Be a Better Teacher by Doing Less

Like most new teachers, I read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School when I was starting out (I’ve also read it every August since). My favorite quote from the book is:“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 0‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!”  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”It took me years to internalize the truth of this. For most of my career, I have been the dominant presence in my classroom. My need to feel in control, my mistaken belief that my doing more would lead to greater student success, and the feeling that because I was the only one in the room getting paid to be there, I ought to be doing most of the work, all contributed. I was convinced that the more I did, the better teacher I’d be. I was wrong.

Doing less benefits me. It also benefits my students.

Doing less work means I have more energy and more personal time. I get home early and eat an early dinner (as recommended in my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss. I achieve a healthy work-life balance by doing things I want to do instead of more work. I exercise, read, write, go to my daughter’s softball games, and just hang out with my wife on our deck. I get seven hours of sleep every night, and I return to work the next day recharged.

I’m in a better mood at work because I’m less stressed. My better mood means I’m more patient with students.  Being well-rested means I’m less likely to make bad decisions and more likely to be calm, use humor, and build positive relationships with students and colleagues. It makes for a more pleasant environment for everybody.

My well-being directly impacts my students.

While doing less work benefits me, which in turn benefits my students, it also makes me a more effective teacher. That’s because when you do less, your students must do more, which means they’re more likely to learn. The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning.

Talk Less

I used to spend large parts of my day talking at students. Now, I try to present information in other ways. Sometimes, I ask students to read the information. Other times, I assign videos that teach what I would have taught. It’s arrogant to think we’re the only ones who can provide students with information or model a process. For directions, I’m transitioning to putting most of them in written form in Google Classroom, so my students can start working without having to listen to me.  In writing, I usually teach a short lesson, then let students actually write. They share their document with classmates. Those classmates are required to offer at least three comments about their writing. Instead of me giving all the feedback, I’ve shifted some over to the students.

Help Less

As I wrote in this article, I also try to help less. Helping less tells students that you believe in their abilities to figure out their own problems. It counteracts the helplessness many students have learned and empowers them to actually try. It allows students to fail, which allows them to learn.

Reduce Behavior Problems

Stepping back from my starring role at the head of the class has also helped those students with the greatest behavior challenges. Many of these students have a hard time sitting and listening. They get bored and wiggly. To entertain themselves, they make noises, leave their seats, or start bothering others. Many of these students do much better when they have work to do. By curtailing my role and increasing theirs, I cut down on the number of times during the day when these students are asked to sit still and listen, which is often when they get in trouble.

Plan Less

I’ve also tried to plan less. I used to do most of the work for students. I’d locate articles, copy them, require students to read them, and then ask them to respond in some way. I’d find exemplar texts for students to study before a writing unit. For a social studies unit, I’d locate all the texts, videos, and activities students would need. I’d compile a packet of worksheets. Then I’d guide students through each and every one of them.

But that’s now how anyone in the real world works. When I wrote my book Happy Teacher, no one gave me a stack of articles and books to read. No one provided links to the best web sites on happiness. I had to find them. I had to decide which ones best served my purposes. I had to select what information to use. I decided how much and what parts of each book to read. I had to evaluate the sources. This is the work students should be doing. When we do it for them, we miss powerful opportunities to teach authentic skills.

This year, for a unit on Native Americans, I did less work. Students did more. They collaborated to create a Google Slides presentation about three Native American groups that lived in Michigan. I provided the guidelines and different colored index cards to record notes. I modeled some of the skills outlined above. Then I set out every resource I had in my closet and let kids have at it. I allowed them to search online for videos. My role was limited to offering guidance, getting kids unstuck, and teaching lessons on evaluating the resources for how well they helped students meet the guidelines.

Assess Less

I didn’t do much assessment either. Students shared their slideshows with kids from other classes that had yet to study the topic. Those students were given a short form to complete that provided my students with feedback. They should know that my opinion on their work isn’t the only one that matters.

Some groups did well, others didn’t. They may not have all learned everything they were supposed to about Native Americans of Michigan, but they did all learn about working in a group, managing their time, evaluating resources, the importance of design in their presentations, and many other lessons that are more applicable to the real world that what kinds of houses the Chippewa built (wigwams, if you’re curious). And besides, they don’t all learn what they’re supposed to learn when I do all the work, either.

Enlist Their Help

In the last two years, I’ve also started to use student mentors. In math especially, there are students who are  head and shoulders about their classmates. These students often finish early and need more to do. In the past I gave them busy work, let them read, or gave them some free time. Sometimes I offered enrichment activities (which they usually resented). Now, these students become “coaches on the floor.” When they finish their work, they let me know. I check it for accuracy and write their names on the board as my mentors. When students raise their hands for help, the mentors assist me in providing it. Sometimes, the students are more patient and do a better job explaining things than I do. It also gives the mentors a chance to solidify their understanding. We learn best when we teach others.

So as I start thinking about next year, I’ll be looking for more areas where I can pull back and ask my students to step forward. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Related Articles:

Why Teachers Should Help Less

Why We Shouldn’t Admire Workaholics

The Benefits of Doing Nothing

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.

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.

20 Free Ways to Appreciate Teachers

Teacher Appreciation Week is just around the corner and cash-strapped districts are looking for ways to recognize their staffs.  As well they should.

A Gallup survey of more than four million employees worldwide found that individuals who received regular recognition and praise:

  • increased their productivity
  • increased engagement with colleagues
  • were more likely to stay with their organization
  • received higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers.

A Lot of Teachers Aren’t Recognized

The majority of us don’t give or receive anywhere near the amount of recognition we should. Only 17 percent of employees who participated in a Bersin & Associates study indicated that their organizations’ cultures strongly supported recognition. As a result, we’re less productive, and in many cases, completely disengaged at work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number one reason people leave their jobs is that they “do not feel appreciated.”

According to a recent OGO survey, 82 percent of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. In schools, a lack of funding may be the reason. Some principals, knowing there’s no money in the budget, give up on recognition altogether, not realizing that most teachers would appreciate things that don’t cost a dime. 

So here are 20 free ways to appreciate teachers.

20 Free Ways to Appreciate Teachers

  1. Handwritten Thank You Cards—In today’s digital world, everyone appreciates the time and thought behind handwritten notes. One survey found that 76% of people save these kinds of cards.
  2. PA Announcement—“A big thank you to Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Peterson for staying after the concert last night and helping to put away chairs.” Not only would such an announcement make the teachers feel good, but it would show students what the school values.
  3. Public Praise—Schools communicate with parents and the community in all sorts of ways. Districts could recognize teachers by praising them in newsletters, on school Facebook pages, or in automated calls that go out every Sunday night.
  4. Solicit Former Students—A few years ago I received three letters from former students. For a writing project, they were to write to people that had influenced them. It didn’t matter to me that they were satisfying the requirements of an assignment, because their words were heartfelt. Schools could easily set up a program whereby former students, once a year, write a letter, email, or just fill out a simple card thanking a former teacher.
  5. Showcase—Most schools have showcases, often filled with student work, dusty trophies, or some school-wide project. Why not select one showcase that highlights the good work a teacher did the previous week? A photo of the teacher could be included with a brief write-up of her good deed.
  6. Decorate Their Door—One way to let the whole school know that a teacher has done something deserving of recognition is to have a small team of parents or other teachers decorate their door.  Shooting stars, bright colors, fireworks, a big THANK YOU sign, and (for a nominal cost) some candy bars could be affixed to the door. Students would ask what the hubbub was all about, which would give adults the opportunity to praise the teacher.
  7. Wish Lists—My daughter’s school does something pretty cool. At parent-teacher conference time, each teacher fills out tear-away slips of paper on which they request personal and classroom items. Parents, who often want to show appreciation for teachers but aren’t sure what to buy, now know exactly what the teacher wants. They tear off the slips of paper, and over the week, send the items in with their children. I’ve bought my daughter’s former teachers chocolates, Coke, and Expo markers. I did not buy the motorcycle this year’s teacher jokingly included in his wish list.
  8. Free Entry—Why not allow deserving teachers into this spring’s high school play for free? Heck, give them two tickets so they can bring their spouse. Same goes for athletic events. My district has an Aquatic Center and a performing arts center. Teachers who embody the values of the district and who regularly go the extra mile could be awarded with season passes to these types of venues.
  9. Jeans Day—I really look forward to Friday for many reasons, and wearing jeans is one of them. Principals could recognize teachers by letting them wear jeans on whatever day they choose.
  10. Clean and Organize—As the year goes on, the books in my classroom library find their way into all kinds of strange baskets. Somehow, Louis Sachar’s Holes ends up next to a Wimpy Kid book in the basket labeled “Junie B. Jones.” My cabinet ends up similarly disorganized, with staples, Post-It notes, and scissors all sharing the same tub. Also, and this isn’t a knock on the custodians, but the surfaces of my students’ desks could use a thorough scrubbing. One way to recognize teachers would be for a team of parent volunteers to come in before or after school for 45 minutes and spruce things up a bit.
  11. A Break From That Kid (You Know the One)—Truth: I usually have at least one student who, by May, is on my last nerve. He’s the kid who never misses a day. I would greatly appreciate a break from That Kid. To thank a teacher for extra work, another teacher could take That Kid for an hour. Or he could walk around with the principal for three hours. Or…I don’t care, just get him out of the room for awhile.
  12. Food–You can’t go wrong with food. Staff breakfasts, lunches, snacks, candy- it doesn’t matter. Teachers love food. It doesn’t have to cost anything either. This year, our local theater donated a trash bag full of popcorn. Most schools have students whose parents own or manage a local restaurant. They are often happy to donate food. They just have to be asked.
  13. Car Wash—Early in my teaching career, a group of parents set up a car wash in the school parking lot. They collected all the teachers’ keys first thing in the morning, and then took care of everything from there. Every teacher drove home with a shiny clean car at the end of the day.
  14. Chair Massage—Teachers are stressed and they have disposable incomes. Some insurance plans even cover massages. All of which is to say that if you’re a local masseuse, you’d be an idiot to not donate a day to give teachers a free chair massage during their planning periods. Even if you only converted two of them to paying customers, the goodwill alone would likely lead to more clients.
  15. Staff Meeting Exemption—Teachers universally hate staff meetings. (And those who don’t are afraid to admit it, so I’m safe with my blanket assumption.) We all have better, more pressing things to do. Principals could reward deserving teachers with a Get-Out-Of-Staff-Meeting-Free card. There’s nothing better than getting to skip something unpleasant that everyone else is required to attend.
  16. Duty-Free Day—Teachers hate duty about as much as staff meetings. Appreciative principals could relieve teachers from recess, bus, lunch or whatever other duties they perform for a day (or week).
  17. One Free Hour—At the busiest times of the year, like right before progress reports are due, principals could provide whole grade levels with a free hour to work. By taking students and showing a movie in the gym, or supervising an extra long recess, or giving students time to play games in the computer lab, principals could show teachers that they understand the pressures they’re under and give teachers what they want most of all–found time.
  18. An Hour Lunch—What’s commonplace almost everywhere in America is a luxury no teacher ever experiences at school–an hour lunch. Mine is 35 minutes. Some teachers don’t even receive a duty-free lunch; they supervise students while they eat. Principals can cover a teacher’s responsibilities so that the teacher can actually leave the building, go to a restaurant, and enjoy an unhurried sit-down meal. You know, like a real professional.
  19. Leave an Hour Early—There’s something wickedly delicious about leaving work early. I have few fonder childhood memories than when we were sent home early from school because of snow. On the few occasions I’ve been granted permission to leave work early for a meeting or a personal need, I almost couldn’t contain my giddiness as I rushed to my car. Principals who really want to show appreciation can cover or arrange for the last hour of a teacher’s responsibility to be covered so that the teacher can experience the joy of leaving work before anyone else. (I saw one teacher refer to these as “GOOSE” coupons, which stands for Get Out Of School Early. I like it.)
  20. Kind Words—Sometimes, the simplest way of recognizing someone’s efforts is all that’s needed. Genuine thanks is a good place to start. And a good place to end this list.

Teach Like a Cat

A couple summers ago I read Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. If you’re not familiar, Burgess focuses on the presentation aspect of teaching. He advocates dressing up, incorporating movement, bringing a ton of energy, and lots of other strategies to enliven your lessons. You can watch him in action here. It’s an inspiring read, and when you’re done you want to ramp up the energy level of your instruction.

That feeling lasts about a week.

Then reality returns, and you realize you just can’t do that for every lesson, not even most of them, because it’s mentally and physically exhausting. Because I want teachers to have long careers impacting many, many lives, I disagree with Burgess’s approach, even as I admit that he’s right. Being a showman will lead to more engaged students. But it will also wear out most teachers really quickly.

So instead of teaching like a pirate, I propose you teach like a cat.

I have a cat. Her name is Gizmo. She has a lot of qualities that teachers who want long and fulfilling careers should make their own.

How To Teach Like a Cat

Be More Chill

Gizmo spends 90% of her time just chilling out. She’s almost always calm and in control. While the rest of us are running around getting dinner ready before softball practice, Gizmo is lying on the couch watching us with seeming bemusement.

Teachers should also spend most of their day in a state of calm. I detail why in this post, but to summarize, calm teachers tend to have calmer classes. Calm leads to more focused work. Calm people make better decisions during stressful moments. When you’re calm most of the time, your moments of enthusiasm will have more impact. And, most importantly of all, by remaining calm, you conserve your energy so you don’t burn out.

Bursts of Energy and Fun

While Gizmo is almost always calm, she has moments of energy and playfulness. She chases after a balled up Hershey’s Kisses wrapper, batting it across the hardwood floor. She swipes at me as I walk by, inviting me to play with her. She boxes with me, patting her paw against my palm over and over.

To keep things interesting, teachers should present fun and energetic lessons on occasion. They should provide highly engaging activities for their students where possible. While most of the day will be calm and focused work, bursts of energy and fun make learning memorable and school a fun place to be. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to make every day a Vegas show, but do look for opportunities to liven things up.

Ask For What You Want

Sometimes my wife gets home late and it’s left to me to feed Gizmo. I usually forget. But Gizmo won’t allow me to forget for long. Every time I get up, she runs to her food bowl. She rubs against my leg to get my attention. She meows. Gizmo wants three things in life: the attention of my wife, to be left alone by the rest of the family, and food. She makes these desires known in no uncertain terms.

She asks for what she wants.

So many teachers are afraid to self-advocate. They beat around the bush, engage in passive-aggressiveness, and avoid any potential conflict. Instead of asking their principal to stop micromanaging them, they avoid the principal as much as possible. Rather than asking for money to purchase classroom materials, they assume the answer will be no and never ask. Instead of asking for a day off to attend a conference that will improve their teaching, they just assume the district won’t pay for it.

Teach like a cat. Ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is someone says no. (Or, you get fired for being pushy and annoying.)

Stop Feeling Guilty

Sometimes, Gizmo horks up a furball right in the center of the living room. One time, she did it into the opening of one of my daughter’s hats. Another time, she deposited one just outside my bedroom door so that I stepped in it. As far as I can tell, she’s never felt bad about it. Not once. I’ve watched her do it. She spits one up and walks away, as if it’s a perfectly natural thing to do.

Which of course, it is.

It’s also natural for teachers to want to take a break. I know teachers who come to work sick because of the guilt they feel over leaving their students with a sub. On some Friday afternoons, it’s totally normal to want to put in a movie because you’re beat and your students are done listening to you anyway. It’s natural to not want to check a pile of papers on Sunday night. Teachers need to be like my cat and stop feeling guilty for doing what our bodies and brains are telling us to do.

Ignore the Critics

Gizmo could not care less about what we think of her. She’s totally dismissive. Rude about it, even.

Sometimes I’ll walk into the closet and she’ll come shooting out of her weird hiding place. I’ll damn near fall down trying to avoid stepping on her. I shout at her. “Gizmo, get out of the way!” She doesn’t give a rip. She just yawns and relocates to the couch or meows at me to feed her again. If we leave the piano keys uncovered at night, Gizmo will prance across them, playing a lively, discordant tune that wakes up the entire house. We’ve learned there’s no point in scolding her.

She just doesn’t care.

Many teachers care entirely too much about what others say or think about them. Be your own critic. Ignore the rest. Stop allowing others to make you feel bad about yourself. Be like my cat: do your thing, and screw what people think about it. You won’t please them all anyway. (I do recommend that you be less obvious about it than my cat.)

Sleep More

Like all cats, Gizmo loves to sleep. I’m pretty sure it’s her favorite thing to do. Teachers, like many Americans, don’t get enough sleep. It’s recommended that you get 7 to 9 hours a night. But the CDC estimates that one in three Americans don’t get that much. You can’t be your best if you’re not well-rested. Teachers, even those who stay calm most of the day, must be on. They must be mentally engaged and observant. You can’t be any good if you’re tired all the time. Get your sleep.

Don’t teach like a pirate. Pirates are scary and they die early deaths. Teach like a cat instead.

Why We Shouldn’t Admire Workaholics

On the last school day of each year, my district recognizes retiring teachers at an ice cream social type of event. The entire faculty attends. The principals of the retiring teachers stand up and tell some bad jokes, then they say some nice things about the teachers. You know.One year, one of the principals started her speech by talking about how dedicated Judy was. “Anyone who knows Judy knows that she’s the first one here and the last one to leave every day, even after all these years,” she said. We were supposed to be impressed. I wasn’t.There are two types of workaholics, and neither of them deserve our admiration.

The Addict

The first type of workaholic is the kind of person who has great passion for and is highly skilled at his job. He gets up in the morning and can’t wait to get started. He works all hours of the night because it’s a thrill. He gets a buzz off it. Rather than burning him out, the work invigorates him. It’s in his blood. When we think of people like this, we often can’t help but think of them in any way other than their association with their life’s passion. Think of Steve Jobs and you think Apple. Think of Mark Zuckerberg and you think Facebook. They’re the embodiment of that whole, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” thing.There’s nothing to admire about someone who spends an ungodly amount of time doing the very thing that gives him a lot of pleasure.We don’t admire other people for doing what they love to do. Nobody is going to write a book about me because I spend hours watching football and eating potato chips. There will be no biopics made about some fat 35-year-old who spends six straight days playing video games. I had an uncle who loved to drink beer. Not only would he have done it for free, he gladly paid others for the privilege. There’s a name we give to people who can’t stop doing things they love to the detriment of other areas of their lives. The word is addicts. We don’t tend to admire them. How is being addicted to one’s work fundamentally different from being addicted to heroin, pornography, or gambling? Why should anyone admire a workaholic who does nothing but dedicate untold hours to something he really really gets off on?To answer my own question: The only difference between workaholics and addicts is that society values the workaholics’ addictions more than the addicts’. It shouldn’t.

The Misguided

The second kind of workaholic is sadder than the first. These are people who do not love their jobs, but they kill themselves at them anyway. They sacrifice the best years of their lives, missing out on their kids’ childhoods, straining relationships with those who love them, and making themselves miserable for the sake of pride, a misguided sense of dedication, guilt, or the almighty dollar. Picture the Wolf of Wall Street guy.There is nothing to admire about someone whose appetite for approval and recognition destroys so many aspects of the rest of their lives. Workaholics like these wouldn’t exist if society did not reward them with the very thing they so desperately want, its admiration.

Workaholic Teachers

Here’s why it matters for teachers. There are those who genuinely love teaching. They are passionate and skilled. For them, teaching is not really work. The long days don’t burn them out. They get physically tired, but not mentally or spiritually drained. They’re in “flow” when teaching. These teachers are rare. Many of them are excellent. But we should stop holding them up as a standard all teachers should aspire to. You can’t instill passion where it doesn’t exist, and if the only people we’re willing to put at the head of classrooms are those who live and breathe all things teaching, then class sizes are about to skyrocket. The world needs a lot of teachers. The U.S. alone has 3.1 million of them.The rest of the workaholic teachers–those who either lack passion or skill– won’t make it much longer. They are exhausted. Many are on the verge of burning out. They’re under the false impression that to be any good, they must put in long hours. They’ve lost any semblance of a work-life balance. They’re giving up so much because they feel external pressure to do so. They’re leaving the profession, sharing their stories, and those stories are keeping young people from even entertaining a career in education. We’ve done that to them. When we as a society admire workaholics, we send the message to teachers that they must break their backs to be valued. It’s a dangerous message, and we are now reaping what we have sown. 

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

At the end of every school day, I tell myself one thing: smile.

No matter what has just happened. No matter how the day has gone. No matter if I want to scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I tell myself to smile. A smile is the simplest way to impress parents.

I wish I could claim credit for this, but I stole it from another teacher. When my daughter was in first grade there were a few occasions when I was able to pick her up from school. The parents of the children who didn’t ride the bus all stood around awkwardly at the front of the building waiting for their precious ones to emerge.

The teachers walked the classes out, one after another, kind of like “The Locomotion,” but without the annoying song.  I looked forward to seeing my daughter, but I also looked forward to seeing Mrs. Herrera. Mrs. Herrera taught one of the other first grade classes, and every day when she stepped from the shadow of the school and into the daylight she had a bright smile on her face. She engaged happily with her students and smiled as she handed them over to their parents.

I probably picked my daughter up twenty times over the three years she attended that school. Mrs. Herrera smiled like that every single time.

I’ve never taught first grade, but I imagine it’s like teaching third grade, only with more exhaustion. I am sure there were many days when Mrs. Herrera did not feel like smiling. But smile she did.

What Parents Will Think

As a parent, I was impressed that after whatever she went through during the course of the day, she chose to end it positively. Her smile sent a number of messages:

  • I like my job.
  • I like kids.
  • I can handle whatever you throw at me.
  • I’m relaxed.
  • I don’t easily blow my top.
  • You can trust me to be patient and kind with your child.

It turns out there is science to back up my positive thoughts. First, smiling makes us feel better. Research has shown that you can boost your mood by smiling, even if you don’t feel happy at all. Second, smiling is contagious. Participants in one Swedish study were shown pictures of several emotions. When the picture of someone smiling was presented, researchers told the participants to frown. Instead, most of them imitated the smiles they saw on the pictures. It took conscious effort to not smile. So when Mrs. Herrera smiled, most parents couldn’t help but smile back. All this smiling helps forge connections between people, even if they’ve never spoken. We like people who make us feel better, and smiling makes us feel better.

Seeing Mrs. Herrera’s smile made me like her more.

There are at least 50 parents on the blacktop at the end of my school day. I want every one of them to see me smile. I want them to wonder how I can go though an entire day of doing a job a number of them have told me they wouldn’t have the patience for and still end it in a good mood. I want them to think the same positive things I thought when I saw Mrs. Herrera. I want them to smile back. I want them to be impressed.

All it takes is a second to remind myself to do a very simple thing. But like many simple things, it can make a big difference.

American Teachers Should Work Less

A Facebook friend of mine (and former Superintendent) posted an infographic yesterday that compared the number of hours worked by an American teacher to the number of hours worked by other professionals. Here it is:

I took some issue with the 53 hours listed for teachers and said that the difference between those hours and the 40 listed for other professionals is that teachers aren’t required to work 53 hours. In fact, we’re required to work fewer hours than almost every other full-time employee.

Lunch is not typically counted in the 40 hours for other professionals, so we should subtract it for teachers. My teaching day goes from 9:00 to 4:00 with a half-hour lunch, so that means I’m required to work 6.5 hours per day. Multiply that by five for 32.5 hours a week. So the infographic above suggests that teachers work an extra 20.5 hours a week, or about four per day, which seems high. But okay, throw in weekends and maybe.

The response to my suggestion, as I’m sure you can guess because some of you are mentally shouting a similar response at me right now, was that those extra hours may not be required, but teachers have to work them to do the job the “right” way.

And that’s the problem.

If the only way a teacher can effectively do his or her job is to work an extra, unpaid 20 hours every week, then there is something seriously wrong with the system. 

And the only way to fix such a system is for teachers, lots and  lots of them, to stop working so many extra hours.

Of course, making that suggestion sets one up to be criticized as lazy, cynical, lacking dedication, not being in it for the kids, et cetera et cetera.

Which is a huge problem. 

American teachers spend more time in the classroom than any other nation’s teachers.  So don’t tell me it’s necessary; other countries manage to educate their kids. All that time spent teaching means we have to do the other parts of our job at some other time.

Society’s expectations — including those of fellow teachers — that we should be expected to donate an extra 10-20 hours per week or risk being labeled lazy or ineffective, perpetuates the problem. It puts zero pressure on government to reform things. And it matters because unrealistic work expectations lead to burnout. We have good teachers exiting the profession at alarming rates and we have great students never even considering the job in the first place.

Teaching has the highest burnout rate of any public service job in America.  There are many reasons for it: loss of autonomy, bureaucratic nonsense, student misbehavior, bad bosses. But undoubtedly the stress of the job due to absurd workloads and the expectation that teachers give freely of their time is a huge factor.  Many who quit simply say they were always exhausted.

Now you might be one of those teachers for whom the job is your passion. You bring high energy to your classroom every day. You attend every training you can. You look forward to professional development sessions. You spend your free time designing engaging units and interacting with other teachers on social media. You read professional journals. You coach, volunteer, and always go the extra mile for your students and their families.

Good for you. I mean that sincerely. The country is lucky to have teachers like you.

But the data is clear: you are the exception.

And you don’t design a system based on exceptions.

When you do, the thing falls apart, which is what is happening in schools across our country right now.

The belief that teachers have “answered a calling,” as if we were somehow spoken to from some God of Teachers, is damaging. It’s this idea that we’re selfless martyrs who only exist to serve our students that has led to society’s unrealistic expectations for how we should do our jobs.

I attended a retirement luncheon a few years ago where a number of the district’s teachers were honored for their years of service. The entire district’s teaching staff was invited to the event and a principal said a few words for each of the retirees.

One teacher’s principal spoke in laudatory terms about how the teacher’s car was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She admired the woman’s dedication.

I thought it was the saddest thing. I vowed then and there that no one would ever say the same thing about me. I have a life to live outside of work. A family. Hobbies. Friends to hang out with. As the famous saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said they’d wished they’d worked more.

That principal’s message, that old industrial-era American reverence for slavish devotion to one’s job, is a damaging one, especially to young teachers. Here is the ideal, it says. This is what you should strive for. Here is what we want from you: Nothing less than large portions of your best years.

I guess if I owned a business, I’d want 20 free hours every week from my employees, too. And it would be even better if I could somehow establish that expectation as part of my company’s culture. And better still if that culture could spread across the entire industry.

Why, if workers felt like the only way they could be any good at their jobs was to donate 20 hours of work every week, and if their colleagues criticized them when they didn’t,  I could ask them to work late, or come in early, or work on special projects, or…hell, I could ask them to do damn near anything and not have to pay them for all that extra work.

What a deal.