I don’t need to learn a new technique for writing outcomes on the board. I don’t need to learn a new app. I don’t even need to learn about how I can invite experts from your company to guest teach in (what I’m sure is) a highly engaging fashion.
To become a better teacher, I need to become a better human.
Better able to read emotions and respond in a generous way.
More clear in my communication.
Better able to lead people through crises, big and small.
Let me do things to work on my human skills:
Volunteer with people different from myself.
Raise donations for a non-profit.
Practice having tough conversations.
Lean in and engage, instead of tuning out and disengaging.
If students feel cared for, they’ll learn. Period. Regardless of the other trendy techniques you’ve got.
How things start is how they continue, so if you can have a good first 5 minutes, you can have a good hour.
Where things go wrong
If they need to raise their hands and wait to be called on, then this is how it has to be. Every. Single. Time. Especially right after you’ve explained it. It’s too confusing for them to differentiate between when it’s okay to shout out, and when they need to refocus, so just do the hand raising, and stick to it.
But here’s what people do: they give the explanation about needing to raise hands, and then they ask a question, and someone shouts something out, and they go with it, and other people shout out, and class continues.
And 5 minutes later, they’re giving the same lecture about raising hands.
You can see what happened. And they know what they were supposed to do. So why is it so hard to make ourselves do it?
Instead, do this
Give a consequence — right then — to whoever said the comment. And then ask the question, and pause, and watch for hands. Each time you ask a question, pause again.
A lot of classroom management looks like slowing down, holding attention, and making sure they realize who is in charge in the room.
I still feel weird about saying “Who’s in charge”…like, no, it’s a shared learning space! But that doesn’t work. Trust me, it will 100% fall apart. In contrast, the strategy above will protect voices, and help ensure the air is shared.
You have to be in charge, you have to know it, and they have to know it.
Aside: Yes, there are other (maybe pedagogically “better”) ways to allow sharing in the classroom, but they require a refined skillset to facilitate. This is the first step. You have to be able to walk before you can run.
A classroom management idea to help with your follow through
When you’re giving out a consequence to a misbehaving kid, think of the scene in a crime show where someone has the criminal at gun point.
The good guy says, “I’ll shoot!”, and the bad guy says, “No, you won’t.” Then the bad guy steps forward, and in the next frame, you can determine how the rest of the scene will unfold.
If the good guy says, “Yes, I will! I’ll do it!”, then you can be confident they’re not going to pull the trigger. The bad guy will probably walk up and take the gun out of their hand.
But, if the bad guy takes that step, and the good guy immediately shoots (even if they miss), the bad guy is probably going to run away, or some other fight will ensue.
The good guy laid out the terms. The bad guy tested the terms. It’s up to the good guy to follow through on the consequence.
Just like the good guy with the gun, you can’t be afraid to follow through
When you’re in front of that misbehaving student, focus on only giving one warning.
Why? Because you’re either going to give one, or an infinite number. Once you get beyond one, it gets hard to keep count. With each additional warning you give, it becomes less and less likely that you will ever follow through. You become the good guy saying, “I’m gonna do it!”, who never actually does anything at all.
So lay out your terms (the warning), and then if they test them, you have to follow through. You have to shoot the bad guy. It’s the right thing to do.
Either you manage the situation, or they’ll manage it (and in crime shows, that usually ends up with you dead).
I had always accepted the union as gospel… until I thought about it.
Unions are traditionally for factory workers. Yes, teaching is based on the factory system: come in with the bell, teach the next chapter in the textbook (the task for the day), leave at the bell. But that was 100 years ago: teaching is not a factory-style job anymore.
There are way too many demands, and way too many aspects that require finesse, emotional intelligence, and caring.
If you’re just gonna punch the clock, you might as well stay home.
The union says they “protect” us, but the protections hinder as much as they help.
As per my local contract, I need to work from 20 minutes before school starts until 20 minutes after school ends.
It is difficult to be a good teacher working within those confines, because it’s impossible to do all your prep, marking and parental follow up in about 40 minutes. Last week, it took me 4 hours to evaluate a class set of assignments, and I was working fast.
But the union says, Hey, you aren’t obligated to work outside those hours! They can’t take advantage of you this way!
What they’re also saying is, Hey, they’re not going to pay you for the work you do outside those hours.
So you can’t get overtime; you can’t make more money for more effort.
The union is supposed to make everything fair, but it polarizes us. Union protection gives bad teachers a place to hide, and it robs good teachers of the rewards they deserve for going the extra mile. So in the end, everyone conforms to the average.
Want a glimpse into the undercurrent controlling everyone you know? Picture a group of students you work with, and ask yourself, Who tries to get who in trouble?
Say a certain student swears. Does half the class shout that SO-AND-SO SWORE, or does everyone let it go?
Say two students are in a disagreement. Which side does the class support?
What do these situations reveal? The status of each student.
Wait, what kind of status? Had you considered the power of status in governing your group? I think in the midst of our obsession with collaboration, we, as educators, have overlooked status for far too long.
What is status?
Status roles are a part of every human interaction. They are how we determine who’s up and who’s down. Who we listen to, and who we ignore. Who it’s okay to make fun of, and who we don’t talk about like that. Who eats first, and who gets the scraps.
Negotiating status happens in our classrooms, in our group work, and in our staff rooms. But do we notice it?
Why won’t Julie work with Gregg? Because it will lower her status.
Why won’t Jay stop blurting out? Because it’s the only way he knows how to get status.
You automatically laugh at a joke your boss makes…because you want status too.
Having status in a group is a deep, ancient need, but constant posturing for status disrupts learning. We need to deal with status issues before we can expect students to do their best work.
Where does status come from in school?
There are two measures of status in a classroom: social standing, and academic competence. The student with the highest status does well academically without trying (because not trying = cool). The lowest status student struggles socially, and does poorly on academic tasks. Like Jay in our example above, if you have low status on one spectrum (like academics), you can gain status on the other spectrum, like by being the class clown.
Status roles are inescapable, and hard to change. Researchers have found that you can predict a student’s academic achievement in high school based on their social acceptance and reading ability in first grade. That means a child’s status when they are 6 determines their future for the next 10+ years.
So what do we do for the kids who started off on the wrong foot?
How does a child change their status?
Well, it’s hard. Most movies feature someone changing status (e.g. Wonder, Mean Girls, The Lion King), but these tend to be through exceptional means that make good stories.
Changing Social Status
On the social spectrum, teaching social-emotional skills can help a child learn basic rules for interacting with others, which should improve their social standing. Other aspects of social status, however, are out of our reach as teachers (e.g. all the things teens care about like clothes, money, drinking, etc.)
Changing Academic Status
Unfortunately, academic competence is complicated too. Academic status tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as students age. A student knows peers think she’s dumb, so she talks less in class to avoid making herself look dumb, but this leads peers to confirm their beliefs that she is dumb. Peers continue treating her as low status, which reinforces her self-narrative that she is dumb, and the cycle repeats.
As the teacher, you need a genuine way to show the student’s competence. Below are two options, from Elizabeth G. Cohen’s book, Designing Groupwork.
1) Make the student an expert
Assign a group task where you know the student will do better than peers. But be careful: it can’t be something stereotypical, and you need to be certain the student actually has competence in the area, or you’ll make things worse.
For example, allowing students of African descent to show off basketball skills can backfire in multiple ways. First, not all black kids like basketball, so you need to check that assumption. Second, since most students already assume the students of African descent are good at basketball, excelling in this area won’t change the black students’ status. Similarly, showing off the ability to speak their native language doesn’t change the status of an ESL student. You need to show off the student as an expert in an unexpected area.
A personal example
I succeeded at this once, by accident. In grade 7 math, we were looking at Kente cloth, and I had asked if anyone knew which colour represented royalty. In that moment, the way to hold academic status was by having expertise about colours (This is important! Colour is general, African culture would be a stereotype). A white girl answered purple. I said yes, that’s true for European cultures, but not African cultures. A student of African descent (who looks a lot like this model) raised his hand and explained yellow represents royalty, because it’s closest to gold. You could feel the energy of the class shift. This boy, who was near the bottom of the barrel in math, suddenly became the most knowledgeable person in the room.
2) Value multiple abilities
This method is much more straightforward than the previous one. You teach students through discussion that there are lots of ways to be good at any given task, and they begin to think this way themselves.
This is best done when first introducing group work, but before and after any assignment will do. Before students begin, you discuss as a group specificintellectual abilities and skills that they think they’ll need, and then during the wrap-up, you go over which skills were used.
You must be specific about the intellectual skills. We tend to say we need “creativity,” or “logic,” but we have to explicate these vague ideas for kids. For example, “spatial reasoning” includes the abilities of drawing a mathematical concept, optimizing the layout of a space, designing a model, recreating a concept with technology, and imagining how things would look from another perspective. Five different skills to master makes it difficult to be either good or bad at spatial reasoning.
A phrase that emphasizes this is:
“No one person will be good at all these abilities, but each person will be good on at least one.”
During the task, students are much more likely to value other’s contributions, and show equal status behaviours. Afterward, as a low status student feels more academically competent, their self-image and behaviours change, reversing the cycle.
Conclusion: What’s the point here?
Even if you don’t implement any of these ideas, commit to being more aware of status roles. Remember that every time you ask students to interact, some will be made to feel superior about their status, and some will feel shame at their lowly status. The more you can minimize these emotional detours during the day, the more success everyone will have.
This is something I always believed, whether I realized it or not. Good teachers were good immediately, that first year. Superstars. They were naturals, they were talented, they got it.
If you weren’t a superstar, you were a mess. I’m not sure what happened if you didn’t do great immediately, but you probably quit.
I’m in my third year teaching, I’m not where I want to be, and I beat myself up all the time because of it. I feel like a failure every day that things don’t go how I imagine.
Ironically, this is the complete opposite of my foundational belief as a teacher
My foundational belief about learning is this:
The only way to get good at anything is through practice.
No one is born a genius, and there’s no such thing as natural talent. People who are better than you have tried (and failed) more times than you have. All skills are learned.
And did you realize teaching is a skill? In fact, teaching is a skill made up of many other skills. It’s possible to refine some of these before stepping into a classroom, such as by working with children at a summer camp, managing people, or performing on stage. It’s unlikely, however, to be good at all of the skills without any practice.
So where could my beliefs about being a ~Superstar~ have come from?
Well, the world of education glorifies being good your first year. We tell stories canonizing good first year teachers, and books are written about how anyone can be a superstar if they merely follow these 36 chapters worth of advice.
I believed all of this.
Here’s what I’ve learned, and what I’m trying to accept
If you step back and think about it…how can someone implement 36 chapters worth of advice successfully in less than 1 year? That’s a lot of information to learn, and a lot of practices to put in place….It seems reasonable that it might take 3, 4, 5 years to do…But nah, it says right here that this woman did it her first year. It’s totally possible, and likely for me too!
No. It is unlikely you’ll be good your first year, especially if you work with students who aren’t coming to school ready and eager to learn exactly how you teach.
There is a lot to learn, and that means there are a lot of mistakes to make.
Do you berate your struggling students who are trying their best when they don’t “get it” fast enough? No, of course not. So be as kind to yourself as you are to them, because you’re just learning too. If it takes 5 years, it takes 5 years. If it takes more, it takes more. All that matters is you keep trying.