9 Unique and Powerful Student-Centered Teaching Tips for Brand New High School Teachers

30-year High School Teacher & Workforce Teacher Veteran | Instructional Designer at CompTIA

9 Unique and Powerful Student-Centered Teaching Tips for Brand New High School TeachersHello. My name is Johnny Carrera. The following information is meant to help teachers starting their first year. Most of what I have written are my own opinions and strategies. My hope is that a new teacher will find something in this text useful. Every teacher needs to find the way of working with students that works best for them. There is not just one way. If your way creates passionate, successful students, then you are doing it right.

1) Journal

The weekend before I was about to teach my first-ever day of class, at my first school, my wife and I were at Target. She needed some office supplies and other things. While we were in the office supply aisle, I found a green spiral notebook with the label “Journal” on it. I thought to myself, “I better keep a journal of my first year,” so I bought it. It was the best decision I could have made. I journaled the events of my first-year teaching, never missing a day. I used that information to help plan a better second year. I would enter information like “I tried this lab, and it failed miserably” or “I covered this topic but should have gone deeper.” Without that journal, I wouldn’t have been able to remember what went well and what didn’t.

2) Class Rules

My first year teaching I asked several teachers for advice on creating class rules, and the responses covered a wide spectrum. Some teachers had incredibly long lists of rules, while others had a single page. I collected as many ideas as I could and came up with my own approach. I broke my class rules up into three parts: 1) my grading system and approach to late work, 2) how I expected students to treat each other and the equipment in the room, and 3) how I expected students to treat me and my availability to them. Here is a little more detail on each.

2a) Grading system and late work rules:

I broke all my class work into three categories: daily grades, labs, and tests. A daily grade was for worksheets, simple end-of-the-day quizzes, or anything else I felt like calling a daily grade. Lab grades were for both simulation labs (like those offered by TestOut) and physical hands-on labs I built myself. Test grades obviously were for both written and physical hands-on performance exams. I weighted my grading system very simply: 25 percent of a student’s overall grade was daily work, 25 percent was labs, and 50 percent was tests. I wanted the students to see the importance of their test performance. 

All of my classes were certification-focused, so I wanted to prepare them for high-stakes tests such as CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+, and Cisco CCNA. So 25 percent + 25 percent + 50 percent. Now, what about late work? I would tell my students that I would handle late work on a case-by-case basis. I knew my students had core classes, and I didn’t want to burden them if they were having problems keeping up in those classes. I did my best to never assign homework. I felt my students had enough work to do after school from their core classes.

2b) How students treated each other:

I would start every school year the same way. Part of my beginning process was to get the students to know each other better. I would explain to them that because we would be performing lots of fun and exciting labs, that we would be spending a lot of time working in teams. I prepared an extensive “getting to know you” worksheet and each student would fill the sheet out with as much information as they wanted to share. 

The questions were simple, sometimes playful: Where were you born? Do you have siblings, and where are you in the birth order? What is your favorite food? What other activities are you involved in? In general, I asked questions that would help each student appreciate their classmates. Then I would ask them to read their sheets in front of the class. I would always go first. 

I also told them this story: A technology magazine surveyed 1,000 CEOs. They asked one question: “What is the most important trait you want your employees to have?” The overwhelming consensus was communication skills.

Every student had to read their sheet; no one was allowed to skip this exercise. If a new student joined the class, then they were told the same story and I made them present as well. After each student got their time, which was as long as they wanted, I explained to the students my most important rule. There would be no bullying in my class. I told them, “We will encourage, we will celebrate each other’s successes, and we will treat each other with respect at all times.”

2c) How to treat the equipment in my room:

Most of the equipment in my room was donated, which meant in most cases that it was old and sometimes broken. I did have computer-assembly kits, networking equipment, and computers and laptops. I would explain how lucky we were to have this equipment and that we needed to treat it with respect. I would also tell my students that if they needed a mouse, or a keyboard, or a hard drive, then they should ask me and I would give them one. I stockpiled all these things so that if a student needed one, it was free. I made it clear that even if the equipment was needed for a friend or a relative, it didn’t matter. All a student had to do was ask, and it would be provided. There was no need to steal anything. In 13 years of teaching at a Title I inner-city school, I never had a single piece of equipment stolen.

2d) How to treat me and my availability:

I really only had one rule for how I wanted to be treated. I used to say, “Don’t hurt each other and don’t hurt Mr. C.” I made myself available both before and after school for tutoring or catch-up work, and my room was always open for lunch so my students could have a safe place. I hosted game nights, anime clubs, computer clubs, robotics clubs, CyberPatriot teams and SkillsUSA teams. It was a blast.

3) Pick Your Battles

Teaching at a high school was the most challenging job I have ever had. It was also the most rewarding work experience I have ever had. I could tell you stories that would make you run screaming into the night, but I could also tell you stories of incredible successes. As I mentioned earlier, I used to mentor new teachers, and one of the things I used to tell them is, “Pick your battles carefully.” My favorite example was when a student didn’t have a pencil or pen to do work. I bought inexpensive pens and made them available to the students with no judgment. If a student said they didn’t have a pen, I would say, “No problem, here is a new pen, keep it for other classes.” I heard stories of other teachers making pens or pencils a big deal. I just felt it was a battle not worth fighting. I would tell teachers this and they would say “You’re babying the students” or "You aren’t teaching them responsibility.” My guiding principle there and elsewhere was to not get into big fights about small things. On the other hand, my students knew I would not be happy if one of them bullied a classmate. That was (and is) a battle worth taking on.

4) Choose Disappointment Over Anger

Another tip I would share with the teachers I mentored is: “Disappointment is a much better tool than anger.” I had some wonderful students, but they weren’t all angels. I had some tough kids who liked to see whether they could push my buttons. The key was to build a relationship with every student — even the hard kids — as quickly as possible. When one of them crossed a line, instead of raising my voice or showing anger, I would let them know I was disappointed. This was a reaction that most of the students weren’t used to. They didn’t know how to react, and they would usually apologize. What’s even better is to create such a good relationship with your students that, when one student gets out of line, the other kids jump in and get after them for you. That’s when you know that your student value the relationship you have with them.

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5) Learn Their Names

I know this sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how many teachers take weeks to learn their students’ names. I would learn all 185 of my students’ names in two days. I wouldn’t learn all of their last names — just their first, in most cases. Why was this such a big deal to me? I felt that if I was going to ask them for their respect, I should show them respect by learning their names. Whenever I would see one of my students in the lunchroom or in another building, I would always say hello to them using their name. One year, on the third or fourth day, of the school year, I called on a student using his name and another student asked, “Mr. C., have you memorized all our names?” I said that I had. He challenged me to prove it, so I went down the line saying everyone’s name — all 30 kids in that class. They were all freaked out. Here is my secret: For the first two days, pass out something the students have to write their name on, pick it up, and then pass it back to them. As you pass it back, say the student’s name aloud and look straight at them.

6) The Day Dreamer and the ADHD kids

For this section, I need to tell you a little about myself. As an adult, I was diagnosed with a form of dyslexia and adult ADHD. I dealt with these conditions throughout my entire formative education years but was never diagnosed. When I was in elementary school, they called it hyperactivity and tried to beat it out of you with a paddle. Because of this, I have a firsthand perspective of what it feels like to suffer from these issues in a classroom. Whenever I was assigned my group of new teachers to mentor, the first question I would ask them is, “How many of you were honor roll kids?” Usually the entire group would raise their hands, which makes sense, because their experience in school was probably a positive one. That's why they felt they wanted to return to that environment. I, on the other hand, hated every day of my 12 years of school and promised I would never go back. I know what you’re thinking: “But Johnny, you became a teacher, and you talk about loving every minute of it.” Yes, that is true — but I fell into teaching by accident. It was never something I thought about doing.

So let me try to explain how it feels to be a kid with these issues in a classroom. If a teacher did not prepare their lesson with me in mind, which few did when I was in school, then it didn’t take long for me to drift off into my own mind and miss a small part of a teacher’s instruction — or even an entire lecture. If something happened that caught my attention, then I would sit in confusion because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. It was like walking into a theater halfway through a movie: I had no idea what was happening. Then there were the times when a teacher would write something on the board, or say something in a lecture, and because it was something I had zoned out on from the previous day, I would fixate on it. I would not be able to let it go, wondering why the others seemed to know this concept, but I didn’t. Then I would get anxious and frustrated and miss whatever the teacher was talking about again. It was a vicious cycle.

So how do we help these kids? There are books written on this topic, but here are some strategies that worked for me. I like to use a baseball analogy: Prepare your daily lessons with frequent changeups.

- Plan to do something different every 10 to 15 minutes.

- Snap your fingers and clap your hands often. This helps redirect the attention of students who are wandering back to you.

- Move around the room. Do not be stationary very long.

- Stand behind the kids and talk. You want to make them move their heads.

- Have students stand and move at 15- or 20-minute intervals, whether it’s to a different desk for labs, to form small groups, or to just stretch.

- Find a way to make sure the kids know when you are about to say something important. I used to keep a chair off to the side of my desk, and my students knew to never move it. I told them, “If I’m standing on the chair, I’m about to say something very important.”

- And of course, know which of your kids have these issues. Watch their eyes and listen to their breathing. Careful observation will tell you when you’ve lost them, so jump up and down and snap your fingers. This will snap them back to you.

7) Summer Prep

One rule of successful retail businesses is: “Location, location, location.” In my opinion, the key to a successful school day, or school year, is: “Preparation, preparation, preparation.” I recommend trying to be a bell-to-bell teacher. This means your students are active from the bell that starts class to the bell that ends class. To be able to do this takes a lot of work. I recommend building out your curriculum in the summer. I used to take a calendar and map out the entire year. Then I would create all support materials like labs, worksheets, quizzes, tests, warm-up exercises, and extra work for the kids who want more. You can never be over prepared. One more suggestion on this topic: Never try to perform a lab or demo without practicing it first. Murphy’s Law will always rear its ugly head if you’re attempting something in class that you haven’t walked through beforehand on your own.

8) Norms

Here’s another thing I would always tell the teachers I mentored: If you don’t create norms for your classroom, then your students will create them for you. Creating norms helps the students feel safe and taken care of. It is a subconscious thing, even for older students. They appreciate a sense of normalcy. It’s the little things: How is class going to start? How will you progress through the class period? Where can students go to see what is planned for the day? How should students clean up after labs? How is class going to end? I used to write an agenda for the day on a corner of my whiteboard. Not only does it help the students who feel anxious, but it keeps 185 kids from asking me, “What are we doing today, Mr. C?” Whenever I would deviate I would explain why I was changing things up and how things would be different.

9) They are Just Kids!

If you are teaching younger students, this is something you need to always remember. I suggest you educate yourself on brain development. I was lucky enough to attend a class that explained the brain of a younger student. It is fascinating, and it helps you understand why some students do strange things. Of course, all students are not the same, and I suggest you never take the attitude of, “I treat everyone equally. ”Get to know each student individually and making accommodations and adjustments for each one. One of my only fond memories of my high school years was an English teacher who took the time to get to know me and understand why I struggled — and then tried her best to help. She is one of the few teachers whose name I still remember, and I’ve been out of high school for 40 years. So when the day comes when you find one of your students carving their girlfriend’s name into your beautiful work benches — and that day will come — just keep repeating your most important mantra: “They are just kids!”

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