Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Top 10: How to Take Control of Your Teaching

By on February 25, 2009

Occasionally, I repost this article so that new readers can find it more easily.  Based on some very enthusiastic feedback, it has since morphed into a book proposal called The Top Secret New Teachers Handbook.  I’ll share more as it evolves…
I’ve been developing this Top 10 list of ways to take control of your teaching even in the face of, well, teaching. It’s an advice list on how to encourage respect, and, if necessary, how to demand it as a means to make sure you aren’t being taken for granted.

Let’s face it, if you are feeling appreciated, you will be happier in this difficult job. Consequently, your students will be happier, and quite frankly, if they are happier, they will be more successful. After all, an unhappy teacher’s room has the smog of misery in it, and for a student, it hovers like a stench that affects their own victories.  And while it benefits a school to keep its teachers happy, it is a teacher’s responsibility to demand those things that make this challenging job better than tolerable.
I think that finding those tricks or strategies to keep in your pocket is important in any career; but in education you need them even more so. Otherwise, the day-to-day duties of the job will eventually grind your enthusiasm to a halt and it won’t just be you who is affected, your students will be affected as well.

I will be expanding on each of these over time, but in a nutshell, here’s my TOP 10:

How to Take Control of Your Teaching


I. Make your Classroom Library a Theme Park 

It doesn’t matter what your subject is, you should develop a classroom library that reflects your interests and the interests of your students. Creating a literary theme park supports literacy and that, in turn, supports the efforts of the entire school. Additionally, you also might find that you share interests with your students. That, in turn, creates students eager to be in your space. And if they are eager to be there, they are easier to teach in a much deeper way.
Read the Books.  Let me say it again.  Read the books.  (See my post, “Skulduggery Pleasant“). Know what the students are reading, and talk to them with enthusiastic authority.  Model the verbal Literary Response. (post soon to come)
But how do you fund a classroom library?  Tune in and we’ll cover that and other funding suggestions in a future post.

II. Share Yourself

Share stories. Journal honestly.  Use yourself and your life as an example. Think Aloud.  Model your own struggles as a learner.  Create a community in the classroom where students are comfortable sharing in, and you will have created a more comfortable classroom for yourself as well.

III. Let Them Teach You/Don’t Worry About Knowing it All

Continue to be a student and you will not only model how to take criticism and advice, but you will also find that your students are a wealth of knowledge. Let go of having to be the authority. In turn, you will find more respect from them and ultimately gain greater, more intrinsic, classroom authority.

IV. Create Lessons, or, Better Yet, Create a Class

Sometime in your life, sometime in your career, find the opportunity to create a class. Find the curriculum. Develop it. Whatever. To quote Tim Gunn from Project Runway fame, “Make it work.” But make sure that you are able to teach something that you are not just credentialed to teach, but that you also love. I know, I know, budget cuts are a chronic disease that cut into our well-made plans to have teachers teach electives that they love, but you need this as a goal. If you love Photography, Robotics, Dance, whatever, pitch the class to the board, find a grant, a sugar daddy, anyone that can help. This is necessary in order to find that time during the day that you look forward to. Keep your antennae up and get your pitch ready. Opportunities arise and “no”s are, at times, subjective.

V. Be Flexible (Water off a duck, baby!)

Be a bendy reed in the wind, or you’ll snap in two.

VI. Teach With Your Door Open

I mean this literally and figuratively. So many teachers are paranoid about having visitors observe them teach. But if you invite administrators in when you know great stuff is going on, then you will, in turn, be less tentative in having people there on the fly. Open your door more often, and you won’t be as bothered by the breeze.

VII. Collaborate, but make sure you get credit

Even before the Open Source movement, past practice in education said that we should give away our stuff for free. Share with your colleagues openly, but if merit pay does indeed come around the bend, make sure you are given the nod for the creativity. Housing prices may be down, but we still can’t afford one on our salary.

VIII. Take a Course in PR/Publicity

Learn how to pitch yourself and your programs. It’s up to you to let people know the hard work and greatness that is you. The press is your friend, especially if your administrator is not. It’s weird how administrators don’t always know how to use the local papers or community to spread the good word about the great stuff that may be happening at your school. Therefore, it falls to the teachers to get on the ball. Get a file going with your accomplishments and you will be more likely to hear “yes” when asking for other various permissions along the way.

IX. Don’t Work For Free

Let me rephrase that: After spending a year or two doing some work for free to show what you can do, you need to start insisting on getting paid for what you do. A school should be able to give you a stipend, at least a little nod in recognition, for the extra that you do. And if more of us insisted that we get monetary recognition for our extra effort, we would, as a profession, be treated more professionally.  (See my posts, “Don’t Work For Free“, “Don’t Work for Free – Part II: Subtle Obligation“, and the aptly named, “Don’t Work for Free – Part III: Return of the Tween“)  Remember, as one drug dealer said to the other, ” only the first rock is free.”
Yes, many new teachers (especially D.I.N.K.S. – dual-income, no kids) are eager to work above-and-beyond. Yes, many veteran teachers who have their homes, who have their children out of the house, and who are teaching as the secondary income for their family may be eager to work above-and-beyond. But, remember, the teachers who are in the dwindling middle class can’t afford living up to this past precedence and they need to be a braver voice in demanding compensation.

X. Pick the Right School for You

(See my post, How to Get a Job in Education that you Love)  Your level of job happiness starts the minute you say “yes” to a human resource department. If you take the first job offered, having done no research, and having done nothing to weed out schools that you have no interest in, then you will be doomed to living in that classroom smog of misery I mentioned before. Get as many cards in your favor as possible. Begin by making sure you’re working in the place you want to work in, or at least in a school that you can happily live with. It takes research and effort to front-load a job hunt. See my entry on “How to Get a Job in Education that you Loveto help you on your way.



Administrators Bonus Steps:

I. Keep Their Time Meaningful
Don’t have the staff play faculty Bingo at meetings.
Don’t have Staff Scavenger hunts.
If they don’t have to be there, let them out of the meeting.
If you only have 5 things to tell the staff, tell them and then let them go to work in their rooms.
Make the time meaningful and they’ll respect the time they you need. Teachers are the WORST audience. I mean they can be downright ornery when given the incentive.  They bust their butts to engage students and to keep their class time meaningful. One of your jobs as administrator is to protect the little time teachers have. Make their time with you just as meaningful for them.
II. Get Rid of the Dead Weight
Don’t be a wimp. If you’ve got a teacher whose data does not stack up AND who won’t put in the effort to change their strategies, get the paperwork in place to get them out of there.   (See my post, “Ode to An Uncollaborative Teacher: Bad Slam Poetry from TweenTeacher“)  The concept of tenure is being given a bad name because more and more of you won’t play hardball with the occasional tenured teacher who have settled into an unsuccessful stride that has gone unchallenged. Until we have other options out there for protection, tenure is a good thing. But it shouldn’t be a good thing for a bad teacher. Do what you have to do so that the public doesn’t think that bad teachers are being protected. Due Process exists. Use it, and have your school reflect what works. (See my post, “Bad Teachers are Not Tenure’s Fault“)
Well, that’s it. I will go into more detail on each of these points as time goes on, including examples, pros and cons, etc… But these are the steps that have worked for me. I know they’ve worked for me because I’m a damn happy teacher. I also know they work for me because my students are also happy. We laugh as hard as we work, and I look forward to waking up to them everyday.
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