I’m currently in my 9th year of full-time teaching, and I’ve learned a great many lessons the hard way as I’ve navigated my way through administrative minefields, labyrinthine bureaucracies, challenging curricula, and diverse students. Here are the five best lessons I’ve learned in the classroom as a teacher:
1. Due dates are fluid. While many teachers disagree with me, I am quite lenient when it comes to due dates. I set them but allow late work. Some students need more time to do the same amount of work as another student, and some students just have numerous responsibilities. This does not mean students can save work up until the end of the semester; students must explain to me why extra time is needed. I don’t ever say no to extensions of time, but the students don’t know this. My one restriction is that work must be completed by the end of a unit.
2. I don’t care why a student is absent. I can only teach students who are in my room. Skipping does not bother me. Neither do illnesses, sports absences, and family vacations. I have an online calendar for students to get their work and to plan ahead. Some things cannot be recreated outside of the classroom, and that’s the consequence for not being there. Consistent absences will show up in a student’s grade, and the students know my systems for acquiring assignments. This is just one thing I don’t let myself stress over.
3. I don’t have classroom rules. I have posted about this before, but I do not post, create, or discuss classroom rules–ever. If a problem arises, I discuss the specific issue with the particular student. In the course of my teaching I have written very few referrals to the office; in fact, I would guess I have written two behavior referrals in the last 4-5 years.
4. I try to be in front of the students for as little time as possible. I tell colleagues my goal is to be a facilitator, not a provider, of knowledge. I attempt to create situations where students discover on their own, or I attempt to design lessons where students may work independently and in groups. I simply walk around and solve problems, nudge students in the right direction, and provide alternate explanations. The more mobile I am and the louder my classroom, the better things are going. I call it organized chaos.
5. I keep a record of everything. I keep records on my computer of every conversation with parents, students, and staff. I file away every hand-out provided at a meeting, and I electronically file every e-mail I receive and send. This was a lesson learned the hard way, and now I document everything. I take notes at meetings and file them afterwards. Plus, I back up all of the information on my computer each week just to be safe.
6. Flexibility and humor make life easier. Yeah, I said five things I learned, but it’s my list and this proves my sixth point: consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Emerson had it right all those years ago. I try to not be hamstrung by my plan, and I don’t mind tangents. Sometimes the best learning occurs during tangential moments. Plus, I don’t mind laughing at myself. Self-deprecating humor and admitting errors help students relate. Laughing feels great, and it helps me enjoy my job.