By Michael Meadows
When I think back to my first year of teaching, one late November 7th grade class stays with me. Emmanuel would not sit where I told him and freely roamed the classroom. Kevin was talking with friends and mocking me, almost openly. And the rest of the students followed suit, barely paying attention to the day's lesson. Class ended with Emmanuel telling me, "You're the worst teacher in the world!" and me desperately blurting back, "You're the worst student in the world." I went home hoarse, exhausted, and ready to quit.
I've now been teaching foreign language to middle school students in a high poverty district for two years. I hold advanced degrees in foreign language and literature from Yale University and recently completed my teaching certificate through an alternative program. But all that I know about classroom management is what I learned on the job. Incredibly, there were no courses on this in my teacher training program, which is why I support The Hatch-Bennet Amendment to the Higher Education Act, a bi-partisan teacher preparation bill introduced in Congress by Senators Hatch and Bennet.
I was lucky during my first year: I wasn't totally on my own. The school district assigned me a mentor who visited for two hours a month. She was a National Board Certified veteran teacher with more than 10 years of classroom experience. As she explained it, her job was to be whatever I needed her to be so I could survive my first year. She helped me make copies and adjust my lesson plans. And she was the one who picked up the pieces after that terrible day of being "the worst teacher in the world."
She insisted that there were fundamentals of classroom management and organization that I was missing and helped me to understand that small stuff like raising your hand to sharpen your pencil or lining up quietly for dismissal really mattered.
She also helped me to understand that communicating with parents was critical. I dreaded calling my students' homes, especially after Kevin's mother accused me of having it in for her son as I struggled to explain his problematic behavior. She was partly right -- Kevin was simply the most visible student in a chaotic classroom and I had to start somewhere.
Ultimately, I learned that consistency was the name of the game. I developed a logbook to help me document the most chronic classroom disruptions. If a student broke a rule, I didn't react. I simply gave them a warning checkmark in my book. And after so many warnings, I would have students call home and report behavior issues directly to their parents. This process took some practice and a lot of organizational work, but it also took a lot of emotional burden off of me. And once things clicked, the effect was startling. The more consistent I was, the better my students behaved and the more they perceived me as fair.
Now with a year of experience under my belt, I don't overreact when 8th grader Ravin comes to class late with glitter all over her face and a pass from the assistant principal. Sure, she causes disruption before she sits down. But I just give her a warning checkmark and then ignore her until she settles. I know that Ravin has a reputation for being a troublemaker, for getting into fights, and for skipping class. But I've learned to focus on the girl and not on her reputation.
Teacher preparation programs and school districts across the country need to do a better job training and supporting new teachers. I know I'm a better teacher because of my mentor. She watched me teach, diagnosed my weaknesses, and proscribed targeted strategies for me to improve. I was lucky. Most teachers are left to fend for themselves. But positive change may come soon.
The Hatch-Bennet Amendment allows school districts to partner with teacher prep programs to provide tailored and extended support to new teachers in their first years on the job. Schools can apply for grant money to fund the partnerships, to assess teacher skill deficits, and to develop training programs to meet those particular areas of need.
This bill is a critical first step in bringing about needed change in teacher preparation. It will help my school and others like it across the country tell colleges and universities what's working and what isn't. If I had to relive my first year teaching without my mentor, I'm not sure I would have made it. But if our story and others like it could inform the structure and foundations of teacher preparation, Kevin and Emmanuel might not lose out the next time they enter the classroom of a first year teacher.
Michael Meadows teaches Italian at Hyattsville and Greenbelt Middle Schools in Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.