Following the first five rules takes toxic drama out of the classroom, and allows teachers to focus on what they really love.
THIS MORNING, I was interviewed by a local film producer about my life and experience as a teacher and writer. I found myself telling story after story about why I chose to become a teacher.
In the midst of that conversation, I realized something about myself — that I came very close to NOT being a teacher. I could have become a musician, or a journalist, or an actor. I am passionate about all of these.
But I didn’t.
I became a teacher because my community needed me to teach. In the classroom, I felt wanted. And what kept me in the classroom is the belief that teaching is a my vocation — and the most meaningful thing I know how to do.
These 10 rules for surviving as a teacher are rules I wish I had known before I started teaching.
So I have written them to the young teacher I once was — and to other teachers facing the same struggles he faced.
THE TEN RULES I shared in Part 1 of this blog have been earned the old-fashioned way — by attending the School of Dumb Mistakes. In Part 1 of this blog series on Dead Poets Society, I promised to reframe those rules by sharing some key moments of learning from my teaching career.
For clarity, I’ve flipped the rules back to the affirmative, and rearranged their order. And in this blog — Part 2 — I’ll focus on five rules that guard your integrity inside your classroom. In Part 3, the rules will focus on maintaining your reputation outside the classroom.
So here goes.
1. Find out what your supervisor expects of you. This is a basic job expectation. Good teachers know that every principal has slightly different expectations. It’s our job to figure out what they value most, and then avoid conflict in that area.
When I began teaching at Catholic Central in Steubenville in 1990, it took me awhile to figure out that Mr. Voss valued attention to detail. All of our first few clashes involved my lack of attention to that area. I found success — and eventually, an outstanding reference — by learning to pay attention.
For example, Mr. Voss commented in one of my first classroom evaluations, that “Mr. Denlinger would do well to focus on responding in a more timely manner to his supervisor’s concerns.”
At that point in time, I had not yet realized how important it is to do exactly what my supervisor asks me to do, and to follow through consistently.
Learning to take orders without resentment is also important. If you have authority issues, you should choose another profession. Like the military, schools are conservative institutions.
As a teacher, learning to take direction only makes sense. If you expect your students to follow your directions, you need to show them you too can follow your supervisor’s directions without complaining. Make this a habit.
It doesn’t work to bitch to your students about your principal’s “ridiculous demands,” all the while expecting your students to obey you without question.
No one likes a hypocrite.
This is also important because, even with a continuing contract, defying your supervisor can result in immediate termination.
Learning to work with your superior is the most important quality needed to succeed as a teacher.
2. Establish discipline immediately. In other words, clearly lay out for students what your actual expectations are. They want to know.
The old saw — “Don’t smile ‘til Christmas” — is an attempt to simplify a general rule: you are responsible to establish discipline within your classroom.
How do you re-establish discipline once you’ve lost it?
You can’t. It’s impossible. Full stop.
At that point, if you want any hope of survival, you will be forced to lay down draconian rules your students will resent, and you’ll stagger through the year, hoping you’ve learned your lesson.
You don’t forget that kind of pain.
I remember directing one of my first shows. They were all middle school students, I had just returned from a semester abroad being taught by professors who were rebels, and I had concluded that students just need more freedom. So I let the ones not on stage do what they wanted. Which meant they were running about the gym, screaming at the top of their lungs.
It didn’t impress my principal when he dropped in to observe a rehearsal. At that point, the exit sign began flashing. But since I was young and inexperienced, I didn’t see them.
The first few days are critical to setting the tone. Students need to see how your universe functions. They also need to know who’s in charge.
Each classroom cohort has a specific personality. One defiant student can change the entire makeup of the class, especially if the other students see you won’t respond, or worse, are afraid to respond.
A semester feels very long when there is no clear “captain” in the room.
It’s not about enjoying power — it’s about being aware that someone needs to be in charge. By requiring students to respect you, you are ensuring that all students are free to learn.
Because there’s a safety issue at stake. When students see that you are afraid to take charge, it means someone else already has. It means another student has the power — someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart — to damage them.
It means they are in danger.
Your students won’t feel safe, and they won’t learn. Worst of all, there’s no way to recover this feeling. From then on, they will dread your class.
My first lecture has evolved over the years. Now as a teacher, I spend the first class talking about what I value most: listening to others, and thus, building real relationships grounded in respect. I tell them that not only will I listen carefully to whatever they say, but I will ensure that everyone else listens to what they have to say.
I find this is the heart of every successful class discussion. When students listen to each other in silence, a bond of respect forms between them.
For this reason, I rarely have discipline issues.
3. Being on time is critical. I’ll be honest. This is one in which I’ve been inconsistent. At my current job, I arrive about 10 – 15 minutes early. That’s too late, in my opinion. I can give you excellent reasons why I don’t arrive earlier — and none of them will convince you.
My best years have occurred when I arrive at least an hour early. It gives me time to settle into the day, modify my lesson plans based on the previous day’s work, open all necessary pages on the screen in front of the room, and perhaps drop by a colleague’s classroom to chat.
The day makes a leisurely entrance.
Coming to school late also shows an untidy personality, someone whose life is not entirely under control.
I will never forget the trainer I had before I started my first teaching position, way back in 1983. He was a quiet, unassuming man who spoke gently and smiled often. But he was always there before everyone else, and he outstayed every student. Every part of his room looked tidy and organized. Although I haven’t always followed his example, his classroom world has always been a shining model of what I want my classes to be.
Being late is a powerful model for students — one you don’t want to create. They will notice. Worst of all, they will imitate you, whether or not they want to.
4. Make your students the center of every class.
I remember directing Romeo and Juliet — I was on stage beginning a dance rehearsal. I was in the middle of giving instructions, mansplaining to the cast how they should respond quickly when the choreographer gave instructions, when I suddenly realized the woman was already at work. She was moving among the students, quietly guiding a student here, another there.
I shut up and watched her work.
I remember the first day in my job as the assistant debate coach at Vashon High School, sitting in the back of the room. I hadn’t yet met my head coach. The classroom was packed full, the students talking among themselves, when suddenly I realized the coach was moving quietly through the room, distributing a handout. The students went dead quiet, quickly beginning their work.
Today, I do far less lecturing.
I discovered a key element in my present teaching style when I discovered Robert J. Marzano’s teaching philosophy, in which you center the learning process on the student. One wonderful technique is assigning learning partners, stopping often to allow students to verbally process with each other what they are learning.
Students learn to think critically, and reflect on what you say.
I realized how much I depend on this when I was sitting in a seminar. The teacher was going on and on, and I was getting restless. It dawned on me what I was missing — time to verbally process what I was learning. I resented the fact that the instructor — truly a “sage on the stage” — thought the lesson was all about him.
5. Always meet your deadlines. Allow me to return to Mr. Voss — for the first time, I had run into a boss who demanded that I turn in work on time, and who followed up on his every instruction, ruthlessly. Today, as I peruse his evaluations, I can see this was an issue he identified for me as a growth area.
And he was right.
I clearly remember having dinner with two friends one Friday evening during that first year, complaining to them about my boss’s obsessive requests for paperwork. Finally, one of them — a young woman who was teaching university classes while working on her Ph.D — turned to me.
“Do you like teaching?”
“Then quit complaining,” she said, “and just do the paperwork so you can focus on what you really love: being in the classroom.”
That was a powerful lesson. Teaching is more than giving inspiring lectures. Doing the boring, preparatory work behind the scenes is equally important. Filling out paperwork, documenting events, reporting to your boss — it all comes with the job.
If you like the job, you’ll simply do the paperwork as quickly, accurately, and professionally as you can — so that you can get back to what you really love.
Next week, I’ll complete my discussion of the remaining five rules of teaching in Part 3 of this blog on ‘Dead Poets Society.’ In the meantime, feel free to offer examples of how you learned about one of these rules in the comment section below. Or feel free to disagree.