Five Ways to Ensure Your Success as a Secondary Teacher (Practical Tips for First-Year and Veteran Secondary Classroom Teachers)

5 Ways to Ensure Your Success as a Secondary Teacher

(Practical Tips for First-Year and Veteran Secondary Classroom Teachers)

Yay! You’ve decided to take on the incredibly challenging but equally rewarding role of becoming a classroom teacher! As a fellow teacher, I am so glad you’re here! Teaching is such a unique profession because it is a perfect blend of natural talent, interminable passion, and learned skill. Being a secondary teacher, is equally as unique. As you take the first steps into this new adventure, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the incredible educators out there. The purpose of this post is to remind you that every great teacher started from the bottom and had a lot of help along the way. Below are Five Ways to Ensure Your Success as a Secondary Teacher—real, tangible advice for both the novice and the veteran. But first…

A note for the first-year secondary teacher:

It is time to take a moment and get real, like—really real. As a first-year teacher, you will not have the fanciest classroom or the most supreme set of skills. You will not have the curriculum memorized and you will not be a data analysis or differentiation wiz. You WILL spend hours trying to wrap your head around complex district policies, making parent phone calls when your students don’t come to class for three weeks, and searching TeachersPayTeachers for lesson inspiration and eventually, the lesson itself.

This isn’t to make you depressed, the purpose is to help you understand that we have all been there. The skills, the data, the curriculum; all those things will come but you must accept that they won’t be there in the beginning. This does not mean that you are less valuable than any other teacher. The first year will be hard, heck, the first three years will be hard but the fact that you are choosing to show up, to place your time and energy into this extraordinary profession proves you are already on your way. Instead of focusing on all the things you haven’t yet mastered, focus on the strengths you most likely already possess.

Okay, now for the juicy stuff…

 

Build Relationships

Whether you know it or not, you already have the skills needed to build positive relationships with your students. While building relationships with students is important at any grade level, it is imperative in secondary education.

The fabulous Dr. Rita Pierson once said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” and no student embodies this ideology better than a moody teenager.

Rita Pierson: Every Kid Needs a Champion

If you remember anything about your adolescence you most likely remember being exceptionally grumpy, constantly insecure, and spending more time blasting emo music and trying to figure out why every part of your body smelled strange than you did studying for exams. Don’t be grossed out, we’re headed somewhere with this.

Secondary students are not usually intrinsically motivated to perform academically. At this moment, you’re either saying “Girl, preach!” or deciding that I have no idea what I’m talking about because all your students try really hard to get good grades. While it is true that many students strive for good grades, teenage motivation to get earn those grades is almost entirely based on the power of outside influences. When I was in school, I got good grades because it was lame not to, and because not getting into college would have been embarrassing. I tried hardest in classes where I had the most friends because I was motivated by the fear of ridicule if I failed [yes, I recognize this was unhealthy]. I also tried the hardest in classes where I had the best teachers. As I look back, I can’t tell you anything about the credentials of those teachers. I can’t describe their classroom aesthetic in detail. I would never be able to recreate their bulletin boards or reenact one of their lessons word-for-word. What I can remember is how they made me feel. I can tell you that I knew those teachers believed I could be successful and because of that I tried harder. The positive relationships I had with those teachers convinced me to push farther and learn more.

As a secondary teacher, you’re most likely wondering how to build positive relationships with today’s teenagers. I’ve put together my list of failure-proof ways to build relationships with your students. These are the guidelines I ride-or-die by in order to create meaningful relationships with each of my students and in turn, create a calm, productive, and successful classroom.

  1. Learn their names

Who hates being called Miss or Mr.? How about “Hey, you!” by someone you’ve met five times? Have you ever been to a party where someone asks what your name is even though you remember theirs?

When someone recognizes even the smallest parts of our identity, we instantly feel more connected. Learn your students’ names from day one. Furthermore, expect your students to know yours and use it. Learning your student’s names is a non-negotiable and should be your number one priority. I always end the first day of school with a name game. We’ll call it Miss C’s Super Fancy Name Game! Students and myself stand in a circle. Each student says their name and a food starting with the first letter of their first name. As we move around the circle, the students must say each name and corresponding food of each person in front of them before saying their own. It is a rockin’ good time and by the time it’s my turn [I always go last], I’ve had a chance to practice each student’s name about twenty-five times. I almost always have all the names memorized by the end of the first day and have instantly made my students feel more valued.

2. Ask Questions

Assumptions can be very dangerous. You never want to assume anything about your students. However, gathering information about your student’s home life, music interests, hobbies, or motivations can be much more difficult in high school than at the elementary level. When you’re an elementary teacher, most students will tell you anything you want to know and then some. Teenagers on the other hand, tend to be more buttoned up. The best thing you can do is ask questions.

Asking questions shows students that you have a genuine interest in their lives outside of academics. The best way to do this is with a survey. I give my students a survey three times a year. This is especially easy to do with the modern emphasis on digital learning. They contain simple questions like what they do for fun and their favorite foods, but I also focus on asking meaningful questions such as how they are feeling about the course, why they want to succeed, and how they prefer to be recognized. The surveys are helpful in determining my student’s learning styles, what they find enjoyable and how to best motivate them to succeed.

Pro Tip: Be sure to ask questions outside of the formal student survey. Never underestimate the power of a simple conversation.

 

3. Retain Your “With-it-ness”

A long time ago, an education guru coined the phrase “with-it-ness”. His name was Jacob Kounin and the year was 1977. It’s a phrase that basically means trying to be cool. Pretty groovy right?

Somewhere along the way researchers finally realized that students demonstrated better learning outcomes from the rapping math teacher or the hipster art instructor than they did the rambling history professor. With-it-ness represents a consistent need to stay up-to-date on modern instructional strategies, which celebrity recently cheated on their spouse, and anything to do with sports.

It also means being aware of what is happening in your classroom all. the. time. The best teachers practice preventative measures rather than reacting to problems after they’ve already happened. There are two ways to practice the first phase of with-it-ness. You either study urban dictionary really hard and actually become cool or, you admit that you in fact are old [even if you’re only 22] and allow your students to laugh at your attempts to be cool. Either way, you win. Students love when teachers take an interest in the things they like. In my classroom, I play music at the beginning of class and during work periods. It’s a simple YouTube playlist and I make sure all the songs are clean versions, but it’s a simple thing that says, “Hey, we’re not so different after all. I also know every word to Drake’s latest single—minus the swear words.” 😉

I’ll also throw modern-day slang into my daily vocabulary, half of the time I nail it and earn extra cool points and the other half I make it as awkward as possible, maintaining my moonlight personality as an old lady teacher who knits for fun while watching HGTV [only half true—all hail the Scott brothers, am I right?]

As for being aware of everything all the time…that takes a bit more practice. As the school year continues, you will get to know your students more personally. You will know who tends to be out of their seat, who prefers to work with a clipboard, and who is most likely to throw that clipboard at someone else. You’ll be able to create groups that work together successfully and design a seating chart that allows peace and harmony to reign. None of those things will automatically happen, however, here are three things I do in my classroom from the first day that allow me to retain my with-it-ness.

              Create a consistent routine: Make certain that your class period follows a consistent routine and instructional pattern. I start every class period with a ten-minute warm-up question, followed by ten minutes of direct instruction, and twenty minutes of practice work. The last five minutes of class are used for closing questions and cleaning up. See how I use the magical Post It here! I can adapt this pattern for a ninety-minute block class increasing the amount of practice work and often adding simulation activities and creative projects. I also have a strict routine for days when I do small groups and rotations. Students thrive off consistency and routine. It allows them to feel safe and become whole contributors to the classroom environment.

              Make sure your classroom has flow: When setting up your classroom, make sure that students can easily access anything they might need during the period and are able to do so with minimal disturbance to others [including you]. In my classroom, students are placed in various group settings but always with enough room for movement. Being able to move freely between groups allows me to see and communicate easily with all my students. It also minimizes the ability for one student to “accidentally” run into or step over another when getting a tissue or a piece of paper. I also create a “Student Zone” where students can find all the supplies they may need during class. This is where I keep tissues, hand sanitizer, lotion, and paper. It is also where students submit all their work. Above the “Student Zone” is a bulletin board with important reminders, birthday announcements, an extracurricular calendar, and current events. The “Student Zone” is a consistent space where students will find what they need, without interrupting your teaching.

              Learn “the scan”: Probably the greatest skill my mentor teacher ever taught me was “the scan”. If you were naturally endowed with knowledge of “the scan”, I commend you. I, like most teachers, was not. During an observation my first year, I was working with an individual student and noticed a disruption in the classroom. I reacted to the problem by identifying the students and asking them to return to their work. There is nothing wrong with this. However, had I lifted my eyes regularly during my conversation with the individual student I would have noticed two kiddos who appeared unfocused and would have been able to redirect them before disturbing the entire class. Thus, “the scan”. It may seem overwhelming at first but the mere practice of casually moving your eyes around the classroom—scanning for potential disruptions—will help you prevent problems before they have time to begin.

When it comes to building relationships the end goal is for your students to understand that you care about them personally as well as academically and that you know they can be successful. Building meaningful relationships is a daily process that requires patience, humility, commitment, and mutual respect. Doing it well takes work, but it is the number #1 most important thing you can do for the young people who walk into your classroom. Work to build meaningful relationships every single day and you’re already halfway there.

 

Set Expectations

When I was in the sixth grade, I had a math teacher who wrote how to solve equations out in steps. It was like a checklist or a recipe of things I had to do in order to achieve success. While this helped tremendously in math class, it took me a very long time to learn that a clear list of steps or expectations was what I needed for success in every aspect of my life. Fast forward fifteen years and I love a good list. To-do list, grocery list, workout moves list, packing list, the list goes on…get it?! At work, I create a list before I go home each day. This list contains wants, needs, and goals. What tasks need to be done the following day? What tasks do I want to work on? What long-term goals am I working towards? I love my list. I need my list. My list is my recipe for success. It keeps my calm and organized, an attitude which then translates to my teaching, the environment of my classroom and ultimately, to my students. Believe it or not, the students in your classroom aren’t any different. As a teacher, it is imperative that you outline the “recipe for success” specifically, your expectation for students, and for yourself.

“The Culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” -Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker (2015)

Go back and read that quote again. Powerful stuff, eh?

If a student sees that you’re willing to let them get away with disrespectful behavior, being off-task, speaking unkindly to others or any other plethora of issues that may arise in your teaching career, two things will happen. Those who are prone to behave outside of your expectations will do so while the others will lose their respect for you as they watch it happen. You, in turn, will become miserable. Before entering the classroom, spend some time deciding what you want your classroom culture to look like and build expectations around those ideas. Here is an example of my classroom expectations.

Ms. C.’s Three Bs

  1. Be Respectful
  2. Be Engaged
  3. Be Prepared

In addition, I provide students with a list of what those expectations look like in action. I also model those expectations for my students in my own behavior, eliminating the “that’s not fair” mentality teenagers tend to have. Rather than a list of what not to do, my expectations are a cultural construct based upon the character traits of successful individuals. Your students want to be successful individuals. You want to be a successful teacher. None of you can read minds. By outlining clear expectations and modeling them consistently, students will have a clear understanding of the road map to success further ensuring your success in the secondary classroom.

Communicate with Parents (or Guardians)

When I was a novice teacher, one of scariest things ever was making my first parent phone call. I was literally, so scared. I found myself with sweaty palms and a racing heart, praying they wouldn’t answer. I’d heard horror stories of parent conversations gone awry—swear words, insults, threats. What if they didn’t like me? What if they yelled at me?

Well, spoiler alert—none of that happened. I have never in my career had a parent raise their voice, sweat at, or threaten me and no, I don’t think I’m “just lucky”.

Building meaningful relationships with your students includes communicating with their parents or guardians. Reach out to parents as soon as the school year starts. I send out a welcome letter including information about myself, when I am available to speak, the expectations for my course, and most importantly, how excited I am to have their child in my classroom. Throughout the year, I call at least five parents a week updating them on their child’s progress and intentionally sharing good news.

But what about when you have a problem?

When calling parents or guardians regarding a behavior problem in the classroom, always begin with the positive and always phrase the negative as a question. Here are some examples:

 

Johnny is struggling to remain focused in class. Do you have any advice for how we can ensure he completes his work?

Beth became frustrated with me today when I asked her to correct her assignment. How can I communicate more successfully with her?

Meagan has been sleeping in class lately. Is there anything going on at home that I need to be aware of? How can I best help her stay engaged?

 

Always remember to end the conversation with a recap and a positive thought. Review with parents what was discussed and remind them that you enjoy having their child in class and know they can be successful.

 

Pro Tip: A follow-up email is an extra topping that solidifies the physical conversation while serving as a form of documentation for future discussions.

 

At the end of day, parents want to protect their children and ensure their success. If they understand that you share the same goals, you’ll have nothing to fear.   

 

As you move beyond your first year of teaching, I encourage you to increase your amount of weekly phone calls and even personally invite each parent or guardian to events such as Open House. While this takes a large chuck of time in the beginning of the year, the results pay off tremendously.

Remain Flexible

Remember that part about how I love a list? Well, I wasn’t kidding. I thrive off organization. My curriculum is organized by unit and type of assignment [notes, handouts, writing practice, remediation, or projects]. I count class materials for the following day and place them in special folders marked for each class period. I write my instructional calendar by semester and then revise it monthly and weekly. I download PowerPoints and videos ahead of time to avoid the horrible silence that undoubtedly leads to chaos when the sound doesn’t work.

However, without fail and despite my best tendencies, there will always be something that does not go according to plan. There will be an IEP meeting I forgot about. The printer will be out of ink. The copy machine will be broken. A student will take off their shoes, stinking up the room and throwing the entire class into an uproar. An unexpected Code Red drill. An unexpected call from the office. An unexpected student having a really bad day.

No matter how much we plan, things will change, and you must remain flexible. Mistakes will happen and students will have days when they are just not feeling it. However, flexibility is not permission to become an unorganized hippie, dancing around in the fields of unrelated curriculum.

Great teachers have a plan and don’t have a meltdown when the plan needs to be re-adapted. This is where my seemingly crazy calendar comes in handy. By being able to look at an instructional timeline by a yearly, monthly, and weekly perspective, it become easier to adjust when necessary. It avoids the panic many teachers experience in the month of May when they realize how much material they’ve yet to cover and ensures I never find myself dancing in the fields without something valuable for the students to consume. When any of the unexpected occurs, I can look at the calendar [which I always write on my computer for easy editing], make a few changes and boom, we’re back on track!

 

As you begin this year remember, Flexibility = a plan + patience.

 

Celebrate Success

Who doesn’t love a gold star? An accolade? A shout-out? Answer: no one.

The grind of teaching is just that—a grind. Both you and your students will work their tails off trying to master the curriculum. It is very easy to become overwhelmed and over engrossed in the schedule, the testing, and the standards. Always remember to celebrate success.

After an exam, spend a few moments reviewing the standards students performed the highest on and celebrate. When the basketball team wins a difficult game, celebrate. When a group works well together, celebrate! When a student gets a cool new haircut, celebrate! When you finally get the timing of your lesson down perfectly, celebrate! Here are some ways we celebrate in my classroom:

              Throw a five-minute dance party!

              Bringing in donuts or other treats!

              Giving out #KUDOS as a reward!

              Allowing students to have Starbucks Time!

The concept is simple. Celebrate, you all deserve it.

As a new teacher, remember this: There is not a single successful secondary teacher that does not follow everything on this list and there is not a single successful secondary teacher that mastered everything on this list in the first year.

The point of teaching is to keep trying. Keep growing. Keep reading. Keep learning. The same principles we ingrain in our students we must ingrain in ourselves. Teaching is an incredible journey and I am honored that you have taken on the challenge. Stay humble, caring, and patient.

Build meaningful relationships, set expectations, communicate effectively with parents and guardians, remain flexible, and celebrate even the smallest success.

 

Believe in your students and believe in yourself. That is the true secret to ensuring your success as a secondary teacher. I will leave you with the quote that hangs above my classroom door. I give you full permission to hang it above yours as a reminder to yourself and your kiddos every single day.

“You are loved beyond measure and capable of more than you can imagine. Go forth and do good. The world is waiting.”

Shelby Cunningham, 2019

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