What I’ve Learned From Starting Over
This school year, 2015 Fishman Prize winner Zeke Phillips made the jump to teaching high school after spending the last four years as a middle school teacher. We asked him about the change, and how he’s navigating it.
Last school year was my ninth as a teacher, and fourth as a middle school instructor at Excel Academy-Chelsea, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. After four years teaching the same course, instruction had become almost second-nature: I knew each unit and text by heart and looked forward to when we would read Mrs. Rappaport’s inspiring speech in Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. I also knew how to frame my work: At the start of each class students chanted ”No brain, no gain” and at the end, “Anything is possible.”
This school year, I accepted an offer to teach ninth grade English at my school’s newly-founded high school. It is a blank slate—something exciting, but also overwhelming: I don’t know each of my units and texts inside and out because I’m still familiarizing myself with them. The mantras my younger students had repeated don’t really resonate with ninth-graders.
My experience thus far reminds me of when I was a first year teacher: everything is new, everything is complex, and nothing seems intuitive. But it also reminds me of an important lesson I learned the very first time I started all over: teaching is a process of constant evolution, and starting from scratch challenges you to re-learn how to teach—an invaluable practice.
In my fourth year of teaching, I had the opportunity to work as a founding Writing teacher at another new high school, Democracy Prep Charter High School in New York City. When I arrived, I immediately struggled with teaching writing in a way that was coherent, rigorous, and meaningful for students. Facing these instructional doubts, I struggled to find firm footing in the day-to-day of my classroom. Not long into the school year, I sat down with a colleague—someone I admired and respected for his instructional skill and deeply held convictions. “Teaching is all about confidence,” he told me. “You have to believe in yourself, in your work, and in your students.”
His words, though simple, helped because they gave me the permission to struggle, learn, and improve over the two years I spent at Democracy Prep. When I became more confident in my abilities and my dedication, and looked at my struggles as a learning experience, I was inspired to use notebooks in order to provide students with more ownership, expand the curriculum to include multi-genre writing, and incorporate technology in order to provide my students with better, targeted feedback.
In each new school or grade-level there are tons of things to learn and re-learn. They range from something small like attendance procedures to something big like how to teach Macbeth. It’s easy, in the swirl of this novelty, to feel uncertain and unsteady. But to bear through it, you have to ground yourself in the understanding that your learning is a process—with both highs and lows. It’s also important to know that during that process, you’re not alone.
The best thing I did my first few months at Democracy Prep was ask for help. This year, I’ve done the same. I feel fortunate to yet again have a principal who puts my goals and interests at the forefront; colleagues who are open and collaborative; and students who are hard-working and patient. All have helped me learn—and re-learn—best practices that can push my teaching.
I've focused on writing examples of student responses ahead of time, in an effort to ground myself in where we’re going. I’ve provided students with additional time and space, primarily through structured group work and discussion, to wrestle with rigorous content and texts. And I’ve used technology, particularly Google Docs and Surveys, in a more systematic way in order to both provide and receive feedback.
Nonetheless, I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not close to where I eventually want to be in my new role. I still struggle with determining where the rigor bar should be for ninth graders and with helping all students receive the support they need from me to make real improvement. But I’m confident in the process. I remind myself that, while so much is different this year, in time, I will learn and I will grow into the high school teacher I know I can be.
Teachers, remember that today is the last day to apply for the 2016 Fishman Prize. If you’ve started an application, please submit!
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