Rules

It seems to me, that the breakdown of the non-verbal cue environment is frequently a function of fatigue. 

After a certain period of years or after a certain number of routines are imposed, it just takes too much energy to demand consistent obedience.  Unfortunately, this leaves those routines in a broken state, halfway between useful and purposeless.  The students sense that lack of seriousness and the routines become mere speed bumps, occasional interruptions to be tolerated but not respected.

One of the very first principles we established for raising our daughter was to draw the circle of rules tight enough to cover the major infractions but loose enough to need only infrequent enforcement.  This was based on the observation and belief that kids have considerably more energy to chafe against relatively pointless restrictions than parents have to enforce them.  This leads to the “Don’t, don’t, don’t… ok” syndrome that eats many parents alive.  We try to only establish rules that we are willing to us overwhelming force to enforce.  If it is not worth a major consequence, it is not a rule in our house.

Nonverbal Communication

I have found non-verbal communication in the classroom to be somewhat ineffective. 

On the one hand, it often does not get attention like verbal communications.  In the case of the “quiet” symbol, it frequently takes a while for all the students to notice the symbol is “up” and quiet down.  The noisier the student is being, the longer it generally takes to recognize the symbol, unfortunately. 

This leads to the second issue.  If the point of non-verbal cues is to provide information in a non-intrusive, quiet way, these symbols need to operate in silence.  This is how it works in the military.  On patrol, the only language is the silent world of non-verbal communications through commonly understood symbol language.  Unfortunately, in schools, this is not the case. 

Frequently, the “silence” symbol is accompanied by “shhh!” from the teacher and/or other students.  More perversely, the “I want a drink” and “I want to go to the bathroom” symbols more often than not provokes a whole conversation between the student and the teacher.  “Do you have to go now?” or “No, you have to wait, you should have gotten a drink at recess.”  Both the silence and the class focus are broken.

Evaluation?

It does make sense to get feedback from a knowledgeable observer.  However, I am afraid that being observed and evaluated on an ongoing basis is a dangerous thing to desire.  Of course, being observed by my principle and other members of my school community is expected and desirable.  If a school were right for me, I would fully expect to meet their standards or receive correction.  Likewise, everybody can use some outside guidance.  I would be grateful for whatever feedback I could get from people who have my interests and the interests of my students in mind.

I am just not sure the kind of people that would provide this corps of evaluators are the kind I by whom i would like to be evaluated.  Perhaps I am just revealing more of my scars, but the most likely people to become evaluators are highly experienced teachers who like evaluating other people.  This worries me for two reasons.  First, “highly experienced” also means “learned to teach 20 or more years ago.” Likewise, “likes to evaluate people” might also mean “loves finding faults and telling other people what to do.”  This is not to say that every evaluator would have these characteristics.  Most of the teachers I know would be welcome in my classroom anytime as would most of the teachers I have had here.  However, truth be told, there are many people in the world who would just love the opportunity to misuse the power of this role, though most likely with the best of intentions.

You know my background as a trader.  What I LOVED about that was that the results were absolutely concrete, beyond debate, and that I had total control of outcomes.  After years of being miserable as a student in the educational system (as you have read in my various pained posts on the subject), it was such a relief to finally find objective measures of my results.

Maybe with NCLB et al, we are moving more towards this evaluated vision of the world.  On a classroom-by-classroom basis the results, at least as measured by standardized tests, will be clear.  Of course, these results are themselves highly problematic, reflecting only a narrow subset of the year’s achievements and being highly dependent on the mix of students in the classroom.  However, they remain objective standards that do reflect a certain truth impartially.  It will be interesting to see as time passes how many of the tools of the private sector will be brought to bear on teacher quality.  I hope some are added and that they are added wisely.

Mistakes

Mistakes are, after all, unavoidable. We have only three options for dealing with them.

First, we can work hard to prevent as many as possible.  Getting solid training, as we are doing, is a good step.  Referring back to our texts from time to time would help too.  I find I frequently see things that I missed when I go back to old sources.  As we grow and gain experience, we have more context for the lessons we have been taught and those lessons reveal more meaning.  We can also continue with our professional development and continuing education to increase skills.  With all this training, we simply need to add careful, thoughtful planning and constant self-scrutiny.  By doing all these things, we will reduce our incidence of mistakes.

Second, we can be aware of mistakes when they occur to minimize their damage.  Sometimes this is as simple as correcting a misstatement.  Other times, it actually involves some clean up, perhaps an apology.  Yet, in my experience, the density of mistakes in the world is so high that circling back to ameliorate a mistake frequently causes more problems than it solves.  The best way to make up for a mistake is often to keep moving forward, committing do better in the future.

Third, we can identify and analyze mistakes after they have occurred in order to adjust our behavior and reduce their likelihood in the future.  This is not hard but it does require discipline and the willingness to constantly be reminded of our human fallibility.

The good news is that constantly learning from mistakes is the best way to constantly increase professional competence and outcomes.  By committing to learn from our mistakes, we commit to striving for the very highest levels of achievement for our students.  That is more than worth the effort.

Isolated No More

Pedagogical theory keeps advancing over the years.  It is an unfortunate fact of teaching that, once in the classroom, teachers are very isolated and insulated.  I cannot think of another profession where there is so little opportunity to observe how others pursue similar objectives.  Likewise, that isolation has meant that there has been little or no competitive pressure to improve performance, at least until recently.

School administered professional development (PD) time has diminished over the years, squeezed between budget pressures and the teachers’ union.  This is really a shame. The children would be much better served if three elements that are currently dormant or near dormant were re-emphasized. 

First, PD time should be re-established in an important position in the school year.  This should include several full days of various meaningful trainings prior to the year’s start as well as shorter, “quick hits” throughout the year.  Second, teachers should have much more opportunity to visit other classrooms, within their school, within their district, and even (or especially) in other schools with entirely different philosophies.  Finally, the existing benefits/requirements for continuing education are good, but teaching is such a broad and evolving activity that more emphasis would no doubt be beneficial.

Ask the Students!

Reviewing the success of lessons is a critical element of improving as a teacher.  In the end, if the lessons are effective and entertaining, learning and learning retention will be high and discipline problems will be few.

One of the things I have learned along the way in this class it to involve the students in how they are taught.  This is a little tricky.  Students cannot have control over standards and objectives.  Nevertheless, they can have major input into how those standards and objectives are achieved.

It seems logical that getting their feedback on lessons would also be a good idea.  It would be useful to know what they liked and where they struggled.  Different students would most likely have different preferences as well.  Those preferences would reveal learning modalities and help broaden and focus pedagogical choices going forward.

The classroom culture would need to be setup appropriately to support those conversations.  Nevertheless, in an atmosphere where the respective roles are clear and respect underlies every interaction, it could work very well.

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.

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.

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.