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 pull 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. They 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.
When do you think about your school custodians?
You probably think about the custodian when something goes wrong. Maybe you spill your coffee on the carpet and you ask the custodian to clean it up. Your classroom window is stuck. The air conditioner is making a funny sound. The pencil sharpener fell off the wall, flinging pencil shavings hither and yon.
You likely recognize when the custodian has done a great job. On Monday morning the hallway floor is clean and shiny. The tables in the faculty lounge have been wiped-down. The cafeteria has been converted into an auditorium, just in time for the school play…and back again before lunch the next day.
Custodians perform an important, and all-to-often thankless task in our schools. But are we really taking advantage of the full potential our custodians bring to the educational setting? In this TeacherScope, we’ll explore one of the most underused and undervalued positions in many schools, the school custodian.
(For the purpose of this post, I’m using the word custodian as a synonym for janitor. I make no distinction in these positions – merely a linguistic preference.)
School custodians are in a unique position to observe the functioning of the school. They understand how the school works, what makes it work, and what gets in the way. They also regularly work in the domain of students: the hallways, the cafeteria, and the student restrooms.
Yet there are times that we just don’t think to consult a custodian. Here’s my advice:
If you want to know about security gaps in the school, ask a custodian.
Custodians are experts on school security. Security is a big issue in schools and custodians are on the front line of that important effort. The custodian can tell you which doors are routinely left unlocked, in violation of your school’s security plan. If there’s a blind spot in your security camera system, the custodian will be able to tell you where it is, and how it can be exploited. Because they often work before or after school, custodians know about people approaching campus when school is not in session. Custodians can tell you the areas of the school likely to be vandalized, and ways to prevent the act. At least one school custodian should serve on the committee responsible for school security. Also, custodians can be valuable in lock-down and evacuation efforts.
If you want to know where the students go to skip school, ask a custodian.
Cutting class is a long-established tradition among students. Every school has some place that students can hang-out undetected. (If you think your school doesn’t have a skipping spot, you probably just haven’t found it yet.) The custodian knows where students go to skip class. If they don’t actually see the skippers, they probably clean-up the residue – candy wrappers and chip bags. Ask your custodians where the students go to cut class. You may be surprised by their answers.
If you want to know who’s getting bullied, ask a custodian.
Schools go to great lengths to identify bullies and their victims. Of course, the problem is that bullies tend to stop bullying when a teacher or administrator appears on the scene. Custodians probably don’t get the same reaction. Your school’s bully reporting program should take advantage of the custodians’ knowledge.
If you want to know about discipline problems in the hallway, ask a custodian.
Along the same line, your school custodians are aware of rule-breakers and trouble-makers in the hallways during class changes. Teachers on hall duty may arrive late and leave early because of their classroom responsibilities. Encourage your custodians to report rule violators in the school.
If you want to know who doesn’t seem to have any friends, ask a custodian.
The school cafeteria and hallways are typically the social hubs of the school. But to some students, they represent just another reminder of loneliness or worse, ostracism. School counselors go to great lengths to identify lonely or friendless students. The custodians can be a great help in this effort.
If you want to know what food the students don’t eat, ask a custodian.
This one’s pretty simple. Custodians know what student’s don’t eat because they take out the trash. If your cafeteria manager is wondering how the students liked the turnip green soufflé, the custodian probably has a real good idea.
If you’re planning a school event, include the custodian.
Sporting events, dances, honor society inductions, assembly programs, carnivals – most schools have at least one or two events every week. Of course, larger secondary schools have something going on almost every day. Make sure to include your custodian in the planning phase of each event. Custodians will think of things that won’t occur to administrators, teachers, and parents. I’m reminded of an elementary outdoor carnival – no one had thought to make additional large garbage cans available, and our custodians had a lot of litter to pick-up. We owe it to the custodians to make clean-up easier.
If you’re looking for guest speakers for your school, consider the custodian.
Here are some of the great resource speakers I have hosted in my classroom: a Christian missionary to Africa, a top-level volleyball coach, a war refugee from Vietnam, a Gulf War veteran, an expert quilter, a sports car enthusiast. What did they all have in common? They were custodians at my school. Sometimes we think of our custodians as one-dimensional figures, but they likely have a wealth of experience. Ask!
If you’re gathering a group of the leaders in your school, include the custodian.
If you think about it, your school’s head custodian has a great deal of responsibility. They are responsible for the physical maintenance of the school. As such, they are school leaders, and should be included in leadership discussions.
When you have a faculty meeting, invite the custodian.
Many of the academic and behavioral discussions that we have at our faculty meetings directly impact our school custodians. Make sure that at least one member of the custodial staff attends every faculty meeting.
When you’re having a faculty luncheon, invite the custodians.
Let me tell you something that I have seen countless times in my teaching career, and it embarrasses me to no end. As the faculty luncheon draws to a close, somebody rounds-up the custodial crew and invites them to eat what’s left. Humbly and appreciatively, the crew creates a meal from the buffet, and sits together at a table. As the luncheon concludes, the custodians clean-up the dishes and wipe the tables. Next time, let’s invite the custodians to the luncheon. Make sure they’re in attendance when it begins. Treat them like the important team members that they are.
Custodians are a critical part of the school mission. They help educate the students by providing clean and functional classrooms, common areas, cafeterias, and restrooms. Make sure the custodians are treated respectfully by the students. Talk with your class about what would happen if all of the custodians took a day off! (I have worked at a school with a sub-par custodial staff. Trust me – that’s not a happy environment.)
How do the students, teachers, and administrators at your school think about the custodians? Are they seen as important contributors to the educational system, or just the sweep-up guys? Really, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s time to re-think the role of school custodian. Your school can benefit greatly from their increased involvement.
And yes, I ate the turnip green soufflé. Delicious!
Have you seen the cute little survival kits that parents are sending to their children’s teachers? What a thoughtful gift – a plastic box with many useful items: paperclips, highlighters, band-aids, breath mints, and little Dove chocolate squares! That’s a wonderful way to show appreciation for the new teacher.
But this TeacherScope post isn’t about that. Today I’m going to share with you the items that teachers need in a real school emergency. Okay – maybe “emergency” is a little dramatic, but when you’re working with a classroom of students and you’re going to be there for the rest of the day, you need to be prepared. It’s not like we can just … leave.
Here’s my list for your teacher survival kit. These items will come in handy when minor emergencies and major inconveniences strike. I could tell a story for each item on the list, and they’re not happy stories! Suffice it to say that every item on this list is important.
And let me give a shout-out to the new teachers reading this post. Welcome to the club! I love, respect, and appreciate your excitement, your intelligence, and your willingness to teach the next generation. Remember, you’re at the grown-up table now – part of distinguished profession. Those worry-about-it-later, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants habits of your college years won’t serve you well in your teaching career. When you’re in a classroom all day - responsible for 20 or more boys and girls - you have to be prepared. Part of that preparation is anticipating problems and planning for the worst, while hoping for the best.
Yes, I’m an old guy. And I’m here to help.
Let’s begin! Here’s what you need in your REAL Teacher Survival Kit.
A Change of Clothes
At some point in your teaching career, you will need to change clothes during the school day. Ketchup. Mud. Finger paint. Glue. You get the idea. When first-graders see a bright red splotch in the middle of your white shirt, they will freak out. Middle schoolers will ask questions for the next hour. (Okay – high schoolers may not notice.) In any case you’ll feel better when you can get out of those nasty clothes!
Remember, your emergency clothes don’t have to be fancy or new. In fact they could be an outfit from last year that you’d planned on taking out of “the rotation.” Fold the clothes neatly and tuck them in the file cabinet or cupboard. When life happens, you’ll be prepared.
Maybe a science teacher can explain this, but sometimes antiperspirant/deodorant works really well, and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, in our pre-dawn rush to get ready for school we might forget to apply this essential substance. Don’t take chances – keep your favorite brand in your desk.
If you suffer a perspiration malfunction … well … kids have a way of remembering such things.
Before I even begin this section, let me state that safe, secure storage of all medicines is a first priority. Also, check with your school administration about policies regarding teacher medicine on campus. You may be required to keep over-the-counter medicine in a box in the school nurse’s office, or in your car. Of course, you want to make sure that it’s impossible for your students to access any medicine you may choose to bring to school.
That said, if you can do so safely and within the policies of your school, you should consider maintaining a simple collection of over-the-counter medicines and remedies for your personal use at school. Most of these medicines would fall under the category of “tummy trouble”, for symptoms involving acid indigestion, nausea, and yes – diarrhea (sorry to have to bring that up.) You may also want to include pain reliever and non-drowsy cold medicine as well. Add some band-aids and antiseptic ointment, and you’re done.
These supplies are for you, NOT your students. Although your motivations would be kind-hearted, sharing even the simplest medication with a student would be an irresponsible and career-ending decision.
That’s one paragraph of information, and two paragraphs of disclaimers. We’re all adults here.
Most teachers talk a fairly large portion of the day. And sometimes our throats are irritated and dry. Keep a supply of throat lozenges and cough drops nearby. (And of course, heed my warnings in the above section.)
You probably have a personal favorite – mentholated, herbal, or soothing fruit flavors. Realize that you can buy lozenges that just make your throat feel better; you don’t have to go the “medicine” route. Pectin is plant-based ingredient in non-medicated lozenges, and soothes the throat. Honey is also good. Just don’t let your students see you swigging honey straight from the plastic honey bear dispenser.
Sanitizing Wipes, Hand Sanitizer, and Antiseptic Mouth Wash
Fact: kids get sick. Fact: some parents send sick kids to school. Fact: you don’t want to get sick.
Despite the best efforts of school administrators and teachers, it’s likely that at least one child in every class has some sort of disease still in the contagious phase. Even if it’s “just a cold,” a common cold can lead to a lot of misery for a teacher who needs to actively engage every student every day.
I’m not going to get graphic here – but sometimes you interact with a student, and you know they are sick. Here’s what you need to do:
Of course, you want to take these actions as calmly and unobtrusively as possible. You don’t want to make a scene or embarrass the child. But you shouldn’t martyr yourself into illness. A sick teacher, at home or in the classroom, isn’t doing anyone any good.
Toothbrush and Toothpaste
Do you drink coffee on the way to work? Maybe with a muffin or Honey Bun? You would probably benefit from a good tooth-brushing when you get to school. Same goes for after lunch. Bottom line: you will feel much better if you brush your teeth at school before the day begins and after lunch. Your dentist – and your students – will thank you!
Because everybody needs to eat. I’m not talking about snack crackers, granola bars, or those little Dove chocolate squares. You need to keep a meal in your classroom.
Experienced teachers can tell you that sometimes the hunger pangs hit, and you need something substantial. There may be times that bad weather keeps you at school until dark. (In Florida I waited-out tornado warnings at school several times. While teaching in Alaska we had to wait for the snow plows to clear the roads.)
The next time you’re at the grocery store, collect non-perishables that could provide more than the quick sugar and carb rush found in snacks. Some examples: canned chicken, soup, microwaveable non-refrigerated dinners, freeze-dried camping food (Mountain House brand, etc. – check the camping section at Wal-mart or your favorite sporting goods store.)
Okay, these items may not be part of your regular diet, but we’re talking about an emergency. You may never need your emergency meal, but if you find yourself at work past suppertime, you’ll be nourished and comfortable.
And while you’re at the store, grab a bag of those little Dove chocolate squares. Just in case.
Do people under the age of 30 even carry cash money? I’m afraid to ask. Seems like just about every business – and even some individuals – take credit/debit cards. (Of course, veteran teachers are used to living in a cashless society. That’s a joke. Some will get it.)
But sometimes you need a little cash. The kid in third period is selling candy bars for the marching band. You stay after school to watch the basketball game, and the concession stand offers buttery popcorn for a dollar a bag. You walk your students to the cafeteria for lunch and the ice cream freezer calls your name. (Gee, is there a pattern here?)
Anyway, if you work at a school you will occasionally need some cash, and some people just don’t carry cash anymore. The next time you’re near your bank, stop by and get 10 crisp dollar bills. Keep them in your desk or file cabinet. You’ve gotta support the band, right?
An Umbrella, Poncho, or Packable Rain Jacket
It rains. Sometimes it rains during the school day, while you’re teaching. Walk to the car in the downpour. Drive home soaked. No fun at all.
You’ve got some choices. A dollar-store poncho is cheap and doesn’t take up much space, but it’s probably a single-use solution. (Good luck trying to get it back into the little pouch.) A decent umbrella is just a few dollars, and will probably fit in your filing cabinet. Plus, you can be the school hero as you walk other teachers to their cars under your umbrella. Also, consider a lightweight, packable rain jacket; typically, you squeeze the jacket into one of its zippered pockets for storage.
And remember, this is not the same umbrella or rain jacket you keep in the car! The trick with rain protection is to have it where you need it.
Cell Phone Charger
Cell phone chargers are cheap, and most people have an extra one (or five) around the house. Keep one in your desk drawer to have when you need it. Plus, it’s another chance to be a hero to the teacher next door.
We teachers sometimes find ourselves in awkward or unfortunate situations at school. Typically, these situations are beyond our control, and not of our making. And unlike other workers, we can’t just leave our classrooms to take care of personal business. A teacher survival kit will allow you to navigate the school year with grace and style…
…and little Dove chocolate squares. Because life is more than just survival.
Teachers, maybe this has happened to you.
You’ve just taught a great lesson – carefully planned, and aligned to the standards. Your presentation fit the needs of all learning styles and levels. If teachers were elements, you’d be gold. Or platinum. Something like that.
Now it’s time for the finishing touch, the icing on the cake – your culminating activity to assess student learning. Maybe you place the students into heterogeneous groups and assign a problem-solving activity. Maybe the students work individually on a creative illustration of the concepts of the curricular unit. Maybe they participate in a panel discussion or debate about the concepts you’ve taught.
And some kid raises his hand, rolls his eyes, sighs, and says “Why are we doing this?”
Or maybe they twist the knife a little deeper and say, “Why are we even doing this?"
What’s your reaction?
Do you stand there with your mouth open? Do you cry? Do you write a referral for disrespectful behavior? Do you play the parent-card and scream, “Because I said so?”
More importantly, do you have an answer? A really good answer?
My friends, it doesn’t matter the age of your students or your subject matter. If you are teaching a student, you need to be able to answer the most important question they can ask: Why are we doing this? When you can answer this question, your lessons will take on a new, deeper meaning and relevance for your students. That relevance leads to more student engagement and success, and a more productive learning environment.
In this TeacherScope post, we’ll explore the most important question in your classroom: Why are we doing this?
The Importance of Why?
Why? is an important question in education today. And guess what, teachers -- we started it!
Fifty years ago when I began 1st grade, Why? wasn’t a question we concerned ourselves with. We learned in the world of who?, what?, when?, and where? As I continued my education in the 1960’s and 70’s, I never asked my teachers why? and they never asked me either. Facts, not theory ruled the day.
Of course, now every good lesson requires upper-level questioning. What would happen if…? How does this impact that? How would the result be different if…? And why? is a part of the process. A good teacher asks why? several times a day. It’s only natural that students would adopt that inquisitiveness.
It’s easy to see Why are we doing this? as a disrespectful challenge to our teaching ability and authority. But that response misses the point. A student who asks why? is an active thinker. They’re engaged in upper-level processing, and that’s right where you want them. They’re ready to go to the next level. I want a class full of students who want to know the importance of every classroom assignment.
And remember, Why are we doing this? isn’t answered by writing a curricular standard or an I can… statement on the whiteboard. Good answer – wrong question. Standards and skill statements answer what, not why.
Students asking Why are we doing this? are seeking relevance, not completion. They want to know how your lesson will improve their lives. It’s a good question, and thoughtful people ask it frequently. Last month my auto mechanic wanted to install a new timing belt on my Jeep. At my last check-up, my doctor suggested a comprehensive blood work-up. And just the other day, the company that provides my Internet service offered me faster download speed for just a few dollars more. I asked Why are we doing this? not because I doubted the other person, but because I wanted to understand the importance of such expenditures. Your students' currency is time, and they want to spend it wisely.
The Wrong Answer
Why are we doing this? is a critical, upper-level question in our classrooms. Before we try to answer that question, let’s look at some all-too-common wrong answers. (Or as we say in teaching, some non-examples.)
Because it’s a standard. Sure, it’s an easy answer, and probably accurate. But that’s not what your students need to hear. They’re asking why? and you’re answering what. After 34 years of teaching, I’ve never had a student or parent ask me about a standard. But everyone wants to know what we’re going to learn today.
Because it’s going to be on the test. Again, true. But as much as we teachers alternately cheer and wring our hands, it’s hard to get students to buy-in to the whole standardized testing scheme. Students expect an education, not just an 8-month test prep session.
I don’t know. My guess – and it’s just a guess – is that this answer would be more common than we’d like to admit. It’s a chapter in the book. It’s a standard in the curriculum. I’ve never really thought about it. Not something we teachers like to say out loud.
The Right Answer
First, let’s realize that upper-level questions require upper-level answers. We can’t answer with a when or a what. The answer to Why are we doing this? is an emphatic, fact-based Here's why!
That answer is as varied and diverse as the lessons and courses taught in every classroom in every school. But the bottom line is you – the teacher – need to know the answer, before you begin teaching the lesson.
I can’t possibly provide the Why? for every lesson you may teach. But I can give you this advice to help you find it.
Make It Real
Talk about an area in the child’s life where the skill you’re teaching would be used. Word problems and thought questions in the textbook are good places to start. You can improve on these questions by adding a local and timely aspect. For example, when I taught pre-algebra in a western Alaska village, I tried to relate math concepts to their daily lives. We applied our multi-variable formulas to their commercial fishing efforts, and we graphed the tides. We calculated the hours of daylight as the days got shorter in the winter and longer in the spring. The best time to answer the Why? question is before it’s asked.
Make It Relevant
Make sure that your students know how this new knowledge will become useful in the future. In my first teaching job, I taught public speaking class in high school. Each student kept a running list in their notebook of all of the situations that required good oral communication. We’d brainstorm to get the list started, and students would add to the list during the semester. I even encouraged them to share, and offered prizes for the longest lists. Public speaking was out of the comfort zone of most of my students, but they never doubted its importance.
Building the Answers
Providing the best answer to this important question takes some thought. See if these ideas help.
Put yourself in the learner’s place. You probably decided that your course content was important many years ago. What lead you to that conclusion? When did it click for you?
Think about your teacher preparation program. You couldn’t wait to share your passion for your chosen subject matter with your students. Why were you so excited? How can you communicate that excitement to them?
Engage in collegial conversations. Brainstorm with your fellow teachers. Discuss the importance of your class. Learn how your course content will help students as they progress through their education.
Go beyond the textbook, the standards, and tests. As teachers, we’re usually given standards and textbooks with matching workbooks. We frequently have access to downloadable worksheets and tests on the publisher’s website. These resources can be very useful, but they don’t always shape the relevance of your lessons. The math books I used in the Alaska bush contained word problems about train schedules and car travel. Needless to say, I wrote new word problems that students in a village could relate to.
Don’t be afraid to ask. If you’re new to the profession, you probably haven’t focused on the Why? too much. Your more experienced colleagues will be happy to share their thoughts.
Why are we doing this? is the most important question in any classroom. Left unanswered, the student quickly becomes disengaged in the learning process. And when a large group of teachers can’t or won’t provide an answer, a much more dangerous question takes its place: Why am I even here?
Sure, we teach math and language arts. We teach social studies, science, and a myriad of electives. But really, we teach kids. Our subjects aren’t balloons to be inflated by the number of math problems solved or sentences diagrammed. The measure of our efforts lies in the positive impact we have on our students. That’s why we are doing this.
Give me a room full of students who care enough to ask Why are we doing this? But stand back, because I’ve already thought about my answer, and it’s a doozy!
Okay teachers, how many times have you heard this?
“You teachers are so lucky. You never have to work weekends. You get all summer off. You get spring break, fall break, and two weeks off at Christmas. You never have to work on holidays, and if the weather is bad, you don’t have to go to work then either. And to top it off, you get paid during the summer for not working at all! Amazing!”
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.”
I’m not sure why they feel a need to express this. I mean, one of my friends is a truck driver, and I’ve never said to him, “Man, you get to sit all day long.” I don’t cajole my friend the accountant, who gets to work in his office all day and solve problems uninterrupted. Another friend is an attorney, and I don’t bring to his attention the fact that he can wear a nice suit every day without worrying about snagging his jacket on a 30-year old desk, or having a kindergartener sneeze on his trousers.
I guess I’d have to ask them to know for sure, but I don’t and I won’t. Whatever the reason, they feel a need to point-out the benefits of my chosen career, based on the unlikely assumption that I don’t realize that I made a great career choice over 30 years ago.
And what’s the teacher’s natural reaction to the accusation of a great schedule and undeserved pay? We get defensive. I’ll admit, that was my reaction several years ago. But lately I’ve taken a new approach, and in this TeacherScope blog post I’ll share my response with you.
First, I’ll respond to the claim that teachers get paid during the summer for not working. This statement is particularly irksome because it implies that somehow I’m scamming all taxpayers by collecting a salary for work I never performed.
Of course, teachers know this isn’t true, but based on conversations I’ve had with reasonably intelligent people, I’m not sure the public gets it. So – here’s what I tell them…
Teachers sign a one-year contract. The school district agrees to pay each teacher a certain amount of money – based on college degree and years of experience – to complete a task. That task is teaching school for a certain number of days, with the schedule prescribed by the district.
The general public needs to understand that teachers get paid on a yearly basis – not by the hour, by the day, by the week or by the month. Then why do we collect money during the summer months when school is not in session? Simple. We agree to take that yearly salary in 12 monthly payments.
When I explain the concept of teacher pay to people, I use an analogy that most people can relate to: sports. A professional baseball player is a good example. Each player on the baseball team signs a contract to play that year. The season includes games (school days) and practices (teacher workdays, workshops, etc.) For the baseball player, the first practice of the season is in February, and the last game is in October. Baseball players get November, December, and January off. During that time they rest, spend time with their families, work on their skills and prepare for next season. If the team wants them to play next season, they offer a new contract. If not, the player needs to find a new team that can use his skills. And at that point, I lighten the mood by reminding my friend that we don’t quite make a professional athlete’s salary, but I remain hopeful!
I also share that good teachers are continuously building their content knowledge and improving their teaching skills. Those tasks usually take place during the summer, off the clock. I also gently remind them that I don’t set the work schedule – the school district does. So I really don’t have any control over the number of days I work each year.
Which brings us to the next point: a teacher’s schedule.
And the schedule is marvelous! It’s time for us teachers to stop apologizing for one of the most attractive aspects of our jobs.
Sure, I work on my lesson plans on the weekends. But it’s nothing like the plumber, the doctor, and the electric company lineman who are on-call for emergencies. I’ve never received a phone call from my principal at night because a student needed an emergency proofread of an essay. And I’ve never taught on the graveyard shift. We’ve never had school on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day.
Sure, I take classes and workshops over the summer. Sometimes. But it’s not like I’m standing on my feet for 8 hours running a cash register at Wal-mart. And if I take enough college classes I get a new degree – and a pay raise.
Yes, we work a lot at school after hours. Often that work is optional work with supplemental pay. Yes, teachers across the country stay after school – for no additional pay – to help their students. But in 34 years I’ve never had my principal come into my classroom and tell me I had to work a double shift because another teacher was sick.
I need to accept the fact: compared to many jobs, my teaching job has a great schedule. I’m not going to make excuses for it, or explain it away. A teacher’s schedule is sweet. Oh, it’s work alright – sometimes exhausting and often challenging. But the schedule is predictable.
When discussing our schedules with our friends and acquaintances, we should certainly mention the flip-side of that predictable schedule – its rigidity. In other words, we have very little flexibility within that schedule.
If we have to be absent for any reason – say it with me friends – they have school anyway! I have to find a sub and create assignments that will keep the children busy when I’m not there. And any teacher can tell you that constructing good sub plans is one of the most difficult teacher tasks.
Can we arrive at work an hour late to take our child to an orthodontist appointment? Can we extend our lunch an extra hour to take care of business at the bank? Can we leave work early to spend time with a family member from out of town? Nope, nope, and nope. (Yes, we have a couple of “personal” days – but see the above paragraph about sub plans!)
During the summer we take our vacations, we catch-up on home repair and maintenance, and we schedule those doctor and dentists appointments we’ve delayed for several months. We pursue our hobbies, work on our side-jobs, and catch-up on our professional reading. We spend quality-time and quantity-time with our families because, quite frankly, during the past ten months we’ve spent more time with your kids than our own.
And most importantly, we rest. We rejuvenate. We reflect on the successes and difficulties of the previous year, and begin thinking about next year – the best school year ever! That’s what our students deserve. Smart parents want their child to have a healthy, well-rested teacher as the marathon school year begins.
As I write this blog post, we’re about two weeks from the start of a new school year – my 35th as a teacher. And I’m sure I’ll hear the half-joking comments about how lucky I was to have the whole summer off while still drawing a paycheck – just as I have since I began this journey as a 22-year old university graduate. I’ve had years to perfect my friendly responses, and perhaps I’ve given you some new ideas for those conversations. But remember, never apologize for your good fortune.
We’ve got the best job in the world!
In my 34-year teaching career I have had a wide variety of experiences. I have taught middle school and high school required classes and electives. I have also served as a library media specialist at the elementary and middle school levels. I have provided inservice workshops and conference sessions for my fellow professionals, and even taught community college classes as an adjunct instructor.
I’m not bragging. I really didn’t intend my career to work out that way. Maybe I just have a short attention span.
I will tell you that working in so many diverse settings has given me a “birds-eye view” of education. Better stated, it’s like watching a parade from a helicopter. I can see the beginning. I can see the end. And I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get from one place to another.
And I can tell you that the transition from elementary school to middle school is the most difficult transition in education. Middle school requires a skill set that is new to most 6th graders. In this TeacherScope blog post, I’ll list five of the most important skills, and offer my advice on how to teach them.
Before we begin, let’s make sure that we’re not blaming anyone – teachers, students, or parents – for the lack of beginning middle school skills. It’s nobody’s fault. The distinction lies in the organizational patterns and the nature of the requirements. It’s like the difference between running and swimming. Both of those activities demand physical exertion to get you from point A to point B. But the locomotion requires a different set of skills. Just like elementary school and middle school.
And if you work with upper-elementary and middle school students, I’d like to suggest my most recent book, This Is Middle School! (Third Stream Press, 2016.) It’s available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can learn more by visiting the web-site (click here.)
New Middle Schoolers Need to Learn…
#1 - How to Move Independently Throughout the School
Most new middle schoolers are excited to receive their first class schedules. But of course, these class changes require walking throughout the school with minimal supervision. Sure, students change classrooms in elementary school, but typically those changes are completed by large groups of students walking down the hall in a straight line, supervised by their teacher. “Okay class – line up…it’s time to go to music.”
Of course middle school is very different. When the bell rings at the end of the class period, twenty-five students go in twenty-five different directions. There’s no line-up, there’s no common destination, and there’s no teacher leading the way and monitoring student behavior. In middle school students can visit the restroom between classes and access their lockers. They can take various routes, say “hi” to their friends, and stop-by the library to quickly return a book. But when the next bell rings, students are expected to be in their classes, ready for instruction. This happens five or six times each day.
New middle schoolers also need to learn how to conduct themselves in the hallway. The temptation to run or engage in horseplay is too much for some of the less-mature students. Other students want to stand around in the hallway and talk until the tardy bell rings – then they dash-off to class.
The solution: planning and supervision. During the first week of school, teachers of new middle schoolers should take a few minutes at the end of each class period to talk with their students about traveling to their next classrooms. Help students plan the best routes, and point-out the restroom stops along the route. Also, it’s important for teachers and administrators to supervise the hallways in between classes to keep everyone moving along. Parent volunteers can help during the first week of school. Some schools forgive tardies during the first week of school, but it’s probably best not to publicize this policy. Most students will quickly learn how to walk around school. Those who still aren’t making it after the first week should get friendly one-on-one assistance.
#2 - How to Adjust to Diverse Learning Environments
Upper-level elementary school students have one or two teachers during the school day. Sure, they go to art and music, but those classes are much less frequent, and different in format. Basically, elementary students must function in a couple of learning environments that are probably remarkably similar.
Not so in middle school, where students will have five or six different teachers every day – emphasis on different. Middle school classrooms are more diverse, with some classes meeting in the gym, the music room, or the computer lab. Teachers also have different styles. Some teachers are energetic and others are low-key. Some teachers rely heavily on technology, while others use handouts and textbooks. Some teachers accept late work, and others don’t.
The solution: thinking about it, and accepting the differences. Teachers, school counselors, and parents should talk to new middle schoolers about different teaching styles. Remind them that their least-favorite teacher is probably someone else’s favorite. Use the opportunity to teach about preferences, and how the world won’t always be exactly like they want. (One year a parent requested a conference with me and my principal. Her child’s complaint: I didn’t show movies on Friday.)
And correct students when they use words like “mean” (i.e. “That teacher is so mean!”) when it’s not appropriate. Giving a pop quiz on Friday, or requiring that all students bring a pencil to class doesn’t make a teacher “mean.” Rather than complain about their least favorite teachers, students should ask themselves, “What do I need to do to be successful in this class?”
#3 - How to Manage Assignments and Information
Does the phrase “Week in a Peek” mean anything to you? That’s a common name for the elementary classroom newsletter that can be found in the take-home folder that goes home every night. The classroom newsletter contains announcements (field trips, fundraisers, class activities), weekly spelling words, homework assignments, after-school activity notices, homework assignments, and reading goals. Sometimes the teacher posts the newsletter on her web-page, and e-mails a copy to the parents, just in case.
Classroom newletter? Take-home folder? Parent e-mails? Week in a Peek? Join me middle school teachers: Huh?
In middle school, students are expected to write down important information, and follow-up on announcements. Soccer tryouts will be announced over the intercom. The coach many mention it in P.E. class, and there will probably be a poster in the cafeteria. It’s up to the student to get the details and follow through if they want to join the soccer team. Of course, the same holds true for classroom assignments. The teacher will probably write the assignments on the white board. It’s up to the student to complete the work and turn it in by the due date.
The solution: gradual responsibility, and the planner. Here’s a way that elementary teachers can help: gradually wean your students off of the parent/student newsletter in their final semester before middle school. Guide them through the process. Instead of providing the spelling words on a handout, have them write them in their notebooks. Make a few announcements orally – let the students decide if the content pertains to them, and how and where to record it. (We don’t write things down so we can remember them. We write things down so we can forget them!) Turn it into a fun, educational activity. Reward those who “get it” and keep working with those who need a little help.
The planner – a calendar/spiral notebook with plenty of room to write down assignments – is required in most middle schools. Elementary teachers can introduce the planner to their 5th graders . Blank planner pages for “practice” can be downloaded from the Internet. Get students used to the idea of writing down assignments and announcements. And middle school teachers – don’t hesitate to require planner completion. If you make it optional, the students who need it most will probably choose not to participate.
#4 - How to Store and Retrieve School and Personal Items
Elementary storage spaces for personal items are plentiful and varied. Books, pencils, and papers are stored in the student desk. Rulers, crayons, and calculators are found in a plastic tote nearby. Jackets and sweaters are hung on hooks in the back of the room. Many classrooms feature “cubby-holes” where students can store additional gear. In elementary school, everything is within arm’s reach, or at least in the same room.
In middle school, students need to be responsible for their educational supplies as well as their personal belongings. Sure, the student has a desk in every classroom, but they can’t expect to store their stuff there. The locker provides private storage space, but most students don’t have time to visit their lockers between every class. Most middle schools allow bookbags for carrying materials and personal items. It’s up to the middle school student to bring the required items to each class, and to secure their personal belongings.
The solution: planning and good judgement. Earlier in this blog post, I suggested that teachers help students determine the best routes from classroom to classroom. Locker stops should also be part of that planning. The bookbag and locker are complimentary pieces of the storage puzzle. A student using a bookbag correctly shouldn’t need to go to his locker after every class. And a student who uses his locker properly shouldn’t have a 30-pound bookbag.
And that’s where the good judgment comes in. For several years I was a 6th grade homeroom teacher. I would conduct random bookbag “dump-outs” during homeroom; the students emptied the contents of their bookbags on a table. After a few “dump-outs” most students quickly learned what they did and didn’t need. Of course, an important lesson: leave your toys at home! Teach students to distinguish between “what I will need” and “what I can possibly cram into my bookbag.” (If we don’t, they turn into adults who need more than 4 ounces of shampoo for a 2-hour airline flight and hold-up the TSA line!)
#5 - How to Budget Time
Time management isn’t a big concern for elementary students. Sure, there’s homework, but not nearly as much as middle school students are assigned. There may be a handful of clubs and activities at the elementary level, but they probably don’t require the commitment of middle school athletic teams and musical groups.
In middle school clubs and activities and plentiful and demanding. Middle school athletic teams may practice every day until suppertime. That leaves two or three hours for homework, and maybe no time for television or social media. Band and chorus may require after school rehearsals and performances. And middle school students who sign-up for these activities are expected to participate – or drop out. There aren’t any “casual” members of the middle school cheerleading squad, soccer team, or band.
The biggest transition issue is usually encountered by the elementary school high-flyers who are used to participating in every activity offered. They’re on the elementary track team (with one track meet), they’re on the student council (that meets once a month in the library before school) and they’re on the yearbook staff (they take a couple of photos in the cafeteria.) Many new middle schoolers are surprised to find that they don’t have time to participate in every club, activity, and sport. The important lesson: you have to pick and choose.
The solution: prioritize and choose wisely. The good news is that most middle schools have entry-level sports teams for 6th graders, and there are usually several clubs with open enrollment. Students can attend a few practices, meetings, or rehearsals to see if the activity is right for them. Teachers can talk to students about the differences between elementary and middle school activities. Coaches, directors, and club sponsors should clearly communicate the time requirement their activity demands. And parents should vigilantly monitor their child’s time schedule and stress level. When an activity hampers completion of school work, or becomes more stressful than enjoyable, the parent should step in. Adults are skilled in balancing work, hobbies, and home commitments. New middle schoolers still need to develop those skills.
Well, those are my top five things new middle schoolers need to learn. Here’s a bonus…
Bonus: How to Quickly “Take it Down a Notch”
This is more of a personality/social skill, and the need will vary among individuals – but it’s still important. Many elementary students get wound-up (excited, boisterous) and have difficulty calming-down. This skill is very important when students are changing classes 5 or 6 times each day in middle school. Middle school hallways and lunchrooms can be noisy, crowded, and stimulating. Middle school teachers like to begin class when the tardy bell rings – they don’t budget five minutes of “settle down” time.
The solution: teaching and reinforcement in the elementary and middle school classrooms. Ideally, instruction should begin when the tardy bell rings. Teachers – begin class with a question, an assignment, or a concept. In other words, don’t start the class with “Okay – settle down. Okay – settle down. We need to start. Okay?” Instead, just start teaching. By the second or third day, most of your students will understand. The first few minutes of class are the most important because they set the tone for the remaining class period. You may need to speak with some students privately if they can’t learn to “take it down a notch” when they enter your classroom. Here’s what I tell them: “Look around. See how the other students are acting? That’s what I expect from you. Do you think you can do that? Good!”
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.
If you enjoyed this article, and you're interested in helping upper-elementary students make a smooth transition to middle school, you'll want to pick-up a copy of This Is Middle School! (click here for link.) You can read a sample chapter online.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 36 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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