Here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom I am gleaning from teaching in many different schools and classrooms:

Professional Courtesy

  • Have a form that reminds you to fill out absences, highlights, how the lessons went and any other issues that came up. Fill it out every free or quiet moment you can. Otherwise, it can be difficult at the end of a long day to remember who said/did what.
  • Leave a business card with any notes for the teacher: I have my name, contact information and substitute calling ID number on it.
  • Introduce yourself to the next door teacher(s), and ask for advice on routines such as whether to escort students to specialists/buses/lunch. Ask if there is a school-wide discipline program in place (in our area, many schools use PBIS, so I will put a large stack of the incentive notes in my pocket). At the end of the day, poke your nose in and thank that teacher!
  • BE POSITIVE! Even in schools with many sad and difficult issues, teachers like to know their efforts are being appreciated, even by a first-time visitor.
  • Ask questions in the lunch room, and listen carefully to the conversations around you: the staff are experts on their students, and sometimes I gain incredibly valuable insights into my students’ home lives and motivations that help me adapt my expectations and approach. Students who are sleeping in cars and don’t have a place to do homework need a different set of solutions for missing work than students who attend tutoring sessions and have an entire bedroom full of their own possessions – with a desk and chair to work at.

Professional Attire:

  • I made a lovely coat with deep pockets when student teaching, and before I began subbing a reversible vest from the same pattern. The pockets hold small packets of kleenex, bandaids, chapstick, eyedrops, breath mints, hard candy, stickers and gold stars, sticky notes, pen, red pen and highlighter… with room to spare. The vest is my “desk” in a strange room. In more familiar rooms I often drape it on the back of my chair in case I need to reach for something in a hurry. It’s also an extra layer of warmth in cold classrooms!
  • I don’t have to be “stylish” as much as neat and comfortable. I have developed a wardrobe that is relatively easy to care for including waist-less, pocket-less doubleknit pants from Coldwater Creek (Holly style); a turtleneck or other “shell” that goes under a sweater or button-up shirt (if the outer blouse gaps, the shell won’t!); a sweater or jacket; simple boots or “Mary Jane” shoes; and colorful socks. Because the basics of my wardrobe are relatively plain (pants are mostly black or dark brown), the colorful socks and my vest let kids see a “quirky” side to me. Sometimes I wear a lovely scarf or fancier jacket instead of the socks, but in general I wear clothes that won’t show stains or are easily tossed if they get damaged.
  • Shoes MUST be comfortable. When I broke my pinky toe at the end of February 2012, I bought comfortable Mary Jane style shoes and very fluffy, black (with hot pink liners) slippers to wear within the classroom. The slippers allowed me to slip an ice pack in when I needed extra comfort. Generally, I like to wear knee boots with the rare skirt or dress, a little extra height is an advantage in middle school classrooms!
  • Hair for me is an issue: most women in the area wear mid-length or shoulder-length hair. I can’t really stand my hair that length. I wore my very long (almost elbow-length) hair up in a tight bun while student teaching, then cut it all off to donate last summer. Much of this year I have had very short hair that required no styling. Sometimes I put gel in it to make it stand up a little. I am starting to grow it out just a little, but it’s still somewhat “mannish” by local standards. In the 1970s, it would have been called a pixie cut. For now, this is a good length and look for me, though occasionally I have called kids out for rude behavior concerning their comments — it gives me a chance to educate students about superficial appearances and prejudice.
  • Outwear: I have to be practical — in dry cold weather I have a sheepskin-look (synthetic) jacket that is cozy, when it’s wet I have a lightweight raincoat. Neither very professional looking, but serviceable and affordable on the limited salary I am earning.

Classroom Management:

  • Write everything down for the students to see. Don’t expect them to hear you or retain what you have said no matter how many times you said it. There may be hearing issues, or linguistic processing or memory issues. There may be a language barrier. They might be tired, or just not auditory learners. If it’s important, it should be on the board for as long as the expectation or assignment is in place.
  • Voice Level: I use a scale of 0-4, where 0 is silent, 1 is whisper, 2 is normal voice, 3 is speak to entire class, 4 is outside voice (or too loud). Sometimes the school or teacher has their own scale, and then I try to use theirs.
  • To Do List: I like to list what the students need to have out, what page to turn to, what task to do first, second and so on. This lets students check their own progress and also helps me keep things straight. When I make a change to the expected order, I try to highlight that change and I also bring it to the students’ attention.
  • Rewards: What do they get for good behavior? Usually something small, unexpected and intermittent. A gold star at random intervals for exceptionally good work, a sticker or reward note for being first to be ready or particularly helpful, a fist bump in passing as a student overcomes a hurdle… Occasionally in classrooms where I know the kids and school expectations I will even hand out small prizes to classrooms when I leave after a multi-day assignment. SMALL — I can’t afford to give fancy things. They like to choose from among a set of trinkets from the dollar store, for example.
  • Getting student attention: I have used bells and musical chimes (chimes are wonderful), countdown from 5 (I start out with my hand over my head, loud voice, and get quieter until at 2 my own voice is off), turn off a set of lights, clapping hands in a rhythm that the students imitate and using a set phrase such as “may I have an audience please.” The last was in a classroom in February 2012, and the students had been taught to put everything down, fold hands on desk and look at teacher for instructions. My mother used to tell us to “FREEZE” and I have found that also works with most students.
  • Clear Expectations: If you ask the students to do something, they have to do it (unless they have a good reason). It is okay to tell them that they can ask for clarification, and they may offer alternatives — if you are okay with those things. If you say that behavior X will result in consequence Y then follow through if you can. If it’s something you regret, don’t set up that consequence again!

When I Have My Own Classroom:

  • Leave a clearly labeled, easily found “emergency substitute” folder on the main teacher’s desk. It should contain a current class list with an explanation of student allergies or medical needs that are likely to be an issue. It should have a description of how to evacuate the building. A list of school phone numbers and a map of the school building and grounds. It should have anticipated schedules (normal day, two-hour delay, assembly…), and the specialist times and which kids are going where.
  • DO write down on a master planner (also on the teacher desk) the current and anticipated next weeks’ lesson times and basic content (page numbers, types of consumables and their location). This way if I am unexpectedly absent a sub has a general idea of what was planned.
  • Keep a kit of “rainy day” lesson plans with associated consumables and materials on hand. Although most professional subs have their own materials in a kit, sometimes a sub is not available or you can’t get home but still need to keep the kids occupied. Having a couple days’ worth of material on hand that is educational (reinforcing or reviewing) but fun would go a long way toward helping plan or supplement on sub days
  • Keep visual and organizational clutter to a minimum: This benefits the students, as well as adults unfamiliar with the classroom by letting important materials stand out. Use sound design principles when planning bulletin boards and displays — “white space” and margins and clear tracks for the eye to follow are important. Label cabinets and drawers with contents so they are both easy to find and easy to put away! If any materials are off-limits to students, they should be in closed cabinets or behind the teacher desk.
  • Organize materials in clusters: Use sound filing principles: Broad categories, then more specific. Literacy cabinet divided into shelves for reading instruction, writing instruction and literature. Math cabinet divided into shelves by type of math (geometry, algebra, basic skills); organize manipulatives in clear plastic or very well labeled (pictures are great) tubs.
  • Record-keeping: Use sound archiving principles. Do not file everything as it comes in. Rather, pre-sort into baskets or trays and file once a week or biweekly (no more than once a week). Put most recent on top for student portfolios and assessments. Be consistent, no matter how the system is set up. If there are both paper and computer records, have a master list outlining which records are where and how often they are updated. Enter online grades at least weekly, within two days for very big projects, and note missing assignments immediately (personal experience, when teachers don’t keep online grades up to date it is frustratingly difficult to support students who are behind).
  • Assessments: Keep a master list of what standards each assessment addressed. Make note on a master tracking sheet which students have demonstrated each level of learning (exposure, competence, mastery…). Distinguish between strictly formative and summative assessments.
  • Assessments and Students: Kids are greatly comforted when they know the assessment has purpose. Formative assessments (spelling tests, chapter quizzes) should be returned quickly and discussed. Summative assessments should have the purpose explained before they are handed out and the grading explained. When possible, students enjoy being able to correct their own work: I would like to try having a container of special “grading pens” that I hand out that are a unique color to avoid the temptation of students to alter their answers.
  • I really like having “table groups” and clusters of desks, but this is difficult when they need to focus on a screen or single visual data source. Also, some children really don’t do well when they are face to face with others. Turning table groups diagonally so everyone can turn sideways to the board works. Lining up short rows in groups of some sort makes it easy for students on the ends to turn their desks around to face the ones in the middle. However the desks or tables are arranged, there should be some space to move around whenever possible, and there must be clear paths to exit the classroom by any and all doors and windows.
  • Students need “private space” of some kind. A folder, a cubby, a name tag they keep in their binder can all serve to establish their own small area of influence.
  • Student visibility in the classroom. As much fun as it is for teachers to design bulletin boards, students are excited and motivated by seeing their own work on the walls. A self-portrait, a poem, a picture, a small award certificate, posted on a rotating basis as projects and seasons come and go help keep student interest. Sometimes the representations should be of high-quality work, sometimes just reflecting student interests and work.
  • Parent involvement: Make it easy… ask for help making copies. Or room upkeep (flu season should mean that desks and surfaces are cleaned regularly). Or working one on one in small groups. Depending on parent interest or experience, just listening to a student read aloud (at ANY age/grade!) and being encouraging is enough. Parents with more training might be enlisted to help students read content-area texts or proofread writing. Some parents might be more comfortable with arranging class celebrations, outings or performances. BE FLEXIBLE!
  • Be flexible. The biggest lesson I (am learning/learned) has been that all plans change. Usually when least convenient. Be ready to scrap a lesson that isn’t working out, that is too difficult or just not well written. Be ready to back up and fill in knowledge that is needed before a lesson can be well understood. Be ready to extend a lesson for the one or two students who finish in ten minutes what it will take everyone else an hour. Be ready to suggest alternatives for students who need modifications and accommodations…

Job Security

  • Never be alone with a student in a room with a closed door. Never. Even a couple of students. A completely innocent remark or expression on the teacher’s part can be innocently or intentionally misinterpreted, events can be fabricated, and kids can report things that never happened. Far easier to keep yourself in a position where other adults are likely to drop in, or pass by the room.
  • If you do think a child did or might misunderstand something you said or did, write down what actually happened, the date (and time if you remember), where, etc. If it comes back to you later, you will have your notes to refer to. A child accused me once of an insult. WEEKS after it supposedly took place, and something I would never have said! At the time, whatever I said was so innocuous that I couldn’t even remember it; I was sitting in the middle of a common area working with a group of students and didn’t notice anything amiss. Fortunately, the other teachers and the principal all knew me and supported me.
  • Talk with the children, talk with the parents, talk with the other teachers, talk with the administrators. Don’t keep important questions or concerns to yourself… but do it thoughtfully. It is important to keep lines of communication open, but keep the communications on target and brief.
  • Don’t speculate! There are legal considerations if a teacher makes guesses about a student’s needs or abilities that turn out to be

To Be Continued!