Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 07 2012

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

I have long been meaning to write about the difference between first and second year, but nothing I have written seems to do it justice. Even now, I have trouble describing it in anything but metaphor: night and day, storm and sunshine, even death and life. Yet I must try my best to assure any first-year teachers who are reading this (and who are likely trudging through their disillusionment phase) that it does get better—infinitely better. In the meantime, keep fighting that good fight, remind yourself every day why you do this work, and know that your kids appreciate your efforts, even if they are terrible at showing it sometimes.

Having reflected quite a bit on the first quarter, both on my own and with my Induction Coach (who was allowed to continue mentoring us second-years, thank goodness), I realize that I have not significantly altered the way I run my classroom. I still plan and deliver instruction more or less the same way I did at the end of last year; my classroom setup looks almost identical, with a few notable exceptions with regard to wall space; and my management strategy remains unchanged, except to the most discerning eyes. Which begs the question: whence the relative ease of teaching this year? I believe the secret lies in the little things. Saint Augustine once wrote,

Quod Minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
magnum est.

That which is a little thing, is a little thing,
But to be faithful in a little thing,
Is a great thing.

There seems to be great truth to this, not just in spiritual matters but in all matters of life. How can a student who cannot do integer arithmetic hope to successfully operate on polynomials? Likewise, how can a teacher who cannot keep a class set of graded papers organized expect students to keep all of their backpacks, notebooks, and binders in order? In light of this, I have highlighted some of the little things I do in my classroom and life this year that have turned out to be great things.


  • I require notebooks to stay in the classroom every day. They live in hanging folders organized by student name, which in turn live in crates organized by period. I realized last year that while it would be ideal for students to bring their notebooks to class each day, take wonderful notes, study from those notes at home, and bring their notebooks back to class the next day, not many of my students were meeting this ideal. Now, instead, there is a very clear procedure for what students are to do with notebooks when they enter and leave the classroom, and I never have to fight the battle of “Mister, I lost my notebook!” or “I don’t have notes from [insert date]—I don’t think I was here that day!” (Looking forward, I have begun to allow the most fastidious students to take their notebooks home before tests, and I may expand this practice now that all students realize the importance of having their notebooks during class.)
  • I printed a giant number line from -25 to 25 and taped it above my whiteboard. Shockingly (though not so shockingly after last year), my juniors and seniors still struggle with adding and subtracing integers. The mere presence of a number line at the front of the room has (after a mini-lesson on how to use it) slowly but surely begun to reduce the number of arithmetic errors on exit slips and tests. It does warm my heart when I see kids pointing at the number line during tests, counting to the left or right, and nodding when they get to the correct answer.
  • I use a clicker with a built-in laser pointer during class. This sounds like such a silly thing, but it has made my instruction orders of magnitude more efficient. No more walking back to the computer to change slides, no more running up to the board to point at what I’m explaining to a student, no more leaning over students’ shoulders uncomfortably to highlight an error on their whiteboards… The possibilities are truly endless. I am not generally a fan of those back-of-the-envelope calculations about time-saving procedures, but I think one is appropriate in this case: assuming (conservatively) that I save three minutes of instructional time for every 106-minute block by not having to run around as much, that’s an extra nine hours of learning over the course of the year. Nine hours! I could pick up a new hobby and get pretty good at it in less time than that.

Culture / Management

  • I stamp students’ notebooks at the beginning of each class if they have written the date and objective and answered the Do Now. I’m not sure they realize that I don’t do anything with their notebooks after they’ve been stamped, but I don’t think it would matter—my kids are obsessed with getting that little red star next to the date every day. I sometimes feel like an elementary school teacher. I must say though, it is definitely a relief to be able to assume that the Do Now will be useful for something as I’m lesson planning.
  • Any student who needs to borrow a pencil gets his/her name written on the Pencil Wall of Shame at the front of the room. This has literally eliminated the need to loan out pencils. No joke. Kids hate seeing their names on the board for a negative reason, no matter how minor.
  • I am not afraid to laugh and joke around with students—but I am also not afraid to pull the class back together with all the gentle firmness of Lee Canter-cum-Morgan Freeman’s character in Lean On Me. Last year, I felt like I was always tippy-toeing the line between being cool/relateable (young, LA native, knowledgeable about sneakers, bboying, etc.) and no-nonsense (i.e. how my former-Marine, current-cop dad raised me). This year, there is no more tippy-toeing—I have a foot firmly planted on both sides, and kids know that I can quickly and easily switch from one to the other as necessary.


  • I frequently rest when my body tells me to, and I remind myself not to feel guilty about it. There is a tendency among teachers (and people in general) to feel like they need to work nonstop to be “better”—better for their students, better for their colleagues, better for their bosses, even better for their friends and loved ones. This is also known as the “whatever it takes” mentality, and Teach For America in particular seeks out individuals who think and feel this way. Of course, diligent work, even unceasing work, has its merits. Where teachers get confused is when “whatever it takes” means taking a break. I think this is such a universal human tendency that the author of Hebrews calls it out explicitly in chapter 4, verses 10-11: For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest. “Strive to enter rest” is a strange thing to say, yet it accurately describes my attitude toward rest this year, and it has wonderfully transformed my physical, mental, and spiritual health.
  • On a related note, I actually use my prep period to grade exit slips and tests, input data, and plan lessons (instead of napping or vegging out like I did last year). This means having less work to take home, which means having more time to rest or do other things that I enjoy, which means my life feels more balanced.  Seriously, prep periods exist for a reason. So use them effectively!
  • On another related note, I cultivate real hobbies that have nothing to do with teaching. I started taking salsa lessons at Brown this semester, I play guitar almost every day, and I even read for pleasure on the weekends. Crazy, I know. This is a lesson that I learned early on at Institute but forgot during the trials of first year: you cannot be an effective teacher if you are not a human being as well.

tl;dr? The little things matter, so treat them with care and fidelity, and everything else will follow.

And now, off to enjoy this delightful and unexpected snow before it turns brown and slushy.

One Response

  1. Sarah

    you are so inspirational.
    but in all seriousness, yo.
    this was an awesome post!

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New city, same vision

Rhode Island
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