My Second Year Teaching

I am about the finish my first semester of my second year of teaching at Crossroads Christian Academy (CCA). This year has been very different from my first year teaching. To start with, my daughter enrolled in my school in the new K3 (preschool) program. This means that every morning my daughter and I go to school together. The K3 program is for half day, so during my lunch time I get to go say goodbye to my daughter when my wife comes to pick her up.

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So far my second year has been much easier than my first year. This is especially true in terms of the amount of time it takes me to plan my lessons. As a first year teacher I was getting familiar with the textbooks, the students and many new things at the school. This year I have all of my lesson plans saved from last year, so this is a starting point that saves me literally hours in terms of lesson preparation. I am able to make improvements to what I did last year based on what worked best and what I think will work best with my current students.

In the beginning of this year I had a lot of problems in the area of classroom management. This is still an area where I want to improve. It is not easy teaching young students, especially middle schoolers. Some of the boys in my classes have been particularly difficult for me to deal with this year. Some of the things I’m learning in terms of discipline/classroom management are:

Building a relational connection with students matters

I recently took a student out to share a soda after school. This small step has allowed me to build a better relationship with this student and to better understand some of the challenges that he is facing outside of school.

Another example of this is with a particular student who has been difficult for me to manage in my classroom. Right after my class a couple of months ago I watched the same student behave very differently with another teacher in her class. After I asked that teacher how she was able to manage this student, she explained that she has taught him for the past few years. She has developed a relationship with him and she has learned what techniques work best for him.

I must be confident in the authority I have as a teacher

I recently received some insight into my role in the classroom. This came through a time of prayer when I felt like God told me that he wanted me to be more like a general and less like a soldier in my teaching. Part of what I think God was trying to show me is that I need to be confident in my authority in the classroom. Even when it seems that students completely disregard my authority, I need to respond in a way that shows that I have not given up my authority, but that I expect more of my students

It is important to clearly communicate expectations

Sometimes you assume that your students know what proper behavior looks like, but often times they do not. Students will push the limit until they feel that a limit is actually being held to by the teacher. Once the limit is communicated they will continue to test it. A teachers job is to be very clear about what his/her limits are and then stick to them. I have a long way to go with this, but I’m learning more everyday!

If you are reading this and you are an educator, why don’t you share some things that you have learned about school discipline and classroom management in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts!

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The Last Day of School

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Today is the last day of school. I made it! Two days ago one of my fellow teachers asked me how I felt at the end of this year. She asked if I felt like I was just surviving to the end or if I felt like I had done an outstanding job. That is a difficult question to answer. There have certainly been days where I felt like I was just surviving. There have been other days when I felt like I was doing an excellent job. In my first year of teaching in Panama I have learned a lot. Overall, I think the experience has shown me that teaching is a good fit for me.

A couple of weeks ago I went on a youth retreat with some students from my church and some students from my school. During the retreat all of the students and adult leaders were broken into six teams. The teams rotated through different stations. At each station the teams had to complete some sort of group challenge. During the second station I went to go fill up some water bottles for my team because it was hot and everyone was sweating and thirsty. As I was filling up the bottles with water, I felt like God was speaking to me. I felt like he was saying, “This is what I have called you to do. I have called you to bring cups of cold refreshing water to young people. I have called you to help create environments where young people can grow and flourish”.  It made me feel like I was in the right place; doing what I am supposed to be doing. There have been times when I have felt this same sort of affirmation for my work as a teacher.

I know that young people, especially middle schoolers, are in constant need of affirmation. It is often an age when young people are awkward and extremely self conscious. It is also a very important age in terms of when a person begins to form his/her own identity. In the Middle School years, young people begin to set the direction for the rest of their lives. I hope that I can be a consistent role model for students going through this difficult season of life. I pray I can help affirm students and help them know how much they are valued and loved.

Teaching has been much harder than I thought it would be. I always remember hearing how hard your first year as a teacher is. That is certainly the case. I am so thankful to have some time off for the next several weeks. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family and relaxing. If you are reading this and if you have been following my journey throughout this year, thank you very much. I appreciate your prayers and your support.

The Power of a Story

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Mr. Jackson, the school librarian, shared with my students about his experiences living in the Panama Canal Zone in the 1950s-1960s and beyond!

Yesterday I invited the school librarian, Mr. Jackson, to come speak to my 8th grade US History class. I interviewed Mr. Jackson about what it was like to grow up in Panama in the Canal Zone during the 1960s. Mr. Jackson shared memories that he had of what Panama used to be like compared to how it is today.

I was very pleased by the way that my 8th graders politely listened as Mr. Jackson shared about his memories of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Often times my 8th graders have trouble sitting still and being quiet for more than 2 minutes at a time, but they were engaged and were listening for the entire time that Mr. Jackson was speaking (nearly 40 minutes). After I had asked the initial questions in the interview, I allowed the students to ask Mr. Jackson questions. I was impressed by the questions that they asked. It was evident to me that they had been paying attention and that they were genuinely curious to learn more about the history of Panama – USA relations. One example of a student’s question to Mr. Jackson was, “How does it feel to have lived through all of this and now to have the chance to tell your story to us today?”

Nearly all of my 8th grade students remember going to the library when they were elementary students and reading books with Mr. Jackson. I think the relationship they already had with him helped them appreciate his story even more than the average class would have.

More than anything, this experience was a reminder to me of the power of telling stories in the classroom. History is simply a collection of stories that are shared. We have a shared history as human beings which isn’t fully known unless we are willing to be vulnerable with one another and share our stories honestly and authentically. Stories also have the power to help students connect with history in a way that a textbook cannot do.

I am grateful that Mr. Jackson allowed me to record our entire conversation using the StoryCorps AppThis app allows you to quickly record an interview with someone and then share that interview with others. If you want to listen to Mr. Jackson’s story, which is fascinating, please CLICK HERE. If you have read this far, thank you so much! Please leave a comment below about what you think of this post of what you like about Mr. Jackson’s story.

#PAIS2017

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Tony Jones, a fellow teacher at CCA, and I at the PAIS 2017 Conference

Should a first year teacher teach a workshop for teachers at a teacher’s conference? I think the answer is YES! This past Wednesday I was one of the presenters at the 4th Annual PAIS Teachers Training Teachers Conference. The title of the workshop that I presented was “Best Practices for Creating and Maintaining a Class Website”. I used this prezi presentation to share thoughts about why a teacher should create their own class blog/website and also some suggestions about tools to use and how to get started.

I actually presented the same workshop twice. During the first session, I had about 8 people attend, two of which were from my school (Crossroads Christian Academy). I followed my dad’s advice and at the beginning of each session I asked each person to introduce themselves, say what school they were from and what subject/grade levels they teach. Lastly, I had each person share what they hoped to get out of my presentation. This was an ENORMOUS help to me as a presenter.

I felt that the first session went very well. I think I was able to provide some good resources that the teachers were not familiar with and each person who attended was very engaged and responsive during my presentation. For my second presentation, I had about double the amount of people attend (about 16). Most of the attendees were Spanish teachers. They were all speaking Spanish when they walked in the room. I asked if they would prefer for me to do the presentation in Spanish and they said YES! So, although I had not planned to do so, I presented the second workshop in SPANISH and it went well.

After presenting twice, I got to attend a workshop titled “The Paperless Classroom and How it Changes the Teaching/Learning Dynamics”. This was presented by Alex Frohlich, a physics teacher at The International School of Panama. Frohlich presented about how he is using a new tool from Microsoft called “Class Notebook” to make his classes completely paperless. One cool new app that he shared with us is called “Office Lens“. Office Lens is a handy capture app that turns your smartphone into a pocket scanner. You can take a picture with your phone of a whiteboard from a side angle and it will automatically edit the image to make it look like you took the image from a frontal view.

The PAIS Conference took place at the Metropolitan School of Panama this year. It was my first time inside this school and I was VERY impressed with the way the classrooms are set up. The school is currently located in Ciudad del Saber which is very close to where I live and where my school is. The school literally overlooks the Panama Canal (see below)! In the background of the photo on the top right you can see the visitor’s center at the Miraflores Locks of the canal.

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My mentor, Jim Almack, and I at the PAIS Conference. Panamanian flag and Red Cross flag behind us. Fun fact: The Red Cross is currently celebrating their 100th anniversary in Panama

First Semester is Over!

My first semester as a teacher is officially over! This semester seemed to fly by, especially the last couple of months. The stress and anxiety that I felt at the beginning of the semester has subsided and I am now looking forward to Christmas Break — a break from the seemingly endless responsibility of lesson planning, teaching, and grading. Before moving forward, however, I would like to pause and reflect on some of the lessons I have learned over this first semester.

Lesson 1: Every Day is a New Day

About two months ago I walked into my classroom to find that all of the desks had been rearranged into groups of four. Students were all facing one another and were involved in a game that involved stations. Groups had to complete certain tasks before moving onto the next station. There was lots of energy in the room and every student was engaged in the learning. I wish I could say that I was teaching this class, but it was the 6th grade Spanish teacher who used my classroom during 5th period this last semester. The contrast between this lesson and the other lessons that I had seen this teacher teach before was noticeable. When students are expected to simply listen to a lecture or watch a video and take notes they can often get bored and lose interest (unless they come to class with a high interest or desire to learn the content in the first place). Teachers should avoid get stuck in a rut using the same methods each and every day (especially if those methods have not proven to be effective).

The experience I described above has caused me to reflect on my own teaching. One of the things that is amazing about teaching is the possibility to completely change things on a moment’s notice. Each and every day is a new day. There were many times this semester when I finished a class with the sense that I could have done things better. Often times lesson plans don’t turn out how we envision them to. However, the wonderful thing is that the very next day I had a chance to do better. I could change the type of homework I was assigning. I could tweak a computer lab assignment and try something for the very first time (as a first year teacher I did a lot of things for the first time)! Teachers have an enormous amount of ability to change the learning environment in their classrooms. The challenge is to create space to make changes in the midst of all of the demands that come with teaching.

Lesson 2: Be Passionate About What You Teach

The last unit that we did in my World History class this semester was on Islam. This is a topic that I am very interested in. I found myself creating very engaging lessons and spending much more time preparing for some of these lessons because of how interested I was in the material. I think that my students sensed my enthusiasm and it helped them to be more engaged in the learning also. Veteran teacher and podcaster, Lauren Anderson, says that the most important things for teachers to do are to be passionate about the subject they are teaching and also to be compassionate towards students. I am very grateful to be teaching Social Studies at a Christian school because this allows me to teach subjects that I am passionate about (history, world cultures, and the Bible).

Lesson 3: Learning Should be Connected with the Real World

Some of my favorite experiences teaching this semester happened when I invited guest speakers to come to my class to share from their experiences in the real world that were related to the topics we were studying in class. Recently, a friend of mine came to share about this trip to the Middle East. He showed fascinating pictures and videos and most of my students were super interested in learning about what he experienced and why he decided to go there.

In my next semester I want to do an even better job of helping my students connect what they are learning to the real world. One way I plan to do this is through taking students on a field trip. God willing, I will take a couple of field trips in the Spring semester of 2017. If you have read this far and you have any suggestions for making learning relevant to the real world, please let me know in the comment section below!

Lesson 4: All Teachers Need Mentors!

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When I started my first year of teaching I was happy to hear that all first year teachers at CCA would be assigned a mentor. I have experienced first hand the importance of having mentors in one’s life. As a new teacher I was hungry to learn all I could from experienced teachers. Jim Almack (pictured above) has been a wonderful mentor to me throughout this first semester. He has shared valuable wisdom in our meetings and he also gives me a ride to school every morning (since we live in the same apartment complex). His example in the classroom has been very helpful to me. I can see that he genuinely cares about the students and he strives to instill Christian values in his students with all of his heart.

As I reflect on how important Jim and others have been to my development, it reminds me of what Dr. Robert Clinton says in his book Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships you Need to Succeed in LifeAll people need upward, lateral and downward mentors. Upward mentors are those who have more experience then you do. Lateral mentors are peers and downward mentors are those who have less experience than you. Wherever you are in your journey, I encourage you to seek out a mentor who can help you on your journey of growth and development. Also, if you are a veteran, look for ways to mentor others (especially first year teachers!).

Reflections after three months of teaching

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Our school decided to do conferences a few weeks before the end of the first quarter. The main reason was to be able to alert parents about any academic or behavioral issues early enough that they could make changes before the first report cards were sent out at the end of the first quarter. I am grateful that we did not have parent teacher conferences after a normal school day. Instead there was no school on September 15-16 and teachers met with parents during what would normally be the school day.

For the most part, I was very encouraged by my meetings with parents. I could see how dedicated the parents are and how they long to see their children succeed. I was also impressed in many cases at how involved the parents are in terms of their child’s academic work. Unfortunately, in many cases the parents of the students who are struggling the most in my classes did not come to meet with me. One thing I certainly learned through this first round of parent-teacher meetings was how important it is to communicate clearly with parents regarding academic requirements and any behavioral problems. In some cases I realized that I had communicated too little or my communication was not understood by the parents.

Servant-Teaching

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This first quarter has taught me how little I really know about teaching. This has been my first quarter ever as a classroom teacher with middle school students. It can be challenging and scary to do something that you have never done before (especially when everyone else expects you to know exactly what you are doing). This reminded me of some advice my dad gave me about teaching. My dad has been a teacher for many years.  You can read about his adventures “flipping the classroom” on his blog.

My dad told me a story about a time when he was young and he got a new job as a waiter at a nice restaurant. He said that he had never been a waiter before and he had absolutely no training. Needless to say, his first day on the job he was extremely nervous. He said he was worried he was going to make a mistake because he didn’t know where all the silverware should go and he wasn’t sure he could carry all the plates of food to and from the tables without dropping them or looking foolish. In the midst of his nervousness, however, he decided that he was simply going to focus on being a servant. He decided he would do the very best job he could to serve each customer as best as he could.

Towards the end of the night a couple who was finishing their meal asked to speak with him. They told him that they were very grateful for the way he had served them and that they had been watching as he served other tables also. They both agreed that he was the best waiter they had ever seen!

My dad’s advice to me as a new teacher was that I should do my best to serve my students well. He told me I didn’t have to be an expert or master teacher right away, but if I approached my work with the heart of a servant I would be successful.

To this point I believe I have been able to serve my students well. It can be a challenge when it seems that students do not appreciate or value what you do as a teacher. I have to remind myself to not take it personally when students act as if they don’t care. I want to continue to serve my students well, even if they don’t thank me for it now, because later I think they will!

My first month of teaching

The Race Begins!

The first day of school was August 4, 2016. We moved to Panama from Iowa on July 20th so I literally had all of 15 days to prepare for my first experience as a Middle School Social Studies teacher. I knew that it was going to be a lot of work and I knew it was not going to be easy, however, it was a lot harder than I actually thought it was going to be. I think these past few weeks have quite possibly been the most stressful days of my adult life. Getting ready for the first day of school as a teacher is no small task, especially when its your first year teaching! Added to all of the stress of lesson planning, syllabus writing, and course mapping was the cultural adjustment that I am still experiencing. There were honestly several moments when I said to myself, “I can’t do this”. I felt too overwhelmed and I felt too much pressure and I didn’t see any way out of it.

In some ways, this feeling of frustration and despair reminded me of what it was like to be a student again. I remember a few times as an elementary/middle school student when I got so overwhelmed and stressed out because of a project that I had to finish. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and I felt like there was no possible way I was going to succeed.  That is not a good feeling to have, however, as I reflect on those feelings, I am now seeing that they are actually very healthy. How unfortunate would it be if we never allowed ourselves to feel those feelings? If we are not challenged and asked to do something that is hard, how will we ever grow and develop into something better than we are now? I have realized that those moments when I felt the most stressed and the least capable were the moments that were actually putting me in a position to persevere. Perseverance is a quality that is often celebrated in athletics. It’s one of those qualities that is easy to talk about, but not so easy to actually put into practice–this is because perseverance implies struggle. It implies that you are facing difficulties and that you refuse to quit. I am only one month into this teaching gig, I know that perseverance is necessary for me to make it to June 2017 without having a nervous breakdown. I know there will be lots of hard things that I face in this first year, but by God’s grace this year is going to build my character and make me a better teacher rather than a bitter one.

Small acts of kindness

One of the things that I have noticed in this past month is how significant a simple act of kindness can be. On August 17th I was struggling though my second week of classes. It was my very last class period and I was grateful that the day was over. I had the sense that I could have done things better in SO many ways that day. Then, as the last students were exiting, one of my seventh graders came up to me and gave me an apple. He told me I was a really good teacher. I was so moved that I took a selfie and posted it on facebook in a matter of minutes. If you know me, you know I don’t usually take selfies, but I was so thrilled and encouraged that I couldn’t contain myself! I remember I told another student who was there after the gift giver had left something like, “That is the first apple I have ever received from a student!” It’s almost like I wasn’t a real teacher until that moment, ha!

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One of the things I have been so grateful for thus far in my experience at Crossroads Christian Academy (CCA) has been the administrative staff. One of the administrative staff members in particular has truly gone out of his way to encourage and affirm me during these last few weeks. It just so happens that his son is in one of my classes so he hears some first hand reports about my teaching! His emails and kind words have truly been like a drink of cool refreshing water in the midst of much toil. I hope that if you are reading this you are reminded of the power of simple acts of grace towards others. When we give unexpected gifts or words of affirmation to others with sincerity we are creating an opportunity for another person to experience the power of grace. This power ought not to be forgotten, because if it is allowed to work its full effect it will lead to transformation and flourishing, both to the receiver and the giver.