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Archive for the ‘Personal Opinions’ Category

Like never before, the pressure on teachers is ever increasing. With PL221, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing scores, and a myriad of other “indicators,” you will increasingly feel like there are never enough hours in the day. While it is possible to work eighteen hours a day on teaching—I have done it—it is not, in fact, healthy. It took me ten years of teaching to realize that there were limits on my physical body, and that it is not wise to push those.

So listen up! This is important. Are you listening? You have permission to go to sleep—even if you haven’t finished all of your grading. I know, I know. It just means that much more for you to do tomorrow. I understand, and I’ve been there. I was one of those non-worksheet English teachers with plenty of essays and many hours logged in at the Barnes and Noble café, which incidentally is a great place to grade. My goal is always to hand things back the next day, usually because I know I will be getting more things to grade that night. But, somewhere along the line, I realized that my students would much rather wait a day or even a week to get a paper back and have a pleasant, well-rested teacher, than get papers back immediately from a teacher who was up to all hours of the night grading and now has no patience. Let’s face it, most of us are grouchy when we operate on little to no sleep.  Now that I teach history, I explain to my students that at 1 minute a page, with 180 students, that is 3 hours of my life.  The average test takes at least 10 minutes to grade, so that’s 30 hours outside of school.  I now tell my students (and their parents) if they get tests back before two weeks, to consider that a blessing.  When I explain the timing, they understand.

In addition to grading, you also can’t possibly teach everything your state expects you to. If your state is anything like Indiana, your state standards were written by people who have either never been in a classroom, or certainly didn’t work with the kind of kids I see every day. If they did, there is no way they would expect what they do. So, knowing that, my advice is this: Prioritize! Look at the skills covered on your state tests. Make sure you cover these. Once you’ve done that, critically examine your subject matter. What are the skills they will need in the next grade to be successful? If possible, talk to the teacher they will have the following year. Ask him or her for their “dream list” of skills they would like their incoming students to possess. Cover those. Then, what will help them in life, even if they never take a course like yours again? Look for opportunities to teach life lessons, and you will find tons. Be honest. How much do you really remember from high school? What you remember is the impact of the person and the WAY to study, not the material itself. My 11th grade history teacher Mr. Jackson gave me the powerful advice that students remember the things with which they emotionally connect (usually the teacher, not the subject).

Finally, teach what you’re passionate about. Remember what you loved about your subject. It really is your passion which ignites a student’s imagination. As Danny Silk says, “I’m going to have fun because there’s nothing worse than me being bored while you watch.”  If you love your material, they will pay attention. I didn’t like Science and it wasn’t easy for me, but I loved Chemistry and Physics because Mr. Minor was so passionate about it. His excitement made it impossible for me to not care. Your passion will encourage them to care.  So remember what you love, and care for yourself so it’s still enjoyable!

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This one took me a long time to debunk. If you are an insecure person, and let’s face it, most of us are when we begin teaching, the first time a person is disrespectful of your authority, it will throw you for a loop. Having my head packed full of exciting lessons and textbook examples of classroom management, I was stunned the first time someone was disrespectful of me. I internalized it. In my mind, if I was worthy of respect, they would respect me, so if they didn’t, it must be something I did. I spent months, running into years, before I realized that kids are naturally disrespectful, and as I said previously, you have to earn their respect. Finally, I was able to stop beating myself up and truly take the authority that was rightfully mine. I realized that I didn’t have to tolerate disrespect, and even beyond that, I didn’t deserve disrespect.

Now, let me take a moment to stress again: Respect is earned. It doesn’t come naturally. The weakest form of respect is positional. So, how do you earn respect? Honesty and Consistency. First of all, let’s consider honesty. Let your students be a part of your life. Tell them when you’re happy, sad, sick, going on vacation, having dinner with a friend, or attending a family birthday. One of the greatest times I have had as a teacher was the time surrounding the death of my dad about two months ago (as of writing–Father’s Day:  June 15, 2008). It was completely unexpected and happened in the middle of summer school when I was teaching the students I would have the upcoming fall. It was difficult for me, as I had only known them a week before my dad died, but when I returned to school, I made myself share with them, both who my dad was, my pain in losing him, and my pain in knowing that most of them didn’t have a dad like mine. It broke down amazing walls with them, and they were more sensitive than I could have imagined. I’ve met teachers that are so closed about their lives, they don’t want students knowing anything about them. This hardly engenders respect. Let them see you as a real person, and they will respect you. Obviously, there are lines with what you share, but in my opinion, an honest question deserves an honest answer, and boy, will they ask.

Secondly, Consistency is vital. First, let me release you: You will never be 100% consistent. You are, in fact, human, and as such, are prone to miss things, have bad days, or forget what you just told the previous student who asked. That being said, justice and fairness is something that students long for, and they look to you to establish it. Have a few basic rules that students know for a fact will be enforced every time. Apologize when you are out of line, or for those times when you have been inconsistent. A great book on this subject is Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones. He is an amazing instructor with a lot of insight, especially in the areas of establishing boundaries and being consistent.

Example as of posting:  On the last week of our 2016-2017 school year, a teacher I know lost her long-term boyfriend.  She is one who believes your personal life is not the kids’ business, so consequently shares very little about herself (to the point where she had told students she didn’t have a boyfriend despite their almost decade relationship.)  Then, when he died suddenly (as a man around 30), she was understandingly devastated.  I’m so grateful she chose to share her experience with the students.  Suddenly, kids who couldn’t stand her were crying with her–they saw her as a real person.  Those who had always liked her gave her hugs, words of encouragement, and added their tears to hers.  Yes, a few were still jerks, but for the most part, they were incredibly sensitive.  While I understand that personality may play a large role in this, I still tend to believe honest questions deserve honest answers, and being authentic is a great gift.

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If you’re like me, this is the first piece of advice you received as a new teacher. Someone gave you a lecture about not being too friendly with kids and “professional distance” and the way you have to establish your authority early on. On this statement, I have one word to say: Hogwash.

This method may have worked in the time when children were “seen but not heard,” but the fact is, if you truly want to reach this generation, you have but one requirement: Be real. Kids today can spot a fake faster than anything. The more you yell and bluster, the more they will tune you out, or better yet, enjoy the fun of watching you throw a tantrum. I have heard students say that they purposely annoy certain teachers because, “It’s funny because he/she turns red and cries.” It certainly is not the way to win respect.

The adage you should be living by is this: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I have long loved the scene in Patch Adams where he addresses the board about emotional transference. I’ve adapted the words to apply to teachers as well:

“Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re gonna fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all–indifference.

Now, I’ve sat in your schools and heard people lecture on transference…and professional distance. Transference is inevitable, sir. Every human being has an impact on another. Why don’t we want that in a [Student/teacher] relationship?

That’s why I’ve listened to your teachings, and I believe they’re wrong. A [teachers]’s mission should be not just to prevent [ignorance]…but also to improve the quality of life. That’s why you [teach a subject], you win, you lose. You [teach] a person, I guarantee you, you win, no matter what the outcome.” (Movie transcript).

For a while, every new teacher was taught to answer the interview question, “What do you teach?” with the answer: “Students.” The point they were emphasizing is that the central purpose of teaching is the students, not the subject. If all a student needed was information, they would be just as well—better probably—just learning off the internet. But, they need human contact. Another colleague said it well: “90% of what we teach isn’t our subject matter—it’s the life skills—how to find your way in this world. It’s how to deal with other people in an appropriate manner.”

So, let your students be close to you. Enjoy them as people; let them touch your heart. As you truly care about your students, they will respond. I heard a conference speaker share that their standardized test scores had been raised dramatically when they divided the student population and assigned each student to a teacher who merely took an interest in how the child was doing. So SMILE! It makes a difference!

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I woke up early this morning (my first back in the U.S.) thinking about school. I have been out of the country for the past month, and now have a little over a week until a new year starts with all the joys and challenges that brings.

What was on my mind this morning was actually an incident from last year. I had an incredible class last year, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them after the summer. There are very few years as a teacher when you have a class in which there is NO student that you don’t like. Last year was one of those years for me: No one that annoyed me, no one I hoped would be absent, back teaching a subject I love, just an incredible year. While that is an amazing thing, it makes preparing for this year a lot harder. It’s true that I’ve heard every year from at least one 7th grade teacher, “This is the worst class to come through the system!”, but by the time they get to us as 8th graders, they’re usually not bad (except the traditional 5 to 10.) The class coming up has mixed reviews (Some teachers loved them; most had a few challenges.) Still, going from the best class you’ve had in 10 years at the school to the unknown is bound to be rough.

So, what was on my mind this morning was an incident from the last week of school. I was in the midst of writing my traditional “end of the year” letters for my students, and when I wrote one particular student’s, I started crying (and I’m not usually a crier). So you understand, I put a lot of thought and prayer into the letters and try to say what I feel each child needs to hear. The kid that made me cry was a rough kid. He had had a hard life–more difficult than most of our kids who have hard lives. But, in the course of the year, he had shared bits and pieces of his story with me, and on a few occasions, I was able to see through the chink in his armor to the little boy he was hiding with the “tough guy” exterior.

When I read the letters to my students the next day, a number of students cried over their own letter, but his was the only one I’ve ever read that made someone other than the person it belonged to cry. I had warned him that his letter had made me cry, but he let me read it anyway (and I cried again, as did many others in the class.) When other classes came in later in the day, I heard the same statement, “I heard you’re going to make us cry.” I explained that some students do and others don’t, and that more people had cried in the previous class because I had when I was reading someone’s. They immediately guessed the student, so word had gotten out (as things do in a small school.) A student asked me, “Why did you cry over (student’s name)?” The answer I gave surprised even me. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe because no one else ever has.” The truth of that hit me like a ton of bricks. If even part of the stories I’ve pieced together about this student are true, his dad has never cried, his mom can’t stand him, and his siblings beat him up. So, in all likelihood, no one has ever looked at his life and loved him enough to cry for the things he’s suffered and the wrongs that he’s experienced. No one has watched him make bad choices and grieved for him. Whatever way he’s made, he’s made most of it himself. To me, that’s not how it should be. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten a huge heart for this kid without realizing it until I started typing.

As I gear up for a new year, I know some of the kids I will have are students that have caused a lot of problems for other teachers. I already know them by reputation or discipline reports, or from having to write them up in the hallway. And yet, if I keep in mind this situation from last year, I will remember that this kid was a student who had gotten in trouble, and who, from the exterior, made others assume he was trouble, and yet, I had seen a side of him no one else had. If I approach each student (remembering that looks can be deceiving), searching for that chink in the armor that will let me see what’s really going on with them–if I look beyond the external to the heart of a child, I will have no problem loving each one. And when a child knows you care, it’s amazing what kind of a year you can have!

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When we came back from Christmas Break and headed into the long stretch of winter before Spring Break, I could tell my students needed a bit of encouragement. In a moment of honest discussion, one student asked me quite candidly, “Why is school so boring?” At the time, I gave him a typical, “You’re used to a more fast-paced world because of video games, so it seems slow…” answer. Then, I actually thought about it and discussed it with all my classes the next day.

While it’s true that this generation has never known life without cell phones and a myriad of other technology, it does not necessarily follow that school has to be boring. I opened the discussion with the question, “What makes school boring for you?” I explained quite fervently that I did NOT say “Who is boring?” So they were precluded from mentioning specific teachers by name. I really made them analyze what was boring about their classes.
The number one thing the listed was that the content didn’t interest them.

Then, I moved the discussion to them. “Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Tough Crowd’?” They nodded. “Well,” I explained, “You guys are a tough crowd. Imagine what it feels like for your teachers to look out and see this…” (I mimic their behavior, and they laugh.) “Do you think that makes them WANT to be passionate about what they’re talking about?” It’s beginning to sink in…

“Over break,” I share, “My mom and I went to Dollywood, and we got to see the same show performed two nights in a row. The first night, it was a good show, but the audience totally wasn’t into it. I still was pleased with our experience. But the next night, the audience was incredible–clapping, encouraging…The show was entirely different, even though they performed all the same numbers. The same is true at school. I teach the same material five times, but every time is different based on the audience. My ____ hour class last semester was awesome because they asked great questions, and we had some amazing discussions. Other classes weren’t like that. The difference is YOU!”

“What you have to realize, “I continued, “is that YOU determine what kind of class you have. This is 8th grade–all of your teachers have at least a college education. That means they know WAY more than what they’re sharing with you. So ask about it. When you’re covering material for class, look for something in it that is interesting. Think of how it relates to something you care about. Everything you study has something cool about it. When the teacher mentions something that’s interesting, ask him or her about it. They’ll have a better day because they think you care, and you’ll have a better day because you get to spend time on things you like.”

Now initially, we had to lay out some boundaries because they would just ask question after question. (I reminded them that as the one who EXPLAINED this concept to them, I knew what they were doing.) But, since then, we’ve had some incredible discussions–all related to the material we’re covering (At least loosely…). I even had one girl come up to me and say, “I tried what you said in Mrs. _______________’s class.”

“How’d it go?” I asked her.

“It was really good. Though then we had other things to do, so it got boring again…”

“Well, keep at it.” I encouraged.

Reminding students that THEY are responsible for their education too is always a good thing.

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This past week, I had two days of consecutive conversations with teenagers who were trying to navigate the baggage they had inherited from getting involved sexually at too young an age. It is one of my biggest frustrations that no one (or maybe not enough people) seems to be talking to these kids honestly about the choices they’re making, so that by the time they get to me, it is often too late.

The first instance was a young lady who came in to see me because she has sought my advice before. Just that Friday, she had come by at the football game and discussed a relationship with a guy. Knowing the guy she was “talking to,” I had warned her as explicitly as I could without telling his business. She assured me that they weren’t dating, but were “friends with benefits.” I explained to her that was worse. “Why?” she asked me, “What’s wrong with that?” I explained to her that being “friends with benefits” meant that she was willing to give herself away without any type of commitment on his part. She was completely devaluing herself. She agreed I was right, and shortly after, went away…

Tuesday, she came in to tell me “things had happened,” and now everyone knew about it and was calling her names, and she might have a disease–an incurable one. “I should have listened to you.” she said, “But, he promised me he was a virgin…” Of course he did. The whole school had heard rumors of everyone this guy’s been with. But, she believed him. And it may have affected the rest of her life.

We discussed how she couldn’t change the past, but she could learn from this. I explained that the most valuable lesson she could learn is to value herself–that her value doesn’t come from a beauty pageant or from an older guy paying attention to her–it is simply because of who she is. I gave her a hug, and she left.

The next day, the second girl came in. She came to talk to me because I had seen the scars on her arm from cutting. She explained that she was doing it because it made her ex-boyfriend pay attention to her. I asked her if she really wanted a relationship with someone who was only in it because he felt sorry for her. She said, “I don’t care why he’s with me, just so long as he is…” The back story on this girl is that she had given this guy her virginity because he kept bugging her. She finally said, “If I let you, will you shut up?” My heart broke when she’d told me that. I explained to her that the reason she felt so attached to this guy is that she had given him her virginity–that that act creates a powerful bond between people, and that’s why it is not to be given thoughtlessly. I explained to her that she needed her heart to be healed and that bond broken.

Two lives devastated by choices. I realize talking about sex is an awkward conversation to have. I also realize that everyone has to make the decision of when and if they are going to have sex, and that THEY have to make that decision. My challenge though–to parents, to teachers, and to adults who have conversations with young people is this: No one says, “I wish I’d been a bigger slut in high school.” But plenty of people say, “I wish I’d waited longer.” Please be honest with kids. Counsel them on the consequences of the choices they make. When appropriate, share your own experiences–even if they include regrets. It’s far easier to be awkward for a little bit than to pick up the pieces after the fact.

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This past year was an amazing time with my Honors English class. When we parted company, I was intending to have them the following year for Honors 9th grade. We had a number of plans for activities, books, and writing to share the following year, and so parted company for the summer without a real goodbye, fully expecting to be together the next year.

When I went in for our teacher day, I was informed by the administration that I had been chosen to receive the history position I have waited nine years to get back. What an amazing honor–to be able to have the job I love and the opportunity to help tie in the English standards into the history department, as well as plan project based instruction. I was thrilled–and yet, my Honors kids. I don’t know what it is about that particular group of kids, but not only did I connect with them, they connected with each other. They felt at home with each other and me, and I was anticipating the opportunity to continue to develop them. The last thing I wanted was for them to arrive at school the next year expecting to have me and be completely devastated.

So, I composed a letter informing them of the change, affirming my support of them (and my gratefulness at the opportunity to shape their education), and a challenge to continue to succeed and make me proud. Thanks to modern technology, I could find most of them on facebook, message them (without being friends) and ask students to forward the message to those who either didn’t have facebook or who had messaging from non-friends blocked. While they were understandably disappointed, it has been neat to see their continued encouragement, in addition to the support of others for my new position. Transitions are a natural part of life, and each one brings with it challenges and opportunities. While closing a chapter in any book is hard, I am excited for this next season with all it holds.

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