Why Teachers Should Help Less

When Helping Isn’t Helping

There is an epidemic in our schools. Teachers are helping too much. Like most epidemics, it probably started small. A teacher somewhere in Kansas didn’t want Jimmy to cry anymore because he couldn’t solve a math problem, so she came to his rescue. She did the problem for him. Oh, I’m sure she told herself she was “teaching,” but we all know the truth. We’ve been there. Frustrated with a child’s struggles, worried that he won’t learn what’s in the standards before he leaves us, and fearing what might happen to his self-esteem when he realizes he can’t do it, we help. We reteach. We give hints. We take the pencil right out of his hand and show him exactly what steps to follow. We do the damn thing for him.

For what I can only guess were misguided but honorable intentions, the helping spread. It’s everywhere now. In elementary classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade. I suspect it’s spread farther than that, maybe even all the way to college lecture halls.

We’ve justified our actions along the way. We’re teachers, so we teach. If a kid doesn’t understand something, we figure it’s our fault, so we act to rectify the problem. We teach it again. Besides, what are we supposed to do, sit our desk checking papers while Julia scribbles away futilely or gives up in frustration?

Yes.

That’s exactly what we should be doing far more often. We should check papers, respond to emails, plan next week’s social studies lesson, or just sit and reflect on how things are going. We should get out of our students’ way and see what they can actually do on their own. We should stop coming to their rescue. This disease is highly contagious, and we need to self-quarantine.

My daughter started playing softball last year. Like most people trying something new, she wasn’t very good. In her first game, she stepped to the plate, sort of swung the bat three times, and struck out. That’s how the game is played. Three strikes, you’re out. Don’t care how old you are or if you’ve got Coke-bottle glasses and a bad case of vertigo. Three strikes, you’re out. Now go sit down. Them’s the rules.

Everybody watched her fail. Her teammates, her dad in the dugout, her mom, grandma, and grandpa in the stands. How humiliating. And yet, she didn’t crumple into a ball in the corner of the dugout and cry. When it was her turn to bat again, she strolled up to the plate, a little less confident than before.

And she struck out again.

My daughter didn’t make contact with the ball until the third game of the season, and that was a little nubber that squirted six feet into foul territory. She finally got a hit in the fifth game. When she did, she ran to second base on a throwing error, and once planted safely on the bag, threw both fists into the air, the universal gesture for victory. You should have seen the smile on her face. It almost matched my own.

It’s that smile, that sense of accomplishment, that ineffable pride (although if it was effable, it would probably sound something like, “Fuck, yes!”), that we rob students of when we swoop in to help.

We’ve Created a Monster

If softball leagues treated players as delicately as schools do their students, there’d be a rule about not striking out. After three strikes, they’d bring out a tee, or maybe the coach would go up there, take the bat out of the kid’s hands, and hit it for them. We’d tell ourselves we were protecting their fragile psyches, when in reality we’d be sending a clear message: You can’t do it, so I’ll do it for you.

This is where learned helplessness comes from. And while many teachers complain about it, most of us have had a hand in its making. It’s everywhere in schools today. Well-meaning teachers, responding to external pressures, their own guilt, and an excessively literal interpretation of the verb “teach,” have caused the epidemic. I’m as guilty as the rest of you.

Teachers have this notion that to teach means we must always be doing something. If students are in the room, we have to interact with them. We gotta teach! But sometimes, the best way to teach is to sit down and shut up. The drama teacher leaves the stage, and it’s on the students to perform. The piano teacher lets her pupil sink or swim in front of everyone at the recital. The basketball coach rolls out the ball, stands on the sidelines, and simply observes.

 Let Them Fail First

Reformers have managed to get teachers to believe that a student’s failure is the teacher’s failure. We take it personally. So we want to eradicate it. But failure is part of learning. In fact, it’s the critical part. Sometimes, the best teaching is to let students flail, even fail. Because there’s more learning to be found in failure than there is in success. Thank goodness the rules prevented my daughter’s coach from interceding in her struggles. All she could do was encourage from the dugout. That’s what teachers should do, too.

“You can do it,” we tell them. And then we see if they can. But if they can’t, we let them fail. And only after they’ve failed, maybe a few times, do we reteach. We go back to the practice field the next day and throw them fifty more pitches. We correct their technique, we model, and they practice, practice, practice. Then we remove ourselves again and see what they have learned. No helping allowed.

Kids can handle failure.

We teachers need to let them.

20 Free Ways to Recognize Teachers

Teachers Should Be Recognized

We shouldn’t only appreciate teachers because they have hard jobs that require personal sacrifice in terms of time, energy, money, and sanity. We should also recognize them because doing so will make them better teachers.

Recognition and praise are two critical components for creating positive emotions in organizations. Gallup surveyed more than four million employees worldwide on this topic. Their analysis found that individuals who received regular recognition and praise:

  • increased their productivity
  • increased engagement with colleagues
  • were more likely to stay with their organization
  • received higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers.

A Lot of Teachers Aren’t Recognized

The majority of us don’t give or receive anywhere near the amount of recognition we should. Only 17 percent of employees who participated in a Bersin & Associates study indicated that their organizations’ cultures strongly supported recognition. As a result, we’re less productive, and in many cases, completely disengaged at work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they “do not feel appreciated.”

According to a recent OGO survey, 82 percent of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. Sometimes, it’s the result of laziness or thoughtless leadership. But I think for schools, a lack of funding is partly to blame. Some principals, knowing there’s no money in the budget, give up on recognition altogether, not realizing that many teachers would appreciate things that don’t cost a dime. 

Maybe they need some ideas.

20 Ways to Recognize Teachers for Free

 

  1. Handwritten Thank You Cards—In today’s digital world, everyone appreciates the time and thought behind handwritten notes. One survey found that 76% of people save these kinds of cards.
  2. PA Announcement—“A big thank you to Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Peterson for staying after the concert last night and helping to put away chairs.” Not only would such an announcement make the teachers feel good, but it would show students what the school values.
  3. Public Praise—Schools communicate with parents and the community in all sorts of ways. Districts could recognize teachers by praising them in newsletters, on school Facebook pages, or in automated calls that go out every Sunday night.
  4. Solicit Former Students—A few years ago I received three letters from former students. For a writing project, they were to write to people that had influenced them. It didn’t matter to me that they were satisfying the requirements of an assignment, because their words were heartfelt. Schools could easily set up a program whereby former students, once a year, write a letter, email, or just fill out a simple card thanking a former teacher.
  5. Showcase—Most schools have showcases, often filled with student work, dusty trophies, or some school-wide project. Why not select one showcase that highlights the good work a teacher did the previous week? A photo of the teacher could be included with a brief write-up of her good deed.
  6. Decorate Their Door—One way to let the whole school know that a teacher has done something deserving of recognition is to have a small team of parents or other teachers decorate their door.  Shooting stars, bright colors, fireworks, a big THANK YOU sign, and (for a nominal cost) some candy bars could be affixed to the door. Students would ask what the hubbub was all about, which would give adults the opportunity to praise the teacher.
  7. Wish Lists—My daughter’s school does something pretty cool. At parent-teacher conference time, each teacher fills out tear-away slips of paper on which they request personal and classroom items. Parents, who often want to show appreciation for teachers but aren’t sure what to buy, now know exactly what the teacher wants. They tear off the slips of paper, and over the week, send the items in with their children. I’ve bought my daughter’s former teachers chocolates, Coke, and Expo markers. I did not buy the motorcycle this year’s teacher jokingly included in his wish list.
  8. Free Entry—Why not allow deserving teachers into this spring’s high school play for free? Heck, give them two tickets so they can bring their spouse. Same goes for athletic events. My district has an Aquatic Center and a performing arts center. Teachers who embody the values of the district and who regularly go the extra mile could be awarded with season passes to these types of venues.
  9. Jeans Day—I really look forward to Friday for many reasons, and wearing jeans is one of them. Principals could recognize teachers by letting them wear jeans on whatever day they choose.
  10. Clean and Organize—As the year goes on, the books in my classroom library find their way into all kinds of strange baskets. Somehow, Louis Sachar’s Holes ends up next to a Wimpy Kid book in the basket labeled “Junie B. Jones.” My cabinet ends up similarly disorganized, with staples, Post-It notes, and scissors all sharing the same tub. Also, and this isn’t a knock on the custodians, but the surfaces of my students’ desks could use a thorough scrubbing. One way to recognize teachers would be for a team of parent volunteers to come in before or after school for 45 minutes and spruce things up a bit.
  11. A Break From That Kid (You Know the One)—Truth: I usually have at least one student who, by May, is on my last nerve. He’s the kid who never misses a day. I would greatly appreciate a break from That Kid. To thank a teacher for extra work, another teacher could take That Kid for an hour. Or he could walk around with the principal for three hours. Or…I don’t care, just get him out of the room for awhile.
  12. Food–You can’t go wrong with food. Staff breakfasts, lunches, snacks, candy- it doesn’t matter. Teachers love food. It doesn’t have to cost anything either. This year, our local theater donated a trash bag full of popcorn. Most schools have students whose parents own or manage a local restaurant. They are often happy to donate food. They just have to be asked.
  13. Car Wash—Early in my teaching career, a group of parents set up a car wash in the school parking lot. They collected all the teachers’ keys first thing in the morning, and then took care of everything from there. Every teacher drove home with a shiny clean car at the end of the day.
  14. Chair Massage—Teachers are stressed and they have disposable incomes. Some insurance plans even cover massages. All of which is to say that if you’re a local masseuse, you’d be an idiot to not donate a day to give teachers a free chair massage during their planning periods. Even if you only converted two of them to paying customers, the goodwill alone would likely lead to more clients.
  15. Staff Meeting Exemption—Teachers universally hate staff meetings. (And those who don’t are afraid to admit it, so I’m safe with my blanket assumption.) We all have better, more pressing things to do. Principals could reward deserving teachers with a Get-Out-Of-Staff-Meeting-Free card. There’s nothing better than getting to skip something unpleasant that everyone else is required to attend.
  16. Duty-Free Day—Teachers hate duty about as much as staff meetings. Appreciative principals could relieve teachers from recess, bus, lunch or whatever other duties they perform for a day (or week).
  17. One Free Hour—At the busiest times of the year, like right before progress reports are due, principals could provide whole grade levels with a free hour to work. By taking students and showing a movie in the gym, or supervising an extra long recess, or giving students time to play games in the computer lab, principals could show teachers that they understand the pressures they’re under and give teachers what they want most of all–found time.
  18. An Hour Lunch—What’s commonplace almost everywhere in America is a luxury no teacher ever experiences at school–an hour lunch. Mine is 35 minutes. Some teachers don’t even receive a duty-free lunch; they supervise students while they eat. Principals can cover a teacher’s responsibilities so that the teacher can actually leave the building, go to a restaurant, and enjoy an unhurried sit-down meal. You know, like a real professional.
  19. Leave an Hour Early—There’s something wickedly delicious about leaving work early. I have few fonder childhood memories than when we were sent home early from school because of snow. On the few occasions I’ve been granted permission to leave work early for a meeting or a personal need, I almost couldn’t contain my giddiness as I rushed to my car. Principals who really want to show appreciation can cover or arrange for the last hour of a teacher’s responsibility to be covered so that the teacher can experience the joy of leaving work before anyone else. (I saw one teacher refer to these as “GOOSE” coupons, which stands for Get Out Of School Early. I like it.)
  20. Kind Words—Sometimes, the simplest way of recognizing someone’s efforts is all that’s needed. Most teachers don’t need much. Genuine thanks is a good place to start. And a good place to end this list.

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*Parts of the above are excerpted from my book Happy Teacher, now available on Amazon.

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