This is my fifth year as a classroom teacher. I have to say it’s truly amazing to me the progress I’ve made from the first year to now. Students I had my first year had a completely different teacher than my students have today. The first year was so awkward and nerve-wracking, because of the constant uncertainty about the curriculum as well as the demands of classroom management. I finally feel in command and confident with how to teach my subject and run the classroom. So now I have more time to focus on my students and how to make their experience in my classroom even better.

This year, for the first time in my teaching career, I had an epiphany immediately in the first week. Every year I have made a seating chart on the first day by alphabetical order and tried to get to know the students this way. I generally asked students to tell me their name every time I interacted with them so that I could learn them as quickly as possible. We would even play a name game of some kind, generally something in a circle that involved memorizing everyone’s name. I thought this was an okay practice, but it always left me with a headache doing it five times in one day and the next day I still struggled to remember who was who!

This year I decided to try something different. I had students sit wherever they wanted on the first day and I made them create a name tent by folding a blank piece of paper in half lengthwise and writing their name on it. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: “So what? This isn’t anything revolutionary.” You’re right, plenty of teachers have students make name tents and decorate them to show off their personalities. What was revolutionary for me, however, was how quick and easy this made learning my students’ names. I realized that I had been overlooking something important these past four years: my own learning style!

I am a visual learning. I like to read and I can memorize anything when I see it printed. I’m not an auditory learning. I don’t remember things that I hear, because I can’t focus on spoken words for very long. I thought that making name tents would be too juvenile for my high school students, so I told them that I needed it because that’s how I could best learn their names. Turns out, I was right and I made my learning explicit to my students. Then it hit me! Good teaching means talking about the learning process with students. It means explaining to them your tactical teaching strategies and your rationale behind each lesson. This was such a simple change in my classroom, but one that will now resonate throughout the rest of my teaching.

With this mindset, I now view each lesson as an opportunity to not just deliver content, but rather to invite students in on a learning journey and be part of the whole process. It’s not that I didn’t want to do this before, but I simply didn’t have the experience to handle it in addition to the classroom basics. Teachers are so overwhelmed in the first few years getting a bearing on the whole process. After a few years of stumbling, guessing, and “faking it” in front of students it all starts to gel together.

Now in my fifth year I’m starting to hit that sweet spot. After each class in the first week, I collected the name tents to keep. Then, the next day I would re-distribute the names so students moved around the room and got comfortable with new people. This allowed me to figure out the students as learners and now I can make a seating chart knowing more about the students.

I will continue to mix up seats throughout the year and now I know how to better demonstrate my own learning to students. This, in turn, helps me make the classroom learning transparent so that students can monitor their own learning. Five years and I think now I can say I’m an experienced teacher. It’s going to be a great year!