Starting the School Year: Rethinking My Lessons

What an exciting time of year for students! The students are returning—anxious to meet their teacher, eager to meet up with friends, and full of anticipation for a year of new and interesting experiences.

It is an exciting time for teachers too. We are preparing by thinking about how to set up our classrooms, sorting and storing long-awaited resources and new supplies to distribute, and planning lessons for the first days of school.

As a, now, veteran teacher, looking back, this is not as intimidating as it was in the past! Do you remember the night before the first day? I can remember dreaming about being locked out of my classroom with no key in sight and thinking to myself, “I need to remain as calm outside as I am panicked inside!” I recall having sweaty palms and a very dry throat. I also remember being told, “Don’t smile on the first day. Be firm but friendly because smiling shows you are too soft.” As someone who smiles spontaneously, I was going to be in trouble!

Having experienced the opening of school for 16 years as a middle school science teacher, I learned to let go of my anxiety and enjoy the start of the school year. The students reenergized me and challenged me at the same time. I was energized by their excitement and curiosity when they learned we were going to study about their bodies and the way they adapted to life on Earth. They also challenged me. I was challenged to quickly learn their names, their needs, and their strengths, so I could plan my science lessons for them.

As a seasoned teacher, I have a collection of lessons that have been successful from year to year. I have grown to really like the easy way I can implement them. I can predict what students will say. I can even predict how much time it will take me to set up and clean up. These lessons don’t require much preparation on my part. It would have been a perfect lesson to share, but, as I recently considered sharing this particular lesson with a new teacher I am mentoring, it made me stop to think.

I considered it a good lesson for all the wrong reasons. Everything I considered had to do with me.  Did I like it? Was it easy for me to deliver? How much of my time did it take me? How quickly could I grade the test?  Without knowing her students and their needs, how would I know if it was a good lesson for her?

I recently reread the book Teaching Science and the Science of Teaching, edited by Roger Bybee (2002). He included an article by Kathy Stiles and Susan Mundry who wrote about the differences in planning for instruction by novice teachers and expert teachers. In the last chapter in the book, the authors took into account the metacognition required to become an expert science teacher. Expert teachers select instructional strategies and teaching practices that consider the needs and achievement of their students first, whereas novice teachers consider management and their own needs first.

Expert teachers get to know their students and perfect their strategies, practices, and selection of resources based on the background knowledge, misconceptions, learning abilities, and interests of their students. Expert teachers select professional development opportunities and resources to help them fine-tune and hone their expertise for student achievement and success.

According to Stiles and Mundry, novice teachers default to strategies, practices, and resources that are easiest to manage. They consider their time, energy, and ease of implementation when considering the effectiveness of a lesson design. Conversations with new teachers reveal the priorities they have set, which usually deal with management—not student impact.

Within the continuum of becoming a highly effective teacher, educators move from novice, to gaining skills, to becoming proficient, and finally to being highly effective. The most salient factor is metacognition and reflection about student achievement and student success in the classroom. As you design your lessons for this new school year, I would like to invite you to accept the challenge given to you by your students: Consider who are you planning your lessons for­­­. Is it for you or your students?

This is my second blog for August that deals with the start of the school year. I’m interested in knowing about some of the instructional strategies you have learned about this summer and if you made the decision to implement them. If you did, how did it go? Let’s also look into some STEM strategies that you have found successful, some that were great ideas but lacked in impact, or even some you want to know more about! Let’s talk!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!

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