How to Step Outside of your Teaching Comfort Zone

zoneMany of us are either already back in the classroom, or heading back very soon. As I prepare to head back for our teacher work week, I’ve started to think about what I still need to do to be fully prepared for the upcoming school year. While there is still much to do, I comforted myself by thinking about the fact that I am excited to be embarking on year two of a textbook pilot. It happens to be a textbook that I absolutely love and really hope our district ends up adopting. We ended up getting a second year with the pilot because we loved it so much that the pilot is expanding into the other grades. So, part of me took comfort knowing that I will be teaching out of that same book, and teaching the same content and curriculum that I have for many years now. This made me think about something that a lot of teachers may not readily think about when preparing to return to the classroom. I started to question – am I getting too comfortable with what/how I am teaching and what I am doing daily in my classroom? Let me explain…

I remember when I first started teaching and there were several veteran English teachers who had been there forever. They had taught the same thing year after year and were very comfortable with their curriculum. After all, these two ladies had created much of this curriculum and had been implementing said curriculum for all of these years. Both of these ladies were quite close to retirement when I entered the picture, and neither of them had any inclination to change their ways. I always found this to be frustrating, because I was new and fresh out of college, and I was ready to change the world! But, trying to change something that has been in place for so many years just wasn’t an easy task. So, I went along with what had been taught for years before I began my teaching career there. I taught what they told me to teach and taught it how they taught it because it was how it had always been done, and no one was interested in doing it any differently. If you ask me, some of the most dangerous words in a workplace are, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Yet, that was definitely what I encountered when I first started teaching.

Now, believe me, I get it. I do. I am now that veteran teacher! It seems like a lot of times there are crazy mandates we are asked to implement, and a lot of times, many well-meaning districts attempt to implement the next latest and greatest initiative into our curriculum so that many of us are resistant to change. But, after all of these years – I have never forgotten those two teachers, so very set in their ways and unwilling to change anything, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” In a sense, I am grateful that I had this experience, so now I am almost paranoid about getting and staying too comfortable in my teaching career. I have vowed to myself that if I ever utter a phrase about having always done something a certain way and that’s why we keep doing it, I will immediately reevaluate and seek change!

There is something to be said about comfort!
There is something to be said about comfort!

However, that isn’t always easy as a teacher. Let’s face it, comfort feels good! There is a reason we hang on to those worn-out old slippers or that ratty old t-shirt. These items are familiar, safe, and comfortable. Take a moment to think about what you are currently doing in your classroom that is tried and true, and you have done it for years now. Now take a moment to think about what you might do in addition to that or *gasp* instead of that. Scary isn’t it? Yes, change can be scary and uncomfortable. But, it’s been my experience that real growth happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. So, let’s take a look at five easy ways you can safely step outside of that comfort zone and make sure you aren’t being bogged down by stagnation and clinging to comfort this school year:

Collaborate with a colleague – Sometimes we get so hyper-focused on what we are doing in our own classrooms that we forget that there are others teaching the very same curriculum we are. Now, I know time can be a factor when trying to find time to collaborate. After all, we are all busy with our own lives outside of school hours, and the time that we do have after school, we are usually busy prepping, taking care of grading, or tutoring students. But, making some time to collaborate with others is one of the best ways to find new ideas to implement into your own instruction, breathe new life into your teaching, and can allow you to feel more connected and less isolated. Even if you can’t collaborate with others at your school for various reasons, how about trying to find someone in your same district, your ISD, or even online? Try it, you’ll like it! If nothing else, take some time to email the teachers who are teaching what you are to share ideas with one another.

Observe a colleague teaching – Closely related to collaborating with a colleague is observing a colleague teach. I have come to really enjoy having the opportunity to observe others teach. It is very exciting to me to be able to see what someone who teaches what I teach is doing in their classroom (it’s even wonderful to watch others outside of your core subject area too). Often, we end up doing what we have been doing in our own classrooms because we are comfortable with it, and it is safe. But if we have the opportunity to see something someone else is successfully doing in their classrooms, we are more apt to push ourselves to try something new and different. Observing someone else allows us to see teaching from a new and fresh perspective, which can then be inspiring and invigorating. Yes, finding the time to observe a colleague may be a challenge, but it will be worth the effort. Most administrators will likely be quite helpful in orchestrating the details of getting coverage for your own classroom if you express interest in observing a colleague.

Rearrange your room – For years, I had the same desk and chair configuration in my classroom. It worked, it was comfortable, and it certainly was ideal for classroom management efforts too. So, when I went to a conference about implementing a new type of reading program, I practically laughed when they suggested putting students into groups of four to allow for more meaningful interaction and more collaboration between the students. It took my co-teacher to convince me to try it, and she assured me that if it was a disaster, she would stay after school to help me move the tables and chairs back to that old-fashioned configuration. But guess what? The new set up with the students in groups was wonderful! It allowed the students to work together and to dive into literature in groups like I had never experienced before in my classroom. It’s amazing to think that something as simple as the seating configuration in a classroom can make such a significant impact. Step out of your comfort zone, and move those tables and chairs or desks around this year!

Redo a bulletin board to perk up your room or hallway – Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve had one of my bulletin boards up for at least five years. Yep. It looks nice, it has a great message on it for the students, and my incoming students have no idea it’s been up there that long. But, I know it’s time for a change. Could I use my time more wisely during this week of prep for the upcoming school year? Yes, sure. But, I know it’s time for a change, so I am going to use some of that precious time to perk up my room a little and breathe that new life into it. So look around your classroom or your hallway, find something that needs a pick me up, and just make the time to make that change.

Go ahead and step outside of your comfort zone!
Go ahead and step outside of your comfort zone!

Vow to try something new this school year – It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Maybe you want to try a new exit ticket strategy with the students, possibly introduce a totally new unit, or just tweak an existing lesson to make it a little different, new, and refreshing. Whatever it is, go outside of your comfort zone a lot or a little. Change can also come in other ways in your teaching. How about trying a new hairstyle, some new clothes, or even a different lipstick color? Trust me, a little bit of change can go a long way in your classroom. It will help you to get unstuck, see things differently, and feel refreshed. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” So do yourself a favor, make some changes and see the benefits immediately!

The Do’s and Don’ts of Student Teaching

student teachingSo, you’re going to be a student teacher?  You are undoubtedly excited, nervous, happy, scared, and above all else, you are just ready to jump in and start teaching!  You have prepared your whole college career for this special time… So now what?  As veteran teachers, we’ve seen some good student teachers, some great student teachers, and some really tragic student teachers too!   So, here at Teacher Sweepers, we’ve assembled an exceptional panel of veteran teachers to help you through this exciting time.  We’ve created this unofficial list to help you impress all of those who matter during this extremely critical trial period of your upcoming teaching career.  Without further ado, here are the do’s and don’ts of student teaching:

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A student teacher and a supervising teacher must be a good fit.

Do make sure you are a good fit with your supervising teacher before you even agree to a placement. If you and your potential supervising teacher have totally different personalities or you sense you might not be a good fit, go with your gut feeling and see if there are other options available.  You will be spending a lot of time with this person, so it will be wise to make sure you can work productively and cohesively together for the duration of your student teaching. Also, be aware that sometimes a teacher may turn you down as a potential student teacher if he/she feels it won’t be a good fit. One panel member here at Teacher Sweepers actually turned down a potential student teacher because he knew it would not be a good fit when the potential student teacher asked if she would need to do her own lesson planning.  Yikes!

We love when a student teacher brings new ideas into the classroom.
We love when a student teacher brings new ideas into the classroom.

Don’t come into the classroom ill-prepared. You’ve been in college for years now learning about lesson planning, educational pedagogy, and all of the latest and greatest instructional practices.  Now is your time to shine!  Bust out some of those spiffy new lesson plans you’ve worked so hard on all of these years and impress your supervising teacher and your students.  As veteran teachers in the classroom, we love to see your new ideas, and we may even incorporate your ideas into our own lesson plans next year (with your permission, of course).  As a student teacher, you have the potential to breathe a little bit of new life into our classrooms, and we appreciate you for that!

Don't just parrot your supervising teacher, be yourself in the classroom.
Don’t just parrot your supervising teacher, be yourself in the classroom and come prepared with your own lesson plans.

Don’t rely on your supervising teacher for lesson plans and materials. Remember, you are practicing for the real world of teaching.  In the real world of teaching, you have to come up with your own lesson plans and you have to figure out how to best implement those plans. Your supervising teacher can be a great resource for you, but you should really be prepared to create and implement your own lesson plans instead of just regurgitating your supervising teacher’s plans. Your student teaching experience will be much more realistic (and rewarding) if you rely on your own lesson plans and materials.  Be sure to familiarize yourself with the curriculum as soon as you can so you are knowledgeable about what you will be teaching. Never ever just try to “wing it” when it comes to lesson planning and prepping for your classes. It is always better to be over prepared than it is to be under prepared. It’s okay to have too much planned for one class period, but you never want to have too little planned. You can always save something for the next day if you overestimated how far you will get in a lesson, but if you don’t have enough prepared, students can and will go wild during an extra five to ten minutes of downtime in a class period.

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A student teacher should be all ears! Listening is key to a successful student teaching experience.

Do more listening than speaking when it comes to interacting with other teachers and administration. This is especially important when you first start your student teaching.  Your supervising teacher will likely have a lot to tell you to help you get started.  You need to take everything in that you are learning.  Bonus advice – be proactive and take notes!  That way you can refer back to your notes when a question comes up in the future.  This is especially wise at staff meetings as well. There is a lot of information to glean from these meetings, so make like a sponge and soak it all up so you can be as knowledgeable as possible about the rules and procedures of your host school.

As a student teacher, be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Everyone will be happy to help you.
As a student teacher, be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Everyone will be happy to help you.

Do ask questions – and lots of them! Just like your students, you are here to learn.  Lean on your supervising teacher for support, advice, and guidance, but don’t forget to ask the other teachers at your host school for advice and help too.  Administrators, secretaries, custodians, and even the lunch ladies will also be invaluable resources to you during your student teaching.  Get to know as many people at your host school as you can. You will be surprised how helpful and friendly everyone will be, trust me.  We are here to help you, and we can’t do that unless you ask questions.

Put fear aside, and try something new in the classroom.
As a student teacher, be prepared to put fear aside, and try something new in the classroom.

Don’t be afraid to try something new in the classroom. You’ve likely observed your supervising teacher before you actually start teaching, so you will get a sense of their teaching style, classroom management, and how they interact with the students.  Now is the time to experiment and develop your own style of teaching, so you can find what works for you in the classroom and what doesn’t. If you are unsure about trying a new activity, run it by your supervising teacher first. Your supervising teacher may suggest a few changes or give you some advice, but most supervising teachers are happy to have you try new ideas. Your student teaching experience should be full of trial and error in the classroom – that’s what student teaching is all about after all.  It’s easier to experiment during student teaching when you can get that precious feedback from your supervising teacher.  Before you know it, you’ll have your own classroom, and you won’t have that other teacher to help you craft and implement your best classroom practices.

Be a superhero during your student teaching.
Make like Wonder Woman and be a superhero during your student teaching.

Do go above and beyond in all that you do during this early stage of your teaching career. Volunteer for as many extra opportunities and experiences as you can.  All eyes are on you during your student teaching; every interaction you have will be observed and evaluated.  The students are evaluating you, the parents are evaluating you, your supervising teacher is evaluating you, the administration is evaluating you, and of course, your college or university is evaluating you too.  One administrator said it best when he stated that student teaching is basically an interactive job interview for the duration of your student teaching.  Many of us here at Teacher Sweepers were hired on as full-time teachers after we graduated because we had exceptional student teaching experiences and we made a name for ourselves. If you truly impress those around you during your student teaching, you can really do wonders for yourself and your future career as a teacher.  If there are openings for teachers after you have completed your student teaching, you will be in a better position to possibly be hired on if you had an outstanding student teaching experience.  Also, on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you do poorly during your student teaching, you can really seal your fate in the opposite way and make a bad name for yourself. This is unfortunate, as you won’t be considered for teaching jobs or likely even substitute teaching at that school.  A bad reputation right after you are done student teaching is not a good way to start your actual teaching career.

We all felt like this during student teaching. Don't worry, it's totally normal to struggle and fail a little during student teaching.
We all felt like this when we first started in the classroom. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal to struggle and fail a little during student teaching.

Do be prepared to struggle and possibly fail. Whether it is classroom management, lesson planning, or discipline issues giving you fits, relish in the struggle and know that it is part of the learning process.  Here’s a little secret from your veteran teachers here at Teacher Sweepers, we still struggle after all of these years with certain issues too.  These issues change from year to year based on our clientele (the students), and we rely on each other to help one another. Learn from your struggles and failures, and ask other teachers for advice. Your fellow teachers will be the best resources for how to best deal with any issues or situations you may encounter whilst student teaching.

Ongoing evaluation will be a part of your teaching career. You might as well get used to it during your student teaching.
Observations and evaluation will be a part of your teaching career. You might as well get used to it during your student teaching.

Do remain open to feedback and constructive criticism. Your supervising teacher will be observing and evaluating you quite a bit and your student teaching supervisor from your college or university will be as well. Be open to their suggestions, implement changes as needed. While we are on the subject of feedback and constructive criticism, why not invite the principal in for an observation?  Or, if possible, have other teachers observe you teach and give you feedback.  Try to videotape yourself at least once during student teaching as well; it will be a very eye-opening experience.  Even veteran teachers tape themselves while teaching students to evaluate their instructional practices.  It will give you a unique perspective of what the students are seeing and hearing when you are delivering your lessons.  You should also try to observe other teachers in their classrooms as much as possible.  You will learn so much about teaching by watching others do it!

Someday you'll have your own classroom, but when you are a student teacher, make sure to be courteous and respectful of your supervising teacher's space.
Someday you’ll have your own classroom, but when you are a student teacher, make sure to be courteous and respectful of your supervising teacher’s space.

Don’t overstep your boundaries as a student teacher. You must remember that you are a guest in the classroom and at your host school.  Please be very mindful that you are only there for a limited amount of time, so don’t get too comfy! Never rearrange anything in the classroom (especially your host teacher’s desk) without explicit permission from your supervising teacher. I personally know one teacher who came back to his desk to find that all of his belongings had been moved by the student teacher and placed on the floor! You can imagine his shock and anger upon finding this situation. Most supervising teachers are really and truly thrilled to have you in their classroom and will likely extend a very welcoming attitude by allowing you to have your own work space and give you free reign of the classroom. But, you must always remember that it is not your own classroom. Make note of what you do and do not like about the classroom set up and the teacher work space, that way you can tweak it to your liking once you have your own classroom.

Well, there you have it – expert advice from veteran teachers about what you should and shouldn’t do during your all too brief time of student teaching. Comment below with your own advice to student teachers, or if you are getting ready to be a student teacher, ask your questions here!

How to Make This Your Best Year of Teaching Ever!

best year everIn every profession, there are bound to be good days and bad days.  As teachers, we certainly have good days and bad days in the classroom.  Many factors contribute to our assessment of whether a day was good or bad.  A bad day in teaching might consist of having to deal with “that student” again who comes to class late and is refusing to do any work, getting an angry phone call from a parent who can’t believe you haven’t taken the time to update a grade (of course the work was late and was just turned in earlier that morning), or having your prep period yanked away from you unexpectedly due to a last minute meeting that popped up and you feel obligated to attend.  Sometimes, after you’ve been in the teaching profession long enough, you may even feel like you have good years and bad years instead of just good days and bad days.  While we certainly can’t accurately predict whether a day or even a year will be good or bad for all of our loyal blog readers, here at Teacher Sweepers we have some great ideas of how you can at least attempt to make this your best year of teaching ever!  Let’s take a look at some of our tried and true ideas of how you can help yourself (and your fellow teachers) kick some ass this coming school year.

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Ready. Set. Go make this your best year EVER!

1. Start prepping for the upcoming school year earlier than you normally would. Even if you aren’t fully willing or ready to step foot in your classroom just yet, at least start by making a list of to-do items to start on as soon as you are mentally a little more ready.  We all get it – summer is amazing, and we want to savor every last juicy bit of it.  Here’s the problem though, school will be back in session, whether you are ready or not!  Ignoring the upcoming back to school season won’t make it go away, no matter how hard we try to pretend that our precious summer isn’t evaporating before our very eyes!  So take those baby steps and start getting your mind back into the game earlier this year.  School might be the last thing on your mind right now, but if you take the time to get some of your work done now, you can have those last few weeks before school starts to be a little less stressed and a little more carefree knowing you have done your prep work ahead of schedule this year.  No one likes to feel rushed and frantic right before school starts, so do yourself a favor and get those copies made, get those lesson plans done, and be fully prepared for your students to arrive.

Make the time now to get your classroom prep work done early.
Make the time now to get your classroom prep work done early before the back to school rush.

2. Spend your school year celebrating mini made up milestones with your co-workers all year long. As silly as it sounds, this idea has been seriously fun and successful. Our office of teachers decided to celebrate the school year completion in ten percent increments last year.  For every ten percent of the school year that was completed, we had a little mini celebration.  It was hilarious (we had a “wear your poncho to school” day for one of our celebrations), it was delicious (we often had food and drink celebrations), and it was something we all ended up looking forward to as a group.

Celebrate anything and everything! It will make your school year better, I promise.
Celebrate anything and everything! It will make your school year better, I promise.

3. Make a commitment to try something new this year in your classroom. Teachers can notoriously be creatures of habit when it comes to lesson planning, instruction, and even classroom management. Why not try something new and different this year? Maybe you’ve heard of another teacher gushing about a cool new app that you’ve thought about trying (hello ZipGrade – more on this later; it’s getting its own post!) or maybe you want to finally try some sort of online classroom website (Google Classroom, Edmodo, Moodle etc.) or it can be as simple as changing up the configuration of the tables or desks in your room.  Go for it!  Spice up your routine by adding a little something different.  It can be invigorating, enlightening, and it could just be your new favorite aspect of teaching.

Go ahead! Get a little techy this year in your classroom.
Go ahead and get a little techy this year in your classroom.  Try a new teaching app or online classroom platform.

4. Counteract any negativity you encounter throughout the school year with positivity. This can be a huge undertaking, and it can also be the most important and rewarding one. Let’s make a real-world connection here. Let’s say one of your students has just written all over one of your beautiful new textbooks.  You are pissed, and now you have to discipline that student, make a phone call home, write a referral, and deal with this whole situation on top of your normal teaching routine.  Instead of letting the anger consume you, cool off by writing a little note to a student who wrote an outstanding essay or take the time to call home about a student who did something thoughtful for a classmate.  It’s like the good old adage about not going to bed angry in a marriage.  Use this same theory in the classroom – don’t leave the classroom for the day angry.  That way you won’t risk allowing your foul school mood to spill over into your after school routine.

Get your anger out of your system by doing something more productive and positive.
Get your anger out of your system by doing something more productive and positive.

5. Get out of your classroom more. This is an incredibly important part of my day.  In between classes, I make sure to go out into the hall to have six precious minutes of adult interaction with my team of teachers. Passing time for the students allows me to step out of the classroom to talk and laugh a little with my colleagues, and as an added bonus we can keep an eye on our students in the hallways for a little unofficial hall duty. This also goes for the beginning of our day before school even starts.  We pretty religiously meet up at “our corner” outside of our classrooms to start our day together, and it’s a great way to start our day.  Try it – you just might like it!  Teaching can be so isolating at times, but it doesn’t have to be if you make a concerted effort to connect with others.

It may seem impossible to get out of your classroom, but do it! You'll be a better teacher because of it!
It may seem impossible to get out of your classroom, but do it! You’ll be a better teacher because of it!

6. Find your squad, your people, your posse at your school. As mentioned in number 5, teaching can be isolating.  After all, we spend most of our day surrounded by kiddos at least half our age.   Make it a priority to connect with some of your colleagues this year and form a network of like-minded teachers. You will find that cultivating relationships with your colleagues will lessen your stress and make your job more fulfilling.  Once your form your squad, make sure you carve out time to bond and spend time with one another.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to find this bonding time outside of school (although, most likely you will find yourself in extracurricular social situations with your squad).  Make time at lunch, on your prep, between classes, and before school.  Our squad religiously has pizza Fridays every week and it gives us something to look forward to all week, and we always have lots of laughs and fun when we get together.  If you can’t quite find “your people” at your school, at least try to find time to connect with at least one other person at school.  We all need a support system, and sometimes that can be found solely in one other co-worker.

Every teacher needs a buddy at school. Find your person (or people) at school and turn to them for support.
Every teacher needs a buddy at school. Find your person (or people) at school and turn to them for support.

7. Carve out some time to pamper and indulge yourself during this school year. As teachers, we can easily become consumed by putting the needs of everyone else before our own.  I have found that if I make a conscious effort to schedule in some “me time” I am a better person all around because of it.  Whether it’s a massage, getting your hair done, getting a manicure, or doing something else that is just for you – do it, and don’t feel guilty!  You deserve a little pampering, so go ahead and spoil yourself a little.  It doesn’t even have to cost money either.  I sometimes consider a solo walk out on the trail an indulgence.  Take care of your body, mind, and soul – because teaching can really take a toll on all three of these entities.

Treat yo self!
Go ahead and treat yourself!  You deserve it!

8. Take a new teacher or student teacher under your wing this school year. Think back to when you were a new teacher at your current school or go even further back to your own student teaching.  Remember how lost, insecure, and overwhelmed you felt?  How about being a guiding light to someone who is now in that same situation and experiencing those same feelings?  Befriending or mentoring a new teacher or a student teacher can be a great way for you to have a renewed sense of purpose and passion for education this school year.  Take the new teacher under your wing and be the person you wish you had to rely on during these crucial first few years of someone else’s newly blossoming teaching career.  Even if that means just simply stopping them in the hallway or dropping a quick email to see how they are doing or see if they need anything, it will mean the world to them and make you remember how far you’ve come in your own teaching career.  It will help to rejuvenate you as well when you see the innocence and excitement of a new teacher just beginning their educational journey.

We all know how overwhelming it can be to be a new teacher or a student teacher. Take that newbie under your wing and help them this year. You'll be a better teacher because of it.
We all know how overwhelming it can be to be a new teacher or a student teacher. Take that newbie under your wing and help them this year.

9. Have a sense of humor whenever possible. I cannot begin to even think about what my teaching career would be like if I had no sense of humor.  Humor has gotten me through some very tough days at school (and life in general).  Try to find the humor in every situation.  Now sometimes, that just isn’t feasible or appropriate, but whenever possible – laugh it off.  If you genuinely can’t find the humor in something because there is none to be had, at least try to find the bright side of the situation or find the lesson to be learned.  Just like you ask the students to reflect on what they’ve learned, take any difficult situation you may encounter this school year, turn it into a learning opportunity and move on.  Too often, we as teachers take things way too seriously and way too personally, when we should all just make like Elsa and LET IT GO (let’s be honest, that song is stuck in your head now, and you likely don’t even remember what was stressing you out because you’re too busy singing the soundtrack to Frozen).

Why so serious? Laugh at yourself a little this year, or someone else will do it for you!
Actual photo of me after school (just kidding). Why so serious?Laugh at yourself a little this year.

10. Last but not least, to truly reach your highest potential and have your best year of teaching ever, visit us here at teachersweepers.com for inspiration, humor, and best of all – giveaways! Remember to come back weekly for new blog posts, and monthly for new teacher-only sweepstakes.  Why not further your commitment and sign up for our mailing list? Just do it already! We won’t spam your mailbox with useless junk because quite frankly, we don’t know how to do that, nor do we have the time for it because we are busy teachers just like you! Lastly, more support from teachers like you means bigger and better prizes for all, so share our website if you will.  We love you for your ongoing support! We truly hope that Teacher Sweepers helps you to have the best year of teaching ever! best year ever

Take a minute to comment below and tell us how you plan to make this your best year ever!