11 Takeaways from My First Semester Teaching

I have survived my first semester of teaching — in California, during the worst pandemic since 1918. Despite all that, I have never felt stronger as a teacher. I have kept churning out lessons, connecting with students, overcoming obstacles, and finding new ways to make my class safe and scholarly. At the same time, I’ve made mistakes, had moments of dread, and struggled with bureaucratic constraints.

In this piece, I’ve collected my 11 main takeaways from last semester. I’ve also shared a couple of anecdotes along the way. Whether or not you work (or plan to work) in education, I hope you find them useful; I know I did.

I do my best teaching when I…

1. Don’t always stick to the textbook.

In-person lessons often don’t translate well to distance learning. That includes the geometry lessons in our math textbook, which require protractors, compasses, rulers — supplies that we can’t hand out virtually.

At the start of the year, I stuck religiously to the book and unit plan. The students became lost and confused. Eventually, I started improvising a lesson here and an assignment there, to supplement the textbook activities. My colleague teaching the same course approved of what I was making and supported me.

I saw immediate improvement from my students. They were more engaged in class and performed better on assessments.

Moral: Teach the lessons that I know my students need, not just what’s in front of me.

2. Spend time creating systems that work for me.

During student teaching, I dreaded taking attendance. My cooperating teacher had me eye-scan the whole classroom. Then I’d write the attendance in a paper gradebook. Finally, I’d manually copy it from the gradebook into the school information system (SIS). This process was exhausting for me — I have ADHD — and there were plenty of chances to make mistakes!

Now, I have my own system. (If you’re interested: the students take a two-question online survey that automatically sends the results to an Airtable. I then copy the results into our SIS.)

It took a couple hours to set up, but it was worth it: submitting attendance now takes me 1/3 of the time. I’ve probably saved dozens of hours by now.

Moral: No task that I do often — attendance, grading, or making slides — should feel like a drawn-out battle. For any task like that, invest a couple of up-front hours to make it easier every time.

3. Build collegial relationships with the students.

When I look back at the issues I successfully solved in my classroom, the first step was always the same: ask a question.

“What’s most challenging about this concept?” “Why haven’t I seen you in class this week?” “How can I teach you better?”

But I can’t get good answers to these questions — and it feels uncomfortable even asking them — unless I know the students.

Beyond that, the joy of teaching has always been getting to know my classroom community. In the course of helping them solve school problems, I get caught up in their drama. I find myself caring about them — and their successes feel like my successes.

Moral: Getting to know my students is 1) useful in the classroom and 2) just plain fun.

4. Collaborate (and have fun) with great colleagues.

I am blessed with jolly, devoted colleagues and supportive administrators.

Great co-workers are a blessing in education. Teachers who leave the profession often cite the people they work with (especially administrators) as the reason. So when you get a good group of colleagues, make the most of it!

And I’m proud of doing just that. Bouncing ideas off of them. Asking them questions. Helping out. Joking around.

I’m going to ask one of them to play Among Us later!

Moral: Deepen relationships with colleagues who support me and lift me up.

5. Aggressively make time for the rest of life.

Teaching is a profession in which work tends to seep out of working hours. Not only that… I’m a perfectionist and working from home.

Coming out of student teaching, I used to think I had to write up a formal lesson plan every night. This was an exhausting process, useful for a beginner but unsustainable as a professional.

My cooperating teacher used to say, “There’s always more you could do,” implying that it was time to take a break. He was right. Often, when I gave into the inertia to finish that little bit “more”, it would spiral into endless work.

Now, I try to pick a few things to get done each day, do them well, and move on with my life afterwards. My lesson plans are visually uglier now, but my lessons are better.

Moral: Decide how much is enough — and stick to it.

6. Cope in a way that chips away at my problem.

Teaching has a tendency to throw a ton of problems at you at once. For first-year teachers, many of those problems have the added challenge of being new. I often found myself with a heap of work to finish because I didn’t know where to start.

Piles of work are a major stress trigger for me because of my ADHD. I can’t entirely control that. But I can choose how to cope, and that makes all the difference.

There are two types of coping: those that make it easier to solve the problem, and those that don’t.

Helpful coping strategies include:

  • reaching out to a colleague or administrator for help;

Unhelpful coping strategies include:

  • complaining;

All are methods of coping. Not all are created equal. I’ve found that the unhelpful methods are forms of emotional hiding. Just like hiding in nature, they are nearly-automatic defensive reactions.

The problem is: when there’s responsibility involved (when a student is stressed, or a pile of work needs to be graded), we can’t hide. Trying to do so will just increase our anxiety, while garnishing it with additional guilt.

I’m trying to practise the habit of confronting the scary responsibility now. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve been happier in the long run.

Moral: When I need to cope, do it in ways that chip away at my problem (or at least make it easier to solve).

7. Know what to do in beautiful moments.

When you’re teaching, you have to process a lot of information — your own lesson, students turning in late work, forms to fill out for administration, random comments in class, et cetera.

But you can’t get too bogged down in all that information; if you do, beautiful moments might pass you by. Once, I was in the middle of a lesson when a student asked if geometry was used in architecture. When I said yes, he said he wanted to become an architect — and even offered to show me his Minecraft creations!

This was striking to me, but I had so much to do that day, I let the moment pass me by. Looking back on it, I wish I had followed up with him at the time. Had I done so, I might have boosted his interest in geometry. (There’s still time during the trigonometry unit, though!)

Moral: Know what to do when students open up. Listen to them, write it down, and follow up.

8. Grade early and grade often.

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. All I can say is I learned it the hard way.

Moral: Grade regularly; don’t let it pile up at the end of the grading period.

9. Supply a lot and demand a lot.

My students face a variety of obstacles: racism, poverty, language barriers, gaps in prior learning, COVID-19, and terrible Internet connections. When I look at the standards they’re expected to master, I begin to sweat.

Despite that, the outcomes were always best when I kept expectations high — that is, demanded a lot — provided that I supplied them with additional support.

I’m most proud that I demanded my students prove mathematical statements with step-by-step logical argument. I created an entire project for them in which they proved that the angles of a triangle add up to 180°. To prepare them, I walked them through the process of writing several proofs — step by step, beginning with the easy stuff. When they were able to swim in the deep end, I hit them with the project — and they were prepared!

Moral: Set high expectations, and back them up with high support.

10. Speak up.

This is related to helpful coping. I’ve been reading The Cage-Busting Teacher by Frederick Hess (2015). Hess believes that teachers too often suffer silently or complain, rather than using their voices to advocate for themselves.

I’ve been taking Hess’s advice: when I feel I’m being hindered by a school policy, I thoughtfully explain the problem to my administrator. At the same time, I empathize with their concerns and try to treat them like a brainstorming partner.

I’ve found that people — students and admins alike — are way more willing to hear my opinions when they feel like I’m rooting for them. And I’ve had more than one annoyance removed from my job because of it!

Moral: Don’t just put up with nuisances; talk to someone with the power to get rid of them. (And do so empathetically!)

11. Enjoy and express myself.

Our video classes have been rather subdued, with students keeping their cameras off. When the school declared Wednesday to be Hat Day, I decided to liven things up.

I put on a baseball cap sideways and called myself “Chad”. “Chad” was a substitute teacher and former frat bro who spoke in a husky voice. His (not my) utterances that day included “chicks dig me” and that “Mr. G wants you to do your work because he’s a nerd!”

Was it entirely professional? Perhaps not. Did it enhance the bond with my students? Absolutely.

Moral: Be my authentic self and have a good time; it’s nourishing for the soul.

Conclusion

Teaching is normally an emotional roller coaster. Teaching in 2020 is a rickety mine cart route covered in lit dynamite. Nevertheless, I am proud of myself for staying OK and keeping a positive attitude throughout last semester. It’s exciting to come into my element at work, and I’m looking forward to writing more original content for ProvocaTeach in the spring.

References

Hess, F.M. (2015). The Cage-Busting Teacher. Education Innovations Series. Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA.

Originally published at provocateach.com on January 7, 2021. Subscribe for more content.

A math teacher who blogs about making education better. I believe in play, openness, flexibility, care, & sufferance. Visit https://provocateach.com to read.