How much experience do you need to be a truly great teacher? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
How about 10 months? Or, even less?
Believe it or not, Classical Charter Schools provides the supports for teachers to thrive as educators within the first year of instruction, particularly through the ClassiCorps Teaching Fellowship. I would know; I completed the fellowship in June 2019. Now, I’m not here to brag. I’m no expert and as any truly excellent teacher would tell you, there is always room to improve. However, as a teacher who taught scholars that ranked in the 93rd percentile city-wide for ELA and in the 91st percentile city-wide for Math with only 9 months of experience, I would say I did alright.
I didn’t achieve these results because of some God-given instructional gift. Instead, I operated under 5 guiding principles below, principles that I would say unite all ClassiCorps Fellows at Classical Charter Schools.
Whether you’re at Classical or anywhere else trying your best to do what’s right for kids, I would encourage you to consider the principles below in your own practice as well. Not only will they guide your development towards success, they’ll also likely leave you feeling fulfilled:
Put scholars first
Regardless of what type of school setting you work in, being a good teacher means prioritizing the students’ learning, both academically and socio-emotionally. There is so much that goes into this, so where do you even begin? From my experience, prioritizing lesson preparation was a huge reason for my scholars’ success. I was fortunate enough to be provided a scripted curriculum, so I had time to prioritize building relationships with scholars and modifying the curriculum in a way that would be interesting to them. I often tried to create analogies or metaphors that would resonate with their interests, particularly in math, where abstract concepts can be challenging. Although a large portion of my prep periods were dedicated to analyzing scholar data and lesson preparation, I found time to talk one-on-one with scholars. Being able to chat with a scholar in the hallway did a lot for boosting motivation, both in and out of the classroom. Some of my favorite memories from my time as a teacher involved seeing a shift in a scholar’s mood after our chats. Scholars want a teacher that shows that they have a genuine interest in their lives. I definitely wasn’t perfect, but putting scholars first when it came to preparing lessons and building relationships certainly helped.
During my time in ClassiCorps, particularly during my first and second years, there were many nights where I would stay up late to write out comments regarding a scholar’s performance for report card conferences or to finish some of my graduate school assignments. This wasn’t ideal, but I managed to persist. I kept reminding myself that all this work would make me a better teacher, which would ultimately result in better outcomes for my scholars. I would think of one of my scholars who had an IEP and repeated the grade but managed to show leadership in the classroom and achieve two 4’s on the New York State Tests. His determination inspired me to stay motivated. Some colleagues that were in my ClassiCorps cohort and I managed to teach, complete graduate school, and become certified by rewarding ourselves with brunch and/or a shopping spree when we reached certain milestones. I especially think of the celebrations we had when we reached certain milestones of the edTPA, which is required to become certified in New York state. No matter what, we continued to persist, despite the challenges.
Never forget the impact you have on each and every child
For better or worse, your performance will impact the future of every single scholar in your classroom. That’s a lot of pressure, right? This pressure never dissipates, but there are ways to cope with the stress of it. One way is to implement consistent classroom procedures. I and most of my colleagues had procedures for lining up, passing out materials, updating homework on the board, collecting scholar work, etc. As a 6th grade teacher, I knew that my scholars would want more autonomy, so I assigned classroom jobs that allowed each scholar to contribute to the classroom community. They really enjoyed helping and it allowed for the space to be calm as well as collaborative. Another way is to show your interest in each scholar’s life outside of the school. Since the day is primarily focused on scholar learning, I would greet each scholar at the door with a handshake or fist-bump and maybe even a greeting in a foreign language. This was followed by a “how was your night/weekend?” or “how was your baseball game last night? or “did you finish watching that episode of Stranger Things?” I found these brief conversations to be an enjoyable start to the day and was surprised at some of the anecdotes the scholars remembered about my life as well. Seeing those same scholars who are in 8th grade now and having similar conversations allows me to see that impact.
There is no way that I could have grown so quickly as an educator without being open to constant feedback. I would sit down at least once, if not twice, a week to debrief with my grade team leader and instructional coach regarding areas of improvement. This is not an easy feat. We all have an ego and want to be great at our jobs from the get-go, but the reality is that with teaching you must do it in order to get better at it. You can only get better if you’re informed of your strengths and areas of improvement. I was a bit overwhelmed with the frequent feedback at first, but after feeling more confident when implementing best practices, I was able to understand the importance of feedback. My classroom would have been much more disruptive had I not been coached on using a behavior management system. My pass rates wouldn’t have been as high had I not been taught how to increase the amount of participation in my class. Being humble is critical for development.
Remember you’re not in this alone
Teaching is complex and a variety of factors are at play in a child’s success. In addition to instructional coaches, I was lucky to have the support of an operations team, a dean team, and access to a special services team. Operations swiftly addressed my requests for pencils, paper, Expo markers and tech assistance. The deans were able to assist me when a parent had a concern regarding his/her child’s performance or when two scholars in my class needed to mediate an ongoing conflict. Special services provided me with strategies for supporting and/or differentiating reading techniques. Even if you don’t have access to these supportive teams, all teachers work with like-minded individuals: people who are dedicated to developing life-long learners. Lean on them. There is no way to successfully do this alone.
This post was contributed by Mr. Alex Hamel, former ClassiCorps Fellow and current Talent Associate at Classical Charter Schools. As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.