Sunday, June 28, 2009

Classroom Antics

I had this parent once who was quick to criticize. And I was all too quick to give reason after reason in reply to his concerns. I should have known... nothing I could say would be enough or the right answer. It made for a very stressful few months in which I worried more about what he thought than about being myself in front of the classroom... which seems to be a relatively successful approach (here is where I should link: See His State Assessment Scores).

Trying to explain what a teacher does in his classroom is close to impossible. There are too many variables at play. I only teach basic algebra, otherwise I might be able to come close to explaining the concept mathematically -- probably requires elements of calculus too... of which the mere mention brings beads of nervous sweat to my forehead.

When I tell, or is it unload, the day's classroom antics to my wife she sometimes shares that she doesn't know whether she would want to be a 5th grader in my classroom. I think it's a nice way of saying that she does know -- she wants no part of having to sit in my class as a student.

Not being the one in charge for over 180 days allows for someone else to quite easily do quite a bit of armchair judging. I readily admit to doing it when I watch other teachers' behavior... again, unfair. Why is it that parents are so quick to criticize (note that I didn't say question which I am most open to) when I'm more than certain they wouldn't do the same with their dentist, optometrist, lawyer?

So here's a couple of ideas that might prove useful in the classroom. Whether they prove to remind current teachers about what they already know or help a starting teacher find footing, or give a glimpse into what teachers do... I hope you'll think they're at the very least... thought provoking.

  • Be real. Students have been sitting in front of teachers for some time. Perhaps in kindergarten the students love you because you're their kindergarten teacher but titles don't work for very much longer. Students know when you're being legitimate. As a colleague shares with his students: "Here's how to be a great teacher... care about your students... and don't fake it because it doesn't work."

  • Understand that the ol' adage holds true -- you have to choose what "battles to fight." The German side of me wants to be in control of every aspect. I have learned that it is much more effective, and healthy for sanity, to take a more surgical approach.

  • I utilize the Dr. Pappas Affect. I share this story at the beginning of every year. Dr. Pappas was a Political Science professor of mine at my alma mater. He was an institution whose class was suggested by many. So I registered and remember sitting in his classroom wondering what would happen next. Whether by design (my choice) or because "that's just the way he was" his classroom was a space where unpredictability occurred. He whistled upon his entrance, consistently reassured us all that there was no attendance policy and wondered out loud why students kept at it, sang ridiculous songs that seemed to have some type of relevance to course content but quite honestly was over my head, and would consistently take a break from discussing the likes of Machiavelli with more odd behavior. His classroom was always full even though role was never called. Lesson learned: predictability breeds discontent. Be a little unusual and so many other classroom problems dissipate.

  • Be honest. Say you don't know when you don't. If the student's question will result in an answer they many not like... ask the student again if they are prepared for brutal honesty. This requires a relationship with the student to have been formed so the sting that might be felt will be offset by their knowing you care enough to be honest with them. If I can't be honest with students who I expect to be honest with me, then I need to be in another profession. Granted, I take into consideration that they are 5th graders. My honesty is always intended, and worded, to be helpful.

  • Celebrate success. I have a Success Board where all A papers are stapled. Initially I think my students aren't sure that they'll ever get an A. They try to get me to put up their B's which I refuse -- B's are great... but shouldn't we strive for the best possible, OR let me say it a different way -- what inside a child dictates that they aren't capable? I'm a believer in their ability to accomplish whatever they set their mind towards doing. After a few weeks, my bulletin board has papers stapled upon previous weeks' papers. If classroom conversation ventures into the "I don't think I can do it" I point to the board from across the room. A classroom full of examples in which they CAN do it.... HAVE done it.

  • Use technology. They love seeing a picture of themselves on the morning PowerPoint presentation, love the odd reference to your own childhood (I share my 5th grade class picture and ask them to guess which one is me). Kids love technology, it's their world. I think if you can make it function towards meeting your learning objectives... they'll squirm in their seats wanting to see what you'll do next.
  • I allow fresh starts. Some teachers will read students' files to get a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before the first day's school bells ever ring. Instead I publicly announce to my students on the first day that I do no such thing unless warranted. I also don't seek prior teachers' thoughts on my incoming class. Allow me to explain why -- I want students to have a fresh start within my classroom's walls. If they had fantastic years in the past... I tell them I hope that will continue, and if they've had a poor showing, it is now their opportunity to make a change. Does this work? I've had some great successes in which students have a banner year within my classroom yet can also recall students in which there was no change from previous year's antics. Regardless, I stick to the premise that everyone is due an opportunity without preconceived notions.

  • Be open to criticism. No, I'm not referring to one's supervisor but to one's students. I have the "parking lot" bulletin board in my room divided into four parts: positives / things you liked, things you would change, notes to me, and questions. So of course they like to share notes (it's amazing what they will tell you about what occurs in the bathroom or in the cafeteria) and things they would like to change. I hear all about what I did that they didn't like. It's an opportunity to teach the importance of sharing positives -- complimenting, doing something nice just because.
  • If a student thinks I am being unfair, I am open to hearing their complaint if done respectfully. Early on we discuss how to respectfully comment when we feel like we've been treated unfairly. It's yet another skill worthy of developing in young people.
  • Know what button to push -- this isn't intended negatively nor does the knowledge come the first day as I mention above. Sometimes a student needs a figurative push, sometimes they need their space. Sometimes they need to answer a difficult question, sometimes an easy one. Sometimes a quiet one-on-one conversation is best, other times a public word of encouragement or refocus is more effective. As I write this, I immediately recall my classroom management class many years ago. I don't know if my professor would like my approaches, but I will respond by sharing this. They don't teach you in "teacher school" how to motivate students -- whether toward academic success or excellent behavior. It's yet another skill that teachers have to develop. Taking into account their style and personality a teacher has to figure out what works for them. I should also mention this: the button to push changes from student to student, from day to day, from subject to subject, and sometimes... from hour to hour.
  • Use "the look" or "the tone" sparingly because these tools don't work if you've worn them out.

  • Raise the bar. Convince students that they can achieve success in the classroom. At the beginning of the year I ask students whether they want a fair & tough teacher or unfair & easy. They always choose the fair option although it comes with difficulty. After a few weeks I share with my students a "secret" -- my tests are tougher than the state assessment. This tough standard might not look as good on the report card initially but the thought processes involved equate to success in so many other ways.

  • Stress Character. If students understand that your decisions regarding what you'll accept in the classroom are based on a core set of values, they will understand (whether they want to or not) where you'll draw the line in the sand.

  • Others that come to mind: Whisper when you want to be heard -- students will wonder why you're whispering, repeat something only once -- I have difficulty with this one, allow for no hands to be raised while speaking -- it interrupts the speaker's thought process and there will be time for questions, allow a student to be the teacher -- students' word selection and the unusual nature of them being at the front of the room might just convey what you couldn't.

Lastly, the longer I teach the more I realize how much I've been affected by my first year as a teacher. Depending on whether you were supported and had excellent mentors, or not, that year sets a precedence for your success and student expectations. I was very fortunate to have a team committed to helping me survive my first year... and want to return to do it all over again.

I wish all teachers had the same experience I did but worry that many didn't... perhaps this will be good material for the next blog.

But for the moment, would someone please point out the person that thinks all we do in elementary school is crafts. Or better yet, does the general public understand that academics is far from being a teacher's sole objective?