The Best and Worst Lie Teachers Tell Themselves

lie

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I used to dread notes from substitute teachers. Upon arriving at school following an absence, I would see a note on my desk and delay reading it as long as possible. I’d make copies. I’d fine-tune lesson plans. I’d check some papers, answer some emails. Eventually, curiosity would get the best of me and I’d read the note. Invariably, I’d learn about the awful decisions made by the usual suspects. My blood pressure would rise. I would rehearse the cutting words I was itching to hurl at them. Didn’t they know how to behave? How dare they be so disrespectful! It was a horrible way to start the day.

An Epiphany

After a while, I came to realize that the way my students behaved for a sub usually had far less to do with my students and far more to do with the substitute. So instead of getting mad at my students, I would toss the note, unread, into the trash, and tell myself that whatever happened the day before was mostly a reflection on the adult at the front of the room. That led to an epiphany. If I blamed substitute teachers for how my students behaved, why should I not blame myself for what went on in my classroom on a daily basis?

It was the single most productive question I’ve asked as a teacher. It forced me to view every problem in my classroom as the result of something I had or hadn’t done. It led me to realize that every issue in my room was something I could work to resolve. Through research, collaboration, and trial and error, I could improve my craft and enjoy the fruits of my growing competency. I could influence student behavior, effort, and motivation.

  • When students didn’t learn, it was my fault.
  • When a student misbehaved, it was because of my classroom management, or my lame lesson, or my failure to build a positive relationship.
  • When students were bored, it was because I was not making things interesting enough.
  • When transitions were sloppy, it was because I hadn’t taught them clearly enough or didn’t have high enough expectations.

There’s no question that I started to improve as a teacher when I stopped looking for excuses. Instead of labeling students as lazy, disrespectful, or selfish, instead of blaming their parents, or lamenting the effects of generational poverty, the ugly side of capitalism, or other outside circumstances for what happened in my room, I looked in the mirror.

My mantra was, “I am responsible for everything that happens in my room.”

It’s the best lie I ever told myself.

The Best Lie

It’s an empowering lie. We can’t do anything about our students’ home lives. We have little control over district policies. We can’t alter the standards. But we can control what happens in our classrooms. This is the way teachers who want to get better have to think. It’s what we must believe. It forces us to evaluate our practice. It compels reflection. It leads us to seek out solutions, which means we’re observing others, seeking information from multiple sources, and trying new approaches, all in the interest of improving our craft.

What’s great about believing this lie is it forces you to do something about the only thing you can control: you.

But it’s still a lie.

The Truth

The truth is that you are not responsible for everything that happens in your room. Sometimes, a child’s poor decision has absolutely nothing to do with you.

The truth is that some kids are lazy. They were lazy last year, and they’ll be lazy this year. They’ll grow up to be lazy adults. Look around. They’re everywhere. They didn’t start becoming lazy because of a teacher.

The truth is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t reach a kid.

The truth is that some students have very little self-control, and no matter how much you try, they still won’t have much self-control when they leave you.

The truth is that some kids know damn well what they’re supposed to do and they don’t do it for reasons that have nothing to do with you.

The truth is that no matter what you do, some students will find it boring.

The truth is that some students don’t want to accept responsibility for their learning, and so it’s easier for everyone — the student, their parents, your boss, politicians, people who don’t know jack diddly about teaching — to blame you.

The truth is that sometimes, it’s the kid’s fault. Sometimes, their failures are on them. In fact, we rob something important from a student when we accept blame for their failures, just as we would rob them by taking credit for their successes.

The truth is that your impact isn’t nearly as great as you have been led to believe.

When you believe the lie that everything that happens in your classroom is because of you, then you will improve as a teacher. You will constantly problem solve. You will try new things, read more, and connect with other teachers. You will experiment, fail, tweak, start over, fail again, and try anew. You will learn. You will grow. You will get better.

The Worst Lie

But lying has consequences. The more you put on yourself, the greater frustration you’ll feel when things don’t go well. The more accountability you accept for others’ choices, the more stress you’ll feel when those choices are poor ones. The more stress you feel, the more exhausted you’ll be. And the more exhausted you are, the more likely it is that you’ll burn out.

I know teachers who go home in tears over their students’ poor choices. They expect to make a difference, and when it seems as if their efforts are going to waste, they feel incredibly disheartened. When it seems like we’re not having an impact on our most challenging students, we feel like failures. We lose sleep. We stress over how the behavior of a few students affects our classroom cultures and how the learning of the other students is harmed. We become anxious over even the thought of anyone peering into our rooms, seeing our struggles, and judging us because we have already judged ourselves so harshly. When we put everything on our shoulders, it’s hard to stand tall. Our knees buckle. Some of us collapse.

What teachers need isn’t more accountability for things over which they have little control. I know very few teachers who don’t already feel tremendously accountable for what happens in their classrooms. Teachers need to know that they can’t solve every problem in their rooms because they can’t solve every problem in their students’ homes, in their communities, and in society. Yes, teachers should always try to improve. They should look at themselves first. But they should also admit that they’re not miracle workers. And just because parents, administrators, policymakers, reformers, and even teachers themselves believe they can do it all, doesn’t make it true.

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

ideal teacher myth

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I have a lot of problems with teacher evaluations. I’ve written about them here and here. And while I appreciate the work of people like Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Charlotte Danielson, and others who take seriously the research on effective teaching, I reject how that research has been used to label teachers. And I abhor how it’s led to the myth of the Ideal Teacher.

The Ideal Teacher, we are told, is passionate about helping kids. She understands best practices and only uses instructional techniques that have been proven effective. She’s a disciple of John Hattie’s work and discounts anything below an effective size of .40. She wastes no time in class. She’s warm and caring, and is a master at classroom management. She’s a guru of engagement strategies. She provides specific, timely feedback. She makes sure that students understand their learning targets and that they know where they fall on the success criteria. She’s enthusiastic, patient, and reflective. She is, by every observable measure, a phenomenal teacher.

None of that makes her an ideal teacher to every kid sitting in her room.

Match-Ups

There’s a saying in sports that you’ll almost always hear during playoff time or college tournaments. Coaches sometimes use it to explain why their team was just upset by what everyone thought was a lesser opponent.

It’s all about match-ups.

It’s true of teaching, as well.

It’s about timing: The teacher and student coming together at the perfect point in the child’s life and the teacher’s career. There are students who I have this year who would have benefited more from having me ten years ago, just as there are students I didn’t reach ten years ago that I can now.

It’s about personalities: Some teachers are great for a handful of students in their room, while that same teacher struggles to get through to others.

It’s about luck: Sometimes a teacher can give exactly what a student needs, often without realizing it.

Two Examples

Oprah Winfrey has famously credited her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, on more than one occasion. She even had her on her TV show. About Mrs. Duncan, Oprah said, “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan. She so believed in me, and for the first time, she made me embrace the idea of learning.”

Actor Richard Dreyfuss also credits a teacher for where he ended up in life. He didn’t like Mrs. Wilcox. No many people did. But 20 years after sitting in her elementary school classroom he had the realization that a lot of the things he came to love in life, he learned from her: Shakespeare, literature, reading in general. Dreyfuss said, “She was a mean, impatient woman, who didn’t care about liking me or anyone else, and we didn’t like her. She was tough.”

I have no idea how Mrs. Duncan would have been evaluated under today’s systems. My guess is she would have done well. She sounds like the kind of caring teacher that students and parents adore. But although Oprah credits her for her success, Mrs. Duncan taught hundreds of other kids. You’ve never heard of any of them. That’s not to dismiss her influence on Oprah. It’s just to say that while Mrs. Duncan was the perfect teacher at the perfect time for Oprah Winfrey, she wasn’t for lots of other kids.

But I feel confident in saying that Marzano and Danielson would not hold Dreyfuss’s teacher in great esteem. She was not well-liked by students, probably not respected by administrators, and I imagine barely tolerated by colleagues. I’m also quite sure that had any of the effective teaching researchers observed her, she would not have scored highly on many of their seemingly endless criteria. And she wouldn’t have given a hoot about Hattie’s meta-analyses.

But for one kid, during one pivotal year of his life, she made a huge impact. Without Mrs. Wilcox,  who knows what happens with Jaws and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Different Strokes

The checklists, effect sizes, and evaluation tools all send the same message: You too can be an Ideal Teacher whose students will all make more than one year’s growth and who will then go on to live productive lives if you simply do the things you’re supposed to do. We believe that a teacher who checks all the boxes will always get better results than her colleague across the hall who only checks half of them.

But the kids sitting in front of those teachers don’t care about checklists or effect sizes. And it’s important to remember that not all of them care if you’re nurturing, or patient, or positive, or fun. They’re individuals, each blazing their own paths in this world, each needing something different at one particular place and time. And they will be influenced and inspired by things we can never know.

There’s nothing wrong with reading the research and trying your damndest to be the best teacher you can be. Just don’t assume that because you can fill up a checklist you’re going to make a difference in the life of a child. And don’t assume that because you can’t, you won’t.

How to Make a Good First Impression On Your Students

The first day of school will soon be upon many teachers. We’ll spend the night before tossing and turning, our brains sparking with anticipation, excitement, and anxiety. We know how important it is to get the first day right. We’re setting a tone, establishing a culture, and sending messages with everything we say and do.  At the very least, we want to make a good impression on our students. They’re going to be spending more time with us than with their parents over the next ten months, and it’s important they like us enough to want to come back each day.

About a month ago, a teacher who had just been hired for her first job wrote me and asked what I do to make a good first impression on students. Here’s what I told her:

Dress Professionally

I always wear a tie on the first day, even if it’s 95 degrees and we’re going outside for an icebreaker. People judge others based on their appearances. We don’t have to like this fact to know that it’s true. Kids are people, and they are especially harsh and honest critics. Don’t look like a slob. If you want to be treated like a professional, dress like one. If you want authority (and you should), wear the uniform.

Know Your Students’ Names

When I was a kid I was a huge baseball fan. I knew stats, the value of almost every rookie card I owned, and the jersey numbers of every player on the Detroit Tigers. It’s easy to memorize stuff that’s important to you. Knowing your students names on the first day is important. To the extent possible, know your students’ names before they walk in on day one. Get hold of a yearbook, highlight the kids on your roster, and study their names and faces. You’ll be able to call on them by name that first day, and your continual use of their names will make it easier for classmates to learn them. It will also prevent you from needing to play that horrible name game that wastes time and makes students uncomfortable.

Note: If you’re looking for good icebreakers, check out this article from Cult of Pedagogy

Project Confidence and Authority

Confidence and authority come from experience, but lacking that, fake it if you must. Preparation will give you confidence and confidence lends you authority, so over-prepare. Speak assertively, even if you don’t feel assertive. Leave no doubt that you believe 100 percent in what you’re saying, even if you suspect you might be full of shit. Students want to feel like they’re being led by someone who knows what they’re doing. They also want to feel safe, and having a confident, assertive teacher that sets limits sends the message that their learning will be protected.

Smile

Part of the confidence you display can be in how relaxed you are in front of your students. Smiling breaks down barriers and conveys the message that you’re comfortable and nothing will ruffle your feathers. Smiling makes people more likable. It also makes you seem more intelligent. And you can be assertive without being a grump. When a kid asks you if they’re allowed to [fill-in-the-blank], tell them assertively, “Nope.” Then smile.

Use Your Hands When You Speak

Research shows that people like speakers who use their hands. They find them more charismatic. A study of TED Talks found a correlation between the number of hand gestures and the number of views. A cardinal sin is putting your hands in your pockets. Even if you don’t gesture, keep your hands visible. It makes you seem more open and approachable.

Make Eye Contact

A problem I had early in my career was not looking at my students. I’d look over them, but not actually at them. Good speakers make a personal connection to listeners by looking them in the eyes as they talk. Try to make eye contact for three seconds with a student before moving on to another one. Looking at your students sends two important messages:

  1. You’re talking for their benefit, not just to hear yourself.
  2. You’re “with it.” Students will realize you’ll notice if they’re not paying attention.

Show Vulnerability

One way to quickly connect with others is to share something personal. Showing vulnerability makes you authentic. You’ll immediately humanize yourself. Nobody likes people who act like they’re perfect. Be willing to tell your students something that embarrasses you a little. You might start by telling them how nervous you are. Since they are nervous too, this will help them relate to you and begin to erode walls that exist between teachers and students.

What else do you do to establish rapport, build relationships, and make a great first impression on your students? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook.

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Other First Day Advice:

3 Common First Day Mistakes from Smart Classroom Management

Overcoming the Back-to-School Teacher Jitters… by Angela Watson

Classroom Management: 4 Keys to Starting the Year Off Right from Cult of Pedagogy with a heavy assist from Michael Linsin

 

6 Ways to Make the Most of Student Teaching

I received an email from a reader who is anxious about her upcoming student teaching experience and wanted to know if I could share some advice. After throwing some ideas around with a much younger teacher (that hurts to type) and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve come up with some ideas. Please add your own in the comments so that aspiring teachers may benefit.

To make the most of student teaching, do as Stephen Covey commands:

Keep the main thing the main thing.

The main thing is getting a full-time teaching job next year. Yes, you also want to develop skills, collect ideas, network, and connect with students, but none of that stuff matters much if you don’t get your own classroom. Keep your eye on the prize. You are about to start a long interview process.

To that end, and before you get a placement, fight for the grade level you want. Your college will tell you it doesn’t matter. What else are they supposed to say? They have limited placement opportunities, so not everybody can get what they want. But we know how squeaky wheels work. So squeak. Your student teaching will be going on your resume. If you want to teach third grade, administrators are going to favor candidates with third grade experience over those who have only taught fifth graders. It’s not disqualifying if you student teach in a grade other than the one for which you’re applying, but in a close competition with another candidate, it may disadvantage you. Try to get the grade you want to teach for your student teaching.

Now, here’s one thing you do not need to worry much about: how good you are at teaching. You’re new. You’re young. You aren’t supposed to be that good. I’m old and still screw up all the time. I have disastrous days. Don’t freak out if your lesson flops or your classroom management sucks the first time you get up there in front of students.

My school doesn’t invite student teachers, but my wife, a fifth grade teacher, has had five of them. Her criticisms have never centered around her student teachers’ abilities. It was their attitudes that made the difference.

To start, do these things:

  • Be on time – Better yet, be early. At least 30 minutes.
  • Look professional – If you wear it to a bar, don’t wear it to work.
  • Don’t complain – There will be plenty to complain about, but no one likes a cynical 22-year-old. Save the complaints for your roommate.
  • Get better – You can stink, but your stinking should get moderately less offensive.
  • Be competent – Know the basics. If you’re teaching how to compare fractions, you must understand how to compare fractions. Watch a video or two if you’ve forgotten.
  • Enjoy kids – Parts of the job – the ones dealing with adults, mostly – are tedious, annoying, and infuriating. The kids make it worth it. If you don’t enjoy them, go find something else to do. Seriously.
  • Do the work – If your cooperating teacher asks you to give her your lesson plan the Friday before you’re going to teach your lesson, then give her your lesson plan the Friday before you teach your lesson. This sounds obvious, but my wife’s number one complaint about her student teachers was that they weren’t prepared and would expect her to bail them out. This pissed her off. Don’t piss off the teacher who’s sharing her classroom with you.

If you can’t handle those seven things, then the rest of this list won’t mean much. You probably won’t get past the interview stage, and if you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t. You simply won’t last long if the basic stuff is overwhelming.

All that said, and assuming you’re pursuing the right profession, here are 6 Ways to Make the Best of Student Teaching:

Get along with people

I hate calling it “networking” because that sounds icky and manipulative. But look, you’ll want to use these people as references on your resume. And even if you don’t, they know people who can help you. I got an interview with a high-demand district because the counselor at the school where I student taught knew an administrator over there.

The easiest way to make friends who will one day want to help you out is to show appreciation. Teachers get so little of it, you’ll stand out and be remembered. I have a former student who, every Teacher Appreciation Week, writes a thoughtful letter of appreciation to all her former teachers. There’s no ulterior motive; it’s a genuine expression of gratitude. I can guarantee that when the time comes, she’ll be able to name her district because there are many teachers, who know many other educators, who will recommend her.

Start something new

Every person who looks at your future resume will want to see something, anything, beyond what was required. Lots of people can fulfill requirements; special people do more. What’s most impressive (and I’ve sat on a number of interview committees) is initiative that benefits students. We know how busy the student teaching year is, so anyone who gets something novel off the ground is someone we want to hire. It can be simple. Start an after-school reading club for struggling readers. If you’ve got a talent, start a club for that. Chess, Quilting, Coding. Anything looks good. If you can do something with technology, either outside of school or embedded in your lessons, that’s even better. Old people are fascinated by technology, and they’re the ones doing the hiring. Volunteering to share your school’s good news on Facebook might be a simple way to impress.

Do the grunt work

Make the copies, get the coffee, write out the ridiculously detailed lesson plans your university requires even though no teacher has the time, inclination, or need to ever write them. We’ve all done it. It’s part of the initiation process. And, truthfully, it prepares you for the real world. There’s plenty of grunt work in education. I still make my own copies and plunge the classroom toilet.

Shut up

Yes, you learned some stuff in your teacher preparation courses. You read new research and were challenged on the old ways of doing things. This is what colleges do. Academia is great at questioning well-worn practices. But those TAs and profs sometimes don’t have much experience in the real world. My student teaching year, I read something about how we shouldn’t require students to raise their hands before talking. The article made a lot of high-minded, seemingly good points. I asked my master teacher if I could try it. She looked doubtful, but said go ahead. It didn’t go well. There are usually good reasons why schools and teachers do things the way they do. They might not be ideal, but sometimes the alternatives that sound so good in a college classroom cause more problems than they’re worth. Listen more than you talk.

Ask questions

Ask lots of questions. This is one of the only times in your career that you will have the opportunity to spend large amounts of time observing professional teachers. Make the most of it, it won’t come again. The teachers will do things you won’t understand. I guarantee they will have reasons for those choices. Ask about them. Benefit from their hard-won lessons earned through years of experience.

Keep an ideas file

Try to get into lots of different classrooms so you’re exposed to an array of teaching techniques, management strategies, organizational methods, and tricks of the trade. Write down everything that looks even remotely interesting. When you’re preparing for your first classroom, there will be a ton of decisions you will have to make. Having ideas in a file will give you a place to start. And if that fails, there’s always Pinterest.

Good luck. Enjoy it! You’re about to learn twenty times more about teaching than you have in all your years sitting in a classroom. Make the most of it!

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Hey, Teacher Habits readers! How about leaving your own awesome ideas in the comments so that young people can position themselves to land that first job? Thanks.

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Coming Next:  Administrators’ Advice for Landing Your First Teaching Job

Both Sides: Whole Class Punishments

A confession: Although I usually write as though I’m 100% positive of the suggestions I make on this blog, the truth is I rarely am. There aren’t many sure things in education. What works for one teacher won’t work for all of them. What works for one class won’t work in other classes. Hell, sometimes what works for a teacher one year won’t work the next. But most people don’t want to read unassertive, maybe-you-should-try-this articles. They want new ideas or solutions to problems. So I play along.

 

There are many education issues on which I have vacillated. One is whole class punishments. Early in my career, I used them on occasion. I felt I had good justification for doing so. I still feel solid arguments can be made to support their use. I’ll share those arguments below. I haven’t personally used whole class punishments in probably seven years. However, I can’t write a post titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Use Whole Class Punishments” because I see their merits. Instead, I’ll present both sides and let you argue in the comments.

 

Why You Should Not Use Whole Class Punishments

There are a number of reasons I no longer use whole class punishments. The first is I hated them as a student. I was a good kid. Never got in trouble. So when some asshole ruined it for the rest of us, I resented it. You don’t need to be very old to comprehend when you’re getting jobbed. A whole class punishment didn’t teach me anything except that adults were power-hungry despots who treated saints the same as convicts. I don’t want to be one of those adults.

 

I also didn’t like what whole class punishments did to my classroom culture. It pitted the well-behaved against those who struggled to follow the rules. The kids who ruin it for others are almost always the ones who need the most support. When you punish the whole class for the misdeeds of the few, those students who did nothing wrong will resent those who did. It invites the well-behaved students to mistreat the behaviorally-challenged. When you punish everybody for the actions of a handful of students, you shouldn’t act surprised when your class gangs up on the handful.

 

The third reason is parents don’t like them. Some will complain. They will have valid arguments. I usually try to avoid doing things that anger parents because I’m a chicken.

 

The last reason I no longer use whole class punishments is that whenever I made everyone put down their heads or took away everyone’s recess, I felt like a jerk. Which was a pretty good indication that it was the wrong decision.

 

Why You Should Use Whole Class Punishments

Bill Cecil was the 2003-2004 Michigan Teacher of the Year. He’s a fifth grade teacher in the Lansing area. In his book, Best Year Ever, Cecil makes a compelling argument for whole class punishments. I had given them up by the time I read it, and he didn’t quite cause me to reverse my decision, but his arguments did make me think.  Here’s what he writes:

 

I have the students working together to earn their recess each day. It’s quite simple to earn recess. All they have to do is end the day without two checks on the board. However, if they get two checks in one day, they lose recess and write the rules during that time to refocus on what they as a team need to be doing to be successful.

 

Cecil justifies:

 

It never fails that someone will say that they weren’t doing anything wrong, and therefore, it’s not fair they lost their recess…I tell them it’s similar to when I used to play soccer. In some games I may be playing great and even score a goal. But if we aren’t playing well as a team and our defense lets up three goals, we still lose. I still lose the game despite my good performance.

 

Cecil’s argument is predicated on three beliefs:

 

  1. This class is a team, and we will succeed or fail as a team.
  2. Behavior is everyone’s business. If you see someone doing something they shouldn’t, get them to stop because that behavior is going to harm all of us.
  3. This classroom will reflect the real world.
I would add that in addition to Cecil’s soccer analogy, we can find many other examples outside the world of sports.

 

When the housing bubble popped in 2008 it wasn’t just those with bad mortgages who were screwed.

 

Homeowner associations exist because we know that having neighbors who don’t mow their lawns and fly Aryan Nations flags can ruin the whole neighborhood’s property values.

 

The reason you can get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt is because too many people weren’t wearing them.

 

You might be a great teacher, but if you work with a bunch of idiots, your school is likely to get labeled in a way that damages you just as much as the idiots.

 

In the real world, we are often in this together. Our success or failure hinges on the choices of others, as unfair as that sometimes is. Why should students be protected from this reality? Isn’t one of our jobs to prepare students for life outside of school?

 

Where you fall on this issue likely comes down to a bigger question: What is the role of school? Should schools reflect society at large? Should they prepare students for the unfairness and harsh realities of the world outside their doors?

 

Or should schools rise above society and strive for a more idealized version of it? Should schools offer a sanitized experience in the hopes that our students will grow up and change the world for the better?

 

What say you? Are you for, against, or do you fall somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.

 

Note: While I disagree with Cecil on whole class punishments, his book is excellent. It’s especially useful to teachers preparing for a new year.  Buy it here.

 

Old stuff you might enjoy:

 

 

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