Many teachers will agree that their first year of teaching can be one of the most grueling, challenging, and stressful experiences for them as they take on the task of educating our youth. In my first year of teaching, I was not familiar with the CLASS tool and its impact in the classroom. I was not aware of the dimensions, indicators, and the tremendous power of interactions. Looking back, I recognize the many ways the CLASS tool was reflected in my classroom, but I also see the value in how familiarity with the CLASS tool could have benefitted my classroom. Although many external forces impacted my role as a high school Spanish teacher, the CLASS tool’s invaluable purpose could have made a profound impact on my first year teaching.
My journey as an educator began when I was 22. I was accepted to Teach for America, the highly selective program that places college graduates and professionals in schools with high needs throughout the country to teach for two years. I was drawn to Teach for America’s mission and their core belief that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” My placement school was a Title I high school in eastern North Carolina, where I taught all levels of Spanish. I remember a gut-wrenching feeling of nervousness surfacing during this time, as a thousand thoughts cycled in my mind. I felt a complete sense of inadequacy and unpreparedness as the first day of school loomed closer.
My first-year frustrations as a teacher did not take long to surface. With such a high focus on the STEM program at my school, the foreign language department was looked over when it came to funding. I couldn’t even manage to get textbooks for my students. I had to develop my own curriculum and generate my own resources for my students. I spent my first year planning lessons every day, and the frustrations snowballed as the year progressed.
Teaching a foreign language with limited resources was a more challenging experience for me because I was the only foreign language teacher at my school. I didn’t have anyone to collaborate with or share resources with. As a result, my classroom sizes numbered beyond 30 students for each section that I taught. During the first few days of school, some of my students had to stand because I didn’t have enough chairs in my classroom. I spent my first year constantly adjusting my teaching approach and doing the best I could with what little I had.
Despite these difficult obstacles and setbacks, I still made it a mission to connect with my students and provide them with the best education possible. The population of the high school where I taught was mostly Spanish-speaking. The majority of the students spoke Spanish fluently and, for most of them, it was the dominant language at home. Coming from a similar cultural and linguistic background as these students, I knew I could connect and relate with them strongly, and I used this to my advantage. I brought native dishes to school in the mornings, and many of my students soon began hanging out in my classroom and viewing it as a cultural safe haven. I played Latin music and discussed popular Latin American cultural topics with my students. I valued their shared experiences and took the time to listen to them every day. I truly feel that my students felt this powerful connection with me because of our shared heritage and culture.
Connecting with my students on a cultural level was a prime example of high range Positive Climate. The Secondary CLASS Manual highlights several qualities that I noticed in my classroom interactions:
I had demonstrated a feature of the CLASS tool without even realizing it!
Productivity is a CLASS dimension that I could have greatly improved upon. Each section I taught lasted 95 minutes, which is a long time for teaching and engaging students. One of the rookie mistakes I made as a first-year teacher was not making lesson plans that spanned the entire 95-minute block. For the last 5–10 minutes of class, I tended to “reward” my students by allowing them to pack up their belongings and get ready for the bell. This was a monumental mistake. It created an environment where my students got distracted, and I found it more difficult to monitor and manage the students’ behavior. For high range Productivity, the manual emphasizes the need for teachers to consistently provide tasks. The consistent provision of tasks minimizes disruptions and maximizes learning time. Knowing this now, I could have been more productive by giving my students exit slips or by ending classes with “check for understanding” activities.
Many of the native Spanish-speaking students were placed in my Spanish I class, and one of my challenges was to incorporate a curriculum that was consistently engaging for students whose Spanish skill sets varied greatly. This is an area where I could have benefitted from a better understanding of Teacher Sensitivity. Teachers who demonstrate high range Teacher Sensitivity are consistently aware of and responsive to individual needs, both for struggling students and for those who need additional challenges. I failed greatly at both. My native Spanish-speaking students were always quick to finish their assignments and there were many times when they sat around waiting for other peers to finish their work. I could have followed up with these students by providing them with additional activities or instruction to strengthen their Spanish skill sets. Consequently, there were days when I felt that I moved too quickly with teaching new Spanish vocabulary and I did not stop to check how well my students understood new terminology. This was especially true for my students who were new to the Spanish language. I felt like I let these students down. I was so focused on teaching the lesson and ensuring that I met my daily objectives that I often ignored my students’ individual needs. Having a greater understanding of Teacher Sensitivity could have helped me be more sensitive in supporting my students.
During the two years that I spent teaching hundreds of students the beauty of the Spanish language, I had no knowledge of what the CLASS tool was or how it could have empowered me to become a more effective teacher. Many features of the CLASS tool could have made my classroom experience more engaging and impactful for both my students and for me. It is rewarding, however, to know that some aspects of the CLASS tool, such as Positive Climate, were present in my classroom during my time as a teacher.
Positive Climate, Productivity, and Teacher Sensitivity are just three CLASS dimensions that were either apparent in my classroom or where I could have given more focus. Learning about the CLASS tool and becoming a certified observer allowed me to discover the value of the tool. I often reflect on how the CLASS tool could have helped me be a better teacher for my students. I know that the tool could have helped me solve many of my daily challenges and allowed me to focus more on encouraging my students to constantly question, explore, and expand their knowledge of the world around them. The tool could also have helped me be more intentional about instilling a love of learning in my students. I can’t go back in time to implement the CLASS tool into my classroom, but I see the tremendous value in reflecting on my experience with the CLASS lens and seeing the impact of the CLASS tool firsthand.
Across the nation, teachers learning about CLASS are asked to narrate their actions and sportscast their children’s experiences in order to support and encourage healthy language development. Hearing this, many teachers may wonder, “Will people think I’m crazy if I start talking to myself in the classroom?”
The answer is no. Self- and parallel talk are beneficial strategies for teachers to engage in because they strengthen language rich environments and enhance vocabulary development, all while supporting effective relationship building between teachers and children.
I’m often asked how teachers can improve the quality of their interactions around Instructional Support. That’s good! What’s not “good” is that we can’t just focus on one thing. We should consider how ALL the CLASS dimensions need to be in place in order to really provide effective interactions for Instructional Support.
So, it’s June and you have just wrapped up the year with your students. They have made tremendous progress over the course of the year. The routine of the day flows naturally, the expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior is fairly clear to all of them (and to you), and you leave the school year feeling confident that they are ready for the new challenges that lie ahead. You go into the summer months looking forward to a much needed break, but also looking forward to your new group of students in the fall.