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.

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

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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 ClipArtsGram.com

5 End of the Year Classroom Management Tips

end of year

One of my favorite education blogs is Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management. Yesterday, he published a post titled, “How to Avoid Losing Control the Final Days of the School Year.” Like always, he offers solid advice, but his tips are somewhat general (possibly because he does a better job of writing for the entire spectrum of K-12 teachers than I do). Michael’s post made me think about some of the specific things I do to keep a handle on student behavior during the last few weeks of the year.

Less Me. More Them.

For the most part, my students like me. They respect me. They say nice things, make an occasional card for my bulletin board, and tell me they’ll miss me next year. That doesn’t mean they want to listen to me anymore. It’s a long year, and my students are sick and tired of my voice. I don’t blame them. I’m tired of me, too. Since I know listening is a challenge for them this time of year, I talk a lot less. Instead of spoken directions, I write them on the board or in Google Classroom. Instead of delivering lectures, I assign text. Rather than teach a particular math strategy, I show a video of someone else teaching it. Mostly, I try to keep them busy with work instead of asking them to listen to me.

Give In

Talking tends to go off the charts this time of year. Instead of fighting it by making students listen to me or by asking students to work quietly at their desks, I allow them to work with partners or in small groups on nearly every assignment. Since they’re going to talk anyway, give them something academic to talk about. I also require a certain amount of the work to be finished before I give the class a break. As I wrote in this post, I give my students five-minute breaks throughout the day when they can pretty much do what they want. But at the end of the year, some kids don’t want to work. So I set a timer for all to see and tell them that if their group doesn’t have x amount of work done when the timer goes off, we’ll skip the break, and I’ll provide more time to get the work done instead.

Recommit to the Rules

The embarrassing truth is that student behavior slips at the end of the year because I have allowed it to. While the same rules are still hanging in the same spot as they have all year, I started to selectively enforce them. Whereas in September I would nail any kid who leaves her seat during instruction without getting permission, I now see that Kylie has gotten up to get a Kleenex during the math lesson and instead of moving her clip down, I justify her behavior (“Well, what’s wrong with getting a Kleenex when you need one?”) and allow it. I become permissive, and students take advantage of it.

A simple way to regain control then is to tell your students that you’ve screwed up. Don’t blame them for a problem you caused. Explain that you’ve not been holding them accountable for some of the rules and that from here on out, you’re committed to enforcing your rules. Pick a couple of the most frequently broken rules and explain that you’ll be nailing students for violating them every time. Then do it. Follow through with the predetermined consequence without fail. You’ll see a quick decrease in those behaviors as long you do what you say you’re going to do.

Reward Tolerance

Familiarity breeds contempt. A lot of end-of-year behavior stems from students just plain being sick of each other. They’ve been together for many months and where they once showed patience and understanding and a desire to get along, they now quickly tattle or fire off a rude comment.

To regain the tolerance they showed each other earlier in the year, reward it. At the end of the day, have students share about tolerance they witnessed during the day. Reward the students who displayed the tolerance. Students may struggle with this at first, but when prizes are offered, they usually respond. They’ll be more tolerant in the hopes that someone notices. They’ll be more aware of their friends’ tolerance so they can earn them rewards. They’ll likely game the system — friends will report on friends’ incidents of tolerance so that both can get prizes, but that’s okay. Yes, it’s manipulative and Alfie Kohn would surely disapprove but 1. They’re not getting the reward themselves, which means their actions (even the scheming ones) benefit somebody else, which is a nice thing to encourage, and 2. You’re trying to get through to the end of the year. Pretty much anything goes at this point.

Head Down, Keep Going

This is a hard one, but it’s important. Don’t focus on the fact that the year is almost over. Don’t count the days. Don’t cross them off a calendar. Don’t pop balloons for each newly completed day until there’s just one hanging. Don’t discuss next year at all. Don’t remind students that they should be better at things because they’ve been in school for 165 days now. You may be excited about the impending summer vacation, but some of your students aren’t.

Some of your students will be going home to horrors you can’t imagine. They’re losing the one place in the world where they feel safe and accepted. Less dramatically, some are upset about not seeing their friends for three months. Some will miss you. Some are nervous about moving to middle school or high school or maybe a new town altogether.

Change can cause anxiety, and your constant reminders about this coming change can lead to student emotions which can lead to poor behavior. Keep teaching. Keep plugging away. Stick to your routines and schedules. Teach right up to the last day as if it’s the middle of October. Before you know it, the last day will be here and then you can celebrate.

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

steal time

My next book is about how teachers can take home less student work to grade. Part of accomplishing this worthy goal is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (and in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

A lot of teachers never grade papers when students are in the room. They feel like when students are in their presence they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or assessing. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they ever justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Would she look down her nose or think the teacher is lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. There are many ways to do this that are educationally sound and good for kids. One simple way is to give your students breaks.

I started giving five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transitioned seamlessly from one activity to another.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students breaks. Now, after students have sat through a 20-minute lesson and worked for another twenty minutes on their math, I announce a five-minute break. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back at their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, change our mood, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak on to a game site during work time. Breaks can also help students get over frustration. This morning I was picking jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student was upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game. By the time we resumed work, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used student break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Writing newsletters, making sub plans, and checking papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development presentation with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to “waste” a single minute.

See how that goes over.

 

Old Stuff:

Why Teachers Should Help Less

Teach Like a Cat

6 Ways to Spread Happiness in the Classroom

 

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What Comes After Fidget Spinners

My daughter knows I write this blog, and she asked me the other day whether or not I’d written about fidget spinners yet. I told her the topic was too trendy. Besides, I reasoned, the whole thing will blow over, just like Bakugan, Pokemon Go, dreams of 100% proficiency, and those little skateboards that infested my classroom a few years back. But I’ve changed my mind. Fidget spinners themselves won’t be around for long, but the trend that fidget spinners started just might.

The genius of the fidget spinner, of course, is that word “fidget.” This shamelessly transparent attempt to legitimize a toy is a lesson in how brazen marketers can be when their targets are gullible parents who will apparently fall for anything with an education word attached to it. It’s because of this that we aren’t done with fidget spinners and their nettlesome offspring. When the fidget craze ends, we can expect to see copycats. It’s really easy to do. Take a toy. Stick an educational buzzword in front of it. Voila! The next big distraction invading your classroom.

Rumor has it the following are already in production:

Gritty Bear

Place this cuddly taskmaster at the corner of your desk and pat his head during a tough math problem. He says things like, “Don’t give up!” “Winners never quit!” “You can do it!” “Persevere!” and “Don’t you know there are kids in Asia who will spend 20 minutes on a problem like this?” Manufactured by Duckworth Enterprises.

Focus Ring

Simply slip on this ring anytime you need to concentrate better. Taking a big test? Put on the ring and watch your scores soar! The focus ring is made of a copper alloy and infused with essential oils, guaranteeing its wearer a laser-like focus.

STEAM phone

Your school bans cell phones. How unfair.  But what school in their right mind would even think of banning STEAM phones? STEAM phones come preloaded with all your favorite math, science, and engineering apps! Forgot the symbol for antimony? Use your STEAM phone! Need to calculate large sums? The STEAM phone has a calculator! Thinking of checking Facebook or texting your friends during that boring history lesson? You can do that, too! But then you can go right back to doing STEAM stuff! Teachers love STEAM, and they’ll love these phones!
 

Growth Mindset Gnome

This adorable gnome with the face of Carol Dweck blows a raspberry anytime you have a fixed mindset thought. There’s nothing like a loud Bronx cheer to change your thinking from “Ah, shit! I screwed up again! I’m so stupid!” to “Mistakes help me learn better.”

Self-Regulation Marshmallows

Science has proven that children who delay gratification grow up to be adults who make more money, report higher levels of happiness, always put down the toilet seat, and never go bald. How did science learn this? MARSHMALLOWS! Now your kids can practice delaying that gratification all day long. Simply place the self-regulation marshmallows on students’ desks. Use the self-regulation marshmallow app (available on iOS or Android) to set a timer. Then sit back and watch students learn the Pavlovian way when they get a small electric shock anytime they touch the marshmallow before the preset time! FUN!

These are only the five I’ve heard about. But I bet, reader, you’ve heard of others. Tell us about them in the comments or on Facebook.

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Other Posts Of Possible Interest:

10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

I’ve eaten at hundreds of restaurants in my life, but I’ve never worked at one. My wife was a waitress in college, so when we go out to eat and I complain about something, she’s usually able to offer me a logical explanation. The table next to ours received their food first because they ordered soup and sandwiches and we ordered pizza. That family was seated ahead of ours because a table for four opened up, but there isn’t yet room for our party of six. The restaurant may appear sparsely populated, but our food could be taking a long time because there’s a backlog of take-out orders.

 

Until you do a job, you can’t appreciate all that goes into it.  It’s this fact of life that accounts for many of the misconceptions parents have about teaching. So here are 10 things parents might not know.

 

We Have Less Control Over Things Than You Think We Do

The state adopts standards that we have to teach. The Board of Education approves programs that we’re required to use. The district’s administrators are under pressure to improve test scores, and that filters down to us. We may be “there for the kids,” but we’re also employees of our districts. So while we may want to teach your child other things and in other ways, we usually have less autonomy than you suspect. When you complain about our math program,  you put us in a difficult position. We might very well agree with you, but saying so would be unprofessional.

 We Do It All Ourselves

We don’t have office assistants. Any communication that comes home from us was typed by us. Because we have many urgent things to do, we likely typed that newsletter in ten minutes and read it over once before hitting print. If we make the same grammatical or spelling mistake three times, then you can safely assume we missed a lesson somewhere along the way. But the other typos are a result of never having enough time to do all aspects of our jobs at the level we’d like to.

 

We Forget Stuff

There are a LOT of things that happen during the day. We may read an email from you right before the office interrupts with an announcement and a girl picks a scab and comes running for a Band-Aid. The contents of your email can quickly become forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of our days. We don’t recall everything that happens. If we send an email home explaining that Tommy had a rough day, don’t be surprised if we’re unable to recall the six things Tommy specifically did that led to the email. All we know is he annoyed us all day.

 

We’re Really Busy

We don’t have office jobs. We have a computer, but there’s a very good chance we won’t sit in front of it at all the entire day. If you email  at 10 a.m. asking us to tell Timmy to ride the bus home after school and you don’t get a response back, you should call the office. We either didn’t check our email or we read it and forgot (see Forgetting Details above).

 

We’re More Annoyed Than You About Buying School Supplies

We don’t like asking you to provide notebooks, pencils, folders, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, and all the other things on those beginning-of-the-year supply lists. But our schools aren’t buying them for us, and we already spend plenty of our own money on things we shouldn’t have to. If you don’t want to buy the stuff on the list, that’s fine. But don’t complain to us about it.
 

 

 We Don’t Really Want Your Kids’ Toys and Electronics

We know it’s unrealistic to expect you to double-check your kids’ backpacks every morning and that most toys arrive in our classrooms without your knowledge. But please understand that when we take your sons’ toys we’re doing it because they’re distracting and if we allow one there will ten more tomorrow. So please, if your child takes a toy to school and it’s taken away from him, don’t bail him out by coming to school and asking for the toy back. Let him learn his lesson, at least for a week.

 

We Might Not Want Your Help

Schools are always talking about how they want more parent involvement, and some generously offer to help in classrooms. Sometimes, it’s greatly appreciated. But other times, it’s more work for us. We’re used to doing everything ourselves. We’re not very good at delegating. And if we know you’re coming every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m., we have to find something for you to do. We’ve also had parents who caused more problems than they solved. They joked around and distracted students, made too much noise when they were in the room, and modeled bad behavior for students. We don’t want to correct an adult’s behavior in front of the class, but we also don’t want our classes disrupted. Sometimes, we don’t want to take the risk, so we don’t ask for help at all.

 

If We Meet With You Before or After School,  We’re Working for Free (and We Probably Resent It)

If we need to talk to our doctors, we must do so on their time. If we call a business after it’s closed, we have to wait until tomorrow to get service. Even professionals like realtors or financial advisors who will meet with us after hours are doing so with the expectation of a pay-off in the future. During a meeting before school, we’re likely thinking about the all things we need to do in our classrooms. After school,  we’re tired and want to go home. We’ll be professional during these meetings, but we’re not happy about them.

 

There’s Not Much I Can Do To Punish Your Kid

Some of you want us to handle all things school-related, but there’s little we can do when your child regularly misbehaves. Ours principals may think we’re ineffective if we send your kid to the office too often. Taking away recess is counterproductive and punishes us just as much as your child. Other, more creative consequences may be met with criticism from you, despite your pledge to stay out of school matters. If your child isn’t doing her job at school, you’re in the best position to punish your kid because you can take away the things she really likes. You’ll send a stronger message by taking away her iPad, making her go to bed thirty minutes early, or not allowing her to attend a sleepover on Saturday than we will by giving her a lunch detention. If we’re telling you about your kid’s poor behavior, it’s because we want you to do something.

 

We Sugarcoat

If we tell you that your kid was disrespectful to his classmates, we’re really telling you your kid is often a jerk. If we describe your child as “difficult to motivate,” we’re calling him lazy. If we say Jill had a difficult day, we mean she was a major pain in the ass. Whatever we tell you, assume it was twice as bad as it sounds.

 

 

Other Articles You Might Enjoy:

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents
Why American Teachers Should Work Less
The Benefits of Doing Nothing

 

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