When Dana Huff was just six years old, she taught her first class.
Her students seated in front of her, she found she relished the feeling of helping others learn. Granted, her students were stuffed animals at the time and her class was in her home, but Huff discovered her love of teaching early in life.
That little girl grew up to become an accomplished English teacher in Georgia at the Weber School, where she now teaches 10th grade.
“I decided to teach English because I had an excellent junior and senior English teacher who just made me love the subject,” Huff relates. “I had always liked reading and writing, and yet still had not managed to like English class until I had this teacher.”
Huff decided then that she would become a teacher herself one day, and help her students to not only become both better readers and writers, but also to fall in love with the subject. Huff followed through with her passion, enrolling in a teacher preparation program at the University of Georgia after graduating high school.
Huff acknowledges that while no teacher preparation program can fully prepare new teachers for the reality of the classroom, she feels her program did a good job.
“By and large, my program was a thoughtful one that involved working in a high school for the entire year rather than a 12-week crash course at the end,” Huff said. “I was able to gradually become more involved in my students' classes before I took over the classes as a student teacher.”
Finally, after graduating and earning her bachelor's degree in English education, Huff taught her first class – an experience that still sticks with her years later.
“I remember it all very well,” Huff says. “I was in a very small classroom in a rural high school in middle Georgia. I had 33 students and only 30 desks.”
Huff says on the first day of class, her students were excited about school, but by the second day, problems arose when she realized she had no idea how to manage her classroom. Huff was excited and eager to have her own class, but didn't have enough experience to face the challenges in front of her.
“I had always been quiet, hardworking, and fairly docile in high school, and it was a rude awakening to discover that most students hated school, didn't want to do their work, and would do anything to avoid working, including disrupt class,” Huff said.
Unfortunately, Huff didn't have a particularly supportive administration at the time, something she says is critical to maintaining a good attitude in class and the school as a whole.
“I have learned over time that the administration sets the stage for everything,” she said. “If their expectations are consistently high and they consistently support their teachers, then the school will be a good school.”
But now, Huff has a good handle on her classes, and employs a variety of teaching and curriculum techniques to keep class fresh and her students interested. When designing her curriculum, Huff usually knows the direction she wants to take before she starts.
“I generally begin with the end in mind and think about what I want students to know or be able to do,” Huff said. “Then I design the rest of the unit so my assessments and instruction will help me and my students reach that goal.”
Using different teaching methods to accomplish her goals, such as direct instruction, student-centered small groups, and student-led teaching, Huff starts with what she wants her students to learn, and works backward from there.
“I think it's much more important to design instruction after you've already determined where you want students to be at the end of the instruction, and you will find that the instruction you design is more effective that way too,” Huff said.
For example, Huff knew she wanted to improve her students' writing skills, so she developed writing workshops that revolve around the writing process, including conferences with students so they have both verbal and written feedback about their work.
But, as Huff says, it all “depends on the nature of the assignment and how students will best learn the material.”
These teaching methods and techniques come in handy when teaching some of her favorite English topics, such as Shakespeare.
“I also enjoy teaching British literature in general,” Huff said. “It was my favorite in college and I have enjoyed sharing that passion for British literature with students.”
That passion pays off in the long run, as Huff's former students come back years later to commend her for her impact on their education. Just recently, one of her old students approached her to relate how prepared he felt for the demands of college writing.
“To know that I was helpful and that the students felt ready to do college work made me proud because I hear so much about how today's college students are increasingly placed in remedial courses, and are unprepared for college work,” Huff said.
For future teachers, Huff notes that the teaching environment is changing rapidly, and it's important to stay on top of new developments and changes in the field of education. She recommends focusing on trends in both education and subject matter in educational journals, and sharing new techniques with other teachers.
“Too many teachers are not willing to share the wonderful work they do,” Huff says. “I share a lot of my handouts and lessons online, because I feel if I have a good idea, more students can benefit from it if I share it with my online teacher colleagues than if I kept it to myself.”
Huff's final advice for new teachers is to maintain a dynamic attitude in the classroom.
“Always be interested in becoming a better teacher,” Huff said. “Don't get in a rut and teach the same way, no matter what the makeup of your class, just because it's comfortable for you. You need to meet your students where they are.”