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Teaching Advanced Classes: 4 Keys to Success

Advanced placement classes

Teaching advanced classes can be both challenging and rewarding. After my second year of teaching, my director asked how I felt about them. I was terrified—would I be able to handle it? Would my students be smarter than me? Could I deal with the workload? I didn't really have a choice in the matter, though, as he scheduled me to teach advanced placement (AP) literature and composition the next school year. I had to get ready.

Luckily, my boss sent me to an amazing College Board workshop designed to help new AP teachers. I learned a great deal from that week-long experience. Then I spent the entire summer in Northeastern University's library, researching and prepping. Think you might be ready to teach AP classes? Here are four things I've learned that will help you be successful.

Know Your Content

I love literature, but I wasn't like some of my college classmates who were obsessed with Shakespeare and planned vacations to the Globe Theatre in London. I'm a voracious reader, but there were plenty of classics I hadn't read, including War and Peace. I was legitimately worried my students would think I was a fraud. But while I could never read every book written, I could know several pieces of literature well and help my students appreciate them. Knowing that, I was better able to do my job.

You'll never be able to know everything, but thorough knowledge of your content area is a must. And although there will be students in your class who are extremely bright, there's no reason to be intimidated. In my first year of teaching AP, one student, Hina, was nothing short of brilliant. Intellectually curious, extremely well-read, and incredibly articulate, her insightful commentary added so much to our class discourse. The questions she raised helped me become a better teacher. Hina is now a physician, and she recently spoke to my students about the advantages of taking advanced classes. I am truly thankful she was in my first AP class.

Recognize the Student Pressures

Students in these classes are often under tremendous peer and parental pressure. This year, I have a shy but capable young woman named Angela. Initially, Angela's essay grades were in the low 80s; AP Lit is an extremely demanding course and I grade accordingly. As soon as I entered her essay grade into the computer, though, I heard the ping of my e-mail. It was Angela's mother: "Why is my daughter getting an 80 on an essay?" she demanded. "Angela has never scored less than an A before." As a result, Angela was a nervous, insecure teen who didn't believe in her own abilities and was terrified of her mother. She and I had several talks after school, and I tried to calm her fears. I also recommended that she see the school social worker to help deal with the pressure.

Competition between students can be brutal, too. Students fret over GPAs and college acceptances, and it's important to remind them that they have options and that other students have been successful even though their original plans didn't work out. For instance, I had one dazzling young student who earned a perfect score on the SATs and on 10 AP tests. That young man was still denied by MIT and wait-listed at Harvard and Yale. He was accepted to the Air Force Academy, which turned out to be the absolute best fit for him. He majored in physics, minored in philosophy, and is now a scientist and major in the Air Force, a career he loves.

Know the Pressures You'll Face, Too

In my school, grades in AP classes can be part of a teacher's evaluation. Students need to score higher than the state average on the exam in order for a teacher to be considered successful. At a low-income, urban school, where many students don't speak English as their first language, this can be extremely difficult. I try to focus on student learning. Not all students will pass the AP test, but I know that the students who take my class will leave it better prepared for the rigors of college. I offset the stress by remembering the amazing conversations about literature that take place in my class and the joy I see in students' faces when they unlock a powerful piece of poetry. That makes it all worthwhile.

Consistently Provide Feedback and Ask Questions

AP teachers must be prepared to provide students with feedback, which can help them grow and improve. It takes me about a half hour to grade one essay, and I have one-on-one conferences with my students weekly. Even though it takes a great deal of time, the proof is in the pudding: students improve at a rapid rate and they are almost always thankful for the help.

If you have specific questions or need further advice on teaching AP classes, there's a strong community of teachers across the country in your shoes, and they're more than likely willing to share and help. Don't be afraid to ask questions in online forums (check out the College Board's AP Community where you can connect with colleagues, engage in discussions, and find related resources) or in professional learning groups at school. It's essential.

Teaching advanced classes is tough, but the rewards are huge. I keep in touch with many of my former AP students, and I even have a book club with the class of 1999. My students have gone on to be industry leaders, philanthropists, medical and legal professionals, and heads of finance and government. I take great pride in knowing them, and I hope they have fond memories of the time they spent in my classroom.