At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?

At the beginning of this school year, TNTP released a report called The Opportunity Myth, in which they repeated a golden oldie from the reform agenda’s playlist:  Public schools suck and it’s mostly because public school teachers suck. They didn’t come right out and say that, of course, but it’s hard to interpret the report’s introduction any other way. Judge for yourself:

Far too many students graduate from high school still unprepared for the lives they want to lead. They enroll in college and land in remedial courses, or start jobs and discover they’re missing skills they need. We wanted to understand why.

To do this, we followed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems to learn more about their experiences. What we found was unnerving: classroom after classroom filled with A and B students whose big goals for their lives are slipping further away each day, unbeknownst to them and their families—not because they can’t master challenging material, but because they’re rarely given a real chance to try.

In fact, most students—and especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners—spent the vast majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations. Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject. And middle and high school students reported that their school experiences were engaging less than half the time.

The report is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been in public education for any length of time, and if you’d like to read why you can safely ignore it, check out Peter Greene’s criticism here and Matt Barnum’s here.

What strikes me is how reformers continue to shamelessly want it both ways.

They have, for the most part, won. They rammed through the standards they wanted. Tenure protections have been decimated in many states. Schools are more “data-driven” than ever. School choice continues to expand. Teachers can now be held accountable for their students’ performance on a standardized test. Reformers have managed to convince 7 out of every 10 Americans that our public schools deserve a C or D rating, even though most believe their children’s own schools are just fine.

School leaders, in their quest to take individual teacher differences out of the equation and standardize lessons just as much as we’ve standardized tests, have adopted Common Core-aligned programs and required strict fidelity to them. They’ve done everything they can to take teacher judgment out of education, going so far as to forbid educators from using anything that hasn’t received prior approval from central office administrators. Some of these programs literally have scripts for teachers to read, and many districts require teachers to follow pacing guides to make sure they cover all the material before the big exam and to ensure continuity across the district. Because I guess that’s important.

The way schools are run today is different than they used to be run, and it isn’t because schools decided they needed to change or parents demanded it; it’s because those changes were forced on them by people with the same ideology as those who write reports criticizing teachers for their weak instruction, below-grade-level assignments, inability to engage students, and low expectations.

It’s the same thing that infuriates me whenever teacher effectiveness is discussed at a district level.

As a teacher who has been told to teach a program as it’s written, how the hell is it my fault if the assignments students get are not challenging enough? I’m not the one who designed the assignments.

If you’re requiring me to read from some stupid script written by publishers who’ve never met my students, then how can you fairly evaluate my instruction? It’s not my instruction.

Should we be surprised that students aren’t engaged during a lesson that’s delivered by a teacher who had no hand in creating it and who sees it as the contrived lump that it is? I’m not a terrible actor, but hand me a lemon and I’m going to have trouble convincing even the most eager-to-learn student that I’m giving them lemonade.

Why would we expect students to be engaged when they’re walked through standard after standard with the goal of preparing them for a test? Last week, my third graders read an article (out of the district-mandated curriculum) on the transcontinental railroad. They were interested and asked lots of questions. I went rogue and showed an unapproved video of how it was built. They had more questions. I could envision us spending the next two weeks learning about westward expansion. We could discuss Manifest Destiny and investigate why certain large western cities are located where they are today. We could read about how the railroad affected the environment and how it upset Native American hunting grounds and led to the taking of their land.

Instead, I had to move on. I had to teach about sequence and cause and effect because I had a test to give on those skills and a new topic (completely unrelated to the American west or even American history) to start on Monday.

I had to do those things because that’s what’s in the standards these reformers so badly wanted and because my district needs data to make decisions and because I can’t be trusted to make decisions about how to best prepare my students for those tests, much less for anything more important than tests.

But TNTP wants to tell me it’s my fault students aren’t engaged?

If I’m doing what I’ve been told to do, then how do you evaluate my effectiveness? Shouldn’t you really evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum you’ve forced me to use?

This is the educational world the reformers have wrought, and the one they still have the temerity to criticize. They created this mess, and now they’re pointing at it, holding their noses, and telling teachers to do better.

Please.

The reformers’ agenda has had a chance to work. If it isn’t — if kids aren’t being given grade-level tasks, if instruction is weak, if students aren’t engaged, if teachers aren’t expecting enough of them — then it’s long past time for the reform crowd to own their failures and stop scapegoating teachers, many of whom are doing nothing more than exactly what they’ve been told to do with the materials they’ve been told to do it with.

If students aren’t able to pursue their goals, it’s not because teachers have failed them. It’s because reformers have.

If you want to blame teachers, then you need to allow them to make some decisions. You need to give them some power. Blaming teachers for the state of education today, when teachers have lost nearly every skirmish with the well-financed reform movement, is straight from the reformer playbook, where all the plays are designed wonderfully, but the damn players don’t know how to run them.

If you want teachers to be nothing more than compliant replaceable parts, then you don’t get to blame them when your plans don’t work out.

The army doesn’t fire soldiers when the general’s plan is a disaster.

NFL teams don’t swap out their entire rosters when the coach’s gameplans result in multiple losing seasons.

And reformers should no longer get to blame teachers when teachers are working under conditions created by those reformers.

10 Things Overworked Teachers Can Stop Doing

If there’s one common thread that runs through the most popular articles on this blog it’s that teachers ought to do less.  I suspect those articles generate the most shares and responses because the topic is divisive. Some teachers read them and nod along, their beliefs affirmed in digital print. Others read them with varying degrees of bafflement and anger. The self-righteous will insinuate that those of us who want a life outside of school aren’t as dedicated as our more exhausted colleagues. Others, like one Facebook commenter on my article Dear Teachers, Please Go Home, ask some version of, “Then when are we supposed to get it all done?”

Which is a revelatory question.

Such a question presumes that most teachers have relatively equal amounts of work to do and that the only way to get it all done is to devote untold hours to the job, usually at the expense of other areas of their lives.

But such an assumption is wrong. Teachers vary greatly in how much work they have to get done and it’s not because they teach in different buildings or teach different grade levels or have different bosses. Some teachers have less to do because they’ve decided to have less to do. It’s usually that simple.

There are a number of items you can likely take off your to-do list tomorrow if you’re willing to swallow some pride, care less about what other adults think of you, and stop trying to knock every lesson out of the park. Here are ten.

Stop Decorating Your Classroom Like It’s In a Magazine

I know teachers who spend weeks getting their rooms looking just so for the start of school. They then devote even more time to maintaining its immaculate appearance throughout the year. They organize, straighten, color-code, label, redecorate, change bulletin boards, hang curtains, and dangle doodads from the ceiling, and for what?

Hardly anyone is going to see it. Of the people who do see it, at least half of them won’t care. Of those who are impressed, what does it matter? How does their being impressed help you or your students? I don’t know of a single study that shows a connection between teachers’ interior design talents and student performance. In fact, the research that does exist indicates that a heavily decorated room actually disrupts student attention and learning. Save yourself a ton of time and stop decorating your classroom like it’s in a magazine.

Stop Writing New Learning Goals on the Board

I’ve watched a lot of TED talks and I’ve never seen a speaker start their speech by displaying and reading aloud the thing they’d like me to learn in the next 15 minutes.  Having a goal for your lesson is important. Writing it on the board isn’t.  Prominently displayed learning goals aren’t for you; you know what students are supposed to learn. They aren’t for your students; a good lesson makes clear what students should come to understand. The requirement to write learning goals on the board exists for one reason and one reason only: administrators want you to do things that work, but they don’t really want to spend a ton of time in classrooms actually watching you do those things. With learning goals, they can peek their head in your room, see them on the board, and tell themselves that in their buildings, teachers are using research-based practices. They can check it off a list and pat themselves on the back.

Writing new learning goals every day is busy work. By themselves, they will do nothing to move the student achievement needle. So write some beautifully crafted learning goals using whatever format your leadership has decided is best. Then leave them up all week. Or all month. See how long until someone calls you on it, and when they do, claim you forgot that day. Most administrators spend so little time in classrooms, this is one tick-suck you can cross off your list.

Stop Creating Lessons

Once upon a time, teachers had to create their own lessons. They don’t anymore, and they shouldn’t. For today’s teachers, finding lessons isn’t the problem; choosing among hundreds of them is the greater challenge. Creation takes time that others have already invested (and in many cases, been paid for). Take advantage by teaching their lessons instead of creating yours; they’re probably better anyway because of something psychologists call the IKEA effect, which is a cognitive bias where people place disproportionate value on products they had a hand in creating.

The IKEA effect poses two problems for teachers. The first is that what you make is likely not as good as you think it is. Your lesson is not better than another teacher’s. You just think it is because you made it. You would almost assuredly be better off using a product made by someone else. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, you’d be best off using products created by people whose job is to create those products. So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.

The other problem is the time required to create this stuff. If you spend three hours making a magnetism unit because you tell yourself it will be better than anything you currently have in your filing cabinet or that you can find online, then you’ve lost the opportunity to spend those hours doing other things, like going home at the end of the day.

More here: The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation

Stop Creating Materials

Google is your friend. So is TeachersPayTeachers. Every worksheet, rubric, and graphic organizer you will ever want already exists. Spend more time clicking and less time creating and you will have more time for the important stuff.

Stop Controlling Everything

When students do more, you do less.

Teachers looking to trim hours off their workweek should constantly spend their days asking, “Is this something students could do?”

Most of the time, the answer is yes. Students can do bulletin boards. They can staple, cut things out, and rewrite the lunch choice every morning. They can organize your classroom library and replace all the science materials used in an experiment.  They can check their own work. They can help each other understand the math assignment. It’s true that your room might not look as pretty and the agenda on the board will be written askance and the books won’t be as neat as they would be if you had organized them, but it’s also true that most of that stuff doesn’t matter and students will feel a stronger connection to the room if they have a large hand in its appearance and day-to-day functioning. Save yourself time. Stop being such a control freak.

Stop Reading Everything Your Students Write

Students need feedback on their writing, but you do not have to be the only person who provides it. Technology allows students to share their writing with classmates and even parents. Ask them to provide the feedback. When my daughter was in third grade, she brought a journal home once a week and it was my job to write a response to her entries. For other low tech options, print students’ writing and put the papers in a three-ring binder. Insert a blank page after each piece and teach students how to leave useful feedback on it. Or set up a gallery walk where students place their writing on their desks and move around the room with a stack of sticky notes, using them to leave feedback on 10 different papers. You can also avoid taking student writing home by utilizing technology and the station rotation model. Catlin Tucker explains how here.

Stop Checking Papers

One enduring stereotypical image is that of a teacher, usually a woman, sitting at home on a Saturday with a stack of papers in front of her, vigorously scrawling across them with a red pen.  If we’re going to ask students to do all this work, the thinking goes, then we need to hold them accountable, and the way to do that is to give everything a grade. This isn’t where I argue against grades (although I certainly could). Instead, I’ll argue against everything needing a grade.  Consider most of the work your students do as practice and you’ll find it a lot easier to toss it into the circular file instead of bringing it home where it will cast accusatory glances your way all weekend. Instead of checking everything, only check assessments.

You can also significantly reduce the height of your stack by eliminating homework.  The research on homework is now well known and for elementary teachers especially, there’s no academic reason to give it; it just doesn’t work. The less work you assign, the less you have to look at. An easy and research-based way to reduce your own paperwork is to seriously curtail or eliminate homework.

Another easy way to reduce your stack is to take advantage of programs that do the grading for you. If you’re fortunate enough to have software that provides students with immediate feedback on their assignments, then your work is already done. You need only to look at the results. If not, go old school by having students check their own work as you go over the answers or do what I spent a fair amount of my school years doing and have students trade papers and grade each other’s assignments.

Stop Helping So Much

You can always tell the students who were “rescued” by their previous teachers. They’re the ones who can’t make it through a test without asking for help, even though you just explained that you can’t help on a test. A lot of teachers enable learned helplessness by constantly stepping in the moment students struggle.  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.

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. And while students are working things out, or seeking out others for assistance, or trying a different strategy, you can plan next week’s lessons, or grade a few tests, or locate resources online so you don’t have to do that stuff after school.

Read more here: Why Teachers Should Help Less

Stop Saying Yes

It’s impossible to do all the things you have to do if you’re spending hours every week sitting in meetings because you couldn’t bring yourself to tell your principal no.  We all have meetings we must attend, but too many teachers take on additional responsibilities out of feelings of obligation and guilt.

Before you agree to extra work, ask yourself this question: Will the time spent on this new thing result in better outcomes for my students than the time I would have spent if I were not doing this new thing?

The answer is usually no. So grow a spine and stop agreeing to waste time on work that won’t do your students any good and will leave you with even less time to do all of the really important stuff.

Stop Maximizing

Making every lesson shine is an honorable intention. Nobody will question your dedication, but they should question your long-term strategy. Teachers can’t escape trade-offs any more than the rest of the world can. Devoting two hours to planning a great civics lesson means two hours not doing all of the other things your job requires of you. It’s also no guarantee that the lesson will go well, and if it doesn’t you’ll feel demoralized on top of exhausted.

Many teachers are maximizers. They seek out the best option to arrive at the optimal solution, even if it means investing substantial time and energy.  Many are perfectionists, unable to let little things slide. Satisficers, on the other hand, are individuals who can accept good enough. They consider trade-offs. They know that you can’t “do it all” and they accept the reality that an extra hour spent on lesson creation won’t necessarily result in the kind of enhanced understanding from students they were hoping for. Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.

There’s also your mental health to consider. Psychologists have found that compared to satisficers, maximizing individuals are more likely to experience lower levels of happiness, regret, and self-esteem. While maximizers accept higher-paying jobs, they tend to be less satisfied once they start working those jobs because they second guess themselves. They constantly wonder if they made the best choice. They’re always looking over the hill for greener pastures. For this reason, maximizers have a hard time finding contentment in life.

Not every lesson has to be a Lexus. Most of the time, a reliable Camry will get the job done. Stop trying to make everything shine. Be willing to accept good enough, and you’ll be a happier teacher with more time for yourself.

A Disclaimer

None of the above are things you should stop doing if you love doing them. If it fills your heart with gladness to color-code your classroom supplies or if creating lessons from scratch gets your heart racing, then by all means, keep doing those things. Just don’t complain about how many hours you work. Those are choices you’re making, and there are plenty of teachers out there making different ones and going home a lot earlier than you are.

Stop wondering how you will get everything done if you leave work where it belongs and go home shortly after the kids. Instead, give yourself less to do.

If you need a step-by-step guide to the above and many more time-saving techniques, I recommend giving Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look. It’s the most comprehensive resource I know of for overwhelmed teachers. Angela offers a money-back guarantee that her club will help you trim hours off your workweek.

If you’re wondering if the club is right for you, take this fun quiz!

To get a taste of what the club has to offer, try Angela’s free 5-day challenge, “Goodbye, Teacher Tired: 5 Days to Doing Fewer Things, Better”

If you’d like to read reviews from club members, click here.

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Teacher Habits is a proud affiliate partner of the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club and all links to the club are of the affiliate kind. That said, I’m a member and it’s good stuff.

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.

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.