How I Teach: Sam Shah

In the How I Teach series, teachers answer some questions on the tools and strategies they use to get stuff done in and out of the classroom. Each teacher will work off a set of questions (some of which are borrowed from the lifehacker series) and answer what they like.

Of all the How I Teach contributors so far, it’s possible that Sam Shah’s organizational style is most closely related to mine. Sam’s blog is one of my favorites. Subscribe if you haven’t already.

Brooklyn, NY

Current Job
Upper School Math Teacher

One word that best describes how I teach

Current mobile device
Samsung Galaxy S7. Let’s hope it doesn’t explode on me! *BOOM* *falls down in searing pain* *incapable of doing anything* *so now I don’t have to grade these tests that I’ve been putting off grading, right? worth. it.*

Current Computer
MacBook Air


What software or tools can’t you live without?
Paper and pencil. Geogebra. Smartboard software. Gmail. Desmos. Regular internet. Twitter. WordPress. Buckets with Tools. TV/Smartboard. Google forms.

What was the last tool that you adopted that was a game changer?
This year, our school turned to google classroom. A colleague of mine showed me how his kids were easily submitting their nightly work to him via a scanning app. I started doing it in my classes. I save time because I don’t have to walk around to check for completion and mark up my gradebook. But more importantly, I’ve been having much richer discussions with kids because I have the ability to bring up their work and project it to the class when a kid is describing their approach. I don’t love google classroom, but this… this made it all worthwhile. I have asked my colleague to write a guest post on my blog about his system (after all, he was the one who figured it out). So depending on when he gets to it: stay tuned… and get excited.

What’s your workspace setup like?


How is your classroom set up?
We have tables for two. Kids push them together to make larger tables which can sit four. I try to get groups of threes, but sometimes I get groups of four. I teach in three different classrooms, so any more detail probably won’t work.

Where at your school can you hunker down to get shit done?
During the day, I usually work in the math office. When it gets later at night, I’m usually still working there, but occasionally my friend the college counselor is also working, so I’ll go to the office near her and we’ll have a “work party.”

What non-math stuff do you do at your school?
Almost everything I do is math related, and providing opportunities for kids to get involved in math outside of the formal curriculum. Math team. Math club. Advisor for our math-science journal. Organized a math-art show. Organize math competitions (New York Math League and American Math Competition). I also advise 8 seniors, and am a college essay mentor for 3 seniors.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Those exist? Just kidding. I starting using “canned responses” in gmail to reply to kids who are setting up their extended time for exams, or who are leaving our class early for sports. I don’t hand out papers — I hand out group folders which have papers in them. I also collect hard copies of papers this way. I have an electronic pre-created exit ticket, which the kids learn how to use. Sometimes when my colleagues and I have some tedious task we need to do but don’t want to (write college recommendations, grade a stack of tests, write a certain number of narrative comments, etc.), we’ll give someone else in the office a certain non-trivial sum of money (depending on the task, $5 to $60) and say they get to keep it if we don’t get the task we need to get done by the next day. Trust me, this works if you actually pony up enough money, and the person you give it to will actually keep it.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?
I use Wunderlist religiously.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Organizing my life by creating manageable tasks that I can get done. Drinking more Diet Cokes than everyone else in our office. Creating systems.

When it comes to work, organization, teaching, what do you need to work on the most?
I don’t know what “work” is. I’m good at organization. Definitely teaching.

What is the key to good classroom management?
When I first started teaching, in two or three years, I really learned how important being clear, consistent, and fair was. Religiously and publicly. Nowadays, I would add that you need to know your core values as a teacher. What do you care about? And then how can you make that happen through everything you do. You enact your values implicitly with every choice you make. If your values are good (like, say, making sure every kid feels noticed and cared for), and you are vigilant and conscientious about making them come alive in your classroom, I think kids respond. Finally, I would say that something I don’t feel I’m particularly good at is being “relational” to kids. That doesn’t mean being friends with them (ugh. barf. i have strong negative feelings about those teachers). But it does mean having an ease in relating to kids. That’s something I know I’m not great at, but have been working on, and I think also plays a role in this.

While you’re teaching, what do you have in your hand (if anything)?
A whiteboard marker. A phone. A smartboard pen. A pencil. Nothing. Mostly nothing, actually.

How do you manage the flow of paper in your teaching? How do students hand in paper? How do they get it back?
Oooh, I already answered that in two questions above. I have a way electronically, using google classroom. I have a way with physical copies, using folders.

What do you use to plan? Do you use a different tool for the bigger picture (unit/course)?
I plan day-to-day. Usually I use paper and pencil to brainstorm the general ideas/concepts I want to get across, and then I make them a reality by creating sheets that get at those. I don’t think “big picture” all the time. I find when I think about a small topic and really think about it and why it matters and how to wrap my own head around it, a bigger picture sort of emerges naturally.

How do you manage your time in the classroom?
I think about how long each part of my class is designed to take. I use timers that I set up on the board for questions that kids are working on — but the kids know I’m not dedicated to them (and if I see them still working, I just add more time). They are more for me than for them. If I need to switch gears 20 minutes before class ends, I often tell a student at the start of class that they are responsible for letting me know that it’s 20 minutes before class ends.

How does your grading system look different from anyone else?
It doesn’t really.

What do you listen to while you work? Do you play music in class?
I personally listen to showtunes, classical music, and 90s playlists. In class, when kids are working, I’ll sometimes play music (unless someone in the class finds it distracting). I have a few different playlists, and often a kid or two will send me their playlist!

What are you currently reading?
Elana Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

How do you recharge?
Sleep. And binge watching TV.

What’s your sleep routine like?
I try to fall asleep around 10:30 or 11. I will often play c-span or something mindless to fall asleep to. Depending on how tired I am, I will either wake up at 5:30 or 6am (before my alarm) or at 6:20am to my alarm.

I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Every day might not be good, but there is one good thing in every day.


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