When I left institute after 6 weeks of training, I was certainly nervous for my first day of school. I new that the learning curve was going to be steep (to say the least), but acclimating to life in the classroom was by far the greatest challenge that I had thus far experienced. My first couple weeks as “Zachary Taylor – Middle School Math Teacher” went without incident. However, in the words of our 7th Grade social studies teacher – “the kids will gradually start to get squirrely” as the year goes on. This post is largely about my experience transitioning from institute (TFA training) to my Detroit classroom.
Entering late September most of my classes definitely started testing how far they could push me. For a while I did not know how to react. Sure, I had created a classroom management and investment plan (standard procedure for TFA CMs) but writing and implementing a plan are two completely different things. I quickly realized that while my management system sounded fine on paper, I personally didn’t like it. Even though I knew friends who had successfully used similar systems, it just did not come to me naturally. Because I lacked a workable management system, applying consequences consistently was impossible. These issues contributed a rough first few months of school.
By mid November I developed a management system that worked for me. The results were staggering. By creating a management system that was consistent and fair, I gained credibility and respect. My students started taking the class (and myself!) seriously. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a simple process; in fact, it took a lot of work and time to change the culture of my classroom but eventually my classroom became a place which both me and my students enjoyed being.
At his point I want to take a moment to address a myth, the allegation that it is impossible to alter a classroom’s culture (especially if the culture is negative). Improving the culture of a classroom part-way though the year is not an issue of impossibility – it is an issue of effort of time. It is certainly no easy task (especially the longer you progress through the year), but it is possible if you are prepared to apply the necessary work. It took me many weeks (and late nights) to get my classes where I wanted them, but in the end I was glad (and I think my students were too) that I took the time and tried.
Ultimately, what took my classroom to the next level for me was when I switched from giving my kids traditional “text book tests” to performance assessments. A performance assessment takes the form of an activity (usually multiple days) where the student uses at least one mathematical concept to analyze and evaluate a problem or situation that has real-world context and relevance for the student. The performance assessment is finished with an exhibition of the students’ work. These projects provided the single biggest boost to student investment for the whole year. They cared about (and often lived) the issues that we examined through these assignments.
Due to time and space, let me conclude this (very) abbreviated reflection on the first half of my year in Detroit. By the time it ended, I instantly missed all of my students (though I still get to see a few in summer school) and immediately began looking forward to the next year.