Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Knowing Your Subject Like the Back of Your Hand

Recently, I received an email asking me “Do teachers automatically know the subject that he or she teaches like the back of his/her hand? Or is this a seasoned and practiced knowledge that a teacher develops over time?”

As I look back onto my first years of teaching, I remember that I felt like I knew nothing about my subject that I had to teach. This was totally overwhelming and really not addressed on the college level before I got my first job. I remember feeling excited about teaching but also knowing that I didn’t know everything and feeling panic because how could I teach if I didn’t know! It hit me that even though I had gone through student teaching, the supervising teacher was the one who knew what she was doing and new the subject, not me. As a teacher, there was no safety net and I was the one expected to know what I was doing and know the subject. Now in my later years, I realized that teaching really means lifelong learning and that you will never know all there is to teach about any given subject. Sure, you will know a lot and may even become what is known as an expert in your field, but that will take time, experience and you still will not know everything.

College gave me a foundation for teaching. I took courses in teaching strategies and techniques as well as learning about my subject area. Even if the professors told me that I would learn as I taught, it didn’t really hit me until I found myself in the real situation. All subject areas have different topics that can be focused on in the school and may be taught during different grades. Until I got my job, I didn’t know what my topic may be or what levels I would teach so there is no way that college could prepare me for one specific area. All they can do is to give me as much information as necessary to keep me from falling on my face.

At first I was overwhelmed with the procedures and policies of my new school. I asked for a copy of these as soon as I was hired so I could get comfortable with them before I started teaching. Once I got over the panic, I soon realized most of the rules are pretty common sense. Then I asked to meet with the department chair to get an overall view of what I would be teaching. This person was able to guide me in the right direction and saved me a lot of time. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when you first start teaching unless you have to. You will have time to try new innovative ideas once you get acclimated. If the department chair is unavailable or unable to help you, ask to speak with another teacher in your department. See if this person would give you a sample syllabus or overview of how they teach. Getting a sample syllabus saved my sanity! This brought everything into focus for me and gave me a starting point.

Once I knew what I was teaching, I started to study the subject myself. I listed the goals that I wanted to teach my students that year and came up with a plan of action on how I would do that. Once I broke down my plan into something tangible, I could see what areas I would need to brush up on. When the administration asks for your “long term plans” this is not just for evaluating you but making sure that you have a plan for your year and can actually be a great tool for you to use. If I had the chance, I would mention this in my department meeting and other teachers would offer great ideas and suggestions. I didn’t mind them doing this and took notes because I knew I was learning a lot from their experience. They may also be able to point out the flaws in my plan and help me be more realistic in my expectations.

The main thing I remember doing was making myself to stop thinking in panic mode. I had to remember that I was prepared to teach and this was an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. I needed to understand that I might make mistakes but I would also gain so much so it would be worth it. I have said this in previous posts but I think it is worth mentioning again. As teachers, we are constantly growing, learning, and developing and that is what it takes to be successful in the classroom.

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