Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Fear of Failure

     Wouldn’t it be fun if we could just teach and the kids could just learn whatever they wanted to?  The classroom would be buzzing as everyone investigated topics that fascinated them.  I’ve had a taste of this for the first two weeks of school.   We have experienced learning with no pressure.  This joyous time may come to an end next week as I begin to hold my students accountable with grades.  As soon as I mention the word test, I’m sure my students will begin to show me their fear of failure.   
     In the lower grades students often don’t even have grades, but use checks, smilies, and letters such as V, S, N.  In third grade students are introduced to the A-F grading system and learn that grades are important to adults.   In our state students have the added stress of hearing that if they don’t pass the end of the year test they will “Flunk” third grade.  The students quickly learn that grades are something to be fearful of, or at the very least, something to be very nervous about receiving. 
    Now, I know grades aren’t all bad, because they can be great motivators for smart kids.   However, they can become anchors for students who have struggled.   With all of this in mind, I have been working hard the last two weeks to establish the culture that the reason we are all at school is to learn and not to earn grades.   I hope to take some of the fear of failure out of our educational experience.
     I gave a pretest today to gauge where my students were in division.  Those who have listened to their teachers and learned multiplication over the past two years have had no problem learning what I have been teaching them.  Others that never got around to learning multiplication are having a terrible time with division.  I now have a week to teach my students what they didn’t learn over the past two years.  Regardless of the educational background of my students, I work hard to assure that my student’s first experience in my class produces some success.
     One technique that I use to avoid test anxiety is to give students the chance to retake any of their assessments that they do poorly on and then average the new score with the old. This won’t make a poor student a straight “A” student.  However, it takes some of the fear out of tests, because the test does not become an end, but a springboard to another learning experience.
      It is my hope that  the fear of failure will be removed from my students by providing them the ability to earn the grade they want through hard work in addition to their smarts.  For me, I have seen far more people in the real world be successful by working hard than by being successful, because they were a stellar student.   When we have cultivated our student’s desire to learn, we will have achieved more success than any grading system can assess.   

(In the comments below, please tell me how you help students avoid the fear of failure)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Can't I Just Close My Door and Teach?

    Today I had a very productive day where my students had fun learning without interruption.  Then came an after school faculty meeting.  At our meeting we were told to take our schedules and toss them out.  We then had to align 1,665 minutes of instruction into seven periods.  We also had to consider the mandated time allotments, forced reading block, forced intervention block and specials.  Comments were made by my administrators such as “You must teach health and social studies every day even if it is just for five minutes.”   “You’ll have to teach less math or cut your math block time to an hour at the intermediate level.”  Further threats were made about this being tied to our evaluation and if administrators walked into our room, we better be teaching at the appropriate place on the schedule.   
     I worked on the numbers for about two and a half hours and finally thought I had it.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be a minor problem.  Not with the schedule, but my new schedule may not fit into the computer just right.  The computer doesn’t care what is best for the students. The computer is simply there to make sure that all the teachers look the same on paper. 
     In the good old days you could just nod your head in a meeting and then go into your classroom, shut the door, and do whatever you wanted to.  With this new age of accountability someone in an office at the state capital thinks up a “brilliant” idea.  They then call someone at the county, who then threatens the principals, who then unload on the teachers.  The downhill minutia can get so deep that by the time it hits the teachers it is a big smelly mess.
      One of my favorite phrases is that if you don’t like something, then just wait a few weeks.  It will be changed by then.  As I fussed and fumed this evening about the hours of my life that I was wasting on a schedule that was simply going to be put into a computer and forgotten, I wanted to just cut loose and tell everyone I came in contact with what a ridiculous activity I was forced to waste time on.  I even had to go to a school meeting and would have to put on my cheerful face in front of students, parents, and administrators.   I didn’t know if I could pull it off.
      After an hour away from the schedule I was able to begin to get a grip.  The reality is that regardless of how I feel, I’ve been told to fill out this new schedule and turn it in.  No one asked me my opinion and the general public probably doesn’t care about my stupid schedule.  So I have the choice to turn this into a big deal or just do my best and turn it in.  I refuse to become one more teacher who goes out into public and just talks about all the ridiculous parts of our job.  We have enough trouble getting respect as it is. 
  So I guess my plan is to turn it in early and I’m sure it will just sit in an office for a while.  If I have done something wrong then I’m sure an administrator will let me know and will possibly provide me with a feasible way to accomplish this impossible task.  Until then, I’ll get back to my room, shut the door, and get back to having a great time helping the kids to learn. That is my idea of a “brilliant” idea.

(In the comments below, please let me know some of the ridiculous things you have had to do as a teacher this year.)     

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Teachers Seem to Live Forever

     I remember when I was in fifth grade I had an old grandma looking teacher named Mrs. Vancleve.  In her class we learning social studies and reading.  I can’t remember a single lesson, but to this day I remember her vibrant polyester dresses decked out with costume jewelry and white hair coifed in the same perfect way every day.   I would have guessed that Mrs. Vancleve was in her seventies when I was in her class and would retire at any second. 
     Ten years later I was back at my elementary school and was amazed to see some of my old teachers.  Mr. McLintock, my second grade teacher, was much shorter after ten years than when he was when I was in second grade.  Mr. Kline had less hair and was actually thinner.  Yet, Mrs. Vancleve looked untouched by time.  Her hair managed to stay exactly the same.  You could imagine that she slept sitting up so that it never moved.  Her outfit, although new, had the same style I remembered.  She also had the same dark rimmed glasses that she probably started wearing the 50’s.  I realized that my guess of 70 years old must have been off, or else Mrs. Vancleve must have turned sixty and quit aging. 
     As I begin year number 17 of my teaching career, I know that I could retire in my early fifties.  The idea sounds good, but unless I have a burning desire to forge into another career, I will most likely keep on teaching as long as I can just like Mrs. Vancleve.  I know that someday my former students will reflect on me as their teacher.  I’m sure they won’t specifically remember most of the items we learned together, but they will probably find some nuance or phrase I recite to remember me by.   I hope it makes them smile. 

(In the comments below, please tell me some of the comments your students have made about your age.  Or let me know some of the quirks of former teachers that you remember still today. )

    Kids are always fascinated by the age of their teacher.  If given the opportunity  their first personal question almost always is, “How old are you?”.  The students use this information to place you in the adult world like, “My parents are older than you.”  Their parents also look at age to define you as a teacher.  Some want new teachers for their child that have fresh ideas and are willing to give their all to their class.  Other parents want older veteran teachers that know what they’re doing in their classrooms.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Teaching as a diet?

     Working as a teacher is like going on an instant diet.  Each day I wake up early in the morning.  Stumble around in the dark and get ready to get to school just as the sun is beginning to rise.  At this early hour the last thing I want is a big breakfast.
      At lunch I usually teach up till lunch time, take five minutes to walk the students to the lunch room, Then another five minutes are spent walk across the school to get my lunch and check my box.  I sit down and inhale whatever food I can in ten minutes and then make a phone call, check email, or prepare for the next email.  Then it’s back to the classroom until school ends. 
      I also cover miles of walking going from parking lots across campus and back and forth from my classroom to other classrooms, specials, the office bathroom and all around.  I try and be efficient, but it rarely worlds out that simply.
     With all of this running around and inability to eat you would think I was as skinny as a bean pole.  I guess I would be if it weren’t for one thing, stress.  To compensate for all the stress and business of the day I eat my troubles away all night.  I enjoy my supper and savor every morsel.  I don’t feel bad if I binge on chocolate or ice cream.  I can justify just about anything, because I know that tomorrow I’ll be back at school on my instant diet.

(In the comments below, let me know how you spend your so called “lunch break”)   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Child Thinks Your Mean

       We have so many distractions to our teaching each day and email is just one of them.   Email is a great way to communicate back and forth with parents.   It provides a one sided conversation where words are usually put down with little consideration.   It is also public record in our state so it becomes an even scarier form of communication.   In the past I have gotten some amazing emails, but todays may top my  list.  So instead of responding in print I’ve arranged a face to face meeting.
       As I finished school today I finally had a moment to sit down and read my email.  The second message on the list was from a parent of a child who had missed school today.  The letter went on to explain that while getting ready to come to school today her child broke down into tears and refused to go to school.  When the parent asked her child why he didn’t want to go to school he stated that his teacher, me, had yelled at him and humiliated him in front of the class for not getting his books out of his desk fast enough.  With such grave accusations I made an attempt to contact the parent by phone.  At first she was in the car driving so I told her I would call her back.  Next , as we introduced ourselves her cellphone died and we were disconnected.  On the third attempt I was able to make contact with the parent.  The parent then reviewed the situation and I suggested we meet tomorrow morning to talk together about this conflict. The parent seemed happy to be able to discuss this situation so that her child would feel comfortable enough to return to school.
     Instead of preparing for class tomorrow I will be working through this child’s concerns and attempting to catch him up on the six hours of learning he missed.  I’m sure the parent will arrive moments before the other students come to school.  I’ll have to discuss why the student feels I yelled and I’m sure that it will come out that his definition of yelled is the same word as talked to.   If the boy does feel  humiliated then  I need to be sensitive to this, but I will also let the child and his parent know that at certain times this year I will be making requests such as move quickly.  It won’t be a reflection on their character, we just need to move along.  I’ll have to explain that the comment about getting books out quickly was a blanket statement made to the entire class and I did not mean this one child when I used the word, “class.” In the end we’ll understand each other and look back on this dramatic experience and say, “What was this really all about?”   
       When parents take their children’s word at face value they can sometimes get the right information.  When they immediately respond to their children’s words by storming the school they often find themselves in an embarrassing situation.  And when the whole event is all done, there is rarely an apology for the hours of time a teacher has wasted.  That’s not what email is for. 

P.S.  I had the conference this morning.  As predicted the mom and her child came five minutes before the start of school.  The student admitted that I had not yelled at him or humiliated him.  His new story is that when the other students had already gotten their work out, he felt that they were looking at him and this embarassed him.  After our chat the student had a wonderful day so I assume that he got what ever it was that he wanted.   From the parent, I never received any sort of apology or acknowledgement that a lie or false representation had taken place.  I guess it is easier to fire off a negative email than to admit that her son was taking advantage of her.   

(In the comments below, please share some of the amazing distractions you have had to deal with in the classroom.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaching High ,Teaching Low and Everything Inbetween

     What a balancing act we play as teachers.  We have students that need to be pushed hard in order to excel, others that think they know it all and we have to show them how little they know, and still others that are so lazy they wouldn’t accomplish anything without our constant prodding.  On the other hand we have to nurture students, we need to make them feel good about themselves, and not stress them by pushing them too hard or fast.  Every moment of the day we are dancing between these two extremes in an attempt to educate our students.
     As I looked at my class today during our math lesson I saw the eyes of my students and realized the magnitude of what I try and accomplish each day.  My smart students were struggling to stay engaged with the content being covered, because they had figured out the answers a long time ago.  My lower end students were glazing over from information overload, and I was thinking about how much more we needed to cover before the class ended. 
      I tried to get the advanced students involved by tutoring the lower end students.  My advanced students set to work reviewing content with their peers.  At the conclusion of their tutoring session I had them return to me to check on their progress before allowing them to play an educational math game.  I found that although the students had a good review.  The low end students were only able to repeat what they had been told and could not make any adjustments if I changed the way the information was presented.  They had not gained full understanding and my brighter kids had wasted some of their time. 
    As I sit here tonight my mind relives the moment and I mull over how I will teach differently tomorrow.  I’ll have to revisit the concept and look at it from different angles.  I’m going to try to work the concept with manipulatives, in different arrangements, use student examples, and look for the way that works.  I’ll try and give my lower kids more practice and exposure and expand my advanced kids thinking by letting them look at the concept from all angles. 
      As I return to school tomorrow, I’l l continue to push as hard as I can to get as much as I can from each individual student.  I’ll continue to monitor my student’s progress and seek ideas to help them to learn.  Until my students have reached mastery,  I’m stuck trying to find the right balance that works.
(In the comments below, please tell me what you do to help you keep sane with teaching the broad spectrum of kids in your classroom.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Holding Your Tounge vs Speaking Your Mind

     When I was a young boy my mother taught me that, “If you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything at all.”  The older I get the more I find that I have nothing to say.  Not that everything that I think is bad, but I try and be careful with my words because my opinions are not always beneficial. 
    Last year I had a student whose parents withheld behavioral related medicine, because they deemed “That their child didn’t need it and only used it as a crutch.”  In my classroom the boy had violent episodes, frequently yelled at other students, and made few friends.  When tests came along the child would end up crying because he was unable to focus long enough to complete the assessment.   His behavior outbursts outside of my class caught the administrator’s attention and as his parents realized that their son might be expelled from our school they resorted to putting him back on medicine.  The next morning the child came in to my classroom, sat down and quietly began working.  The medicine enabled him to finish tests and focus in class so that his grades improved to honor roll status.  The students saw the change and began to invite him back into their lives.  This student ended the year strong, but could have had a much better year with a little help from his parents.  I would love to be able to sit the parents down and show them video of before and after and ask them, “Not everyone benefits from medicine, but your kid needs it!”
    After school today the same student showed up in my classroom.  When I said, “Hello, it’s good to see you.”  The boy began to tell me how he hates middle school, his teachers are so stupid, and he has so much work to do etc.  I sat and looked at the child and concluded that he was obviously off his medicine again this year or just perpetually under a personal rain cloud.  With my mind filling with thoughts as to how I should respond, I thought of telling him,” To quit being a baby and suck it up, he is now in middle schooler.”  I could have put him down and said, “You were such a big pain last year I didn’t have any doubt that the teachers would chew you up.”   Both of these comments might of felt good for a moment, but would surely have caused future guilt. 
     I could have wasted valuable minutes after school trying to solve the many layers of problems this child has.  If I thought I could have made a difference, I would have.   At last I opened my mouth and gave him a little encouragement, “I’m glad you stopped by and I hope that your week goes better. “ 
   There is a time to be straight forward and time to be quiet.  There is a time to encourage and a time to speak our mind.  As professionals we are given strict orders to speak in certain ways.  I guess being a professional requires a person to be able to respond according to protocol even under duress.  However being wise requires us to know what to say at the right time.
     As I get older I hope to become better at saying the right thing at the right moment.  Until then, I guess I’ll continue to be the quiet teacher down the hall.   

(In the comments below, please tell me how you avoid speaking your mind when parents and students are in your face. Or share a time when speaking your mind led to something good)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

There is More to School than Teaching

      As I began a Sunday school class today, we begun by chatting about interesting events that took place in the lives of the students over the past week.  A girl that has recently begun to come got up and sat in the chair beside me.  A few moments later she tilted her head and rested it on my shoulder.  At that point I stood up and crossed the room to sit in an empty seat while keeping the conversation going.  In some ways my moving could be construed as rude, but the students understood this move because teachers are not allowed to come in contact with students, and most students wouldn’t come in contact with a teacher. 
   Later in a small group activity my female co-teacher was talking with a small group of students about how their parents had helped them in their lives.  When the little girl had the opportunity to talk she described how her father was in jail, her mother had left, and she now lived with her grandma.  This information made her previous actions a little more understandable.  
     In our current world where families are becoming more splintered and society is becoming more distant in their relationships we find many children who are longing for comfort.   When they enter our classrooms they are fed, they are protected, and are cared for in ways that many children never experience outside of school.  For many students the classroom is the most functional family they will ever experience. 
     As teachers we can never replace the role of parents in the lives of troubled students.  At best, we can be a friend or mentor.  Yet, it is completely within our power to fill some of the emotional needs of these students.  To show troubled youths that conflict can be resolved, that their existence is important, and that they can have a positive future.  These lessons will never show up on our state tests and won’t earn us a bigger paycheck.   However, I feel that our investment in the emotional lives of the students we teach will be more important than any other lesson we’ll cover this year.

(In the comments below please tell me how you have touched the lives of students in your classroom.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is it a celebrity? Are they Giving away cash? What is all the fuss about?

     Imagine a line of people twenty feet deep, people craning their necks and elbowing to try and get a better look.  There is a buzz in the crowd, smiles, and screeches of joy.  What could cause all this drama?  Well, class lists of course.
      As kids look at these lists each fall, the first thing they look for is for the name of their friends.  Parents then begin asking around to gather information on their child’s teacher.  They will ask, “How old is this teacher? How much homework does this teacher give?  Did you like them as a teacher?  Will we have a good year?”  Like a political poll they’ll gather their “facts” and determine their opinion of the teacher. 
     Inside the school the class lists take on a different drama.  Teachers want to look at your class list and tell you who their favorite and least favorite students are. On two different occasions today I had teachers come up to me and attempt to prepare me for a student on my list.  They felt they needed to tell me about the student’s problems, quirks, overbearing parents and give me their sympathy.  I’m sure they meant well, but I really would rather form my own opinions.
     I’m sure that a great deal of thought has gone into the formation of my class list.  The fourth grade teachers have divided up the class according to behavior, gender, and academic abilities.  Our specialists have separated students who don’t get along, and administrators have made further adjustments to make their lives easier. For the most part, I have had little say in who will be entering my class on Monday.  The position I have taken over the years is that each student is placed in my class for a reason.  Sometimes it is because I am the best teacher to meet the needs of a student.  Other times it is for a student to help me to grow in various areas of my life.  By looking at my good and bad students and realizing that they have a purpose for being in my room, I can avoid the drama that comes from the biases of others.  It also opens my eyes to the potential in every student.  For me every student is a unique challenge that I have volunteered to take on each year. 
     The success of this year doesn’t depend on the names on my class list, but on the brief time we share over the next 180 days.  So as I look at my class list this weekend, I’ll pray for each student and dream of all that we will achieve by the end of this year.         

(In the comments below, please tell me some of the drama that you have seen take place from class lists?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Get Your Room Cleaned Right

      Do you know of a custodian that can actually clean? I’m sure they’re out there, but I have met very few of them.  Over time I have found that this demanding  job can be better accomplished with a few helpful hints.
    At my last school I once found a dust bunny so big I thought it would crawl off the shelf.  I was determined to stay after school and see my room get cleaned.  The custodian entered five minutes after teachers were scheduled to leave and emptied the trash and pencil sharpener.  He walked around and picked up a few pieces of paper.  Turned on the vacuum and pushed it once up each isle and then moved on to the next class.  When I talked to his supervisor I heard that the custodians had been told that if they finished the rooms before their shift was over they could watch tv.  While the dust fell like snow my custodian was relaxing and watching tv from 4:30 until 9:00.
     It was at this time that I had to resort to helping my custodial staff in the following ways:
     Custodial Trick Number 1:  I have seen custodians skip vacuuming and just sweep items that are not carpet colored into a dust pan with a broom.  Solution:  I got around this by sprinkling three-hole punch circles around various areas of my room.  The tiny little circles were easier to pick up with a vacuum than a brush so I was always assured to get an area vacuumed. 
   Custodial Trick Number 2:  It seems that it is a lot to ask to have the trash liner replaced, because it takes the custodian less time to just dump it out and put the can back.  The trouble with this is that any messy snack inside attracts bugs and is just plain gross.    Solution:  Tying the top requires the custodian to throw it away and replace it instead of just emptying it.
   Custodial Trick Number 3:  Since dusting takes time, I’ve seen most custodians use the wand slide technique.  They hold the dusting wand at waste height and make a circle of the room possibly hitting the horizontal surfaces as they make the circuit.  Solution:  For this you have to call up some backups.  Ask your kids for volunteers to use the magic duster to clean a specific area.  An eight year old will do a better job almost every time. 
     So if you find yourself with custodians that are too busy to clean, help them out with some of these tips.    If you have a custodian that does a great job, make sure you tell them how awesome they are!
(In the comments below, please tell me of your experiences with your custodial staff)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Calm Before The Storm

      Today I spent most of my day pouring over my state standards and county pacing guides to plan my teaching for the year.  Outside my classroom a violent lighting storm raged, but in my classroom it was quiet and peaceful.  I couldn’t help but imagine that on Monday twenty-two excited students would storm my classroom filling it with activity, noise, and excited children ready to learn.   The peaceful days of preschool are almost over.
     On the first day of school, hundreds of sugared-up children will be dropped off by their thankful parents and will manage to find their way to our classrooms.  In the ensuing chaos we’ll begin our first day of school by meeting our new students and beginning to establish our routines.  The morning will fly by with lots of instructions on everything from how to walk, how to speak, and hopefully something close to educational.  The students will eat lunch, we’ll head back for a few more activities and the day will come to an end.  The school will quickly drain of kids and the teachers will be left to put the room back in order and plan for the next day. 
     As I sat alone in my quiet classroom today, I was tempted to wish that it would stay empty and quiet forever.   Yet, one of the great parts of elementary teaching is that as you stand in front of a class of children, you’re always a breath away from unpredictable chaos.  A teacher is like a lion tamer who accomplishes amazing feats when others would be torn apart in minutes. 
      Although I love my quiet time, I look forward to the excitement and energy that the kids will bring.   My worst day of teaching has to be better than my boring lesson planning.  Bring on the kids.     

(In the comments below, pleasetell me what you love about the first day of school.)