Surprises in My First Year of Teaching

Posted by on Mar 30, 2016 in Middle School | No Comments

Alison VonAchen

Math Teacher at Sanford Middle School

Minneapolis Public Schools

CONNECT Committee Member

Late last August I began my first year of teaching at Minneapolis’ Sanford Middle School. After a busy week of professional development and setting up my classroom, the students arrived. I had been looking forward to this day for so long, growing in confidence throughout my training program. However, as the students and I began working together, I realized all the classes I had taken, books I had read, and planning I had done still could not possibly prepare me for unique situations I would face (these are unpredictable 12 and 13-year-olds after all!).

As a new teacher, I’ve been surprised by how much time my colleagues give me. Starting that first day I found myself often seeking the opinions and advice of the adults at Sanford on everything school-related: from working more effectively with a particular student to strategies for differentiating. I did not expect the staff to be so willing to spend their precious time coaching a new teacher considering all the responsibilities they have to juggle. No matter how busy my colleagues are with school and at home, no one has ever turned me away nor seemed hurried or impatient in listening to and advising me. This is true of everyone at school – math teachers, non-math teachers, deans, administrators, counselors, and clerical staff. The time and advice they give are valuable professional development for a new teacher.

Another surprise has been how effective the most obvious and basic teaching strategies can be. At the beginning of the year I had a group of students that I was struggling to motivate, so I spoke with our math specialist (one of my many busy colleagues who always makes time for me). She suggested posting a progress chart with stickers for learning targets students have mastered. I remember thinking, “Really? That’s so elementary!” But I tried it, and I was shocked by the way students gravitated to it before I had even pointed it out. Students checked it daily, and they were letting me know if it wasn’t immediately up-to-date. In another recent example, I had a ball out for an advisory activity. Students wanted to use it as we did our share-out prior to the activity, and I was floored by how they gave the student holding the ball their utmost attention. Usually this requires several reminders to respect whoever is speaking. The success I’ve found in solving problems with seemingly basic solutions is related to my final revelation.

Middle school students, or at least 7th graders, are still just kids. During a recent advice session one of my colleagues told me that middle school is more similar to elementary than to high school. As the year progresses, I understand this more and more. Having student-taught at Roosevelt High School, I came in with more of a high school mindset. Middle school students aren’t too cool to get excited about school-related things and are so genuine and earnest in the things they say, like at our recent courage retreat. One of my favorite examples is a valentine I received from a student who wrote out my name and came up with a descriptive math or school-related word for each letter such as “linear” and “negative AND positive”. At one time I had been drawn to elementary school for younger students’ honesty and excitement, but I am finding that 7th grade is the happy middle.

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