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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

Four Practices I Wish I'd Known as a New Teacher

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Instructional Strategies
I began my career as a high school English teacher 18 years ago, fresh out of college, without having had much formal training in education. I learned on the job by trial and error (mostly error) and found the first five years especially difficult.
Teaching, I discovered, is not unlike parenthood—the early years feel impossible at times: the late nights, the constant work and worry, the giving more than we sometimes get in return. And yet, as with raising children, teaching becomes more manageable as we grow familiar with the routines and habits the job requires.
I'm so glad I never gave up on teaching. Thanks to my profession, I have had the opportunity to live and teach in five countries outside the United States and engage in edifying research, writing, and consulting work. Now, in year 18, I find myself back in the classroom full-time, and I can honestly say I have never enjoyed my work so much. I feel in control of my craft. I have a handle on pacing, assessment, and reporting. I have routines that make deadlines a light ripple rather than a tsunami of stress. And I have learned through experience how best to manage sticky situations with parents, students, and colleagues. In short, I rode out the hardest years in teaching and found the sweet spot that I was looking for in that first decade.
I was asked recently what advice I would give to teachers in their first years on the job. In response, I offer this brief list of tips from someone who's been there. For additional context, I've included a breakdown of the practices I used to do (as a beginning teacher) and what I do now.

1. Don't do anything but assess the first weeks of the school year.

What I Used to Do: In my first decade of teaching, I would begin right away with the content. We'd dive into The Odyssey or Pablo Neruda's poetry, and in a month or two I'd give a big assessment, like a test or paper, where I'd see how strong a writer or thinker each student was.
What I Do Now: Instead of jumping right into whatever content I'm supposed to teach, I now spend the first two to three weeks assessing students' writing, presentation, and speaking skills. On the second day of class, students always write a benchmark essay on their summer reading. The essay has an open-ended prompt; this year's was, "What issue matters most to you and why should it matter to your community or the world at-large? Use personal experience, summer reading texts, and any prior learning to answer the prompt succinctly and persuasively." I comment on these papers and give a "no-count" formative grade. This benchmark essay serves a vital function by showing each student (and me) via a rubric where the student is in terms of meeting the standards at the beginning of the year. Typically, a few essays score low; this red flag helps me keep tabs on students who will need extra support and communication. This benchmark essay stays in students' portfolios as a baseline against which we can compare their future writing.
My grade-level team and I do something similar, this time for a grade, assigning students a second summer-reading assessment. We ask students to highlight a similarity between at least two of their free-choice summer reading texts and present a cogent, evidence-based argument to the class on that topic. As you can see in the linked assignment and rubric, students are assessed on their persuasive and oral presentation skills. With these two different assessments in the first two weeks of school, we wind up with a good amount of data on our new students. Assessing student work holistically in this way also helps set the tone for the year; students are alert, busy, and engaged from the beginning, and they understand that the class will focus on complex, open-ended questions and on developing a variety of skills.

2. Start student portfolios for all assessed work on the first day of school.

What I Used to Do: I had never heard of portfolios when I started teaching, so I did what my own teachers had done for me: I graded and handed back students' tests, papers, and quizzes. What students did with those assessments I never knew or worried about, and I never saw those assessments again.
What I Do Now: On the first day of class, I pass out manila-style folders, one for each student. (I recommend using different colored folders for each of your sections to stay organized.) Students write their name on the folder's label, and every assessed piece of work that students complete goes into the portfolio and stays there for the year, on a shelf in my classroom.
The reason we make sure the portfolio and all assessed work stays in the classroom is simple: Over the years, I've discovered that even the most organized, conscientious students will misplace or lose work if it goes home, and we want a chronological record of all their work and progress throughout the year. Our promise to students and parents is that their work is safe and accessible at any time in the classroom, and they may request photocopies of the graded work or take photos with their mobile phones if they want to bring the feedback home to look over when working on their next assignment. The goal here is not secrecy but safekeeping. Once students and parents understand this, there is usually no pushback.
There are many advantages to using portfolios of all assessed work, but here are my top three:
  • Many colleagues share how useful it is to reference portfolios when grading and reporting time comes around. Portfolios allow teachers who are required to write narrative comments or conference with students to quickly recall that student's progress and provide specific feedback on areas of growth and struggle.
  • Twice a year, at the end of each semester, we ask students to complete a comprehensive portfolio self-evaluation. It's gratifying to see them examine a year's worth of their work and really acknowledge their challenges and accomplishments. I've had students who struggled all year and felt frustrated by their grades come away from their final portfolio self-evaluations feeling confident and proud of their improvement.
  • Portfolios are invaluable for parent-teacher conferences, especially for those tense meetings with parents who are anxious about their child's grade. In a relatively subjective course like English, it's wonderful to be able to pull out an anonymous copy of a very strong essay from another portfolio, an A-range paper, and put it side-by-side with a struggling student's work. Parents' tension usually dissolves immediately when they can see the difference in the quality of the work, and the meeting often shifts to a focus on strategies and solutions rather than grades and pushback.
Some schools already have digital portfolios in place, and others use portfolios as a showcase of students' best work—something they can carry with them from year to year. This is a slightly different approach. While I believe that showcase or digital portfolios have an important place in student learning—allowing students to curate and self-evaluate based on criteria for the strongest work they've completed—the portfolio I use is simpler and serves a straightforward purpose. From here, the transition to digital or showcase portfolios is relatively easy, since students' work is already in one place. And if you, like me, use an online grading program, you can print off the essays with digital comments and include them in the portfolio, or ask students to include their digital work when writing their portfolio self-evaluation.
Another reason that portfolios of assessed work can be useful: This year, many schools, including ours, have seen an uptick in colleges requesting graded writing samples from seniors. In a country where nearly half of high school graduates have an A average, it is getting harder for colleges to assess how meaningful those grades are. One way they are starting to test for quality control is by requesting graded samples of work. Last year, I had a half-dozen seniors come back and request a copy of a graded essay from their junior year so that they could send it off with their application. Having students' portfolios in my filing cabinet from the year before made this process a cinch. We now have a policy of keeping the 11th graders' portfolios through their 12th grade year to ensure that no work gets misplaced.

3. Make the kids do the heavy lifting.

What I Used to Do: I have always been more comfortable with a discussion-based classroom than a lecture-based classroom, as that is the environment I most experienced in high school and college (my English major and Spanish minor had me interacting more often than listening and notetaking). But during the first five years of my career, that discussion-based setting was always directed and planned by me. If I was teaching Camus' The Stranger, I would write out all my discussion notes the night before and attempt to guide students through the key moments and passages of the assigned reading of that novel, hoping they'd "get there" themselves. Sometimes they would, sometimes they wouldn't, even though I'd prep for hours every night.
New teachers tend to spend a lot of time prepping their classes down to the minute, so lessons go according to plan. But many experienced teachers understand that students are often capable of doing more than we realize. The secret to optimal learning and smooth lessons is an efficient design in which the teacher facilitates more than lectures.
What I Do Now: In my class, I am no longer the star player, making sense of the material and delivering it to students. Now I'm the coach on the sidelines, seeing the big picture and providing feedback to students while they work hard wrestling with the topic, concepts, and texts. I do this through many different methods, but some of my favorites are Harvard Project Zero's Visible Thinking Routines, Kagan Structures, and Spider Web Discussion, a method of student-led discussion I designed.
I was turned on to this type of student-led approach when, six years into my teaching career, I was hired by a Harkness school, a high school where students are encouraged (and in fact graded on their ability) to lead class discussions themselves. Essentially, students work in a Socratic Seminar environment, and they are expected to participate equally and substantively, exploring their way as a group through the curriculum while the teacher is mainly silent, working as observer, feedback giver, and guide.
Teaching in that Harkness school showed me how, during all the preceding years of my career, I had been spoon-feeding to my students what was most important to understand. When forced to sit back and watch them work their way—awkwardly at first—together through the material, I saw to my surprise that they were almost always able to discover what was important on their own. Without my interference, students were doing deep, meaningful inquiry together, which resulted in a much more ethical, balanced classroom.
Now, I always come into my high school English classes ready to watch students tackle their reading head-on. I often don't say a word for an hour as they work through the most salient, pertinent aspects of the texts. I might jump in with a provocative question or redirect them to a passage I think they need to examine. I always leave time at the end of the discussion for feedback, a key role of the teacher in a discussion-based classroom.
But I find that students get so comfortable with this practice after only a couple months that I mostly get to go in and enjoy seeing what their astute, curious brains have uncovered. Often, they pick up on something I did not, or travel down a fascinating path of ethical debate, inspired by their shared inquiry. Over the years, I've honed and refined this method of Spider Web Discussion and written a book about how effective it has been for me in the classroom.

4. Get feedback often, from a variety of sources.

What I Used to Do: When I first started teaching, I collected feedback the only way I had ever seen it collected: through required course surveys that the school asked us to have students complete at the end of the year. Mostly, the feedback—handwritten by my students in the final week of school—was positive. I largely felt validated by their responses to the surveys. But this wasn't a very effective way to learn from or address feedback, since, once I received it, the course was over. At one school I worked at, we never even got to see the feedback.
It wasn't until I went overseas to my first international school that I learned about the power of authentic, anonymous feedback from students. A colleague of mine would take her students to the computer lab twice a year in the middle of each semester and sit outside the lab while her students typed up their feedback. They then handed it to one designated student who collected the pile and passed it along to the teacher. She swore this was the only way to get real, honest feedback. I tried it, and she was right.
What I Do Now: I solicit feedback often and regularly from my students, usually at the end of each quarter. I don't wait until the end of the course because that would be a missed opportunity. If the school I'm working in requires year-end feedback, I still do the informal surveys for my own learning and growth during the semester, not to share with a supervisor.
The best way to gather real, honest feedback and make sense of helpful graphs and data is to use an online platform like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey. Within seconds of students finishing, I have a bar graph showing how many of them love the current book we're reading, how many would be happy to burn it, and how many recommend that I teach that text again the following year.
But my surveys don't stop with assigned reading. I try to ask the questions that are a little scary to ask, but that I know will help me be a better teacher. I encourage you, too, to steel yourself and ask some uncomfortable questions, like, "Do you feel that Ms. Wiggins cares about you and wants you to succeed?" or "Does Ms. Wiggins play favorites?" I'm always surprised when a small percentage of students responds that they think I do play favorites, but it's valuable feedback; it makes me reconsider how I interact with kids and what they might perceive from those interactions.
Much of the feedback on these surveys is reaffirming, too. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many students reported "loving" English class this year, so sometimes the results just help me know that I am on the right track. I have almost never had a student use this type of survey to rake me over the coals. On the rare occasion that does happen, I find that sharing the feedback publicly—though still anonymously—in a follow-up class helps prevent further hurtful or overly vicious comments. When students see those types of comments up on the screen, they react strongly to them, asking questions aloud like, "Who would say that?" It shows the writer that their words have power, that people may have strong reactions to them (including you, the teacher), and that maybe next time they can be more diplomatic or kinder in getting their feedback across. Sunlight is often the best disinfectant.
Aside from anonymous student feedback, I like to ask a colleague or coach I trust if they can observe me once or twice throughout the year. I ask for general feedback, as well as feedback against a few specific goals I might have for a particular lesson. This kind of nonthreatening, informal peer observation can be so informative. It can also lead to a partnership between colleagues, through which both of you can grow.
Lastly, some of the best feedback I've had has come from video footage of my lessons. I recommend that new teachers record and watch a full class and chart the level of student interest and engagement: Watch how often you call on which students; see how much you talk versus how much they do; and observe how often you write or draw on the board to help deepen a concept. Few people like to see themselves on video, but there's much to be learned from self-observation. It's also an easy way to ease into feedback, since no one else has to participate or review the footage.

Find Your Sweet Spot

I completely understand how stressed and overwhelmed new teachers are. Give yourself two or three years to feel like you are treading water. Give yourself five to feel like you can swim. I remember lots of tears my first year (and second, and fifth …) and many moments when I wanted to leave the profession. But the more experienced I grew, the more I was able to take the long view.
There are many highs and lows in a school year. The trick is seeing the mountain range, not only the peak or valley before us. Don't get bogged down by what you can't change. Instead, focus on what you can do in your classroom and attack it with fervor and love. Try to find your own sweet spot in education, because the profession needs wonderful, dedicated teachers just like you to change kids' lives.
End Notes

1 Toppo, G. (2017, July 17). A's are on the rise in report cards, but SAT scores struggle. USA Today.

2 See this video of a Socratic Seminar in action with my former 9th grade English class at a Harkness school.

Alexis Wiggins is the founder and director of the Cohort of Educators for Essential Learning (CEEL), an organization that unites like-minded educators around the globe. She has worked as a high school and middle school English teacher in six different countries and as an instructional coach for all subject areas. She has consulted with schools around the world on curriculum design, Spider Web Discussion, and the Harkness method. Wiggins helped the International Baccalaureate design their approaches to teaching and learning for the diploma program initiative. She lives with her husband and two sons in the Woodlands, Tex., and teaches at the John Cooper School, where Wiggins also hosts Spider Web Discussion workshops and the CEEL Summer Symposium.

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