For Teachers

For Teachers (6)

Saturday, 05 January 2013 17:28

The Two Voices

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ChoiceIn my ongoing efforts to build a classroom culture of quality and promote valuable habits of character, I am always on the lookout for ways to inspire students, bring out the best in them, and share important life lessons. Sometimes I am able to impart this type of information through a visual or a story or a photograph. For example, last school year I introduced the "Making the Choice" visual to encourage everyone to dedicate themselves to becoming more determined students, and the results were very promising. As teachers, we can never know which of these efforts will resonate with kids, so we try to find as many as possible.

This school year I started using a new strategy with my class, and because it has been working so effectively, I find myself referring to it frequently. I call this strategy “The Two Voices.” This idea pertains to the situation in which students find themselves many times every day as they work on school activities, projects, and homework. As adults, we also find ourselves in this situation frequently as we go about our work.  

I tell my students that it is human nature to have two competing desires when we are doing our work. On one hand, we want to do a great job. We want our work to be neat, correct, and creative. In other words, there is a force inside each one of us that wants to produce quality work. With some children it may be difficult to see this force sometimes, but it is there, waiting to be unleashed. On the other hand, we also have the desire to be done. Oftentimes, we simply want to finish.

In my opinion, which force ends up victorious in this ongoing competition goes a long way towards determining whether kids will become quality students. If the “I want to get done” side is winning almost all the time, then we, as teachers, still have quite a bit of work ahead of us. If each side is winning roughly half the time, we are not quite there yet. If the “I will settle for nothing less than my best” side is winning all the time or almost all the time, then those students are demonstrating the desire, pride, and work ethic that will set them apart in school and in life. This latter mindset is the goal with every student.  

When I introduce the concept of “The Two Voices” to my class, I start by asking everyone to imagine that there is a tiny person standing on each of my shoulders whispering something into my ears. The messages the two people are whispering are exact opposites of each other. On one shoulder the “Great Job” person is telling me to settle for nothing less than my best effort. Specifically, she is telling me to take my time, pay attention to detail, and focus on the quality of my work. Excellence, she emphasizes, is what matters. On my other shoulder the “Just Get Done” person is telling me to hurry up and get this over with already. Specifically, she is telling me not to care how my work looks, whether everything is correct, or whether it represents the best I can do. Finishing, she emphasizes, is what counts.    

After introducing these two folks to the whole group, I follow up as needed. If individual children seem to be valuing completion over quality, I will meet with them privately to discuss the issue. My favorite way to follow up, though, is with the whole group. Though it is tempting to address the group whenever the class has not performed up to expectations, I try to share only positive examples.

For instance, about a month ago one girl, whom we will call Allison, asked to start a project over again because she didn’t think her first effort was good enough. I seized on this moment and later told the class how wonderful it was to see someone work with such dedication and hold herself to such high standards. Her goal, I emphasized, wasn’t to get done; it was to make her work the best it could be. Capitalizing on these learnable moments is one of the most powerful ways to create a classroom culture of quality.

Saturday, 23 June 2012 17:28

Be Proactive in Your Communications With Parents

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Being proactive has two major benefits. First, it gives you the opportunity to package your ideas and articulate them in the best possible light. Acting first, you shape the conversation, saying your ideas in the way you want to say them, not in the way someone else has already characterized them before ever having the chance to hear from you. Proactivity increases your credibility, strengthens your voice, and reaffirms your position of leadership.

Second, proactivity is the best approach to problem prevention. Consider the following example: imagine that a brand new shipment of expensive, state-of-the-art math manipulatives has just arrived at school. Because the school could only afford one set, the staff decided that each class would get the manipulatives for three weeks. When our turn comes, I lengthen the daily math period from 45 minutes to 2 hours so we can try all the activities shown in the accompanying teacher guidebook. To compensate for the extra time that we spend on math, I don’t give any math homework for the next three weeks.

Immediately, parents became concerned. “Where’s my child’s math homework?” they ask. “Why did you stop assigning math homework?” they wonder. “Don’t you know that my child will fall behind without math practice every night?” they insist.  

Now, I have to react. The parents have already made up their minds. Based on the information they have received from their kids, they have concluded that I have stopped assigning math homework, and they don’t understand why. I have dug myself a hole, out of which I have to climb.

All this trouble could have been avoided had I been proactive. Before the first day of our three-week manipulative exploration, I should have sent home a newsletter explaining the situation. Then, the parents would have known in advance of the unique, short-term opportunity that we had to use these manipulatives and understood the value of these types of experiences. I could have told them that in order to take full advantage of this opportunity, I would be lengthening our daily math period, and that because of the extra time the kids spent on math in class, I would be decreasing the time they spend on math at home. I could have emphasized that this hiatus from math homework would only last three weeks and that the kids would not be at all disadvantaged because they were gaining valuable practice in class. Informing parents beforehand would have enabled me to accentuate the positive.  

Experience has taught me that teachers’ greatest difficulties with parents often arise from a lack of proactivity. When parents are not informed in advance about rules, units, grading policies, and the like, they have every reason to come back after the fact and say, “I didn’t know.” Once that happens, teachers are forced into a reactive, often defensive, position. The trouble is, no matter how effectively we later explain ourselves, the damage has already been done. Furthermore, by the time we have responded to one problem situation, the next crisis has occurred and needs to be addressed. A pattern soon begins. We find ourselves spending a tremendous amount of time putting out fires instead of using it to communicate proactively.
Saturday, 18 February 2012 17:28

10 Reasons to Work Hard in School

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Think about the organized activities in which children participate. At band practice, for example, musicians understand why they need to rehearse. They know that practicing is important because at a later date the group will perform its songs to a live audience. The connection between today’s preparation and tomorrow’s performance is straightforward. Young actors in a drama club are also aware of this relationship. So are players on a Little League baseball team. The leaders of these activities generally do not need to spend much time explaining the purpose of practicing because kids can figure it out for themselves.     

Interestingly, the organized activity that occupies more of a child’s waking hours than any other - school - is the one where the purposes of attending each day are typically the least well understood by its participants. What are the purposes of attending school? Most students answer that they come to school to learn. But when pressed further, they are often unable to articulate compelling reasons why learning is important. The larger purposes of education are not as obvious as those of Little League, band, or drama club. As a result, children have greater difficulty discovering on their own what these purposes are.

As parents and teachers, if we want children to work with a sense of purpose in school, we must communicate with them to establish a sense of purpose. There is no more fundamental question an adult can pose to a child than, “Why is it important to do a good job in school?”  We can’t assume that they already know.   

In this article I share ten important reasons why it matters to work hard, value education, and take school seriously. Children who understand the many purposes of education will be more motivated to learn, more committed to their studies, more likely to persevere during challenging times, more willing to delay gratification, better able to find meaning in their work, and better able to connect today’s learning to tomorrow’s opportunities.

1) Learning adds quality to our lives. The development of the mind is a joy and benefit in and of itself. Learning is interesting and fun, and it should feel good. When kids work hard in school, they learn knowledge and develop skills. That builds confidence and self-esteem.

2) Working hard prepares kids for higher levels of education. Doing well in elementary school generally leads to good grades in middle and high school. It also opens the door to honors classes and other important opportunities. In addition, consistent academic success increases the likelihood of earning admission into selective colleges and universities.  

3) Working hard in school helps children develop lasting habits. In my classroom I emphasize two important sets: “habits of mind” that predispose us to think and act in certain ways and “habits of character” that focus on study habits, social skills, and attitudes about our work. In Horace’s Hope, educator Theodore Sizer once said that, “Knowing stuff is nice.  Being able to use that stuff makes sense.  Being disposed to use it always, as a matter of habit, is the brass ring, the ultimate standard.”

4) Working hard can help children find their passion. Many well-known individuals discovered their future careers and areas of intense interest in school. Books, videos, and other curricular material can expose kids to people, music, languages, endeavors, and ideas that they might not have come across any other way.

5) Doing well in school helps people establish themselves as individuals. The classroom is one of the primary places in which we determine our personal standards of quality. Students who work hard and do well in school learn to establish a high expectation level and expect great things from themselves. They decide that they want to strive to become the best of the best and will settle for nothing less. They will carry these standards with them as they get older. Children need teachers and parents who hold high expectations, but ultimately, what matters most is whether they make the personal commitment to aim high.

6) Education helps us get the jobs we want. It is a simple fact that people who graduate high school earn more money than people who don’t, and people who graduate college earn even more. Over the course of a lifetime, this difference in earning power is significant. Making money is certainly not the only reason to do well in school, but it is an important one.

7) Doing well in school maximizes our options in life. Education opens doors. Not only does it help us obtain higher-paying jobs, but also it enables us to access a wider variety of jobs that offer challenge, interest, and the opportunity to contribute to our communities. Education also opens doors that are unrelated to our careers. A track record of school success, for example, can help us earn worthwhile volunteer opportunities.   

8) Working hard in school empowers us to become more effective consumers. In school, of course, we learn the arithmetic skills that help us make correct change, balance our checkbooks, and manage a household budget. Beyond that, we also learn the higher-level thinking skills that empower us to be consumers in the larger sense - consumers of news and information who have the ability to analyze issues critically and make intelligent judgments.

9) Education empowers us to make a difference in the world. The more we know, the more we can contribute to the lives of others. Working hard in school enables us to help people, both through our formal roles, such as doctors and nurses, and through informal roles, such as when we tutor a neighbor or assist a younger sibling with reading.

10) Education empowers people to participate fully in civic life. Healthy communities need involved citizens. Voting, attending city council meetings, writing letters to the editor, and taking action on important issues are necessary to preserve and strengthen our democracy. By working hard in school, we learn the history of our country and the responsibilites that we all have as citizens.

Sunday, 20 November 2011 17:28

Provide Assistance that Empowers

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When helping students with their math activities and other academic work, it is often difficult for teachers and parents to know how much assistance to provide. If we don’t offer enough support, students’ struggles are likely to continue, and kids may become frustrated and discouraged. They may even shut down. On the other hand, if we provide too much assistance, students may complete their work successfully, but, in the process, we may deny them opportunities to think for themselves and develop as independent thinkers and problem-solvers.

In these situations I think about a comparable situation that happens in gyms all the time when people are lifting weights. Specifically, I think about the bench press exercise in which people lie  on their backs on a flat bench and attempt to push a barbell from their chests into the air for a certain number of repetitions.

Imagine my friend, Mark, is trying to bench press 20 pounds ten times. Because the weight is so light, he can easily complete the set on his own. When the amount of weight increases, however, Mark needs me to spot for him so that the barbell doesn’t remain on his chest when he reaches the point of muscle failure.

Assume that when trying to bench press 185 pounds, Mark’s goal is to complete eight repetitions. He finishes the first six reps on his own, yet struggles halfway through his seventh. I am standing behind him the entire time with my hands underneath the bar, ready to assist. In this situation I have a choice to make, and I basically have three options. First, I can do nothing, but if I choose this approach, the barbell will come down on his chest, an injury is likely to occur, and our friendship will probably end.

On the other hand, I can take over completely and finish the rep for him. If I simply grab the bar at the first sign of struggle and return it to the weight rack on my own, I ensure his safety, but I have done nothing to help him improve his strength. As a result, the next time he bench presses, there is no reason to expect that he will be able to lift anymore weight than he did this time.

The best approach in this situation is for me to put my hands under the barbell and do as little work as possible to help him keep the bar moving. If he’s able to do most of the work himself, my effort will be very gentle. If his struggle increases, I will assume more of the workload. I will continue to adjust the amount of assistance I provide based on the amount of work Mark is able to do for himself.

If he only needs a small amount of assistance on the seventh rep, he may choose to try for an eighth, and on that rep I will probably have to increase the amount of support I provide. The strength gains that this set produces occur mostly in these final two reps, not the first six that he could do independently. My performance as a spotter helps him go beyond what he could do independently to move to that next level of strength. The next time he bench presses, he will probably be able to do more of the work on his own because of the assistance I provided this time around.

These moments of struggle are crucial growth opportunities, and by carefully providing just enough guidance to help keep the bar moving, I am empowering my friend to move beyond his current capacity to a larger future capacity.

This same idea holds true in the classroom, and moments of struggle need to be savored as valuable growth opportunities. As teachers, if we are able to provide just enough assistance to keep students moving forward, we increase their capacity for the future. Sometimes that little assistance involves asking the right question, suggesting an appropriate strategy, offering encouragement, or reminding students to try an approach that they may have used successfully in the past. It never means abandoning them, and it never means telling them what to do.

We simply want to keep the bar moving.
Monday, 25 July 2011 17:28

Teachers: Begin Your School Year with a Plan

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Prior to my second year of teaching, I came across an idea I just had to try.  First, I obtained a class list of my first graders’ names and phone numbers.  I went home and called every family, introducing myself to the parents and telling them that I was tentatively scheduled to be their child’s teacher this year.  I used the word “tentatively” to cover myself and the school in case any last minute enrollment changes were made.

Since I knew I’d be setting up the classroom during the week before school started, I invited each family to stop by to meet me in person.  About ten of my 32 students accepted this offer.  With these ten, I was able to learn their names, talk with them briefly, and get a sense of who they were.  I greatly enjoyed and appreciated this one-on-one time.  In addition, these students were much more relaxed and comfortable on the first day of school.

I then found the previous year’s Kindergarten class pictures in the yearbook.  By matching the names on my list to the faces in the yearbook, I learned the names of the rest of my returning students.  In addition, I was only expecting two new students, one boy and one girl.  So, I quickly learned their names.  On the night before school started, I made a simple nametag for each student and arranged the tags on a table by the front door of the classroom.

That next morning I was ready.  I stood at the door eager to welcome my new students.  While I was praying that none of them had gotten haircuts over the summer, they began to arrive.  I greeted all the students by name, handed them a nametag, and invited them to sit down on the rug.

Standing outside on the yard, a number of parents watched the whole thing, wondering how I could possibly know the names of people I had never met.  The students, themselves, were equally baffled.  I felt fantastic.  Before the school year was barely three minutes old, I had created a very favorable first impression and made a major deposit in what well-known author Stephen Covey refers to as the “Emotional Bank Accounts” of my students and parents.

This proactive gesture had set the tone I wanted.  For teachers, being proactive increases our credibility, strengthens our voice, and reaffirms our position of leadership.  Making the effort to learn the names of my incoming students also created a sense of optimism and positivity among students and their families.  Making this effort is especially valuable for children who have never before had successful school experiences.  When their teachers communicate in an enthusiastic, upbeat tone, these kids will sense that this year may be different.  They will know that they are in a new place with a new attitude, and they will feed off this optimism.

Begin the year with some sort of powerful, dramatic initiative.  If you are unable to obtain a class list before the start of the year, do something the first day.  Write a short, personalized note to each student, call each parent after school expressing how much you are looking forward to the year ahead, shoot each family an e-mail, or send a postcard through the mail.  Just do something.  The more novel, the better.  A thoughtful gesture on your part will be remembered.  As the old saying goes, we only have one chance to make a first impression.




Monday, 25 July 2011 16:59

9 Reasons to Communicate Frequently with Parents

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Consistent parent involvement dramatically increases the likelihood that quality learning will occur in the classroom and at home.  Parents play such a crucial role in their children’s academic, physical, social, and moral development that we, as teachers, make a huge mistake if we view them as anything other than indispensable collaborators. 

It’s not enough to keep parents pleased, appeased, or out of our hair.  If we’re committed to bringing the best out of our students and teaching the whole child, we need to build and maintain long-term relationships of loyalty, trust, and respect with their parents.  Investing the time and effort to work closely with parents throughout the year maximizes our chances of fulfilling our mission and achieving our goals.  The following points provide a strong rationale as to why teachers should make parent involvement a top priority.

1. Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers.  Though not all teachers are parents, all parents are teachers.  As such, they have the greatest impact on a student’s motivation to learn.  Parents are usually eager to play a significant role in their children’s education, but they often don’t know how.  By establishing caring relationships with parents, we can help them help their children.

2. Consistent communication between the home and school enables parents to reinforce the skills, knowledge, habits, and priorities that we emphasize in class. This fact is especially true in situations where our teaching methods and approaches may differ from the norm and require parent follow-up on a regular basis.

3. It’s important that teachers are aware of students’ strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, areas of special sensitivity, and any factors at home that are affecting school performance.  Parents are in the best position to provide this information and are usually glad do so when asked.

4. Students act, behave, and perform differently when they know that their parents and teachers communicate frequently.

5. Frequent communication earns parents’ confidence, trust, and respect.  With open lines of communication, it’s unlikely that feelings of uncertainty, mistrust, and alienation will ever arise.  The favorable impression that we create makes problems easier to solve when they occur.

6. When teachers and parents communicate in a respectful manner, we model positive adult interactions for the kids.  These occasions serve a pro-social function because many children, unfortunately, don’t often have the opportunity to observe this type of relationship.

7. Parents can become our biggest supporters and most loyal allies.  Should a colleague or supervisor ever doubt our methods or question our approach to teaching, these allies will be there to come to our defense.

8. Parents are often valuable classroom resources.  The better we know parents, the more we’ll be aware of the various ways in which they can assist the class. This assistance may come in such forms as classroom volunteering, donations of supplies and other materials, technology support, and arranging for special field trips.

9. Forming trusting relationships with parents can reduce the feelings of isolation that so many teachers, especially newer ones, often experience.

The parents of our students are our partners. Commit to making parent involvement a top priority as you begin the next school year. Keeping parents informed and involved on a consistent basis pays huge dividends as we focus on the academic, behavioral, and social needs of our students. In order for us to teach the whole child, we must work with and value the whole family.