STEM subjects have been a buzzword in the educational world of late, and with good reason. The subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — are all classic boogeymen of the classroom. Challenging students and teachers alike, these four topics have often been seen as the more difficult parts of any curriculum.
Now, though, as the STEM phenomenon continues to catch fire, the subjects have once again assumed a position in the limelight, which is an undeniably wonderful thing. However, it’s important for educators to avoid a pendulum swing of attention that could ultimately leave other subjects neglected in the wake of the growing STEM momentum.
If you teach multiple subjects to the same students, it’s absolutely essential that you strive to find a balanced approach that addresses each subject properly and leaves each student with a well-rounded education. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for ways to create an interdisciplinary curriculum that balances STEM topics with other classroom essentials like social sciences, art, and the humanities.
Use STEM Tech Across Multiple Subjects
The modern classroom is in a perpetual race to keep up with the times. From physically advanced items like smartboards to cloud-based educational solutions like Google Classroom, the modern educator has their hands full simply obtaining and implementing these kinds of items.
There’s no doubt that adapting to the continuous change can be a lot of work. However, that doesn’t alter the fact that the constant technological turnover presents a golden opportunity to incorporate STEM concepts across multiple subjects at once.
For instance, if you are able to purchase new educational tablets for your classroom, you’ve just introduced a new form of tech to your students. If they use that technology to download applications that help with subjects like art and English, you can simultaneously expose your students to multiple subjects in a hands-on environment.
Combine Art and STEM
Also known as STEAM, the combination of art and STEM subjects can provide a rich atmosphere to guide student dialogue, inquiry, and critical thinking. While STEM is often associated with complex things like robotics and 3D printers, adding an art element to the mix can often help teach the core concepts that are at work.
At its root, STEM isn’t about the fancy gadgets and gizmos. It’s about skills and ideas. Core engineering concepts can be taught with cardboard boxes and string. A handful of LEGOs can be an ideal way to incorporate math and science.
When you dial back the complex elements and aim for the core concepts, it’s easy to see where the art can also come into play. Having students build a spaceship out of a lump of clay, for instance, can be a great way to both study how a spacecraft is built and work on sculpting at the same time, developing not only their brain but fine motor skills necessary for art creation.
Combine STEM and Real Life
STEM can often feel high-minded. Nebulous concepts like math algorithms and scientific theories can be difficult to grasp. However, if you combine STEM concepts with real-world examples, it can be an excellent way to bring the topics to life and make them more relatable.
For instance, teaching cybersecurity to younger students can open their eyes to the very real dangers that face technological development. It can also provide a grounded example of the barriers that must be overcome if they pursue a career in the tech field.
Another example could be following a humanitarian crisis as a class and incorporating STEM elements into your analysis. For instance, in response to the 2019 headline story of the Amazon forest burning, students could study the geographic areas that have been affected. They could also study the scientific repercussions of the damage on the environment and even use mathematics to calculate things like how large of an area was damaged in square miles, acres, square kilometers, etc.
Combine STEM and History
STEM and history may seem like strange bedfellows, but they can actually be incorporated into one another quite easily. Just a few suggestions include:
Using a tablet or other tech to create a timeline of historical events.
Use a camera and editing software to film a report — if you’re feeling especially ambitious, add in an extra artistic element by having them film themselves as they act out a historical scene.
Focus a portion of your historical studies on the history of different STEM subjects such as space exploration, the origin of the Pythagorean theorem, or how alchemy and astrology were once considered critical sciences.
Incorporating STEM with Other Subjects
The emergence of STEM into the educational spotlight has been a necessary step for modern education. As teachers scramble to incorporate these critical subjects into their existing lesson plans, though, they must remember to balance them out with traditional subjects like social studies and art.
Intermingling the various subjects together can be an ideal way to cover them all in applicable, hands-on scenarios that engage students and provide an educational synergy that is difficult to achieve when each subject is taught individually.
Anxiety disorders affect millions of children each year, ranging from children experiencing panic attacks to disorders such as “school refusal” anxiety.
According to recent statistics, 31.9% of adolescents, aged 13-18 in the US currently struggles with anxiety, around 7% of Australian children experiencing some type of anxiety disorder, 4.4% of 11-16 years old in the UK also having some kind of anxiety disorder, which is why it is imperative to tackle early signs and symptoms of anxiety in schoolchildren.
Children experience anxiety for a variety of reasons, often stemming from change, the fear of failure, or the fear of being unable to connect with their peers. Because each child is likely to experience anxiety for different reasons, it is important to hone on in each student individually to learn which tools and anxiety-relief methods are most suitable.
1. Practice Breathing Exercises
Anxiety is drastically increased when individuals are unable to breathe properly or find themselves with shallow and rapid breathing. Help your students calm themselves by setting aside time each day for traditional and deep-breathing exercises.
If you are able to set time aside for meditation during the school day. Even meditating for as little as 5-10 minutes each day has a significant positive effect on individuals who struggle with focus, anxiety, or panic attacks. Meditation is powerful and does not require special positions or being alone. Group meditation among peers also allows them to disconnect from technology while offering a time of day which is quiet and balanced.
2. Speak to the Parents of Your Children Who Are Experiencing Anxiety
Speak to the parents of your students who are experiencing anxiety to gain valuable insight into the root causes or issues that may trigger anxiety or panic attacks in the classroom. Inquire about possible anxiety at home and how anxiety manifests in each of your individual students to discover more regarding methods that are best for each child you have in your class. Kids can successfully manage anxiety with help and support from parents, which is why it is essential to speak to parental figures when working towards supporting students with anxiety in your school.
3. Speak Directly to Your Students Individually
There are many types of anxiety disorders in kids ranging from GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) to panic attack disorder. Without understanding how children truly feel, it can be difficult to provide the right solutions or supports. Speak directly to each of the children in your class who are experiencing anxiety individually to learn more about how they feel and when anxiety worsens for them.
4. Create Codes and Signals for Anxiety-Ridden Children
Create codes and signals for your students to use whenever they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed in the classroom. Use simple signs such as tugging at the ear, rubbing their noses, or even holding up a sign you provide them. Providing codewords or signals to your students with anxiety is extremely useful when you are unsure of how the children in your class feel throughout lessons. Take note of the individual behaviour of each of your students who experience anxiety to determine what triggers may increase their feelings of anxiety throughout each school day.
Provide gratitude journals for each of your students to write each day. Encourage sharing positive thoughts and happy feelings in the journals to boost moods while distracting students from feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Share positive or funny stories from your everyday life to create a sense of warmth and comfort for your entire classroom during journaling times. Allow your children to decorate their gratitude journals in a unique and individual way to showcase their personality while providing them with a sense of belonging among their peers.
6. Spend Time Outdoors
Feeling cooped up and stuck inside all day can quickly lead to feeling anxious or experiencing a panic attack. If possible, spend time with your students outdoors by reading books or exploring nature. Encourage nature walks during recess and share lessons about bugs, insects, and nature itself with your students who have anxiety. Feeling at ease and relaxed outdoors is helpful to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety when cramped in classrooms throughout most of the day.
7. Help Kids Eat Healthy and Stay Well
Indubitably, a healthy diet and plenty of sleep makes a difference in students overall health and emotional wellbeing. It also makes a difference in how well a student can handle overwhelming situations they may face each day. Try to consider the type of food and snacks your students are consuming regularly. Are your students eating properly in general? It’s true that for the most part teachers don’t really have a control over what students eat at home and how much they sleep.
But, if you have meals with your students in class, use the time to talk about healthy food choices. You can talk about how food and rest hours can affect one’s physical health and emotional health, or even squeeze it into the curriculum.
8. Share Stories in the Classroom
Sharing stories in the classroom is another way to connect with all of your students while also allowing them to feel more comfortable in the space with you. Encourage positivity through storytelling and provide incentives to students who wish to participate and share their own stories. Promote silly and wholesome storytelling to keep your students feeling positive and happy rather than sad, anxious, or fearful of their surroundings.
9. Squeeze in Some Art and Craft Activities
Create activities in the classroom that involve drawing, painting, colouring, using playdough and creating something with their hands. Arts and crafts are great for learners of all ages. There are plenty of benefits to arts and crafts for kids. Most importantly, art and crafts allow children to express themselves and give that soothing and calming effects or even meditative effect they need. Engaging in arts and craft activities in general can also alleviate stress levels and reduce anxiety. Art education is essential, and as a teacher, you should encourage students to learn about arts and help them get a hands-on experience.
10. Accommodate Students to Assist With Their Individual Needs
Not all students experience anxiety in the same way. While some students may have anxiety before a presentation, others may feel overwhelmed when taking a test in front of their peers. Provide proper accommodations for all of your students to ensure they are comfortable while test-taking, speaking, and even participating in physical education in front of others. Speak to your students individually to learn more about what additional anxiety-reducing methods can be integrated into their daily routines to reduce their feelings of panic and fear.
When you take the time with helping students with anxiety in school, create a classroom that is comfortable and considered a safe space for students. Learning how to help students with anxiety as a teacher is extremely fulfilling and helps to create a more productive and happy environment for all.
Gigi Wara is an inspired writer who loves writing about language and acquisition, career and personal improvement. This article about how to support students who have anxiety in school comes courtesy of Kids Helpline, Australia’s only free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.
Those who want to reform public education in America have made one thing abundantly clear: they believe that teachers are the problem. They don’t often come right out and say so, but their actions are unmistakable. They weaken tenure protections because they want districts to more easily be able to dismiss veteran teachers. They end last-in-first-out policies for the same reason. They attack unions because they are the only thing standing between a teacher’s job and an administrator’s desire to give it to someone else. They push for new teacher evaluation systems as a way to identify the bad apples and to legitimize their removal, because who can argue with data? They advocate for more charter schools because charter leaders don’t usually have to deal with pesky unions who make it more difficult to fire substandard educators. They back alternative certification schemes as a way to undermine current professionals. And in perhaps their biggest tell, they pitch an absolute fit when their best-laid plans go to waste because the damn principals still won’t fire teachers!
Reformers believe that America can fire its way to better education. The so-called “5-10 percent solution,” a product of economist Eric Hanushek, is often cited by reformers. As you probably gathered, it posits that American education would improve if we consistently fired the worst 5-10 percent of teachers.
This is the driving belief behind nearly every reform effort. But it’s yet to be put to the test because the people who would have to do the firing aren’t economists. They don’t work for think tanks. They actually have skin in the game. School administrators, unlike most reformers, operate in the real education world, and in that world, there are some very real consequences to letting even struggling teachers go. Consequently, very few principals give their teachers poor ratings.
A simple explanation for the high ratings might be that principals know best. They’re right there working next to the teachers all year, so perhaps we should take their ratings at face value; maybe most teachers really are effective.
The problem is that research suggests that principals’ evaluations don’t always reflect their honest opinions about the teachers in their buildings. Survey data from one urban district showed that evaluators perceived more than three times as many teachers in their schools to be below proficient than they rated as such. The authors of another study wrote:
“We find that principals’ evaluations of teachers are quite positive whether the stakes are high or low, but the low-stakes evaluations show substantially more use of lower rating categories, and many teachers rated ineffective on the low-stakes assessment receive “effective” or “highly effective” high-stakes ratings.”
So why do principals inflate teachers’ evaluations? Why are they reluctant to rate even obviously struggling teachers poorly? Given the power that many districts now have, why don’t more of them do what reformers want them to do and fire more teachers?
They have their reasons. Here are seven.
They probably won’t find anyone better.
Here’s a satisfying irony: Reformers’ efforts to make teaching better, a large part of which relies on the dismissal of large numbers of teachers, has resulted in the declining attractiveness of the profession, which has had the consequence of fewer and fewer young people enrolling in teacher preparation programs, thereby making it risky for principals to do the very thing reformers implore them to do: fire teachers. American education has never attracted the country’s highest-performing students and reform efforts have guaranteed that it never will. A principal has to be concerned that he might not find anyone better to replace a teacher he would like to get go.
Of course, this isn’t a universal problem. Some districts do indeed receive hundreds of resumes for open positions and they can choose among several impressive candidates. The problem is that those kinds of districts usually have students who do well no matter who teaches them. When you consider the potential consequences of letting a teacher go, is it really worth it if test scores will likely remain high with a replacement? And if scores are high, can principals even find the data to legitimize a teacher’s dismissal?
Conversely, the districts that reformers would say need the most teacher turnover (the ones with low test scores) are in the worst position to replace poor teachers with better ones because they are unattractive districts. Given that, a principal in a struggling district must weigh the benefits of firing even a struggling teacher against the costs outlined in the rest of this article, a calculus which becomes even more difficult with the knowledge that he’s unlikely to find anyone better.
The Principal’s Guilt
Nearly every principal agrees that the process to remove a teacher is time-consuming. Mahy lament this fact, but there’s a good reason for it. If a principal wants to fire a teacher, the least we should expect of them is to spend a fair amount of time with that teacher and offer some assistance. But because it’s time-consuming, many principals don’t dedicate enough time to helping a struggling educator. They don’t get in the teacher’s classroom often enough. They don’t meet enough. They don’t have conversations, or share best practices, or provide a mentor, or send the teacher to conferences, or provide a decent curriculum, or direct the struggling teacher to resources that might help. And because they don’t do those things they feel guilty. How can they evaluate such a teacher poorly when they would have to admit that, for at least one very important part of their job, they were also ineffective. If a teacher struggles, should not the principal share at least some of the responsibility for not intervening earlier? The guilt principals feel over their failure to adequately support a struggling teacher is one reason many principals don’t want to remove such a teacher. Doing so would be an admission of their own failures.
Staff Morale Already Sucks
There’s a risk that comes with firing any teacher, but that risk is magnified if such a teacher is popular with peers or if morale in the building is already low. Firing people doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reverberations. And when a principal lets a teacher go, she should know that every teacher will react to the news. If the teacher was widely recognized as ineffective, the firing can enhance the reputation of the principal. But if the teacher was well-liked, or if the teacher was perceived as effective with students even though she had other faults, you can bet there will be fallout. A message has been sent, but it is sometimes not the message intended. One problem with matters like these is confidentiality. In the absence of an official explanation, teachers will provide their own about why a teacher was let go, and those reasons can cause a chilling effect, a fearful lurch to conformity and away from risk-taking, or resentment and even animosity toward the building leaders. Firings are often received negatively by the teachers who remain, and principals will struggle to lead without positive relationships with their staffs. Given that morale is often already low in the buildings where reformers would like the see the most teachers fired, principals run a real risk when they decided to double-down on practices that further lower already sucky morale. The culture in education is that teaching is and has always been a secure job. Principals who want to challenge that culture do so at their peril (see Rhee, Michelle) It would be a little like a law firm deciding to no longer charge billable hours.
A Bad Reputation
News travels fast in the education world, especially at the regional level. In the last two weeks, my colleagues were abuzz over two news stories. In one, the district’s Superintendent decided to share surplus money with her teachers. In the other, a large neighboring district decided to significantly boost substitute teacher pay from now until Christmas. In education, word spreads quickly, and bad news moves like lightning. Most principals don’t want to become known as the administrator who fires people. Same for most districts. No one wants to work for the principal who evaluates teachers the harshest, just as no one wants to work for a district that has a reputation for high turnover. You’d be a fool to assume immunity. When you looked at the above graph, what’s the one state you reflexively did not want to teach in? You’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that New Mexico is going to attract great teachers when graphs like that exist? The problem with firing lots of teachers is that it’s hard to see why teachers would want to work in such a place.
Experience and Common Sense
As is so often the case in education (and elsewhere), you can find a study to support just about any contention. Some studies have shown that experience doesn’t matter much. Others show that it does. But even with the best research, people tend to default to their beliefs. And it’s pretty hard to fight the belief that people get better with experience since every teacher and principal will tell you that they’re better at their jobs now than they were in their first year. It’s just common sense, and when common sense runs headlong into a study by some economist you’ve never heard of, you’re going to go with common sense every time. So are principals. Sure, Cheryl might not be the greatest teacher right now, but she’s young. She’ll get better. It’s far easier to justify keeping even a struggling teacher around for another year with this line of thinking than it is to let her go, deal with the fallout, and invest time and money in the hopes you’ll find someone better.
Cost and Time
Hiring news teachers is a hassle. I’ve never done it, but I’ve been on four interview committees. Everyone working in a school is extraordinarily busy. No one is running around with free time, so when principals conduct interviews with new teacher candidates, it takes a large chunk of time out of their day, or, more often, they’re doing it in the summer and they have to beg teachers to come in over their break to sit on the interview team. There are often more rounds that take up even more time of those on the team (and they won’t be real happy to help if they’re pissed over the fact that the principal caused all of this because she fired a colleague they believed didn’t deserve it). Then, if you’re fortunate enough to find someone, there’s a mentor to find and training to provide (assuming you’re doing things the right way). Everything the district invested in the fired teacher is lost and you’re starting over with the new person. Once in the classroom, a new teacher will usually require more principal support. The new hire will need to be brought up to speed on building norms and procedures, a job often left to her experienced colleagues, who may resent the extra work, especially if they saw the firing as unwarranted. That can harm the culture of the building. And this all assumes that the new hire won’t keep interviewing, receive a better offer from a more affluent or geographically closer district and leave you in the lurch and having to go through the whole process all over again.
Determining bad teaching isn’t as easy as it sounds. Teaching isn’t just about test scores. It’s not even just about learning. As I wrote in Why Bad Teachers Are Hard To Find, different students need different things, and the perfect teacher for one student can be a terrible match for another. One teacher may closely reflect the values of one set of parents while holding views that are the antithesis of what other parents value about their child’s educational experience. Different students need different things, and teachers play many roles inside of a school. Teacher A may get great test scores, but her students might grow to hate school. Teacher B’s scores might be lower, but she may foster in students a love of learning that pays dividends down the road.
Part of the benefit of formal schooling is the exposure to different types of “bosses.” We shouldn’t want a monoculture in our schools where every teacher values the same things because we want flexible students who can adapt to changing circumstances and expectations. Principals are right to question whether their opinion should matter as much as it does. Just because a principal values publicly displayed learning goals, quiet classrooms, focused seatwork, and high test scores does not mean she should elevate her values above others. A little humility is called for because there is no one right way to educate children. The self-doubt principals rightly feel about what constitutes good teaching is enough to keep many of them from imposing their values on their staffs and it’s enough to stay their hand when it comes to rating teachers poorly on year-end evaluations.
Given all the potential negatives, it’s not surprising that most principals looking at the big picture opt to retain even struggling teachers. Until reformers start running schools full of actual teachers, they are unlikely to understand all the factors principals consider when making the difficult decision to rate their teachers poorly or take steps toward their dismissal.
In a 2019 report, based on a survey from 1,900 elementary school teachers, 25% of the teachers reported that they witness children in their classrooms throwing tantrums or having other behavioral issues a few times each week.
Behavioral issues in the classroom are nothing new. Some kids have always struggled with their behavior more than others, and that comes across in a school setting.
What has changed, though, is how we can learn more about the root of these behavioral issues, and what can be done about them. Things like talking back to a teacher, throwing a tantrum, or showing disrespect obviously shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom setting. Depending on the severity of the incident, it’s normal for a teacher to exert some kind of punishment, whether it’s staying after school, or bringing that student’s parents in to discuss further options.
But instead of going straight to punishment, it’s important to understand what might be causing such behavior in the classroom. When a teacher and parents can get to the core of the problem, that’s when real, lasting changes can be made.
So what are some potential roots of classroom behavioral problems?
Listening to Learn
As a teacher, your job is about more than just educating your students. It’s about listening to them. For starters, every student learns differently. Listening to their needs and the way they respond to things can help you to become an even better educator.
But just like the counselors in your school, practicing listening skills like empathy, acceptance, and making an effort to really understand what your students are saying can help you to recognize if there are any underlying issues going on.
For example, a child with ADHD might have behavioral issues in class, but really, they just want someone to understand them and know what they’re going through. Most kids with this disorder know they’re different and they want to be accepted. Listening to those needs and wants can make it easier for you to find a better way of teaching them.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you never know what might be going on at home. Children witness 68-80% of domestic assaults at home between parents or other adults, and that can lead to lasting emotional and psychological issues that could cause behavioral problems. A child who has seen something like that, or experiences it on a regular basis, can suffer from anxiety or other mental health issues.
The bottom line? It’s important to listen to get the full picture before finding the appropriate consequences for poor behaviors.
Physical Factors Impacting Behavior
In some cases, behavioral issues impacting kids could have very simple causes. Children who aren’t feeling well or have some other kind of physical ailment might not know how to fully express it, so they act out in less-than-satisfactory ways.
For example, 2-3 out of every 1,000 children born in the United States struggle with some kind of hearing loss. If they’re shouting in class, they may not be able to hear you well. Or, they might have to yell at home in order to be heard.
Vision problems can also cause children to become frustrated and potentially disruptive. If they can’t see the board or the instructions you’re providing on a lesson, they might start to act out. Children who are squinting, tilting their heads to see, or who seem to have short attention spans may be struggling with vision issues. It’s a problem that should be addressed with parents so they can get the proper eye care.
How to Help Children Overcome Behavioral Issues
The most important thing you can do to address behavioral issues in a child is to get to the root of the problem. Many times, it goes deeper than you may think. The good news about that? When you get to the problem, you can start to come up with more productive, proactive ways to find the solution.
Punishment isn’t always the best solution, especially when something more is going on under the surface of poor behavior. So, while you might want to talk to that child’s parents, keep an open mind as you do. Discuss your concerns, and work with parents to find out the root of the issues so you can solve them together. From there, you can find more productive ways to encourage positive behavior in your students.
Additionally, work with the child, instead of telling them they’re “in trouble” right away. Children often struggle with self-confidence issues, and they may have a hard time fully processing and expressing their emotions. Think about how frustrating that would be. Think about how you would react if you couldn’t adequately tell someone what was going on with you. Helping that child to overcome those emotional barriers can be a big step in coming to a positive solution. If you don’t feel you can do that on your own or with the help of a child’s parents, a school guidance counselor may be more equipped to do so.
Again, classroom behavioral issues are nothing new. And, yes, there are times when some kind of disciplinary action is the best way to go. But, punishing students blindly without getting to the root of the issue can lead to even bigger problems in the future. Don’t be afraid to pause and consider why the issues are happening, in the first place. When you do that, you can develop a better relationship with your students, and help them to overcome their struggles.
If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve likely run across the term collective efficacy. You can blame an Australian researcher named John Hattie for this. Administrators love John Hattie because he attempts to simplify something that is extraordinarily complicated. Essentially, Hattie looks at a bunch of studies that other people have done in schools, plugs the results of those studies into some sort of gizmo, and out pops an effect size. If the factor has an effect size larger than .40, then that’s better than the growth you would expect to see from students who are doing something more than merely getting older.
There are lists of Hattie’s effect sizes everywhere and school administrators display them like I used to pin up posters of Nikki Taylor and Elle McPherson. If you’re a teacher, you’ve undoubtedly seen these lists or at least heard administrators referencing them. And what is at the top of Mr. Hattie’s magical list of factors?
Visible-Learning.org defines it as the collective belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students. It has an effect size of 1.57, which I’m sure you’ve been told is
While collective teacher efficacy sounds a little new-agey and mystical and seems to imply that if teachers just believed a little harder than students would overcome any obstacles to learning and everyone would go to college and the gross domestic product would triple and we’d all live together in peace and harmony, it’s actually a little more complicated than making teachers feel empowered and getting them to believe in themselves.
Hattie explains that collective teacher efficacy is not just about having all the teachers in a building believing they can make a difference. It’s not just “growth mindset and rah-rah thinking.” Rather, it’s a “combined belief that it’s us (the teachers) that causes learning. It’s not the students.” Hattie says, “When you fundamentally believe you can make a difference (regardless of student demographics or other barriers), and you feed it with the evidence that you are, then that is dramatically powerful.” Source
It’s easy to see how having a building full of teachers who believe in their collective efficacy can impact student learning.
But it’s important to remember that in order to have collective teacher efficacy you must first have individual teacher efficacy. Indeed, the whole concept of collective efficacy is rooted in self-efficacy; each teacher needs to believe that they are the most important factor in each student’s education and that they can overcome student impediments to learning.
So the question must be asked: How do we ensure that each teacher believes in his or her own efficacy?
Too often, we assume that this is a teacher problem. That there is something wrong with a teacher who doesn’t believe in his ability to positively impact his students’ learning. That there is something defective about a teacher who points to poverty and wonders how her actions can overcome all the barriers it places before her students.
Certainly, there are times when a teacher’s mindset prevents self-efficacy.
But I believe there are many more times when micromanaging administrators have destroyed the self-efficacy with which most teachers begin their careers.
Micromanaging administrators, in their quest to improve student outcomes by taking a firmer hand over minute-to-minute operations in schools, effectively undermine their own goals when their actions destroy the one thing we know does more than anything to improve student achievement. The more micromanaged teachers are, the less they will feel responsible for student learning.
Collective teacher efficacy says that teachers believe they can make a difference for students. But what happens to that feeling when teachers feel disempowered? What happens to teacher efficacy when teachers are no longer trusted to make decisions in the best interests of their students but are instead told to merely follow orders?
Let’s say, for instance, that three bright, young people become second grade teachers. They all get hired to work in the same building. They’re idealists, as most are who enter the field. They’ve learned a lot in college about teaching methods and they’ve read some of the latest research on how to teach reading. They are not only full of ideas; they are full of optimism. They’re headed to a high-poverty school where reading scores on state tests have always been low and they’re determined to make a difference. To use Hattie’s language, their collective efficacy is sky-high. They believe that with enough hard work, they can overcome any barriers students might have to learning how to read.
But during the first week of back-to-school meetings, they’re told a few things. First, they learn that they have to use a Board-approved program to teach reading. The district has spent a lot of money on it. It’s research-based (nevermind that the research was paid for by the company that created the program). Other districts (districts that score higher on state tests than theirs!) use the program, so obviously it can’t suck. To give the program a chance to work, these three new teachers are told they will teach it with fidelity. No supplementing or just deciding not to teach something. Teach it the way it’s designed. Don’t deviate.
Our vibrant educators are a bit disheartened at this, especially when they attend a day of training on the program and realize that it doesn’t comport with what they’ve read about the latest research on reading instruction. There’s phonics, but it seems insufficient. There’s lots of comprehension work, but it’s focused on skill-building instead of building students’ content knowledge. Our three heroes were hoping to develop interdisciplinary units on high-interest topics, but it looks like that’s out the window. They were planning to use picture books like those of Patricia Polacco, but now it looks like they’ll be using story excerpts and articles from an anthology that seems cobbled together with the sole purpose of checking off boxes on a list of Common Core Standards.
They remain undeterred. They tell themselves they can still make a difference using this program. After all, they’ll need to intervene and the district is also big on differentiation (the young trio privately wonder how differentiation and slavish devotion to an unproven program reconcile, but they keep such questions to themselves). So they meet and talk about how they’ll help those kids who lack phonemic awareness and what they’ll do for those students whose fluency isn’t up to snuff.
And then, about two weeks into the year, they’re told that there’s a system in place for all of that. The school has been doing it for years. Students are pulled out of their rooms and put in groups based on need. And what will teachers do in those groups? Why, a prescribed intervention from the wonderful program they’re required to use, of course!
But their collective efficacy is not done taking hits. Because there’s also a math program that they’ll be teaching with fidelity.
And the district has guidelines (rules, really) about how much time they are to spend on each subject each day.
Oh, and there’s a pacing guide to which they must adhere. No spending extra time on something if it puts them behind.
And what if the teachers decide their students are just done some afternoon and they need a recess? Nope, not if it’s not at the scheduled time.
What about art projects? Well, they heard that another teacher got her wrist slapped when the curriculum director walked in on her art project last year, so they better not take the risk.
When, exactly, do our three new teachers get to decide anything of consequence? When are they allowed to put all of their learning and idealism into action? When can they put their collective efficacy to the test?
In some districts, the answer is literally NEVER.
It is no wonder why some teachers lack self-efficacy and why a collection of teachers being told what to do and how to do it by people who have never done the job no longer acknowledge that it is their beliefs that make a difference for their students when they aren’t allowed to act on those beliefs.
When administrators manage every part of a teacher’s day, when they send the unmistakable message to teachers that their judgment isn’t to be trusted and that they are to be nothing more than loyal soldiers following marching orders, then we cannot point at teachers and expect them to believe in the power of their own collective efficacy. Such efficacy no longer exists in people who have no agency. If districts want to improve student outcomes, they should listen to what John Hattie has to say. They should get out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs so that teachers will once again feel empowered to make a difference for their students.
Faulting teachers who work for micromanaging administrators for lacking a belief in their own efficacy is just another page from the same book that teachers have grown exhausted of having read to them. It’s teacher blaming. Instead of pointing at educators and asking them to believe harder, let’s return the trust and autonomy that was foolishly taken from them so they can be the authors of their classroom’s story. Only then can we expect teachers to believe in their own efficacy.