person and generally, a more pleasant human being. If you let stress and negativity dominate your life, you will not last long in the teaching profession. Find an outlet so that you can separate yourself from your work once in a while.
11. Read Fred Smart’s Article about How to Deal with Backtalk
How are you going to respond to a student when they tell you to “F— Off”? This scenario never seemed to come up in my college classroom management class and wasn’t prepared for it when it first happened. I’ve yet to meet an educator who hasn’t run into a similar scenario though. It took me a while to learn how to react to students who are defiant or engage in back-talk. Fred Smart’s advice has worked consistently for me. It’s the one article I wish I would’ve read when I started teaching. I still read it on a yearly basis to remind myself of how I should be handling difficult behaviors.
12. Utilize a Text-Message Reminder Service to Communicate with Students and Parents
Right now I use Remind101 to communicate with students and parents. The tool is not as important as the service. What the service allows me to do is to broadcast updates and reminders to students and parents. Students can subscribe with a cell phone or an e-mail address. I use it frequently to remind groups about upcoming deadlines and due dates. I also use it to send links to students. Some teachers like to use Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo etc. for the same purpose. I’ve found that none of these sites are as effective as a tool that allows you to send an instant update to a student’s phone. Students have their phones on them at all times and are constantly checking them during their free time. You can’t say the same about Facebook, Twitter or Edmodo.
13. Design a Good Class Website
The world will view your classroom through your website. If you put some extra time into creating a good website, it can save you a lot of work in the long run. Students can access resources outside of class through the site. Parents can keep up-to-date on class activities without having to flood you with emails. A class website that contains digital copies of everything that has been shared in class takes away an excuse from students who forget work at school. The website also allows you to share lessons with your colleagues and serve as a backup in case you ever accidentally delete your files or lose the memory on your computer. Weebly andGoogle Sites seem to be popular platforms and easy-to-use for most educators.
14. Join Twitter
You can find TONS of good teaching resources on Twitter. Many social studies teachers across the country are using the platform to share some of their best lessons and resources on a daily basis. Among the social studies community, a large group of teachers are using the hashtag #sschat to share their best finds each day. Since I’ve joined Twitter, and begun to communicate with other teachers, I’ve probably added 20 quality bookmarks/week to my library of useful resources.
15. Participate in Twitter Chats
On a weekly basis, the social studies community on Twitter selects a weekly topic to discuss and share resources about. On any given week, teachers might be sharing resources on the American Revolution, the Arab Spring, campaigns and elections, etc. Bookmark the #sschat Ning page to keep up-to-date on their upcoming chats. It would also be wise to use a Twitter client like TweetDeck or TweetChat to follow the chats. Sometimes you can get flooded with information in a short amount of time.
16. Build a Personal Learning Network Online
I consider my Personal Learning Network (PLN) to be my “lifeline.” It’s where I go when I need to re-energize. It’s whom I turn to when I need some feedback on a lesson idea. It’s who I steal all of my good ideas from. You can assemble one by reading teacher blogs, responding to blog posts, asking questions to teachers in other twitter chats, or just stealing from my list of Minnesota social studies teacherson Twitter.
17. Go to Conferences
In Minnesota, there are a plethora of opportunities for social studies teachers who are seeking professional development. Go to the MCSS conference in the spring. This is a great place to network with the leaders in the social studies community in the state. Take part in a MAGE summer workshop, or their fall GeoFest. Sign up for anMCEE summer institute or their summer conference. A lot of these workshops offer free grad-credits. MNCHE and Learning Law and Democracy also offer some great workshops for history and civics teachers. Sign-up for at least one conference a year and one summer workshop.
18. Present at Conferences
Once you’ve attended a conference, and gotten an idea about what makes a quality conference presentation, sign-up to present at a conference. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young or don’t have enough experience. Every teacher has at least one awesome lesson plan that’s worth sharing. This is your chance to share it with the other professionals and also build a name for yourself.
19. Find a competition for your students to enter
There are many ways to take student work and give it an audience beyond the classroom. If student’s realize that their work will be seen by members of the community, typically they will work harder and the rigor of the activity will increase. If you teach history, register your students for History Day. If you teach Geography, register them for the Geography Bee, Model UN or World Savvy. If you teach Civics, sign them up for Mock Trial, Project Citizen or Kids Voting. The competitions are not only motivating for students, they also motivate teachers to step up their game in the classroom.
20. Laugh With Your Students. Every Day.
Laughing with your students is the best thing you can do to avoid having classroom management problems. Don’t be afraid to make a fool out of yourself in front of your students. They will appreciate your passion and dedication. Greet students when they walk in the door. Get to know a few things about their interests and hobbies. Have casual conversations with them on a routine basis. And by God, make them smile and laugh regularly. Your students will thank you for it and it will also make the teaching profession much more enjoyable.
For the veterans who are reading this, I’m sure that I left some good advice off of the list. What would you add to the list?