One of the most interesting years of my life is coming to end now: the posting of final grades this morning marked the near-official end of my first year of teaching. It has been quite a ride, and I have learned more than I ever thought possible. Despite not keeping up with my reflections like I had hoped (sadly), it’s time again to reflect back on what went well, what went wrong, and what went…well, crazy.

The Good Stuff

One of the problems of doing a reflection for a whole year is that sometimes the good things can slip through the cracks of memory. (The bad things are very seldom ever so neat and tidy that they go down the cracks – the memory hole, if you will – so easily.) Nevertheless, I think I can identify some good things that came out of this year.

Probably the biggest accomplishment that I can think of is setting up a reputation for being approachable and personable to all students, even the ones I don’t have in class yet. Part of that stems from having lunch supervision this year and being in a situation where I needed – or at least felt it prudent – to explain certain decisions, especially those that weren’t mine. This ranged from explaining the concept of in loco parentis to the most recent example when I had to point out to a student complaining about the seemingly unfair punishment of some classmates that they had clear choices and chose the wrong ones. Again, gotta give the credit to James Nehring: dealing with students like they’re reasonable people who have reasonable concerns makes a big difference.

Another great thing that came out of this year – even if a bit too late – was the realization that being approachable and personable can sometimes lead to students feeling like they can take advantage of you. There’s of course a balance to find between being available to students and setting clear boundaries, and I think even my failures in that this year have made me realize that mercy is nice sometimes, but students still need to see clear consequences for their actions. I admit that I cut a lot of students slack this year – mostly because there were times where I felt it would have been unfair because of other shortcomings of mine in communication – but I really made it clear this last quarter that things needed to change.

In addition, I learned a great lesson about the importance of changing the rules of the game to help define boundaries a little better. My biggest failure this year was probably my major quarterly book project, which wasn’t always very well structured. As a result, students failed to approve books for projects and often threw projects together at the last minute (especially projects that involved drawing or sketching), trying to manipulate the guidelines set in order to do virtually no work at all to get credit for the project. As a testament to this: my wife helped me clean up my room today, and she picked up one such project and remarked incredulously, “They actually turned this in for a project?” So I know next year to set different guidelines for book approvals (by midterm, I think) and to put far more stringent limits on the projects that can be done, in addition to enforcing them early on. (Fortunately, only one class – the sophomores going into their junior year – will have this project with me next year, so that limits the number of students who will have to learn these significant changes.)

One final thing (I can’t say too much now – maybe more later): I’ve learned that I work with some people who aren’t exceptionally good communicators. I had been told by professors that kicking students out of the classroom was often a sign to administrators that you couldn’t control your classroom, so I kept students in the classroom and things got out of hand. When I talked to veteran teachers, their advice way into the year: “Kick them out on the first day they act up. You won’t get any guff about it from anyone.” Had I known this earlier in the year, I might have saved myself a lot of headache. So one very simple lesson I’ve learned is to ask questions and find reliable sources who will provide guidance – and it seems like I’ve got a lot of good stuff in that regard.

The Problematic Stuff

I don’t want to dwell on my failures too much – I’ve had plenty of them – but I need to acknowledge those things where I already knew what I should have done and simply failed to do it or do it well.

One thing that will be a big obstacle for me to overcome next year is discipline. Now, I will say in my defense that I did have a few exceptional situations that complicated my classroom management significantly, but there were plenty of situations where I needed to take better control of the situation – including kicking problem students out – and I just didn’t manage it.

This was no less evident than in my writing class, which was out of hand enough that students not in the course had a pretty good idea of how certain students in the course acted. (For the record, I heard nothing that blamed me for the class’s lack of discipline, which was encouraging.) There were certain students who are so unresponsive to the normal disciplinary techniques that often work for me with many students, and I ignored more than I should have. What will really help me for next year is having an awareness of the sorts of behaviors that have already been displayed by certain students and setting my threshold for those behaviors very low – and acting at the first sign of recurrent behavior. Even though I try not to let myself get riled up by students, I think there’s a degree to which I need to get angry about these kinds of misbehaviors, and this sort of righteous anger – perhaps out of concern for all that the other students lose – can help motivate me to do the right thing.

One other little thing: I feel like I failed to challenge students in a lot of ways. A lot of that was in daily planning, and I hope to get a much firmer grip on daily activities, making use of time, and forcing students to get engaged by whatever means necessary. They can get engaged – I’ve seen it at various points from virtually all of my classes – and I need to make that happen in creative ways.

The Stuff I Never Would Have Expected

This might be better as a short list:

It was an incredibly crazy year, certainly for me in context of my past experience but probably also in terms of the average school year as well.

The Verdict

I don’t consider my performance this year to have been exemplary, but I think I got through without too much damage to myself or the students. There were bumps in the road, some of which I suffered better than others, but mostly I found myself rising to the occasion and doing what I needed to do. But I’m not going to toot my own horn: if I were to self-assess, I would say that I get a C+ for this year, with my exceptional moments here and there.

However, I see hope for the future. Many of my students last year in student teaching told me that I’d be a great teacher someday, and I think they’re right – as long as I see that goal ahead and work hard at it, honing my skills and finding what works for my students, adapting where necessary. I need to be bolder, more creative, and smarter about how I approach the classroom.

But for now, the summer is soon to begin. After graduation tomorrow evening, I can relax and work on other things for the summer, including a music project that I’m going to be participating in with some other people connected to my alma mater.

Post-Script: The Final Notes

Speaking of graduation and music, I do want to bring out one more victory I had. My experiences bringing in my guitar this year led to an interesting request from some of my seniors: to play songs to go with the senior slide show that is shown at graduation. We worked out what songs I could do from a list of songs they wanted to have (some of them included because I played them in class), and I set out to arrange them. In order to record them well enough to be played at graduation, I enlisted the help of an English professor at my alma mater who has a small recording setup in his home, and in about 16 hours or so, we recorded 5 popular songs, all instruments played by yours truly. (That includes acoustic and electric guitars, piano, organ, synthesized drums, synthesized bass, synthesized strings, and vocals.) I’ll get to listen to them tomorrow evening at graduation, and I hope they go over well. If nothing else, it will be something rewarding to have left the senior class, and that’s worth a lot to me. (By the way, I’ll post a link to what I’ve done when I get all of the songs uploaded to the Myspace account I set up.)

And now, with these finishing touches to the year, I am going to call it a night.

To (roughly) quote Thornton Wilder: “You get a good night’s sleep, too.”

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