I love this book. I think you should buy it.
I picked it up after reading recommendations on several blogs, and it arrived at a very good time (even if it’s no longer the first days of school.) True, the strategies are mostly directed at elementary school teachers (I don’t have a classroom to set up effectively, although I really wish I did; some days I might fantasize about making posters with detailed procedures like “Remove your coat. Empty your bag. Sit at your desk,” but they probably wouldn’t go over well with my 18-year-old students.) Nevertheless, this book is full of basic, concrete principles that will make any teacher think more carefully about their classroom, their processes, and their career.
I read this (substantial) book cover-to-cover in a single night. My favorite discovery was in the first chapter, when the Wongs describe the four stages any teacher goes through in their career:
…neophyte teachers…believe that to be a successful teacher, all they need to do is relate and be a friend to their students. They also believe that teaching means doing activities, especially fun activities. …
Teachers are in survival when they rely on ineffective practices just to make it through the day. To them, teaching is a job, and they do it for the paycheck and vacation benefits. … They exhibit no accountability: “I teach the stuff; if they don’t want to learn it, it’s not my fault.”
Teachers who know how to achieve student success employ effective practices. These teachers know how to manage their classroom, they teach for mastery, and they have high expectations for their students. …[They read] professionally and [go] to professional meetings. They…exhibit accountability: “If the students are not learning, I need to find another way…”
Effective teachers make a difference in the lives of their students. These are the teachers whom students come back years later to thank for affecting their lives. To make an impact on your students, you need to use effective teaching practices…When you reach this stage, you have gone beyond mastery: you have arrived as a teacher. When you reach the impact stage, you will return to the fantasy stage…” (6)
The Wongs assert that all teachers pass through the survival stage, but, ideally, we pass through it as quickly as possible in order to get to the mastery stage, the stage where we actively learn, grow and blossom as teachers.
I somehow managed to spend fifteen years in the fantasy stage. It wasn’t that things never went wrong, or that I never had a class that made me miserable, but the problems were so outweighed by the charge (read: ego trip) I got out of being in the classroom that I saw them as aberrations, not symptoms of anything that needed to change. I was what the Wongs call an “unintentionally inviting” teacher:
This is the level of the “natural born teacher.” Such teachers are generally well liked and effective but are unaware of why they are effective: they do not have a consistent philosophy of education. When something does not work in the classroom, they are unable to analyze what went wrong. They are usually affable, and this characteristic often hides the fact that their students may not be learning to their full potential. (67)
When the issues started to outweigh the joys and I had no tools with which to deal with them, I plunged into the survival stage, toying with the idea of quitting teaching – or at least finding a teaching job where (I thought) some of these issues wouldn’t present themselves – and then reminding myself that I like having a steady paycheck and lots of vacation time.
I’m now, however, starting to see glimmers of the mastery stage. I’m no longer gritting my teeth and ignoring problems in the hopes that they’ll just stop turning up. I’m trying not to complain about the students who seem impossible. Instead, I’m researching strategies, studying theories, talking to colleagues (not just bitching, but talking), buying books on education, and – most importantly, I’m finding – keeping this blog. I’m aiming to become what the Wongs call an “intentionally inviting” teacher:
…[these] teachers have a professional attitude, work diligently and consistently, and strive to be more effective teachers. They have a sound philosophy of education and can analyze the process of student learning. Most important, they are purposively and explicitly invitational….They say things like this: “Good morning. Have a great day.”…”Please tell me about it.”…”Yes, I believe it is in your best interest.”…”You can do better than this; let me show you how.”
I think the most valuable lesson I’ve taken from The First Days of Teaching is that good teaching – teaching that leads to a well-managed, productive classroom and real student learning – is about having effective procedures: clear expectations of what students will do, and consistent ways of responding when they do or do not do what you expect. In my next post, I’ll to write about some of the ways I’m trying to implement this approach in one of my difficult classes. In the meantime, if you feel like you’re in the “survival” stage of teaching and would like to start struggling out of it, I highly recommend that you put your hands on this book.