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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Before the Deluge: Planning Tips for New Teachers

Here's how to sail—and not sink—in your first classroom.

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During my first year teaching, I jumped from rock to rock, lesson to lesson, crisis to crisis. It was a mess for me and for my 4th grade students in the Bronx. I didn't make it to a second year in the same school.
Wading through the year in rookie survival mode took a mental and physical toll. I wasn't getting the results I desperately wanted, and it felt awful. I became deeply invested in my students' learning and growth, so the realization that they weren't progressing at a high standard was crushing. Student outbursts frequently marred our classroom community. Often, I couldn't even get my kids to listen to the words I was saying. I took my failure to run a high-functioning classroom personally.
A teacher's first year in the classroom doesn't have to be so awful. If you're preparing to step into your first class as teacher of record, there are things you can do to ensure that your year goes more smoothly than mine. With years of successful teaching behind me, I now see clearly how new teachers might make plans during summer that will put them in position for a successful school year. These five tips should help you prepare for the deluge you'll face in your rookie year.

Think Macro

Pick one or two major, relevant themes to focus on and organize your content around them for the year. The closer these themes connect to students' worlds, the better. For example, a 6th grade earth science class might be rebranded with the theme, "Everything Is Connected." An 11th grade U.S. history survey course could become "Why Things Change." Elementary-level generalists have a freer hand to create interdisciplinary themes like "Power," "Structures," or "Why People Act the Way They Do."
Once you've settled on a theme, break down the scope and sequence of your curriculum into smaller chunks related to it, so that students can clearly understand the connective tissue that binds their learning. The earth science class isn't only about learning earth science; it's a key to observing, understanding, and building connections. A kid who may not be turned on by the processes of soil percolation may be engaged by the big idea that every action has far-reaching consequences.
This long-range planning in summer will be time-intensive, but it will offer a significant return on investment. The effectiveness of your theme-based planning will improve drastically with each year of experience you accrue. Individual lesson planning is important, but it can put you on an exhausting—and frustrating—hamster wheel if you don't have your class moving consistently in a clear direction. Student engagement will be much higher if students buy into being part of a long-term learning campaign—as opposed to hopping around within an arbitrary body of content.
Solid macro-planning also dramatically reduces your stress when you miss a day of school, which may happen multiple times during your rookie year. It's easier to make plans for your substitute, slotted into your coherent units, than it is to build time-filling material from scratch. And your kids will continue learning.
Within the broad theme you select, try to give students space to personalize as many of their experiences as possible. In your summer planning, consider in a general way how you might provide students opportunities to direct their own learning and to select material they want to explore. Offer various routes to get to the lesson's objective. Configure short- and long-term assignments in ways that allow many different paths to mastery of the standards. For example, if you were planning for an earth science class on the theme of connections, students would have a lot of room to try out the scientific method with hypotheses of their choosing.

Talk About Learning

Don't assume that your students have a rich understanding of their own learning processes. Talking with students about their learning is as empowering as leading them through content.
During the summer, read up on Bloom's taxonomy and Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. Devise short lessons on them and make visual aids about them for your classroom. These can look different for different grade levels, but they should always include models and nonprint texts.
Ultimately, each student is responsible for making his or her way through the world; you are with that student for a limited time. Arming each student with the intellectual capital to understand and pursue his or her own learning will have lasting impact far beyond the content in your lessons.
Plan how you might weave talk of pedagogy and learning into your classes. Why not set up a structure for how you can, at times, stop the show to hold community meetings with your kids on how the class is working for them? You'll continually be assessing students' progress—formally and informally—in a range of ways, but it's important to offer them voice and ownership over how well they feel they're learning. These types of conversations feel important to students—because they are.

Expect to Be Relentless

Slogans about learning are easy; sustained support for student growth is exceptionally hard. You'll need to live out your high expectations of kids in myriad ways: through relationship building, strategic scaffolding, exercising self-discipline and follow-through, and simply not accepting underachievement. Each of these practices roll easily off the tongue (or the typing fingers), but maintaining them in the face of overwhelming responsibility and a relentless schedule requires a certain mind-set that you can start cultivating before September.
Not accepting underachievement was the hardest challenge of my rookie year. I was so grateful to garner any student participation (as opposed to off-task or hostile behavior) that I showered with praise anyone who indicated he or she was on my team. Outsized praise met every student attempt, even off-base ones. After all, I was in survival mode. I was lowering my bar without realizing it.
Classroom life will require improvisation and deviation from your best-laid plans. But you'll need to know in your own mind what's nonnegotiable. It's a good idea to decide in the summer what your lines in the sand will be. For example, "I will never pretend not to hear it if a student makes an antagonistic statement or curses." Commit to spend two lunch periods per week with students, and leverage this time as a reward. You'll be surprised at how much kids, even your most oppositional, will crave one-on-one time with you and how illuminating these opportunities can be. If a month into the school year you find that these nonnegotiables are out of touch with classroom reality, you can always reevaluate them.

Make Friends with Great Educators

Millions of smart teachers have come before you. Try to drink up as much of their wisdom as you can. Given the proliferation of teacher blogs and open educational resources, seeking teaching tips and resources from the Internet can be like drinking from a fire hose. Still, get into that fracas. Join educator networks and organizations, read blogs, sign up for newsletters.<FOOTNOTE><NO>1</NO>EdSurge-Instruct is a good newsletter for integrating technology into teaching. SmartBlog on Education is also worth checking out. Consider joining a professional association that suits your teaching context, such as the National Council of Teachers of English, National Science Teachers Association, or ASCD.</FOOTNOTE>
Before the term starts, reach out to other teachers who work at your school; become allies with them. Some will become key bastions of support, expertise, and institutional knowledge. They can help you with issues you can't figure out on your own—because they've been there with the same kids you're about to teach.
Cultivating networks of teachers with more experience and craft knowledge is how you get better. Think about how people improve at anything—by gaining experts' perspectives and then adding lots of individual practice and reflection.

Connect with Families

This can't fall by the wayside when things get busy. Your connections with parents and families will determine the success of your year; their importance can't be overstated. You need parents on your side. That means you need to earn their respect through substantive, supportive communication.
Buy a paper calendar and post it in a place you can't avoid. At the start of the school year, before the crush of responsibilities comes, mark off times on this calendar when you plan to call or e-mail the parents of each student in your class; plan to make your first contact on the first day of school.
Commit to learning to use an app or two that can provide continuous feedback loops to parents. There are many tools out there that can support your students with "anytime, anywhere" learning—go forth into the blogosphere and find them. Many apps (like EdModo and Class Dojo) offer closed, customizable networks that make it easy to share information with parents and students and to get class communities talking substantively to one another. When you use high-quality digital tools to share real-time data on your students with parents, your kids will get more support and your life will be easier. A high-functioning parent-teacher relationship provides the support a child needs to work toward becoming his or her best self—24 hours a day.
Use summer to prepare a survey to send to students' homes. This can provide invaluable information and context about your kids. Also, families appreciate being asked—and students appreciate your taking the time to get to know about them as individuals—so you'll curry goodwill in the process. Ask open-ended questions like, What does your child enjoy doing most? What is something important about your child that previous teachers may not have known? What helps your child face challenges? Pay attention to what you hear back and weave this information into your interactions with the student.

Raise the Floor, Dismantle the Ceiling

These tips presume some room for you to design your own practice. Schools vary in how much flexibility and ownership over their teaching practice they give teachers; if you're in a school that limits your decision making, you may have to adapt these suggestions to roll with your school's arrangements.
There will always be a learning curve for new teachers—teaching, after all, is a richly nuanced art and science. Yet these tips should help new teachers raise the floor and dismantle the ceiling for what their class community can achieve.
In this video, Ryan Twentey, ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator, offers advice to new teachers.
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Dan Brown, a National Board Certified teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School (Arcade, 2011), serves as director of national engagement for the Jefferson Education Exchange. 

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