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.


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 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.


How do you use reflection and self-evaluation to develop your skills as a professional educator?

The Japanese have a concept called “kaizen.”  It means constant improvement.  Kaizen means watching day-to-day activities and being ever alert for opportunities to refine the process, to improve the efficiency, to fix the glitches.

This process is very useful to teachers.  All of us have opportunities to learn and improve all the time.  Fine-tuning what works and what does not work in the classroom is a never-ending process.  Reading new books and taking new classes to broaden understanding and skills is critical.  Trying new things is a great way to add capability and effectiveness.  However, it is unlikely that every experiment will be a successful one.  In fact, it is almost certain that each experiment will need refinement before it becomes truly useful.  Even after it does become a classroom standard, the same opportunities for improvement will apply.  Finally yet importantly, the students are constantly changing.  What works with a class one week, might not work as well a week later as they continue to develop and learn.  In addition, of course, every year we start fresh with a new class of students and start afresh to understand them and tailor education to their needs, skills, and abilities.

Likewise, we are all vulnerable to our own conceits.  It is all too easy to become complacent.  It is too easy to believe that “our way is the best.”  Reflection and self-evaluation are critical to expose areas where we may have become too comfortable or where we incorrectly take as a given the superiority of our approach.  Constantly searching for areas of mistaken assumption is perhaps even more important to attaining full potential than the less challenging pursuit of constant improvement in areas of clear need.


Kaizen. (2010). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 15, 2010, from

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.


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.

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.

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.