Every once in awhile I love to present an inspirational video. This one is by middle school teacher Lisa Lee, who talks about “Getting at the Heart of Teaching.” As a former junior high school teacher myself, I find this educator humorous, stimulating, and entertaining. I hope you do, too.
You know how at the beginning of every year we are asked to complete a form that lists our goals for the year? Well, one year I decided that my goal was to make a sincere effort to be better at praising my students. I wanted to create a more positive relationship with my kids and a more congenial classroom environment. In addition, my principal was impressing upon the staff the need to foster better communication with parents. I decided I would combine the two goals, and so, on my form, I wrote that each month I would write six letters to parents praising their child. As a junior high school teacher with six classes of 42 students each, I reasoned that it shouldn’t be difficult to find one kid from each class each month that I could say something good about.
And so for the entire year, at the end of every month, I selected my six students and wrote each one a praise letter on decorative stationery. I read each letter aloud to the student before I put it in the envelope and sealed it, and then I gave it to the kid to take home to their parents. I shared the notes with the students to lower their anxiety level—a letter from the teacher is rarely good news—and to ensure that the note would really get delivered. But I could just as easily have put some postage on the letters and sent them through the U.S. mail.
The response I received from the parents was overwhelming. Many of the parents wrote notes back to me, expressing messages about how much they appreciated receiving praise about their child, how much their child enjoyed my class, or how pleased they were that I was their child’s teacher. Imagine my surprise when I realised that I was receiving praise letters like the ones that I was sending! I saved these notes, partly because they were so uplifting, and partly as proof that I had met the goals I had set for myself for the year. In May, I presented them to my principal at my annual evaluation conference. My principal suggested I photocopy the notes and take them to the District Office to be placed in my personnel file there, so I did.
And here is how those letters further rebounded positivity back to me. A couple of years later I applied for a transfer to a new school that was opening up in my district. I was thrilled when I was selected for the position. Imagine my surprise when, later, my new principal told me that he had read those letters in my personnel file, and it was partly because of them that he decided to hire me!
Try this strategy. It could create a rebound of positivity for you, too!
Homework. Hmmm…yeah. The topic is as controversial today as it was when I began my teaching career 36 years ago. Although I am now retired, this exasperating subject surfaced the other day when I was veritably blasted by my periodontist for failure to floss. Let’s just say I really got schooled. In a nutshell, he said he was a highly trained professional, and furthermore a very busy man, and if I couldn’t be bothered to do my share of the work at home, then I should not come back. Wow. I mean double wow.
So let’s be honest. Hasn’t every teacher run those same thoughts through their head when confronted by a recalcitrant student who refuses to do their homework? Educators everywhere have wrestled with this problem for decades. Every teacher knows that there are some students who will do all their homework, some students who will do some of it, and some students who will do none of it. And in my experience, unless you’re teaching an honors class, the amount of homework that doesn’t get done is greater than the amount that does.
So what strategies can the teacher use to increase the amount of homework that gets turned in? We’ve all experimented. Here are a few I tried. First, I increased the weight of the homework category so a student could not pass my class unless they completed at least a large percentage of it. The result? The students still didn’t do their homework, and tons of kids were failing. Then I tried reducing the number of assignments from four nights a week to two nights a week. That helped with their grades, but it did not increase the number of assignments that got turned in. Next, I tried giving assignments that couldn’t be quantified, such as, “Your homework tonight is to study for your test tomorrow.” And then I just hoped they would do this, although I was pretty sure they wouldn’t. Finally, I gave them classwork assignments and told them if they didn’t finish in class, they should finish for homework. And then I gave them enough time to finish in class.
I can’t say I felt very professionally satisfied with any of these strategies. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that if I had given voice to my frustration in the same way that my periodontist did, if I had pounded them into the ground for their errors, I could add another failed strategy to my list. Even if my students showed up empty-handed, I was always glad to see them come back the next day. Because every day a student shows up to class is a new opportunity to guide them, to help them be more successful, and to lovingly plant that suggestion one more time that, yes, homework is an important part of continued progress. And seizing these opportunities is never a waste of time or energy, even for a busy, well-trained professional.
I understand full well my periodontist’s exasperation. I empathize. I am truly sorry that my failure to floss provoked such an angry outburst from him, and I forgive him for losing his temper. After all, I’m not a kid. I know the man is right. Since that day I have attempted, in New Year’s resolution fashion, to mend the error of my ways. But I also found a new periodontist.
As a new school year approaches, teachers all over the country are considering ways to create the best of all possible first days. Here are a few thoughts.
Think about what you want to accomplish with your kids, right from the start. Certainly classroom management is important, but prevailing educational philosophy suggests classroom management is easiest when students are actively engaged in stimulating and meaningful activity. So avoid reading aloud a list of your classroom rules and expectations or your course syllabus. And for goodness sake, don’t plan a lecture. It’s a snore for the kids, and your throat will be sore by the end of the day.
To create a memorable first day, plan an activity that introduces your classroom values. Presumably these values would include respect for peers and working well together. Consider ice-breakers that encourage human interaction. Reward them for learning the names of their classmates. As for yourself, strive to learn the names of your students as quickly as possible so that you can greet them by name on their second day. Also, create activities that give kids opportunities to help you and their classmates get to know what is unique about them. Example activities would include a round of Two Truths and a Lie, a Shoe Pile Mingle, or Never Have I Ever.
Another oft-expressed classroom value emphasizes the joy of learning. Many teachers want their class to be an exciting adventure as they and their kids explore learning together. Crafting an activity that is interactive introduces this classroom value right from the beginning. So plan something interactive, such as a trivia game, collaborative drawing, or a scavenger hunt.
Whatever you plan for that first day, just be sure it is stimulating and engaging. The time will be well spent if the effort kicks off the school year with a sense of excitement for your class or subject. And that list of classroom rules an expectations and the course syllabus? Consider emailing these to parents before the school year begins, and have them reply that they have received it, perhaps with a simple phrase such as “I Agree.” Or use the communication as an opportunity to invite parents to dialogue with you about their child’s individual needs or concerns.
Above all, have a great year!