Setting the Table While Serving the Meal

If there’s one piece of enduring advice that teachers like to remind each other of this time of year it’s that we should take the time to “set the table” during the first couple weeks of school. The table setting metaphor is a warning to not jump too quickly into the curriculum; we should instead take time to establish rules and procedures, practice and repractice classroom routines, and, most importantly, build productive classroom cultures that will sustain an environment conducive to high levels of learning. We implore one another to make our rooms welcoming places, build relationships with our students, and encourage classmates to connect with one another, all while sending the message that our classroom will be a safe place where students will want to be. We are warned that serving the curricular meal too quickly, while tempting, is actually a recipe for future disastrous dining experiences. What we give up in time at the beginning of the year we will more than make up for later in the year, we are reassured.

There is wisdom is warning teachers not to forsake the important work of building a productive culture and training students to perform high-frequency procedures that will result in smoothly run classrooms. But the problem with the table setting metaphor is that, while moderately clever and easy to understand, dining and teaching differ in some significant ways. One of those ways is that you can’t both prepare the table setting and serve the meal at the same time. Trying to do so would undoubtedly result in a confusing and unsatisfactory dining experience for your customers. You can, however, and in my opinion should, build classroom culture, connect with students, and establish rules and routines while also teaching the curriculum.

Table setting advocates, well-meaning though they are, offer a false choice. Building culture and teaching content are not mutually exclusive. Unlike dinner, they don’t require sequentiality. In fact, it makes far more sense to do both simultaneously. Teachers shouldn’t sacrifice content for culture-building because they can do both, and they should start on the first day.

Never Enough Time

One universal frustration, felt by every teacher in every classroom in every state (and probably in most countries), is that we never have enough time. There aren’t enough hours in the year to cover – much less teach to mastery – all of the standards we are expected to. Every teacher makes choices every year about what they won’t get to or what they’ll briefly touch upon. State testing windows further pinch the calendar, forcing teachers to prioritize content and tempting many to teach with breadth instead of depth in the interest of providing students with opportunities to learn. Given these realities, it doesn’t make sense to turn over two weeks of potential instruction to ice breakers, name games, People Bingo, What I Did Over the Summer essays, PBIS lessons, and team-building projects with no curricular relevance. You give up the right to complain about never having enough time if you don’t even start addressing the content standards until the third week of school.

You give up the right to complain about never having enough time if you don't even start addressing the content standards until the third week of school. Click To Tweet

Learning in Context

When my daughter started playing softball a few years ago she knew a few basic rules and had no knowledge of strategy. There were two ways she could have been taught. I could have taken her to the ball field and imagined as many scenarios as possible and then had her practice what to do in each scenario. “Now if you’re on first base and the batter has a full count and there are two outs, you should run as soon as the pitcher releases the ball because only three things can happen: the batter walks, in which case second base is yours; the batter strikes out, in which case you no longer matter because the inning is over; or the batter hits the ball, in which case you want a head start toward second base in case it’s on the ground or through the infield.”

You can imagine the confusion that would result from just one such example, and chances are good I’d fail to think of many possible situations that could arise during games.

This is what we do when we practice classroom and building procedures out of context. We throw a million expectations at students in the first few weeks. They fail to stick (shocker). Then we end up reteaching them when those scenarios occur during regularly functioning school days. Why not skip the out-of-context practice and instead teach procedures right before your class is about to authentically perform them? Don’t tell kids how to turn in papers on the first day of school unless you just gave them a paper to complete that you’re going to ask them to turn it in.

Simulations aren’t the real thing and everyone knows it, which is why you know without thinking that students behave differently to fire drills than they would to actual fires.

What’s the first question your students want to know when there’s an intruder drill?

“Is this real?”

That’s because all of us, even five-year-olds, know the difference between make-believe and the real thing.

My daughter learned the rules and strategies of softball the way most players learn them: by playing in games and scrimmages that closely simulated game conditions. Lessons stick when they’re learned authentically.

Since most of the school year will be the real thing, it’s a poor use of time to pretend with students when introducing your rules and procedures. Instead of having students act out what will happen if they break a rule, why not go over your rules, explain your consequences for breaking them, and then wait until a genuine rule-breaking incident occurs to reinforce expectations with students, all while doing the types of things you will spend the rest of the year doing? In other words, why not let students practice adhering to your rules during actual lessons? Why not give them real consequences, just as you will the other 36 weeks of the year? Why not teach your classroom routines as they naturally arise during the course of a day where you and your students are focused on the work you’ll be doing all year? Why not make all of your classroom management and culture building authentic instead of pretend?

As for building culture, Teach Like a Champion author, Doug Lemov, makes a similar argument in his article, “‘It’s the Most Important Tool for Building Relationships,’ and Other Insights About Check For Understanding.” Lemov observes that it’s not greeting students at your door or inquiring about students’ interests that most effectively builds trust between teachers and students. Instead, it’s what happens “within the teaching inside the classroom” that’s most important and genuine:

“Check for Understanding, done well, was critical because it constantly communicated a message to each student. We summarized that message as follows:

  • Your success is important to me
  • I believe in you
  • I am highly aware of your progress in this endeavor
  • I will help you succeed”

If you want to start building a positive classroom culture, start teaching and helping students do their best. Show them you’re paying attention, you believe in them, and you care about their success.

The Messages Your Send

More so than at any other time of the year, your students will watch you like a hawk during the first week of school. They’re asking unspoken questions and you’re answering them, whether you realize it or not. One of those questions is, “What kind of class is this going to be?”

Think about when you return to school after summer vacation. What would you think if your principal spent your first day back sharing nonessential information and forcing you to play getting-to-know games even though you already know most of your colleagues and you’ll spend most of the year sequestered in your room and starved for adult interaction? How many of you would think, “Don’t we have more important things to do?” Students don’t want their time wasted any more than you do.

There are a number of messages you want to send students during the first two weeks. You want them to feel like they belong, like you care about them, like you value their contributions. You want them to understand that your room will be safe and that you will have rules that will be enforced so their right to learn is protected. All of that is important.

But another message you absolutely must send is that yours is a classroom where work happens. You are a teacher who takes learning seriously and you expect your students to as well. When you avoid the work because you believe there’s no other way to send some of those other messages, you undermine the message that your room is a place where learning will be taken seriously.

Set the Table While You’re Serving the Meal

There is a reason the setting the table metaphor exists. Some teachers focus too much on their subject matter and not enough on creating an environment where students feel valued and where operations can run efficiently because everyone understands how things are to be done. But we’re overcorrecting when we tell teachers that the only way to have a successful year is to delay the very thing that school is supposed to be about. Kids need a productive environment in which to work, but they also need to get to work. The good news is you can do both at the same time.

If the only way to build a strong culture was to avoid content, then teachers would be justified in doing so; there’s no question that a bad work environment will destroy any efforts you make to teach kids over the long haul. But schools are not restaurants, and teachers do not need to set the table before serving the meal. Students have too much to learn and teachers have too little time to help them learn it. We simply can’t afford to avoid the standards for two weeks. Everything we want our students to understand, value, and do can and should be taught and reinforced in the context of a productive day of teaching and learning, one in which we send the message that the main reason we’re all there is to work.

3 Replies to “Setting the Table While Serving the Meal”

  1. I absolutely agree.

    However, Doug Lemov, and Teach Like a Champion, is one of the scariest resources and “experts” out there. My old school, and many inner city schools, look at his book as a “biblical” like source (also note, he never taught). As a result of his book we (and most schools who followed his model) had to practice and role play as adults the procedures and routines he describes. For example, that means one teacher stood at the door and practiced greeting 4-5 other “students” (teachers) enter the classroom. Teachers would be forced to give “feedback” on their greeting, and then the role play and feedback would commence 2 more times. This happened with nearly every chapter of his book. Meanwhile veteran teachers were chastised for not buying in on the ruse of role playing time (great for staff culture.) And in charter schools there is not an option of opting out if you want a job. Then admin and new teachers (usually Teach for America) would be utterly lost when actual classrooms were in chaos after learning and practicing these models. This was PD before school. Interesting that he wanted adults to practice, but realized kids need authentic situations for buy in. Annnnnyway, my point is this rant is Teach Like a Champion is the utter opposite of its name. So while Doug has many basic truths, his over arching ideas are those of utter control of lower social economic students and a belief that teaching is a robotic science, that anyone can do if they follow his guidelines and coaching. That book was one of the first things I threw away when leaving my Chicago office. I shiver when I hear the name.

    Again, I completely agree with Teach and Serve, just wanted to give some insight on the source.

  2. Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of Lemov’s either but I read his blog every once in a while and he’s got some good advice. His overall philosophy is a problem for me, but since he does work with actual teachers he’s able to share strategies from real classrooms that are sometimes worth trying out.

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