[Editor’s note: Ms. Teach4Life is the pseudonym of a tenth-year teacher currently in her first year at a Manhattan middle school.]
At the end of each school year, I take time to reflect on the year and evaluate which components were successful, and which aspects may need to be tweaked. Over the last few years teaching ELA in a middle school in North Carolina, I have found five points to be among the best practices. Following these guidelines helped to make this year — my first year in a Manhattan middle school — a successful one.
Start with the students in mind, not the curriculum. The beginning of the school year starts with a whir, and it continues in that fast-paced manner for about a month. Then it is time for test prep, because January is right around the corner! It is easy to fall into the trap of teaching the curriculum and not the student. Don’t let yourself fall prey! I often spend the first week of school having the students complete interest inventories and personal interviews. I want to know about their families and cultures and who they are as individuals. Throughout the year I remain focused on building relationships outside of my classroom. I participate in student/staff ball games, sponsor clubs throughout the year, and try to attend any student activities I am invited to. This year I attended a dance recital, a karate championship, and a concert. Don’t underestimate the power of building meaningful relationships with your students.
Frequently contact the parents. It is important that you start the year off on the right foot when it comes to handling parents. I feel that building relationships with parents is often overlooked by teachers. It is invaluable. During the first few weeks of school, I make an effort to call every single parent (I usually teach 70-80 students.) and tell them something great their child is doing in my classroom. For the most part, I get the same reaction from the parents: they are shocked that I would call home to tell them such a nice piece of information! Believe me, that call builds a lot of creditability with you as the teacher. Three weeks before the first marking period ends, I send home a “caught you” coupon that specifically names something the student is doing well in ELA. The parent signs the coupon and it’s worth five points of extra credit.
Kids need to be heard. Let’s face it — sometimes kids just need someone to listen to them. In middle school, when all the hormones are raging and the students are changing so much in so many different ways, they just need someone to sit with them and be unbiased and nonjudgmental. They, like adults, want to feel loved and safe and validated. They want to feel important, and they need a sounding board at times. Many days, I have several students stopping by my room after school or during their lunch period, and they just really want to talk for a few minutes. I am committed to lending my ears to my students.
Develop your personal philosophy of education. Don’t develop it and cast it aside — hang it by your desk and refer to it on those days when you need to remind yourself why you entered into this career. It will give you strength, hope, and vision when the times are rough. My personal philosophy is about a page long; however, the premise of it is: Relationships + Relevance + Rigor = Results.
Plan meaningful lessons. Students need to understand that what they are learning is important. They must be able to relate it to their lives, and they must be engaged in activities within the classroom to ensure that the content sticks with them. I think of each student in my classroom climbing on a ladder: you have to start by meeting them on the rung they are most comfortable standing. In other words, start by meeting your students where they are, and be sure to incorporate their personal experiences and interests into your lessons. As the year progresses, your students will climb that ladder and the sky will be the limit!