If I only knew… 5 Reflections on the First Years of Teaching

Guest Teacher Blogger – Winner of the 2012 Sopris Learning Blog Contest!

By Michelle George

I remember vaguely my semester before student teaching. I had recently graduated with a B.A. in English, and had returned to earn my teaching certification. I had figured, “How hard could it be?” I’d substitute taught before  my return to college, and it seemed pretty simple.

That is, until the day I took over my own classroom. That’s about when that “deer in the headlights” look entered my eyes. At that time, I didn’t have an inkling of all the things I didn’t know. Twenty years later, I’m starting to understand the depth of my ignorance. I can easily think of at least five truths I wish I knew back when I had no idea how much I didn’t know.

Number Five: Kids don’t read the books.

I walked into the classroom with the confidence of the newly educated. A college graduate is a lot like a new convert. We are often fervent, confident, and blissfully ignorant. I was sure that all of those bright-eyed students were waiting expectantly for me to fill their yearning minds with newly minted knowledge.

Unfortunately, those yearning cherubs didn’t take any of those college classes and had no innate desire to soak up the knowledge I had ready for them. I remember my perfectly designed lesson plan on symbols. While it worked with many of the kids, I had no plan for the kid in the back who came to school mad and tired and yearning for a lot of things that were not in my lesson plan. It was tough for me to realize that my students aren’t always ready to learn.

Number Four: Research really matters.

Even though some kids aren’t in tune with the latest trends in education, research-based strategies are worth investigating. The key is to look for the meta-research: the analyses that look at several large studies and reveal consistent positive results for specific teaching strategies.

It isn’t enough to say that a veteran teacher has been diagramming sentences for 30 years. Just because it was good enough for our parents doesn’t mean it’s good teaching. Reading current literature and taking classes is a good way to learn what data has shown to be successful with the majority of students. Best practices can help us use our class time to the greatest effect for the largest number of students. 

Number Three: What you say matters.

I have a colleague who is adamant that sarcasm builds rapport with students. “They love it,” she often says. Some kids may, but others might carry the sting of your words with them for years. I recently talked to an adult friend of mine who still tears up when she recalls a casual critique of her creative ability by a respected teacher. Twenty years later, and she is still mortified. Even though we are “just teachers,” what we say can have lasting effects on our students. I consider that both exciting and terrifying.

Number Two: What you think matters.

Even more convincing is the research discussed by Marzano and others concerning teacher expectations. Coined as the “Pygmalion effect,” telling teachers that some students were more “gifted” than others changed teacher behavior and consequently changed student success. Henry Ford wasn’t kidding when he said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t … you’re right.” The key is truly believing that every student in your classroom is capable of remarkable things.

Number One: Every child is, or should be, somebody’s most precious child.

It was probably my fourth year teaching before I finally discovered this most important truth. I was nearly through the first night of parent/teacher conferences when a tall, reserved gentleman came into my room. He quietly sat down and introduced himself as Cindy’s dad.

Cindy was one of those shy, obedient students who sat in the back of the class and never made much noise. She wasn’t a stellar student, and she wasn’t a problem child. It was easy to miss when she was absent, as she demanded so little attention. That is exactly what made her father’s visit so poignant. To him, Cindy was the light of the world. She was his most precious person, and he expected the same attention for her from me. And he was right. She deserved that attention. Every child in your classroom is someone’s most precious child. It’s important when we are harried and hurried by the loudest and the brightest to remember just that.

So now, 20 years later, I can reflect on what I have learned and be grateful for the children and the mentors who have shared their wisdom with me. I’m even more intrepid to discover what more I don’t yet know in the years to come.

Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school—as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.

Categories: General Education | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “If I only knew… 5 Reflections on the First Years of Teaching

  1. Sally

    These are 5 excellent tips for all teachers wheter neophyte or verteran to consisder, remember, and espouse. Each child is a family treasure, and we, as teachers, must value that treasure and help nurture and develop the treasure.

  2. Cindy

    If there is a teacher that I would love to see everyone emulate it is Michelle. If only everyone had the kind spirit,open mind and heart and passion for kids that she does what a Utopia it would be! She taught both of my children and she inspired and taught them like few others. She practices what she preaches!

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