10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

I’ve eaten at hundreds of restaurants in my life, but I’ve never worked at one. My wife was a waitress in college, so when we go out to eat and I complain about something, she’s usually able to offer me an explanation.

The table next to ours received their food first because they ordered soup and sandwiches and we ordered pizza.

That family was seated ahead of ours because a table for four opened up, but there isn’t yet room for our party of six.

The restaurant may appear sparsely populated, but our food could be taking a long time because there’s a backlog of take-out orders.    

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

We Have Less Control Over Things Than You Think We Do

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

We Do It All Ourselves

Teachers don’t have office assistants. We type all of our own newsletters and emails. Because we have many other urgent things to do, we likely typed that newsletter in ten minutes, while being interrupted three times, and then quickly read it over once before hitting print and running out of the room to pick up our students from some other class. Those typos aren’t because we’re idiots. They are the predictable result of never having enough time to do all aspects of our jobs at the level we’d like to.  

We Forget Stuff

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

We’re Really Busy

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

We’re More Annoyed Than You About Buying School Supplies

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

We Don’t Really Want to Take Your Kids’ Toys

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

We Might Not Want Your Help

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

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

If we need to talk to our doctors, we must do so on their time. If we call a business after it’s closed, we have to wait until tomorrow to get service. Even professionals like realtors or financial advisors who will meet with us after hours are doing so with the expectation of a pay-off in the future. If we meet with you before school, we’re probably thinking about all the things we need to do before students arrive. If we’re meeting with you after school,  we’re tired and want to go home. We’ll be professional, but we’re no more happy about it than you would be if your boss asked you to stay and work for free.  

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

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

We Sugarcoat

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

Why You Shouldn’t Take Away Recess

I stopped taking away recess as a punishment for classroom behavior two years ago. I’ve never regretted it. The elementary school where I work uses a stoplight system for behavior management. If you’re unfamiliar, students start out with a clothespin on the color blue. If they break a rule, they move to green. Break another and it’s on yellow. Three strikes and it’s on red. Many teachers take away 10 minutes of recess from students on yellow and the entire recess for those on red. I used to.

I stopped for a selfish reason. Then, I justified my decision with other, better reasons. Here are the reasons you should stop taking away student recess for classroom misbehavior:

Stop Punishing Yourself

There were days when I made sure I didn’t put any students on yellow because I didn’t want to babysit during recess. I had stuff to do. If I was going to take away a student’s recess, that student had to be supervised by someone. Often, that someone was me. I’m a big believer in not punishing people who don’t deserve it, especially if one of those people is me.

Those Students Need Recess the Most

For the most part, the same kids lost recess over and over again. You know the type. They couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t leave other kids alone. Distracted others and interrupted me with their impulsive behavior. They weren’t made for sitting for long periods. They needed to move, make noise, and run into things. So what did I do to punish them for moving, making noise, and running into things? I took away the one time of their day when they could move, make noise, and run into things. The students I punished by taking away their recess were the ones who needed recess the most.

Everyone Deserves a Break

Some people see recess as a privilege, something to be earned. They tell their classes that if they want a recess, they better work for it. That’s wrong. Recess is a break. Everyone needs breaks. When you attend a training, one of the first things you want to know is when the breaks will be. If your trainer blithely blows past your break time, you’re going to be pissed. If your trainer makes your break contingent upon you working hard and participating, you’ll likely feel condescended to. The United Nations mandates that all prisoners receive at least one hour of exercise in the open air daily. Murderers and rapists get an hour of recess. But you won’t give Marcus a fifteen minute break because he interrupted your lesson a few times?

It Doesn’t Work

If the same students are losing recess more than once per week, that should tell you something about the effectiveness of taking it away. It doesn’t work. Most of the students whose recess I took away had problems self-regulating. They were impulsive. They acted, then, like thirty minutes later, thought about their actions.

Sometimes.

These are not the kinds of kids who think to themselves, “Hmm, if I squirt water on Sally’s hair then the teacher is going to move my clip. Since I am already on green for shouting out, “My butt is stinky!” in the middle of the social studies lesson, I shouldn’t squirt this water because that will result in my clip being moved to yellow, which will subsequently lead to me losing ten minutes of my recess in three hours.”

When stuff doesn’t work, don’t keep doing that stuff.

Snowball Effect

Some students have a difficult time settling down in the morning. Their home environment is loud and chaotic. They may have not gotten enough sleep. They didn’t get breakfast. As they enter the room with their classmates, they quickly become overstimulated and do something stupid. You catch them. They’re on green. Ten minutes later, they’re talking while you’re teaching. Boom. They’re on yellow. They’ve already lost ten minutes of recess. Again. “Well,” they say to themselves, “today’s shot. Might as well go all in.” You’re not setting up students for success when they know they’ve already lost the one thing they look forward to all day long. In fact, you’re making your job much harder. Why would you want to do that?

The Lone Exception

I do have one exception that I explain to my students on the first day of school: “I will not take your recess away for your behavior in here. I know some teachers will take it away if you’re on red. I won’t. But I will take your recess away if you are ruining other people’s recess. Everyone has a right to have fun at recess. If you are making it not fun for others because of your choices, then you can’t be outside.”

Students want to hear this. They want recess to be fun. They want to know that adults won’t allow jerks to run rampant on the playground.

Parents like the policy. Parents with students who have lost many recesses in the past really like the policy. Many have written to thank me for it.

So what do I do about student misbehavior? Just ignore it?

No. I send emails or texts to parents any time their child ends the day on yellow or red. The great majority of parents want their children to do well and behave in school. Most of them are willing to do their part to make this happen. But they can’t do anything if they don’t know about the problem. The email simply states what the student did to get on yellow or red. I should also note that students can move back off their color if they improve their behavior, so there’s always a chance they can avoid having that email sent.

It doesn’t solve all problems. But it works better than taking away recess.

Both Sides: Whole Class Punishments

A confession: Although I usually write as though I’m 100% positive of the suggestions I make on this blog, the truth is I rarely am. There aren’t many sure things in education. What works for one teacher won’t work for all of them. What works for one class won’t work in other classes. Hell, sometimes what works for a teacher one year won’t work the next. But most people don’t want to read unassertive, maybe-you-should-try-this articles. They want new ideas or solutions to problems. So I play along.

There are many education issues on which I have vacillated. One is whole class punishments. Early in my career, I used them on occasion. I felt I had good justification for doing so. I still feel solid arguments can be made to support their use. I’ll share those arguments below. I haven’t personally used whole class punishments in probably seven years. However, I can’t write a post titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Use Whole Class Punishments” because I see their merits. Instead, I’ll present both sides and let you argue in the comments.

Why You Should Not Use Whole Class Punishments

There are a number of reasons I no longer use whole class punishments. The first is I hated them as a student. I was a good kid. Never got in trouble. So when some asshole ruined it for the rest of us, I resented it. You don’t need to be very old to comprehend when you’re getting jobbed. A whole class punishment didn’t teach me anything except that adults were power-hungry despots who treated saints the same as convicts. I don’t want to be one of those adults.

I also didn’t like what whole class punishments did to my classroom culture. It pitted the well-behaved against those who struggled to follow the rules. The kids who ruin it for others are almost always the ones who need the most support. When you punish the whole class for the misdeeds of the few, those students who did nothing wrong will resent those who did. It invites the well-behaved students to mistreat the behaviorally-challenged. When you punish everybody for the actions of a handful of students, you shouldn’t act surprised when your class gangs up on the handful.

The third reason is parents don’t like them. Some will complain. They will have valid arguments. I usually try to avoid doing things that anger parents because I’m a chicken.The last reason I no longer use whole class punishments is that whenever I made everyone put down their heads or took away everyone’s recess, I felt like a jerk. Which was a pretty good indication that it was the wrong decision.

Why You Should Use Whole Class Punishments

Bill Cecil was the 2003-2004 Michigan Teacher of the Year. He’s a fifth grade teacher in the Lansing area. In his book, Best Year Ever, Cecil makes a compelling argument for whole class punishments. I had given them up by the time I read it, and he didn’t quite cause me to reverse my decision, but his arguments did make me think.  Here’s what he writes:I have the students working together to earn their recess each day. It’s quite simple to earn recess. All they have to do is end the day without two checks on the board. However, if they get two checks in one day, they lose recess and write the rules during that time to refocus on what they as a team need to be doing to be successful.

Cecil justifies:It never fails that someone will say that they weren’t doing anything wrong, and therefore, it’s not fair they lost their recess…I tell them it’s similar to when I used to play soccer. In some games I may be playing great and even score a goal. But if we aren’t playing well as a team and our defense lets up three goals, we still lose. I still lose the game despite my good performance.Cecil’s argument is predicated on three beliefs:

  1. This class is a team, and we will succeed or fail as a team.
  2. Behavior is everyone’s business. If you see someone doing something they shouldn’t, get them to stop because that behavior is going to harm all of us.
  3. This classroom will reflect the real world.

I would add that in addition to Cecil’s soccer analogy, we can find many other examples outside the world of sports.When the housing bubble popped in 2008 it wasn’t just those with bad mortgages who were screwed.Homeowner associations exist because we know that having neighbors who don’t mow their lawns and fly Aryan Nations flags can ruin the whole neighborhood’s property values.The reason you can get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt is because too many people weren’t wearing them.

You might be a great teacher, but if you work with a bunch of idiots, your school is likely to get labeled in a way that damages you just as much as the idiots.In the real world, we are often in this together. Our success or failure hinges on the choices of others, as unfair as that sometimes is. Why should students be protected from this reality? Isn’t one of our jobs to prepare students for life outside of school?

Where you fall on this issue likely comes down to a bigger question: What is the role of school? Should schools reflect society at large? Should they prepare students for the unfairness and harsh realities of the world outside their doors?

Or should schools rise above society and strive for a more idealized version of it? Should schools offer a sanitized experience in the hopes that our students will grow up and change the world for the better?What say you? Are you for, against, or do you fall somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.

Note: While I disagree with Cecil on whole class punishments, his book is excellent. It’s especially useful to teachers preparing for a new year.  Buy it here.

Why Student Disrespect Shouldn’t Bother You

I once had a student throw a water bottle at me while shouting something that rhymed with “stuck glue.” I’ve had more than one flash me the middle finger while my back was turned. There have been countless eye rolls in response to what I thought were reasonable requests. If you’re a teacher, part of the job is being on the receiving end of occasional disrespect from students.

It used to bother me. I’d see red. How dare she! How could he? I’ll show her! I’d upbraid the impudent offender in front of the whole class. If a student was going to challenge my authority, I was damned if I was going to let her get away with it. I’d put her in her place. If I didn’t, wasn’t I inviting more of the same?

It was the wrong approach. It often gave the insolent student the very thing he wanted. It raised everyone’s stress level. It ruined my mood and wore me out. It damaged the relationship I had with the student and negatively affected the classroom culture.

There’s a much better way to deal with student disrespect. It starts by changing how you think about it.

It’s Probably Not About You

We teachers tend to be sensitive people, and we sometimes accept too much responsibility for what happens in our rooms. A lot of student misbehavior has little to do with the teacher. When a student mouths off or audibly sighs at a benign request, it’s often the culmination of a series of negative events. You may have provided the spark, but the fuse was already lit.

I sometimes say insensitive things to my wife. It’s rarely the result of something she has said or done. More often, my poor behavior happens as a result of an accumulation of trying circumstances. I had a long day at school. I lost my planning period because of a lack of substitutes. I got stuck behind a tractor on the drive home. I’m hungry because I haven’t eaten a thing since 11:30. The only thing I want to do is eat a can of Pringles and zone out, but my wife wants to tell me about a dream she had last night. So I say something awful like, “I don’t want to hear about your dreams.” I take my frustrations out on her.

Kids are people, too. This also happens to them. Their disrespect, while hurtful and seemingly personal, probably has little to do with you.

 It Might Be About Power

Some students challenge authority as a way of seeking power. All of us, from a very young age, want to feel in control. Children, who are in charge of so little of their lives, sometimes seek to acquire power in disrespectful ways. I used to think I had to win this power struggle. I thought that to win meant I had to put down any threat to my authority. I needed to show the offender, and the whole class, that I was the boss.

Now I know different. There’s another way to win. You can do so without demoralizing students in front of their peers. You can preserve their dignity. You don’t need to emotionally stress out yourself or your class. You do this by doing the very thing we tell students to do when they’re being teased. We tell them to stop showing how much it matters to them. “Just ignore them,” we say. “He’s only doing it because he’s getting a reaction out of you.

There is no reason to show your students that they have the power to affect your emotions. Your students shouldn’t know how to push your buttons, because whenever they try, you ought to react impassively, as if you have no buttons at all. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t use “I feel” statements. “I feel” statements admit vulnerability. They’re a sign of weakness. They let students know that they have the power to single-handedly affect your feelings.

The message your students receive is simple: You don’t particularly care what they think about you. Act like their words don’t bother you, or even better, don’t act at all. Why would you give a nine-year old (or a fifteen-year old) that much power over you?

Consider the source

For those students whose disrespect is more frequent, stop and consider why. These kids often come from rough home situations where disrespect is prevalent and where they haven’t been taught the proper way to interact with others. By responding in anger, you damage the relationship with the student and make it more likely you’ll get even more disrespect. You turn it into an ongoing battle. You also reinforce the behavior they’re  seeing at home. Instead of responding in kind, as their parents and siblings  do, show them there’s a more mature way to handle disrespect.

What To Do

You’ll need to assess what kind of disrespect you’re receiving. If it’s an anomaly and likely the result of frustration, you might simply smile knowingly, sending the message that you get it. You’ve done the same thing yourself at times. You know how they feel. You might shrug, as if to say, “Oh, well. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then move on as if it were any other minor transgression.

More often, though, you’re going to send the message that while you personally don’t care about their opinion of you, their disrespect is socially unacceptable. It will lead to future problems. Dispassionately give your predetermined consequence outlined in your classroom expectations. Make it no big deal. Then teach.

Assume they don’t know the right way to act. Even when that’s demonstrably untrue, it’s a more charitable view and will make you more likely to offer patient guidance.Assume the student doesn’t know an acceptable way to express his anger. Model better ways. Explain that there are people in the world (not you, of course) who will get very upset if the student treats them with similar disrespect. People who feel disrespected will be less accommodating. The student will be less likely to get what he wants. And there are some people in the world who respond to jerks by punching them in the face.

Once you’ve taught the student a more appropriate way of responding to others, forgive and forget. We all have our moments. Just ask my wife.

Why Teachers Should Help Less

When Helping Isn’t Helping

There is an epidemic in our schools. Teachers are helping too much. Like most epidemics, it probably started small. A teacher somewhere in Kansas didn’t want Jimmy to cry anymore because he couldn’t solve a math problem, so she came to his rescue. She did the problem for him. Oh, I’m sure she told herself she was “teaching,” but we all know the truth. We’ve been there. Frustrated with a child’s struggles, worried that he won’t learn what’s in the standards before he leaves us, and fearing what might happen to his self-esteem when he realizes he can’t do it, we help. We reteach. We give hints. We take the pencil right out of his hand and show him exactly what steps to follow. We do the damn thing for him.

For what I can only guess were misguided but honorable intentions, the helping spread. It’s everywhere now. In elementary classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade. I suspect it’s spread farther than that, maybe even all the way to college lecture halls.

We’ve justified our actions along the way. We’re teachers, so we teach. If a kid doesn’t understand something, we figure it’s our fault, so we act to rectify the problem. We teach it again. Besides, what are we supposed to do, sit our desk checking papers while Julia scribbles away futilely or gives up in frustration?

Yes.

 
That’s exactly what we should be doing far more often. We should check papers, respond to emails, plan next week’s social studies lesson, or just sit and reflect on how things are going. We should get out of our students’ way and see what they can actually do on their own. We should stop coming to their rescue. This disease is highly contagious, and we need to self-quarantine.

My daughter started playing softball last year. Like most people trying something new, she wasn’t very good. In her first game, she stepped to the plate, sort of swung the bat three times, and struck out. That’s how the game is played. Three strikes, you’re out. Don’t care how old you are or if you’ve got Coke-bottle glasses and a bad case of vertigo. Three strikes, you’re out. Now go sit down. Them’s the rules.

Everybody watched her fail. Her teammates, her dad in the dugout, her mom, grandma, and grandpa in the stands. How humiliating. And yet, she didn’t crumple into a ball in the corner of the dugout and cry. When it was her turn to bat again, she strolled up to the plate, a little less confident than before.

And she struck out again.

My daughter didn’t make contact with the ball until the third game of the season, and that was a little nubber that squirted six feet into foul territory. She finally got a hit in the fifth game. When she did, she ran to second base on a throwing error, and once planted safely on the bag, threw both fists into the air, the universal gesture for victory. You should have seen the smile on her face. It almost matched my own.

It’s that smile, that sense of accomplishment, that ineffable pride (although if it was effable, it would probably sound something like, “Fuck, yes!”), that we rob students of when we swoop in to help.

We’ve Created a Monster

If softball leagues treated players as delicately as schools do their students, there’d be a rule about not striking out. After three strikes, they’d bring out a tee, or maybe the coach would go up there, take the bat out of the kid’s hands, and hit it for them. We’d tell ourselves we were protecting their fragile psyches, when in reality we’d be sending a clear message: You can’t do it, so I’ll do it for you.

This is where learned helplessness comes from. And while many teachers complain about it, most of us have had a hand in its making. It’s everywhere in schools today. Well-meaning teachers, responding to external pressures, their own guilt, and an excessively literal interpretation of the verb “teach,” have caused the epidemic. I’m as guilty as the rest of you.

Teachers have this notion that to teach means we must always be doing something. If students are in the room, we have to interact with them. We gotta teach! But sometimes, the best way to teach is to sit down and shut up. The drama teacher leaves the stage, and it’s on the students to perform. The piano teacher lets her pupil sink or swim in front of everyone at the recital. The basketball coach rolls out the ball, stands on the sidelines, and simply observes.

Let Them Fail First

Reformers have managed to get teachers to believe that a student’s failure is the teacher’s failure. We take it personally. So we want to eradicate it. But failure is part of learning. In fact, it’s the critical part. Sometimes, the best teaching is to let students flail, even fail. Because there’s more learning to be found in failure than there is in success. Thank goodness the rules prevented my daughter’s coach from interceding in her struggles. All she could do was encourage from the dugout. That’s what teachers should do, too.

“You can do it,” we tell them. And then we see if they can. But if they can’t, we let them fail. And only after they’ve failed, maybe a few times, do we reteach. We go back to the practice field the next day and throw them fifty more pitches. We correct their technique, we model, and they practice, practice, practice. Then we remove ourselves again and see what they have learned. No helping allowed.

Kids can handle failure.

We teachers need to let them.