13 Things I’ve Learned in 13 Years of Teaching

Last week I shared the beginnings of my teaching story, and this summer as I reflect on who I am and what teaching has meant to me, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned from a life shaped by the classroom. I turn 39 this week and I just finished my 13th year of teaching.

I began like so many teachers, unsure of what I was doing and I suffered through the agony of self doubt during those early years. Eventually I found meaning and identity in a course that shaped who I was as a teacher, only to pin my self worth to test scores. There has been honor and accomplishment over these 13 years, but I have also had students that were here one minute and tragically gone the next. Teaching has enabled me to travel the country and even see other parts of the world, and through experiences in and out of the classroom, I have built enduring relationships with kindred spirits.  Taking a page from Leo Babauta, I thought I’d share 13 things I’ve learned over my 13 years in the classroom:

1. Teach with the Door Open

The more I developed as a teacher, the more I began to prop my door open. There came a point where I was no longer afraid to let others pass judgement on the conversations that were happening, see the engagement, and feel the energy of the room. Having a door open communicates something to those that pass by. It is inviting. It embraces others. It conveys that there are no outsiders looking in, everything is transparent.

Perhaps your school obeys a local fire code that requires the doors to be closed while class is in session. I fear that such buildings are cold places that conceal teaching and learning rather than celebrate it. You can overcome this, you can still open your doors figuratively. Invite colleagues and administrators in for a walk through. Ask students to stop by during a free period. Embrace the opportunity to unite rather than let the fire code isolate.

2. Build a PLN

What can I say about the power of a personal learning network?

It has produced some of my strongest friendships despite the distance that separates us. It has made me more empathetic as I see the classroom through other points of view. It has led to exciting new practices, new approaches, and a broader teaching perspective. It has invigorated my love for the profession and given me a greater sense of purpose at a crucial time in my career (8-10 years in the classroom) when I could have put my teaching on autopilot and repeated what I did for the next 10 years.

3. You’re Never Prepared for Student Tragedy

This past year might have been the most difficult of my career. I took on an extra class (losing a prep period and adding to the paper load) and I returned to the sidelines as a varsity basketball coach. It sucked up so much of my time and it is why I was less consistent as a blogger and struggled to keep up with all my commitments.

Yet, that paled in comparison to the emotional struggle of losing three students in our school this year, one to suicide, another to cancer, the third to a car accident. It took a toll on our entire school community, and it took a toll on me. Often, in moments when I needed grace and words were failing me, I turned to Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” It provided comfort on the darkest days.

These were not the first student tragedies to rock me, nor will they be the last. But no matter how many times it happens, it seems that there is nothing I can do to make the next one more bearable. As much as I want to be prepared for the next one, this would be terrible feat to achieve. It would require me inure myself, to care less, to detach myself and treat each one the same. There is unavoidable process of hurting and healing, and I have reconciled myself to that brutal reality.

4. Teaching Writing Takes Time

For the third year in a row, I spent a week in June grading AP Literature and Composition essays. I read 1,377 essays this year, all on the same question. Certain things stand out with that kind of volume: Formulas will only get a student so far and students that try to sound smart get exposed.

Good writing is the result of perceptive seeing. In a literature-based class, it comes from reading closely and thinking deeply. Students that write well have a voice and an approach that is fresh and unpredictable as the writing takes the reader on a journey of discovery, not a canned slough through a five-paragraph essay. Good writing says meaningful things in original ways without straining to use vocabulary simply to impress.

As much as we all want to provide our students with quick fixes and easy-to-follow formats, our students need to be taught how to see, not what to say. These gains are slow and incremental.

When Malcolm Gladwell was asked about some of the best investments of his adult life, he responded by saying that the best ones were always the result of time. He explained by saying that for him it came on page 1,000 of a book. Or it came after sustained effort at something. No matter what it was, he had to invest the time to get there.  He said that nothing powerful comes in the first five minutes.

The same is true of teaching writing. There are no shortcuts. I have learned that good writing instruction comes from teaching students to see. Showing them exemplar models. Conferencing. Providing mini-lessons after a major essay. And asking the right questions time and time again to stimulate their thinking.

This takes time.

5. If its Not Meaningful, It is Not Worth It

My students play sports, are musicians, have jobs, are studying for the SATs, are caretakers for other siblings, are applying to colleges, have Hell Week for the drama production, and take other challenging courses. I’ve learned not to waste their time assigning things just to have a specific number of homework assignments or grades in the grade book. I can show my students the respect I have for them but making everything meaningful.

6. Fund Your Own PD

Paying for PD out of your own pocket is never easy. It is a sacrifice, but it is a worthwhile one because you are investing in yourself. As great as digital PD can be, it cannot replicate the power of being in the room and interacting face-to-face.

I work in a district that has seen its professional development budget shrink significantly over the past 15 years. Now, we are limited to local conferences that are reimbursed by a cooperative education alliance. The options are limited. I have learned to embrace paying for my own PD. I strive to be the man in the arena that Teddy Roosevelt famously described in his speech delivered at the Sorbonne when he said “the man who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause.”

There is a cost to being in the arena, but some of it can be written off as a professional expense at tax time. I have used that to justify traveling to:

  • AP Annual Conference
  • Oxford AP Summer Institute
  • NCTE
  • New York State English Council Conference
  • Edutopia Summit

7. The Vital Few vs the Trivial Many

I was working 10-16 hours a day in my first year of teaching, often six days a week. I wasn’t working smart or being efficient with my time. A few years ago I learned about the Pareto principle and it transformed the way I approach my work. Now, I look for the few vital things that produce the biggest results and focus on being really good at those few things. I still work hard, but now that I am more organized and efficient in my approach, I am able to do more in less time.

8. Don’t Do the Same Old Thing

Just because something worked one year does not mean it will work every year.  Students change. Classroom dynamics change.  And some of my best ideas have come into my life at very specific times to respond to the challenge at hand. That’s why I have learned to throw out my plan book at the end of each year. I don’t want to be a carbon copy of the person I was the year before. If I challenge my students to be fresh and original in their writing, I better be fresh and original as their teacher.

9. Wacky Wednesdays

I could probably write a whole book on what has happened as a result of experimenting with dynamic, unconventional, and interactive lessons each Wednesday in my classroom. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version — it has led to the biggest creative breakthroughs in my teaching.

10. Take a Stand

I have learned to stand up for the value of a literate life. In my 13 years I have seen Shakespeare and poetry diminish in value and given short shrift and they have often been replaced with easier, more accessible, and contemporary choices. I don’t believe in making work difficult for students solely for the sake of rigor (see A New Definition of Rigor), but I do believe in challenging students with rich works of literature and poetry that forces them to think deeply, wrestle with a work’s complexity, and consider the human condition from multiple perspectives.

11. Make Books Better Than the Distraction

I’m not a hypocrite. I am addicted to my cell phone just as much as my students. But I have learned to keep my ringer off all times so that it is not a constant distraction. My students want to stay in touch with their friends at all times. They have the fear of missing out. To truly engage them, I have to make the material I am teaching more interesting and fascination than the latest notification on their phones. This is no easy task. But the challenge to be more compelling their phone is what gets me going every morning.

12. Take Care of Yourself/Take Care of Others

We’ve all felt it at one time or another, the energy that is exuded by someone who always makes us feel when we are around them. Energy is real. It is contagious. But so is negativity. Take care of yourself so that you can be the energy source for others. That is how a school culture is either made or broken.

13 Always Believe You Have The Power to Make Things Better

In my second year of teaching AP Literature, my students scores dropped by five percent. When I wasn’t looking for excuses in my students’ work habits, I was wallowing in self doubt. But over the next five years my students’ scores I committed myself to understanding the course, the skills, and the exam. In that time my students’ scores improved by 30 percent.

I welcome anyone into AP Lit. because I believe the course has lasting benefits that transcend a test score. I am extremely proud to sat that my students consistently outperform the global average by 25-35 percentage points. I say this because I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to be challenged in the best way possible. I believe that we, as teachers, can seize this opportunity and make things better for our students.


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