Don’t Let the Last Hour Spoil the Whole Day

end of day

Here is a list of nonsense words:

lurst, nifkin, bluck, pansate, wazzle, morky, wolire, chagg, fonticule, kittop, glope, tercopular, moobin

Fun, aren’t they?

In 1964, a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments using words like those above. He wanted to determine whether the position of a word on a list affected how easily it could be recalled. To accomplish this, Ebbinghaus prerecorded lists of nonsense syllables, then played them to himself and tried to recall them. He found that the words near the beginning and end of the list were more readily recalled than those in the middle. He called this the “serial position effect” and postulated that the words at the end of the list were more easily recalled because they were still in his short-term memory, a phenomenon he called “recency effect.”

The recency effect is a recognized cognitive bias nowadays, and you see it everywhere. Your favorite sports team (and its coach) is judged by what they have done lately, regardless of how successful they’ve been in the past.  Investors make decisions based on how the stock market has done recently, instead of paying attention to historical trends. Companies use the recency effect in their marketing by making sure the product is as attractive as possible at the point of purchase. You get angry with your spouse over some trivial matter and forget all about the wonderful things they did just last week. Recency matters, and the classroom is no exception.

The recency effect explains why the last hour of school has the potential to ruin your (and your students’) perception of an entire day.

Earlier this year, my class was really struggling during the last 45 minutes of most days. I’d shoehorned science into this time slot and was attempting to include a lot of hands-on group work into my units. Students were not handling it well. Many were off-task. Patience was thin. Kids argued and fought over everything from who got to use what, to how long they used it, to whose idea was good and whose wasn’t. There were more than a few blowups from students whose frustrations reached the boiling point. And of course, my own willpower was at its nadir. I had little tolerance for nonsense and that just made the whole thing even more volatile. It wasn’t a good situation.

When I got home and my wife asked me how my day had gone, I told her it was horrible. I replayed what had happened at the end of the day and lamented how poorly I’d taught procedures and expectations. I complained that I wouldn’t be able to do hands-on, fun science experiments because the kids just couldn’t handle it. I was mentally drained, physically exhausted, and I didn’t even want to think about going back the next day.

This was the recency effect at work. But the truth was quite different.

For most of the day, my class was great. Mornings almost always went well. The students listened, worked hard, got along, and had positive attitudes. Most of the afternoon was productive, too. More students were on-task during independent reading than I’d had in years. They worked well with partners. Even recess was good. We had very few behavior problems on the playground.

When I really thought about it, the only time my students had trouble was during the last 45 minutes of the day. The problem was that when I went home for the day, it was this 45 minutes that I remembered. It left a terrible taste in my mouth, and since the recency effect also works on children, it was a horrible way for students to end the day, too. I imagine that after those chaotic science lessons, many students went home with few good feelings about being in my class. They likely shared those opinions with their parents, just as I had with my wife.

Ending your day poorly is a really good way to destroy your classroom culture, as well as your own enthusiasm for the job.

I had to find a way to combat the recency effect. So here is what I did. Try these strategies if you are finding that your last hour is spoiling the whole day.

Awareness

First, be aware of this cognitive bias we all have and give the end of the day the same weight you give the rest of it. At the end of my difficult days, I took a few minutes to just sit at my desk and replay each subject in my head. This way, I could remember how students had done during different periods of the day and remember that although we might have ended on a sour note, most of the day was actually pretty productive. Acknowledge the recency effect, and don’t judge your whole day based on how it ended.

Focus on the Majority

We teachers have a tendency to focus on the negative outliers, and I’m no different. 20 students can be doing their jobs, but if three are arguing and one of them throws a fit and goes storming out of the room, the whole lesson feels like a debacle, I feel like a failure, and I worry what students think about my classroom management. Instead of focusing on the problematic few, I try to force myself to think about the majority. I’ve written more about this in my article, How to Feel Like Less of a Failure.

Understand Why It Happens

While doing research for my book Exhausted, I learned a lot about willpower. We start each day with a given amount. As the day goes on, we use it up. By the end of the day, our stores of willpower are exhausted and we have a much harder time regulating our emotions. Glucose is the fuel we need for self-control. By 3:00, we’re pretty low on it, so students have a harder time using willpower to do the right thing. It takes energy to resist temptation and have patience with others, and by the end of the day, many students, especially those who have to use the most willpower to do the right thing the rest of the day, just don’t have any left. I explained all of this to my students, but while understanding helps, it doesn’t make it any less infuriating when you feel like the class is going off the rails.

Teach Expected Behaviors

Since I knew the last hour was going to be a challenge, I committed to being much more intentional and detailed about expectations. Before we got out the science materials and split off into groups, I taught and modeled exactly what students needed to do. We also made If/Then plans for handling predictable obstacles. “If Tony isn’t sharing the magnet, then I will remind him that everyone needs a turn before time is up.”

Prevent

Frankly, all the modeling and careful attention to detail annoyed me. I’d spend 15 minutes going over all this stuff, which meant students were pinched for time to perform the science activity, which led to some of the problems I was trying to prevent. In my book Exhausted, I write about how researchers have discovered that people with the most self-control actually use very little of it in the way we normally think about exercising willpower. They don’t will themselves to do the right thing by staring temptation in the face. Instead, people with a lot of self-control use it preemptively to avoid temptations and distractions. College students with exceptional self-control use it to sit in the front row instead of using it to avoid daydreaming or playing on their laptops in the back of the lecture hall. Dieters don’t use willpower to stop themselves from eating a bowl of ice cream at night. They use it to not buy the ice cream in the first place. Knowing this, I finally figured out that the best way to set my class up to be more successful — and the best way to go home feeling good about my days — were to rearrange my schedule so that students wouldn’t have to use so much willpower at a time of day when they had very little of it. I moved science class to the morning and put writing–a much quieter, more independent subject–at the end of the day. That solved more problems than anything.

Flip the Script

The recency effect doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be used to your and your students’ advantage by ending every day with something positive. Brainstorm a list of things you could do with the last ten minutes that will linger in your and your students’ memories. You might have students share something good that happened to them, either aloud or in writing. You could end the day with music and dancing. You can end with a game that builds the classroom culture. You could have your class meeting at the end of the day and share positives and goals for the next day. At the very least, you could do as Michael Linsin recommends in this post and end each day with calm, predictable procedures and high-fives all around. Send them home smiling and excited to come back tomorrow. Send yourself home the same way.

And now, since you’re at the end of this article, do you remember any of the nonsense words at the start of it?

Wait, let me guess….

Moobin?

 

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What Jesus Can Teach Teachers About Priorities

jesus.

Nobody, not even the Son of God, can do it all. In the Gospel According to Mark, we learn about a trip Jesus takes to the bustling and sin-filled city of Capernaum. Jesus heads into the synagogue there and starts teaching. The people are left slack-jawed by his awesomeness and one guy, possessed by an evil spirit, wants to know if Jesus has come to destroy them. With a handful of words, Jesus exorcises the demon and everyone is even more amazed. (Mark 1: 21-28)

After preaching, Jesus takes his pals James and John over to the home of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. So Jesus goes in there and cures her. By night, word of the exorcism and the fever healing has spread and the whole damn town gathers outside and starts screaming like a crowd calling for an encore at a Stones concert. Jesus obliges them. The gospel says, “Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons.” (Mark 1: 29-33)

The next morning, before the sun rises, Jesus gets up, leaves the house, and wanders off to a solitary place, where he prays.  His buddies eventually find him and are all, “Hey, man, everyone is looking for you!” I imagine that by this point, anyone with a runny nose or blisters on their feet were looking for some free health care. (Mark 1: 35-37)

Jesus, perhaps growing weary of his celebrity, says, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1: 38)

It happens again a bit later. After healing a loquacious leper who, in defiance of Jesus’s instructions, blabs to anybody wearing sandals about his miracle, we learn that, “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.” (Mark 1: 40-45)

There are a number of lessons here for busy teachers. First, it’s important to notice that the gospel doesn’t say that Jesus healed all who came. It says he healed many and drove out many demons. Jesus got tired, and he called it quits. Second, Jesus was wise to get away from it all and pray. He took time for himself. Third, Jesus recognized that he couldn’t accomplish his main goal of teaching if he spent all his time healing people, so he decided to get out of the city and go to nearby villages where he could teach, because that is what he was there to do.

As teachers, we have many opportunities to do good. We are offered chances to join committees that do important work. We are encouraged to attend before- and after-school activities that benefit our school, students, and parents. We could coach, run an after-hours club, write grants, be a class sponsor, or volunteer to help our principal with state-mandated reporting. Our time and efforts are requested for a lot of worthy endeavors that will help others. But we have limits. We have to remember to take time for ourselves. And we shouldn’t forget what our purpose is. Like Jesus, we need to focus on what we’re there to do.

Our main goal is to be the best teacher to our students. And while taking on extra work to help our colleagues, our administrators, or students in other classrooms is good work, it’s not our main work. We need to recognize that we can’t do it all. Even Jesus couldn’t add more hours to the day. Even he couldn’t escape the hard reality of trade-offs. When Jesus spent his time healing people, he couldn’t preach. And when teachers spend their time doing important work that isn’t teaching, they too have less time to focus on their greatest contribution.

So be like Jesus. Be careful how you use your time. Take care of yourself. Keep the main thing the main thing. Remember why you’re there. And when things start getting in the way of your teaching, stop doing those things.


Related Content:

A More Effective Way For Teachers To Say No

When Teachers Should Be Selfish

American Teachers Should Work Less


I write a lot about how teachers can do a better job taking care of themselves. That’s because you can’t help your students if you’re overworked, stressed out, and exhausted. If you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe to Teacher Habits and receive new articles in your inbox.

 

 

A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

no

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For many reasons, a lot of teachers have a hard time saying no. People who go into teaching want to help others. We often satisfy others’ needs over our own. Many teachers were good students, which often means they were rule followers. Many of us tend to be conformists. When we see other teachers joining committees, we have a difficult time saying no. We also know our schools are strapped for cash, so we agree to work for free, knowing there just aren’t enough people to do everything that needs to be done. We don’t like disappointing others. We fear what will happen if we don’t say yes. We don’t want to be perceived as lazy. Knowing this, some administrators lay on guilt trips and appeal to our selfless natures. It’s for the kids, they remind us.

No matter the reason, many teachers end up agreeing to join committees, attend after-school parent nights, tutor students before class, organize book rooms or science materials, or agree to be their school’s union representative even though they don’t really want to.

They recognize that there are trade-offs. By stretching themselves thin, they’re unable to do anything as well as they would like. They become less prepared teachers, which leads to less effective teaching, which leads to greater stress, more exhaustion, and a higher likelihood of burning out and quitting. Having said yes to every request, they look around one day and wonder where all their time went. How come they can’t get anything done? Why are they so tired all the time?

It’s important for teachers to say no. Teachers need to say no a whole lot more often than they do. But how do you say no respectfully, yet firmly? How do you say no in a way that will lead others to respect you instead of question your dedication, collegiality, and work ethic?

I have found that the best way to say no starts with two little words: I don’t.

I Can’t

Many people, when they say no, start with, “I can’t.” They then give reasons explaining why they can’t.

“I can’t be on that committee because it meets at 7:00, and I can’t get to work until 7:30.”

“I can’t work on that report because I just don’t know enough about what was done.”

“I can’t chaperone that dance because it’s the same night as my son’s football game.”

The problem with “I can’t” is that circumstances can change. The meetings can be moved to after school. You’ll be given the information you need to write the report. You can’t work this dance, but you can work the one in the spring when it’s no longer football season. “I can’t” says to the person requesting your involvement that, while you can’t do this thing this time, you might be able to do it next time. It invites future requests for your time. If you really don’t want to do the thing, it demands that you create even more explanations for why you can’t. And when you always have a reason for getting out of things, it looks like you’re making up excuses. People don’t respect that.

Instead of saying, “I can’t,” start saying, “I don’t.”

I Don’t

When teachers say, “I don’t,” they send the message that they are in control of their lives. They have rules for how they live. They know what they want. They’re committed. “I don’t” is non-negotiable. It establishes boundaries, instead of just providing what could be perceived as an excuse to get out of doing extra work.

“I don’t” is rare, and that is why it will lead to more respect. Most people don’t really know what they want. They don’t take principled stands. They fail to proactively control their lives. They’re like driftwood, caught up in a current, tossed this way and that by circumstance, instead of captains of their own vessels, intentionally navigating their lives toward predetermined destinations. People respect those who know what they want.

The next time you’re asked to do unpaid work, say, “I’m a professional, and I don’t work for free.”

When asked to join a paid committee you have no interest in, say, “I don’t take on projects that have the potential to diminish my effectiveness in the classroom.”

You might even develop a mantra for any opportunity that doesn’t appeal to you: “I don’t do things that don’t further my goals or excite me.”

“I don’t” works for establishing boundaries in all areas of your life. Once you use it to say no, move on to letting others know what you will and won’t do.

“I don’t read work emails on Sundays.”
“I don’t come into the classroom on weekends.”
“I don’t allow toys in my classroom.”

Making these two little words a part of your lexicon will head off future requests for your time. They will force you to decide what kinds of things you will and won’t do. They will require you to analyze your own goals and priorities. And they will result in more respect from others. Try it out this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments.

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Related:

The Expectation of Free Work

How Teachers Can Get Paid for Extra Work

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

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We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

I was talking with a teacher who has a new principal this year. Her new boss is going to turn things around. He’s going to fix what’s broken. It’s a familiar story.

When I started my teaching career, I went to six nights of training in Balanced Literacy. It was the Next Big Thing.

In my fourth year of teaching my district adopted a new math program that had been designed by some very impressive people in Chicago with PhD after their names. The program “spiraled,” and we were told this would raise those stubbornly middling math scores.

When large corporations started using SMART Goals, schools couldn’t wait to jump on board. If businesses were using them, they must be good!

Robert Marzano extolled the benefits of making your learning goals known to students, so it wasn’t long before schools started requiring “I Can” statements to be posted at the front of the room. This, we were told, was going to lead to greater student achievement.

Got behavior problems in your school? PBIS to the rescue!

Having a hard time differentiating? You need one-to-one devices!

Reading scores too low? This program sold by this huge publisher is bound to raise them!

Tired of achievement gaps and mediocre scores on international tests? Raise the bar! Tougher standards! Higher expectations! 100% proficiency goals! That will do the trick!

Once you’ve done this job for a few years, you start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this script before, and you don’t particularly like the ending. Or the middle. Or that damn song that wakes you up each morning.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I have no problem with new programs. I recognize that change is inevitable and that schools should constantly strive to improve. As someone who writes his own books, I don’t resent the peddlers of new initiatives for repackaging some stale idea and trying to make a buck for themselves. Most teachers I know are willing to give new things a go. We know our schools and classrooms are far from perfect, and we’re constantly on the lookout for solutions.

But many administrators, in their desire to convince their staffs to buy in on the latest and greatest fads, go five steps too far. They promise too much, selling one magic bullet after another, as though teachers have a peculiar form of amnesia that wipes their memories clear of previous flops and lackluster results. Like the Super Bowl, the real thing hardly ever lives up to the hype.

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

Schools face complex issues. At best, problems can be mitigated. Success in most instances would be moderate, incremental improvement. But no one wants to hear that. So principals and other leaders zealously pitch their new ideas alongside the unspoken question made famous by Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?”

No. No, we don’t. We don’t believe in your magic bullets. Because if magic bullets actually existed, we would have discovered them by now. We would already be using them.

The overselling of new initiatives isn’t just harmless zeal. We shouldn’t simply forgive those who promise the moon when there is no moon to be had. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as the folly of an overeager instructional leader. Nor should the responsibility for such failures be left to fall on the shoulders of those who implemented them.  The damage is in the original lie, not the execution.

Every time some earnest and enthusiastic administrator tells his teachers that this new thing is going to be the cure-all we all so desperately want and it then inevitably fails to be such, that administrator loses credibility. Do it once and teachers might forgive him. Do it twice and staff begins to wonder. Do it three times and he better expect some serious skepticism and pushback. As George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Nobody likes to feel gullible.

The Genesis of Cynicism

It is this baseless conviction in the potential of new things that acts as an incubation chamber for the cynicism veteran teachers are often accused of. It’s not that those teachers are negative and unwilling to try new ideas; it’s that they’ve been there and done that, and like The Who, they have decided that they won’t get fooled again. Their cynicism is hard-earned.

There’s a simple solution for principals looking to implement new programs. It isn’t sexy. Honesty rarely is. But the next time you want to try something you read about–the next time you want to hop on the latest bandwagon–don’t lie to your teachers. Don’t blow smoke up their hindquarters. Admit the truth: You don’t know if it will work. Concede that you cannot guarantee a solution to the problem. Acknowledge past promises and the uphill climb you face to gain your teachers’ trust. Make it clear that because what’s being done isn’t working, you’re going to try something else. Be up-front. Stop pretending you’ve loaded your gun with a magic bullet, when it looks the same as all the other ones teachers have seen slid into the chamber.

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I left out about a 100 magic bullets. Share yours in the comments!

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Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

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Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

clutter

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Are you one of those teachers who never throws things out? Is your closet stuffed to the gills with art supplies, science kits for topics no longer in your curriculum, and student projects from 1998? Do you have multiple filing cabinets filled with worksheets that haven’t seen daylight since the Bush administration, totes containing manipulatives you’d be surprised to learn you own, and a box of confiscated toys that lost their popularity five years ago? If so, you may be making your job and the job of your students harder.

We hold onto things for lots of reasons, and the more committed emotionally or financially we are to an item, the more we want to keep it. We might hold onto a box of old road maps because we have fond memories of using them to teach scale. We refuse to get rid of The Mailbox magazines because there are good ideas in them (never mind we haven’t opened one in a decade and all those ideas are on the Internet, taking up no physical space at all). We wrote and won a grant that we used to purchase keyboards for iPads, and even though the iPads have been replaced with Chromebooks we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of the keyboards.

One reason we don’t like to purge is that we may have made a mistake when we purchased or accepted the items in the first place. It’s painful to admit we’re wrong. Science has found that our brains react to the loss of a valued possession the same way they respond to physical pain. But although it might hurt, clearing out some of your crap will help you and your students.

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better in an uncluttered classroom.

The cleanliness of your room can also impact students’ behavior. A study conducted in 2006 by the University of Sussex took an in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. Researchers found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children.

Like other teacher characteristics that harm student learning, we shouldn’t excuse a teacher’s messy classroom as a personality quirk. We don’t look the other way when teachers are unable to give clear directions because they’re scatter-brained. If we agree that students learn more from people they like than those they don’t, we shouldn’t permit teachers to be jerks. A teacher who’s a bully doesn’t get a free pass just because he experienced rejection as a child and has low self-esteem. Messy classrooms are a hindrance to student learning, and teachers should be encouraged to clean them up.

If you’ve got too much stuff, take these four steps to conquer your clutter:

Yearly Cleaning

Near the end of each year clean out your closets, filing cabinets, and desk. Do it while school in still in session. Many students like to help. Plus, it’s free labor. Your district isn’t going to pay you to de-clutter over the summer, and you shouldn’t work for free, especially when the work you’re doing will benefit your students. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in two years. Toss it, sell it, or give it away. I’ve never once went looking for something after this length of time.

Set Limits

Set limits. Don’t exceed them. Allow yourself three totes for science materials. Don’t buy any more bookcases. Get rid of a filing cabinet. When the totes, bookcases, and filing cabinets are full, you’ll be forced to get rid of something to make room for something new. Setting limits is like establishing a spending budget; when you hit the magic number, you’re done.

Cut Space

Force yourself to live within new constraints.  If you’ve got 12 boxes of stuff in your room, cut them down to six. You can do the same for digital clutter. Limit the number of emails in your inbox to 100. Limit the amount of Google Drive folders to 25. Limit the amount of files in each folder to 50. Learn to live within new limits and you’ll be forced to carefully monitor your stuff.

Would You Buy It?

Finally, if you can’t decide whether to keep or trash an item, ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t already own this and I saw it in a store today, would I be willing to buy it?” If the answer is no — and it usually will be– then get rid of it.

What about you? Are there strategies you’ve used to stay on top of clutter and keep your classroom organized? Let us know in the comments.