As I've progressed through the career, I have tried to keep track of my base principles. What should always be true about the way I work? What should always be true about the way I run the classroom? And how do you keep it simple to avoid a self-induced pressure cooker?
Know the Content
Above all, I need to know what I'm talking about. I don't want to regurgitate something from a text. I want to make sure I understand a topic, how it works in general, how it might connect to something students have seen before, and how it connects to where I want to go. I want my content to tell a story. It's not necessary that the kids even know they're in the middle of a story, just that they can trust me to talk about things in a logical way that flows nicely. That we don't just study things at random because some curriculum guide told us to do so.
Initially, this was the hard part of the job. I am so upset if I teach something incorrectly, in a tricksy manner, or in an obtuse way. Really grinding away at the content early on has had the biggest payoff. I can sing you the ballad of Pre-Cal complete with a dramatic Third Act in my sleep now. But knowing the content doesn't mean you have to be perfect.
Know the Flaws
I screw up. I admit this to the kids. I make them keep an eye out for my mistakes, because they will happen. I try to model a good attitude when it comes to mistakes. They are ok! Even college educated adults make them! You would not believe the countless mistakes I have made on homework solutions, assessments solutions, and live in the middle of some topic. I recognize that I am going to make mistakes with the math and accept it. I try to minimize them sure, but I don't beat myself up over it. On the off chance I do cover something in a weird or incorrect way, I profusely apologize to the students and make it right.
I also know the flaws of my teaching style. I ramble. I get side tracked. I tell silly stories. The kids know this and in some cases are good at purposely triggering me into a distraction. I have gotten better at recognizing this in the moment and try to minimize the distraction. I don't stop, it makes class fun. It gets the kids to open up and usually leads to each class developing something funny that's uniquely theirs. I have classes that happily sing happy birthday to each and every office aide that wanders in, and that's fantastic.
I misinterpret kids questions and give answers they didn't ask for. I ask questions they don't understand. I think kids are talking to me or about me when that's not the case all the time. I trip over my words. I do all kinds of silly imperfect things. But that's cool, everyone does. It's ok to be a real person in front of students.
Know the People
In 7th grade for whatever reason I approached my art teacher and said very boldly "do you even know my name?" In a true pro move she smiled and said "Jonathan we need to talk about a drawing I want you to make for a contest..." not only deflecting my sorta rude question, but showing me that "ok punk, not only do I know your name, I know you're talented too."
The school I attended in 6th grade had been larger and I felt lost in my big classes (each around 30+). I suppose it was natural to think this teacher generally didn't know me much like the others. And for whatever reason this incident has stuck with me for 20 years. I greatly appreciated all of my teachers who took a moment to acknowledge, yes kid, I know who you are and what you bring to the table.
That's probably the biggest of my base principles. I need to be tight when it comes to presenting and teaching, but I need to be tight on my soft skills too. Each kid should feel like it's ok to talk to me, that we can have a conversation, however brief, that it can be about whatever, and that they know I'm aware of what they're up to and how I might improve things. I have structured so many of my classroom procedures out of building in time for me to get to know the students. If I'm talking 45 minutes a day, every day of the week, that can't happen as well as when I hand out some classwork, turn on the music, and go wandering.