School begins in just a few days and I confess that yesterday, sitting in my new classroom, surrounded by papers, plans, new timetables, and several books I’ve not yet read that I’m set to begin teaching next week, I felt a sense of dread wash over me. Fear. A general malaise. I wondered, for the umpteenth time in my short career as a teacher, if I’m really cut out to be a teacher. Surely, I pondered, there is some teacher somewhere (probably at my own school) doing remarkable things in her teaching of Oedipus, things that would never occur to me to do, things that make the students swoon with fascination at the Greek tragedy.
I can hear you saying that I’m being too hard on myself, that teachers always go through this at the beginning of each year, that I am not alone. I think part of my fear is that I have not been in the classroom for two years, having taken time off to be a mom, and I worry I’m rusty, out of practice. I’m a master at never letting this show to the students, which is a good thing, but I have yet to feel that creative pulse, that excitement, for getting back into the classroom this fall. What if it never comes?
I remember back to my first year of teaching nine years ago. I was twenty-three years old and a handful of my students were nineteen, brick-house PG hockey players at the boarding school I taught at. I remember having to be extra serious, extra tough, extra strict and no-nonsense those first two years just to make sure I got respect from the students. I don’t think I had a very good sense of humor then. Over the years, some of the students that came and went through my classrooms in Connecticut, New York, Hong Kong, and Spain were just as big as those PGs, but they never seemed so after the first two years. Over time I realized that they were just kids, and it was my job to teach them. It helped that I got older and better at my job while they stayed the same age year after year in my classroom so that now, in my thirties, even the biggest of nineteen-year-olds seems like a sweet puppy dog to me. All this is to say that I haven’t felt that sense of nervousness about my place in the classroom, my role as respected teacher, since those first years. Until now, that is.
My new school is in Qatar, an Islamic country in the Persian Gulf, and it serves mostly local students on its beautiful, spacious campus. As the head of the senior school informed us last week, most of our students are individual millionaires by the time they graduate, so they are not always as motivated as they could be. You don’t say. (I wonder how motivated to work I would be if I were an individual millionaire…I won’t go there).
I’m suddenly like a nervous new teacher all over again – twenty-three and afraid of earning respect. A teacher going on his second year here told the new faculty last week that at most schools, you walk in the classroom door as a teacher with a level of respect that is yours to lose over the course of the year. Here in Qatar, he told us, you walk in the door with no respect and it’s yours to gain. I’m still thinking about that one as I imagine how it might impact my teaching.
I worry about not knowing how to relate to students so culturally and religiously different from myself; I worry that I will never earn that respect that Qataris don’t just confer upon teachers; I worry – most of all – that I won’t be able to inspire them or ignite that passion for some aspect of my course: reading or creative writing, great presentation skills or the ability to analyze a film in a fresh, poignant way. Basically, new-school, new-year jitters, even after nine years. Any words of wisdom?
The start of school always conflicted me as a teacher. I was so eager for it, but I absolutely hated the first few days of it: not knowing students by name, feeling unsure about how to establish a good tone, never clear about how much dreary overview to do on Day 1 (when it would surely be immediately forgotten). I didn’t ever really get comfortable until the 2nd week when I started to associate faces, names, and attitudes. I was poor at doing ice-breaking exercises on top of it. All of this reflected my own shyness, alas – and my egocentrism. It never occurred to me to ask: what do my students require on Day 1 to feel great about the class on leaving the first day? (Backward Design!)
Now, many years later, I think that I would do the start of school quite differently. All the research on what students bring to their work (in terms of both prior experience as well as potential misconceptions), their need for a sense of belonging: all point to the wisdom in doing a quick baseline pre-assessment – in short, get out of myself and my agenda and help them get into the class.
The issue of a sense of belonging cannot be overstated, I think. Even in a small school, many students do not know one another in a class. That should surely be on the agenda early on. I like the exercise that we now do in our summer Institutes: code your nametag with colored dots to signify some trait, interest or talent (with adult educators, we give them a code for their role and school level). Make people form pairs, then quartets having to chat, then introduce partners to other groups. Something like this takes 15 minutes and in a few minutes everyone feels more comfortable and has a new potential friend or ally in class.
The most eye-opening thing I have ever seen in education was at – of all places – the Harvard Business School. At a Business School course I audited, the Professor collected everybody’s biographical information on Day 1. On Day 2, he handed out a nice binder for each student with everyone’s profile (contact info, background, interests, etc.) in it, not just his own information and course syllabus. It blew me away to think that I had never done that in fifteen years of secondary school teaching: help everyone know who was in the class from the start.
The research on pre-assessment provides a useful avenue for getting started. State what the course is about in 2 minutes, then quickly move to a survey and discussion of attitudes, interests and questions for the topic. Since you teach English, consider a survey with stems like:
Reading makes me feel...
Writing makes me feel...
In order to succeed in English classes I need...
In English I am best at...
I am hoping to get better in English at...
Also: Anticipation Guides are a great icebreaker as well as an introduction to the course content. Thus, if the first text in the course is Romeo & Juliet, start on the first day with one of the many thought provoking anticipation surveys that I have seen teachers use (if you Google on Anticipation Guide [book title] you’ll find many):
u Love is blind.
u Parents should not have the right to tell you who you can and cannot date or marry.
u Adolescent love can never be true love.
A pre-assessment of their ability to read text for meaning would certainly be useful, too. (This is so obvious in retrospect – and I did it as a soccer coach every year!) You might try a brief allegory or fable – or that nifty paragraph in which the subject is completely opaque – until you get the AHA that it is about laundry.
Finally, how about a pre-assessment of their possible misconceptions about reading and writing?
True or false? Reading is really just memorizing. Good writers rarely use the writing process. Etc.
Hindsight is always 20-20. I mostly recall mumbling about the course goals and policy about homework and grades. I was grateful when the bell rang. If I were you, I’d save that stuff for another day.
So, what did you end up doing on Day 1? And how did it go?