Lessons à La Cart: Teaching Without a Classroom
Floating teachers have to be extremely organized. Learn their secrets to staying efficient and traveling light.
Many teachers are already in their classrooms preparing for the school day well before the bell rings—writing assignments on the whiteboard, setting up the projector for the day’s lessons, or simply taking a few, quiet moments at their desk to catch up on paperwork. But some teachers lack these luxuries. Without a room to call their own, they share classrooms with teachers and change locations as frequently as their students, teaching instead from their trusty cart. These teachers are known as floating—or mobile—teachers.
Despite the struggles of being on the go, however, being a mobile teacher does have its benefits, the biggest of which is developing superior organizational skills that are useful whether you’re teaching from a cart or from your own room.
Former mobile teacher Jennifer Mitchell, a National Writing Project Teacher-Consultant and English Language Learner teacher at Dublin Scioto High School in Ohio, advises to not let the cart limit the teacher or the teaching.
“Imagine that you do have a room and figure out what are the must-have things that you would really need in order to run your classroom and then find a way to make it happen on the cart,” she says.
“I always had extra pencils. I had turn-in trays so students could turn in their work, accordion folders and a folder for each day where I would keep extra handouts,” says Mitchell, who also had a sign-out clip board, hall passes, prizes, and clear bins to stash handouts and games. A section of her cart was dedicated to books and practice activities used at the end of class. Mitchell included personal supplies too, including dry erase markers and erasers, her laptop, a water bottle, tissues, and band aids.
“I [also] brought this big tri-fold board, our Daily Routine board, where we would do days of the week and the date and little activities on it. I had my own dry erase board that I would use as my homework board just like I would if I had my own classroom. I had speakers so I could play music,” Mitchell says, who also advises teachers to bring magnets. “If you feel that you really need a poster or some kind of visual and if you have magnets, then you can just put them up temporarily.”
Jeremy Cusick, a Biology and Chemistry teacher at Kenowa Hills High School in Michigan, carried a turn-in tray and large bins holding different colors of paper, pens, pencils, scissors and glue sticks. Drawers containing supplies for students faced outward while drawers for Cusick faced inward. Organization was essential for a successful and stress-free day as he traveled to each classroom.
Binder clips were essential to keeping track of students’ work. Cusick wrote different hours and days on different binder clips with a paint pen and clipped student work together with its corresponding clip. “You couldn’t pack papers in a pile and get to them later. You would lose them because you had to move to the next classroom,” he says. “You had to be neat and organized so that you didn’t have a flutter of papers falling behind you as you traveled down the hallway.”
Cusick made it through two years without losing a single student’s paper. “All I can say is, binder clips are your friend.”
High School English Teacher Elizabeth Randall wrote The Floating Teacher: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving to help other mobile teachers succeed during the school day. The key to being a floating teacher, she says, is to plan everything out ahead of time and ensure that your materials are organized and handy at a moment’s notice.
“The real challenge for floating is preparing for the next day,” Randall says. “You have to prepare for maybe six different classrooms. So, at the end of the day I’d spent about 5 minutes going to each classroom making sure I had everything I needed lined up.”
For Randall, this meant double-checking her classroom supplies and working with the homeroom teacher to prepare her own lessons. Oftentimes, she’d check with the teacher to see if she could write anything on the blackboard ahead of time if she was using the room for a morning class.
Randall also worked with the homeroom teacher to establish a classroom space—whether a corner or a shelf—where she could keep some of her supplies. While Randall and the majority of her teaching materials moved from classroom to classroom, having an established class-specific box of goodies allowed her to always be prepared and organized for whatever might happen.
“The main thing that helped me was to go to every single classroom and set up a file box where I could keep old handouts, emergency forms, referral forms, and things like tissues and glue and other things that you may need for class.”
Randall says that working with homeroom teachers from the start of the year is an essential component in ensuring a productive school year.
“It’s very important, right off the bat, to set up a really good relationship with the host teacher, and really just bend over backwards to get her on your side,” she says.
Teachers can be a little uneasy about another teacher using their space, so Randall would allay their concerns by introducing herself to the homeroom teachers during the first week of school.
“I would meet them and I’d ask them how they’d like things done, because all teachers are different and some different concerns about requirements,” says Randall.
Working with homeroom teachers to respect their space can have a positive long-term affect on floating teachers. For Mitchell, one of the benefits of sharing classrooms with other educators was the opportunity to develop good working relationships. As a new teacher, she could receive immediate feedback from her colleagues when she felt something was not going well.
“I’d talk to them a little bit after class and say ‘hey did you see how that went?’” she says. “They would also know their students better. When I would ask ‘is so-and-so getting along with so-and-so?’ they would give me feedback…or they would help me field different situations.”
As she sought her colleagues’ help, they also began to learn from her. A self-proclaimed technology buff, Mitchell was happy to help her colleagues learn how to better incorporate technology into the classroom.
“They would come up to me at the end of the day or they would find me and go ‘wow that was a really cool thing you did with your kids. Can you show me how to do that?’ It made me into this person who taught other teachers about how to use technology just because they had seen me do it and asked me about it.”
While Cusick is no longer a mobile teacher, he still has his cart, which he turned into a lab cart. Teaching from a cart has given him invaluable classroom management skills that he still uses today.
“Figure out a system that works for you and don’t lose it [the system] if you do get a classroom. It’s made my life a lot easier,” says Cusick. “I still use the marked binder clips. When I take papers home to grade it’s so convenient; it’s easy to move when I need to.”
Follow Mitchell’s adventures in teaching and learning at http://ihabloespanglish.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter at @readwritetech.
--With contributions by Edward Graham