The Most Offensive F-Word in Education


f-wordI was speaking with a teacher about the new reading program her district adopted. She lamented that administration had told the teachers, in no uncertain terms, that the program was to be implemented with strict “fidelity.” She said the word with unmistakable disdain. Like how most people say, “phlegm.” It’s no wonder. There isn’t a teacher in the world that likes the word fidelity. It’s the most offensive F-word in education, and for damn good reason.

The reason administrators demand fidelity is blatantly obvious but never admitted. Ask your curriculum director why you can’t supplement when you see the need, and you’ll be lied to. He’ll prattle on about a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” and how it’s “research-based” and “Board-approved.” He’ll tell you it’s Common Core aligned.

All nonsense.

The real reason districts demand fidelity is they don’t trust their teachers. They don’t respect their abilities, dedication, or decision-making. They believe that, left to their own devices, teachers will ignore the standards, use ineffective practices, and, I don’t know, run around with their pants around their ankles while singing Neil Diamond songs. Put simply, when a district tells you to teach with fidelity and never supplement based on your observations and analyses of student outcomes, it’s sending a clear message that they don’t view you as a professional.

Such a district’s opinion of you is so low it’s willing to put the education of your students in the hands of a huge corporation, whose only motive is profit, ahead of you. You might think that such unbending faith is the result of compelling evidence of a program’s efficacy. You’d be wrong. Johns Hopkins researchers found that districts primarily rely on piloting and peer recommendation when selecting new programs, not evidence that it actually leads to higher student achievement.

But we don’t need rigorous research to tell us what is blindingly self-evident: If there were a program that consistently raised test scores, every school would be using it. The fact that neighboring districts tell their teachers to implement two different programs with fidelity is all we need to recognize the folly of placing unfaltering trust in such programs.

Fidelity does real damage. It destroys teacher morale. New teachers quickly learn that they won’t be permitted to use much of what they just learned in college. Skilled teachers become exasperated at being micromanaged and distrusted. All teachers resent the loss of autonomy. It’s bad for teachers, and it’s also bad for districts. Autonomy is positively associated with teacher job satisfaction. Research shows that when teachers perceive a loss of autonomy they are more likely to leave their positions. Demanding fidelity leads to resentful employees, greater instability, and higher costs associated with attrition.

The worst thing about fidelity is that it harms kids. A student who struggles to read is stuck with text they can’t access. A student who can’t pass the grade level test is consigned to failure for nine straight months. A program that doesn’t work must be taught the entire year. And those students must spend every day with a teacher who is demoralized, frustrated, and feeling like a failure while that teacher is simultaneously hamstrung from making the very changes that would lead to improved student performance and higher personal well-being.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of being told to implement a program with fidelity is that teachers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If a teacher judges halfway through the year that the program is ineffective and decides to break from it to help students do better, they risk getting reprimanded (or worse) for insubordination.

If teachers do as they’re instructed — if they play the good soldier and follow their marching orders– but their students don’t succeed, you can bet that the people who decided fidelity was such a good idea won’t be falling on their swords. They will not accept responsibility. They won’t be writing to the Board and explaining that teachers really shouldn’t be held accountable for state test scores because all they did was what they were told to do. They won’t offer to resign from their jobs if a teacher can be scapegoated instead.

The irony of all this is that if a teacher pledged strict fidelity to an unproven program, every administrator would think her lazy and incompetent. Imagine such a conversation:

Admin: How do you assess your students?
Teacher: I give the test included in the program.

Admin: Do those tests give you good information? Do they help inform your instruction?
Teacher: Doesn’t matter. That’s what I’m using. All year. Even with kids that can’t read it. And it doesn’t matter if the tests inform instruction, because I’m just going to open the book and teach what it says to teach anyway.

Admin: What will you do to address the needs of learners who struggle with the content?
Teacher: Probably not much. I’ll look in the program to see if it offers anything that might help those students, but if not, I’m not going to pull from any other resources or use evidence-based interventions unless they’re included in the program.

Admin: What will you do if the assessments indicate that students aren’t learning the content; that your instruction isn’t working?
Teacher: Keep going! I’m certainly not going to investigate other ways of teaching. I’m just going to stick with the program.

Admin: It appears that this program to which you’re so devoted is relatively new. There haven’t been any studies done to determine its effectiveness. Doesn’t that give you pause?
Teacher: First of all, there was a study done.

Admin: Paid for by the company that created the program.
Teacher: Nevertheless. There was a study. Also, it’s Common Core aligned.

Admin: Well, they say it is. In bold colors on the cover of every book. But that doesn’t mean it actually–
Teacher: Yes it does (puts fingers in ears and hums).

So what’s a teacher to do? What they’ve always done when their bosses make bad decisions. Nod their heads, pretend they don’t mind being treated like a cog in a machine, swallow, once again, that bitter taste of disrespect, and then do what’s best for students and hope they don’t get busted.

If you get fired for doing that, at least you can hold your head high, knowing you did what was best for kids. It beats getting fired for blindly following dumb mandates made by people who don’t even have enough respect for the professionals they’ve hired to let them do their jobs.


Tell us your fidelity horror stories, and feel free to leave other offensive words in the comments.


Other articles to check out:

Why Student Disrespect Shouldn’t Bother You

Those Whiny Teachers

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find


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Note: The artwork in the title header was provided by

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.


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

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How to Handle Your Celebrity Status


I went to Walmart the other day to pick up some adult beverages and help destroy local businesses. As I quickly weaved around an Easter display, I heard:

“Mr. Murphy!”

It was a student from my school. Not one of my students. I didn’t even know his name. But he quite obviously knew mine. He wanted his mom to know it was me.

“Mom! Mom! That’s Mr. Murphy! He’s a teacher at my school!” the boy shouted, just in case someone in the store didn’t know I was there.

Like it or not, we teachers are celebrities. Not huge ones. Not even on the level of a local weatherman. But celebrities nonetheless. Sure, my most rabid fans might be nine-year old kids, but so were Justin Bieber’s, Aaron Carter’s, and Miley Cyrus’s (and look how well they turned out).

If a student sees me anywhere outside of school, it is, for some odd reason, a cause to get very excited. It is as though they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I have a life apart from work. I don’t really get it, but I bet real celebrities don’t quite understand people’s overreactions to them, either. I’m sure Katie Holmes has no idea why people want to take pictures of her walking out of a store holding a shoe bag.

I admit that, like many Hollywood stars, I do not always relish my celebrity. Sometimes, I just want to buy my six-pack and get out of there. But I try to remember that to some kids, I’m kind of a big deal. And I shouldn’t act like Al Kaline.

Think of it this way: If you ran into one of your favorite actors or athletes at the supermarket, how would you hope they would respond to your enthusiastic approach?

You wouldn’t want them to blow you off, act annoyed, be rude or short with you, act as though you were an imposition, or try to get rid of you as quickly as possible.

You’d want them to smile, say hi, sign an autograph, take a picture, and act as though they genuinely appreciated your adoration. You’d want them to be open, gregarious, even giving. You’d want to be able to tell your friends what a great person your favorite celebrity is. Mostly, you’d want them to understand and appreciate the rare position they find themselves in.

There aren’t many people in the world who have fans of any age. Most of the people in that Walmart will never get the kind of reaction I got from that kid from anyone, including their own spouses and children. We’re members of a lucky few.  We should try to be grateful for it.

So the next time some kid excitedly shouts your name across a Walmart and runs up to you, tugging his indifferent and somewhat baffled mother along, stop what you’re doing. Turn to him and smile. Ask him how he’s doing. Tell him it’s good to see him.

Then go home, drink the beverages, and bask in the glory of your fame.





6 Ways to Spread Happiness in the Classroom

It’s an exciting day here at Teacher Habits Headquarters! We have our first guest post! Paul Ellsworth (aka Profe Pablo) is a high school Spanish Teacher and a writer. He loves trying “out of the box” classroom management techniques to create a fun and productive classroom. He writes about his classroom at There you can download his Top 25 Teaching Tricks or even tune into his podcast Schooled Radio. Today, he writes about spreading happiness in the classroom, a subject near and dear to my heart, and, not-so-coincidentally, the subject of my next book, Happy Teacher, available on Amazon by the end of the month.

6 Ways to Spread Happiness in the Classroom

When analyzing the classroom often we look at test scores or students’ grades. Grades are important, but what if grades were not a true indicator of success?

Instead of looking at the grades first, what if I asked you about your students’ happiness?

You would think I was crazy.

However, in his book The Happiness Advantage, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor proves that success doesn’t lead to happiness, but happiness leads to success. Instead of looking at results and asking our students to simply try harder, maybe we should prime them for success through happiness.

To have a successful classroom, the question then becomes, “How happy are your students in the classroom?” and equally important, “How happy are you in the classroom?”

Here are 6 ways that you can spread happiness in the classroom.

#1 Smile more.

Just by smiling at the students, you are showing them that you are happy to be with them. You are also tapping into students’ mirror neurons. These neurons tell the brain to copy what you see. Furthermore, your body language and your mood are so intricately connected, that if you smile (even if you are not happy), your brain begins to release dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, which are the “happy” neurotransmitters of the brain (Psychology Today) .

#2 Give control to the students.

When students feel in control, they feel safer and happier. My favorite examples come out of a program about classroom discipline called Love and Logic. Love and Logic tells parents and teachers to share control with the students by offering small choices that you feel comfortable with. Here’s an example: “Would you guys like to take the quiz right now or at the end of class?” By doing this you’re letting the students know that they have a voice in the classroom and some control over their environment.

#3 Pump up the jams.

I cry at the end of the movie Rudy every single time. As moving as the story is, I don’t think I would react that way every time if it weren’t for the music. Music directs human emotions. Can you imagine your favorite scene of a movie without the background music? You can use music to move your students to happiness. Do you have an extra Bluetooth speaker lying around? If not, it will be worth the $20 investment. Play energetic music as the kids enter the classroom or play calm music to help them de-stress.

#4 Change your greetings.

Another way that you can spread happiness is by changing how you greet your students. Usually we say something like “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” Instead of doing this you can tweak your question to lead the students to think positively about their day. I learned this from the book Broadcasting Happiness by Michelle Gielan. For example, I could change my greeting from “How’s it going?” to “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” The answer requires the students to think of something positive.

#5 Offer anticipation.  

In a study done with 44 doctors, those primed with candy diagnosed twice as fast as those not primed with candy. Do you know what’s crazier? They weren’t even allowed to eat it until afterwards!  I tried the same thing in one of my Spanish classes. I handed out Jolly Ranchers which sat on the edge of the students’ desks until the end of class. By doing this I’m giving the students something to look forward to. You won’t believe how many students beg me to go ahead and pass out the candy at the beginning of class, just so they can know it is waiting for them. This anticipation of happiness increases productivity.

#6 Breathe deeply.

Sometimes, I will notice that my students seem stressed in the classroom. Instead of pushing through the stress (and therefore adding to it), I tell my students to close their eyes. Then we practice 4-7-8 breathing. This kind of breathing hijacks the adrenaline system and slows it down. By doing this, you are placing the students back in logical thinking mode instead of “fight or flight” stress mode. Less stress equals more happiness.
All the above-mentioned hacks require energy, action, and attitude on your part. It is going to be hard to spread happiness if you are not happy yourself. Make sure that you’re doing things for yourself as a teacher. We spend a lot of time thinking about our students. Make sure that you are doing things that make you happy. What’s a hobby that you’ve let go of that you really enjoyed? Have you taken time just to just to sit down and relax and watch your favorite TV show? Take time for yourself and then spread happiness freely in your classroom.

One Trick for Not Being a Jerk to Students


I admit that I am sometimes a jerk to my students. I try not to be. I really do. I know the damage it causes, both to the kid and the classroom culture. I know that one bad experience with me can ruin twenty previous good ones.  I know that being a jerk makes me feel bad about myself. It does no one any good.

And yet.

I could trot out a litany of excuses, but that’s just what they would be. There really is no excuse. Doctors pledge to “First, do no harm.” Teachers should pledge to, “First, don’t be an asshole.”

Although I occasionally fail this basic expectation of human decency, I am better than I used to be. I realize the importance of being consistently nice, and I’ve developed a few mental tricks to use over the years. Today, I’ll share one. You can read about two others in my upcoming book, Happy Teacher, available on Amazon at the end of the month (fingers crossed).

Trick #1: Don’t Say Things to Students I Wouldn’t Want My Principal to Say To Me During a Staff Meeting

When I have a one-on-one meeting with my principal, I don’t worry too much about how I phrase things. If asked for my honest opinion, I give it. If I think my principal is wrong about something, I will say so.

I expect my principal to do the same with me. In a one-on-one meeting, I want honesty from my principal. If he thinks I’m doing something wrong or could be doing something better, he should tell me. If he thinks I have a weakness that needs improving, he has an obligation as my boss to inform me and give me pointers or direct me to resources that will help me improve. My rationale is that we’re both adults, we’re both professionals, we both are trying our best, but we’re both human and will, on occasion, fall short or screw up. I’m a big boy, and I can take the criticism. He’s the boss, so he better be able to take some too.

A staff meeting is a totally different animal because it is public. I rarely challenge or even disagree with my principal in a staff meeting. If I do, I choose my words very carefully and usually try to give my principal an out, such as, “I know this isn’t coming from you, but have your supervisors considered…”

There are a number of reasons you should not challenge your principal in front of the entire staff, but for the purposes of this post, I don’t do it because I don’t want him to do it to me.

A Brief Digression into Basketball

I played high school basketball, and in preparation of one game the coach had us practice a triangle-and-two defense, which is basically a three-man zone with the other two defenders guarding their men one-on-one. The defense worked perfectly in the first half of the game and we had a big lead. Our coach switched to a straight man-to-man defense in the second half, and we squandered much of our advantage before winning by a handful of points.

Afterward, Coach criticized our second half performance. I felt the need to stand up for myself and my teammates. I shot back, “But you changed the game plan!”

He lit into me in a very public and somewhat personal way, ripping my lack of defensive effort in the second half. He basically blamed me for letting our rival back in the game. It made me feel about this big:

I learned two lessons that day: First, don’t second guess your coach in front of the team, and second, people, no matter who they are and how old they may be, get very defensive when publicly called out. Some get downright pissed off.

End of Digression

When your principal criticizes you publicly, you feel attacked. You feel ashamed and you become defensive. You body triggers its fight-or-flight response because the brain is shouting DANGER! DANGER! You either sit there and take it, fuming on the inside and plotting elaborate revenge schemes, or you defend yourself vigorously and say something you’ll soon regret. Either way, you’ll feel resentment toward your principal. You won’t be doing that jerk any favors anytime soon! The next time you disagree with him, maybe you won’t be so respectful; he certainly didn’t show you the same courtesy! You might even seek to undermine him at the next opportunity.

Students are humans too. They feel the same things you do. When you embarrass them in front of their peers by publicly scolding them, it’s no different than your principal doing the same to you. In fact, students likely feel shame and resentment even more acutely than you do because they’re at an age when friendships matter more than just about anything. They care more about their classmates’ opinion of them then you care about your colleagues’ opinion of you. Good luck getting that student back on your side anytime soon. 

In fact, of all the things you’ve done for that student over the course of the year–all the lessons you’ve taught and guidance you’ve provided–they may, when they think of you 24 years later, return to that single moment in time when you made them feel like nothing in front of their peers. And it won’t matter to them if they deserved it or not.