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!

What Every Teacher Wishes Parents Understood

I have been a teacher for almost eighteen years now.  I have also been a parent for 13 and a half years of my teaching career.  When I was a young and innocent new teacher, I had these cute little business cards printed up that had a little slogan on the bottom that said, “Parents + Students + Teachers = Success” and back then, I truly believed that.  I still do believe in this equation… for the most part.  But, just as our students have changed over the years, so too have the parents we are interacting with in our profession.  As educators, we have seen the overbearing helicopter parents, the completely non-existent/deadbeat parent, and everything in between.  Parents can be a huge asset to teachers or a huge pain in the ass!

Leave the hovering to the helicopters and let your kids figure things out for themselves - especially when it comes to school.
Leave the hovering to the helicopters and let your kids figure things out for themselves – especially when it comes to school.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a lovely couple who, upon finding out that I am a teacher myself, told me that their daughter is a teacher as well.  They then told me that this next year would be her last year of teaching.  I mentioned that their daughter must be so excited to be on the brink of retirement.  Her parents didn’t share in that excitement, as they lamented that she was retiring earlier than she anticipated because, “she just can’t deal with the demands of the parents anymore.”  They went on to tell me that their daughter adores her students and her students love her, but the parents in their daughter’s school are all too eager to blame the teachers for anything and everything.  Yikes!

Heading into retirement early because parents are forcing you to is no way to end your teaching career.
Heading into retirement early because parents are forcing you to is no way to end your teaching career.

So, what can educators do to make the relationship between home and school stronger and better?  How can we help parents to better understand that as educators, we share the same hopes and desires for their children? We also want to see their children become successful and productive adults one day, and let’s face it – both parents and teachers have a huge role and responsibility in this undertaking.  But, when teachers feel like parents are out to get them or parents feel like teachers aren’t fulfilling their child’s educational needs, there is clearly a breakdown in that precious school to home connection – and the real loser in this all is the child/student.  Teachers and parents must become a united front when it comes to education.

Time and time again, I’ve heard it (and said it), “I just wish that parents understood…” This blanket statement doesn’t usually just stop there, as it becomes a fill in the blank of reasons parents just don’t understand.  While I am well aware that there is an innate and quite intricate relationship between both parents and teachers when it comes to student success, for the purpose of this piece, I will focus on what we as teachers wish parents understood – about us, our job, and their child.

I wish parents understood that teachers have a child’s best interest in mind in the classroom. If you are a student in my classroom, I will do whatever I possibly can to make sure you not only pass my class, but also gain valuable skills and knowledge.  I am a professional and that is my job. I went to college after all, and I actually have a master’s degree too! Of course as parents, we feel like we know our child better than anyone (and we probably do), but that doesn’t give a parent the right to try to overstep a teacher’s best intentions.  Sometimes it feels as though parents don’t fully trust teachers anymore and that distrust breeds negativity and sometimes even hostility.  Some parents have overstepped boundaries with teachers, firing off nasty emails and leaving really insulting voice mails. While I am a huge proponent of having a strong relationship between home and school, sometimes as parents, it is wise for us to just step back and let the teacher teach!  Parents, please trust us as educators.

I have a master's degree. I rock at teaching! Please let me do my thing.
I have a master’s degree.  Please trust me and let me teach. I rock at teaching!

I wish parents understood that teachers work very hard all year long to provide the best learning experience possible for all learners.  I can’t believe when people have the audacity to say, “Yeah, but teachers get the summers off, so all that hard work is worth it.”  Of course we love our summers off, but many of us have second jobs to make ends meet.  Many of us are also doing professional development over the summer for our teaching certification. Even with summers off, honestly – many teachers are still stressed out, overworked, and underpaid.  It seems that in recent years, it has become standard to attack the teaching profession.  It also seems like parents are quick to think that teachers aren’t doing their jobs properly.  While this may be the case in certain situations, it definitely isn’t the norm.  Most of the teachers I know bust their butts trying to ensure that they provide an equal opportunity learning environment for all students. So the edict of teachers not doing their jobs or having it easy because we have summers off really has no basis in reality. Teachers are very much held accountable for student learning. Strict teacher evaluation systems are in place to weed out the slackers of the teaching profession, but sadly these evaluations can be so involved and cumbersome that some seasoned teachers just don’t have it in them any longer to jump through these hoops and have enough energy left for the classroom so they leave the teaching professional altogether.

Summer is relaxing for teachers, but many of us still work during our time off from school.
Summer is relaxing for teachers, but many of us still work during our time off from school.

I wish parents understood that teachers can’t solely be blamed for their child’s grade in a class.  While I will do whatever I can as a teacher to help your child succeed, if your child is putting forth minimal effort, or is being problematic in the classroom, I can’t do my best work either. Teachers are seeing an influx of parents pointing the finger at them for the shortcomings of their own offspring. It’s hard to admit that your own child may not be the strongest in a certain subject or that a child’s behavior may be impeding their learning, but pointing the finger at the teacher can be unfair and detrimental to the student’s learning. Parents and teachers should work together to figure out why a child may be struggling and do whatever it takes to ensure student success.

Sorry, but your little cherub might not be the angel you think he is when he is in my classroom.
Sorry, but your little cherub might not be the angel you think he is when he is in my classroom.

I wish parents understood that I have (at least) 155 other students.  Yes, I understand that your child is precious to you, and please understand that your child is precious to me as well, but I have five classes a day full of around 33 students per hour. While I would absolutely love to devote my undivided attention to your child and your child only, that isn’t feasible. Rest assured that if your kiddo is struggling, I will most definitely do whatever I can to help out and make sure your child’s needs are being met.  I’ll let you in on a little secret too – every single teacher that I know would be more than happy to tutor your child free of charge, before school, after school, during lunch – whenever! You just need to ask. Heck, most teachers will even offer it before you even get a chance to ask! So just because I can’t necessarily provide one on one instruction in the classroom, there are certainly other avenues we can pursue if your child needs more individualized attention.

I can help your struggling student! Just ask me how we can work together to save their grade.
I can help your struggling student! Just ask me how we can work together to save their grade.

I wish parents understood that teaching is a teacher’s number one priority during the school day.  If a teacher doesn’t respond back to your phone call or email right away, there is no need to call the office (or worse yet – the principal) and say you can’t get ahold of that teacher because they aren’t responding back to you.  While there is no set rule as to how long a parent should have to wait to hear back from a teacher, please be patient and be aware that we spend our days teaching. We will try to get back to you as soon as we can.  If we are lucky enough to have a little bit of time during our prep period, we will try to call you back or email you back, but sometimes, we just don’t have the time!  Factor in after school meetings or other extracurricular activities, and all the sudden it’s 9 p.m. and we still aren’t home yet.  Teachers are busy professionals – please cut us some slack!  But, by all means, if you don’t hear back from us in 24-48 hours, a gentle reminder is not out of order.

We are teachers and we are busy!
We are busy teachers!  Please cut us some slack!

I wish parents understood that their children may be telling them half-truths and only part of the story.  Yes, your child may come and home and tell a sordid tale of woe involving an incident in the classroom, a missing grade in the grade book, or something that a teacher said or did at school. Please understand that as a parent, you are only getting part of the story filtered through your child’s perception of it. Please don’t jump to conclusions and please do try to get the other side of the story before deciding to make that phone call, demand a meeting, or call the principal.

Sometimes your child may take a page out of one of these books. Proceed with caution.
Sometimes your child may take a page out of one of these books. Proceed with caution.

I wish parents understood that going to a principal with a problem should really be a last resort, not a go-to solution.  I never really understand why a parent won’t try to address an issue with a teacher first.  When a principal has to intervene with a situation because a parent has contacted the office, it’s embarrassing for us as teachers.  Usually, it’s something silly that the principal should not even be bothered with in the first place.  When a parent calls the principal about an issue, it should be because there has been no resolution with the teacher after you have tried to work it out with that teacher. Often teachers are completely blindsided when a principal says they received a phone call or an email about something. Now, by all means, if it is truly a problem that needs to be dealt with by going over a teacher’s head, of course a parent should contact the administration.  This also goes for issues that have not been properly addressed by a teacher. But, parents – please, please, please – give us a call or shoot us an email before a situation is escalated and a principal is involved. We can’t help you with a problem or issue if we haven’t been made aware of it.

Give us a ring or email us. It's much easier than unnecessarily involving our administration.
Give us a ring or email us. It’s much easier than unnecessarily involving our administration.

I wish parents understood that many of us are parents ourselves and feel the same way you do.  Yes, many of us have our own kids too, and we totally get it.  We want what is best for our children too.  We understand how important their education is. We all want our children to be successful and independent, but sometimes you have to resist the urge to be too helpful when it comes to your child’s educational struggles. Sometimes kids need to fight their own battles.  More and more parents seem to want to swoop in and save their babies. While I understand that as a parent, as a teacher, it can be frustrating when a parent is always there hovering in the background waiting to be the hero and rescue their child. Part of growing up and maturing involves struggling and problem-solving.  If a parent is constantly intervening and not allowing their child to experience failure in life, you are doing a huge disservice to your child.  Let your kid struggle, let your kid fail, let your kid figure it out for themselves.  Try being a guide on the side to your struggling child and gently help them make the right choices, but allow them to make mistakes too.

Please let your kids solve their own problems sometimes. It will help them to become better people.
Please let your kids solve their own problems sometimes. It will help them to become better people in the long run.

The bottom line is this – teachers are human, and we make mistakes. No teacher is perfect.  We have good days and bad days, just like any other professional. The same is true for parents; we have good days and bad days as parents too. Parents and teachers need to allow a child some room to grow and experience their own growing pains as they figure out how to navigate through their education and their lives in general. When parents and teachers work together to provide the best educational learning environment possible, we all win! So, can we please work together, for your child’s sake?

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!

Reflections of a First Time (Education) Blogger

IMG_1082My little baby blog is celebrating its one month anniversary today! To celebrate, I thought I would do a wee bit of a reflection about what I have learned so far about this whole blogging gig. While this is solely based on my own (in)experience, if you are new to blogging or considering it, I hope that this reflective piece will help others. I’m big into lists, so I figured I would assemble a top ten list of things I learned my first month of blogging, suggestions I have for others, and just general little nuggets of wisdom I have gleaned this past month.  Let’s get started!

Actual photo of what blogging can often feel like.
Actual photo of what blogging can often feel like.
  1. Blogging is a lot of work. I can see how it could easily consume your life! But I have to say, it’s so incredibly fulfilling and rewarding and even cathartic on many levels, so it’s totally been worth it. Would I ever give up teaching to become a full-time blogger? No way. Do I love doing it in addition to my teaching gig? You bet! I do have to say I am a bit nervous about school starting back up and still having enough time to devote to this pet project of mine and my beloved students. I have to admit, I have used my summer time wisely, and I have stockpiled some blog posts so I have them ready to roll in case I don’t have time when the back to school craziness starts.

    Be your own quality control - give your readers quality over quantity when it comes to new blog posts.
    Be your own quality control – give your readers quality over quantity when it comes to new blog posts.
  2. Avoid the temptation to kick out new posts too often. Yes, you want to build your content and your website, but you need to find a nice rhythm of posting. I committed to posting at least once a week. I certainly don’t want to abuse my privilege as a blogger, and I don’t want to give my readers anything but the best of my writing. I also don’t want to overwhelm my readers with too much at one time, otherwise you run the risk of annoying your readers. You definitely want to avoid watered down posts on your blog. Just because you have something hot off the press, it doesn’t mean you should fire it off to your readers right away. Give it some time to marinate! You may end up regretting posting something too soon for a variety of reasons, so it’s better to just hold onto some content rather than hitting the publish button too soon. As a new blogger, it can be super tempting to churn out a lot of content in a little time just to fill your blog, but it’s going to take time and patience. Just relax, and fill your blog content with quality not quantity.

    Blogging is not a get rich quick scheme!
    Making money from your blog is time-consuming and advertising on your blog can be tricky! Be patient and you’ll figure it out… eventually!
  3. Figuring out the monetization of your blog can be much more difficult than it should be. I definitely did my research (hello, I’m an English teacher – I teach research!) and I was very confused about something as simple as Google AdSense. Nothing makes you feel like an idiot faster than not being able to figure something out quickly. I had to read and reread articles about Google AdSense and even watch a couple of videos before I felt confident enough to try to get it up and running. Even as I am typing this right now, I am unsure if I am doing it right or if it is working properly! But hey, at least I tried.

    Having a business card for your blog is a smart move for many reasons.
    Having a business card for your blog is a smart move for many reasons.
  4. Consider ordering business cards for your blog. I ordered mine yesterday! I can’t tell you how many times my blog has come up in conversations lately. I know darn well I can’t depend on someone to remember what my website name is, so if I have a business card, I can definitely hand it to them and drum up some more support for it. Brilliant! It’s also one step closer to proving to myself and others that this blogging gig should be treated like a business (because it is!) and a business card is a perfect representation of my professionalism.

    Creating a successful blog is a lot like putting a puzzle together. You have to have patience and wait for all of the pieces to fit together.
    Creating a successful blog is a lot like putting a puzzle together. You have to have patience and wait for all of the pieces to fit together.
  5. Patience is a must in the land of blogging. I am definitely pretty tech-savvy on a basic level, but add in all of this new stuff on WordPress and Google AdSense, and I’m left feeling pretty inept some days. Lucky for me, I have a thirteen year old who will gladly roll his eyes at me and then help me whilst muttering under his breath about how I don’t know anything. I’ve also had to learn to have patience with having my blog take off like I want it to and I know it eventually will. In my fantasy land, I just thought that you would publish your blog and BOOM, your blog would take off and you would have so many people flocking to your blog virtually salivating just waiting for your next post. Ummmm… nope! It takes hard work, patience, networking, and even then, nothing is guaranteed as far as the loyalty of your readership is concerned. Maybe someday I won’t have to beg and plead to have anyone and everyone come visit my blog; until then, I’m at least nice about my begging and pleading! Hey, we all have to start somewhere – so I am employing the no shame in asking/begging/pestering routine daily.

    Get rid of the doubt so you can experience blogging success!
    Get rid of the doubt so you can experience blogging success!
  6. Self-doubt and questioning of your sanity are buy one get one free when it comes to blogging. After I started this blog and published my first couple of posts, the self-doubt immediately started creeping in on me. You know, those negative thoughts about what if no one supports this blog, what if no one reads it, what if I am terrible at what I am doing? Yes, you will doubt yourself. You will second guess yourself. You will beat yourself up for things you feel like you should or should not have done with your blog. You will start to feel slightly to moderately crazy for even choosing the blog life. But, you know what? That doubt and questioning of your sanity start to go away and are quickly replaced with confidence, a sense of accomplishment, and pride knowing you are chasing a dream of yours!

    Oh, Pinterest! How did I ever live my life without you?
    Oh, Pinterest! How did I ever live my life without you?
  7. Pinterest will be your best friend for blogging resources. To all of the other bloggers before me who have taken the time to post their goodies on Pinterest – THANK YOU! I salute you for your hard work and your willingness to help those of us completely new to this whole blogging stuff! Tapping into someone else’s expertise is highly recommended. Chances are, if you have a question about blogging or you are looking for a “how to” guide on something blog related, someone has likely created a pin for it and has posted it on Pinterest. I have found better information on all things blog related on Pinterest than I have just from trying to hunt around for the information on my own.

    Blogging has become part of my nightly routine, and it's oddly relaxing.
    Blogging has become part of my nightly routine, and it’s oddly relaxing.
  8. Settle into a routine for writing and blog posting. It’s been very important for me to set aside time for blogging and to choose at least one day a week where I will post my new post. I have committed to doing at least one new blog post a week. It helps to keep me accountable for the upkeep of my content, and it helps my readers to stay engaged as well. I’ve developed a habit of settling in each night by turning on the TV for background noise, kicking up my feet, and then firing up the laptop to check my blog for comments, take a look at my website statistics, do a little campaigning via social media, answer emails, and then jotting down ideas for blog posts or tweaking unpublished posts. I’ve also found that if I am not in the mood to write, I just pull the plug on it and come back to it later. I like my writing to be organic and genuine rather than forced and trite. I find that since I have established this nightly ritual, I have really come to look forward to this sacred time each evening – it’s quite relaxing!

    Be prepared to make lots of mistakes as a new blogger. It's part of the learning process.
    Be prepared to make lots of mistakes as a new blogger. It’s part of the learning process.
  9. You can, and will make mistakes – and that’s okay! Yep – the first day of my blog, I accidentally deleted the whole thing. The. Whole. Thing. I nearly cried. I was so excited to go live, and I dutifully did my first post, my about me page, and put some pics on it. I went live, and then I went into my account and tried to download something, and BAM, my blog was totally gone. I panicked and tried to undo it, and then I realized I was totally out of my league and got tech support involved. Thanks to the lovely folks at Bluehost, they were able to totally recover everything I worked so hard on and then subsequently quite easily deleted! Phew. Crisis averted. I am a self-taught blogger who did a lot of pre-work via research and took advice from current bloggers, so I am totally willing and able to make mistakes. The key is to learn from those mistakes and then hopefully avoid those same mistakes in the future.

    Relax! Just try to enjoy the blogging experience!
    Relax! Just try to enjoy the blogging experience! Don’t get caught up in all of the craziness that can come with starting a new blogging adventure.
  10. Relax and embrace the experience. It can be so tempting to become psychotically obsessed about the data generated from your blog and plugins like Google AdSense. I am totally not doing my blog as a money-making venture; I truly want to make a difference in the lives of my fellow teachers. Now, if I happen to make some extra income off this blog of mine, that’s great because I can recycle it right back into my efforts to provide bigger and better giveaways. It can also help to defray my costs of operating this little blog of mine. So, if I make some extra moolah from it – that’s great! But, if you are truly in the blogging business for money-making purposes only, good luck. It certainly isn’t a get rich quick scheme, and even if it is somehow miraculously producing gobs of money for a blogger, I can guarantee there was some serious hard work involved! Also, beware of all of the weirdos who come out of the woodwork emailing you trying to sell you their business propaganda promising you that if you buy their product, your traffic and income will skyrocket. Just ignore them and delete their emails. Some of these vultures can be very annoying and persistent. But, the solicitation will ease up in a couple of weeks and you can be free to work your own magic! You don’t need their empty promises anyway!

So, there you have it. Month one of my blog done and in the books and on the web! I plan to look back each month and reflect on what I’ve learned and think about what my plans are for the upcoming month. The teacher in me likes to reflect on my past experiences and develop some goals to make Teacher Sweepers totally epic! Have any questions about blogging in general? Ask them below! I will answer them honestly and genuinely without sugar-coating anything. Also, if you would like advice about starting your own blogging adventure or if you want to be a guest blogger here at Teacher Sweepers, email me: maya@teachersweepers.com.

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What I Learned about Teaching Students from Working with Dogs

dogblogI often joke that in addition to being a high school English teacher, I am also a professional dog stalker. The only problem is, I am totally not joking. If there is a dog around, chances are I am making a beeline for it. I often forget to talk to the human that may be accompanying any dog I encounter. I will also remember your dog’s name before I remember yours. Our local tennis courts share a fence with our local dog park, and my tennis partner knows how to make me miss a swing at the tennis ball by simply gasping and saying, “Oh my gosh, look at that dog.” Yes, I am a dog person, a dogaholic, that crazy dog lady!

I also happen to know a lot about dogs.  I am a dog mom to six (yes, 6) rescue mutts. I also currently have a seventh dog at my house because I rescued a stray who was roaming around our neighborhood for days. I could bore you with useless analogies likening my relationship to dogs to that of peanut butter and jelly, but I think you get the point – I am obsessed with dogs. So obsessed that I actually work part time on the weekends for a premium dog food company as a Blue Buffalo sales rep. I get the fancy title of being called a Pet Detective, because I am interacting with pet parents and talking about their beloved furry friends, and I am listening for clues as to what I can recommend from our exceptional line of products.

Dogs add so much to our lives. I love interacting with dogs and my students.
Dogs add so much to our lives. I love interacting with dogs and my students.

While I am advocating for my brand and interacting with the pet parents, I quite often have the opportunity to observe the dog training classes. While I listen to the dog trainer with her clients, and while I interact with my own dogs, I can’t help but see the correlations between dog training and teaching in my own classroom. As silly as it sounds, if you think about it, the goals of dog training and teaching our beloved students are one in the same: we are both teaching our “clients” valuable and necessary skills in order for them to lead more productive and successful lives. PetSmart says this about their trainers, “Trained in canine behavior, learning theory and problem solving, our skilled Accredited Dog Trainers use a positive approach to help get great results at each stage.” Let’s swap some words out of that and see how we can apply that to teachers in education: “Trained in student behavior, learning theory, and problem solving, our skilled certified teachers use a positive approach to help get great results in each grade.” So now that I have just written a stellar mission statement for a new charter school, who would like to come teach at this fabulous new school of mine?

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Our furry friends can add some insight into how to best teach our beloved students.

All humor aside, once you get past the preposterous notion that puppies and students have more in common than we might initially admit, the similarities between dog training and teaching human students are actually quite striking. Just the other day I overheard the dog trainer tell her puppy kindergarten class that, “a lack of physical and mental stimulation leads to undesired behavior.” Now, think about that for a minute as it pertains to teaching. Couldn’t that easily be from a chapter on classroom management in a leading education textbook too? We all know how important it is to engage our students in the classroom – most definitely mentally and if possible, physically. If a child is not adequately stimulated and challenged, poor behavior can occur. While we won’t experience the barking, chewing, and property destruction that a bored puppy might produce, we can certainly see the repercussions of a non-engaged, non-stimulated student in our classroom. A bored student can and will act out in your classroom, as we all have observed and experienced. But, believe it or not, the similarities between puppies and students don’t end there.

Yes, you can teach an old dogs new tricks - the same way you teach students!
Yes, you can teach an old dogs new tricks – the same way you teach students!

Watching dog training classes is very much like witnessing what would occur in an actual classroom with human students. While observing the puppies in class, it isn’t hard to identify the different types of students who are attending. The similarities between the different types of puppies and the students in our own classrooms are striking and uncanny. Take for example that one superstar puppy already behaving and doing what it should be doing. You know, that one student who is almost too perfect? The one who really probably doesn’t even need to take your class because he/she is really that smart and gifted. But the student attends the class just to jump through the hoops and is on to bigger and better things like becoming an astrophysicist and your class was just merely a necessary stepping stone in the grand scheme of things. This is the same student who is wise and mature beyond his/her years and has no time for the shenanigans of immature peers. You almost feel sorry for this student, because you can just sense that there is a constant level of annoyance with this student having to put up with the others in the classroom.

This is Jacob. He may look innocent, but he is a talker, and he will take the whole class down with him!
This is Jacob. He may look innocent, but he is a talker, and he will take the whole class down with him!

Next up, there is that one puppy who loves to hear himself bark/talk and can be quite the social butterfly. This is the puppy who barks, and barks, and barks! Oh how we love those students in our class who are clearly there to socialize and how dare we interrupt their social hour with our teaching? It’s that kid who you have to strategically place in a seating chart because he will talk to EVERYONE. It’s that student who you wish you could just look straight in the eye and say, “SHUT UP!” (but you would never do that, because you are a professional… but we won’t judge you for your own private thoughts and fantasies). This is the same one who would literally talk to the wall if you placed him there in an effort to thwart his undying dedication to talking non-stop… You are smiling because you are picturing that student, and he has name. It’s Jacob, isn’t it?  Dammit Jacob, I am trying to teach!

Oh sweet shy puppy... It's a crazy world out there.
Oh sweet shy puppy… It’s a crazy world out there.

The next type of puppy is the one who is shy and reserved and totally freaked out by all of the fussing/barking going on in the class. It’s that student who you try so hard to draw out of her shell and draw into the class discussion. But alas, no amount of coaxing can convince her to outwardly participate. But when that student is with you one on one, she totally opens up to you and shows you how much she really is learning and getting out of your teaching, it’s just that she is painfully shy and the thought of speaking up around her peers is overwhelming and terrifying.

How about the puppy who cannot pay attention no matter what? This is the puppy who is way too concerned about what every other puppy is doing in class, so this puppy has a very hard time focusing on the trainer. This is the same puppy who is all too eager to distract his classmates and deter them from paying attention. This puppy slowly but surely lures his classmates one by one into the sordid world of off-task behavior. He is the pied piper of inattentiveness and tomfoolery! If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because we usually have multiple students who struggle in the attention department in our classroom. Isn’t it amazing how the one child who cannot pay attention can so easily persuade his classmates to join him? It’s like a terrible game of distraction dominoes, and that is a game you do not want to lose when playing with your classroom management methods. Dog training classes focus on impulse-control, and much of my Freshman English course does too.

It's a good thing that dogs are so lovable! Same goes for my students!
It’s a good thing that dogs are so lovable! Same goes for my students!

Often, we need to use different types of positive reinforcements to help with issues such as impulse control. What if I told you that the same types of positive reinforcements used in puppy classes work on human students too? Puppies respond very well to verbal praise. I can attest to the fact that my students also enjoy verbal praise (and I love giving it out quite freely and often). Puppies also like to have a treat for a job well done, and I have been known to dole out a Blow Pop or two for an extra reward or incentive. The bottom line is this – puppies and students enjoy knowing when they are doing something pleasing and good! In order to make sure that our little learners are keeping up the good work, we need to keep up the positive reinforcements. A thoughtful, handwritten note to a student for a job done well can have a lasting impression on our precious pupils. A positive phone call home praising a student’s hard work in your classroom can set the stage for further success. Positive reinforcements are so much more valuable and helpful to a puppy and/or student compared to punitive actions in most situations.

We need to throw our students a bone now and then and praise them for their efforts.
We need to throw our students a bone now and then and praise them for their efforts.

At the end of classes, the dog trainer always tells the pet parent what the homework is for the week. Just like dogs, our human students need to practice and refine their skills. Learning is not a one shot deal. We need to pay homage to the old adage about “practice makes perfect.” Although I am certainly not looking for perfection as an indicator of success, I am looking for growth in my classroom. I don’t measure the success of my students solely on formative and summative assessments – students need to practice tasks before it comes to any test or assessment. We cannot teach a dog to sit, stay, or roll over just once and expect it to know how to do it. That’s why homework is an important part of any instruction. Pet parents need to work with their dogs on their skills to develop and master those desired behaviors. Teachers need to work with their students on their skills to develop and master the curriculum. And here you thought I was crazy for comparing puppies to students; it’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it?

Sometimes dogs and students need a little more practice at something.
Sometimes dogs and students need a little more practice at something.

Most dogs and students are eager to please and want to impress you with their skills and knowledge. Most dogs and students also just want to be told they are doing a good job and may need some gentle reminders about what is appropriate behavior. Then the trainer or teacher chooses what needs corrective action and how to appropriately counteract any negative or undesired behaviors. Most dogs are highly trainable, just as most students are highly teachable. It’s all about finding what works best for our students. After all, we all want tail wags from our doggies and those incredible aha moments from our students in our classrooms. PetSmart touts its training efforts as fun, effective, and focused on success; the same can be said about my efforts in my classroom.

Well, there you have it, my semi-serious, semi-comical comparison between puppies and students. Although this blog post is not necessarily meant to be taken seriously, I do believe there is some wisdom to be gleaned from relating our teaching to other parts of our lives. What comparisons can you make between other areas of your life and your efforts in your classroom? Comment below!

July’s Winner and August’s Giveaway

IMG_1072Hello to my fellow teachers! First of all, I’d like to take a moment to say to all of you who are going back into the classroom tomorrow (and in the next couple of weeks) best of luck on a rewarding, successful, and productive school year. I personally don’t go back until September, but August always has that little bit of a cloud over it as the end of summer draws nearer and all of the hopes, dreams, and fears of a new school year loom on the horizon. I hope everyone has had a chance to recharge their batteries during summer break. It’s so important as teachers that we have some downtime and time with our families and loved ones.

I’ve had a fun summer. I started off my summer break with that amazingly unforgettable trip to NYC that helped me to launch this little labor of love Teacher Sweepers. I’m so excited to see where this goes and watch it grow. I have high hopes for this blog, and I know with hard work and determination, it will grow and we will be able to offer bigger and better teacher-centered giveaways, contests, and sweepstakes.

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Oh, New York! You made me fall in love with you and you inspired me to start Teacher Sweepers! I love New York!

Rest assured we are working hard behind the scenes to pull some strings to bring you some awesome prizes. We just got our ads up and running here on our website too in order to generate a little bit more income which will be recycled into our prizes and giveaways for fellow teachers. So, please, by all means – click on some ads for us! We also may have some upcoming links with affiliate marketing so we can make a little commission here at Teacher Sweepers to help our cause. We promise not to try to talk you into purchasing anything, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anything we don’t personally use ourselves. But, we want to be totally upfront and honest with our readers because that whole transparency thing is something we are big on around here!

We’ve also started a Generosity campaign to help provide funds for a weekly giveaway (hey, we are total dreamers here at Teacher Sweepers, so we are dreaming big). You can check that out here. Please, feel free to share that link with people who might be interested in donating, especially any rich relatives, philanthropists, or anyone else who loves to give to great causes! We are also working on sponsors and donors to be able to bring you more amazing goodies. Also, if you didn’t catch the blog post about Teacher Sweepers asking for writers, check that out here. We’d love to have you be a guest blogger for us – no experience necessary.

Now accepting donations! We love our donors!
Now accepting donations! We love our donors!

I’d like to take a moment to thank all of you who took the time to participate in our very first giveaway. I’m so excited to announce the winner and tell you about our next giveaway for August. I can’t just tell you the winner though, because of course, I need to build some suspense. So instead, I am going to tell you all about our next giveaway, and then I’ll tell you the winner, I promise. The August giveaway will always have a special place in my heart because it is the first actual donation I received after sending those donation letters out in early July. I am still in negotiations with some others, and I still have yet to hear from some. But I am keeping the faith that I will have plenty of other opportunities to work with some awesome companies to provide the best giveaways to my peers. I just know it will happen!

I must tell you that I reached out to one of my personal favorite education-centered companies for a donation, and they did not disappoint! To be honest, they were the only educational place that I sent out a letter to because I really, really, really love them. Teacher’s Discovery has been a favorite of mine for years now! I always look forward to their catalogs (go ahead and order one here, you won’t be disappointed, and you may even drool a little bit over the awesomeness of their products), and they seriously have some of the best and most unique products out there for teachers. What I love about this company is stated perfectly on their About Us page – here is an excerpt: “Teacher’s Discovery has been in the business of providing wacky, current educational tools and goodies for over 40 years. We started out selling T-shirts, and now we sell anything a teacher could want and need. Your classroom is your corner of the world, and we want to help make it as fun and interesting as possible.”

Our friends at Teacher’s Discovery want you to be spoiled a little, and they are offering a $25.00 gift certificate to one lucky winner! Thank you Teacher’s Discovery for such a generous donation! So, in order to enter this giveaway, what you need to do is take a look at their website and find your favorite item. Once you’ve picked your favorite product (good luck picking just one… seriously!) come back here and comment below with your favorite product from Teacher’s Discovery for your chance to win! One lucky winner will be picked and announced on September 1st, so you have all of August to check out the awesome goodies on their website.

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Last but not least… We have to choose our winner for July’s contest! So… our July winner of the Amazon gift card is…  RHONDA P. who wants to purchase a new pencil sharpener!  Congrats Rhonda and check your email! Thanks everyone for participating in our giveaways!