In general, I’m not the resolution-making type. I was raised to continually set new goals whenever the opportunity arose and to celebrate my successes along the way. Moreover, January hasn’t held the strong sense of a new beginning for me. Having been a student and now a teacher, I’ve lived on school time for virtually my entire life. For me, September is the month that provides the strongest feeling of beginning, and to a certain extent, February does as well with the start of the second semester in secondary school. The first three years of my teaching career, February was just as much the opening of a new chapter as September because I moved to new schools for each of my first seven semesters. This year (halfway through my fourth year) is the first time I will experience staying at one location for an entire school year, and hopefully put down some roots.
Even with this particular February having less new-ness to it, this time of the year for teachers is like January for most people. With first semester courses wrapping up, we welcome new courses and new crops of students for the second half of the year. It is a natural time to reflect on our practice; our greatest successes, our wishes for do-over lessons or interactions with students or parents, and our thoughts on improvements in our teaching practice should come to the forefront as January draws to a close. Since I am without the distraction of starting at a new school in February and needing to focus on learning new routines, meeting new staff, and finding my niche in an unfamiliar environment, I can for once focus on my own professional practice and how to better myself as an educator for the coming semester. Following are my three resolutions for semester two in the areas of professional development, communication, and instructional practice/AER.
1. Professional Development: Craft a Blog Post once each month and Broaden my Professional Network on Twitter
I started a food and music blog this past August with good intentions. Once September rolled around, it got lost in the sea of teaching three new courses in a new building. I found it again this month and have been posting semi-regularly. My resolution with this new blog project is in the hope that I won’t let it fall by the wayside as I did my food blog in the beginning. I have just started reading education blogs this school year, from which I have learned countless new strategies and techniques in all the domains of teaching, and I have had many of my own practices reaffirmed as being effective. I believe I have something of value to contribute to the online education conversation, and I think that authoring this blog each month will be an opportunity for more regular reflection and personal growth.
As well, as part of my Annual Learning Plan for 2012-2013, I signed up for Twitter with a teacher account. During first semester, I mainly utilized the platform as a method of communication with students. I posted location changes for classes (eg. library, computer lab), reminders about upcoming tests and assignment due dates, and for general positive reinforcement and praise (eg. congratulating my HPE class on their enthusiastic participation that day, or expressing my excitement about my drama class’s monologue performances). Toward the end of the semester, I started following more administrators, colleagues, and professionals in the fields of my subject areas, and in just two months, I have seen the power of growing a professional network. My goal for this semester is to seek out more people in the Twitterverse and interact with them more frequently as opposed to simply reading and learning from their tweets.
2. Communication: Make More Contact with Parents
I think this resolution of mine is a common one for many teachers. With so many responsibilities and items on the to-do list, I find that the one thing I consistently push to the bottom is calling a parent. I’m ashamed to admit that, but part of moving forward and changing my practice is about being honest with where I am right now. My plan for this semester is to be more proactive about informing parents about my website (with a calendar for the semester’s due dates) and my Twitter account to keep them in the loop with what’s going on in my classroom. To assist me in ending my cycle of procrastination with making parent phone calls, my plan is to schedule in time to contact parents each month. I give progress updates to my students every month, sometimes more than once a month, because it is important for them to know where they stand and feel like they have some power over their learning and achievement. I just need to add one more step to this process – calling home to inform parents of progress. I can’t just assume that students will tell their parents how they are doing. As a new teacher, I have been hesitant about having meetings with parents. I worry that they won’t take me seriously, or will try to pressure me because I look so young. But I can honestly say I haven’t yet had a poor interaction with a parent. The bottom line is that teachers and parents are partners in the education of our children. It’s my role to include that partner and inform them of the challenges and successes of their son or daughter.
3. Instructional Practice/AER: Spend More Time Teaching Students How to Study
As high school teachers, we assume many things about our students coming in. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but just like with my admission about my lacklustre parent communication, I’m being honest about secondary teachers as a group. It seems understood that students should arrive in high school with not only the knowledge and skills of the curriculum expectations from elementary school, but also with a set of other school skills, one in particular being good study habits. This, however, is not always the case. Considering also the fact that high school tests are usually longer and more complex than those in elementary school, and that students must write exams for the first time, I think we are doing a vast majority of our students a disservice if we don’t spend at least some time reviewing the fundamentals of how to study.
I realized this one early on – during my first year of teaching in fact. I had a Grade 10 Mathematics class, and their first test was a disaster, despite strong evidence of learning on formative assessments throughout the unit. I had a class discussion about what happened, and we got it down to the fact that most of them didn’t know how to study for a math test. So, I took a break from the curriculum the next day and gave a lesson on study strategies. I talked about how different subjects sometimes require different tactics, and different students will find success studying using different methods depending on their learning style. We developed a checklist together of possible ways to study for our next math test, and I gave every student a copy of the checklist the next day. I then added the checklist at the end of each unit test for students to complete for me and for themselves. This forced students to reflect on their study habits and learn which methods were the most effective for them personally, and it showed them a direct link between studying and success on evaluations. This assessment as learning made my students better learners not just in mathematics, but in all subjects as they added to their toolbox of effective learning strategies.
So if I’ve already done this, why is it my resolution? Well, that story is from my first year teaching, and I’m now halfway through my fourth. I’ve gotten away from using the checklist and discussing study habits with students without really meaning to. I could lay some blame on my courses this past semester, as I only had one traditionally academic subject with tests (Geography) and two with virtually all performance tasks and authentic evaluations (Dramatic Arts and Health & Physical Education). I was reminded of the importance of taking time to teach studying at the end of the semester as I saw the stress of my students attempting to prepare for their first ever final examinations. I took some time in my Geography class during review before the exam to talk study tactics, but it’s something I should have been reinforcing throughout the semester.
I’m inspired now writing this post to come up with a list of other school skills that we expect students to have, such as time management, prioritizing tasks, etc. that would benefit from some revision and reinforcement in the classroom. A lot of teachers would argue that there is not time to teach these skills if we expect to get through the curriculum. I would counter that developing these skills in our students makes them more efficient, effective, and confident learners who have a stronger awareness of how they learn. As such, spending time on these skills can actually facilitate “getting through” the curriculum. My analogy is this: as an English teacher, you wouldn’t simply ask a student to write an essay without first teaching them how to write one. As teachers in any subject, why would we ask a student to write a test without first teaching them how to write a test? I think that’s a point worth pondering.
Now I’ve laid out my three resolutions for the coming semester. Assuming I stick to #1, my plan is to write a follow-up post in June assessing my progress and how well I stayed true to these goals. Then, of course, the process restarts for my new adventure in September.
Fellow secondary teachers (or even elementary teachers – it is halfway through the school year for you also): What are your resolutions for second semester?