Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Teachers, let’s face it. Most of the issues and predicaments that suck the joy out of the teaching profession are beyond our control.
Maybe you make barely enough money to live on, and there’s no pay raise in sight. Or the district changed insurance plans, and none of your doctors are “preferred providers.”
Or maybe your principal announced at the first faculty meeting to forget about purchase orders for classroom supplies. Your parent booster group can’t generate enough membership to have a full complement of officers. No one at your school is willing to collaborate with you on instructional units.
Your administration won’t back you up on the discipline plan. Your teaching assignment has you teaching back-to-back classes on opposite ends of campus. The new teacher evaluation system is a mystery to everyone. Your classroom’s roof is leaking…again.
Sure, all of these situations are real. In fact, during my 35 year teaching career I have experienced every one of them. Some predicaments resolved themselves over time. Other times I just had to move on to a different school. But in none of those circumstances was I in the least bit of control.
Yes, we can pinch pennies, cut-out box-tops, and establish classroom discipline in spite of a permissive principal. We can march for higher wages, attend workshops about the new evaluation system, and buy a bucket to catch rainwater. But our actions rarely solve the problems; we only make them bearable.
I call these problems Glass-Drainers.
Most teachers are optimists; we see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. But sometimes our emotional and professional glass shatters, the glass has too many leaks, and we simply run out of metaphorical fingers with which to plug the fissures.
Some teachers fight to solve problems at their school, and I guess there’s a place for that. They wave placards at the roadside in an attempt to gain public sympathy and support. They speak at school board meetings about insurance problems. The take photographs of decrepit school buildings and e-mail them to the local media. I’ve even seen teachers go to war with their principal over school policy. That didn’t end well, by the way.
What I will tell you is this: effort made to add more positive experiences to your teaching career will pay huge dividends, and provide you with a happier teaching experience. Adding to your glass will compensate for those glass-drainers.
Sure, the glass-drainers will be there. I’ve worked at some outstanding schools, and each one had its share of challenges and disappointments. But teachers and faculties that thrive in adversity have learned to focus on the good parts of their school, and supplement those parts with positive professional experiences. The bad parts don’t go away – but they do fade into the background.
Time to fill your glass! (Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. Giggle twice. Let’s move on.)
In this TeacherScope column, I’ll outline some glass-filling professional experiences that will keep your morale glass half-full, even if it’s springing several leaks.
Develop Your Curriculum
When do teachers feel their best? No, not Friday afternoon! (Some of you are still giggling about that “fill your glass” metaphor.) Teachers feel great when they teach an outstanding lesson! You can experience that success more frequently by developing excellent instructional units for your class or subject.
Here’s an example: let’s say that you’re covering tornadoes in your upper-elementary or middle school science class. Your current lesson plans involve reading the chapter, taking a test, watching an instructional video, and filling out a couple of puzzle pages that you downloaded from Teachers Pay Teachers (ouch, hit a nerve there.) Okay, you’re probably covering all of the standards, but is that instructional unit really a source of pride? How about inviting the local Red Cross supervisor to speak about disaster preparedness and relief efforts? Maybe the meteorologist from the local TV station will visit or Skype to explain how tornadoes impact the local area. Your assistant principal could pop-in to talk about how the school’s weather safety plan protects everyone. Integrate language arts skills with a novel unit - Night of the Twisters (Ruckman), I Survived the Joplin Tornado (Tarshis), Tornado (Byars), Runaway Twin (Kehret.) Are you thinking of your own resources? Great! Keep going!
I’ve been fortunate in my teaching career; I’ve taught classes that depended on my unit development. I didn’t have a textbook for television production, multimedia production, and digital photography classes that I taught. I needed to create units of study and projects for the students. Some of those units and projects worked really well, others needed a little tweaking, and a few were total failures. But after a couple of years – and very patient students – I began to have fun teaching those courses. If I can do it, you can too!
Become an Expert
As you develop your instructional units, you will probably become quite interested in one or two of the topics. Continue to fill your glass by becoming an expert in that scientific concept, historic event, math strategy, or literary genre.
Let’s say you teach US History at the middle or high school level. You’ve always been interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but your knowledge involves only what your textbook teaches. You can continue to learn by reading books and diaries (yes, they exist), studying maps, and watching videos about the voyage. Even if those materials aren’t appropriate for your students, you can still use them to increase your knowledge base. Maybe your summer vacation plans will include a trip to the Museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Lewis and Clark National Park in Oregon. You can even hike part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Soon, you’ll be an expert about the Voyage of Discovery.
How long does it take to become an expert? Experts disagree (that’s a joke.) But really, your students will appreciate and benefit from all of your knowledge. Besides, you really hadn’t planned to write your own book or lecture at the university (but those things can happen, too!) You simply wanted to fill your glass. Mission accomplished!
Attend Conferences (and present)
There’s probably an educational conference in your state or region that you can attend. (And I’m not talking about a required summer workshop.) Ask your district curriculum coordinators, or search the Internet. At a conference you can learn about the latest teaching materials and strategies, and network with other teachers in your state. There’s usually time to relax and socialize, too! Start the conversation at your school, and gather a group of friends to attend with you. Even if you have to pay for your hotel and meals yourself, it’s worth the expense.
And if you’ve become an expert (as mentioned above) consider presenting a conference session. One-hour sessions are the main attraction at educational conferences, and you can add your knowledge to the mix. Whether you decide to present, or just soak-up the information, you will return to school with a full glass.
Maybe you’re more comfortable behind the keyboard than in front of an audience. Consider writing articles for you state professional journal. Although it may seem a daunting assignment at first, educational magazines are often interested in your articles and essays. Check a journal issue or their web-site for the process of submitting an article. E-mail the editor to determine the topics they plan to cover in future issues. You may just be the writer they’re looking for!
If you’re looking for a more informal writing experience, consider starting your own blog. Several online companies – Weebly is my favorite – offer inexpensive web space and a simple drag-and-drop editor. For a few dollars a month, you’ll be able to express your ideas about teaching, learning, and the educational system (wait, that’s my tag-line!) As your fellow-blogger, I encourage you to keep it positive and avoid ranting. Once you put it online, it’s out there for everyone to read.
Serve on Professional Committees
You’ve probably seen notices on the faculty bulletin board or received e-mails about opportunities to serve on educational committees at the district, state, or national level. Instead of walking-by or clicking that e-mail to the trash, carefully read the proposal and ask yourself if you’d be a good candidate. Professional committees establish educational standards, align curriculum to those standards, and write and evaluate test questions for student and teacher examinations. I’ve had the opportunity to serve on several committees, and I have enjoyed them all. This is a great professional opportunity to fill your glass.
Be Yourself in the Classroom
I’ve written about this topic before, but one of the biggest keys to teacher happiness – keeping the glass full – is sharing your positive personality and interests with your students. Gather and display items that reflect those interests on a bookshelf or in a corner of the classroom. I used to have the Mr. Kyker Shelf (actually two wall-mounted shelves) in the back of my classroom. I filled those shelves with my favorite books, vacation photos, and knick-knacks that illustrated my hobbies. I would exchange the items on the shelves every month or so, to keep it interesting.
Historic family photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents generated the most interest (I made photographic copies so as not to risk damage to the originals.) One middle school boy who always seemed to be on the cusp of a discipline referral asked me one day, “Mr. Kyker, are those your ancestors?” After I got over the initial shock of his mature question, I picked-up the photographs and named each person. He asked questions – Where did they live? Are they still alive? When was the picture taken? We talked for about five minutes before the bell rang. The next day he found me in the hallway before school. He had taken pictures with his phone-camera of the antique family photos hanging in his home, and he couldn’t wait to share them with me. Turns-out, his family was really into genealogy. And pardon the cliché, but he never gave me a problem in class again.
I’ve always preferred a subtle approach to such displays, as opposed to an all-out, in-your-face indoctrination. I’ve been in classrooms where seemingly every inch was decorated with memorabilia from the teacher’s favorite sports team, movie, or tourist attraction. I’d rather save most of my classroom space for interesting displays featuring student work and curriculum resources.
How does sharing your personality in the classroom help fill your glass? Because we’re most comfortable when we have the liberty to be ourselves. I spent the first several years of my teaching career trying to be someone else – wearing clothes I didn’t like, talking about things I didn’t know anything about, and trying to act a lot more sophisticated and worldly than I really was. In reality, I was a small-town guy from a lower-middle class neighborhood. Like most teachers in their mid-twenties, I was living paycheck-to-paycheck in a small apartment and driving an old car held together with prayer and baling wire. I compounded my dismal economic status with a self-imposed disguise, and I was miserable. Over the years, I slowly learned to be comfortable with who I was and to focus on the teaching. That’s when my glass became half-full, not half-empty.
Teaching is a human profession. It will be imperfect. There will be challenges – some ingrained and institutional, and others transient and unpredictable. And those challenges will drain your glass. Your best insurance: plan, develop, and create positive professional experiences so that your cup will continue to run over at the brim.
Are you a good co-worker? Sure you are.
Just last week you let another teacher make “a few quick copies” on the copy machine, even though you were next in line. You pay your hospitality dues on time, and you always bring your famous green bean casserole to the faculty luncheons.
You help rearrange the cafeteria tables after the school dance. You share your lesson plans and exams with the new teacher down the hall. You covered a class during your planning period when another teacher had an emergency. You smile and greet your co-workers with a hearty “good morning” every day. And you never, ever ask a question in a faculty meeting after 4 PM.
Am I minimizing or making fun of those qualities and good deeds? Of course not! Most teachers would enjoy working at a school with kind, considerate co-workers. And personally, I’m quite fond of sumptuous luncheons and short faculty meetings.
But in this TeacherScope column, I’m going to mention some teacher behaviors that are probably irritating and irksome to your fellow teachers – things that you probably don’t even realize you’re doing! Because you’re nice and they’re nice – and we’re trying to keep it professional – your fellow teachers don’t mention their irritation.
These are five things teachers need to stop doing, now!
And before I begin this list, I must confess that I have been guilty of all of these annoying behaviors at least a few times in my teaching career. I’m not standing before you as an innocent role-model. Rather, I’m sharing my experience as a repentant violator. Sometimes I was corrected by a more experienced colleague. Other times I realized my past transgressions when I was on the receiving end of the inconvenience. Either way, I learned my lessons. And - like a good kid in the assistant principal's office - I vowed to never, ever do it again!
#1 Stop Letting Students Break the School Rules
Your school probably has a Code of Conduct that describes expected student behavior, and the punishment for violating those standards. Chances are those rules were put in place to ensure student safety and maximize learning. Allowing students to violate school rules tells students that the rules aren’t important, making it harder for other teachers to enforce those rules.
Here’s an example: let’s say your school has a policy prohibiting student cell phone use in class. But one teacher allows students to use their phones to send texts, play games, and check their Facebook pages during class as a reward for completing their work. As the school day continues those students will expect to have the same privilege in each class. That permissiveness makes it harder on your co-workers who follow the school policies.
A few years ago I took-over a class mid-year for a teacher who didn’t enforce school rules. You can imagine my shock on my first day when the students entered the room, pushed the desks together, and started eating snacks and listening to music on their mp3 players. It took me several weeks to align student behavior to the school rules, and I was forever known as the “mean teacher” to that group.
Allowing students to violate the school rules in your classroom may establish you as the “cool teacher” in your school, but it sure makes your colleagues’ jobs harder.
#2 Stop Blowing-off a Class on a Regular Basis
“Do we have to do anything today?” Every teacher with more than a couple of years’ experience has fielded this question many times. You’ve planned a great lesson, and you’re disappointed that your students would rather just sit around for an hour. Where did they get that idea?
Chances are, one or more of your colleagues can be persuaded to cancel the day’s activities and provide a “free day.” While this down-time during the school day may seem benevolent, it really hampers the efforts of your fellow-teachers. If you think your students need a little relaxation, introduce a creative curriculum-based activity or game. “Doing nothing” shouldn’t be an option in a classroom.
#3 Stop Making Students Late for their Next Class
You’ve probably experienced this if you teach middle school or high school: a few minutes after class begins, one or two students rush into class and hand you a pass from another teacher. Or an announcement comes over the intercom asking teachers to admit all students from a certain class without a pass. Your fellow teachers will tell you, “Really, it’s not a problem." But really, it is.
The art students had to stay late to clean up. The math test took longer than expected. The science students were at a critical point in their experiments. There are several reasons that teachers keep students after their scheduled class period, and they're usually legitimate reasons. But the situation could have been avoided with better time management and/or better classroom management. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to just stop a great classroom experience. But with respect to your peers, you need to understand that the students’ next classes are just as important.
Once I was in a faculty meeting where this issue exploded (and I do mean EXPLODED.) The volcano of frustration erupted. Fingers were pointed, and accusations were made. The principal wisely ruled that no students should be held after class – EVER! That ended the problem, and fortunately our professional friendships withstood the episode. Consider instituting this policy at your school.
#4 Stop Being Careless with the Schedule
Secondary schools run on bells, but elementary schools run on clocks. In elementary school classes go to lunch and to “specials” (PE, computers, music, etc.) en masse. Teachers who miss their scheduled times – even by a few minutes – can cause a breakdown in the entire system and topple the schedule like a row of dominoes.
Imagine a teacher dropping-off her class for music five minutes early. It’s just five minutes, right? Well, the music teacher probably has another group she’s working with during that time. Or perhaps that’s the last five minutes of the music teacher’s planning period, and she’s preparing the room for that class. Maybe that five minutes represents the music teacher’s only opportunity to go to the bathroom before lunch!
A class that remains five minutes late in the cafeteria at lunch is probably occupying a table needed for the next lunch shift. A class arriving at the computer lab five minutes early means that the computer teacher won’t have the chance to troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer. The cafeteria supervisor and the computer teacher will probably say, “Oh, it’s no problem,” because they want to be professional. But trust me, it’s a problem.
There’s a running joke among “specials” teachers: she dropped her class off early, but made up for it by picking them up late! Don’t be the punchline of that joke.
#5 Stop Inviting Students into Teacher-only Areas
Schools are made for students, but really there are a few teacher-only areas: the faculty lounge, the teacher workroom/copy room and the faculty cafeteria come to mind. Students shouldn’t be allowed to enter these areas.
So, you’re sitting on the couch in the faculty lounge, enjoying a casual conversation and a cup of coffee with your peers. Feet up, shoes off. You hear a tap-tap-tap, and you see your student peering through the glass in the door, holding her completed homework. What do you do? The correct answer: walk out into the hallway and talk to the student. Don’t wave them in to the faculty lounge.
Years ago I worked with a teacher who regularly sent students into the faculty lounge to buy sodas for him. Then there was the teacher who invited her son – who was a student at the school – into the faculty cafeteria to eat lunch with her once or twice a week. And there was the teacher who sent students to the teacher workroom to use the letter dye-cut machine (okay, that was me.) You get the idea.
One of my college educational foundations teachers, Dr. Harrow, shared this bit of wisdom to all of his eager future-teachers. The first rule of teaching: never jam-up another teacher. As teachers, we should strive to conduct ourselves in a way that shows respect for our fellow teachers and to the teaching profession.
Although they’re probably resisting the urge, your peers won’t mention these transgressions. No need to apologize at the next faculty meeting, or make a big deal about it. (A box of Krispy Kremes in the teacher's lounge would be a nice gesture.) As I wrote earlier, we've all made these mistakes. At the time, we didn't realize that we were making life difficult for our coworkers.
So now you know. Smile. You will now be more beloved than you are already. Maybe they'll name the new building after you. Or at least the faculty lounge...
As 2017 draws to a close, I decided to revisit the most popular TeacherScope columns of the year.
I'm basing my ranking on web-page visits, Facebook "Likes" and "Shares," and the e-mail generated from each posting. Of course, that's decidedly unscientific, but when you're the author, editor, and chief financial officer, you can make these decisions without asking anybody else!
The plan is to add to the list each day, revealing the top column on New Year's Eve. Make sure to check back daily!
And before I forget, Happy New Year!
#1 Five Things New Middle Schoolers Need to Learn....Now!
"Success in middle school carries a unique set of expectations, and requires skills not necessarily taught and reinforced in elementary school. Fortunately, these skills are quite teachable. Think of it as a “mini-curriculum.” Wise elementary and middle school teachers spend a few hours helping their students in this endeavor. The time spent will pay dividends throughout the year." (click here to read.)
#2 Setting the Record Straight: Teacher Pay and Teacher Schedules
"I’ve endured this good-natured ribbing for many years –from high school and college friends, from the guy who services my car, and the cashier at the grocery store. From the family doctor and from the men who delivered my washing machine. From the tree trimmer, the convenience store clerk, and the attorney. Seems like everybody has an opinion about teacher work schedules and teacher pay. Typically, that opinion is “you’ve got it easy.” (click here to read.)
#3 The Truth About a Teaching Career
"This blog post is targeted at students considering the teaching profession. I am certainly not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone about a teaching career. That’s an individual decision that you have to make for yourself. The purpose of this article can be summarized in three words: Eyes Wide Open." (click here to read.)
#4 Helping the New Teachers at Your School
"Teachers are the life blood of the educational system. New teachers represent the infusion required to keep the system alive. Good schools encourage, support, and nurture their new teachers. Review my suggestions above, add your own, and create a welcoming, supportive environment for your new teachers." (click here to read.)
#5 The Best School Volunteers
"But teachers know that there’s another level of volunteerism out there. These are the solid gold, one-of-a-kind volunteers. They may help every day for several hours, or they may show-up at the school once or twice a year. But they possess qualities and characteristics that are especially valuable to the school. They are golden. They are the best volunteers." (click here to read.)
Mrs. Lily, Multiplication, and the Importance of Insisting continues to be one of the most popular TeacherScope columns. Because it was posted in 2016, it doesn't qualify for this year's list. Take a few minutes to read my tribute to an outstanding teacher, and one of her most endearing traits. (click here to read.)
My favorite column of the year - The Most Important Question In Your Classroom - didn't crack the top five, but it's worth a look if you haven't read it already. (click here to read.)
As an educator, you’ve probably attended one or two (or several) educational conferences. If you haven’t, you should!
At a conference you can learn new ideas, techniques, and strategies to improve your teaching repertoire. You will also hear inspiring keynote speeches from leaders in the education field. You can network with colleagues, make new friends, and shop for the latest educational equipment and supplies. Or at least you can make a wish list, right?
The heartbeat of any educational conference is the menu of concurrent sessions and workshops. Typically, each concurrent session lasts an hour. Workshops can be half-day or whole-day, and often require an additional fee and pre-registration. Conference attendees select the sessions and workshops that interest them from a printed list or online app. The presenters – educators just like you – share their best practices and experiences.
Have you considered presenting at an educational conference? In this TeacherScope article, I’ll offer some tips for your successful conference presentations. Because my readership is varied in subject area and grade level, I won’t try to give you specific advice on the content of your session. Instead, we’ll look at ways to make your conference presentation successful and enjoyable.
Writer’s note: I have presented keynote speeches, workshops, and concurrent sessions at around 100 conferences during my educational career. In addition to my local and state conferences, I have been an invited speaker at educational conferences in 14 states. In other words, I had my picture in the front of the program. Not bragging – just letting you know that I’m writing from experience, not conjecture. I’ve made lots of mistakes, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you.
Adjusting Your Scope and Style to the Time Frame
Your most important decision comes early in the process. You need to determine how much material you can reasonably cover in the time you have been given, and what format your presentation will take. A good one-hour presentation is a show-and-tell; you can reasonably expect to present a few concepts and share student examples in a lecture/presentation format.
Experienced presenters can tell you that a one-hour session really doesn’t last an hour. Even if your session begins on-time, you will probably spend 5 minutes introducing yourself and your topic. Plan to spend 10 minutes answering questions at the end of your presentation. If your session runs over time, your attendees won’t have time to make it to their next session. Plan ahead, and make sure you know what you can cover in the time allotted.
Don’t attempt a hands-on workshop or make-and-take in a one-hour session. There just isn’t enough time, and your audience will become frustrated. If you want to teach a hands-on workshop, request a presentation time of at least two hours. If your audience needs to learn new software and/or produce a product, add another hour. And realize that your attendees’ technology skills will vary greatly.
Bring a Helper
The “buddy system” – never go anywhere by yourself – is a good policy when presenting. Ask a like-minded colleague to present with you. Even if you’re a solo presenter, ask a friend to assist you with your presentation. It’s always good to have an ally in the room who can greet attendees at the door, distribute materials, and troubleshoot technology issues.
Anticipate All Possible Problems
As you plan your presentation, try to anticipate every possible problem you may encounter, and decide on a back-up plan. This is especially important for technology-based presentations. What will you do if your laptop dies right before the session? Are your batteries fully-charged? Will your presentation room have the equipment that you need (projector, sound system, etc?) What will you do if the facility’s internet speed is painfully slow? Don’t let your presentation become derailed by a problem that you could have foreseen.
Dress for Success
People who attend your sessions expect to hear from an expert. Make sure to dress the part! A good rule of thumb is to dress one step more “formal” than your audience. I f you’re speaking at a summer drive-in conference where your audience members will be wearing shorts and t-shirts, wear a collared shirt and khaki pants. Attendees at a state conference will probably wear “smart casual” attire. As a presenter, you should probably wear your “Sunday best.” Obviously, there’s room for interpretation. Just make sure your clothing reflects your status and your role. (When presenting at state conferences, I always wore a sports jacket and neck-tie.)
Use a Title Slide and Introductory Music
When your attendees walk into your presentation room, they will all have the same question: Am I in the right place? You can answer that question quickly and professionally by projecting a PowerPoint slide before the session begins. The slide should include your session title in big, bold letters. You can also include your name and an image that illustrates the session topic. Some presenters also include a link or code (Google Docs, EdModo, etc.) on the title slide. Your audience instantly knows that they’ve found the right place.
I typically play music as my attendees enter the room. Appropriate music can help you establish a professional mood, and can make your attendees more comfortable. Peppy music can invigorate afternoon audiences. I like to download karaoke versions of familiar tunes. You may even be able to tie your music choices to your session title. If you’re concerned about copyright violations, access your school’s collection of production music. An inexpensive speaker system (Bluetooth or wired) will usually provide the volume needed for your pre-presentation music.
Changing the slide and fading-out the music will cue your audience that the presentation is about to begin.
Signposting is an important part of any presentation. Your signpost tells your audience the topics that you plan to cover in the session. Reveal your signpost very early in your presentation. As part of my signpost, I challenge each attendee to apply the topic to their specific teaching situation. Your audience will now be thinking of ways to integrate your presentation in their classrooms.
Always Provide a Handout
Although you will likely provide digital access to your presentation materials, you should always, ALWAYS provide a paper handout during your presentation. Your handout can include the basic information from your presentation, web-sites and materials you mention, and instructions for accessing electronic resources. Providing a printed handout is a professional courtesy, and allows your audience to focus more on your presentation and less on writing down everything you say. Each audience member will likely attend several sessions at the conference. A printed handout will ensure that your presentation stands out from the crowd.
Make it a Show!
Your conference presentation should be entertaining as well as informative. Make it a show! Plan the first words and phrases. “Good morning! During the next few minutes, I’m going to share with you 5 sure-fire ways to get your students excited about reading!” Have you attended a presentation that began like this: “Um…okay. I guess we need to get started.” That certainly doesn’t inspire confidence!
Your audience has invested time and money in your presentation. And if they’ve chosen to attend your session, they’ve chosen not to attend several others. Give them the energy and professionalism that they deserve.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!
We’ve all heard that ancient joke, but the punch line certainly applies to speaking at a conference. Your conference presentation should not be a “run-through.” Conduct at least one dress rehearsal, and make sure to start the clock. If you’ve over-planned, you’ll be rushed at the conclusion. Recruit some colleagues to serve as your practice audience, and request a sincere critique of the session. Better to realize needed adjustments before the presentation than afterward.
And speaking of afterward, make sure to debrief your helper after the real presentation. Ask what worked, and what didn’t. They’ll be in a better position to observe and analyze the reactions of the attendees.
After the Session
The most successful presentations often continue in the hallway after time has expired. Don’t plan to pack up and run after your presentation. Your audience members will probably want to ask more questions and professionally network. Have a stack of business cards ready to distribute.
And don’t be surprised if you’re invited to present at another conference or school district by one of your audience members. In fact, some administrators and curriculum specialists attend state and national conferences for this purpose. Expect to be paid for conducting workshops outside your school district and speaking at conferences in other states. The host should also cover your travel expenses.
Book and magazine editors may also approach you after your presentation at a state or national conference, asking you to develop your topic into a magazine article or book proposal. That’s how I got my first book contract.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, as I often do. Presentations by educators just like you are the life-blood of local, state, and even national educational conferences. Your best classroom practices can probably be developed into a presentation that would provide valuable information to your peers.
Why not give it a try?
How many schools do you drive past on your daily commute? One? Two? More? Even if you don’t have school-aged children, you probably wonder what’s going on in there. The marquee announces the upcoming carnival, book fair, or band concert. Occasionally you see an article in the local newspaper featuring the honor roll members or the winners at the science fair. This is your neighborhood school; all of the children in your community attend this school. You’re naturally interested in the success of this school, but your job and family commitments make it nearly impossible to support the school – or so you think!
In this TeacherScope post, I’ll explain five ways that you can contribute to the success of your local schools.
Most schools are continuously recruiting responsible adult volunteers. There are dozens of opportunities to give as little as an hour or two a week to your local school. Most elementary teachers would love to have someone grade spelling tests and worksheets. You can also help arrange the classroom materials, distribute papers, and type the weekly newsletter. And I can tell you from experience that every classroom has at least one boy or girl who has no one at home to help them with their math facts, call out their spelling words, or listen to them read. An adult volunteer who tutors that child can make a significant impact on their educational success.
Volunteer opportunities are varied and plentiful. Some volunteers perform regular duties on a set schedule. Others volunteer for annual events, such as the school walk-a-thon or the chorus uniform distribution. Many schools have a School Advisory Council, and “community member” – a person who is not a teacher or parent – is often a difficult seat to fill on that council. Even if you work full-time or have other obligations, there are likely opportunities to help your local school.
Becoming a school volunteer is a process, and it varies from school to school. You may be asked to fill-out a form, agree to a background check, or even be fingerprinted at the district office. Don’t take it personally – it’s just the world we live in. The principal will probably also meet with you and introduce you to the school volunteer coordinator, who will make volunteer opportunities available.
School volunteers typically aren’t responsible for planning lessons and designing curricular materials – that’s the teacher’s job. Your job as a volunteer will be to help the school achieve their stated educational goals. The main thing is to relax, be comfortable and enjoy the school and the school setting. If you’d like to read more about school volunteerism, check out my previous TeacherScope post.
#2 Buy School Supplies
How do we know summer’s almost over? Our favorite stores are filled with school supplies! And those pencils, notebooks, and packs of paper are usually offered at deeply-discounted prices. You can support your local school by purchasing some of those supplies and delivering them to the school. The typical teacher spends $100 or more of their personal money each year buying classroom supplies. You can help with that expense. If you don’t already have a teacher connection, just fill a shoebox with pencils, markers, staples, and paperclips and mark it “for the NEW teacher!” That will be a wonderful gift to a new professional who’s probably a few weeks away from their first post-college paycheck.
And realize that every classroom will have at least one child who comes to school the first day empty-handed. Schools publish their supply lists on the school web-site. Frequently stores like Wal-mart also provide printed copies of the lists. If you’re feeling especially charitable, you can provide supplies for a child in need. Just toss the list into the shopping bag, and drop it off at the school’s front office.
#3 Donate New Clothes for a Needy Student
Any teacher can also tell you about a boy or girl who doesn’t have the basic clothing they need for school. That’s sad to think about, but it’s true. When winter’s cool breezes blow, they’re still wearing their summer shorts and t-shirts. Or maybe they continue to wear their jeans long after they’ve outgrown them, or they’ve become embarrassingly tattered.
You can help by buying an outfit or two in a typical child’s size and delivering your purchase to your local school. Keep it simple and basic – you don’t need to buy clothes with fancy decorations or popular labels. Kids clothes typically go on sale right before school begins, and then again after Christmas. If you shop the sales and discount racks, you can stretch your donation dollars.
Perhaps you are doubting that the need for clothing or school supplies impacts the students at your local school. And you may be right. Neighborhood schools are once again becoming the norm, and your neighborhood may not have any needy children. If that’s the case, I challenge you to drive a few miles or do a little research online. A nearby school likely has children who can use this special assistance.
#4 Provide Rhetorical Support
Even if you don’t have extra funds to buy school supplies and clothing, and there’s no time in your schedule for volunteer efforts, here’s something everyone can do: support your local school and school system with your voice and your vote.
Schools often find themselves in the cross-hairs of our media-addicted society. Thousands of students and teachers can have great success in the classroom, only to be seemingly cancelled-out by one bad act. And the media – both broadcast and social – seems to pounce on the mistakes. Have you ever tried to get the local TV station to report from the district science fair? Good luck! But if a teacher gets arrested, it will be the lead story at 5, 6, and 11. Should bad acts or criminal behaviors be excused or minimized? Of course not! But your vocal support of all the good things happening in education can help your friends and neighbors achieve the correct perspective.
Schools – unlike most government institutions – are frequently forced to propose an additional sales tax to fund much-need renovations and construction. Those additional taxes are usually decided at the voting booth. Take the time to carefully investigate the funding request, and support those requests that seem reasonable. Even the sturdiest school buildings can deteriorate over time, and we certainly need safe schools.
I am a Christian, and prayer is an important part of my life. If you share similar beliefs, I encourage you to pray for our schools, our students, our teachers, and our school leaders. Pray for wisdom and strength. Pray that the children will be clothed and well-fed. Pray that the teachers will be encouraged and energized. Pray that the administrators will have vision and direction. I have seen the powerful effects of a community praying for a school. If you ask a few teachers, you’ll likely get a similar response.
Simply stated, our schools could use your support. The funds provided by the government allow a school to operate somewhere between “adequate” and “average.” And as the world becomes more competitive and demanding, our students deserve an excellent education. Like the firehouse and the police station, the neighborhood school belongs to everyone. Strong schools are essential for vibrant, safe, and productive communities.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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