I couldn't have been more prepared for my first year as a 9th grade math teacher in Chicago. Or so I thought.
I brushed up on my skills over the summer by working through Pre-Algebra and Algebra textbooks. I also designed an opening project that integrated Algebra skills and prerequisites. This project was sure to captivate students for two reasons. First, it involved marketing t-shirts commemorating the Chicago Bulls' recent NBA championship. (My students were all about the Bulls and Bulls' merchandise.)
Second, students would work on the project in cooperative groups. No boring lectures with me as the sage on stage. My classroom would be student-centered, with me as the guide on the side.
For the first week, students were engaged and thought I was a "cool teacher." But by the end of week two, cooperative groups had become combative groups, with kids bickering and, in one case, brawling. So much for guide on the side. I was the referee in the middle. Students no longer said I was a cool teacher, but rather "no teacher."
How could my classroom be such a mess after all that summer preparation? Simple. That preparation focused too much on lesson planning, and too little on classroom management and teaching methods.
New teachers do this all the time. They figure that as long as they plan creative, engaging lessons, students will love them and their classes will run smoothly. "My passion for science is going to be contagious for students," one newbie replied after I implored him to avoid the put-all-your-energy-into-creative-lessons trap. It was only after students were dangling from windows--third floor--during a bridge-building activity that he decided to put classroom management ahead of lesson creativity.
The point here is that there's often a disconnect between planning and preparation. My t-shirt project was well planned by most standards. It was coherent and comprehensive. I provided students graphic organizers, guided notes, rubrics, and other resources. On paper, I had done everything to ensure the project would be successful.
Yet it blew up despite such exhaustive planning. And like many teachers when things don't go as planned, I first blamed it on strategies and students: Cooperative Learning isn't what it's cracked up to be, and students aren't ready for Project-Based Learning.
The truth, though, is that the t-shirt project bombed because I wasn't ready. My students' response wasn't a reflection of their aptitudes or attitudes. Nor was it a reflection of Cooperative Learning or PBL. Instead it reflected my lack of proficiency with those methods and classroom management.
Creativity is an asset for teachers, provided we channel it where students will benefit most from it at any given time. After the t-shirt project debacle (and others), I used my creativity to come up with classroom management ideas that prevented future debacles. (Ideas such as establishing a student feedback board and wearing a tool belt.)
Of course, it's also important to learn how to implement instructional methods (such as Cooperative Learning and PBL) before planning activities that require you to use those methods. Don't just plan lessons; prepare for them.
Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission.
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