September 4, 2020
Let me set the scene: Me, a student teacher, getting high school seniors ready to read “Hamlet.” I had given them a dramatis personae
that listed the characters with a brief description of who they were and how they were connected to the other characters in the play.
Students were creating maps of these connections using colored pencils and creating a key. I watched one girl drawing red lines to connect those with romantic relationships, blue lines for family and green lines for friendships. In the back of the room sat my professor from Wayne State. It was my first ever observation.
“Mr. B,” one of my students asked as I passed his desk. “I’m colorblind. I’m not really sure how to do this?”
“Oh no,” I thought. I hadn’t considered a colorblind student when I designed the activity. Time to think fast. “What about different kinds of lines? Dotted, dashed, solid …”
“Oh, sure,” he said, and I sighed with relief.
After my observation, I sat down with my professor. She praised me and told me that she had no specific points of critique. On all the metrics the university measured, I scored very well. Everything else, she said, would “come with time.”
I remember thinking, “Come with time? What does THAT mean?”
Leaving the meeting, I should have felt proud. Instead, I mostly felt frustrated. I knew I wasn’t a great teacher yet. Most days during my student teaching, it felt like I was struggling just to survive. But how would I grow without critique?
Five years later, and after winning Michigan Teacher of the Year, I wish I could give you, the new teachers of the 2020-2021 school year, a better idea of what my professor meant. I know, now, that teaching well is something you grow into. Taking your theoretical knowledge and transmogrifying it into an effective classroom is something that comes with practice, reflection and time.
Despite all the praise I got as a student teacher, my first year of teaching was more failures than successes. And my teacher journey is far from over; good teachers know there is always room for improvement. Here are the lessons my first five years have taught me about how to improve:
- Observe, observe, observe. Identify teachers whose strengths align with your areas for improvement. Ask them questions about their practice. Spend a little time watching their classroom. If you’re teaching virtually this fall, you may have the opportunity to more easily observe the virtual classrooms of teachers outside of your building. Take notes and try out what you see.
- Collaborate. Find teachers who work and think like you. Work together to design everything from classroom policies and practices to curriculum and lesson materials. I’m an introvert with a perfectionist streak, so learning to rely on other teachers was hard for me. However, the more I collaborate with my peers, the better my teaching becomes, not least of all because I have more energy for the students!
- Reflect. The school year is a marathon. You take off in the fall, and you don’t stop running until summer. The daily details can disappear in the haze of moving forward. I keep myself organized by jotting down a few notes about each class during passing time when I can, but improving your craft requires honest reflection on a longer timeframe. Make journaling a regular part of your practice. Look for trends in your teaching, places of both weakness and strength. My journals help guide my research and thinking as I work to improve my teaching.
- Involve your students. Students of all ages can tell you what is and isn’t working for them. Ask them what has worked for them in the past. Brainstorm solutions to problems together. When you’re trying something new, tell them! Afterward, ask them what they liked and didn’t like. As a new teacher, I thought I had to be an untouchable expert in front of my students, but it turns out that the more human you are, the more your students want to work with you. On a related note, admit when you make mistakes. Apologize sincerely and fix whatever was broken. I’ve apologized to my students for everything from untried technology and poorly written tests to teaching topics incorrectly and losing my temper. Every time, the apology has led to a stronger community in my classroom.
- When all else fails, build relationships. Students must feel loved before they can learn. If you start to feel that your classroom is headed in a direction you don’t intend, it’s OK to pause on academics for a moment and go back to community building. Play games that help students relax with each other. Get to know each other better. Work on the human connection. Everything else will follow.
This turbulent year of teaching is going to make many of us into first-year teachers again. We’ll all have the chance to learn and grow. No matter what this year looks like for you, we’ve got this.
About Owen Bondono: I teach ninth grade English in Oak Park, MI. I am white, transgender, middle class, married, bi and able-bodied, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I acknowledge that everything I write is informed by the perspectives and privileges I have been afforded in life. As the 2020-2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year, I hope to learn from and advocate for all teachers and students in the state, with a focus on building and supporting a diverse teaching force.