iFLT 2017: pause for teaching

Originally, I wasn’t going to blog tonight because I am dead tired. My brain is so full of thoughts and ideas and just… kaboom, ya know? I think everyone is feeling the same way. But I have been talking to many people here and something that has really kind of been a recurring theme is that many of the people who are on the beginner track (and some intermediates) feel like… okay, we got the basic idea of this whole “comprehensible input” thing, we have buy-in, we’ve seen it as students, we’ve been shown what the end product looks like… now what? A lot of them feel as if they are missing a huge middle step, which, technically they are: lots of practice. But I know I didn’t feel like I REALLY got how to do CI until I went to a 3 day TPRS workshop where we spent those entire days practicing circling with a single sentence, then moving up to a paragraph, and then moving on to storyasking small parts of a story as a group, then individually, all under the guidance of a well-trained TPRS teacher. We never did have time to storyask a whole story (there were only 7 of us in that conference but storyasking 7 stories would be a brainsplosion, I think) but we did receive the updated version of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk. Ironically, after a year of teaching TPRS, I didn’t really need the book anymore because I got the pattern down, but the first few chapters are very good about literally scripting every. single. question. you might want to ask as you attempt to ask a story (not even including any of the other potential comprehensible input pieces that you might choose to do along with said story!)

Anyway, after today’s sessions, I was standing near the books with one of my new conference friends and she was looking at them, and I held up Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro and said that I loved teaching it, and she said, “My kids can’t read.” I was very confused, and she clarified that her students have approximately no literacy skills in Spanish though and she has no idea where to start. I told her that for the first chapter, you only need to teach quiere, tiene, perro, stuff I tend to teach within the first week. How? And I launched into a random demo of my PQA lesson where I ask students about their pets in preparation for reading Brandon Brown. To an experienced CI teacher, this is the simplest of simple language, but I realized today that for a newbie, this is terrifying stuff!

And so for my friend Taylor, and any other person who is still not entirely sure what PQA looks or sounds like, here is a pretend script of what it might look like in my class. I found that the best way to start, honestly, was to write out everything I was going to say for my story or PQA. Every sentence, every question. Was it clunky? Oh yeah. Did I have flow? No way. Did I get lost? All the time. But you have to be bad at something first to eventually get better, right?

So without further ado, here is a link to my google doc of a sample script (in English, so any language teacher can see what it would look like) of what PQA about pets might look like.  I hope it helps break down what the language looks like for anyone who got lost along the way.

Kagan strategies and TPRS

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop hosted by my ESU on Kagan strategies. (I keep telling myself I’m going to take a break from going to workshops/conferences, but I apparently can’t help myself.) I’m also planning to attend iFLT in Denver this summer and Kagan day 2 through the ESU, even though I said I wasn’t going to work this summer. I first heard of Kagan strategies from a friend I met through the AP Spanish workshop a few summers ago. Her classes were gigantic compared to me. My current biggest class is 14 and my largest ever was 23. For my friend, 23 would be absurdly small – hers usually were in the 30s. She swore up and down by the power of Kagan grouping and Kagan strategies, so when I saw the workshop on the calendar, I signed up.

After the workshop, I am a Kagan convert. And you should be too. Here is why: there is nothing about Kagan that you are incapable of doing. When teachers attend workshops, we want strategies that we can implement TOMORROW with no preparation or extra work. Kagan does that for you. What Kagan strategies do is give you a structure to work within that seems fun to the students (because they get to work together) but increases learning because nobody can ‘hide’ and not contribute without it being super obvious to you, the teacher. (And then you can use your other teacher strategies to get them back on track.) I also like that it helps me to be more organized – if all “2” students in each group are called on to answer, I know who should be responding by their physical organization. And for the world language teachers in the crowd, it encourages teambuilding and lowering of the affective filter, which is extremely important in our classrooms.

I’m not going to take the time to explain the actual strategies here other than to say that for the most part, literally, they are structured turn-taking. That’s it. No magic, no tricks, just structured turn-taking and clear expectations of what each student should be contributing. If you’re interested in learning more about it, you can look at this short overview, or visit youtube or google. I have faith in you.

In the two weeks since I’ve completed the training, my goal has been to use Kagan strategies with intention (rather than my usual ‘oh, that would be a good idea…’ planning that I tend to do). I have learned that whoops, a lot of the ones I would LIKE to do, I can’t currently do because I haven’t put my students in teams, one of the key parts of the Kagan strategy. However, I have been using RallyRobin and RallyCoach when possible in my class and they have been phenomenal.

RallyRobin+Consensus was especially wonderful when I paired them with a TPRS story. One problem I have when I story-ask is that I am really awful at handling all the answers thrown at me. Invariably what happens is that there are a handful of really creative students whose answers I always like the best, and then everyone else stops responding and that defeats the whole purpose of the ASK part of a story-ask. Instead of everyone shouting in controlled chaos, I selected a few parts ahead of time that I would get student responses for. Then, I used RallyRobin (brainstorming in a pair, alternately sharing responses) to come up with names, places, foods, whatever I wanted. Then each pair came to a consensus on their favorite brainstormed name and wrote it on a piece of paper. At the end of class, then I was able to collect all their brainstormed ideas and be able to hear EVERY student’s ideas and contributions. Since I didn’t have to pick something on the spot, I could take the time to use as many different groups’ ideas as possible, so that everyone could say ‘oh hey, she picked mine!’
I could ramble about Kagan strategies for another zillion blog posts, but I’ll spare you. And I’ve only been to one day of five total days of Kagan training! I highly recommend you go to a training, whether your classes are tiny or gigantic, you teach math or French, elementary or college. Kagan strategies just give a name and a structure to stuff you already do, because good teaching is good teaching.

La persona especial

Okay, so, here it finally is: my persona especial post.

This year, instead of starting with stories right away, I decided to mix in my usual beginning-of-Spanish activities (Brown Bear, counting games, TPR, etc.) with La Persona Especial. I used Bryce’s handy guide to give me an idea of what I was going to do, but since I am well acquainted with PQA, it wasn’t that hard for me as a teacher. Really, it’s just PQA focused all on one student. Today, we had a bit of a weird schedule so I asked a student to be a volunteer for this. Not only did I have a student volunteer, it was one who hadn’t previously been an interview candidate, so that was great! In this clip, we speed through the introductory stuff because my students have it down pretty well. Rewatching it, I could’ve spent a little more time verbally verifying that the rest of the class was understanding what was going on, but I was “teaching to the eyes” and their eyes told me that yes, they got it. (You can see in the video when I appear to be staring into space. I’m actually checking in on the other students while my interviewee is thinking of his response.) They also were great about responding when I asked for a class response, even though they were sparse.)

My process generally follows that of Bryce’s. I do an interview with one student (I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, just to keep myself from wandering) while the rest of the class listens and watches. They do not take any notes; I write anything I need to on the board. After the interview, I will do some sort of recap activity. Students can tell a partner what they remember, I might make true/false statements, or whatever. Then they open their laptops and actually add to their notes. The first few interviews, I then had everyone share something and I typed it up in proper Spanish. We’re about halfway through now, so at this point, I just look at their screens while they’re working and correct any errors that impede comprehensibility. After three interviews, we took a quiz. (My classes are small, so I have sections of 10 and 9 respectively – you may want to have more in each quiz grouping.)  I picked some examples to show you all as a sample of their work. Sample #1 comes from a student that has no prior Spanish knowledge but I suspect will go all 4 years with me. Sample #2 is from an average student with average mistakes. Sample #3 is from another potential superstar student who has studied a bit of Spanish through Rosetta Stone. However, as you can see, her prior knowledge doesn’t really make her writing leaps and bounds better than the others. Each student is very comprehensible. These samples are after about 25 days of Spanish class. I normally let students keep their assessments, but tonight we have parent-teacher conferences and I kept these to show parents what their students are able to do in my class. It is super cool to show a parent that their child, after a little over a month, can read and write simple paragraphs.



So there it is! I am more than happy to answer any questions or offer any help that I can. I’m no expert by any means, but La Persona Especial is so easy, any of us can do it!

PS: Here is a link to a blank copy of my quiz/rubric. Feel free to make a copy of it, change it, whatever you need to do to fit your class and philosophy.

An experimental curriculum

In my school, I’m a department of one. I teach Spanish 1-3, then AP Spanish. We have only 3 native speakers of Spanish in my district, and they attend elementary school in our other building. So many of my students don’t know anything besides hola, amigo, and taco before walking into my room in 9th grade. I am very, very happy to be a high school teacher (elementary and middle school require a skill set that I’m not sure I have) but sometimes I wonder, if I designed a middle school 9 week exploratory Spanish class, what would it look like?

And you know, I would like to see if I could do it with minimal creation of activities on my part. I mean, there are so many awesome ideas and programs out there, and 9 weeks really isn’t a lot of time to cover material. I can help out other teachers by paying for their services, and save myself a ton of time in the process.

Here is my experiment: armed with only La Persona Especial, Señor Wooly, and a few cultural units from The Comprehensible Classroom… I bet I could get students proficient enough in the really big main verbs (es/está/tiene/quiere/va/puede/le gusta) in that time. But I don’t have a classroom to test out my theory. So if any of you suddenly find yourself with an exploratory Spanish class… feel free to use this idea and tell me how it goes!

Too many materials! (part 2- post overflow)

Continuing with last week’s post about too many materials, here is another set of ideas you can use to supplement your teaching.

Reader resources

There is loads of research that demonstrates that reading comprehensible input is the #1 way to foster language acquisition among language learners. If your students are literate in one language, you can use that literacy to cultivate learning in a different language. (It’s a little harder for elementary teachers who have pre-readers.)

  • Blaine Ray – The original set of readers, they have offerings for middle school through upper levels in a variety of languages. I think these tend to be a little drier and predictable, but offer specific cultural lessons in each book.
  • TPRS Publishing – TPRS Publishing is another novel powerhouse (and they have great customer service!) I personally prefer these novels, as they are more interesting to my students while keeping vocabulary in-bounds.
  • Mira Canion – Mira’s works are available from a few different places. Hers are mostly appropriate for lower levels.
  • Santillana Publishing – I haven’t actually used these readers yet, but I plan to add this publisher’s books to my library in the coming months. They are a little pricier, but come with a CD of the audio to save your voice.

Curriculum guidance

I have to preface this section by saying that I make my own curriculum guidelines/scope/sequence/can-do statements/whatever as a department of one. I have previewed these materials but not followed the entire curriculum to use in my classes. However, if you are a new teacher or someone who is making the switch to CI, these materials will be very helpful in making the transition.

  • Cuéntame (TPRS Publishing) – This series starts geared more towards elementary learners, but the beauty of stories is that they can be adapted to any level. (Also available in French.)
  • Look, I Can Talk!/Fluency through TPR Storytelling (Blaine Ray) – This series takes an eclectic approach to teaching. Rather than teaching in any particular order, this series works on high frequency vocabulary. A good start to learning to story-ask, circle, and embedded readings.
  • Somos (Martina Bex) – I haven’t used this, but Martina’s stand-alone products are amazing, so I can’t help but recommend it.

Teachers Pay Teachers

There is sometimes some controversy over teachers marketing their work for payment rather than sharing for free. However, I am a big believer that time is money, friend, and if someone has gone through the trouble of making something so that I don’t have to, I have no problem throwing a fellow teacher $5 here and there. These need no explanation – just check them out!

As luck would have it, at the time of posting, TPT is hosting a TEACHER APPRECIATION SALE!  (Yes, I just realized it was site-wide. I’m a little slow.) Use the code CELEBRATE on May 3rd and 4th to get 28% off everything! Protip: grab some pre-made lessons to keep your sanity during the end of the school year!

I hope all of these materials help you discover a new amazing resource to use in your classroom at the end of this year or during the next.

Too many materials!

I started teaching in 2010. The 2010s are a great time to be a language teacher. We’ve got youtube, google drive/classroom, twitter, LCD projectors, smartboards, and more leveled readers and stories than you can shake a stick at. And because there are so many options to choose from, it can be extremely overwhelming! It used to be that language teachers had to look through a handful of textbooks and decide which one they preferred, they ordered it, and then they taught it. But now there’s so many options, how do you even know where to start? I mean, curating videos from youtube and making lessons from them could be a full-time job. The upside and downside of the availability of language materials is that literally anything could be used for a lesson, as long as you can make it comprehensible for your students.

With that in mind, many new teachers are looking to graduate and compile ideas for their future classrooms. Veteran teachers are looking forward to another fresh start in the fall. However, none of us have time to comb all the websites for all the potentially useful ideas for all levels and all topics. So in this post, I’m going to share some of my favorite teaching materials to help narrow down the field for both newcomers and veterans. Unfortunately, these materials tend to focus on Spanish language so I hope that all the other language bloggers out there find someone who will do the same for them! I also have easy access to technology in my room, though I know many schools still do not, so your mileage may vary.

Video resources

  • VideoEle – a youtube series designed for Spanish learners. I like it because it designates topics by difficulty level (using the European A/B/C) and has subtitles. The creator has also started going through and remastering some videos with Latin American Spanish as well as the original Spain Spanish, so that’s cool.
  • Señor Wooly – Señor Wooly recently recreated his site from the ground up and it is awesome. The PRO version, though mildly expensive, has been totally worth it in my opinion. Doing one video can easily take a class period or two, and if you do a large number of the included stories, nuggets, and other activities, you could easily stretch one video into a week’s worth of comprehensible input with very little work on your part. Señor Wooly does all the work for you! And, because music is fun, the students don’t even realize they’re learning.
  • Señor Jordan – Even though I have backed off heavily from grammar explanations, there still comes a time when I need to explain a grammatical point to clean up my students’ speech or writing. Señor Jordan has a number of grammar videos with great examples of the concept.

Audio resources

  • Audio-lingua – Audio-lingua is a great resource for all teachers, but especially if you’re a teacher who is full-on comprehensible input only, with no particular thematic units. I love that you can search by length, speaker region, difficulty, or any variety of other parameters. It’s just people talkin about stuff.
  • Spanish Obsessed Podcast – Relatedly, the Spanish Obsessed podcast is also people talkin about stuff. They do a nice job of splitting their podcasts into different levels. I’ve only used a few samples from the intermediate section. As a non-native speaker teacher, I also like that Rob is a non-native speaker conversing with Liz, a native speaker. It helps students distinguish from different accents and emphasizes that you can have an accent and still be perfectly comprehensible.
  • University of Texas listening exercises – For listening exercises, this website is my bread and butter. You can choose to have English, Spanish, or no subtitles available when viewing. I personally like to set it to no subtitles while listening, then going over the full clip together with the Spanish available. Oh, and they’re organized by difficulty level, topic, and have a variety of speakers from different countries to practice those different dialects!

Interpersonal practice

  • Let’s Chat by Patti Lozano – I ordered this book through Teacher’s Discovery. It is chock full of games and other speaking types of activities, written in English with examples in Spanish, French, and sometimes German (but of course, you can always adapt if you teach something else!) One trick is to make sure if the activity itself doesn’t lend to comprehensible input from the students, use their responses and turn it into comprehensible input yourself!
  • Cuéntame Cards – These are another valuable resource. They are the kinds of questions I might ask a student, only… I didn’t have to think of them. I just have one set that I pull cards from to make the set appropriate for whatever level of students. The guide that comes with the card has multiple ways to use the cards. You could also make your own for free, but I’m lazy.
  • Hablemos: 25 Guided Dialogues – I didn’t use this resource as much this year as I would’ve liked, but the premise is good. It’s actually rather similar to the conversational portion of the AP exam. Rather than having students translate or memorize a conversation, these guided dialogues tell students what to say in general (‘greet your friend’ or ‘make plans for the weekend’), and the students have to do the work. It provides a sample conversation for students to check their work against, and also includes some things like crosswords or word searches that might be appropriate for fast finisher activities.

As usual, I have way more resources to share but I’ll save them for a later post. Happy shopping!

Useless advice for teachers

When it comes to advice for teachers (especially newer teachers,) I have a pet peeve. It drives me bonkers when I read blogs or twitter posts that are full of feel-good platitudes that don’t actually help anyone. I’m not talking about an encouraging post or anything like that; those are good. Let’s help and support each other. I’m talking about the ones that should theoretically be obvious to teachers or overly simplify a complicated topic. Some of my “favorites” include:

  • Love your students. If you don’t at least marginally like kids (of whatever age you teach) then you won’t make it past student teaching. I guess one could argue that you should love your students even when they’re being unpleasant, but… I figured that’s pretty much a given.
  • Have a behavior management plan. The issue is, I think, that some teachers struggle with enforcing their behavior management plan, not that they don’t have one. I feel like this advice also glosses over the fact that some students are unreachable by us for whatever reasons, or many teachers deal with administrators who won’t back them up when they do use their behavior management plan. And mostly, in my school, our behavior issues stem from teenagers being teenagers. I suppose I could give detentions all day long, but it won’t stop a social butterfly from talking rather than doing his work, or magically cause a forgetful student to remember to do her homework.
  • Create engaging lessons. “I want to be super boring and hope the kids learn nothing from me,” said no teacher ever.
  • Incorporate technology. This one is a bit of a nitpick, but I feel like the techie revolution is overwhelming and dismissive of teachers who are really good teachers but are slower to adapt to the constant barrage of technology changes. Do I think you should incorporate technology into your classroom? Yes, of course. But again, this platitude ignores the fact that some – many? – schools are still struggling to have functional computer labs, much less 1:1 situations. And honestly, you should only use technology if it enhances what you’re already doing. When I do TPRS, I like to type up the stories as I go to give an extra burst of written input. It’s very easy to do with my projector. However, whenever we do illustrations, we always use paper. It’s far easier for me to copy a blank template of six squares than to have students attempt to draw on a laptop trackpad. There is also the problem of students misusing technology to the point where it is a distraction and disruption to your everyday class activities. I don’t mind having to remind a student about my expectations on a regular basis, but this year, I have a class that has such difficulty regulating their behavior on the computer that I might go back to paper with them as the default. It’s not worth the lost time in class or the loss of my patience solely to check the ‘used technology’ box.
  • Encourage your students to do their best. This one needs no explanation.
  • Let your students control the learning. Like some of these other quips, this one is a complicated situation beautifully wrapped up in a shallow one-liner. Students, when left to do what they want to do, generally don’t work on educational activities. So as educators, part of our job is to ensure that students are completing some sort of educational curriculum. After that, I do think that it’s important to include student voice and choice, especially in a subject that can be as free-form as foreign language. However, what happens when your students really don’t want to be in control of their learning? I have a few classes this year that will happily comply with whatever I ask them to do, but if I ask them what they want to do (educationally), they just shrug. They don’t really care – to them, I’m the teacher and it’s my job to tell them what to do. Sadly, they’re not invested enough in their own education to want to give it a direction. In a lot of cases for my Preferred Activity Time, the same handful of kids are the ones that end up choosing what we do since no one else appears to have an opinion. It can be tough.

This post is a full #rantchat, however, I don’t believe in offering criticisms without offering solutions! Later this week, I will be posting a secondary post with advice that I think is actually useful for teachers. Tune in then!

Make it easy (part two)

With it being the start of the new school year, I was a participant in a number of professional development sessions. One of our sessions was about going over the ever-present data accountability assessment teacher words jargon… stuff. Anyway, one of our presenters was going over vocabulary terms. We were presented with one and then asked, ‘Does anyone know what this means?’ There were many figurative crickets as everyone looked around awkwardly. Maybe someone tentatively ventured an answer in the back, but it was a weak answer at best – you know, the one that the one person might mutter under their breath as an attempt to participate but not wanting to be publicly wrong. And that is the response from a bunch of well-educated teachers. It’s not very different from the response from a bunch of still-learning teenagers.

So here’s how you can make your life easy in your classroom: know what kind of a question you are asking when you ask it. There are questions with expected correct or incorrect answers, and then there are questions with personal, individual answers. These two different kinds of questions have different purposes as well. The first type is a formative assessment to gauge if students understood the material or not, and the second is to check for background knowledge or add depth to a lesson.

It is okay to ask the second kind of question if you aren’t sure how students might answer. In a language classroom, these could easily be all sorts of questions – ‘Who has visited Nebraska?’ ‘Who wants a cookie?’ ‘Who has a dog? ‘Who prefers cats?’ In these cases, it doesn’t really matter what the students answer; there are no right or wrong statements and you can work with whatever the students give you.

When it comes to the first type, however, to gauge understanding of material, you have to make it easy on the students to be correct. You have to give them the answer, somehow, before asking them the question. In my example above, the presenter made a mistake in asking us to supply a definition of a term… while in the midst of a vocabulary lesson. Nobody answered because we had no idea; that’s why they had a vocabulary section in their lesson. What’s worse is that it’s easy to feel like students are being defiant by not participating, when they’re really just not participating because they don’t want to look stupid. Of couse, we can alleviate some of that fear by making our classrooms safe spaces where we discourage put-downs, but only the bravest of outgoing students will venture an answer if they have no clue. ‘Giving them the answer’ takes different forms in different disciplines – this could be having the notes in front of them, a list of vocabulary terms, different types of pictures to identify, whatever it is. As a side note, if you want students to be able to correctly recall information from a lengthy passage, it is far more helpful to supply some kind of comprehension questions/graphic organizer to highlight what information is most important and will be discussed. Again, I think in many cases it might look like students didn’t complete the work but in reality, they just didn’t know which information was going to be prioritized so everything got categorized as equally memorable (or forgettable) in their brains.

In the language classroom, remembering to give the answer first can sometimes be a problem in storytelling if you’re coming back from the summer and do a terrible job of informing your 1st period Spanish 1 that the sentence on the board has established the facts of the story (not that this happened to me today or anything, ahem…) and that they should answer accordingly when you start your circling questions. If you fix yourself for 4th period Spanish 1 and make it clear what the answer is supposed to be, then you will be more likely to get the participation level you were expecting and a lot less confusion on the parts of the students. Confused students are not students who are learning.

Like I said in my last post, if you make it easy for students to participate, you will make teaching easier on yourself. And who doesn’t want that?

Make it easy

One of the things I do outside of teaching is roller derby. I used to skate for the No Coast Derby Girls, but I decollarbonexraycided last season was going to be my last season as a full-time skater. Somewhat ironically, I ended up breaking my collarbone in an away game, right before the last home game of the season. Yep, I’m that hardcore. I love roller derby, but No Coast is an internationally competitive league. Even the B team requires a ton of work – practicing 3 times a week, hitting the gym at least once a week, promotion, special events, and so on. And being a contact sport, it hurts. A lot. I decided I wanted to step back from derby to focus on my career, but I still wanted to be involved. So I chose to remain as a coach for our junior derby league and as a non-skating official (NSO) who does stuff like keep score, run the penalty box, etc.

But after two sessions of coaching the juniors in 2015, I’ve decided that I will simply be an NSO next year. It’s not that I don’t love working with our junior skaters – I really do – but trying to volunteer is a hassle. I’m not kept in the loop. I don’t know what my job is going to be on any particular day. I don’t know if they need me at games to coach, to NSO, or not at all. If I don’t initiate contact, I have no idea what’s going on. It makes volunteering feel like a chore, not something I am choosing to do to enrich the lives of young skaters in Lincoln. After hosting a home game this weekend where communication broke down on multiple levels and led to an event that should’ve been 3 hours took over 5, I’m a bit fed up.

So what does this have to do with a teaching blog? With the new school year, a lot of people are posting about rules, routines, and expectations. I agree with every single post that says that it’s worth the few days at the beginning of the year to establish what you want your students to do at any given moment. You have to make it easy. Especially for those of us who teach high school, you have to make participating seem like the path of least resistance for your students. Are we still going to have students who refuse to participate? Absolutely. And I am, in no way, arguing that you should make your content easier. But most students will go along with your wacky schemes if participating at a basic level will make you otherwise leave them alone. (And remember, the trick is to make participating at the most basic level still require a lot of participation, but easy participation – watching, listening, responding when appropriate. We want the content to be enriching, but the tasks cognitively simple, so they can focus on the meaning, not the form.) By establishing specific routines, students will know what you want from them and most of them are happy to comply. I truly believe that children, for the most part, really want to please the adults in their life and earn validation. All we have to do is let them know how.

This also applies to giving instructions. One criticism I have of the AP Spanish workshop I attended this summer was when we would do the ‘student version’ of things (usually completing a graphic organizer of some sort based on a source of input). We were working with a master teacher, but many times his verbal instructions were unclear and written instructions didn’t exist – maybe he assumed we knew what we should do, since we’re all teachers ourselves? But we didn’t know what we were supposed to do with this sheet full of pictures. Were we supposed to match vocabulary words, describe the pictures verbally, describe them in writing, what? We were happy to do what he asked – once we knew what the task was. I think that consistently giving clear instructions is one of those tweaks that makes a good teacher into a great teacher.

Some teachers prefer to take a few days at the beginning of the year to outline all their routines at once. I, personally, prefer to get the basics out of the way on the first day (which is even easier now since we are adopting a school-wide motto/ruleset of safe-respectful-responsible) and then teach routines as they come up during the first few weeks of school. No matter how you do it, it’s an extremely important step in setting the tone for the year, whether you teach Spanish or PE, elementary or high school, fresh out of college or 30 years experience. How will you establish your classroom routines this year?

#Teach2Teach Question 2

Time for round 2 of #Teach2Teach, the blogging series where experienced teachers are trying to give our best advice to new and pre-sevice teachers. Today’s topic is one of my favorites: politics.

Carrie asks: How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?

I have to agree 100% with Amy when she says that whether we like it or not, politics are part of the job. Since everyone theoretically got some sort of education, everyone has an opinion on it. Even though we as teachers understand that things are completely different from the other side of the desk, many people still base their opinions on their own experiences. The sooner that we understand and accept that playing the politics game is part of our job – and learn to manage it with grace – will help us maintain our sanity.

When in doubt, keep your mouth shut

Now, I need to preface my personal comments by noting that I am terrible at politics. I love debating policies and arguing over procedures, but when it comes to the tactful part of politics, I am terrible. Horrific. Awful. I have a big mouth and I have gotten myself in hot water multiple times over it, and that is why I am wording my advice in a strong, somewhat rude way. Let me be a lesson to you: if you are in doubt about anything, keep your mouth shut. If you are emotional, keep it shut. If you are angry or frustrated, definitely keep it shut. I call my blog Making Good Mistakes because making mistakes and fixing them is how we learn. But sometimes we make a big whopper of a mistake, and it is easier to remove the mistake-maker than to give them a chance to fix it.

As a new teacher, you are going to mess up. But just as our tolerance for making the same mistakes wanes the closer our students get to adulthood, the same will happen with administration. Make their job easier for them and resist the temptation to give comments if you haven’t thought them over multiple times and considered how it will be taken by anyone who might run across it. This goes doubly so for written material whether that is an email, a blog post, or even just a quick tweet. (And even then, you might still find yourself challenged, but I have no problem with being challenged on a thoughtful belief I truly hold, rather than an off-the-cuff remark that is now biting me in the butt.) It’s just not worth it.

Remember to be friendly, but you are not their friend

This piece of advice goes dually for working with students and other adults in the building. Being a young teacher, you are in a weird position. Many of your students could be your own siblings, and you may have many of the same interests. I absolutely encourage you to use those strengths, but remember, no matter how close you get, they are students first. They can be your friend after they graduate. In addition, different schools have different policies on social media. If yours doesn’t have a clear-cut policy, always use caution. Remember that anything you write on the internet, no matter how private you think it might be, can quickly spread through the internet and make its way to your principal’s desk.

It is harder, I think, to remember that your coworkers are not necessarily your friends, either. It can be very difficult to be the new kid on the block, especially if you enter as the only new teacher with a well-established staff. The loneliness can be alleviated by a good mentoring program, but most schools don’t have that. With other staff members, you can be more of your real self than you are with the students, but you are still playing the political game. Just because you are all educators does not mean you all have the same beliefs and values. Throughout the school year, there are naturally occuring personality clashes when it comes to things like school improvement or making changes to curriculum. Handle these with grace and composure. Like I said in my first point, if you don’t have a well-rehearsed, tactful response, just keep your mouth shut. As you become more established, you will feel more comfortable (respectfully!) challenging beliefs, but at the beginning, you don’t have the trust built up to do so safely.

Keeping your spark ignited

Okay, so my post hasn’t been very positive so far. ‘Keep your mouth shut or you’ll get into trouble.’ ‘Be friendly, but not friends.’ I have one more not-so-positive thing to say before I tell you all the good parts, and that is to temper your flame. I am all about passion and excitement and enthusiasm – I think those are all qualities you need to be a good teacher. But you have to keep that enthusiasm under control. It can be very hard when you feel like you have this Really Great Idea! but if you approach it like your way is the best and only way, it can turn people off in a hurry. (There is a reason this post on offensive “authentic resources” has, by far, the most hits on my blog.) But I encourage you to take your tempered flame and direct it towards gently guiding people, whether they are your students or fellow staff members, rather than blasting everyone in the nearby area with it. Going with the fire analogy, a raging fire left unchecked and uncontrolled only destroys everything around it. But a controlled flame, like used in a welding torch, can create wonderful things. Be the torch and not the blaze.

It’s also better to keep your fire safely contained, so that you don’t burn yourself out. The workload in your first few years is intense, and if you give 110% of yourself to your job every single day, you won’t have anything left. Going back to my first #Teach2Teach advice, make sure to take time for yourself. The grading can wait.

But what if you’re having the opposite problem, where your flame has been dampened and you feel like you’re just slogging through the days? That is the time to refresh and reconnect, to relight your fire with the fire of others. I’m going to sound cliche here, but those are the times to read blogs and check #langchat. Maybe you’re struggling with a unit, or have a so-so lesson that you’re not sure how to make great. Maybe it’s just the kids getting you down. That’s when you need to touch base with people who will lift your spirits and push you forward. If you can get this connection in the teacher’s lounge, great. If you feel like nothing positive is discussed at lunch, eat by yourself or eat with a positive-minded friend in his/her room. You can’t always choose how you feel, but you can choose what to do about it.

The first few years can be incredibly lonely because you haven’t built up your teacher support network yet, and you might feel that your normal support networks don’t cut it (even if they’re amazing, wonderful people, teaching is one of those jobs where most people have no idea what you actually do each day and why it is so hard.) Trust me, we’ve all been there. You are probably going to make political mistakes – say something inappropriate or rude to a student, or offend a coworker – but take them as making good mistakes to learn from. Recharge your flame by huddling close to people who are currently burning bright. Eventually, those people are going to need you to return the favor. We’re all in this together, for better or worse.