A Writer’s Guide… to being a Teacher (USA)

This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”, check out this article by writer Kyra Dusk on being a Teacher in the USA.

A Writer's Guide to being a Teacher in the USA.  Image: Classroom

Teacher (in the USA)

by Kyra Dusk

A Few Disclaimers

Honestly, a more accurate title for this blog post would be: A Writer’s Guide to Teaching in a Public Elementary School in a Large, Well-Funded District in Suburban Texas, with Some Broader Applications.

There is huge variety in education, so please be sure to do additional research when writing teachers or classrooms. This post is only meant to be a starting point.

Speaking of variation, here are a few things you might not know about education in the United States:

Every state has its own credentialing requirements. In Texas, teachers can either be certified through a 4-year degree program or a post-graduate certification program.

They must have at least 30 observation hours in the classroom before beginning an unpaid student teaching semester or a paid, one-year internship. They must also pass certification exams for the content areas they would like to teach.

These tests generally cost over a hundred dollars per test, and many of the questions are subjective in nature. Some certifications, such as GT (Gifted and Talented) and ESL (English as a Second Language) may be optional, but they improve a teacher’s likelihood of employment.

Credentials do not transfer between states. Some states have agreements to recognize out-of-state certifications, but others only recognize part or none of a teacher’s past experience.

For example, I’m interested in moving to Connecticut. Although I’ve been certified in Texas for the last five years, I need to take two additional tests and pay additional fees in order to be recertified in Connecticut. In many ways, it is easier for a teacher to teach abroad than across state lines.

Standardize tests are determined by the state, not the national government.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandates standardized testing for certain content areas and grade levels, but states are free to test their students as they see fit. Currently in Texas, students take the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test.

When I was in school, it went by two other names, and it will surely change again before I retire. These tests are taken every year between grades 3-12, but only the 5th, 8th, and 12th grade exams impact grade placement or graduation.

Even on the same campus, grade level teachers may be responsible for different content. A self-contained teacher is responsible for all of the subjects, while a departmentalized teacher may be responsible for only one or two subjects.

These decisions are generally made on a district or campus level. Learning standards are established by the state.

However, districts, campuses, and even individuals may free to interpret those standards and design lesson plans. For more information about lesson planning, please see the ‘buzzword dictionary’ below.

I recommend doing research on the state and district level in order to make your settings as believable as possible.

How should a teacher dress?

Dress code varies, but in my district it’s essentially business casual. Teachers are expected to follow the student dress code while avoiding anything too casual such as jeans, yoga pants, T-shirts, and open-toed shoes.

The exception is on “spirit shirt” days (Fridays, in-service days, and so forth), when teachers can wear jeans with T-shirts that display the school’s logo.

What makes a good teacher?

Teachers need to know their content, obviously. But that’s only the tip of the figurative iceberg. In order to be successful in the classroom, a good teacher needs to be:

A parent

Especially in elementary school, teachers are responsible for teaching social skills or ‘hidden curriculum.’ This includes empathy, perseverance, nonverbal communication, etcetera.

Especially with the rise of technology in homes, many children are missing out on essential social learning that takes place through modeling and conversations. It’s the teacher’s job to fill in these gaps.

It’s also good practice for teachers to have snacks available for children who may not be eating enough, and to reassure younger students that they are loved with hugs and other appropriate gesture of affection.

In poorer schools, the teacher may even provide clothes, deodorant, and other necessities for their students. It’s no wonder so many children call their teachers ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ at some point during the school year.

A psychologist

Teachers are mediators. Most classroom conflicts are resolved by the teacher, not counsellors or administrators.

A strong grasp of child psychology helps teachers resolve these conflicts, prevent future conflicts, recognize at-risk children, and engage all learners in the classroom curriculum.

A motivational speaker

Teachers are cheerleaders. They must believe wholeheartedly in every student, especially the difficult ones, and they must make their conviction known.

Every word of affirmation and encouragement shapes a child’s experience in the classroom. The teacher who can make even the driest punctuation lesson inspiring is generally the teacher who will make the greatest impact on their students.

– – –

On a grim note, in the age of school shootings, a teacher must also be their classroom’s first line of defense. Children’s safety rests in their hands.

Although security measures vary between states and even districts, a teacher must be well versed in their local safety procedures.

A teacher should expect yearly trainings and drills for what to do if a shooter is in the building. Huddling in the dark with a room full of scared kids is awful, but it’s the reality we all must live and work in.

What are a teacher’s greatest challenges?

Time

Teachers never have enough of it. Their work day is spent supporting children, so the majority of grading, lesson planning, running copies, preparing materials, taking data, attending trainings, and contacting parents must take place before school, after school, or over the weekend.

Scrutiny

Every choice a teacher makes is highly scrutinized. It’s not just cameras and administrative walkthroughs, either.

A teacher must be prepared to defend every grading choice, every classroom activity, every student interaction, every parent interaction, and so on, at the risk of a parent threatening legal action.

They must also take frequent, accurate data on student progress in order to fulfill statewide standards and maintain their certification status.

Poor Funding

Even in a well-funded district, I spend about a thousand dollars per year on my classroom. Teachers in poorer districts tend to spend far more.

Campuses provide what they can, usually within a fixed yearly budget, and grants offer a way for teachers to obtain additional funding, but education is an odd field where the employees are expected to provide many of the assorted tools of their trade.

Teachers purchase books for their classroom library, posters for their walls, furniture for their classroom, ink for their printers, and whatever else they or their students may need.

– – –

The combined stressors of time (or lack thereof), scrutiny, and poor funding have led a record number of American teachers to leave their careers to find work elsewhere.

When writing teacher characters, I recommend researching teacher walk-outs and protests in your setting (state or community) to understand where their largest struggles may lie.

What does good teaching look like?—A buzzword dictionary

Every few years, the field of education shifts its definition of what good teaching looks like. If you want to impress your teacher friends and write believable, twenty-first century classrooms, try out some of these buzzwords for good teaching practices in 2019:

21st Century Skills

Success in the classroom is no longer about what you know, but about what you can do with that knowledge. After all, it’s difficult to anticipate what children will need to know in twenty years, but we can do our best to prepare them for whatever that future holds.

21st Century Skills are the higher level, process skills required to be successful in the job market. They include, but are not limited to: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, innovation, leadership, and responsibility.

Action Based Learning (ABL)

Activity stimulates the brain, and different types of motion help the brain store, connect, and access information. ABL incorporates more movement into the classroom in order to help children learn and manage their personalized, sensory needs.

Differentiation

Every learner is different. Differentiation is about meeting each learner in the way that works best for them (in a classroom of more than twenty, it requires a lot of flexibility and, honestly, a little bit of magic).

Lessons can be differentiated by difficulty, learning style, and even student interest.

Flexible Seating

Comfortable learners focus better. Differentiating the learning environment helps ensure that children are able to learn in the way they find most comfortable, whether that means sitting on the floor, standing, or using various furniture choices such ascrates, bike pedals, or wobble chairs.

Project-based Learning

Children learn by making connections. Integrated lessons, especially when they center on a theme or project, help students connect and apply what they’ve learned.

It’s impractical to make all learning project-based, but the more learning that can connect across multiple content areas, the better.

Student Choice

Teachers are responsible for student engagement, and one way to increase engagement is student choice. When children are able to make decisions about their learning, it increases their investment in the task at hand.

What about teaching children with disabilities?—Acronyms and Legalese

Teachers receive a high degree of scrutiny regarding their children with disabilities, even compared to the other hot-button issues.

The following legislation and vocabulary is essential for any classroom teacher who’d prefer to avoid a lawsuit:

ARD Committee

Admission, Review, and Dismissal Committee. Comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, and other relevant school personnel, this group is responsible for making decisions that impact students with disabilities.

BIP

Behavior Intervention Plan. Children with special behavior needs may have a BIP in place, documenting classroom practices their teachers must follow in order to help them change their targeted behaviors.

IDEA

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.This legislation protects children with disabilities and provides specific, nationwide standards for educating children with disabilities.

IEP

Individualized Education Plan. Children who receive Special Education services under IDEA are given an IEP.

This document is drafted by the ARD committee, detailing all accommodations and modifications that a student with disabilities will receive in order to learn successfully in the classroom.

LRE

Least Restrictive Environment. IDEA states that children with special learning needs must be educated with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent possible.

Depending on the severity of a child’s learning needs, their LRE may be in the general education classroom with in-class support, in a special resource classroom, or even in an alternative setting. However, all ARD decisions must be made with the LRE in mind.

Section 504

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Like IDEA, it exists to protect disabled students.

However, its reach is broader than IDEA, so some children whose needs are not severe enough to be serviced through IDEA can still receive special services under Section 504.

In Texas, children with dyslexia or mild-to-moderate ADHD receive support through 504, not Special Education.

Conclusion: Young Readers from a Teacher’s Perspective

Whether or not you plan to write a teacher or classroom setting, anyone who writes for children will benefit from knowing about children as readers. I’ve broken down this section by publishing genre:

Picture Books

Picture books and early readers are the primary form of reading exposure children receive in Kindergarten-1st Grade.

These are children roughly between the ages of 5-7 years old. Early readers start off with patterned texts that rely primarily on sight words and consonant-vowel-consonant phonemic patterns.

More complex picture books may be read aloud by parents or teachers to teach social skills lessons or big ideas for math, science, and social studies. Picture books continue to be used for higher grade levels (2nd-5th) as mentor texts to model specific writing and comprehension strategies.

In writing, that may model poetic language such as simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole. In reading, it may be plot, characterization, synthesis, and inferential thinking.

Chapter Books

Some younger students may access chapter books, but these are primarily read by 2nd-3rd graders, roughly between the ages of 7-9.

Chapter books are the bridge between patterned texts with picture clues and full length, middle grade novels.It’s the jump between “learning to read” and “reading to learn.”

Readers at this level can generally decode long and short vowels, consonant pairs, and common suffixes. These children still benefit from picture and context clues to help them decipher unfamiliar words.

Middle Grade

These readers have mastered most of their decoding skills. Their reading focus is comprehension.

Keep in mind that some advanced readers will move into this genre quite young, before they are socially or emotionally prepared to deal with middle school content.

I would say roughly half of my third grade class is reading at this level, yet the target audience for middle grade is between the ages of 10-14.

What other foundational resources should American teachers be familiar with?

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs Triangle

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Finally, just for fun

  • Eddie B Comedy – Check out his Youtube channel for great teacher humor!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

About Kyra Dusk

Kyra Dusk author photoKyra Dusk lives by the belief that words are magic.  She taught English for a year in the beautiful country of Japan before returning home to Houston, Texas.

When she’s not glued to her laptop, devouring book candy, or traveling to inspiring places around the world, she teaches reading/language arts to third graders and sponsors her school’s creative writing club.

Kyra’s short stories have been published in From Whispers to Roars, A Million and One Magazine, and Seven Deadly Sins, a YA Anthology:  Lust.

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I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for Kyra, drop them in the comments below.  Check out all the current “A Writer’s Guide” articles on their new page for easy access. 

Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation you could write about?

~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~

Happy writing

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9 comments

  1. Great post. I was a preschool teacher for about six years. It’s fun and rewarding with the kids and I do miss that aspect of it. However, the technicalities – budget, having little support from other staff or the higher-ups, the various credentials to keep up with – burned me out and pushed me over the edge. I nanny now because I can still have fun and teach the kids without following a set curriculum!

  2. Yes, Kyra, words are magic. When I read what makes a good teacher, you “get it”. All the information in the world won’t sink in unless a teacher understands the emotional and social component of her students, and can relate. I’m glad to see those were at the top of your list. and, I’m glad you spent time to write about books and reading. That’s huge. Thank you for a terrific post. This is my 35th year of teaching – lucky me! Every day is a new wonder, isn’t it?

  3. I live in Oregon.

    My girls are 16 and 14. Both are in high-school. The number one problem I continue to hear is discipline. Or should I say, lack thereof.

    The majority of our schools do not allow teachers to force students to behave. After a while many of our teachers shut down and simply go through the motions. You can guess where this leads to. This is a serious problem that leads to poor employees in the workforce.

    In my day a teacher was respected. Not so much now.

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