Expanding your influence

Perspectives-circle-of-influenceLast time we talked about the importance of talking with parents. I want to continue that just a bit. Initially, share with them your expectations for the year, if you are going to do something really cool, let them know about it. If your district has adopted some huge change, go through that with them, make a friend, be a friend, bring your friend to understanding. Remember, your reality isn’t their reality. Let them know the importance of them reinforcing rules for homework and play, of creating a physical space for work to be done and that different kids have different needs and it may be ok to listen to music while studying.

As you progress through the year, you will have things to say about every kid. Sure, we all know the difficulty about talking with parents about the problem children, but they are few and if you have made a positive contact first, you have a more legitimate ground to stand on and a better chance of being heard. The eager learners are easier to talk about, but don’t skip them, they often need that reinforcement. The real challenge will be the middle kids. No major problems, nothing exceptional to say, but if you can find quality points and demonstrate you “get” that student, those parents will be your biggest supporters and you will lift your middle much higher than the norm. The amazing thing is that you will also discover that you become a better teacher for that. You will have many more quality relationships with your students because you have taken the time to get know them well enough to talk to their parents about them. In doing so, you will find that there are fewer children who will “disappear” in your classroom. The more you know about people, the more you will care about them. It is what makes June so hard.

So find ways to make your parents a part of your room. Invite in parents to talk about real life applications of the things you teach. Have a stay at home mom talk about how she uses math every day, if you have a CEO parent who plays the Cello, get them in to talk about how music enhances their skills and satisfaction in life, be creative in engaging parents. It strengthens the bonds you can create with both students and parents and the more support you have in this process, the more chance you have for success.


Making a complete machine

CogOne of the biggest failings in the current education model is the lack of inclusion of parents in the process. Most teachers and Administrators have simply accepted the fact that most parents aren’t going to be involved. While there are some bright spots in the lower elementary years, by the time you get to 7th grade, you have a very small percentage of parents who remain engaged in their child’s education. There are a number of reasons for that, most of which are very legitimate. We live in a culture that gives lip service, at best, to intelligence and the educational process. Ask any company how much time it gives off yearly for workers to attend school functions for their children? Ask any corporation how much money it has donated to primary schools? Ask how many CEOs are sitting on school boards? The world of money has simply deemed education unworthy. But that does not mean that you, as a teacher, have to accept that reality.

Like most relationships, communication is the key. You have, on average, around 180 days of classroom time. If we use that basic figure and consider 3 phone calls a night, you have the ability to make contact with parents 540 times in a year. Sure, you will get the occasional call that goes on for 20 minutes, but most will be 2 to 3 minute conversations. And here are some realities.

For most parents, you will be an anomaly because you took the time to reach out. If you start day one of the school year (or even the weeks before school starts if you want to be amazing and you have a District that can provide you info that early) you can make positive contacts and simply inform parents of what you are up to for the year and what they can do to assist you. For a huge percentage of your parents, this will be the first time they get a phone call from a teacher that isn’t negative. That goes a long way towards building support.(Either if something does go south later in the year or you need community backing down the road for an initiative of some kind.)

You want to have a plan for the contacts throughout the year. Do some research on what parents need and want to know about their kids. Sure there are some obvious things, but some things are pretty regional and may even change in your area from year to year. You are an agent of social change, take charge of that mantle.

It is what they see

Process“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”  General George Washington

I have been spending a large amount of time as of late talking with soon-to-be teachers about classroom management. At the same time I have been watching coverage of Presidential campaigns, arguments about gun violence and screaming matches over abortion rights. I know, as a teacher, I am approaching this with a bias. But I truly think that teachers have a role to play in how these issues are dealt with and it starts with classroom management.

I have stated in this blog before that quality management comes from people who know who they are, why they are doing what they are doing and want what is best for the students in their rooms. I have also started several times that we need to be about educating young minds more about processes than about facts. And this is where all this comes to a crucible.

We have to, as educators in America, begin to model the behavior of establishing processes for conversations. Surely, every year, issues come up in your classroom that are contentious. Whether it is who gets the blocks first in Kindergarten or whether you have the right to pass notes about who likes who in 4th grade or who gets to decide the dress code in 12th grade, discussions are going to occur. If you run your classroom with an iron fist and “Because I said so!” is an acceptable discussion ender in your room, you are creating adults who will not be able to handle intelligent public discourse.

We need to demonstrate on a daily basis how we get to the decisions we make. If you can’t outsmart your classroom, perhaps you should go into to business. (Because you know what they say, “Those that can’t teach are forced to pursue profit.”) You are watched every moment. You often have more influence than a parent in certain environments.

So look at what you are doing on a daily basis. Not just IN your classroom, but around it as well. How do your students hear you dealing with your peers, your administrators, and parents? Quite literally, practice what you preach. Cliché? Yes. Important? Indubitably. Whoever said, “Be the change” clearly understood that we have to show people how things work and if we don’t practice our policies, they hold little to no meaning for those we impose them on.

We keep saying on posters and in slogans that children are the future. But we act as if they are only here today.

Filling the space

SpaceI didn’t write a post for Monday past. I wanted to see if it would be noted. I realize that is pretty arrogant in the grand scheme of things, to assume you would be noticed in your absence. But I think that is an important lesson to learn as a teacher. I spent Saturday at a 25th reunion for some young folks I taught as seniors in English and even coached a few. Several of them mentioned that while they enjoyed my class and my teaching style, it wasn’t until later in life that they realized the importance of what we talked about.

I have always said, I shouldn’t give out grades until my students were like 35. If you turn out to be a decent person, you pass. I find out you’re a jerk, you fail. Seems fair, doesn’t it. The point of all this is to let new teachers know, a fairly large part of your reward for teaching is delayed. (Unfortunately, that seems to be true in regards to your check this days as well, but I digress.) Sometimes it is just until December, when they jell as a group and you start getting things done. Sometimes it is May, sometimes it is next September when they become someone else’s headache. And sometimes it is when they come up to you at a reunion and say, “You mattered. I am the husband and father I am today because of the things we talked about in your class.“

I know you have to worry about standardized test scores and administrators who don’t know what you do and they still are evaluating you and parents who don’t want to take any responsibility for their child and a society that thinks you are Satan and, well, you know what I mean. I don’t want you to think I don’t know what you face day to day. I do. But I know I got through it a lot better on days when I remembered on the other side of this are adults who are glad that you stood in the gap. I grew up in a family of Marines and I know what it means to stand the wall. And my grandfather, my father and my brother each told me that they were astonished at my courage in being a teacher.

So I left a little space last Monday to see what would fill it. It is still up to me. That is what a teacher is about. Bless you.


CheckThe biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I will remember that.” Really! We did it as students, because notes were for wimps (even though those were the kids getting “A”s). We do it when the manager at the bank is going over our loan or when our spouse is telling us what we need to pick up at the store on the way home. I don’t know what it is in the frail human ego, but we see writing things down as a huge blow to our assumed strength. Yet, you know what makes a great learning opportunity? Writing things down. You know why? Because written communication allows for bends in the space-time continuum and engages other parts of our brain.

Teachers need to reflect on what they do. The problem is there is precious little time to get it done. But journaling is a powerful way to do that and you can become very efficient if you make it a habit. You don’t have to do tomes worthy of Solzhenitsyn to make this work, all you need to do is write down some things you did, size them up to what you want to be happening in your room and determine if you are going to keep it or trash it. It seems real simple, but here is the catchy part.

You need to create rubrics for quality lesson plans. Half the readership just fled the room. But really, most people just do lesson plans to get them done. But if you are going to do them, do them with quality and style. I am making my Methods Students create rubrics for Lesson Plans that include attention to Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, activity within Bloom’s Taxonomy, assessment of gender, race and culture diversity and diversity within assessment.

Get together with some colleagues you trust and start evaluating your lesson plans for the things that 1. You know are important and 2. Things your District says are important. Sure there is a learning curve and this will take time at the start. But once you do it a few times, you will just think in these terms. Quality teaching is intentional teaching. If you become intentional about becoming culturally competent, guess what? You will become culturally competent instead of just being tolerant. Remember, nothing flows as smoothly as a 7th draft.

I was born by the river

River“Zen is not effort. Effort is tension, effort is work, effort is to achieve something. Zen is not something to achieve. You are already that. Just relax, relax so deeply that you become a revelation to yourself.”  Osho.

You have chosen to become a revolutionary, make no mistake about it, a slow moving, terrifying revolutionary. Creating a population that thinks has terrified despots for millennia. Why is it they kill the poets and teachers first? Because those are the people who will inspire the masses, show them the bigger picture. So that is your job as a teacher. It doesn’t make any difference whether you are in front of 3 year olds or 30 year olds, give them vision and processes.

Just like students, most teachers make the fatal mistake in thinking that there is a right answer. American culture is working very hard right now to convince the public that there are right answers that don’t ever change. And the public wants to accept that because it is easier. Learn the answer and then I don’t have to ever think about it again. If only it were that simple.

A great teacher knows that everything is based on perspective, even Math changes when perspective shifts. 11 is two different things depending on whether you are speaking in a decimal system or a binary one. While we start teaching with simple absolutes because a young brain may get frazzled at too many options (Why is he a good President, daddy?) we, far too often, forget to come back to complexity.

I knew I had reached students when they questioned the validity of my question rather than finding an excellent answer. So, I would caution the developing teacher, avoid the easy path. That is different than finding an effortless pass. The river flows effortlessly, but it twists and winds, explores various depths and carves away at the given reality of the riverbank. That is not easy, but it is effortless when you are clear about your purpose.

Give them the world, don’t judge or evaluate the facts for them. That is what their lives are for. If you were born with all the answers you would be bored out of your skull by day two. We are driven to the extent that we are aware we don’t know AND that we believe we have the skill to find out. A great teacher gives students both contexts.


Ignore the man behind the curtain

wizard-of-ozIf you take the time to know yourself, what worked for you in 7th grade and what didn’t, then you will have a starting place in developing your own strong teaching style. If you are a “need everything in order” person, then that is how you should run your classroom, trying to do it differently will be painful for you and ineffective for your students. BUT, you need to make sure you make allowances for your kids who are lost hippies from the 60s. They are just different, not wrong. That is also true for the democratically minded, let’s all talk about our feelings instructors. You have to make allowances for your kids who need to know the steps and how long the hyphen is in anal-retentive.

So it comes back to knowing yourself and being comfortable in your own skin. Being a white guy teaching in a predominately black school, it wasn’t until I freed myself up and could see and accept my privilege that I could BE in my classroom. Up until then it was about me trying to be accepted, to show I knew the struggle. I am amazed my kids didn’t laugh in my face.

So, when I say know yourself, I mean really know yourself, get your stuff out there in the front of your mind. This does not mean you run true confessions at the front of the room, the people who do that usually just scare kids. But it means you are honest with yourself about what works and what doesn’t. Journaling your first 5 years of teaching is probably the most beneficial thing you could ever do for yourself. Forcing yourself to look at what you did and its effectiveness on a weekly basis can save you years of worry later on.

My new student teachers want a silver bullet. They want me to give them a trick, a quick fix for running a classroom. What I give them is that out of my 30 plus years of teaching, I know you have to be present and consistent. Like Wong says, it has to start the first day. But he is also clear that you have to start long before that. Good teachers prepare. Magic means you just don’t know how the trick works. You won’t see it as magic, but if you prepare properly, anyone who walks in your room will see it that way.