The Energy Continuum
You're a new teacher and you're excited but you feel unprepared. (Everyone does in the beginning). However, you will make up in energy what you lack in experience. You will work very hard and care very much. That's an excellent short term plan; one that will get you through your first year- maybe. It was my plan as well. The problem with this plan is that it's unsustainable. I know - blasphemous, since giving 110% is supposed to be the norm in education. The fact is that if you operate this way, you will burn out quickly and leave education regretful that you just couldn't hack it.
As much as you strive to be, you cannot be the sole generator of enthusiasm, energy, and entertainment in your class at least not for very long. Teaching, as no one tells you in teacher training, must be an energy continuum to be truly effective. You give out energy and enthusiasm. Your class radiates that back to you which then in turn you give back to them and so on. This is how the momentum of the class is carried forward.
I understand how ridiculous this sounds. I know you face a sea of sullen faced, drowsy, disinterested teenagers trying to steal glances at their phones when they think you aren't looking.
Here's the thing - no one has explained this concept to them either. Mostly, what teenagers understand about school is that if they remain as motionless and passive as possible, they are more likely to stay out of trouble and less likely to be embarrassed in front of their peers.
So how can you create this energy that propels the class forward?
Give students permission to be appreciative
You know that little lift you feel when someone compliments you? We know our students need praise. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the power of praise in the classroom. But teachers need to hear it too. And I know, most likely, you haven't heard much, especially from students. Gratitude is a forgotten skill in the classroom. Teach it.
Introduce the concept in practical, concrete terms. Say:
It is important that if we do something in this class that you particularly enjoy or you found particularly helpful, that you tell me. Often times, I try a new game, a new approach and with no feedback from you, I wonder if it was worth it. Often times, I only know what worked in my class long after the class is over or when someone complains, "Why don't we do such- and-such anymore?' If you tell me what like and what worked right after we did it, it makes it much more likely that we will do it again. Besides, I'm human - I worked hard to make this activity fly and like everyone else, I need a compliment now and then as well.
Sometimes, I find the opening to have this conversation when I hear another student talk about a different teacher. Here's a short replay of a conversation I had several years ago with an eighth grade class.
Student 1 (to another student entering the room): You know, I think this is the first year that I understand math. Ms. Casey really explains things.
Me: Did you tell Ms. Casey that?
Student I: No.
Me: It's important that you tell Ms Casey that. She's an excellent teacher, I know - but you would be surprised how little she hears about what she's doing right. I bet if you told her that, it would make her day.
Student: Yeah, it probably would. Some kids are real jerks in that class.
Me: (I then launch into above speech)
Give students permission to monitor their peers' behavior
Conversely, you cannot be the sole voice for law and order in the classroom. While it may seem at times that you are the sole supporter of learning, in reality - that is not the case. Most students want to learn. Most are irritated with those that interfere with that goal. However, they have been taught that the teacher is the only advocate for learning. You need to change that. Give them permission to stand up for the class. Say:
I cannot be the only person in this room standing for this class. If you are interested in learning and someone is interfering with that, I give you permission to call them on that. Tell them, "Shh" Or say, "You know, I really want to hear this!" Your voice is more powerful than mine. I am the teacher - that means I am always saying stuff like sit down, stop chatting etc. But when a student speaks up, that's powerful. This does not mean that you have permission to yell "Shut up" or call people names but there are ways to let your classmates know that you don't appreciate their interruptions.
Nota bene: You are going to need to have these conversations more than once. That's okay - it takes time to shift the flow of energy from teacher to student to a circular flow.
Plan not to be the Center of Attention
Consider the overall energy required from you as you plan your day. When I plan a lesson, I always ask, Who is doing all the work here?" if the answer is me - then I look for ways in which the students can participate more or that they can do most of the work in the following lesson.
So much of this flies in the face of what is conventionally understood about what makes a great teacher. Our iconic teaching movies, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Dead Poet's Society focus on the charisma and wit of the individual teacher standing up in front of an often hostile class. This is an unsustainable fantasy. Even in the movie, Mr. Escalante, the calculus teacher in Stand and Deliver was hospitalized before he finished his first year. Ms Louanne Johnson, the inspiration for Dangerous Minds only taught high school for five years before moving onto college. And Dead Poet's Society? Seriously. Can you be Robin Williams for five shows a day?
This does not mean that you should not stand up and command the attention of the class. You should - just not every day, every period. Stand in front of the class to explain instruction, stand in the back to allow students to absorb it. More time will be needed in the back than the front.
The majority of your class should be spent with students doing something to practice, absorb, learn the concept you have taught. And this is good for two reasons. First of all, in order to survive a teaching career, you need time "off stage" to recharge your energy and students need to put forth energy to learn.
Learn to vary your instruction - because it's good practice but also because it will save your sanity. Examine your day - do you have five periods of "Stand and Deliver?" If you do, reassess, create more student-centered activities for half your classes. Get yourself off stage or your final shows will be ragged and cranky.
I know teachers are supposed to have unlimited energy and enthusiasm but let's be honest. No one does. While every teacher training program talks about the importance of varying your lessons to maximize your student's learning, it's also important for your own health and longevity in this career. The pool of available and interested Latin teachers is small. Myself and other veterans need new teachers to whom we can pass the torch. We are rooting for you: burn bright but not out!
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