First Year Teacher Support: Progress over Perfection

As I began preparing for my 10th year in the classroom, I realized I’m in an interesting place in my career.  I by no means consider myself a veteran teacher; I still have so many lessons to learn and experiences to be had before I’m wise.  It honestly feels like it was just yesterday that I was walking into my first ever teaching day, and I still remember those newbie struggles so vividly.  On the flip side, I’ve gotten my feet wet a few times and have tried out a lot of things.  I’ve succeeded in the classroom in some ways, but I’ve also gotten knocked down quite a bit and worked my way back up to standing.

With this in mind, I decided to join a Facebook group dedicated to first year teachers to see what new teachers were thinking about and if I could still relate.  I’ve been watching this group for a couple of months now, and it’s insightful to see the shift in the content of posts from before the start of school to now.  A majority of the late summer posts focused on getting supplies and setting up/decorating classrooms.  Now that we’re in the grind, there has been an immediate shift to posts about student discipline issues, feeling a lack of support, and just overall personal suffering.

Image Via Pixabay

Seeing this unfold tugs at my heartstrings because I also remember falling into that trap.  We’re programmed to believe lively decor and having the right kind of hole puncher will make our lives so much easier and happier once that first unit starts to unfold.  But as soon as our students’ butts hit their seats in our rooms, we realize that all of that effort we put into stapling the just-right border to our cute “Welcome Back!” bulletin boards would have been better spent thinking about what we were going to do once we failed at something in our lesson plans.

Because you are going to fail.

All teachers do.

But it’s okay— because I’m here for you.  Nobody can convince me that writing isn’t one of the most difficult things to teach.  I mean, I really thought my class was going to look like a scene from Freedom Writers the first time I assigned a piece of writing.  Turns out I was right— if you’re thinking of the scenes from the beginning of the movie where everything is a hot mess.  I remember how devastating it was to feel failure like that for the first time.  Most of us were successful high school and college students.  We’re so used to excelling that the first time a kid turns in a blank assignment or tells us our assignment (that we worked 3 hours on) is “stupid,” we take it so incredibly hard.  I know I did.

So this year, my words on this blog go out to you, first year writing teacher.  I want to give you some practical advice each month that you can use TOMORROW to help your writers.  If you don’t teach writing but just want to a place to come and soak in the solidarity from someone who “gets it,” then I’m here for you too, my friend.

So here’s first year writing teacher tip #1: Adopt a mindset of progress over perfection.

Look, it would be great if our students wrote the way professional writers do, but remember that everyone has to start somewhere.  It was enlightening (and super cringeworthy) for me to dig up some old files of my writing from early college.  I don’t write like that at all anymore.  Want to know why?  Because I’ve written thousands of times since.  Your students haven’t.  So adjust your expectations and give them some grace.

Here’s something I did with revision last week that illustrates what I mean.

  1. My students were drafting  a piece of writing.  During the last 5 minutes of the class period, I told them to highlight one area of their writing that they thought could improve, even if it was just a sentence.  I instructed them to add a comment (using Google Docs) and explain how they could make that part of their writing a little bit better tomorrow.
  2. The next day, I had them revise based on the comment they made to themselves the day before.
  3. I asked them to make another comment on the newly revised section of writing.  In the comment, I asked them to explain…
    1. What the writing looked like yesterday
    2. What they did today to make a change
    3. Why the writing is better now.  

Here’s an example from Emily:

Was Emily’s revision major?  Not really; she just italicized some words.  But what this comment shows me is that Emily really thought about how to make a section of her writing stand apart from the rest.  She was deliberate about finding a way to do this and achieved it by using italics.  And you know what?  Emily’s writing was a little bit better than it was the day before because it became more clear that the scene she italicized is a flashback.  Plus, she just engaged in higher order thinking!

When your students inevitably struggle with revision (everyone’s students do), I encourage you to simplify the process and have them zoom in on ONE revision, not worrying about whether or not the whole piece is perfect.  The lessons to be learned in a single revision can be just as valuable as they would if you asked them to revise a whole piece of writing (which they view as overwhelming and often blow off).

One more anecdote about this experience— I don’t have a classroom full of Emilys.  The truth is, she was probably the only one in two class periods who gave me the analytic, detailed comment I wanted.  Something went wrong in my instruction and I didn’t convey what I wanted to students appropriately.  Emily is the anomaly, so she’s probably an overachiever.  Look at that, I already messed up at the start of year 10.  (Dang, that didn’t take long!)

So I responded by showing the class Emily’s comment the next day and re-explaining my expectations.  And you know what?  When they did this again last week, it was better!  Not perfect, but better.  They made progress.  I left for the day feeling like I was getting somewhere.  Progress over perfection!

I’ll close by reminding you that every teacher everywhere has failed in the classroom.  Some veterans are smooth and don’t fail very often because they settle into a grind of something that is comfortable for them.  Don’t let them fool you… I never want to be that teacher.  I want to be the teacher who is in the last year of her career that is trying something new to serve her students.  Because the best teachers fail a lot.  They just learn to embrace the feeling and learn from it.

I see you and your struggles, first year writing teacher.  Take my hand this year and remember to extend yourself the same courtesy as you’ll be showing your students.  Progress over perfection.

–Paige

Are you a first year teacher who needs some guidance?  What would you like me to help you with?  Reach out to me via e-mail at timmermanp@salemhigh.com or on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!

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1 Comment

  1. This advice is spot-on. As a thirty year vet, I grade the revision reflection much more often than the assigned essay or paper. I want to see growth, and I want students to recognize their own growth. Thanks for sharing teaching wisdom!

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