High School Angst: Calming Freshman Jitters
By Martha Beach
No matter the grade level you are teaching, the new school year brings excitement: a new class list, configuring seating arrangement, hanging inspirational posters or stimulating art work, working once again alongside your colleagues.
But as a high school teacher, it can also be a bit daunting: welcoming new (and nervous!) kids to a very different type of school day, planning lessons for multiple classes and levels, forming real relationships with students, trying to manage groups of teenagers, plus prepping piles of paperwork. It’s a lot to jump into after two months of sunshine sprinkled with professional development.
A new school year requires work, communication, and preparation. The best time to start is, of course, before that first bell rings in September. But fear not, if you are still feeling overwhelmed, it’s not too late to try and remedy the situation.
Orientation: Welcoming Those New Youngsters
Helping Grade 9 students feel welcome is a top priority to build the foundation of a successful school year. First off, the system itself is very different from elementary and middle school. “They have to learn to be an adult,” says Maryanne Marsh, dance program director at a Toronto arts school with 21 years of teaching experience in the public school system. Grade nine orientation day prior to the start of classes is a huge boon. (If your school doesn’t already do this, talk to your colleagues about planning one for the future.) Marsh’s school organizes one day where new kids can familiarize themselves with the building, their new timetables, staff and other students. They also participate in workshops to get a feel for how the arts programs will proceed. “It’s a nonthreatening way to get them comfortable,” Marsh says. Craig L. Bouvier, head of a private school in South Carolina, helps host a launch program. “We want them to be familiar with their surroundings, schedule, and teachers,” Bouvier says. “They come to the first day of school with ready-made friends.”
Part of orientation at both Marsh’s and Bouvier’s schools includes a peer mentorship program. If a new student is struggling, feeling lost, or just needs a bit of a boost, teachers can pair them with a volunteer mentor. “We train our staff to look for single standing students,” Bouvier says. “They intentionally hook them up with another student ambassador.” Bouvier explains this buddy system is very intentional at first, and after a few weeks the staff let more natural tendencies take over. “But this doesn’t work if the teachers don’t get it,” Bouvier stresses. “You have to walk with eyes looking for that single standing student. It takes focus.”
If a school-wide orientation is not an option, think on a smaller scale. As an educator with 24 years of experience, Bouvier started with this concept in his own classroom many years ago. He carefully communicated his rules on the first day of school (truth, responsibility, respect), and then they got to the fun stuff. “I would do a day that was all activities and we got to know each other.” Zuzana Eperjesi, a math teacher at a Toronto-area high school, conducts icebreaker activities for her grade nine students on the first day and reviews course outlines, expectations and guidelines. “Set the framework, get all the nuts and bolts in place,” Eperjesi advises. “I think it’s important not just to dive in. We have to set the vibe.” She is also fairly honest with her students right away: she tells them how she is feeling on the first day. “Especially my grade nines, it helps them to know that I’m nervous too and it feels like a load off to admit it. I don’t have to front so much. There’s a lot of excitement in the first few days.”
Communication and Honesty: Build the Base for Real Relationships
When you have a real relationship with a student, they are much more likely to listen to what you’re saying, they feel comfortable asking questions, and so they learn more. From the rules you set to the lessons you teach, it has to flow from your desire to have real relationships with your students. “If it’s canned, if it’s not real and consistent, the kids can smell it.” Eperjesi, who has 12 years teaching experience and an engineering degree. She values genuine connections. “I chose teaching over working in the industry because I love teenagers and I want to cultivate relationships.” Being genuine is a big part of how you present yourself as an educator. “You have to be confident and passionate about what you’re teaching,” Marsh agrees. Part of that means owning up to mistakes. “As a teacher, it’s very important that you present yourself as a flawed being. If you make a mistake, own up to it.” Bouvier finds that when he and his staff are genuine, students are more engaged, test scores increase, and behavioural issues decrease. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he advises.
The Boring Part: Paperwork Prep and Cleaning
Welcoming students and setting up mentorships is all well and good, but sometimes you have to get down to the nitty gritty stuff. Since Marsh is head of a department, she goes into school starting mid-August to do budgets, clean rooms, and set up studios. Marsh also does some practical prep work like reviewing old exercises, thinking of choreography, and reviewing concepts. She gets in a bit of fun though: she picks lots of new music and creates playlists for her dancers.
Eperjesi is a big fan of old-fashioned groundwork. “I like to really prepare, because you have to teach and manage the classroom, and on top of all that, you have to be sensitive to people’s needs as individuals.” First thing on her ‘to-do’ list: get all the paperwork in place—official course outline with curriculum and expectations. “The first couple classes are just reviewing, getting your feet wet, seeing where people are.” Eperjesi usually leafs through her binders and computer files to look for usable material, and she alters files as needed. Over the years, she has built up her collection of resources. “But the first time through a course, I am very grateful to other teachers who share their resources,” says Eperjesi. This year, she is teaching a new grade 11 course. At the beginning of August, she started reviewing material in-depth, anticipating questions, finding out the answers, and practicing how to explain each step of the process. “I want to know this stuff cold, inside and out, for an ‘ask me anything!’ attitude. It really helps alleviate my own stress and anxiety about teaching a new course the first time around.” Plus, if you are confident, your students feel more confident. “You’re the captain, you set the tone.”
In the End, Be Prepared to Go With the Flow
Sometimes, thinking up activities, getting photocopies and lesson plans in order, and dreaming up plausible questions will only take you so far. “You can plan up your yinyang, but it depends on who you teach,” says Marsh. Be receptive to the type of people in front of you. “You have to go with what and where the students are. I know I will follow curriculum, but I don’t always know exactly how that will happen.” Good planning typically leads to a positive outcome, “but be flexible enough to go off the plan,” Marsh advises.
Bouvier agrees: research activities, set your own rules, but in the end, allow your lessons to flow out of who you are, allow them to come from a place of passion and reside in your strength of knowledge about the subject. “It’s going to look different in every class,” he assures. Marsh also points to passion: “If you’re lucky to find something you’re passionate about teaching, stick with it,” she says.
Some groundwork and nitty gritty planning will get you to the point you need to be, and from then on it’s about communication, welcoming your students, being honest and open, and ultimately just being yourself and teaching in the way you know best.
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.