We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Believe the Hype

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

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

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

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

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

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

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

The Genesis of Cynicism

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

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

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

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Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

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Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

clutter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yearly Cleaning

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

Set Limits

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

Cut Space

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

Would You Buy It?

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

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

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

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Every teacher I know would like to take less work home. It’s a worthy goal, and part of accomplishing it 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 (in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

Many teachers never grade papers in their students’ presence. With only so many hours in a school year to make a difference, they feel like when students are in the room they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or mentoring. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they 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? Will she look down her nose or think the teacher 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 just 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. How can you do this in an educationally sound way that’s scientifically proven to benefit kids? Simple:

Give your students breaks.

Transitions Are Stupid, Breaks Are Not

I started giving my third graders 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. And I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transition seamlessly from one activity to another. When I finish this blog post, I won’t immediately start planning next week’s lessons. I’ll watch football, or check Twitter, or eat Cheetos.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students five-minute breaks. 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 in their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Science Agrees: Breaks Are Good

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, adjust our moods, 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 onto a game site during work time.

Breaks can also help students get over frustration. One morning I was picking student jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student got upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved directly into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention during the lesson 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, and by the time we resumed, 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 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. Communicating with parents, writing sub plans, and grading papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

For Your Critics

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

The next time you attend a long professional development session 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 with your critics.

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Related:

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working For Free

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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4 Must-Dos for the First Week of School

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A regular reader of mine who is about to start her first teaching job emailed me to ask what she needs to do to be ready. It would take a book to answer that question (and someday I might write it), but I told her there are four things she absolutely must do during the first week of school.

ONE: Make Students Want to Come Back

If your students don’t like you and enjoy being in your class, you’ll make the job twice as hard on yourself. As Rita Pierson says in this video, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Additionally, if your classroom management plan involves the use of a time-out or removal from your class, you better make damn sure students see that as undesirable. I’ve known of students who intentionally get kicked out of class because they’d rather be in the office or with the counselor than in the classroom.

There are lots of ways to sell yourself and your class to your students. Use humor, have students work together to build something, perform an engaging science demonstration, play music (real music, the kind kids actually like), give breaks, tell a couple entertaining stories. You want to make the first week fun. People like fun. But fun isn’t your only option.

One of my favorite strategies is simply to listen. I am not a terrific listener (just ask my wife), but during that first week, my students have my full attention, no matter how long and banal their stories may be. So many students aren’t listened to that you can immediately endear yourself to them if, when you call on them and they start talking, you stop what you’re doing, look at them as if you are the only two people in the room, smile and nod along as they talk, and ask a follow-up question when they finish.

Now, making your classroom fun is not a license to be permissive, nor is it necessary to encourage silly behavior. You have to be careful. Everything you say and do sends a message that first week, and you don’t want your message to be that your classroom is an amusement park. At minimum, just be yourself, don’t be afraid to laugh with your students, and be vulnerable.

TWO: Teach the Living Hell Out of Your Routines

If it’s your first teaching job, you probably aren’t sure which routines to even have (I still add some and I’ve been doing this 18 years). First step: go online and print out the biggest list of procedures you can find. My advice is to overdo it. Anything you can think of that you will regularly ask students to do in your room, from leaving their seat, to going to the bathroom, to sharpening pencils, you should have an explicit routine for. You should teach the hell out of it, by which I mean teach it like you actually care that’s it’s followed to the letter.

The best advice I’ve ever seen about teaching routines is that you should be extraordinarily specific about the very first one you teach. Then you should have students perform that routine over and over until it’s exactly how you envision it. You don’t have to do this with every routine (although you should teach, model, and have students practice them all), but attending to the smallest details with the first one sends the message that there is a way to do everything in your classroom and that that way is your way.

Most classroom management problems happen because teachers assume kids know how they want things done, but they don’t take enough time to thoroughly teach routines and have students practice them. You can nip a lot of problems in the bud by teaching, reteaching, modeling, asking students to visualize, and then having them practice each of your routines until they’re executed to perfection. I’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

THREE: Introduce Your Classroom Management Plan

Students deserve to know what’s expected and what will happen should they fail to live up to your expectations.Some teachers put off introducing the rules on day one because it’s kind of a downer. They want to make their room an inviting place, and taking 30 minutes to explain to students what they can’t do and what punitive measures you’ll take if they choose to do those things feels negative.

That’s the wrong way to look at rules. Rules allow for fun. Imagine a basketball game where no one dribbles and you can’t get a shot up without being tackled. It would suck for everyone. Most students want and appreciate boundaries because they know they’ll benefit in the long run. Again, be crystal clear and role-play as many different scenarios as you can think of that will likely happen this year. Role-playing gives you the opportunity to teach, but it can also provide entertainment value if you’re not a huge grump when acting out situations. Of course, once introduced, it’s imperative that you follow your plan to the letter. Break your own rules, and students won’t trust you. They’ll question your will to crack down on every consequence you threaten the rest of the year. You lose your authority, and no matter what your style, authority is something you have to be willing to do everything to protect.

FOUR: Call Your Shot

The last idea I stole from motivational speaker Josh Shipp. It’s a good way to build trust with students right out of the gate. Chances are high that you have a handful of students in your room who have been let down, sometimes frequently, by the adults in their lives. Many of them have a default setting of distrust. You won’t be able to reach them until you chip away this barrier.

Shipp recommends, “calling your shot.” Like Babe Ruth hitting a home run after pointing his bat toward the outfield seats, calling your shot means you promise something and then do it. This year, I had a student who refused to sit in his chair. He was leaned over his desk and in continual motion. While our counselor introduced herself to the class, I went and sat by him and asked if the chair was uncomfortable. He told me that it was and that he didn’t like sitting in it. This was a good opportunity to practice Shipp’s advice.

“If I brought you a cushion, would you use it?” I asked him. He assured me that he would. So after school, I found a five dollar cushion at Wal-mart. He sat on it the rest of the week. But more importantly, I showed him that I’m a man of my word. My work is far from over with this student, but five dollars is a good investment if it means he starts to trust me.

You don’t have to spend money to call your shot. Just make a promise to your students –we’ll go out early for recess, I’ll give you a break in five minutes — and then make sure you do it. Do this enough, and you’ll gain your students trust.

What Teachers Can Learn From Michael Phelps

A little more than nine years ago, Michael Phelps stood ready to break his own world record in the 200m Butterfly Final at the Beijing Olympics. He had no idea what was about to happen to him. That didn’t stop him from being prepared for it.

Already the winner of nine Olympic gold medals, Phelps was the heavy favorite to win his tenth when he hit the water in his strongest event. He struggled early, but had pulled away by the halfway point. As he started his final lap, the only drama that remained was whether Phelps would set a new world record. He reached for the wall and touched just ahead of the superimposed green line that represented the record for television viewers. Phelps turned to the board, and seeing his time, offered no smile. Obviously annoyed, he tossed his cap and goggles and began wiping at his eyes. The viewers had no way of knowing that Phelps had swum the final 75 meters with water-filled goggles.

But you couldn’t exactly call it swimming blind. Phelps had already seen the race, more than once, in his head the night before.

Phelps first started visualizing his swims when he was 12 years old. Lying in bed at night, he would relax each part of his body until he achieved a meditative state. Then, he followed his coach’s instruction to “play the tape.” The tape was detailed and shot from many angles. Phelps watched himself swim the entire race, every stroke, from both his own perspective and from the vantage point of those in the stands. He visualized the best and worst-case scenarios, deciding ahead of time what he would do if his suit ripped or his goggles failed. It was this rigorous nightly routine to which Phelps gave credit for the new world record he set that day in Beijing, saying, “If I didn’t prepare for everything that happens, when my goggles started filling up I’d have probably flipped out.”

As Good As the Real Thing?

The powers of visualization have been known for a long time. In 1967, Australian psychologist Alan Richardson gathered a group of students together in a gym and had each shoot 100 foul shots. He then split them into three groups. Group A practiced free throws for 20 minutes, five days a week, for four weeks. Group B was told to do nothing basketball related. Group C wasn’t allowed to touch a ball, but were instead guided by a professional in visualizing foul shots for the same duration as those in Group A. After four weeks, the students all shot another 100 free throws. Group A, those who had practiced, improved by 24%. Group B stayed the same. And Group C, the students who hadn’t laid hands on a basketball in four weeks and only shot free throws in the minds, improved by 23%.

Visualization in the Classroom

Teachers can also benefit from visualization.

Perhaps the best use of visualization is seeing yourself respond to the predictable conflicts  you have in your classroom. Take a moment before school to think about what’s likely to set you off. If you can’t abide blurting, picture a student continually disrupting your lesson with ludicrous remarks that turn your class into a circus. If defiance is a problem, visualize yourself handling the defiant student with calm confidence and cool composure.

To get the best results, do as Phelps did. See yourself handling the situation from both a first- and third-person perspective.  Imagine as much of the environment as you can. Richardson wrote that the most effective visualizers include multiple senses. So see yourself responding to the problem behavior, but also feel yourself gaining control over your emotions. Picture yourself calmly approaching the offending student, and also hear yourself speaking in a controlled voice. Make the scene in your head as vivid as you can.

A Gift For Your Students

Teach the technique to your students, too. When I introduced my problem-of-the-day routine last week, I taught it and modeled it. But before I asked my students to demonstrate, I had them close their eyes and picture themselves executing each step of the routine as I described it. Only after they’d visualized themselves performing the procedure did I have them practice. You can use this to teach any routine in your classroom, from when and how to sharpen pencils to how to respond during an emergency drill. You might also have students take a minute to visualize themselves following the directions you just gave before they do it for real.

Visualization is a technique that works and one teachers should add to their bag of tricks. Anyone can do it. It takes no special training. It doesn’t cost a thing. And it can be done in a just a few minutes. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

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Sources:

The Telegraph

Day in the Life: Michael Phelps