Today, I read a post about the questions all new teachers have (read it here). As I was reading the article, I thought back to my first few years of teaching and remembered feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, I had gone through my student teaching with two amazing educators, but my two experiences had been in a K-6 building and a 9-12 building. My first job? A 5-8 middle school, working with the age level I found the most daunting and had the least experience with.
Everything I did was a gamble because I had no idea if it would really work with my kids. I had been trained, but anyone who has been a teacher for more than five minutes knows that teacher prep programs NEVER prepare you for what it’s really like to be put in charge of a class by yourself (Fortunately, my second year of teaching took me to a K-5 building where I really felt at home).
In those first few years, I remember thinking constantly about how nice it would be to get to the point where things felt comfortable as opposed to chaotic. Lessons would be easier to plan, behavior management skills would be polished, and I wouldn’t be up until midnight or later getting myself prepared for the next day. I had the idea that once I had been teaching a few years that everything would be better. And in some ways it was.
I know some teachers who still have a file cabinet of lessons (on actual paper) and they reach for the September folder to start the year. Their entire year is planned from beginning to end and there’s very little prep work beforehand besides perhaps running a few copies. But even nine years later, that still wasn’t me. Every single year looked different for me and I was always working to improve or change what I brought to my students.
Some might see that as inefficient or unprepared, but my situation was different every year. Some years my first graders would come in having had music in kindergarten, but some years not. Other times, I had to teach the same grade level six times and I was just so unbelievably sick of some of those lessons that I couldn’t stand to teach them the next year. Or I had just discovered this amazing song, activity, app, etc. at a conference and just HAD to use it with my kids. In fact, my kids would get so excited when I went to a conference because they knew I’d come back with some exciting new game for them. It would have been unfair to teach every year’s class in the exact same way as the previous year.
I guess maybe I just get bored too easily. But I know if I’m not excited about what I’m teaching, there’s relatively little chance that my students will be. They usually know when we’re faking it. Not only that, but there are new things to learn. I would always be excited to learn a new way to teach something because it was often better than how I was already doing it.
This week, I spent some time with a veteran teacher who took a risk in her teaching. She tried something completely and totally out of her comfort zone (and after only a little suggestion by me, I promise!). She tackled a major technology project with her students that could have been an epic failure. Though I’m not sure she’ll do the project again, it was a step. Were there things that could have been improved about the project and the experience? Of course! But that’s always the way it goes when we try anything new.
I would challenge any of you to look at your curriculum, and I don’t mean your textbook (in fact, go ahead and throw those away now). How long have you been teaching the same lesson? Five years? Ten? If it’s anything longer than three, I’d argue it’s time for a change. Maybe not the entire lesson, but perhaps a new means of delivery or a new way to allow students to show what they know.
Plus there’s the whole idea of something so familiar allowing us to just “go through the motions.” Remember that whole thing about kids know we’re faking it? They can tell when we’re phoning it in, too. Doing something new and unfamiliar makes us uncomfortable, but it also makes us aware. It causes us to pay attention to the details and might even get our hearts racing a bit.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you give yourself a heart condition, but a little bit of fear is good. It means we are taking a risk and it means we are invested in the outcome. It’s easy to get comfortable in teaching, but comfortable is dangerous.
I challenge each and every one of you to teach something new this month. Maybe a new unit, or a new lesson, or maybe an old lesson with a new twist. Do it now. If you don’t know how to start, ask a colleague for ideas, jump on Pinterest, or find a tech guru in your district or building. The bigger the challenge, the better.
I’m going to warn you, it might flop. But you will be a better teacher if you do.