Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 13. Getting Involved in Activities

On one hand, you will have plenty to do just staying on top of your assigned classes. The last thing you need as a brand-new teacher is added responsibilities and commitments at school. On the other hand, some of the most enjoyable and satisfying interactions you will ever have with students will take place not in the traditional classroom but in extracurricular activities related to school clubs and sports, competitions, and career and social organizations.

Although it would be far better for you to get involved slowly in various school activities (especially if you are going through an induction program), possibly even waiting until your second or third year on the job, an opportunity may arise that is too enticing to pass up: A coach or club adviser unexpectedly quits, and you are invited to take over the group. The principal approaches you with an invitation to begin or continue a particular school organization, and it wouldn’t look good for you to turn it down. Or perhaps you just have this burning desire to make a difference in kids’ lives in a setting that isn’t as restrictive as the traditional classroom.

ACTIVITY ADVISER

The things teachers most dislike about their classroom jobs are that they are constantly called on to keep students on track, to evaluate their performances, and to keep order and discipline. Furthermore, the participants in a classroom are not often volunteers; they have not really chosen to be in your classes. In the case of extracurricular activities, students choose to devote their own time to participate in the enterprise. Although some students have hidden or disguised agendas not related to true devotion to the activity, they still have a degree of motivation that prevents most discipline problems. For instance, even those students who are participating in debate or a community service organization for less than altruistic reasons—because they want to beef up their resumes, please their parents, or hang out with friends—are still there voluntarily.

School clubs provide a range of enrichment activities that allow students to pursue personal interests, such as dance clubs, drama clubs, science clubs, or future teachers clubs. Often, they take field trips. Frequently, they invite speakers to their meetings. Most schools have a wide variety of service clubs, some of them related to those in the community at large. For example, the Kiwanis organization supports Key Clubs in many areas of the country. Not only do students participate in many hours of community service work but they also have an opportunity to gain valuable leadership experience.

Your role as the adviser to a club is to keep the students on task, provide some organizational skills and references, and help students with their planning. Meanwhile, you have the chance to get to know students in a more informal way. As a result of your efforts, you not only will get to see the difference you are making in the lives of the students for whom you serve as a resource, but you will also be contributing to and witnessing the maturation process of the students you are mentoring.

School clubs also provide a number of social opportunities for students. For those who are not involved in organized sports or who don’t have jobs after school, many teenagers end up having too much unstructured time. Kids sit anesthetized in front of the television, or play video games, or sleep all afternoon. Even worse, drugs and alcohol are used as means to deal with boredom and stress.

For me (Cary), everything I remember most fondly about high school took place outside of class. I hate to be the one to tell teachers this because they think what they do is so important. But the most fun I had, and probably the most stuff I learned, occurred when I was involved in all the extracurricular activities. I played on the baseball team for four years and learned everything I know about teamwork and self-discipline and commitment and dealing with pressure situations.

I remember once seeing one of my teachers at a game, watching me pitch. It was a teacher I hadn’t really respected much or paid much attention to before, but just seeing him at the game made a big difference to me. After that I started to listen to him more and actually learned some things from him that I would not have otherwise.

I was also on the Student Council and that taught me a lot of things, too, none of which was expected. I thought I’d learn about leadership and social activism, but what I learned about was how to deal with authorities. Still, it was a far more powerful lesson than anything I could have ever learned in class.

The reality of contemporary life is that there just aren’t many places that teenagers can go after school. They may hang out at malls or convenience stores. They roam around the streets looking for something to do. Boredom, or just plain lack of stimulation and structure, is a very real problem in most kids’ lives. That is where school activities can serve a really useful purpose—providing structure, useful things for kids to do, chances to interact with others around a common purpose, and the opportunity to make new friends.

As an adviser to school clubs and organizations, you get to do things with students rather than plan for them. You are not so much an authority figure as you are a wise, older adviser who helps them solve their own problems.

The activities of clubs are shared learning experiences based on common interests. Often, the teacher and students do things together for the first time—going on a field trip, for example. Common bonds are built, where you will later hear, “Remember when we . . .” Students have the opportunity to observe you in a new way and see your reactions to novel situations.

Another advantage of sponsoring a club is that you get to meet students who are not in your classes. Getting to know more people will help you feel more comfortable in the school. You will become aware of the school’s social patterns and see who is friends with whom. You will watch as attachments form among the boys and girls, and you will see how new students are drawn into various groups.

CLASS SPONSOR

Being a class sponsor is another way to get involved with students. This is certainly a big responsibility at the beginning of the school year. Most schools have homecoming traditions to maintain, including making floats for the homecoming parade. Classes participate in assemblies and pep rallies, hold events for the school, and often engage in fundraising projects. Sponsoring a class is another chance to get to know the students and work with them outside the classroom.

Regardless of what activity you choose to help with, you will have opportunities to develop relationships outside that of the traditional “teacher-student,” and you will increase the rapport you have with your students.

COACHING ATHLETICS

Although coaching a sport leads to evaluations of performance, like the classroom, it also provides another venue for teacher-student interaction. Students are intensely motivated to participate in and/or be selected for school sports teams. They know their abilities will be assessed and are willing to be scrutinized.

Intense relationships develop because of the time, energy, and concentration involved. As a coach, your words may be revered. Students rely on your guidance, your decisions. They know coaches look out for their welfare—making sure they maintain good grades and develop good fitness habits. You share your expertise. Students see you in a different light as you make on-the-spot decisions. In this environment, students are often willing to hear criticism if it will lead to improvement.

Coaches may work with the same students over several years. They have the opportunity to see the players grow and develop as they mature into young men and women. In the role of coach, you foster camaraderie, a strong work ethic, and team spirit. You teach physical and social skills, build self-esteem and confidence, and create an esprit de corps in which cooperation is valued over individual accomplishment. You teach the value of practice and self-discipline and help students overcome injury, errors, and defeat. You help kids develop poise and dignity, whether they win or lose, and you see bonds develop that will last the rest of their lives.

When I (Cary) was playing baseball, my coach ran my life. I was with him more than I was with my own father. I ran hard every day at practice. I lifted weights until I could no longer feel my arms. I never worked so hard at anything in my life, and I can’t imagine there will ever be a time that I will work harder. Even if I wanted to get into trouble, there wasn’t any time to do so. I used to leave for school at 6:30 in the morning, and I didn’t get home until 6:00. Even my weekends were filled with practices. And we’re talking 11 months per year.

The lessons my coach taught us weren’t just about baseball but about life. It’s about working together toward achieving one goal. Every day, 3 or 4 hours of practice. Sometimes, even 5 or 6 hours, in the intense heat or the bitter cold.

My coach scared the crap out of me sometimes, but I respected him as much as I’ve respected any man. He has played a large part in making me who I am. All of my time that he took up every day was his time, too. He has devoted his whole life to helping kids like me. He receives very little extra pay and not nearly enough recognition.

HONORING SCHOOL TRADITIONS

Even if you don’t have the time and inclination to actually sponsor a club or coach an athletic team, you can still become involved in after-school activities by attending and promoting important events, such as school dances, games, and school performances.

Every school has its own customs, and some of the more typical traditions follow. Many schools have spirit day every Friday. The first round of school spirit activities usually comes during the homecoming season, with a “spirit week” organized around a theme. Each class and many clubs build floats for the homecoming parade before the game. Each day of the week may have a special designation for dress. Samples might include College Day—wear your favorite college T-shirt or sweatshirt; Hat Day—wear the cap or hat of your favorite sports team; Stripe Day; Plaid Day; ’60s Day; Disney Character Clothing Day; and so forth. Although they won’t often admit it, students do appreciate it when teachers get into the spirit of things.

School dances at both the middle or junior high school and high school level attract a lot of student attention. As invitations go out, some hearts will rise, others will fall. Sometimes, the invitations will be quite creative—a balloon with a message inside; a box with Hershey’s kisses, only one of which has a message; a poster that you will be asked to deliver to a student in a class. The answers will be just as clever—a bottle of jelly beans with a note that says “Odd means yes. Even means no.”

Each dance may have its own customs as well. In one district, at GR (Girls’ Reverse, where the girls invite the boys), the couple wears matching shirts for the evening. Often, there will be a photographer to take pictures of couples and groups of friends. Then, about two weeks later, the pictures will arrive at school, and much student attention will be given to the pictures—how they came out and who gets copies.

October’s event commanding attention is Halloween. Will you be in costume? Schools have different policies on dress for teachers and students; some allow modest outfits if they are not considered distracting.

November is marked by food drives around Thanksgiving. Blankets and other needed items may also be collected. Some schools collect toiletries to distribute to the homeless. High school football play-offs take place during this month—rivalries may be bitter. Also, National Education Week is celebrated the third week in November with recognition for teachers that may range from banners in the school or special messages placed in teachers’ mailboxes to ice cream parties after school and small gifts of appreciation from students, the school, the district and/or parent organizations.

December may feature a toy drive for underprivileged students. There will likely be orchestra and band concerts. There will also be school assemblies to celebrate the holidays and to acknowledge awards for student achievements.

January is the end of the semester. Most schools do not hold any activities during finals week. Many schools have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognition of some kind, and schools are closed to observe the day itself.

February is the time for boys’ and girls’ high school basketball play-offs. You’ll want to also note the extracurricular schedule for sports, performance, and academic competitions. Another high school assembly may be held to honor winter sports.

March is the beginning of spring sports.

April or May is often the time for another spirit week. Sometimes, those who will graduate at the end of the year are honored during this month. More dress-up days may be planned, along with an assembly and after-school activities such as a movie night or barbecue. Participants in spring sports may be acknowledged.

At the high school level, school rings continue to be popular. Students buy them as early as their sophomore year. Many schools have special ring-day celebrations when they are delivered.

The arrival of yearbooks continues to be an exciting day at any level. Many schools have a signing party—which is just like it sounds. The students receive their books and then take turns autographing them after school. This is a fun event to watch and participate in.

The senior year is marked by many rituals—the final homecoming, ordering graduation announcements, being measured for caps and gowns, the last game or meet for the senior athletes, senior pictures, awards night, and of course, the senior prom. Students identify themselves by the year they graduate from high school—tassels with their graduation year are displayed on the rearview mirrors of their cars or trucks, or the year may be painted on the windows.

OTHER TRADITIONS

There can be some negative traditions as well. Incoming freshmen can be the target of jokes and hazing. They are told to use an elevator to get to the second story of a building when there is no elevator, or older students give them incorrect directions. Do be on the lookout for lost freshmen.

There are many alumni traditions as well. Alumni return on career day to share information about their professions with the students. The high school graduates return for the homecoming game, at which alumni band members may play a number and alumni cheerleaders may join in the acrobatics for the playing of the school fight song. At one school, the former graduates spend the day attending an assembly in the morning, then an alumni luncheon, and finally, the game in the evening. Alumni reunions are held every 10 years, if not every 5. When the school vies for a state athletic championship, the alumni will turn out in droves, in their letter sweaters or jackets.

All of these events and traditions may sound a bit confusing, if not overwhelming. Over time, you will decide on what activities you wish to become involved with—as a sponsor, an adviser, a participant, or a spectator. The point is that you fully join the school culture, becoming part of the family, once you devote yourself to some extracurricular activities. Be prepared to spend a little extra money to support the various student activities. I (Ellen) have bought T-shirts, pens, candy, gift wrap, greeting cards, locker mirrors, and key chains to contribute to clubs and athletic programs. Students and administration will appreciate your visible support. And you will find that spending time with students away from your classroom is a wonderful break from the usual routines.