Hello! –

Sorry I kept your questions in the parking lot so long. I wanted to give them the time and consideration they deserve.

I’ll try to avoid the education-ese, though I’m sure some floobie joobie has snuck into my professional lexicon when I wasn’t actively rebuffing it. So if your education program didn’t already make you unintelligible with nonsensical terms, I can help.

Before I regale you with the delights of my wisdom, let me say I spent much of my first six years justifying and acting defensive about everything I did as a teacher. To my principal, I defended my use of paper. (She said one of my students was allergic and that I should remove paper stapled to my walls. I asked if I should remove notebook paper from the class overall. She shook her head as if I were unreasonable.) To the vitriolic chatterboxes populating cable news channels and all the personal insecurities hanging on from adolescence, I defended my competence. To my mother, who to this day believes teachers are over-compensated for their work, I defended my pay. I’m not used to being vulnerable.

You’re going to screw-up as a new teacher. You are! Let’s be okay with that, and let’s be okay with sharing our foibles and flaws. I think we’ll both grow that way. I’ll start, if for no other reason than to leave a few tracks where I’m not supposed to go.

A mistake I made
A few years ago I showed Dead Poets Society. About halfway into the film, I realized I was showing my students a movie about a great teacher who fills every hour with innovative lessons, and I was sitting at my desk grading essays. While Mr. Keating took his students to the school courtyard to demonstrate the power of distinctive walking, I sat in a shadowy corner and graded papers. I’m pretty sure a majority of my students understood a bit more about the quality of their education that day.

Yesterday’s mistake
We were reading Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I asked students if they’d be willing to live in Vonnegut’s dystopian world of government-mandated equality. Would they want trained dancers to wear unwieldy weights on their ankles—if it meant the rest of the population would feel better about their own gracelessness? Would they want deep thinkers to endure spontaneous blasts of headphone noise—if it meant the rest of the population wouldn’t feel so dim-witted and unfocused? Karyn raised a tentative, slender hand. “I don’t think Vonnegut is warning us about equality so much as cautioning us to be more precise in our request for what type of equality we desire,” she said. An amazing comment, to be sure! So why did I respond the way I did? Because it was Friday? Because it was 6th period? “Yeah,” I said, “but isn’t the ending crazy?”

A mistake from last week
“What if I forget to do the homework?” a girl asked. I rolled my eyes and asked, “What if all my fingers break and I can’t write? What if frogs fall from the heavens?”

Mistakes I made years ago, and made only once
One day I gave students the writing prompt, “Describe a room you do not like to enter” and walked around and found that many of my students were writing about my class. ¶ One time I told an African-American student he should enroll in Advanced Placement Language and Composition instead of regular junior English because Black enrollment in the school’s AP program was down. ¶ One time I told a problem student, “You know No Child Left Behind, the law? Not my deal.” ¶ One time I taught The Odyssey without reading it.

Mistakes I made over and over—and keep making now
Three years in a row, I made students sell lollipops as a fundraiser and let entire rooms of young people spend weeks of instructional time rolling quarters. ¶ I pretty much never call parents with good news. ¶ I’m slow to respond to parent queries and use the same phrase—I wanted to give your request the time and consideration it deserves—to explain my overdue correspondence.  I boomerang student questions until the back-atcha seems suspicious—Well, what do you think? ¶ At least a couple of times a year, I grade with a vengeful heart.

A mistake I denied
I had two mentor teachers during my student teaching. One afternoon they both took me to task on the same flaw in my practice.
MS. CROMETT, LOOKING OVER TEENY SPECTACLES: All these efforts to save Lost Boys. All the attention you give the young men in class. It’s good, but are you ignoring the girls in the middle—the students who do their work?
ME: Who am I ignoring?
MRS. DUFFEY, OPENING A 3” BINDER TO A SEATING CHART MARKED WITH CHECKS: This is why we have the data. So far, the data shows you question girls less than boys, that you compliment them more, that you generally spend less time interacting with them.
ME, LEANING BACK IN MY CHAIR: I don’t know. The boys breathe on the windows. They need more supervision.
MS. CROMETT, TEENY SPECS: Do you think some of the problems in your classroom come from a desire to be seen by you?
ME: No.
My main reaction was denial.

A mistake I knew right away
RHAMO: They weren’t killed by starvation and disease.
ME: What killed them?
RHAMO: What?
ME: What killed them? What was the cause?
RHAMO: They weren’t killed by anything.
ME: There was no reason?
ME: There was no cause of death?
RHAMO: You don’t get it. People just die.

To top it off, I bet there are all kinds of grievous, egregious mistakes I don’t even know about.

Let’s move on to your questions.

How would you describe your management style?
I’d like to say I believe in the prevalent “warm but firm” philosophy of classroom management, but I taught ninth grade for four years. So when I hear phrases like “warm but firm,” I don’t think of other closely associated pedagogical terms. I think of sex jokes and remember the time I abbreviated “assessment” and “analysis” in the daily objective box on my whiteboard and didn’t catch it until ten minutes into first period when I could not get even the most obedient students to stop giggling.I don’t think the phrase “warm but firm” goes far enough. William Stafford says, “There is a touch of cruelty in teaching.” Sheldon Vanauken has a phrase in A Severe Mercy that describes a great teacher as having that “strange mixture of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness.” That’s the kind of intensity I strive for. Vanauken was describing Christ’s undeniably viral charisma as a spiritual teacher and not the narcissism of a ninth grade English instructor, of course, but “sternness” and “tenderness” is still sit at the top of my list of praiseworthy attributes for teachers. I guess I’m counting on the blasphemy in my heart to be undone by the great love I show students when I demand their best behavior and work.

What processes do you use for managing your classroom?
At the start of the period I greet students at the door. I invite students into my domain under my jurisdiction: Room 305, where a teacher is waiting to shake my hand. Maybe they get a sticky note or a playing card for an upcoming activity. During class I walk around, or try to. Sometimes it’s hard not to retreat to the fort I’ve constructed around my teacher desk. Some teachers carry stools with them as they circumnavigate their classrooms and position themselves in front of student desks, sitting for a minute while engaging students at eye-level. I’d rather sneak up behind students and read over their shoulders if for no other reason than to make them think I am everywhere at once check on their progress. But it’s hard. Sometimes it feels good to sit.  On good days I enjoy interacting with students because I enjoy interacting with young people—even when my feet are pulsing, swelling, sweating. On so-so days I enjoy interacting with students because interacting with students is a pretty good reason for ignoring the new email messages piling in my inbox. On bad days I sit at my desk and check my email. That’s how I manage overall. When it comes to surviving a room crammed with rapscallions—every year there’s one period worse than any other—I really have no idea. Sometimes I send one or two students into the hallway with a pencil and a piece of paper and, if they stay within four lockers’ distance of my door and reflect on what happened with detail and sincerity and discuss with me a few behaviors that could work better in the future, they re-enter the room with no further consequence. If the behaviors keep happening, I document the play-by-play myself on a progressive discipline form and involve other parties. On the way out: high-fives, homework reminders, and quotations from old calendars.

Why do you choose to manage your classroom as you do?
For good and bad, I constantly compare myself to teachers I don’t care for, so I try to be better than some of the worst teachers I’ve seen. I want to say I manage my room the way I do because I aspire to emulate the best teachers I’ve had—Wolfe, Lott, Fields, Cromett, Duffey, Young, VanderStaay, Paola, Shepherd, DiBartolo, Carpenter, Steele, my partner, Macklemore in the morning, mammals with newborns, the 3rd period 15-year-old boy who says he identifies with Holden Caulfield’s “old-soul cynicism and childlike innocence”—but most of the time I backslide and think about teachers who have annoyed me… which is my way of saying that, in terms of my own practice, I’m probably not horrible, but whatever okay instruction I bring into a room comes with an unattractive heart filled with competition and comparison. For example, I keep my blathering about my politics and home life to a minimum and save class time for discussing readings and ideas related to the work. Good enough. But I don’t do these things because planning lessons where students talk more than the teacher is some kind of effective practice but because I myself abhor sitting in chairs and pretending to listen to yammering, prattling instructors. (I had to do this in a professional development class recently and took over a page of notes on what the instructor was doing wrong.) Another example: I keep classroom rules logical not because predictable punishments minimize misbehaviors but because I never want to be the teacher who drinks coffee and says, “When you’re a teacher, when you have a degree, you can eat and drink in front of the class too. But until then, only me,” or, “I don’t remember you going to college with me, do you?” DEGREES ≠ IMMUNITY FROM SPILLING.

What kinds of consequences do you use? Are they effective?
The main consequence for douchebaggery in my classroom is diminished fun. Sometimes with certain classes I feel like if I bond with students over review games maybe the d-bags will behave less like d-bags, but that experiment rarely happens because I have this uncontrollable reaction to d-bags where I take away whatever activities they consider fun and get meaner and meaner until they comply with basic rules. I guess deep down I have a core value for school and education: no camaraderie without compliance. Speaking of fun and not having any, I used to say “This is gonna be fun” to students and thereby ruin carefully-planned, interactive activities not only for the depressingly large number of students who didn’t like me and needed, on principal, to hate activities I thought they might enjoy, but also for nicer students who sat through the maelstrom of ensuing objections the depressingly large number of students shouted across the room: You said this was gonna be fun! or Can we do something else? I also used to say, “This is easy” to students. Pretty sure comments like that make students feel stupid. Now I stay silent about class activities and if a student says something is fun, I say, “I guess I’ll have to tweak it for next year.” If a student says something is hard, I say, “Sometimes challenging tasks become easier if we keep practicing.” Proximity can be a positive and negative consequence. If a student puts his head on his desk, I will sometimes grab his elbows, push them toward his body, and whisper, “It’s weird to have a teacher touch you, isn’t it?” But sometimes in the middle of June I will be standing with a student and his or her family outside a crowded auditorium, and there will be balloons in the warm summer air, and I’ll put a hand on the student’s shoulder as a sign of a job well-done.

If the class gets off task, how do you get the whole group back on track?
I used to look at my watch and count silently. After a few years of counting, I realized I didn’t need practice counting my numbers anymore and tried regulating behaviors one person or one group at a time, moving around the room. Some days this strategy works, and I hop group to group Tim-Gunn-on-Project-Runway style, inquiring about progress, offering encouragement, and calibrating expectations. On other days, not so much. By the time I finish making my rounds, members of those first groups I visited are again off-task. When that happens and I need to interject with a whole-class admonishment, I say three or four words at a volume substantially above the group’s level and quickly reduce the volume while continuing to talk. Students are, like, “Wait. What?”

What is your approach to establishing lesson plans for the year? How did you go about this your first year of  teaching? (This is one of the tasks that seems most daunting to me.)
Hopefully you’ll work in a building where teachers are smart and likable and love to collaborate, but if you’re not—if, say, you’re thrown in a department of dummies in a dysfunctional cement monolith or sequestered in a one-room matchbox on the edge of a ravine—take heart: no matter what your situation, lesson planning is an imaginative, empowering act. Think about it. The activities you scheme are for real people in real life! Some days your lessons will fail and everything will suck, but the opportunity to test the value of a plan intended to improve young people’s thinking and speaking and writing is a philosopher’s fantasy and an activist’s dream. . It’s also a dictator’s set-up. Watching young people do what you’ve asked them to do is a total rush, and more than a little addictive. . And possibly a corporate curriculum director’s nightmare. If teachers love without reserve their grassroots planning with colleagues, the funds reserved for purchasing pre-packaged curricula can be spent on school supplies like paper and pencils, seeds and soil, chalk line and tape measures—and Kleenex. (There can never be enough Kleenex.) If teachers love the daily problem solving and deep thinking lesson planning requires, and wish to continue their planning in the future, they’ll resist any corporate, pre-packaged curricula, no matter the package deal. If they want to be considered professionals capable of deciding what skills and content students should learn, and how, and at what point in time, they’ll tell the quacks in pin-striped suit jackets hawking NCLB / CCSS tonic to take their dog-and-pony shows to the next town. Who wants to pay ungodly dollars for passwords that effectively turn teachers into mechanisms of friendly test-prep implementation anyway? As for the actual lessons at the beginning of the year: avoid One Fun Thing This Summer and Peel the Onion. Avoid, too, any personal story similar in nature to the one shared by the teacher-leader at that horrible professional development day last month: “I once worked at a pizza place, and my boss’ name was Andrew, and my name was Andrew, and my boss was, like, ‘What do you want to be called?’ And I said, ‘I like to be called Andrew.’ And he said, ‘You can’t be Andrew. I’m Andrew. What’s your middle name?’ And I said ‘Jordan.’ And he said, ‘That’s what we’ll call you. Jordan.’ And that’s what he called me, but you won’t call me that in this workshop. You’ll call me Mr. Jones. In this context I’m the teacher.” Avoid listing your responsibilities: “I’m not just responsible for you and your grade. I’m responsible for the driver’s education program and the auditorium reservations too.” Avoid commenting on your methods: “See? I’m not standing up and talking at you. I’m giving you this PowerPoint from my chair. What would I do if the projector broke? I guess you’d be listening to a lecture without a PowerPoint.”

What has been your greatest challenge as a teacher?
I can’t say it any better than Barbara Kingsolver: “Promoting novels in a sound-bite culture is like selling elephants from a gumball machine.

What advice would you give a first year teacher?
Oooeeeee. Work late. Ignore anyone who tells you to take it easy. Think and say, I have this. And believe that you do have it. Sierra, when I asked you the other day, “What makes you want to be a teacher?” you responded, “I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a teacher.” That’s crazy! From the ages of twelve to twenty, I was going to be a wealthy Slam poet.  There are tons of people who know how to subvert the internet filter. Ask. Make a seating chart and stick with it. No configuration of students will give you mental peace, and there’s something about continuously rearranging “fence-sitters” and “frequent flyers” in various formations that reminds me of a losing game of Tetris. It perpetuates the notion that good and bad behaviors stem from a teacher’s ability to solve The Mystery of the One Perfect Seating Arrangement and not individual students deciding to behave  the way they do. The Mystery of the One Perfect Seating Arrangement is an unsolvable riddle (really: no teacher anywhere has ever cracked the code) and the notion that so-and-so can’t help himself when he’s sitting next to so-and-so handicaps our students. Our mantra should be so-and-so can choose to behave wherever he sits. Plus, the idea of a teacher sitting in a classroom after hours, half-filled seating chart at hand, padding the space around every “fence-sitter” or “frequent flyer” with a variety of “wallflowers” and “apple polishers,” or alternating boy-girl-boy-girl, is a depressing thought that goes against who I want to be as a teacher. I know from experience that spending an afternoon or evening shuffling seats like that fosters habits of mind that work against my goal of everlasting harmony for all. Does this mean I don’t assign seats? I do assign seats, and I alternate boy-girl-boy-girl when I make the charts. I’m not stupid, and I’m not going to set myself up for failure. But after the charts are made, no one moves. It’s okay to say, No, you can’t use the pass. ¶ The first time you cut-and-paste Common Core standards for an official lesson plan, save your cut-and-pasted list as a separate document called “List of Standards for Official Lesson Plans and Formal Observations.” Do your work humbly. Lessons from poet William Stafford, remembered by his son, Kim: “Do what the world needs and lick your wounds alone… The last star will not know how small it is… It is legitimate to crawl, after the wings are broken… Let me be a plain, unmarked envelope passing through the world… Life is inexplicable, and those masterful people who base their lives on confidence and explanation deserve our sympathy.” Teachers can be annoying, and we should listen to the arguments made against us. Brian Andreas: “We lay there and looked up at the night sky and she told me about stars called blue squares & red swirls & I told her I’d never heard of them. Of course not, she said, the really important stuff they never tell you. You have to imagine it on your own.” The “they” in that passage, Sierra, is teachers. You and me. Walt Whitman seems to agree: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” We think so much learning happens under our guidance. We think we bring the Light. We think someone somewhere should be compensating us for our sacrificial work. But the world is vast and mysterious and maybe between our morning lattes and afternoon wine we should bow to the beauty surrounding us and seek to understand the variety of bandwidths on which such beauty lives. Mary Oliver: Oh, good scholar, / I say to myself, 
/ how can you help
 / but grow wise 
/ with such teachings 
/ as these – / the untrimmable light 
/ of the world,
 / the ocean’s shine, 
/ the prayers that are made 
/ out of grass?” You will probably at some point enter grades for a simple assignment and it will be more efficient to “assign mass score” of zero than to “assign mass score” of full credit. Do not be destroyed.

What is one thing (or more) that you wish you had been told before you became a teacher?
Do not be incapacitated by healthy self-doubt. Remain the Alpha.

One more: beware of innovation, especially technological innovation. A cart of iPads or a box of iPods will not magically teach students to synthesize or assess information. An electronic whiteboard, or twice as many computers, or new software that allows teachers to monitor all computer monitors is not going to solve classroom management issues. “But we made a lip-dub on YouTube!” the teachers say, sounding like the average technophile child. “We made a video and used the equipment! We sometimes look things up on the iPads in front of the room!”

Smarmy. What do I know? I started teaching with Vis-à-vis markers on an overhead projector a total of ten years ago. On the ed-tech history front, this time period is characterized by students in detention cleaning stacks of transparency sheets with Windex and rolls of paper towel. This is the time period before TFA candidates started mastering electronic whiteboards in six-week summer training sessions, and just after Hallmark Hall of Fame movie teachers gazed longingly into bathroom mirrors with chalk dust still on their hands.

So I guess I should say I really loved the light that came from that first projector. The way it shined on my face while I stood in front made me feel like I had answers.

This is getting long. You didn’t ask for this. Remember: anyone who uses the word “skillabus” should not be trusted on the journey.

I can’t wait for this year!


P.S. Did I tell you? My students from last year flash-mobbed the class a few weeks ago while you were out. Eight or nine of them came in when I had my back turned and sat in their seats from last year. I turned around and—déjà vu!



Post a comment
  1. Matt O'Brien #
    October 24, 2012

    I am not a new teacher. Not an old one either, I suppose. I’m not sure I have much practical use for this letter, but I saw myself in it, in the mistakes as much as the successes, and it made me happy and encouraged and proud. Thanks.

  2. October 24, 2012

    Derek, really enjoyed this! I still think you’re magical, no matter how much self-disclosure you treat us to. (And you’re definitely a magical writer!) Thanks for sending on!

  3. lindseyjones #
    October 28, 2012

    I enjoyed this, too. You have a talent for making the mundane seem magical, and I always appreciate your willingness to admit your own mistakes. Thanks, Derek.

  4. October 29, 2012

    Thank you for sharing Derek. I really enjoyed reading it.

  5. Laura #
    December 11, 2012

    First year. Grading finals. Thank you for the wisdom and strength to move bravely on.

  6. May 29, 2014

    Letter to a New Teacher | Magical Teaching

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