Unacceptable Losses

Kauchak & Eggen (2005) say, ”many new teachers end up leaving the profession. About 15 percent leave teaching after their first year, another 15 percent after their second year, and still another 10 percent leave after their third year (Croasmun, Hampton, & Herrmann, 1999)”  (p. 71). That’s an amazingly bad statistic. Forty percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years of teaching!

Something’s really wrong somewhere. Either the programs don’t weed folks out effectively. Or the prospective teachers don’t get the right academic training to succeed. Or there are issues with student teaching practices and/or the introduction of new teachers into teaching independently. Or there are issues of support for new teachers who are trying to find their feet. Or there aren’t sufficient remedies for teachers who’ve become dissatisfied early in their careers (“Sorry, goodbye” not being an ideal way of preserving that human capital). There are a lot of crazy statistics in education (like the amazingly low proportion of students who test proficient or better on anything). But this one is, for me, the most ridiculous. There’s either something broken in the system that forces these teachers out or something broken in the system that supplies the teachers in the first place.

It’s amazing that this doesn’t get more discussion around legislative initiatives. Education is such a central issue of our society and this is just flushing away years of preparation of eager volunteers. It is also amazing that the unions don’t do a better job of taking care of “their own.” Unfortunately, I think unions are so wedded to the seniority system that these new teachers don’t get on their radar. And of course, it’s amazing that the existing teachers don’t do a better job of helping the newcomers to their field. This is one of the easier questions to understand though. The older teachers are probably busy surviving themselves or dedicating their time to their students or counting the hours until they can retire. However, the lack of camaraderie among teachers is interesting to me. I see more polite competition than true cooperation.

Reference

Kauchak, P., & Eggen, P. (2005). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

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Attention to Detail

Students all learn differently. Of course, we need to present the lessons to them in enough different ways to cover the major different styles.

However, I have a second set of intentions, much harder. I hope, being an elementary teacher with the same students for a year, to learn how each student learns. I hope to structure my lessons, not just to cover the major learning styles but to cover how Johnny learns and Jill learns and what Sally sits up and notices. I hope to learn where each child’s interests lie and to incorporate those interests into the examples and stories and artwork so that the learning and the interests are joined. Finally, I hope to learn where each child’s strengths, passions, and power lie and to incorporate those actions, skills, and talents into the learning so that being who they were born to be and their lessons become one. 

I believe with enough focus and attention to detail, I will be able to build my lesson plans to truly fit each individual child sitting in my classroom.

Respect, Again

What are some easy or simple things that you can do as the leader or boss that can set the tone for a respectful and positive learning environment?

Respect will be the foundational concept of my classroom.

I believe that all too often the love and importance of learning is lost in the rush for both students and teacher to achieve their narrow survival-based goals.  Respect for the learning, respect for the process, and respect for the subject matter will keep the focus on the importance and joy of learning.

I believe a teacher’s respect for students is all too often at least occasionally lost to the frustration of unmet behavioral and/or learning expectations.  However, it is the adult’s job to be the adult.  The students are children and entitled to their native behaviors.  Managing and evolving those native behaviors is one of the teacher’s responsibilities.  The uneven development of improved behavioral patterns must not be allowed to break affinity with the students or lead to disrespectful behavior by the teacher.

Students in my classroom will behave with respect towards each other.  There is no room in my heart for hurtful, isolating behaviors in the classroom or elsewhere.  Disagreements will be resolved through communications.  Each child’s personality will be cherished as a unique expression of humanity.  There will be no requirement of friendship, but there will be an inviolable requirement of respect.

In all these regards, the teacher is the example for the students and the protector of the behavioral code.  To have any reasonable hope of a respectful classroom society, the teacher needs to consistently model respectful behavior.  This includes behavior towards the material, towards the craft and discipline of teaching, towards the students, and towards peers, parents, and all others.  I believe children recognize and prefer the decency and safety of a respectful environment.  For respect to become the operating principle, they simply need come to trust that all will be held to that standard.  A teacher who models respect and strictly protects that fragile code of behavior will earn that trust.

Broadening Understanding

How does effective questioning support student learning?

Lang & Evans (2006) say, “good questioning is not something that works in isolation” (p. 249).  They cite Weiss and Pasley (2004) saying that “teacher questions are crucial in helping students make connections and learn concepts, and that effective questions monitor students’ understanding of new ideas and encourage them to think more deeply” (Lang & Evans, 2006, p. 249).  

Questions test for comprehension.  In the teacher-centered world of Direct Instruction, it is critical to assess comprehension in anticipation of re-teaching areas of uncertainty.  To paraphrase Frank Luntz (2007), it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.

Questions can help students integrate the concepts presented, expand upon them, and make connections to other concepts even in other disciplines.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.  How long had there been European settlers in what was to become the United States?  What are the social, economic, and familial implications of a revolution after such a long period as a colony and as an extension of the mother country?  How does that length of time compare to the amount of time the USA has existed as a country subsequent to that?  What else was happening around the world at that time?  What was happening in France and how did the French colonies and French king compare to this English one?  What was happening in Russia, China, and India?  What were the military, diplomatic, and economic implications of the American Revolution for England?  What was the domestic political situation in England and how did this event effect that situation? 

Suddenly, a narrow, American-centered story of the country’s founding becomes part of a tapestry of interconnected events around the world.  Other interesting leads to follow might be the lifestyles and technology of the American Revolution.  How was the news passed, what changes in the American economy were caused by the war, what changes in military technology were spawned in the conflict, and on and on.  What was happening in the world of fine art at this time and what impact might the Revolution have had on fine arts?  Each subject is an opportunity to bring life to other areas of learning; mathematics, science, literature, English language arts, history, fine art, etc.

Direct instruction is the food of education.  Questioning, whether teacher led or in student discussions, is the digestion process whereby the nutrition is made available for use.
References

Lang, H. R., & Evans, D. N. (2006). Models, Strategies, and Methods for Effective Teaching. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Luntz, F. I. (2007). Words that work: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Wissenschaft and Kenntnis

How does teachers’ use of multiple instructional strategies benefit students?

Leonard Sax (2007) talks about different kinds of knowing.  He explains that in most European languages, there are two separate verbs for knowing.  In German, for example, “knowledge about a person or a place that you’ve actually experienced is Kenntnis, from kennen, ‘to  know by experience’; knowledge learned from books is Wissenschaft,  from wissen, ‘to know about something’” (Sax, 2007, p. 28).  He goes on to argue, “American education, today more than ever before, is characterized by a serious lack of understanding of, and respect for, Kenntnis” (Sax, 2007, p. 29).  He cites “more than fifty years of research on the importance, for child development, of multisensory interaction with the real world….in order for the child’s brain and mind to develop properly” (Sax, 2007, p. 29).  Combining direct instruction (DI) with indirect and experiential instruction creates better-rounded educational environment.

In particular, adding experiential instruction to a wissenschaft-heavy curriculum creates a much more meaningful context for learning.  Sax says it well, “You can easily find high school students in America today who can tell you about the importance of the environment, the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle, and so on, but they’ve never spent a  night outdoors” (Sax, 2007, p. 30).  An all-wissenschaft curriculum sucks the life, energy, joy, and curiosity from learning.  Human beings are social animals and made of flesh and blood.  To be fully realized, they need social interactions, exchanges of ideas, touch and taste and texture.  Depriving them of these human experiences necessarily reduces the education and the student.  Of course, there are situations and subjects that require direct instruction.  However, even then the learning, breadth of learning, and the learning retention will benefit from a generous integration with indirect learning strategies.
Reference

Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York, NY: Basic Books.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The first step in establishing a cohesive, productive group is to establish a common framework of behavior and expectations.  In my case, this means a framework of mutual respect.  Respect is a sound basis for a classroom for many reasons.  First, it creates a healthy, cooperative relationship between teacher and students.  Second, it covers the major frictions and playground quirks of elementary school.  It covers name calling, exclusivity, cliques, criticism, prejudice and much more.  It also covers self-respect and, thus, achievement.  Finally, it wraps the classroom in a set of behaviors that are civilized and calming.

The second step is to establish clear goals for class as a whole and to make clear that each student will be fully supported in reaching those goals.  Under the mantle of respect, each student will be expected to support their fellow students fully in their path to meeting expectations.  Under the mantle of respect, group work would be caring and cooperative.  With respect, social interactions are cordial and cooperative, even under difficult circumstances.  Respect provides a clear framework for resolving disputes.  With clear goals for individual lessons, units and the year as a whole, the students understand expectations and can find safety in that clarity.

Little Johnny, Again

Relevance.

I know that a good answer to “why should I care?” is important in keeping me focused. In addition, being a conceptual learner, knowing the big picture of “what’s the point?” helps me pay attention. Being a boy, I’d much rather be watching or chasing moving objects than studying, so I particularly need a good reason to force myself to concentrate. It goes back to my post about “Little Johnny could care less.” I think teachers all too often do not allow themselves to acknowledge how little their students want to be students. Most little boys, for sure, would much rather be elsewhere (and many big boys too, mostly). Many girls are bored stiff as well. Their higher oxytocin levels helps them pay attention, but only because they want to stay in relationship with their teacher. This may fool the teachers into believing that what they are doing is interesting (and that it is the boys who are the problem) but, all too often, that is not true. Sadly, contraproductively, and frequently, most students would prefer to be somewhere else, doing something else.

I am thinking more and more, that creating a context for the students is essential. A new subject should start with the very big picture of why the students should care. Then we can focus in on how this subject hooks into other things the students already know. Then we can move on to what the students are expected to learn from the experience, making sure the learning objectives are clear to them. Only then can it move into force feeding, err, teaching them the actual subject. Oh, and all this relevance and usefulness should be recapped at the end, after the assessment, in the debrief.

Once again, respect leads to the right choice. It is disrespectful, bordering on insulting, not to acknowledge that the students are not necessarily where the system wants them to be in terms of excitement about learning. The truth is it is a kid’s job to be thinking about anything but school. We know it individually, from our own experience. We do know it collectively, from our literature. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, etc, etc. It is our well-understood American cultural heritage. Ironically, teachers teach that literature, but that particular message is ignored or dismissed.

I am going to honor my students by acknowledging their reality. Then I will build a case for why they should care. Then I will make the experience as relevant, immersive, entertaining, and successful.

Shame

The fear of being wrong is so powerful and so corrosive. We all have such a powerful fear of public humiliation yet everybody makes mistakes and everybody is imperfect.

I play tennis. So many people equate winning at tennis with self-worth. But half the people who play tennis necessarily lose each match. There is only one richest person, one most powerful person, one best looking person, one smartest person on the planet. If we set our goals on ‘winning,’ we will fail continuously.

I’ve learned to make respect the center of the classroom. Of course, respect from others is important and the foundation of a civil and enlightened community. But respect for one’s self is all that is required for a successful life. Everybody gets answers wrong, wears unfashionable clothes, forgets names, trips or spills or bumps or burps. The list goes on and on, there are so many things that are mortifying but ubiquitous. It’s ridiculous, the shame we all carry when the truth is that we are all just wonderfully human. It’d be fascinating to see the little thought bubbles over every head in the classroom, all the privates shames. “I’m too tall, “I’m too short,” “I have a pimple,” “I speak with an accent,” “I’m not wearing the right outfit.” So painful and so utterly without importance.

In my classroom, I will tolerate nothing that adds to the panic towards perfection, the demand for conformity. Respect will include supporting everyone in their imperfections and raw humanity. We all think we will die if our private shames are revealed. The reality is we are all dying bit by bit trying to keep them hidden. Our lives get pushed and warped and twisted as we try to look the way we want to be seen. Yet, inevitably, we fail because perfection lives only in our tortured imaginations. How much simpler to teach children from an early age to revel in their imperfections, to find love for themselves instead of shame.

In my classroom, embarrassment will be honored and uniformly supported.

The Starfish Story

The Starfish by Loren Eisley

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”

Little Johnny Could Care Less

There is one thing that has been bothering me for several weeks.  As an enthusiastic adult, I am excited to be in the classroom working with the students on the subject of the day.  However, the reality is that the school work itself is frequently so boring that were I not on the teaching end of the project, I would run screaming from the room.  That’s what occurred to me and it has bothered me ever since. 

There’s a gap in the meta-cognition between students and teachers.  We adults know why we’re in the classroom and we know how important it is that little Johnny  learns to count and read.  Little Johnny, on the other hand, could care less about all that.  In kindergarten or first grade, Johnny and his fellow students simply don’t have the development to operate on such abstract incentives.  Even for older children, who may have the mental development, there may remain a lack of faith in these abstract goals.  All too often, children fail to believe how costly and limiting a weak academic background can be.  Finally, there is frequently a maturity gap between what children know they should do and what they want to do.  Deliberately doing something horribly unpleasant is generally an act that requires a deadening of the soul that only adults have achieved.

The reality is twofold:  One, boring lessons place a tremendous burden on the willpower and developmental level of the students.  This burden falls hardest on those with the weakest motivation and the greatest need.  Second, it is crucial to remember that while school is “for the students own good,” it is rarely considered so by the students.  Anything teachers can do to make every aspect of school work entertaining and relevant is a giant step towards helping our students succeed.