Wading Into the Shallow End: Teaching Tips for Back-to-School Success

So here we are again, the beginning of a new school year. This time of the year always seems to bring the juxtaposition of two very different dichotomies: 

1. “I am pumped, but where do I start?” “I got my PD, but what do I implement?” “Do I implement it all? But I always start with this, so maybe I will just start this the same way I did last year…” 

We are interested in success; we want it, but the path is unknown, and therefore scary. Or, maybe you’re feeling more like No. 2:

2. “New year, new me!” 

Maybe you are a new teacher or new to an administration team, or maybe you just want a year of greater achievement—heck, even our students might feel this way! In this dichotomy, we may not be sure how to get where we want to go—success. But we know we want to get there, and we are ready to reach that point. 

Here is the crazy part: These two approaches are only a growth mindset apart and are easier to merge than it may seem. So how do we reach success? How do we get to a place where we are comfortable enough treading into the unknown, into the uncharted wilderness? 

That is the easy part: Change your mindset! But what if it doesn’t work? “What if I fail?” is a scary thought! Really, fail in front of 30+ kids? No way! But that’s OK. If we don’t try, we don’t change. Below are some tips for embracing and reaching what works in the classroom as a new school year begins.

Start With What You Know

As we start this new school year, a great many of us are eager to implement strategies that we learned through networking from our colleagues, or what we learned at professional development events such as the Model Schools Conference. The bit of advice I’m about to share stems from the first dichotomy I mentioned—ready to implement but nervous about the execution. At the Model Schools Conference one of the presenters reminded us that we cannot change everything all in one day, but we can implement something small every day. 

Start with what you know, and ease into it. For example, every day on the first day of school, I ask the students to sit in alphabetical order, and I watch. I can see my kids’ personalities—the leaders, the ones that oppose following directions, the quiet ones, and more. I love this activity and it was a staple in my classroom. I did that particular activity for nine years and then, after all that time, began varying up my first-day activity. I started with what I knew and then branched out!

The point is, start with consistency and what makes you comfortable, but be amenable to change and adaptation after that. Sure, we aren’t all comfortable jumping into the deep end, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wade in the shallow end and jump once you become comfortable in the water. Education changes so rapidly, and sometimes we want to cling to the same tattered floaty, but come on guys—we have so many other flotation devices! Lifeboats! And safe harbors full of like-minded educators! Wade into the water, into the unknown with what you do know. But don’t just float along, clinging to old ways. Tread water, grow your practice, use your resources, and build your community!

Determine Your Needs for Implementation

Conference graveyards: They are a real thing! So many times we go to conferences and professional development events, hear from AMAZING presenters, take detailed notes, obtain access to presentations, brainstorm incredible ideas, take thorough notes, put them into our gratis bags, and forget about them. Why? I think it is because implementation can be scary!

One of the things that really seems to help is determining what I can and cannot put into motion on my own. If I scale an idea mentioned in a presentation as a 1, that means I know that I can implement it without much, if any, external help. If I scale it at a 3, I know I am going to have to involve leadership in some capacity—that this particular concept is bigger than just my room. This helps me make a plan, and one that I can immediately put into action. If I scale something at a 1 I want to get it going as soon as possible. Once we put those efforts into motion and we see their success, and others see our success (and more important, the students’ success), the snowball is in motion and it becomes easier to grow through implementation. 

Let me give you another example: After 13 years in the classroom, I accepted an assistant principal position at a site of about 300 students—relatively small. The district had an emergency plan in place, but I wanted to develop a more comprehensive plan for the school. I was fortunate enough to attend a session at MSC in June led by Jin Kim, a former FBI special agent and active shooter expert. During the session he provided the attendees with a wealth of information, including steps that individual teachers should take during an active shooter situation to ensure student safety and other measures that can be taken back to a site and implemented. He also encouraged having a schoolwide safety plan in the event of an emergency/active shooter. 

The emergency plan is something that I would rank at a 3 because the entire site needs to be involved with creation and implementation, whereas the classroom procedures for ensuring safety in the event of an active shooter would be ranked at a 1 because they can be immediately used. So start by identifying what you can implement on your own and then allow for forward momentum to help you propel those No. 3 items into fruition. My site is currently working together build our emergency plan!

Celebrate Your Successes—And (Dare I Say It) Failures, Too

We are educators, and we love what we do, and we have zero issues celebrating our student success (I know I am making a huge assumption, but if you are taking the time to read an educational blog, I think that it’s a rather safe one!). So why do we struggle to even acknowledge our success? It is so important to take inventory of our day when it reaches its end and acknowledge where things went right and, dare I say it, where it went wrong. Of course hearing our praises from administrators, lead teachers, parents, and others is battery-charging for many of us, but it is not the norm to receive it—not because it is not deserved but because our efforts are not often witnessed. 

Administrators, lead teachers, and parents are not always in our classrooms. However, we are there every day. We know exactly how an intended lesson actually went. We know exactly where it was successful and where we could improve. Dr. Adam Drummond, ICLE's director of professional learning, led a session at MSC titled “Practical Strategies for the New(er) Leader,” and he shared a document with the attendees that asks a series of questions designed to give one time for self-reflection. 

As an educator for the past 13 years, I can attest to the fact that this step is necessary. Sometimes by the end of the day, we are ready to just pack it in and go home. But if we don’t take time out daily for honest reflection, are we really capable of improving? Dr. Drummond suggested that we become change agents, and in order to do that we need to sit down, dedicate time, and have honest reflections. How do I envision my ultimate goal? Reflections? Hopefully this will start an internal dialogue to bring us to a place where we can celebrate those things that went right and not dwell on the failures or the things that went wrong. Rather, we can use these failures as moments of learning for improvement—you know, exactly what we expect from our students!

Write (or Blog) It Out

I have always taken notes. Notes on everything. I catalogue my day in the classroom; I take notes in ALL of my meetings. I write it down, normally just in shorthand. I have always done this because it helps me remember. Recently, I transitioned into that assistant principal role, and my notes have doubled in quantity. A great deal of my notes are procedural but not limited to that. I am at a new site, working with new teachers, new students—a new culture, really. As I learn the job, I am also learning everything else. In this new role, I realize that focusing on my reflections and writing them out is what works for me. Or as the younger generation likes to call it, blogging. I have found that putting my reflections in writing, giving them life, sharing what is working for me and what is definitely not working for me is more cathartic than I thought it was going to be. 

The writing has transitioned from the what and how and has become a genuine reflection, and it examines the role that I have with myself; the implications of that role; the relationships that I have with students, peers, parents, and others; and it is more fulfilling than I imagined. My growth is personal and professional at the same time. As I have been writing more, I find myself curious about my peers. How are they growing? Are they on a similar journey? If so, can I network with them and “carpool” with them? Maybe they are on a completely different track, but it is a track that would be advantageous to explore. In almost every blog I have ever written I mention the importance of networking: Creating a tribe of like-minded individuals to help you grow and continue your positive growth, and with whom you can bounce off ideas. And blogging is a means to that destination. 

What works in the classroom or what works in administration is going to look different to each of us. Sometimes we go through trial and growth—I say growth because failure really is a useless word to use and mindset to have—to find our successful path. However, it is important to recognize that whatever path we are on to find success, it has probably been traveled before or, at the very least, there are peers on the same path. We do ourselves a favor by networking and finding a tour guide or a travel partner. This year is full of promise and growth, but we must be willing to work for it, put it into motion, and be ready to do something that promotes that growth. So, to my fellow explorers, here’s to hoping you continue to search out what works in your classroom.

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MSC 2018—the conference this blog contributor attended—has come and gone, but it’s not too early to register for our Leadership Academy 2018: Leading With Vision in Atlanta from Nov. 2–4, 2018 for more insight from thought leaders and other speakers.