My First Year Teaching: Discovering the Magic of Watching Great Teachers Work

Boaz Munro, former 3rd grade teacher

Boaz Munro, former 1st grade teacher

My first day teaching on my own came about two weeks into the school year.   I worked at an elementary charter school that devoted the beginning of the year almost entirely to promoting an orderly yet joyful school culture.  My first several days in the classroom, therefore, were spent supporting my more experienced co-teacher as she led activities and games to prepare our kids to be diligent scholars and responsible citizens.

By the end of this initial period, I felt much less nervous than I had on the first day of the year.  I had bonded in small ways with my students, met their parents, and even led some brief activities in front of the class under my co-teacher’s supervision.  I was cautiously confident about being a teacher.

A Confident Start

During those first few weeks, we had assessed each student’s reading level and organized them into leveled guided reading groups named for the planets in the solar system.  I was in charge of Uranus—10 students at a small, crescent-shaped table—until the next assessment six weeks later.  I had planned the next six weeks carefully, organizing my library, downloading resources, and studying research on reading comprehension.

And now the day had come.  I had a hand-drawn visual anchor up on my easel, a fresh container of sharpened pencils, and placed a shiny book in front of each little seat.  I expected the students to file in and sit down respectfully, hands folded, eyes on me.  And that’s exactly what happened.

A Humbling Realization

Just kidding.  That first class quickly fell apart, as would many others.  As anyone who has ever taught knows, and as my colleagues Posie Wood and Alix Guerrier have vividly related in their own stories, the first year of teaching is one of the most humbling experiences a person can have. I spent hours preparing for each day’s class, and was still not moving my students nearly far enough.  My students’ reading levels were not increasing as quickly as those of their schoolmates.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why.  So often, I taught my students skills or standards I had never seen anyone teach before.  All of the lessons I planned started with an “I-do”—a modeling of the skill I was trying to teach—and yet I was not watching enough people model the skills I was trying to learn.

A Hope for Support

The times when I improved the most were the times when I stopped toiling alone for a moment and learned from mentors around me.  Occasionally my coach would cover a class so I could observe my co-teacher explaining a difficult concept, or I would sit with the academic dean and we would plan a lesson together.  Just like my students, I learned best by watching talented people work.  This simple realization improved my teaching significantly.  The well-known “beg, borrow, and steal” mantra described by my colleague Lisa Bernstein in a recent post is apt, but I would add a fourth verb: watch.  Watching great teachers work, by sitting next to them to plan or observing their instruction, was unquestionably the single best thing I did to improve my teaching practice during my time in the classroom.  

But there were obstacles to watching these great teachers as much as I wanted to.  I had my own students to look after, and they had theirs; I could only visit other classrooms occasionally.    

Technology has removed these obstacles.  Watching great teachers work is exactly what LearnZillion enables us to do—every day.  Each LearnZillion video is created by an exceptional teacher from around the country, with support from academic coaches, LearnZillion media experts, and peers. These teachers have watched and worked with the best.   They have struggled with the question how best to teach the same standards millions of teachers are adjusting to, and the results of their work are available for old and new teachers to learn from.

Watching the lessons on LearnZillion is like standing in back of a great teacher’s classroom—you’ll see concepts your kids need to learn a new way.  Most likely, you’ll customize or improve on what you see.  As we grow as teachers, our students benefit.

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