What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best For Kids”

best for kids.

There’s a YouTube video called, “The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made.” It lives up to its name. It shows people cutting tomatoes wrong, mixing M&Ms and Skittles, scraping utensils against the bottom of an empty bowl, and other cringe-worthy crimes against humanity. Each example in the video makes me reflexively recoil. It’s the visual equivalent of the many phrases in education that induce the same reaction:

“Teach with strict fidelity.”
“College and career ready.”
“Unpacking the standards.”
“Jigsaw this article.”
“Let’s put that idea in the parking lot.”

And also, “Doing What’s Best For Kids.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone — usually an administrator trying to make teachers feel guilty for self-advocating — say that we all just need to Do What’s Best For Kids. The phrase tends to show up during contentious contract negotiations with regularity. That’s no accident, because all too often it means, “Do what we want you to do, and if you question it, then you’re looking out for yourself instead of your students.”

Some teachers are guilty of using it, too. Questioned about why they made a certain choice, they will hide behind, “It’s What’s Best For Kids” without actually explaining why or how they know that to be true. It’s a way for anyone — teacher, parent, principal — to claim an ethically superior position and send the message that their actions, unlike yours, have selfless motives. They’re doing things for the right reasons, while you may be not.

It’s almost always nonsense.

The Problem

The problem with the phrase, “Doing What’s Best For Kids” is that it can be used to justify damn near anything.

“I’m spanking my kids to teach them right from wrong.”

“I allow my son to eat whatever he wants because I want him to learn he’s responsible for his own choices.”

“We’re taking away recess because students need more time on task.”

“I’m not vaccinating my child because I don’t want her to get autism.”

The phrase, then, is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it’s powerless. It’s an ace up the sleeve, a flag planted firmly in the high ground, and it’s intended to be a conversation stopper. People on the phrase’s receiving end are supposed to look introspectively and question their motives. They’re supposed to think: I should sacrifice more.

How can anyone argue that educators shouldn’t do what’s best for kids?

Because it’s just not that simple. In addition to the fact that Doing What’s Best For Kids can be used to justify anything, there are three other problems.

Kids Are Different

This should go without saying, but since the phrase keeps getting used, someone ought to point out that kids are different. What’s best for one is often not what’s best for another. My daughter, always a reader, needed only to be given time and books to improve as a reader as she went through school. Other students — reluctant to read and lacking basic skills — needed much more direct instruction. Examples abound:

  • Recess is great for some kids, but it’s a source of anxiety and a daily reminder of their lack of friends for others.
  • Inquiry-based science is more authentic and engaging, but some students don’t learn the content they’re supposed to.
  • Group work teaches kids to collaborate, but it also means some students do much more work (and therefore learn more) than others.

Additionally, what’s best for an individual might not be best for large groups. Ryan is continually distracting the class and making it impossible to teach. It’s certainly not best for Ryan to be kicked out of the room, but it might be best for everyone not named Ryan. Spending one-on-one time with a student will benefit her, but what about the rest of the class?

Of course, a solution to this problem is to differentiate because giving kids what they need is what’s Best For Kids. But differentiation leads to a second problem:

Beliefs Are Different

Not everyone agrees about What’s Best For Kids. That’s why we have standards. Teachers, once mostly left alone, taught whatever they thought was important. I learned about dinosaurs every year from age six to age nine (lot of good it did me, too). I know a former teacher who took time out of every day to have her students sing her favorite college’s fight song. Some teachers still waste class time teaching the dead art of cursive writing. All of these teachers tell themselves they’re doing What’s Best For Kids.

Many educators have diametrically oppositional philosophies about what school should even be. Should it be a place of rigorous work with the aim of producing young people who know things and can demonstrate their knowledge on tests? Should it be a place of wonder and discovery, where failure is encouraged? Should it reflect society, or prepare students to shape a new, better world? Which philosophy is Best For Kids, and is that philosophy best for all kids?

Sometimes, determining what’s best is actually choosing between two benefits, in which case the determining factor is almost always something other than What’s Best for Kids. Field trips are great for kids. So is time on task in the classroom. But if you do one, you sacrifice the other. And since field trips cost money, guess which one administrators think is Best for Kids.

The Biggest Problem

But here’s my main objection to being reminded to Do What’s Best for Kids: It suggests sacrifice and that sacrifice, almost always, is supposed to come from one group of people: teachers.

Teachers, the people doing the hard work of actually educating kids, may have the only legitimate claim on the moral high ground, and yet they are often the ones accused of looking out for their own interests above those of their students. Politicians blame teachers’ unions for ignoring What’s Best For Kids, while turning a blind eye to a myriad of other problems. Administrators — people who have intentionally left the one place where they had the most direct influence on students — have the temerity to suggest to teachers — the people whose job is literally all about the kids and who have chosen to remain in that job despite stagnant pay, deteriorating working conditions, greater expectations, less autonomy, scapegoating, and being reminded to Do What’s Best For Kids — that they ought to sacrifice even more. And sanctimonious teachers wield the tired phrase to feel better about themselves, oblivious to the meaninglessness of their words but comfortable in their own moral superiority.

“Doing What’s Best For Kids” is a weapon. It’s the language of teacher-shaming. It’s manipulative. And when you hear it from an administrator, parent, policy-maker, or even a fellow teacher, prepare to be exploited. Because the insinuation behind this phrase is clear: Teaching is not your job; it’s your calling. And that calling requires you to sacrifice. It requires you to agree to whatever thing someone with more power believes is What’s Best for Kids. So sit down, shut up, sign the contract, and get back in your classroom. Go Do What’s Best For Kids. And if you can’t figure out what that is, don’t worry, someone will let you know.

———————

Related:

A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

 

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How to Feel Like Less of a Failure

failure

I have a few students who are very challenging this year. I’ve been unable to get through to them. The old tricks aren’t working. My principal has been supportive. The parents aren’t blaming me or the school; they’re doing what they can. But for these students, it has not been a successful year. In fact, it’s been disastrous. And it leaves me feeling like a failure at the end of many days, which makes it difficult to get up and beat my head into that wall again the next day. I’ve been looking for ways to feel like less of a failure, and here is what I’ve tried so far with moderate success:

Taking Inventory

When I think of my class, most of my thoughts drift to those students who are struggling behaviorally. This is expected. In order to hold things together, I spend most of my day focusing on them, so it’s not surprising that when I lie in bed at night or prepare for work in the morning I think of them. The thoughts are almost always negative, which is a really bad mindset to have. So one strategy I’ve used is taking inventory. I go through my class list and assess how each student is doing in school. It’s a subjective exercise, but I try to be as honest as I can. Most are having a good year. A few perform inconsistently. Only three are having big problems. Looking at things this way makes me feel like less of a failure.

Forcing Myself to Focus on Positives

The reality is that most of each day is conflict-free and most students have very few problems. Most do their work. Most have positive attitudes. Most treat others respectfully. The incidents that cause me to feel like a failure are rare, but because they’re disruptive, stressful, and often emotional, they are sometimes the only parts of the day I remember.

So instead of thinking about only those students who don’t seem to be improving, I think of some that obviously have. Like the student who started the year not willing to try, but makes an attempt now. Or the kid who couldn’t control his temper, but hasn’t had an explosion in weeks. There are success stories, and acknowledging them is a good way to counter self-doubt.

In my book Exhausted, I discuss one strategy teachers can employ to use less willpower, and therefore conserve energy lost because of the body’s stress response. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment is well known in education circles. It’s often cited as evidence of the importance of self-control. But Mischel was interested in how students distracted themselves from temptation. And the lessons he learned from the kids apply here. When we focus our attention on negatives, we feel stress. We can reduce this stress by distracting ourselves. The kids in the marshmallow experiment covered their faces, turned to the wall, sang to themselves, and looked at their shoes. They did what they could to ignore the marshmallow.

I’ve tried doing this with my challenging students. Sometimes, their actions are cries for attention. I play into their hands by giving it to them when they make poor choices. And I also stress myself out and feel like a failure. Instead of noticing and reacting to their every misdeed, I focus elsewhere, calling attention to students doing the right thing.

Not Accepting Responsibility For Others’ Choices

My job is to make expectations clear, to be consistent with consequences, to build relationships, and to try to make my classroom a place where kids want to be. If I’ve done those things, students will make better choices. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, some poor student choices have nothing to do with me. This year, I’ve had to remind myself that once I’ve done my job, it’s on them. Each student is responsible for her choices.  If they make bad ones, they alone should suffer the consequences.

I wrote more about this here: The Best and Worst Lie Teachers Tell Themselves

Embracing the Challenge

I made a huge mistake at the start of this year. I had a fantastic class last year. I left work with plenty of energy, enough that I started this blog and published two books. I started to feel like I really knew what I was doing, that the success I felt at school was because I was a more skilled teacher than I had previously been. I thought I’d finally figured this thing out, and that from here on out things would be clear sailing.

I forgot a really important truth about teaching: It’s damn hard.

And what makes it hard are students who don’t show up to school with everything they need. You know, the ones who actually need me.

I also need them. My challenging students are there to stretch me as a professional. They provide me with the opportunity to try new things. They force me to adapt, to leave my comfort zone, and try new things. And although most of what I’ve tried this year with those students hasn’t worked, I will show up tomorrow and try something else. I’ll look for incremental improvement, any sign that I’m making an impact. It is those moments, few and far between as they may be, that will help me feel like less of a failure.

Remembering the Past

These are not the only challenging students I’ve had the last 18 years. Far from it. It helps to recall former students who made me feel like a failure. There have been a fair number. I survived every one of them, and I became a stronger teacher because of the experiences. These students and their challenges will not be the last of my career. When I think about going back to work tomorrow or returning day after day for the next twelve or more years, I recall a favorite quote by Marcus Aurelius: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”


 

7 Things I Selfishly Love About Teaching

love teaching

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My wife tells me that I need to write more positive blog posts. She has a point. I do tend to write more about how teachers are tired and should work less. I’ve written about what parents don’t understand, and how we should stop donating labor. One might infer that I’m complaining and that I don’t really enjoy what I do. But the truth is those kinds of articles get read more than positive ones, so I write more of them. Blame my audience.

In an attempt to balance things out, I shall now present a positive article. Never fear, I will not bore you with the platitudes most teachers recite when asked what they love about their jobs. There will be no mention of “making a difference,” or “seeing the light bulb go on,” or, worst of all, “Ah-ha moments” (thanks for that gem, Oprah–it’s called an epiphany and it already had a name).  I like those things fine, but they go without saying. If you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment when you reach a student, then you’re in the wrong profession. My list of seven things I love about teaching is far more selfish. It’s great when kids learn and all, but I went into this job because I thought it would gratify me.* And it has.  So without further ado, here are 7 Things I Selfishly Love About Teaching:

*For those lacking a sense of humor, this article should not be taken all that seriously.

1. A Captive Audience (Literally)

When you get to be my age, you think you know things and you want to tell people (hence, this blog). But most adults don’t really want to hear those things because they have their own things they think they know. Students, however, are stuck with me. I get to tell them stories, dispense advice, show my favorite YouTube videos, and read them awesome books. They have to listen! (Well, okay, technically they don’t have to listen, but I can convince myself that they are listening, which is pretty much the same thing.)

2. Appreciation of Fart Poems

I write poems sometimes. Gross ones. My wife doesn’t like them. My daughter pretends not to. There are always a few mature students who claim to not like them either. But most kids love my poems. These kids are my inspiration. What’s that? You want to read one of my fart poems? Well, okay then!

My father’s farts are powerful,
they punch you in the face.
My mother’s farts are delicate,
full of elegance and grace.
Grandma’s farts are old and stale,
you don’t want to be near them.
But granddad’s farts are loud and wet,
as offensive as Eminem.
My teacher never farts,
there’s something wrong with her.
If my preacher ever farted,
it would probably smell like myrrh.
One time my doctor farted,
I don’t think it was on purpose.
She coughed and it just happened,
maybe she was nervous.
My brother’s farts are frequent,
he lets loose all the time.
But my farts are clearly perfect,
just like this final rhyme.

3. I’m a Hero At Least Once a Week

I teach in a portable. We have our own bathroom. Which is nice, except when the toilet clogs. It clogs often. I could call maintenance and have them plunge it, but I’m a man with a fair amount of experience plunging toilets. I probably plunge our classroom toilet 40 times a year. Each time I do, I emerge victorious, with arms raised in an V. To those students who’ve been holding it, no greater hero ever existed. Eat your heart out, Ironman.

4. Being Treated Like a Celebrity

I don’t live in the same town where I teach. In the summer, I therefore rarely run into students. But during the school year, a short trip to Wal-mart almost always results in the full celebrity treatment. Students shout my name. They point me out to their parents. They run up to me and then appear unsure of exactly what to do next. They take selfies with me.* It’s like being famous, without the paparazzi, mindless interviews, overwhelming need for approval, drug habits, divorces, and money. It’s the best.

*They don’t take selfies with me, but that’s because they’re eight and most don’t have phones. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

5. Sleep

I’ve always been a good sleeper. It drives my wife nuts how quickly I can be out once I close my eyes. But I am a GREAT sleeper during the school year. Nothing wipes you out like teaching, and even though I’m writing a book about how to stave off teacher exhaustion, some days just do you in even if you know all the tricks. The feeling of hitting the hay after one of these days is exquisite.

6. Weight Maintenance

I’m sure there are teachers who have an easier time managing their weight during the summer. I’m not one of them. Although it’s easier to exercise during the summer, it’s also easier to eat. And beer is a problem. Also ice cream. I’m sometimes bored during the middle of the day, so I eat. I’m never bored at school, and as mentioned in my book The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss, one strategy I use during the school year is to eat the same low-calorie lunch every day. I don’t do this during the summer, so it’s nice to get back to work and not have to run so many miles to maintain my weight.

7. Weekends Are Extra Awesome

Weekends are always wonderful, but they just aren’t that special in the summer. In fact, I often stay home during summer weekends because everyone else is out there doing stuff and getting in my way.  I  just go on a Tuesday. During the school year, weekends are gold. They are the two days during the week you can live it up. They feel like a reward. You know how people say we wouldn’t appreciate the sun if it weren’t for rainy days? (Do people say this?) Well, weekends are like that.

And yes, I realize that in that analogy teaching is the rainy day and I said this was going to be a positive post. But whatever. Analogies are hard. A lot harder than plunging toilets and writing fart poems.

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

I’m currently writing a book about teacher exhaustion. Before I started, I emailed readers of this blog and asked if they’d share their stories. I wondered what they thought contributed to their exhaustion. One teacher wrote back:

Another factor is the ‘guilt trip’ administration lays on teachers about how ‘if you care for your kids you will do this.’

Principals sometimes resort to using guilt to persuade teachers to do things they would otherwise be disinclined to do. Principals need teachers to attend after-school events, join committees, do additional work after hours, and take on other tasks that are “part of the job” but not really the job. For a parent night, they’ll say, “Parents will expect to see teachers here.” They’ll stress the importance of the committee work. They’ll claim it’s a sign of “professionalism” to take on extra duties. They’ll remind you that “teaching isn’t like other jobs.”

Why They Do It

They don’t do it because they’re jerks. Most of them are in a tough spot. State and district mandates require certain work get done, and they need manpower but lack the funds to pay for it. The school improvement plan calls for more parent involvement, so they schedule two parent nights. As the date approaches, they start begging teachers to attend. The school needs a PBIS team, but the district won’t pay for subs for teachers to meet during the day, meaning they must meet before or after school. The cabinets in the science lab are a holy mess and need to be reorganized, but who’s going to do the work, and when will they do it? You know the answer.

Most of the time, principals use guilt because they don’t have money. If they do have money, they don’t want to set a precedent of paying for everything teachers do outside the school day. That’s understandable, but it’s not really teachers’ problem.

And guilt works. People who go into teaching tend to be selfless. They’ve chosen a career that puts others’ needs ahead of their own. They have a moral code and a self-image as someone who always goes the extra mile for other people. It’s hard for them to stand up to a guilt trip that implies they might be doing anything less than they can for their students, their parents, or their colleagues. Guilt works, so it gets used.

But it’s also manipulative, and teachers shouldn’t reward it. Administrators have other options. The best of them is to foster an environment where teachers want to do more (or at least don’t mind). Principals who trust their teachers, who show them appreciation, who understand the challenges of the job, and who support them and respect their personal time will need to use guilt far less often. Teachers who work for bosses like this won’t have to be begged. And if you’re a principal who finds himself pleading, prodding, and laying on guilt trips to get teachers to do more, then you should first question your school’s culture. If you think you’ve got a pretty good one but teachers aren’t willing take on extra responsibilities, find out why. Ask them.

What Buddha Can Teach Us About Guilt Trips

If you’re a teacher on the receiving end of the guilt trip, you might consider the story of Buddha and the angry man:

It is said that one day the Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him, saying all kind of rude words.

The Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

It’s true of guilt, too. When you refuse to accept the guilt someone is trying to make you feel, then you will not feel guilty.

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

If you can’t, if you find yourself giving in again and again, then you need to reframe your thinking. Try these:

  • It is not my job to solve problems created by other people.
  • It is not “professional” to work for free.
  • It is only “part of the job” because teachers have allowed it to be.
  • My primary job is being an effective teacher to the kids in my class. If doing extras in any way hinders my effectiveness in that regard, then I should not do those things.
  • Allowing myself to be persuaded by a guilt trip makes it more likely I will be subjected to the same manipulative tactic in the future.
  • Choosing something means not choosing something else. Instead of thinking, “I should really help out at the after-school event,” think, “By choosing the after-school event, I’m choosing not to spend time with my family.”
  • Nothing will change if teachers keep volunteering their time. If I think teachers should be paid for their work, then I need to stop being part of the problem.

Guilt trips only work when you let them.

Stop taking the ride.

How to Get Your First Teaching Job

 

It’s summer, the season of baseball, ice cream, the beach, and road construction. It’s also the hiring season. Districts everywhere are working to fill their open positions and the competition at some is at hot as the sand on the soles of your feet. Many aspiring teachers enter the interview season with fear and nervousness. They scour the web for anything that might give them a leg up. There’s a lot of advice out there, some good and some not. For this article I reached out to eight school administrators to find out what sets apart those teachers they hire from those they don’t.

Before you even sit down to write your resume, there are a couple of things you should do. First, clean up your social media. If an administrator can find a scandalous picture of you, then so can any parent, student, or future colleague.

Next, take advantage of relationships. If you substituted after student teaching (and you should have), then now’s the time to call school secretaries, teachers whose rooms you subbed in, and principals who are familiar with your work. Almost all of those people want to help young people succeed (that’s why they’re in education!), so don’t be afraid to ask them for letters of recommendation, to put in a kind word to administrators they know, or to use their names as references on your resume. These connections don’t guarantee you a job, but they can often lead to an interview.

Your Resume

First impressions are almost all that matter. Your resume will, if you’re lucky, get a couple minutes of consideration before it’s put into one of two piles. The administrators I talked to want a professional looking resume with well-organized credentials. Each of them said that grammatical errors and disorganization will disqualify you. Keep it brief; you needn’t include things that every teacher does in the course of their job.

You need something to separate your resume from the rest of the pile. A principal in Florida said he wants, “A resume that is eye-catching in organization, clarity, and content. Too many resumes are boilerplate and have no presence or personality.”

Another principal said, “Just ALWAYS try to find at least one thing to help you stand out among the others, ANYTHING. An international internship, bilingual, volunteering at schools while you are doing your undergrad, anything to help you get a leg up.”

A former principal and Superintendent told me, “The most attractive candidates pop out as a person who authentically cares for children. Something unique. At least one thing that separates you from others. Communicate that you’re willing to do the work of an educator–pd, meetings, parent communications.”

Andrew Phillips, the principal at Brandon Fletcher Intermediate in Ortonville, Michigan said, “I want to know what he or she did to go above and beyond. Did a candidate do the optional stuff, like help coach, or participate in an optional book study, or tutor kids? I want to hire someone who will come to after-school activities without me having to beg, who will do optional learning to better themselves and our students.”

Even the paper can help. One principal said, “The use of colored resume (parchment) paper always stands out to me that the candidate took the extra time to print their documents on something other than the traditional white copy paper that happened to be in the printer.”

The Interview

If your resume does what it’s supposed to do, you’ll be called in for an interview. In addition to obvious things like looking professional, not chewing gum, keeping your phone in your car, and smiling, there are a few things you can do to increase the odds you’ll get called back for a second interview or even offered the job.

job

It’s About Your Attitude

“Show me that you are interested in the interview,” said one principal, but don’t, as one former Superintendent said, “be a basket case.” Smile, be enthusiastic, be happy to be there (even if anxiety is eating away at your stomach) and sell yourself. It’s about attitude as much as knowledge. One principal uses the “cup of coffee test.” Would they want to have coffee with you? They have to be able to see themselves working with you for many years.

Be confident, but not arrogant. One teacher who has served on multiple interview committees said, “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. If your attitude comes off as you “know everything” you may be a turn off to teammates and difficult to coach if the need arises. Ultimately, nobody likes a “know it all.”

Be Specific

I’ve served on five interview committees over the years, both for teacher and principal jobs, and the one thing that kills candidates is a lack of specificity in their answers. The administrators I heard from echoed this. They said:

“I want to see how the applicant has applied the necessary skills in the real world with meaningful examples. I just don’t want to see one’s goals or skills. I want to see how they can demonstrate those skills.”

“Talk specifically about the way you operate math and literacy in your classroom. It’s great to make all the kids feel like your classroom is a home, but everyone says that. Not everyone can talk about running a true math workshop or guided reading groups.”

“Talk about what you will do, not what you did while student teaching. Too often, candidates talk about what their master teacher did and how they witnessed that. It leaves the impression that they don’t have any ingrained beliefs or thoughts independent of that teacher.”

Be Honest

Some knowledge of the district is good — it shows you want the job badly enough to do some research — but you’re not expected to know everything, so admit when you don’t. Listen carefully to the questions, and answer directly. If you are not sure about an answer, be honest. Don’t try to make an answer up just because you think you should. Say, “I really can’t address that question, but I’d be glad to learn about it immediately.”

Ask Questions

One principal explained that, “Asking intelligent questions shows reflection on the part of the candidate.”

Many administrators would prefer the interview to be a two-way conversation, so don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions if you’re unsure of what the interviewer is asking. You can also separate yourself from the competition by asking questions that serve a dual purpose by satisfying your authentic curiosity about aspects of the job as well as communicating your willingness to go the extra mile for students. Questions about what extra-curricular opportunities exist for new teachers, or whether or not the school has after-school clubs run by teachers are always impressive.

I hope this helped. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to email me at [email protected]

Thank you to the current and former administrators who shared their thoughts for this article.

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