Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
How many new teachers will you have at your school this year? Two? Five? More? One year I worked at a school where 17 of the 35 classroom teachers were new to the school – and many of those teachers were new to the teaching profession. That’s certainly an extreme situation, but most schools have at least a few new teachers each year. Some of those teachers have never had their own classrooms before; perhaps they’re recent college graduates. Other “new” teachers may have years of experience, but they are new to your school, your district, or your state. And of course, every school – whether across the country or down the block – does things a little bit differently.
If you’re a teacher, you’ll have the opportunity to welcome your new colleagues to your school, and perhaps to the teaching profession. In this TeacherScope blogpost, I’ll list my suggestions for welcoming new teachers to your school.
Helping with Supplies
Experienced teachers will probably arrive at your school with tools of the trade: a stapler, a three-hole punch, dry erase markers, etc. However, teachers new to the field may have none of these essentials. You can help the new teachers by providing them with office supplies to start the new year. Most teachers make a Wal-mart or Target run in August, when school supplies are ridiculously cheap. Pick up a few packs of pens, some markers, and a couple of reams of colored paper for your new-teacher neighbor. Your PTO or grade-level/department could even have a teacher shower (like a wedding shower or baby shower) to help the new teacher. What a great tradition to start at your school!
Maybe your school already provides a “welcome” box of supplies for new teachers. In that case, you can help with posters and room decorations. That extra filing cabinet in your room and the reading group carpet in your closet could also make great gifts. Whatever your contribution, realize that new teachers may be several weeks away from their first paycheck, and they’ve recently had new household expenses (utility deposits, apartment security deposits, etc.) What may seem like a small token to you could be a big boost for a new teacher.
And I hate to write this, but I know it happens: resist the urge to pilfer items from a retiring teacher’s classroom. On more than one occasion I have begun at a new school where teachers had removed items from my classroom – file cabinets, computer speakers, and desks. At one school a teacher had unscrewed the pencil sharpener from the wall! Principals, you can make sure that this looting mentality is replaced with a spirit of helpfulness and generosity.
Helping with First Day Preparations
As a veteran teacher, there are many ways you can help your new colleague get ready for the first day of school. These tasks can include helping with room set-up, making photocopies, and demonstrating classroom technology (projector, interactive whiteboard, etc.) Simple tasks like making take-home folders, hanging posters, or demonstrating the use of classroom iPads can make a contribution to the new teacher’s early success.
Be a Lesson Plan Buddy
As far as I know, there’s no law that says lesson plans have to be original or unique. Casually ask the new teacher on your grade level, or in your department what they’re teaching during the first week. They may confidently tell you about their first unit of study, complete with formative and summative evaluations and a culminating project. Or they make break-down in tears and confess that they have no idea what they’re going to do once the kids arrive. (Teacher internships never begin on the first day of school, do they? Student teachers typically begin with a fully-functional classroom.)
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your lesson plans for the first few weeks of school. You’ll be doing the new teacher – and her students – a huge favor. As the days turn into weeks, you can expect the new teacher to reduce dependence on your plans, and begin to create her own.
And I can speak from experience on this topic. Many years ago I was hired to teach a popular elective at a brand new high school. Because enrollment shifted daily, I was assigned to teach an additional class of 11th grade American Literature less than a week before school began. To make matters worse, an ordering snafu meant no teachers in the school had literature textbooks or class novels. I’ll always remember the kind, experienced teacher next door who was also teaching American Lit. She said, “Follow me.” And I did. I stayed one day behind her, and followed her lesson plans for the first three weeks. Then the textbooks came in, and I planned my own units of study.
Become a Mentor
Does your school have a formal mentoring program for new teachers? Teacher mentoring programs can be critical to the development of new teachers. New teachers can learn curriculum requirements, teaching strategies, and professional practices from their more experienced colleagues.
Here are a few suggestions I would make about a mentoring program. Number one – the more similar the teaching assignments of the mentor and new teacher, the better. Ideally, the mentor should teach on the same grade level and/or department as the new teacher (and definitely in the same school.) Secondly, make sure the mentoring is specific and relevant. Resist the urge to introduce generic skills and techniques that may not be relevant to the new teachers’ needs. Finally, I would suggest scheduled mentoring sessions of 30 minutes each month. Bring a snack and keep it casual, but provide the opportunity for the new teacher to learn from your experience. Don’t wait for the new teacher to cry out for help. By then, it may be too late.
Be a Lifeboat Buddy
Even if you’ve been teaching only a year or two and you don’t feel qualified to serve as a mentor, you still have a lot of useful information to share with the new teacher. You can be their “lifeboat buddy.” The next-door neighbor is in the best position to do this.
“When we have a fire drill, follow my class down the hall – we’ll take a left and go out the double doors.”
“It’s 8 o’clock – you turned-in your lunch count, right?”
“The principal expects us to walk our kids to music class in a straight line, and we stay to the right.”
“Hey, let me show you how to work the copy machine.”
“We’ve got bus duty this week – you knew that, right?”
To be a good lifeboat buddy, you have to think like a new teacher. That’s why teachers with only one or two years of experience make great lifeboat buddies. Those procedural tasks are second-nature to teachers who have been at the school for several years.
Invite Them to Lunch (and Pay)
Being the new teacher can be lonely. Make sure to invite the new teacher to lunch during pre-planning days. And if that new teacher is a recent college graduate, insist on paying. Take-up a collection if you need to. A ten dollar lunch at Applebees may not seem like much to you, but it’s pretty expensive for a recent college grad. In other words, treat your new colleague like you’d expect your students to treat the new kid in your classroom.
New Teachers – Accept and Pay it Forward
If you’re a new teacher, you might feel hesitant to “take” so much from your new colleagues. After all, you’re new to the profession. How could you possibly pay them back?
The answer: you can’t. Instead, pay it forward. Graciously accept all of your experienced colleagues’ assistance. Next year become a “lifeboat buddy” for a new teacher at your school, and become a mentor when you feel qualified. Pay it forward, and contribute to the profession.
Suggestions for Administrators
Before I end this blog posting, I’d like to offer some suggestions for administrators to help make your new teachers’ first weeks of school pleasant and productive.
Keep pre-planning commitments to a minimum. If you think about it, meetings that involve every teacher on your faculty are pretty general in nature, and new teachers need specific guidance. They also need time to build their classrooms, plan lessons, and familiarize themselves with the school’s technology. All of those tasks take time. Some districts have flexible pre-planning schedules that allow new teachers to work before the school year begins. Other districts host useful district-wide orientation sessions for new teachers, where important procedural tasks are covered.
Stick to procedural basics. When you’re making a list of procedural tasks to explain to your new teachers, ask yourself this question: Do they need to know this during the first month of school, or can it wait? You can always schedule another meeting later in the school year, when your new teachers will have questions to ask.
Make a set of cheat sheets for web-based services. Back in the old days, we used to “call-in” sick. Now, of course, there’s a web-site for that. School districts also use web-based services for reporting maintenance issues, requesting tech support, and updating teacher web-pages and wikis. Make a one-page “cheat sheet” for each of these web-sites, with step-by-step instructions and a place for the teacher to write their username and password. Duplicate the sheets on color-coded paper, and put them in a file folder for quick reference. So, if you’re sick, pull-out your green sheet and follow the instructions. If you’re computer breaks, pull out the yellow sheet. Also, e-mail a PDF version of all cheat sheets to the teachers, so that they can save them to their smart phones.
Avoid difficult classroom assignments and extreme duties for your new teachers. Assuming that an equitable duty system is in place, the new teacher should assume the classroom and the duties of the teacher they replace. Unfortunately, sometimes schools have a pecking order, and the new teacher gets the worst classroom and the worst duties, as everyone else “moves up.” In secondary schools with more teachers than classrooms, new teachers often “float” from room to room during the day. While this may be unavoidable, steps can be taken to minimize the distance. Several years ago – in my first year at a large school – my classrooms were so far apart that I actually had to drive my car around the block to make it to my next class in time! At my first year at another school I had bus duty every day of the school year. Realistically, that shouldn’t happen. If everyone does their part, the work gets done.
Finally, realize that helping your school’s new teachers is a reward in itself. Teaching isn’t a zero-sum equation. If a new teacher is confident and proficient, that certainly doesn’t make the veteran teachers any worse. In fact, this veteran teacher can tell you that the school day is much more enjoyable when all teachers – regardless of their levels of experience – are highly skilled in the profession.
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.
...and if you stole my pencil sharpener 34 years ago from room 105, I forgive you. Just make sure to give it back when you're done.
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Authors note: this posting is dedicated to Mrs. Anita Ryall, my internship supervising teacher, mentor, and friend.
Just the other day I read another online article about a young, bright, sincere teacher who announced that he’s leaving the teaching profession after a couple of years. His comments were typical: it’s not like I thought it would be. I’m not making enough money. The kids are disrespectful. There’s too much paperwork. I’m not making enough money (oops, I said that already.)
My response to those articles is: Huh?
I can’t think of another job for which qualified candidates should be more knowledgeable and prepared. (A physician or nurse would be a close second.) Most – if not all – education students complete at least one classroom internship. Salary schedules and school reports are public documents, and easily accessed. There is simply no good reason for being completely surprised with a teaching job. Either you didn’t look, or you weren't paying attention.
Apologies if that was too rough. But it’s a lot like buying a used car, except the stakes are much higher. When you buy a used car, you do your research. You use the Internet to find a fair asking price. You pay $75 to have a qualified mechanic inspect the car. You buy a CarFax to make sure the car hasn’t been totaled or flooded. You work with your banker to see how much car you can afford.
A career choice deserves at least that much due diligence.
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. It is my hope that this information will find its audience.
The purpose of this article can be summarized in three words: Eyes Wide Open.
Teacher salary is often the main reason for new teacher attrition. Even if low pay is a secondary reason, it’s likely the tipping point. In other words, they’d put up with the other hassles if it paid more.
Salary First, realize that most school districts publish their teacher salary schedules online. That document is easily accessed and easily understood. If you’re interested in working for a school district and you can’t find their salary schedule online, call the human resources office and they’ll point you in the right direction. (Hint: sometimes it’s an appendix in the “Negotiated Agreement”- aka the teacher contract.)
Teachers are contracted on a yearly basis, so you can divide that amount by 12 to get your monthly salary. Unfortunately, that’s not your take-home pay. From that monthly salary you should deduct taxes, insurance, and union dues. Your district may also require a donation to your retirement account. What’s the total of all of these deductions? It varies, state to state. Your internship supervising teacher can be a great source of information. Don’t be afraid to ask. Of course the deductions described above aren’t unique to teaching. Everyone who works has payroll deductions.
Cost of Living The flip-side of the salary coin is the cost of living for the school district. In some counties a $50,000 annual salary will buy you a modest home and a comfortable lifestyle. In other areas, it’s barely a livable wage. Once again, the Internet is a wonderful place for finding home/apartment prices and utility rates. Research is the key to avoiding financial disillusionment.
Let’s Get Real A beginning teacher salary provides enough money for a modest lifestyle. If you’ve told yourself that you “need” a new car, a fancy home, and an extravagant yearly vacation, you probably won’t be happy with a beginning teacher’s salary.
Beginning teachers can become frustrated with the slow pace of their advancement on the salary schedule. Teacher salaries are based on your highest college degree and years of service. Yes, the experienced teacher next door may be making twice your salary. But that’s the system. (Make sure to ask that teacher about her first-year salary.) Also, there’s rarely a mechanism for earning bonuses. Coaches and band directors can earn supplements, but most will tell you that they’re underpaid for those extra hours.
However, realize that over the long haul, teaching offers a great deal of financial stability. Every year you’ll make a little bit more as you climb the salary ladder, and the entire salary schedule often adjusts to meet the cost of living. The insurance is typically affordable, and retirement is achievable at the 30 or 35 year mark, which is much earlier than many careers.
Another source of new teacher frustration is “the job” itself. Teachers complain about mountains of paperwork, extensive lesson plan requirements, and draconian evaluation systems. “I just want to focus on teaching!”
At some point, all teachers have had this fantasy: the room is silent, and 25 students stare attentively toward the front of the room. The teacher steps on a small platform and begins his discourse. Perhaps he recites a Shakespearean sonnet, dissects strategies of the Peloponnesian War, or explains the relevance of the Pythagorean Theorem to modern engineering. The students hang on every word, and frantically scribble notes in an effort to capture the very essence of the presentation. Forty-five minutes later, the teacher stops talking and bows his head. The room erupts in applause, several students weep, and the school resource office must forcibly clear the classroom as the bell rings….
…Wake up! WAKE UP!!!
Teaching’s not like that. Not even close. Of course, your internship made that clear, right? Unfortunately, many teachers enter the field with that expectation, and are disappointed when their classes don’t fit the fantasy profile.
Paperwork, lesson planning, and teacher evaluations are all important parts of a teaching career. Sure, sometimes it seems like there’s just too much. And yes, it would be nice to use that time to develop lessons. But understand that the current teaching job description includes these tasks and they do fill an important role: documentation. Education is almost completely standards-based. We’ve moved away from the teacher-centered classroom. You need to be able to document the lessons you present that teach each standard. Teacher evaluations can be tedious and nerve-wracking, but they show that you are an accomplished teacher, not just a college graduate. As data scientist W. Edwards Deming so famously stated, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” In today’s educational system, you need data to document your student’s achievements and your professional accomplishments.
The Respect Issue
Some new teachers cite the lack of respect as a reason for leaving the teaching profession. I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years, and I believe that the level of respect that teachers receive from students and parents is an individual characteristic, and not a societal perception. In other words, if students and parents don’t respect the teachers, it’s more about them, and less about you. Don’t take it personally.
I have worked at schools where the teachers were treated as respected members of the community. Parents would make a special effort to thank teachers for their hard work. At one school, Teacher Appreciation Day turned into Teacher Appreciation Week, with themed buffet lunches every day in the teachers’ lounge. A year later I worked in another district where the school and teachers were held in very low esteem.
We had great faculties at both schools, and my skills certainly hadn’t deteriorated over the summer. So what was the difference? -- the attitudes of the communities. The first community was a very respectful community. They recognized education as their child’s ticket to a successful future. They honored military members, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, too. The second community was disrespectful. They were disrespectful to all authority figures, their neighbors, and their family members. Unfortunately, some communities are just like that.
So my advice: XYZ. Examine Your Zip code. If you feel disrespected as a teacher, it’s probably because the values of the community don’t match your personal values, and you just don’t feel like putting up with it. Trust me – there are communities that would love to have sincere, hard-working teachers. And from my experience, this has little to do with the socioeconomics of the neighborhood.
Some educators would argue that it’s up to teachers to build that respect. Realize that schools are like battleships – they take a lot of effort to turn and they make big waves. Changing the culture of a disrespectful school will take time, a great deal of effort, and a captain (a principal) with a firm hand on the wheel. If a strong captain is in place, a sure course is set, and all of the crew members are receptive to orders, then sure, school culture can change. But if you’re already considering changing careers, you’re probably better off seeking a different teaching environment. Trust me – those respectful communities are out there. Ask around.
Advancement and Recognition
Finally, some new teachers become discouraged when they are excluded from recognition and quick advancement opportunities. Realize that as a teacher, you will be on the same organizational chart position as every other teacher in the school. Sure, some teachers are named grade-level leader or department chair, but that usually means a small stipend and a lot more work. In most cases, there is simply no promotion through the teacher ranks. Teachers don’t have supervisory duties over other teachers. If you want to be the boss, you need to go into administration – a task that holds little interest for most teachers.
Along the same line, don’t expect to earn a Teacher of the Year nomination during your first year, or even your fifth year. Many fine teachers teach 20 or more years before that recognition comes. If you need awards and accolades to be happy with a career, then teaching may not be the best fit for you.
Does that mean you’ll never get the recognition you deserve? Of course not. It just manifests in different ways – when a student says they can’t believe how much they learned this year; when a parent stops you in the grocery store and thanks you for being such a great teacher; when you receive an e-mail from a former student whose life you changed for the better. There’s no plaque for that; no elevation in pay grade or year-end bonus. But those are our rewards.
If you’ve read this blog post and you’ve decided to steer your career goals away from the teaching profession, that’s okay. Or maybe this dose of reality has helped you refocus your attention toward a career in teaching. Recall that it wasn’t my goal to convince you one way or the other.
Just remember – teaching is a career, not just a job. Every career has a downside. (If you don’t believe me, ask an attorney, a sales manager, a physician, an architect, etc.) Teachers invest in college preparation and develop the teaching craft over the course of many years. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Just realize the benefits and pitfalls of teaching so that you can run strong and win the race.
On a regular basis I read or hear about a parent group asking a school board to schedule school start times an hour or two later.
These well-meaning parents – typically flanked by doctors and psychologists – often present two arguments. First, they worry about their children’s safety at the bus stop – standing at a busy street corner or alongside an isolated country road in the pre-dawn hours.
Their second argument is much more common, and typically supported with reams of medical reports and psychological data stating that kids today just don’t get enough sleep. Let them sleep until 8 o’clock, they say, and their physical health, their mental health, and their grades will improve.
That mix of emotional and academic appeals weighs heavy on the minds of district administrators who strive to cram the required instructional minutes and the desired extra-curricular activities into a “ school day” that seems to get shorter every school year.
Is the Earth spinning faster? Does the sun shine less brightly? Why wasn’t this a problem 20 or 30 years ago?
Changing the school start time is not the answer to the bus stop safety issue or the sleep-deprived student issue. Ideally, a solution should erase the possibility of of a negative result, or at least decrease the likelihood significantly. Changing the school start time does neither. A school start time change impacts every family in the district, as well as all school employees. That's a big change, and big changes demand big results. Oh, the goals are worthy, but the solution is misplaced. Instead, let’s look at both matters and their solutions.
Waitin' for the Bus
First, the bus stop issue, because it’s the easiest. If a parent feels that their child is unsafe at the school bus stop, they should immediately bring this situation to the school district administrator in charge of transportation. Nobody wants a child to be in danger at the bus stop, and honestly, I can’t imagine a caring parent putting a child in that situation. A bus stop should be safe at all hours, not just broad daylight. The appropriate solution is clear – fix the bus stop! Don’t change the start time for every student (and teacher) in the school or district just because one or two bus stops are unsafe. Parents, principals, and administrators should work together to locate areas where students can safely wait for the bus in all seasons.
And really, are parents so helpless these days that they will put their child in danger just because the school says so? Are little Billy and Suzy condemned to standing in the gutter during a thunderstorm, surrounded by darkness and howling coyotes, just because school starts at 7:30 AM? If I’m that parent, I’m standing there with my child, safely away from the roadway with a flashlight (and umbrella) in hand. And later that day I’m at the district office, talking with the transportation supervisor. In fact, my complaint will probably motivate the superintendent to examine all of the bus stops, and solicit ways to make them safer. Every day. I’ll be a hero (if I’m not already!)
Sleepy, Sleepy Students
The second reason for changing the start time – lack of student sleep – is more prevalent. Fortunately, it has an easier solution. Are you ready? Go to bed earlier!
That’s it. The solution for being sleepy is more sleep. And if we want our children to get more sleep, then we have to make sleep a priority. We have to schedule it. It has to take precedence over other things. It’s a natural part of being a human, and like other biological functions, it can’t be ignored!
Let’s do the math. I’ll start with eight hours of sleep. Some of the later-start research suggests 9 or 10 hours for children, but I’ll be conservative. Let’s say your child has to get out of bed at 6 AM to get ready for school. That means bed-time is 10 PM. Lights out. Eyes closed. Sleep. Does your child need to get up at 5:30 AM? Then bed-time is 9:30 PM. Do the math.
Okay, the math part is easy. Then why do we see so many sleepy kids in school? Why are elementary children falling asleep at their desks? Why do middle schoolers yawn all day? Why are high school students missing first period because they can’t seem to get out of bed? I can think of three possible reasons that students aren’t getting to bed on time: homework, activities, and entertainment.
And as I write the following paragraphs, my mature years will become apparent. Times have changed, and so have attitudes about homework, activities, and entertainment. Until I was a junior in high school and working my first job at McDonalds, I had a parent-mandated bedtime. My parents weren’t strict; in fact they were probably more lenient than most. But they told me when to go to bed, and I accepted that. It was their house, and their rules. And I was never sleepy at school.
Too Much Homework
This reason is often given as rationale to start school later: children have to stay up late doing all the homework given by teachers.
Okay – so let’s say the child arrives at home at 4 PM. The kitchen table is cleared, the school books appear, and the homework begins. No cell phone. No texting. No Facebook. No TV. No MP3 player. Just homework. That’s how it was at my house, and completing homework in a timely manner was rarely a problem. Parents may need to sit beside the child to keep them on task. But the fun starts when the homework is finished.
Of course, I had a full-time Mom at home, and so did my daughter. And I realize that not everybody’s in that position. Many schools have after-school study halls where students complete their homework, and get help from teachers, too. Boys & Girls Clubs often provide similar services. Talk to your school administration about starting such a service. But the best time for homework is before supper. The longer it’s delayed, the harder it is for the child to start.
Could a child possibly have too much homework? Sure. I’ve seen it. This is especially true when middle school and high school students are taking a full schedule of advanced classes. Sit down with your child. Look over the assignments. If a child comes home from school and begins homework immediately, works continuously with minimal breaks, and still can’t get enough sleep, then the parent needs to talk to the principal. That sounds like a rare case of homework overload to me.
Too Many Activities
Many students are missing sleep because of the activities that they participate in. Sometimes these activities are school-related (sports, cheer, dance, band) and sometimes they aren’t (gymnastics, travel-team sports, private lessons, etc.)
I certainly see value in sports and activities. I played Little League baseball, joined several clubs, and played in the band when I was in school. Some of my fondest memories are from those activities. But I can honestly say it never got in the way of my schoolwork. My coaches, my band directors, and my club sponsors always made schoolwork a priority. Years later when I worked as a middle school librarian, the coaches hosted an afterschool/before-practice study hall for all athletes in the library. Those coaches made sure their athletes finished their homework.
Unfortunately, over-involvement in an activity can lead to missed bed-times. This is especially true with activities that aren’t related to school. Here’s an example: a few years ago a 7th grade girl in my first period class would arrive 30 minutes late half the time, and sleep in class the other half. Of course, we had a parent-teacher-student conference within a few weeks. This bright, pleasant young lady was practicing gymnastics at a local gym after school until 8 PM every night. Then she ate supper at home (or from drive-thru), attempted her homework, and went to bed. The next morning she was still exhausted, and the cycle began again. Of course, her emotions spilled over in the conference, and she explained that her parents were paying a lot for gymnastics lessons, and her coach really wanted her to win a medal at the next competition. She wasn’t having any fun, and she was failing most of her classes. This line of reasoning is totally illogical to most adults, but makes perfect sense to a 13 year old.
So, would a later start time help this girl get another hour of sleep? No. It would simply change her gym time to later in the evening. Starting school later means we end school later. At the risk of stating the absurd, starting school an hour later doesn’t add a 25th hour to the day.
Here’s an idea: all elementary and middle school-sponsored activities on a school night begin after the homework is finished and end by 8 PM. Get ‘em home, and get ‘em to bed.
Entertainment: Too Much Access, and Too Little Supervision
Actually, I think access to electronic entertainment and communication is the biggest reason we have so many sleepy students. Many students have unlimited access to home entertainment, with no one making them turn it off and go to bed. I’ve talked to several students who fall asleep in front of the TV every night. Changing a school start time won’t fix this.
Simply stated, a child’s bedroom shouldn’t be a home entertainment center. A teenager shouldn’t be tempted to stay up all-night and binge-watch Game of Thrones. Unplug the wi-fi. Confiscate the smart phone. No one really needs to be messaging with a tween or teenager after 10 PM. It can wait until tomorrow. It’s time to go to bed.
And any child who can operate a TV remote can operate an alarm clock. Students 12 and older can be responsible for setting that alarm and getting out of bed on time.
Children need an adequate amount of sleep. There’s no disputing that. But is the school start time really the problem? Are parents insisting on distraction free homework sessions? Are sports and activities prioritized properly? Are computers, TVs, video game systems, and smart phones turned off at bedtime? Is anybody taking responsibility?
Let me state – and this may surprise you – that it’s perfectly fine to change the school start time. You can start at 7 AM. Or 8. Or 9. It’s all good. But let’s be honest and mature about it. Let’s just say, “Hey, I think it would be great if school started at 9 AM!” and see who agrees with you. That means the school day is over around 4:30 PM. And if that’s what works for your community, then go for it.
But in the interim, let’s teach our children to be responsible, use their time wisely, and make the classroom a priority. We can rework the school bell schedule over and over, but we can’t add extra hours into the clock. And even if we could, would our children really use those hours to sleep?
Springtime is a tough time of the year to be a teacher.
Spring Break came and went too quickly. In the few weeks of school remaining we will administer state mandated tests and receive our annual evaluations. Many of us will complete our inservice requirements and submit annual teaching portfolios. On top of that, there’s field day, graduation, prom, and any number of concerts, school plays, field trips, and banquets. And don’t forget end-of-course exams for the secondary students, and promotion/retention conferences at the elementary level.
The sprint toward the school year finish line is stressful for most of us. Almost every day features some activity or requirement that has little to do with the curriculum. The optimism of August is a distant memory, and there’s not a school holiday in sight. The dream of making a difference gives way to the goal of just making it through the school year.
And many teachers consider calling it quits. When I hear about teachers who’ve left the profession, I wonder if a small (or even major) adjustment could have kept them in the classroom. What caused their dissatisfaction with the profession they prepared for? Did they just get a bad case of the teacher blues?
Please understand that I’m not addressing those teachers who’ve decided to leave the classroom to pursue other jobs, responsibilities, or interests. Certainly, there are several good reasons for ending a teaching career. I’m not suggesting that teachers who have carefully considered their options remain in the classroom as martyrs to their college degrees or schools. And sometimes a career change is in order. Most of us know a teacher who was miserable in the classroom, and didn't really have the aptitude for teaching.
No, I’m writing to those experienced teachers who feel a general malaise with their careers. You aren’t sure this is what you want to do for the next five or ten years. You’ve fallen out of love with teaching. You have the teacher blues.
But I believe in most cases, the teacher blues can be cured with a few adjustments. Maybe you’ll find one or two tips in this blog that will help.
Give yourself a room make-over.
Take a look at your classroom. Is it fun? Is it cheerful? Is it a place you feel comfortable? Think about it – you’re in this room for several hours a day. In fact, you probably spend as many (or more) waking hours in your classroom than you do at home. What have you done lately to make your classroom more pleasant? Do you still have those old Hannah Montana posters on the wall? Are those fake flowers on your desk older than your students? Do you still groan every time you sit in that World War II-era desk chair? Sounds like it’s time for an upgrade!
Let’s face it – most schools don’t budget for decorations or new furniture. You’re probably going to have to spend a little money. So, set a budget and see your project for what it is – an investment in your teaching career and mental health.
I admit, I hadn’t been in a Hobby Lobby until a few months ago. Wow! I could spend $100 and give my classroom a whole new look. Check out the All Posters web-site. They have thousands of posters at very reasonable prices. Give them your e-mail address, and you’ll get online coupons for discounts and free shipping.
Photographic enlargements are just a few dollars (cheaper with the coupon) at Walgreens. Print your favorite family and vacation photos, frame them, and create a teacher’s corner in your classroom. It will give your students a chance to know you as a person, not just a teacher. (That’s a joke.)
Also get on the Office Depot/Office Max e-mail list. When those cushy office chairs go on sale, you’ll be the first to know. Several years ago I bought an all-in-one laser printer for my classroom (printer/copier/scanner) and I can’t imagine life without it. It was on sale for less than $100. Generic toner is cheap on Amazon.com, and the convenience of making a quick copy in the classroom is wonderful!
Teachers are typically frugal, and you’re probably doing the math right now. Realize you don’t have to buy everything all at once. And remember – you’re making an investment in your career. For the price of a college textbook, you can create a happy classroom environment.
Develop a New Unit of Study
Have you been teaching the same curriculum using the same strategies and resources for the past several years? It’s time to update at least one unit of study. Maybe you’re teaching middle school science, and your curriculum includes natural disasters. Download some YouTube clips, schedule a guest speaker from the Red Cross, and design a post-disaster simulation project for your students. Pretty soon, you’ll be known as the "Master of Disaster" in your school, and other teachers across the district will be asking for your lesson plans.
Okay – so maybe you don’t teach middle school science, but the point is made. You don’t have to re-design the entire curriculum the first semester. But if you change one or two units each year, it won’t be too long until you’ve totally revamped your course.
Move to a New Classroom
How long have you been teaching in your classroom? Five years? Ten? If you have to stop and count, it’s probably time to trade. A change of scenery – even a few doors down the hall – can do wonders for the teacher blues. Consider asking your principal about changing rooms next school year.
Change Subjects or Grades
Can’t stand the thought of teaching 2nd grade again next year? Then don’t! Teach 3rd grade. Or 4th grade. Or kindergarten. Tired of world history? Teach United States history or civics instead. Most of us have teaching credentials that allow us to teach several subjects and grades levels. Express your interests to your principal, and see what develops. A colleague could be looking to switch, too!
Sponsor a Club
Becoming a club sponsor can breathe new life into your teaching career. Use your expertise, interests, and talents and form a club at your school. Sponsoring an extra-curricular activity gives you a chance to work with small groups in a setting that’s less formal than the classroom. Even if you don’t have time for a full-year club, consider a short-term involvement. You could sponsor a Thanksgiving canned food collection, or organize an Angel Tree Christmas project at your school.
A few years ago I was digging through a cabinet in my new classroom and I found the Chess Club Champions plaque. The names of the school chess champions were inscribed on the plaque, but no names had been added in several years. I asked around school, and discovered that the chess club sponsor had retired several years ago, and the club disbanded. Long story short: I decided to restart the club. By the end of the school year, we had 30 members and crowned a new chess champion. And I don’t even like chess! We met two afternoons a month, and my commitment was minimal. The kids just wanted to play chess, and I gave them a venue.
Okay, this might seem a little drastic for some of you. But if you’ve truly got a bad case of the teacher blues, you may need to investigate changing schools. I have known several teachers who were miserable at one school, and absolutely thrilled at another school. One teacher had the fewest years of experience in a very experienced math department. Every year his job was in jeopardy, based on enrollment projections. One year he asked for a transfer, and he quickly became a department leader at his new school.
Another teacher – an elementary library media specialist – grew weary of budget cuts that threatened his re-hire status on a yearly basis. He bravely dove into the transfer pool, and landed his dream job – teaching digital photography at a top-rated middle school. He even wrote a textbook based on his experiences. (That’s me, by the way.)
Maybe your daily commute is to blame. You've grown weary of a long drive each morning and afternoon, and you've actually calculated the number of hours you spend in the car each month, and counted the number of schools you drive past. A switch to a school closer to your home or closer to your child’s school could alleviate those stressors.
Are you hesitant to change schools, for fear of looking like a quitter? Just remember – you signed a one-year contract. You completed that year. You’ll be working in the same career, and probably for the same employer (the school district.) You’re just changing your location. And if that simple change cures your teacher blues, then it’s worth it.
Take a College Class or Attend a Conference
Are your teacher blues the result of curriculum stagnation or a lack of collegial involvement? In other words, are you professionally bored and lonely? You can update your knowledge base (and work toward recertification, too) by taking a college class in your subject area. A class at any level – including community college – is bound to result in new information and ideas.
Your class may even take your career in a different direction. Case in point: my good friend Mike. He was a PE teacher, and took a ceramics class. This class led to a love of art and a career as a pottery teacher at a visual and performing arts magnet school. Mike’s now the potter-in-residence at a prestigious folk art school in the Appalachians.
Professional conferences can also be quite invigorating, especially for teachers who don’t have subject-area colleagues at their schools, such as art teachers and library media specialists. At an educational conference you can learn about teaching strategies, curriculum resources, and new technologies. Contact your fellow teachers at nearby schools, and organize a trip. Spend the night, enjoy a good meal, and network with your fellow professionals.
Put the Teaching Experience in Perspective
Are your teacher blues related to the non-curricular aspects of teaching? Are you frustrated by the ever-changing teacher evaluation system? Are you discouraged by the hours of high-stakes testing your students endure? Are you disappointed in your students’ behavior? Maybe it’s time to put it all in perspective.
Employees are evaluated by their superiors in almost every career. Performances of fast-food burger flippers and corporate CEOs are measured by their respective bosses. Fortunately, as teachers we have a degree of input and control in the process. Volunteer to serve on your school or district-level evaluation committee. Learn all you can about the evaluation process. Provide professional and courteous input through the proper channels.
High-stakes testing looks like it is here to stay, but the pendulum appears to be swinging back toward moderation. And if you’re struggling with classroom behavior issues, consult a more experienced peer, attend a workshop, or read a professional book about constructive classroom discipline.
And if you’re relatively new to the teaching profession, realize that teaching is a craft that will probably take years to develop. Your teaching skill set will improve, and your curriculum repertoire will expand over time. Teachers experiencing the teacher blues after only one or two years on the job probably have unrealistic expectations of their abilities.
I can tell you right now – I stunk my first two years of teaching. But I remember as I stood before my class on the first day of my third teaching year, something clicked. I had my units mapped out for the entire semester. (I was teaching public speaking class.) My student assignment sheets and my grading sheets had been copied, and were organized in my filing cabinet. My lecture notes were filed as well, and I’d already taught those lessons several times before. I knew what worked before and what didn’t – keeping the former and discarding the latter. In year three, I had finally found my “sweet spot” in the classroom. Thirty years later, I’m glad I didn’t let my teacher blues derail my career.
The Season for Decision
Finally, realize that the end of the school year is probably the worst time to make a career decision. Most of us are eager for eight weeks of blissful summertime self-direction. If you’re sincerely considering leaving the teaching profession, make that decision in August, not May. Give yourself time to think and meditate on the previous school year. Instead of dwelling on the low points of the system, think about ways to improve your teaching experience and satisfaction.
The teacher blues are real. Don’t throw away your career, when one or two simple changes could provide the cure.
Can you imagine a school without volunteers?
I can, but I don’t want to! Who would listen to the first graders read? Who would run the book fair? Who would alter the chorus uniforms? Who would organize the fundraisers, help the sixth graders find their next classes, and open the kindergarteners’ milk cartons?
Can you imagine a school where math homework papers are stacked a foot high on every teacher desk? Can you imagine library carts filled with returned books that no one has time to correctly shelve? Can you imagine the cancelled field trips?
Not a pretty sight, huh? That’s a school without volunteers.
The school personnel budget usually funds the essential workers, and gives them time to do essential tasks. But most parents and community members want a little extra, and they don’t mind donating some time to make those extras happen. That’s the premise behind school volunteerism. I’ve worked at schools with vibrant, supportive volunteer programs, and I’ve worked at schools with almost no volunteer effort. The differences are profound. Trust me.
Typically, new volunteers are given guidelines that form the basis of the school volunteer program. Be on time, and call when you can’t make it. Respect student confidentiality. Dress appropriately. Sign-in at the office, and wear your name-tag. All of these things are important if you want to be a good volunteer.
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.
In this post, I’ll try to describe the characteristics that I have observed in these special volunteers.
The best school volunteers do what needs to be done.
What do you need me to do? These words are precious to the teacher or school administrator. Sure, some volunteer-based tasks - such as organizing a fundraiser or maintaining the school web-site – are intellectual and complex. But most tasks are simple and menial. Think about some of the volunteer-based tasks at your school – grading spelling tests, signing-in tardy students, and sorting band uniforms. Those aren’t very glamorous tasks. On the job market, a similar job would pay only a few dollars an hour. But the best volunteers don’t see it that way. They jump in and help wherever they’re needed. They realize that even the most menial task contributes to the smooth functioning of the school. They come to the school to serve, and they understand that sometimes important tasks aren’t particularly attractive or fascinating.
The best school volunteers share their experience when it benefits instruction.
Sometimes, in our thankfulness for their volunteer work, we teachers forget that our school volunteers have a wealth of experience and education on a variety of topics. Perhaps a volunteer has visited, or even lived in a country that the geography class is studying. Or maybe the volunteer is a retired oceanographer who can contribute to the class’ unit on marine life. The list of examples is endless, and you get the idea. All too often we see that volunteer in our classroom as a blank slate, and that's far from true. Of course, given the humble nature of the best volunteers, we may have to pry that information out of them! Just don’t forget to ask your volunteers about their hobbies and interests, and invite them to contribute to your class at the appropriate times. Who knows? – that expert you need may be grading the math homework in you classroom!
The best school volunteers understand their time commitments.
Most volunteers would like to volunteer many hours at the school. But realistically, volunteers have other time commitments in their lives. The best volunteers understand those commitments, and they don’t over-extend themselves. Some people volunteer several hours a day, several days a week. (These volunteers are mistaken for full-time employees!) Of course, most volunteers work fewer hours. The important thing is to establish a schedule that’s comfortable for the volunteer.
Here are a couple of examples from my days as an elementary library media specialist. One of my library volunteers loved to work the book fairs, and I loved to have her help! After a couple of book fairs, it was apparent that she could actually handle the entire task herself. So each year she would clear her personal schedule for the week of the book fair, and work as a full-time volunteer. She didn’t volunteer in the library any other times – she volunteered in her granddaughters classroom, at her church, and helped family members instead. Here’s another example from the same library: a parent with two elementary-age children wanted to help shelve library books right before dismal time for the day. So, on random days she would come in the last hour of the day and volunteer. Some weeks she would help three or four times. And sometimes I didn’t see her for a week or more. But she helped when she could, and I always appreciated her contributions.
Of course there are negative examples as well. When I worked as a librarian at another school, one volunteer scheduled herself to work twice a week for two hours. It was quickly apparent that this was too large a commitment for her. She would rush in 5-minutes later than scheduled, apologizing profusely (not that her apology was required or expected.) Many times she had coffee and a pastry in-hand, because she didn’t have time for breakfast. Another day she brought her toddler because her baby-sitter was sick (yes, she was hiring a sitter so that she could volunteer!) After a few weeks I tactfully spoke with her and encouraged her to reevaluate her availability. Unfortunately, this led to embarrassment, and she didn’t volunteer again. In hindsight, I should have talked with her about her time schedule before she committed to volunteer at the school.
The best school volunteers accept a simple “thank you” as payment.
Do schools appreciate volunteers? We certainly do! And unfortunately we can’t afford to pay volunteers what they’re worth. The best volunteers understand this, and accept our thanks as payment. Yes, we’ll probably have a volunteer appreciation luncheon, and you may get a coffee mug full of Hershey Kisses. But any money spent on extravagant parties or expensive gifts ultimately takes money away from the students. The best volunteers understand this.
The best school volunteers train other people to take their place.
Most volunteers enjoy serving at the school their child attends. And of course, as children get older, they change schools! It’s great when a volunteer adopts a protégé who will fill their shoes when they move on to the middle school or high school.
Recently I worked at a middle school with an awesome band program. Each fall a group of dedicated parents fits each bandsman with a uniform and makes the needed alterations. And every spring the uniforms are collected, mended, and organized for next year’s distribution. This process has gone on like clockwork for longer than anyone can remember. Have the current volunteers been serving for 20 years? Of course not! Each year a few new band parents are recruited as the 8th grade parents move up to the high school. The replacements are trained, and the well-oiled machine continues.
Thank you, volunteers!
As you read this posting, you probably thought of the wonderful volunteers that serve at your school. Why not send an email link to your best volunteers, and let them know how much you appreciate them? We certainly can’t pay our volunteers what they’re worth, and we don’t know how we’d get along without them.
Professional development is an important part of the teaching profession. It seems like every year we have something new to learn. There’s always a new teaching strategy out there that can improve teacher performance and student achievement. Some subjects – especially those related to geography, science and technology – have new course content every year. And most teachers attend professional development workshops about new teacher evaluation systems, new textbook series, and new educational standards. Whew! That’s a lot of “new.” For teachers, being a student is a big part of the job.
Most school districts require teachers to keep track of their professional development experiences. In some states, it’s part of the certificate renewal process; other states require professional development for contract renewal. Whether professional development is required annually or every few years, most of us face a day of reckoning: the point tally. We make a list of the professional development workshops we’ve attended throughout the year, count the points, and see how we measure-up against the requirement. It’s a lot like opening that first winter power bill – you’re hoping you’ve got enough points banked to cover it. But if you don’t, you’ll have to scramble pretty quickly.
And realistically, that what happens. We search the school bulletin board and the district web-site for an all-day workshop. We scour the Internet for upcoming webinars. We stop by the local community college to check the course listings. All too often, these last-minute efforts are only marginally relevant. When the cut-off date approaches, we’re not too picky. Points and deadlines. Deadlines and points. Reach the goal, and the clock starts again.
The purpose of this post is not to criticize the excellent professional development offered by school districts, online providers, and conference committees. I’m certainly thankful that teachers have these opportunities. And I’m not criticizing the over-worked teacher who just can’t find the time to attend workshops, college classes, or conferences. And I’m not calling for an end to professional development requirements for teachers. After 33 years of teaching, I’m still learning how to be a better teacher. But, I admit that I probably wouldn’t attend as many workshops as I do if they weren’t required for contract renewal.
So what am I saying? Simply, that we need to broaden the definition of professional development to include self-directed activities. Teachers should be able to earn professional development points for personal and collegial activities.
Intrigued by that thought? Read on.
Content-area Knowledge Enhancement
Teachers should receive professional development points for learning about the subjects that they teach. What if a history teacher visits a historic site with her family? Isn’t that professional development? I can see that teacher learning information, taking photographs and gathering materials that will make it back to the classroom. How about a middle school English teacher attending a lecture by a visiting YA author? Or a science teacher visiting the Kennedy Space Center? All of these initiatives would certainly develop the teacher professionally.
But learning more about the content that we teach doesn’t have to involve trips to museums. Sometimes we just need some time to explore the material that’s already at our fingertips. Wouldn’t it be great if the math teacher could receive professional development credit for a Saturday spent exploring that big box of manipulatives that arrived with the new math series? Or what if the history teacher had extra motivation to read that new book about the Lewis and Clark expedition? I’m sure the science teacher deserves credit for a day spent researching and developing new hands-on experiments for her students.
As a former technology teacher, I can certainly relate to this. It seems like the software company released a new version every year, and I spent a few Saturdays learning the features and capabilities. I certainly didn’t mind the extra work, and I enjoyed teaching the latest versions of the software to my students. But shouldn’t I get a few hours of professional development credit for that? I was certainly developing my professional capabilities.
Realize I’m not talking about learning opportunities that could be accommodated in the daily planning period. I’m talking about in-depth, self-directed learning opportunities. Professional development.
Teachers should be able to earn professional development points when they form a learning community with other teachers. I enjoy workshops with the “out-of-town” experts (and many of you know that I have been that expert on many occasions.) But typically in any teacher workshop, all of the participants have a college degree and many years of experience. Let’s not make the assumption that each teacher knows what all of the other teachers know. We can learn from each other. There’s lots of knowledge in that room, and most of the participants would be happy to share. Let’s call that sharing what it is: professional development.
Over the years I have attended dozens of professional development workshops. Let me describe the session that had the biggest impact on my career. During my early years as a library media specialist (Okaloosa County, Florida – mid 1990s) we had an especially productive library program throughout the district, led by a dynamic advocate in the district office. Our regular monthly meetings always resulted in new ideas.
For one meeting our district librarian asked everyone to bring 40 copies of our favorite handout that we used with students, and to prepare to talk one minute about our handout. You can guess what happened at the meeting. Everyone got a file-folder of handouts, and a brief description by the librarian. Ten years later I was still using information I obtained at that meeting with my students! We were the experts. I’m sure most schools, departments, and faculties could host similar share-and-tell events. And those events should be opportunities to earn professional development credit.
My first teaching job began in 1983 at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando. At that time, Oak Ridge had about 3,000 students. I taught speech, debate and grammar as part of a 30-teacher English department. Professional development and teacher evaluation were a little less structured back then. Basically, if the principal said you were a good teacher and progressing in the profession, your contract was renewed and you got to teach another year.
I was observed that first year by the principal, Mr. Bill Spoone. After the lesson, he shook my hand and told me I did a good job. Then, he handed me a half-sheet of notebook paper that listed the names of five or six teachers. “Go watch these people teach, then tell me what you think.”
I checked the master schedule, and made contact with each teacher. (It was a bit awkward. I was the 22-year old rookie, and these teachers were definitely more experienced.) I arranged to observe each teacher once or twice during my planning period. In addition to the expected English teachers, there was a history teacher, a science teacher, and even a foreign language teacher on the list.
As you can imagine, I learned more by observing those teachers that I did in my two years of university education classes. I saw an English teacher deliver passionate lectures on poetry (5 years before the movie, Dead Poets Society.) I saw a science teacher guide his students through a hands-on lab. I heard a French teacher gently prod the correct pronunciations from a class of high schoolers. I saw a history classroom decorated with student-created posters and projects. All of these experiences continue to shape my teaching 30 years later. Can we please give professional development points for teachers who observe their more experienced peers?
Closing thoughts. As you read my suggestions, you probably thought about the potential for abuse. Couldn’t the history teacher just say he visited the Civil War battlefield while on vacation? Couldn’t the member of the cohort group just toss the shared handouts in the trash? Couldn’t the first-year teacher conspire with his experienced colleague to fabricate a list of classroom observations (nod, nod, wink, wink?) Well, sure. But that’s where we have to remember the “professional” part of professional development. We have to trust that teachers will act with integrity and hold themselves accountable. (A one-page written report describing the professional development experience would certainly be appropriate documentation.) Is there potential for abuse? Sure. Just like some teachers make grocery lists in district-sponsored workshops and watch the ballgame while listening to a webinar. System abuse is regrettable, but hardly unique to self-directed professional development activities.
Professional development is essential for long-term excellent teaching practice. Self-directed professional development activities deserve a place alongside more traditional district-based workshops and college classes. Awarding professional development credit for the experiences described in this post would encourage all teachers to improve their teaching repertoire while sharing their knowledge with their colleagues.
In my 30+ year teaching career, I’ve had the good fortune to teach students in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. I’ve worked as a classroom teacher, a library media specialist, and a college adjunct instructor. I’ve taught required classes and electives. My youngest student was 4 years old, and my oldest was in her 70’s. The ability to work with so many age groups in so many settings has been a blessing.
My varied experiences have also given me the opportunity to see education from many different perspectives. Several times in my career my long-held beliefs have been crushed by first-hand experiences. Here’s an example: before I started working at the elementary level, I couldn’t understand why some first graders couldn’t read at a first-grade level. I mean, at the beginning of first grade, nobody can read, right? Elementary teachers are probably grinning at my past naiveté.
I’ve also concluded that elementary classroom teachers are probably the most misunderstood group in the field of education. So, in this post I offer six things that elementary teachers wish other educators understood. The list isn’t all-inclusive; I’m sure every elementary teacher could add one or more items. My hope is that secondary teachers and administrators can gain a deeper understanding of elementary school life, and an appreciation for those hardworking elementary teachers who teach in this challenging environment. I also hope to put smiles on the faces of my elementary colleagues.
(Note: although I’ve never worked as an elementary classroom teacher, I have worked alongside them as an elementary library media specialist. I’ve written this post in first-person. Please indulge my literary license.)
"We don’t just play games and take naps."
Have you looked at the elementary textbooks recently? Our students are expected to read and write multi-sentence passages by the end of kindergarten. In math, they’re adding and subtracting. In other words, kindergarten is the new first grade.
We teach some intense material in elementary school. Do we sometimes use games as a teaching strategy? Sure. Kids love games, and it keeps them involved with the lesson. Elementary attention spans are notoriously short, and with so much to teach we use all of the tools in our teaching tool-kit every day.
And no, we don’t take naps anymore. Not on purpose, anyway.
“For us, reading is a skill.”
If you teach language arts in middle school and high school, you probably focus on literary elements, expressive language, character analysis, and development of an intrinsic appreciation of literature. We understand those things. We went to college, too.
But for us, reading is a skill. Students come to us at age five, and they don’t know how to read … yet. It’s our job to teach them the skill of reading. Like any skill – swimming, riding a bicycle, learning a new language – instruction and practice are critical.
So yeah, we get excited when a student earns 100 AR points. It means they’ve read a pile of books, and that’s practice. They will be a better reader when they get to your English class. They’ll be more successful in their other classes, too, because they can read grade-level textbooks. And correct me if I’m wrong, but most of the math problems on your middle school standardized tests are word problems. You’re welcome.
And by the way, several literary concepts including plot, characters, setting, and sequence of events are in our elementary language arts standards. In first grade. Really.
“Yes, those participation ribbons are important.”
We get some grief from a few parents and secondary educators whenever we hand out participation ribbons at field day or other school events. “You should only recognize the winners,” they say.
With all due respect, they’re missing the point. In elementary school, we’re not necessarily trying to determine the fastest kid, the best speller, or the student who knows the most states and capitals. When we award participation ribbons, we’re recognizing the act of completion. You did it. You gave it your best. You finished the race. You didn’t quit. Those are elementary lessons. Give me a class full of middle school students who learned how to persevere in elementary school, and I can teach them anything. Giving-up is a bad habit, and it begins in elementary school.
You know that husky high school football player who just earned a college football scholarship? He was the slowest kid in my third grade class. His torso grew wide before his legs grew long. But he finished the race on field day and got his participation ribbon. Eventually his legs grew longer, he continued his interest in athletics, and he became an excellent high school athlete. We saw that potential when he was a pudgy 8-year-old. He just needed a little time and a little encouragement. And he needed someone to celebrate his sincere best effort.
“Some students are already behind on the first day of kindergarten.”
Imagine a kindergarten class on the first day of school. There they are. None of them have had a single day of schooling. They are all a blank slate. They’re all at the starting block of the educational marathon. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You see, there’s just one prerequisite for kindergarten: age. If a child is five years old by a certain date, they’re in kindergarten. There’s no entrance exam, and no prerequisite class. Just days on a calendar.
We conduct a screening evaluation for every new kindergartner. We ask them to identify shapes (“Point to the circle”) and numbers (“Can you show me the number 3?) We ask them to say their name, their address, and their birthday. Some kindergartners come to us singing the A-B-C song, writing their names, and adding 2 + 2. Other students don’t know what a square looks like, and they can’t pick out the yellow crayon in the box. Some students are ready for kindergarten, and some just aren’t. We have 10 months to get them all ready for first grade.
Add to that the age discrepancy or our kindergartners. Let’s imagine the birthday cut-off date is August 1st. The oldest child in my class could turn 6 on the first day of school. The youngest child could be five all school year. Any parent or elementary teacher can tell you that’s a big difference at that young age.
“We agonize over every child who needs to be retained.”
When one of our students is in danger of failing for the year, it weighs heavy on our minds, and keeps us awake at night. I was his only teacher this year. Is there something I could have done differently? Is there any way he can meet the goals for this year? If I retain him, will my principal give me another chance with him next year?
We have to consider whether it’s more effective to have the child repeat the grade, or to send him or her on to the next grade level with deficient skills. Will those deficiencies be corrected in a few months, or will the child continue to perform poorly? There’s really no way to be sure. And sometimes when we make the painful decision to retain, the parent insists on promotion.
When a student fails your high school math class, they might have to take summer school, or just double-up on math credits next school year. When an elementary student fails a grade, their entire educational time-table is delayed. They join an entirely new peer group. They graduate a year later. This is the toughest decision an elementary teacher has to make. Every elementary teacher knows the name of every child they have ever retained.
"You’re basically seeing the continuation of what we started."
Obviously, as secondary teachers, you’re teaching advanced skills. We get that. But please, don’t forget that we built the ground floor.
You’re teaching calculus, and we taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You’re teaching chemistry, and we taught the scientific method. You’re teaching anthropology, and we taught them how to read a map. You’re teaching literary analysis, and we taught them how to read. We enjoy being part of that process. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the end-result as much as we’d like.
As you can tell, I have a great deal of respect for my elementary colleagues. I hope this post has made all of my readers consider the important work done by elementary teachers every day. Maybe you could send a quick e-mail or Facebook message to your friends who teach elementary school. Thank them for the groundwork they created for your students. And I understand they like chocolate, although that may just be a rumor.
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.
A few years ago, when working at an elementary school, I attended a beginning-of-the-year faculty meeting. Most teachers are familiar with these meetings. Well-rested and enthusiastic teachers greet one another and share stories of summer adventures over coffee and pastries. The principal points out changes in school policies, and welcomes new faculty members. Typically, there’s an activity that helps set the tone for the arduous task ahead. At this particular meeting the principal asked us to focus on our first-day-of school activities, and develop ways to get all students involved in the classroom. We split into small groups and began sharing.
An enthusiastic upper-elementary teacher went first: “On the first day of school, we move the desks against the wall, and we all stand in a circle in the middle of the room. I do a quick dance move for the students, and all the students learn that move. Then we go around the circle and each student adds a move to the dance. Within a few minutes, we’ve created our own Class Dance! We do this dance every morning as a way to celebrate our class."
One veteran teacher asked, “Do all of the students participate?”
“Most of them do,” she replied. “Every year I have two or three real sticks-in-the-mud who won’t dance for us. Oh well. Their loss.”
“That would have been me,” I confessed. My table-mates glared incredulously. “I’d take the zero. That’s way out of my comfort zone.”
My guess is that those students standing in the corner could write down every dance move in that class. They could illustrate each dancer, scan the drawings into a computer, and make a great PowerPoint. The students who don’t want to dance (or sing, or do anything loud, really) are introverts. As an introvert myself, I can identify with those students. We are naturally observant. We’re not anti-social. We enjoy good fun. We simply don’t care for the spotlight.
In this posting, I’d love to share some of the challenges faced by introverts in the classroom. I’ll also share some ideas about making your classroom comfortable for all students. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences as a student or a teacher.
Understanding the Terms
An introvert isn’t someone who’s just quiet or shy. Sure, introverts can be quiet, and introverts can be shy. But that’s really not what it’s about.
Several books have been written about introversion and extroversion, and I won’t try to summarize them here. The Myers & Briggs Foundation has provided widely-accepted explanations of the two personality characteristics.
Here’s what an extrovert might say:
"I like getting my energy from active involvement in events and having a lot of different activities. I'm excited when I'm around people and I like to energize other people. I like moving into action and making things happen. I generally feel at home in the world. I often understand a problem better when I can talk out loud about it and hear what others have to say." (1)
An introvert might say this:
"I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I'll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing." (2)
So, it’s not really about loudness. It’s about focus. Are we focusing on the outside world, or on our inner thoughts and ideas? Of course, introversion and extroversion are best described as general tendencies on a continuum. While some people are extremely introverted and others are extremely extroverted, most personalities can be charted in a nebulous area on either side of the scale. And as we grow older, we learn to adapt to situations that are uncomfortable for us. I’m an introvert, but I can fake it when I need to.
Introversion is not Shyness
Before we move on, let’s understand that when discussing personality, shyness isn’t the same as introversion. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment. (3) Shy people are fearful that any outward display will receive negative feedback. Shyness is about fear, which can be reduced and even eliminated in some environments. Introversion is about preference, and we really can’t convince people that they prefer one thing when in fact they prefer another.
Realize, of course, that extroverted people can be very shy. Barbara Streisand, a gifted performer with an outgoing personality suffers from stage-fright (shyness.) And introversion and shyness don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who doesn’t have a problem with shyness, has an introverted personality. (4)
Those children in your class who aren’t outgoing and prefer quiet environments may not necessarily be shy. They’re not afraid of being criticized for their actions. Their only fear is that an authority figure (the teacher) will require, coerce or bully them into acting in a way that’s uncomfortable, or that they will be placed in an environment that overwhelms them. They want to succeed. They are introverts.
And there are more of them than you think. A conservative estimate puts the percentage at 25%. Forty to fifty percent is probably more accurate. Some introverted students are simply more skilled at adapting to the extroverted environment of the modern classroom.
Class Dance, anyone?
Those readers of a certain age remember when introversion was a desired trait among students. The assignments – copying work from the board, solving math problems, memorizing facts, writing compositions – favored students who could sit quietly and be self-sufficient in their own thought world. Students who had to move about and talk to someone during class often found themselves missing recess or wearing the dunce cap on a corner stool. “Turn and share” hasn’t always been a teaching strategy. The active, sensory-stimulating classroom is a relatively new practice. Through no fault of their own, introverted students have become less fashionable – and are often deemed less-capable – than their peers.
Extroversion and Introversion in the Classroom
Think about your classroom. Are there opportunities for introverted students and extroverted students to succeed? Here are some things to consider.
Classroom Environment. Are there locations in the classroom that offer different degrees of stimulation? Are students free to move to those areas when needed? Overstimulation is a big problem for many introverts. We usually think of isolation as punishment, but for many introverted students it can be a welcome respite from a hectic learning environment. A recent classroom trend has been the introduction of bouncing ball seating for students. Students sit on oversized beach balls, bouncing gently and shuffling their feet while learning at their desks. Other schools have added bicycle pedals under student desks to “work out the wiggles.” While this is great for action-oriented extroverts, it can be a nightmare for the introverts who prefer a less stimulating environment. Once again, it’s all about choice and access.
Student Performance. If performance-based assignments are used, are provisions made for both introverted and extroverted students? Acting-out scenes in history class can be fun, but some of your students won’t be comfortable with that. Those students could probably display their in-depth knowledge by writing a poem, drawing a map, or creating an electronic presentation.
Using Introverts’ Strengths. Are you taking advantage of your introverted students’ abilities? Several years ago I was responsible for guiding a drama class through the production of the school play. (Admittedly, I was a terrible choice for the job. I hadn't been in a school play since elementary school, much less directed one.) A young man in my drama class nervously approached me one day. “Mr. Kyker, I want to be the curtain puller. I can also move the set pieces, organize the costumes, and keep track of the scripts.” Of course, what he was telling me was that he didn’t want to be in the play. I told him that I didn’t need a curtain puller, but I sure could use an assistant director. He was my right-hand man for the next month, and he really enjoyed his involvement in the play.
For three years I taught a popular digital photography class in middle school. As you can imagine, about 90% of my students were introverts. One of my more introverted students was a real innovator. He developed several creative photography techniques and continuously explored functions of the software that I didn’t have time to teach. He was also very adept at writing down the step-by-step process to achieve his masterful results. Often, he’d send me these “Photoshop recipes” via e-mail and I would post them on our class web-site. The only credit he wanted was his first name – Jackson – in a tiny font at the bottom of the page. Within a few weeks, the Jackson Guides became a mainstay of our class, and none of the students had any idea where I got them! Occasionally, a student would say, “We need a Jackson Guide for this!” I would make quick eye contact with Jackson and ten minutes later a new Jackson Guide would be in my email inbox.
Elective Classes. Administrators, are you offering electives that appeal to introverted students? Let’s revisit our introvert’s statement: I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. Drawing/painting, ceramics/sculpture, photography, computer skills, creative writing and weightlifting are a few electives that introverts will find appealing.
Stretching the Comfort Zone
It’s okay to gently stretch the comfort zones of your introverted students. Realistically, very few successful adults will be able to live rewarding lives in an exclusively introverted setting. As with any new, uncomfortable experience, you want to provide a low-stakes, high-success opportunity.
My digital photography students – almost all introverts – composed a multimedia essay for their final projects. Each student read a simple script as their photos and videos were displayed. They all wanted to record the script and embed it into the video, but I insisted on a “live” reading. Of course, they were reading from notecards. The lights were dimmed. And all eyes were on the screen, not the student. Everyone passed, and nobody passed out!
My drama assistant director stood on-stage as an “extra” in one play performance. That was his idea. He didn’t want a line to speak, and he didn’t want to bow onstage at the end of the performance. He wanted to “wade in the water,” and I was proud of him for taking that step. You can probably think of many ways to gently encourage your introverted students to take small, safe steps into the spotlight.
It is possible for teachers to push too hard when engaging introverted students. Efforts to bring introverted students “out of their shells” can easily descend into cajoling, nagging, or even shaming. As a high school student I was told that keeping ideas to myself was selfish, because the group could benefit from my insights in a class discussion. That didn’t help. I didn’t feel selfish. I simply wasn’t willing to make the presumptive jump that my ideas would work for someone else. With 40 years to think about it, I probably could have contributed more. But we learn as we grow.
Years later, after my first textbook was published, I was asked to speak to local educational groups. Initially I rejected invitations, not because of shyness (fear), but because I really didn’t feel like I had anything to say. Fortunately my co-author, an extrovert, welcomed the chance to work with other teachers and share our ideas. He and I spoke at several dozen conferences over the next 14 years, and I eventually learned to enjoy it. Still, the keyboard is much more comfortable than the podium.
In just about every classroom situation there are ways for introverts to participate. Rather than ask for volunteers (which will almost always be extroverts) quietly ask an introverted student if he or she would like to perform these roles. Introverts are very observant by nature, and would love to be the class note-taker, or the arranger of classroom materials. Rather than speak before the entire group, an introverted student would enjoy guiding one or two new students around campus, tutoring younger students in basic skills, or explaining the homework assignments to students who have been absent. When I worked as an elementary library media specialist, my best “reading buddies” (5th graders reading with 2nd graders) were introverts.
Here’s what introverts need to hear: it’s okay to contribute. We won’t think you’re trying to draw attention to yourself. You’ll actually be helping. Nobody’s forcing you, but when you get ready, we’d like your input.
Realize also that when grouping students, it’s desirable to put introverts and extroverts together. They need each other. Introverts need extroverts to help them move to the next task. Extroverts need introverts to slow the process down and evaluate all the options. This brings balance to the group. A group of extroverts will generate a quick result that may have a fatal flaw. A group of introverts will still be thinking about the first option at the end of the school day.
Who are you?
Finally, as a teacher, it is important for you to recognize and understand your place on the introversion/extroversion continuum. As teachers, we often have a tendency to prefer our own style, and expect our students to follow that lead. If you are an introverted teacher – and there are a lot of us out there – make sure you are providing appropriate tasks, strategies, and opportunities for your extroverted students. It’s not a better-worse dichotomy. The goal is to create a classroom where all students can participate, thrive, and learn.
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1. "The Myers & Briggs Foundation - Extraversion or Introversion." The Myers & Briggs Foundation - Extraversion or Introversion. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
3. Cain, Susan. "Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither (and Why Does It Matter)?" Quiet Revolution Are You Shy Introverted Both or Neither and Why Does It Matter Comments. N.p., 05 Oct. 2015. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.
Also: Sakurai, Carmen. "24 Signs You’re An Introvert- Not Shy." Lifehack RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
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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