Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
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!
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.
Send e-mail to Keith
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.
"TeacherScope is a reflection of my professional philosophy - positive, encouraging, edifying, and thought-provoking. Thanks for stopping by." - Keith
Keith's new book helps students and parents make a successful transition to middle school. Click here for more information.
Ditch the candy and toys. Reward your dedicated readers the right way. Click here for more information.
Interested in teaching a digital photography class? Here's your full-year curriculum. Click here for more information.
Book reviews for teachers and library media specialists working with upper-elementary and middle school readers. Click here.
TeacherScope is a service of