What I Learned From Teaching a High School Classroom After One Hour’s Notice

Ashley Soto headshot

by Ashley Soto

Education work means being flexible to the needs of others. The reality of that truism was never clearer than when I, a Programs Manager at CollegeSpring, recently stepped in on short notice to teach four hours of SAT prep to 30 unfamiliar students at one of our partner schools.

Walking into that school, I had several questions running through my mind. First, there’s the logistical issue: where in the world am I teaching? When you step foot on campus for the first time, you’re suddenly sucked into a labyrinth of identical buildings and small lettering to differentiate them. Then there’s questions of how many students to expect—managing a classroom of ten students versus thirty is its own science—and what materials they and I would need for a successful day of lessons.

Once those questions were answered, there was still the most important question at hand: what am I teaching? I’ve taught high school before, and it’s certainly part of my job to help our partners however I can— but I’d never taught the SAT, and I haven’t taken the SAT in over ten years. If you think that being an adult means having all grammar rules and high school math at the tip of your tongue, think again. I needed a day or two to invest time reviewing the lesson plans and practicing the problems beforehand in order to anticipate student questions. But I only had one hour to go through each lesson once, work through the problems once, and hope for the best.

Though the hours I spent teaching those 30 high school students last minute tested the limits of my energy, it also served as a welcome, yet exhausting reminder that teaching is anything but easy. At the same time, the experience re-emphasized that the students themselves are well worth the seamless logistics,positive classroom climate, and classroom management required to help them gain access to higher education.

Reminder #1: Even when someone gives you a lesson plan, teaching isn’t easy.

Preparation is key for a successful lesson, but it is never enough. You just don’t know what will happen until you begin the lesson, and a teacher is tasked with mastering classroom management before true learning takes place. When I taught high school, I prided myself in my ability to balance classroom management and lead students toward mastery of objectives, all while fostering meaningful connections between students. For this new class, I looked forward to bringing out the old toolbox.

What I had not considered, however, was that I would have the same group of students for four hours straight. When I taught high school, I’d see a group of students for 90 minutes max  before *drumroll please* the bell would ring. In this case, I didn’t have the crutch of the bell schedule. I had to now manage the same 30 high school students for 4 hours—way longer than I’d ever done on my own. I now had to manage the restlessness and never ending need to “go to the restroom” that comes with staying in the classroom for hours on end. Peppering in breaks was necessary for both me and the students, and after my four hours of teaching and managing the classroom completely on my feet, I took a four hour nap. Teaching is exhausting.

Reminder #2: When students go off-topic, they’re not necessarily trying to be disruptive.

Students have lots of questions. Oftentimes, an “off topic” question is perceived as defiance or derailing the lesson, which is to be quickly addressed and squashed.

However, let’s challenge ourselves to read the subtext of these questions. In my case, many of the students I was teaching would be first-generation college attendees, and hadn’t been exposed much to content like the SAT. It was important for me to ask: is this off-topic question a sign that the student is confused or even bored? How could outside perceptions influence expectations of students? Are we jumping to end the conversation based on external bias? If we prioritize the students’ needs and remind ourselves of the need for clear expectations, we can get to the root of their curiosity, even when it’s not an apparently topical question.

Reminder #3: Most disruptive behavior stems from a lack of structure.

Students respond to their environment, and creating structure sets them up for success. But sometimes there’s the random visitor who makes an announcement mid-lesson or walks by and makes a face to throw off the equilibrium. And, despite the value of respecting off-topic questions, the reality is that students will ask questions that will throw teachers off. (Asking us what we did this weekend in the middle of passage analysis is not SAT-related!) How do we strike a balance?

The teacher’s job, in addition to everything else (will the list ever end?!), is to set the tone for the classroom. This ultimately means not just creating rules of conduct in the classroom for the students to follow but consistently enforcing them. Key word: Consistently. The most successful students have teachers who are consistent and keep their word. All students, regardless of socioeconomic background, need clear expectations and objectives to be set by the teacher. It’s hard, and it takes time. Patience is key.

Reminder #4: The SAT is hard!

Lessons prepped, expectations set, rules consistently enforced—now it’s time to actually teach. And with the SAT, this involves so much more than test content. Teachers have to help students unlearn approaches that are at this point muscle memory in order to prepare them for a test that tests how well they can take the test (say that ten times fast!). Teachers must help students master test-taking strategies and be comfortable with the discomfort that comes with the fact that mastery takes time. Teachers need a plan for navigating the overwhelming feelings and confusion that are bound to occur. It’s not just any test. It’s a test that can determine a student’s access to higher education. The teacher has to teach not only the content but make it feel manageable.

Having the opportunity to once again step into a classroom was an important reminder that teaching goes beyond simply packaging information and sharing it with students. Knocking down barriers to success involves seamless logistics and creating a positive classroom climate and mastering classroom management. But the students are worth it and deserve a fair chance to succeed, so bring it on.

Ashley Soto is a Programs Manager on CollegeSpring’s Southern California team.