One of the most daunting things about doing anything for the first time is not knowing whether or not you’re doing it right. For beginning teachers, this is a very common and uncomfortable experience – I know, because five years ago I was in that position. Luckily for me, I was a part of a collaborative teaching team and surrounded by support, however despite that, there was still this overwhelming feeling that I wouldn’t be able to tell if I was doing a good job or not. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know whether I was actually well-equipped enough to be the teacher I’d been employed to be and that ultimately my students would be the ones paying the price. With so much uncertainty, it’s no wonder many teachers find the first five years so challenging, if they’re lucky enough to even get a full-time role teaching their own classes.
Nevertheless, it’s an inevitable reality many Australian teachers will be facing in little over a week’s time. Some may have already received communication from their school with their timetable and class lists emailed through to them, whereas others will be arriving in Week 0 hoping to have some indication of what and who they will be expected to teach. For all first-year teachers, it will be a big learning curve, regardless of what they experienced on their pre-service practicums or university courses. With a lot of advice given to beginning teachers (e.g. knowing students’ names in a ridiculously short amount of time, not smiling for the first couple of months), it can seem unrealistic in what is already a huge shock to the system for a new teacher. Sure, it would be great to know the everyone’s names and make early contact with parents, but when it comes to teaching the students – how will you know that what you’re doing as a teacher is effective and how the students are learning is beneficial? Or is it best to just try to stick to what you know and teach how you were taught?
I’ve tried to put together five tips to help teachers feel a little bit more comfortable as they navigate their way through the first few weeks of teaching. In no particular order…
- To know and to teach are different things
- Mix it up, but not for the sake of it
- Do and don’t do everything for a reason
- They might be listening, but they may not be learning
- There is no best
To know and to teach are different things
So, you have a major in mathematics? Cool. Does that mean you can teach my students how to find where two straight lines intersect using three different techniques? What about the students who simply don’t care for it, can you teach them too? Anyone who has taught pretty much anything has probably opened an explanation with, “don’t worry, this is actually pretty easy”. This might be because once you understand something, it’s actually quite hard to consider how it might be seen by someone who is new to it. Ironically for me five years ago, this actually meant that when I had to relearn content to teach students, I actually explained it pretty well. It might have been because I was not yet burdened by the “curse of knowledge” – a term that is being thrown around quite regularly nowadays. In a nutshell, the impact for us as teachers is that once we know something, we see things in a considerably different way to those who don’t yet know it. Consider the Toblerone logo below:
Did you see the bear in the mountain? Have a look at the logo again and you will have great difficulty not seeing the bear, although you may have never noticed it there before. Teaching something you’re familiar can be like that, once you see it that way, you expect that’s how everyone else sees it. My advice is, even if you know you can do the problems you’re giving to your students, DO THEM ANYWAY. You will see them in a different light and teach it in a possibly more well-structured way and make less assumptions about what they do and don’t pick up for themselves. Be wary, however, that you don’t stress out too much if you simply don’t have the time to, it’s just something that might help you feel more confident in the classroom and make your questioning a little bit more effective.
Mix it up, but not for the sake of it
Something I did a lot when I started teaching was to take the newest thing (to me) and transform my teaching to be completely taken over by it. Whether it was Phillips Exeter problem sets, Which One Doesn’t Belong prompts, or Desmos Classroom Activities, I would spend literally entire units monopolised by the single style of learning or resource type. Alternatively, as I started to become more aware of the different types of resources, I would try to do everything all the time, sometimes splitting my lessons up between ten different activities I knew about. While variety is essential, too much can also be unhelpful.
Everything you do and don’t do as a teacher should serve a purpose, which is the flavour of my next point. Before I move on, however, the key element I want to draw emphasis on here is that no one resource will be fit for purpose for all of your students, nor will all the resources meet the wide range of needs in your class. Don’t try to do just one thing or all things, simply just what you think might work for your situation. It’s useful to keep track of what you did, whether it was a really great 3-act maths task or a particular textbook question that caused a lot of deep thinking – you’d be surprised how much you forget next time you come around to teach the same thing.
Do and don’t do everything for a reason
I’m a big believer that the things we don’t do as teachers are just as important as the things we do do. Although this can quickly lead into a contradictory statement, the essence of this is that sometimes not doing something can be just what our students need. Now, the contradiction comes from the idea that through deliberately not doing something, you are doing the “not doing”, but I hope you get where I’m coming from here anyway.
Some simple examples of not doing include talking too much or telling students whether their answer is correct or not. Whereas doing could include what you might do instead (e.g. asking students to explain their work instead of saying right or wrong) or it could be nothing, which could perhaps be a suitable alternative to talking too much.
They might be listening, but they may not be learning
This took me quite a while to actually realise and admit to myself as a teacher. Just because I taught it, doesn’t mean they learnt it. There have been many times when I’ve written up quite a comprehensive worked example, arranged a seemingly logical sequence of animated slides on a PowerPoint, and even recorded a video tutorial, only to find that many students’ first response still to be, “I don’t get it”. While I realise that some students don’t actually listen or pay attention, others might be fixated on the explanation, will follow along with ease and still comment, “I’m ok when you go through it on the board, but I can’t do it myself” or “I don’t know what steps to do or when to do them, everything you do makes sense”. In my efforts to support these students, I would provide further annotations or re-explain, often only ending up with a less confident and more confused student than what I began with. Some of the oldest advice ever, possibly from Confucius, is quite relevant for this point: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand”. If there was a silver bullet, then we’d all be doing it – therefore, I would advise that you try to do three things:
- Don’t go over-the-top with your explanation
- Give them a very similar problem to do after a worked example
- Have them explain their thinking instead of immediately checking their answer
There is no best
If you’re still with me here, remember that what I’m suggesting is just what I think is important. There are a lot of people that would suggest five different or even conflicting things that have worked for them. In fact, what you do with one class may not work with another, despite everything you do to keep things constant. Importantly, one should be open to trying new things and willing to let go of things that aren’t working, which should or normally would work. As teachers, we are there to do our best to try to create optimal conditions for learning, of which there are many different approaches that work really well. My advice for beginning teachers would be to develop an approach that aligns with how you want your students to learn and strive to do a great job at that.
If you wanted some guidance on where to start, here’s ten things I’d do:
- Read about Jo Boaler’s Positive Norms in Math(s) Class
- Buy Thinking Mathematically and actually read it
- Add NRICH as a bookmark on my internet browser
- Save Dan Meyer’s 3-act Maths to my Google Drive
- Set up my classes on a Khan Academy Mission
- Try out James Tanton’s Without Words Problems
- Create a Which One Doesn’t Belong prompt as a lesson starter
- Look at a bundle on Desmos Classroom Activities
- Visit Open Middle and download some problems
- Join the #MTBoS on Twitter