Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
There are over 3 ½ million teachers in the United States, and every year thousands more join our ranks. It’s not uncommon for a large urban school district to hire 200 or more new teachers every year. Beginning a teaching career can be a real challenge. A new teacher can’t just show-up the first day, open a textbook, and start reading to the class. It’s not Christy. Teaching is a complex, involved endeavor, and it’s important to get off to a good start.
This blog post reflects accumulated knowledge from my 30-plus years of teaching. Some of the items below are based on the advice of experienced teachers and administrators, and some of them I’ve figured out for myself. When I look back on the stressful times of my teaching career – and there have been a few – I understand that I hadn’t learned these lessons yet, or I wasn’t applying them.
And that’s really the point of this blog post: to put you in a positive frame of mind. You won’t find anything in here about state standards or classroom management. If I could travel back in time, this is what I would tell myself. Because I can’t do that, I’ll share these ideas with you.
Conduct Yourself As If Your Students' Parents Were Sitting Beside Them
Several years ago when I was teaching a middle school multimedia class, a parent asked if she could observe my class. Her son was quite excited about his opportunity to work on our school news show, and mom promised that she’s stop by to watch the production on her next day off.
With mom in the classroom, I found myself behaving just a little bit differently – more professionally. I stood a little taller, chose my words more carefully, and made sure all of the students were involved in class. I gave more specific praise, and I made sure that corrections were gentle and tasked-based. In other words, I was the teacher I wanted that parent to see. Does that mean that I was typically sarcastic, aloof, and slothful? Of course not! It simply means that with a parent in the room, I wanted to be at my best. I wanted to make a good impression. As you can imagine, the students responded favorably, and we produced an excellent, hassle-free news program.
So, here’s my first suggestion: whether you’re teaching or talking with an individual student, a group of students, or an entire class, you should speak as if the child’s parent were standing right beside the child. In other words, be the teacher you want your students’ parents to think you are. Always speak calmly, professionally and courteously, even if the students aren’t responding in kind.
You are always the adult in the room. With that status comes authority and responsibility. Losing your temper in class and/or behaving inappropriately instantly lowers your rank to “peer” and creates a conflict that you’re likely to lose.
Although teachers work with faculties, teams, and cohort groups, we are typically the only professional in the classroom. This creates the illusion that we won’t be accountable for what we say in our classrooms. Of course, that’s just not true. Students have an uncanny ability to recall what the teacher says and does, and cell phone cameras are capable of recording it all. We’ve all seen YouTube videos featuring teachers responding inappropriately – sometimes violently – to frustrating classroom situations. I often wonder what was happening right before those situations exploded.
Most of us can recall a time when we’ve said something to a student that we later regretted. Usually, these statements are made in frustration or exasperation.
“What do you mean, you don’t have your homework?”
“What on Earth were you thinking when you wrote down that answer?”
“Are you even trying?”
Then, we spend the rest of the afternoon regretting our behavior, waiting for the phone to ring, and hoping that the principal doesn't appear in the classroom doorway.
If we apply our new policy – pretending their parents are right beside the students...
“Are you even trying?” becomes “Billy, I need you to try that math problem again. Is there something you don’t understand?”
“What on Earth were you thinking?” becomes “Sally, I need you to focus on the lesson.”
“Put away that !@#$ cell phone NOW!” becomes “Jared, please put away your cell phone and make sure to see me after class.” You get the idea.
Teachers are faced with dozens of student interactions every hour. Typically, there’s no other adult in the room to hold us accountable. Act professionally anyway. Your teaching will improve, you’ll be more satisfied with your career, and you won’t faint when the principal appears in your classroom doorway after school.
Always Teach Like the Principal Is In the Room
Teachers are observed by the school administrators several times during the year. In most states, beginning teachers get a double-dose of observations. My first year of teaching was also the first year of Florida’s Beginning Teacher Program, and I was observed by an administrator at least a dozen times! (I think they scaled it back the next year.)
For most teachers, an observation is a stressful experience. An upcoming observation can result in sleepless nights, anxiety, and over-preparation. Some teachers present the same observation lesson year-after-year – their “dog and pony show” – guaranteed to get a positive evaluation. And let’s just say it – some teachers bribe their students before the observation, bartering donuts or candy for their enthusiastic participation in the lesson. These strategies are unnecessary at best, and unprofessional at worst.
So, as a beginning teacher, how can you complete an excellent classroom observation and avoid all the anxiety? Always teach like you’re being evaluated. Prepare every lesson like the principal will be in the classroom. Don’t plan to take it easy just because it’s Monday (or Tuesday, or…) You certainly don’t expect that from your students! Teachers are always "on." You may be lecturing, facilitating group work, or helping individuals at your desk. But you need to be involved - every class, every day.
And here’s another tip for relieving observation anxiety: invite your principal into your classroom on a regular basis.
“Hey, Dr. Evans, I’m teaching a great lesson on slope intercept today. Stop by if you get a chance. I’d love for you to see what my students are doing!”
Think about what this says to the principal. You’re projecting yourself as a confident, prepared faculty member.
Will the principal actually visit your classroom? Probably not. But once again, you’re letting the principal know that they’re welcome in your classroom any time. And if they are able to visit, make sure to ask them later what they liked about the lesson, and what improvements they would suggest.
In the current atmosphere where classroom observations are written into teacher contracts and state constitutions, this approach may seem unorthodox. But handled in the proper spirit, your principal’s presence in your classroom builds a truly collegial relationship, not the adversarial scenario that high-stakes observations often foster.
Don’t Take Student Failure Personally
You’ve spent all week teaching an important concept to your class. You’ve provided skill practice, you’ve integrated technology, and you’ve covered all of the learning styles. You asked probing, upper-level questions and your students had all the answers. You know that your students will absolutely nail the written test!
And they don’t. They fail. All of them. With vigor. Even the smart kid who’s never missed a question all year. Ka-blooey.
Don’t take it personally. Don’t get your feelings hurt. Don’t question your choice of profession. Don’t quit. Don’t cry. Don’t let it ruin your day.
Wait a minute – does that mean you shouldn’t care? Not at all. It means you shouldn’t take it personally. You should take it professionally. Question the concepts that you taught. Question your presentation. Question the validity and appropriateness of the test. Realize that there may be an extraneous reason that so many students performed so poorly. These are professional considerations, and they are appropriate in a professional setting.
Unfortunately, many teachers engage the defense mechanism of apathy in a misguided attempt to protect their self-esteem. “Oh well, I taught the lesson. I did my job, but they just blew it. I can’t help that.” Don’t fall into that seductive trap. You don’t need to preserve your self-esteem, because it was never really about you. It was always about teaching and learning. Take the professional approach.
Don’t Stretch Yourself Too Thin
Thrilled to enter the teaching profession, many new teachers underestimate the preparation time that teaching requires. They volunteer for extra duties at school and off-campus. Teaching is a full-time job, and new teachers spend a great deal of time reviewing standards, designing materials, and learning the scope and sequence of their subjects. The new teacher doesn’t have a file cabinet filled with lesson plans, handouts, and tests. Under these circumstances, volunteering to sponsor an active club or coach a sport may tax the new teacher’s time beyond the breaking point. As a teacher, carefully contemplate your obligation to the classroom before accepting extracurricular assignments.
Some young teachers make the mistake of equating their new teaching jobs with the jobs they held in high school and college. I worked many part-time jobs in high school and college, but the time commitment didn’t compare to my first teaching job. When I clocked-out at Burger King, delivered my last newspaper, or parked the hearse in the garage (yes, that’s true,) I was done for the day. I didn’t have to think about the job until I clocked-in for the next shift. But teaching isn’t that way. Teachers continuously plan lessons, grade papers, and upgrade their credentials. Sure, teachers have down-time just like any profession. Just be careful when committing your time.
Whether you’re in your first year of teaching, or your 31st year, I hope you’ve found this blog post useful and thought-provoking. Remember, teaching is a profession. All professionals – doctors, attorneys, psychologists, and teachers - continue to develop their craft. The best (and happiest) teachers are always learning and growing and thinking about new ways to share information with their students. That’s what the teaching profession is all about.
Recently I read in my hometown newspaper that my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Lilly had passed away. Mrs. Lilly left a loving family and hundreds of well-educated students. Her obituary includes Ms. Lilly’s statement that she will, “go home to my God and dance on the stars with my Leo,” her husband of over 40 years. By all accounts, she lived a long, fulfilling life. Her impact on Lake Wales, Florida is immeasurable.
I was an 8-year old in Mrs. Lilly’s class in 1969. I’d be lying if I said I remembered a lot about that school year. It’s been almost 50 years. But I do remember three things. I remember the third-grade play, in which we acted-out nursery rhymes. In my only foray into dramatic arts, I was cast as one of the three men in the tub. I was the baker. I had one line: “The Baker!” which I executed with panache. Thank you.
My second memory of third grade is this: it was the first time my class included African-American students. In fact, it was probably the first time that I actually talked to a person with skin darker than my own. This was the 1960’s. This was the South. The civil rights movement was a slow, plodding march.
But my most vivid memory of third grade in Mrs. Lilly’s class involved learning my multiplication facts. Of course, we didn’t have computer games or rap CD’s to help us learn. We didn’t group marbles or count by three’s. We made flash cards. We wrote the equations on notebook paper until our hands cramped. We learned that 8 x 7 is 56, all day, every day. Simple.
Or maybe not so simple. Thanks to a doting mother and a big sister who loved to play school, my first couple of years at Polk Avenue Elementary weren’t too difficult. I picked up new concepts quickly, and rarely received a bad grade. Learning the multiplication facts presented my first real academic challenge. Betrayed by confidence buoyed by past success, I assured my parents that I had it all under control.
Mrs. Lilly knew better. We had our first multiplication quiz on Monday, right before lunch, and my results were less than spectacular. I’m not sure what my score was, but I remember that paper littered with red X’s. I was taken down a notch. Or two. My name went on the board, and Mrs. Lilly announced that this group - my group - would spend after-lunch recess time in the classroom learning multiplication facts.
After lunch, I trudged into the classroom with several classmates and sat at my desk. And I did what any normal third-grader would do under those circumstances. I cried. With gusto. No math drills, no quizzes, no recitation. Just 15 minutes of tears falling onto my desk.
When I got home from school that afternoon, my mom could tell something was wrong. I told her that I didn’t know my multiplication facts. She wasn’t disappointed. She didn’t call the school or blame the teacher. She said, “Well, let’s learn them.” I reached in my pocket and handed her the folded 4” x 6” card stock with the multiplication facts printed on both sides (provided courtesy of Gulf Life Insurance.) Mom quickly quizzed me, and circled the equations that had eluded my memory. We practiced for about an hour before supper, then another hour later that evening.
The next day I took Mrs. Lilly’s quiz again. I still missed too many, and my name made the “no recess” list again. But this time I didn’t cry. I studied. And I studied again with my mom that evening. On Wednesday I scored 100% on my multiplication test and I joined my classmates at recess.
It’s easy to understand why the school play remains a vivid memory. How often do you get to put on a chef’s hat and apron, and walk in close formation across the stage while carrying a large cardboard cut-out in the shape of a bathtub? You’d remember that, I’m sure.
And the integration of our previously all-white elementary school was a pivot-point in my experience as a student. Two years later I’d be the interloper, attending the previously all-minority schools on the other side of town. Third grade was the end of “us” and “them.” Now it was just “us.” Yes, it’s hard to imagine now.
But why do I remember learning my multiplication tables? Why can I still see – almost 50 years later – that paper with all those red X’s? Why do I remember the pride I felt later that week when I knew that 8 x 8 is 64, all day, every day?
I think I know why. I think it’s because Mrs. Lilly insisted.
I don’t know if the principal or anyone at the district office kept track of Mrs. Lilly’s test scores. We took standardized tests, but they didn’t have the high-stakes impact of today’s evaluations. I don’t remember any of my teachers having formal observations based on Danielson or Marzano, but I remember the principal poking her head in the room almost every day.
No, I think Mrs. Lilly’s motivation was more intrinsic, and as a result, more precious. She wanted her students to learn. She didn’t want to send any of us to fourth grade without knowing our multiplication facts. Long division awaited, and multiplication was a pre-requisite. No one would blame Mrs. Lilly if a couple of her students never learned their multiplication facts, or couldn’t read on grade level. But she would know. No student would leave third grade unprepared – not on her watch.
Did having my name listed on the board shame me or discourage me? No. It was a wake-up call. Better to wake up and learn than sleep in ignorance. I was embarrassed, sure. But if that – and missing recess for two days – is the price for learning my multiplication facts, then I’ll take that deal. All day, every day.
I never hugged Mrs. Lilly. Kids didn’t do that back then. I don’t remember the sound of her voice. I don’t know her favorite quote, her favorite color, or her favorite song. I can’t recall a single lesson she taught. It has simply been too long ago.
But here’s one thing I do remember: she insisted. She insisted because she cared. And because she cared, she made a positive impact on my life.
Thank you, Mrs. Lilly.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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