Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
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 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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