12 Rules for Teaching

12 Rules for Living: An Antidote to Chaos by Jacob Peterson is a book that has motived many to write their own rules for living. I first heard about the 12 Rules through Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast and was so intrigued and inspired that I decided to write my 12 Rules for Teaching. Here they are – in no particular order:

1. Celebrate the positive people and stories in today’s schools.

Education gets bad press, and honestly, education deserves a lot of the bad press it receives. People in starched clothes long removed from the classroom are sending down dictums that negatively affect those in the trenches of teaching and learning. This is what today’s news feeds on and what goes untold are the stories of students and teachers doing good work. I love that Meria Carstarphen, Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, has charged educators to use social media to spread the good things happening in our schools and classroom, and I have been and will continue to use my voice to shine light on our students and in our schools.

2. Refuse to work all weekend and wear it as a badge of honor.

I work some on the weekends, but I REFUSE to rob myself of the opportunity to rest, reconnect with my family and friends, and refuel my soul with activities that give me life (which is why I’m going to take a break right now and walk my dog on this beautiful Georgia morning). And I refuse to be a part of the narrative that teachers are writing of how they are super teachers because they give up their nights and weekends to work. If I choose to do some work on the weekend to ease my load during the week, I will not portray myself as a martyr for making this decision. In addition, I will be proactive about saying NO to weekend work and YES to me without feeling guilty.

3. Operate out of a servant heart with my students and colleagues.

Too often I hear stories of teachers trying to “break” students or pride themselves for being unnecessarily hard. Make no mistake, I am the adult in the room, but I am not on some power trip wielding my authority over students to make myself feel better. My desire is to come alongside my students and colleagues and serve them by going the extra mile. Sometimes this means taking a deep breath and explaining something for the third time or pausing to think of a different way to reword a phrase in order for a student to grasp a concept. Other times it means setting my grading aside during my planning to run copies for a colleague who is running late and stressed.

4. Teach.

Going over directions is not the same as teaching. Passing out worksheets or packets then sitting at the desk is not teaching. Assigning busy work is not teaching. I learned a few years ago that teaching writing is not the same thing as assigning writing; something I had been guilty of for many years. Teaching is explaining, modeling, providing feedback, explaining again. Teaching involves being on my feet, talking to students, and continuously reworking plans and lessons to best meet the needs of the students in front of me. Real teaching is hard work.

5. Give grace to students, coworkers, and myself when needed.

Life can be messy. And often when others may be struggling through problems, I am cruising along enjoying good health and fulfilling relationships. Grace is withholding judgement on a colleague when I do not know all of the circumstances. Grace is realizing that students have more to life than English class. Grace is cutting myself some slack when I can’t get it all done.

6. Clean my desk every Friday before I leave work.

My default setting does not lend itself to tidiness, systems, or organization in general. I have come to accept this as part of me being me and no longer fight against trying to change this. I have, however, realized that taking time to clean my desk not only gives me a sense of accomplishment on Friday afternoons but makes my Monday mornings seem less daunting.

7. Plan ahead yet remain open to the unscripted possibilities of each day.   

Teachers fall into two categories: those who stick to the plan and those who wing it. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages but the best teacher finds the balance between the two. I know big picture where I’m going through the year and briefly map out each unit by days before I start it.Sometimes my classes go through material quicker than I thought and other times we spend an entire class period working on something that I thought would take 15 minutes. This is why I will never be able to put out a monthly calendar with daily activities and why I’m terrible at writing lesson plans far in advance. I plan, but I also hold those plans loosely.

8. Take responsibility for my own professional development.

Let’s face it: most times when teachers hear about professional development they sigh thinking of a day full of information that has no relevance to their classroom often taught by people who have not been in the classroom for a while. I no longer depend on others for my professional development but instead seek out groups, books, and conferences where I know I will get what I need to continue growing. And if I happen to learn things at through district and school training (which I will say mine school and district are good about this), that’s icing on the cake.

9. Put students first.

This sounds obvious but is trickier than someone not in the education world may think. For example, if the student is at the forefront of everything we do in education, why is there so much standardized testing? And while I can’t say my students won’t take standardized tests, I can refuse to spend class time do meaningless, trivial work that only teaches to a test. When I have to choose between giving feedback to students or writing detailed lesson plans, I will chose students over elaborate plans (even though I do plan). If professional opportunities that may further my career present themselves that would take too much time away from the work I do in the classroom, I will choose my students. Students first is the paradigm of how I make decisions.

10. Invest in my students relationally.

I will be the teacher at plays, games, concerts, debate tournaments, or whatever else my students choose to be involved in. I’ll be eating at Fox Brothers, Moe’s and Joe’s, and Salata (that’s not too tough, I realize). I’ll read what books my students recommend and know what they’re reading. Basically, I will know more about my students than how well they write so I can cheer them on as they transition to their next stage of life.

11. Work hard.

I am not the smartest person in my building. I am not the most talented person in my building. I will never be these people and have little or no control over this. What I do have control over, however, is my work ethic. Where I may fall behind in intellect or talent, I can make up for with hard work. Many times what separates the good teachers from great teachers are the ones who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work as opposed to standing around talking about work. Hard work is not glamorous because it is most is time spent alone and goes unnoticed – at least in the short term. My goal every year is to be the hardest working teacher in the building. And hopefully if my colleagues are approaching work the same way, together we will create a school that shapes world changers.

12. Enjoy my students, my work, and my school.

Sadly, my profession is full of people who do not like kids and come to work with scowls on their faces. Falling into this mindset is easy because school is trying and exhausting – on good days. If, however, I no longer find joy in teaching, I will have to find something else to do; it’s simply not fair to myself or my students to operate with this as the norm. Finding joy in work requires stepping back on a regular basis to reflect on why the work is necessary even if it’s hard. Finding joy in work requires me to focus on the long term and not the grind of the day to day at time. Finding joy in work requires me to surround myself who love this profession as much as I. Finding joy in work often requires choosing joy at work.  

So those are my rules, and within my power, I will operate within these throughout the year. I would love to know your rules for teaching or living!

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