When Jonah Goes Off the Rails — Continuing the Disciplinary Implosion Posts

Hello again, new teacher!

Many first graders expected to meet the Common Core standards will feel stressed and stupid. Better teachers can help control for this, but kids notice when other kids can do classwork more quickly and easily. Especially when the range in performance is great, kids at the bottom are likely to conclude other kids are smarter than they are — no matter how much time we spend emphasizing that everyone has their own special intelligences. As educational reformers raise the standards bar throughout our grades and schools, I believe one byproduct of new, tougher standards has been greater numbers of lost kids, especially in financially- and academically-disadvantaged schools.

Those lost kids are often central to classroom disciplinary meltdowns. If the day’s plan is too far from what Jonah can do, no one should be surprised when Jonah starts poking friends, tossing erasers or sketching male body parts on papers, books and desks. Incomprehensible material = boring, and bored students will find something to do with their time.

Eduhonesty: Sometimes Jonah does not need a new seat in a new seating chart as much as he needs tutoring, from you or from an outside source. Jonah may require extra time, or he may require adapted materials. If you start adapting materials, you should also start recording Jonah’s deficits. Too many adapted assignments and Jonah should be identified as a possible candidate for special education. In many districts, that special education placement will not happen without reams of documentation carefully noted down over months of observations, so the sooner you start, the better.

Your students melt down? Try extra tutoring, combined with other scaffolding and supports designed to make academic success a possibility. Many behaviors improve dramatically with hopes of academic (and social) success. When possible, involve parents in helping with challenging academics too.

And praise, praise, praise real academic successes when they occur — but only real successes. You want to avoid praising schlock work because if you praise schlock work, you will receive schlock work. That success you praise does not have to be an impeccably written paragraph; it can be any paragraph that shows thought, effort and progress toward understanding new material.

A side trip:

During my last formal year teaching, I held Saturday morning tutoring at the McDonalds near school. My kids could not pass the East Coast consulting firm-prepared, 7th grade Common Core unit tests that I was required to give them, tests set years above their benchmark-confirmed knowledge levels. They could almost never pass the quizzes based on those tests, quizzes which were required every Friday. So we met at odd hours, the afternoons being pretty much sucked up by meetings. I gave them their chance to pass quizzes. By October, we were doing alright, and by winter we were a hard-working team, but to those newbies out there who are having a tough year, I was nearly at retirement and I had an absolutely hellish September my last year. Being obliged to present incomprehensible material day-after-day gave me the toughest start I can ever remember. Once the kids understood that the whole grade was being obliged to take the same Friday quizzes and unit tests, and that I truly had no choice (the Principal had threatened to fire me if I did not go with the program, although I did not share that fact), I got the disciplinary piece in control, and we got our groove back, but I got a great firsthand look that last year at what happens when required content is incomprehensible and undoable. A class operating at a third-grade level mathematically cannot succeed on seventh-grade Common Core Unit Tests, although class members who can be convinced to attend tutoring will learn a great deal of math.

P. S. Absent more time in school, and extra tutoring, I don’t see how harder, Common Core-based tests will help disadvantaged students more than earlier state standardized tests did. But the standards movement has so much momentum that many districts no longer even question the desirability of new demands. As a teacher, you are probably writing down standards you intend to cover on your board, on poster paper, or somewhere else for students to see, making changes weekly or even daily. Even if  you go over those standards, I suspect many students pay as much attention to the week’s standards as they do to the local newspaper’s real estate section. When I see those standards written in preschool and early elementary classrooms, I laugh sometimes. Admin can’t read the lesson plan? The kids can’t read most of what’s on the board, that’s for sure.

Spending Minutes to Save Minutes — Continuing the Implosion Theme

More advice for newbies struggling with disciplinary challenges. 🙂

We are so rushed. We have units to finish, data charts to prepare, students to tutor, meetings to attend, more meetings to attend, grades to finish, comments to add to grades we must submit, parent calls to make, emails to send, Google docs to share, and so on and on and on.

This post will be a suggestion to slow down in critical places — in particular the start of the class period and that time before beginning new activities. In elementary school, I would say to slow down at transition points. Some students need repetition. They need every “t” crossed and every “I” dotted. Two extra minutes explaining your activity may save you ten minutes or more of re-explaining expectations and procedures. Those saved minutes don’t include the easier disciplinary day you will likely gain from extra explanation. Students who go off the rail in the middle of an activity? Sometimes this happens because they were not sure what to do next, so throwing erasers at Fred just seemed like a good idea in the interim.

Take your time when sharing directions and expectations. With younger kids, have them repeat the directions and expectations. With older kids, give your group ample time to ask questions. Maybe pose a few questions yourself: “Now when you finish selecting the length of your Martian months, what will you do next?”

Your goal is to keep students occupied in learning, in bell-to-bell instruction. Explicit directions help enormously. Repeating an important idea twice often helps. I once knew a calculus teacher who repeated everything she said twice. Her students stayed with her as she did this, and I am sure they had an easier time learning new content because of her slower but thorough approach.

Clearer expectations help prevent disciplinary meltdowns. Kids stay calmer when they know what to do. When students get done with Part B, you want everyone to know how to begin Part C with no detours into eraser tossing, head-butting or body-part drawing. Because, let’s face it, some kids do the darnedest things when left to their own devices.

Eduhonesty: A few extra minutes spent up front often saves chunks of time later.


Our Friend the Seating Chart — Continuing the Implosion Theme

Hi new teacher! If the desks look like this, and you are not doing a special activity, I recommend moving “desks” up to the front of your discipline improvement strategy. Desk placement should become a priority. I won’t spend time on exactly where to put desks; The internet provides plenty of charts and advice. 

It’s easy to let the desks slide, literally and figuratively. There’s so much to do! Especially in states demanding the Common Core, material expected to be covered may seem daunting with an academically-challenged group. When Enzo pushes his desk toward the heater, you may decide to let that desk shift. Enzo wants to be warmer. You want to be kind.

Eduhonesty: That kindness will make your life more difficult. Once Enzo moves, Jessie will want to move beside the heater, too. Genesis will push away from the back row toward the back wall. Marisombra will turn a desk to face a friend. Some of the changes will be understandable and innocuous. Genesis may even do better in isolation against that back wall. But now you are dealing with a shifting students who believe they have a right to shift at will. They may sense they are taking advantage of your kindness, but if their moving desks allow them to talk to friends more easily, some desks will gyre and gimble in the wabe, and certain mome raths will be outgrabing every chance they get. Meanwhile, you will be trying to get all that slithery talking and commotion to stop so other students can hear you explain your Google slides or PowerPoint.

The desk line needs to hold. The seating chart needs to hold. While YOU can relax that chart by creating groups for your new project and reassigning students, students must understand that YOU choose the seats.

Controlling desk and student placement saves minute after minute, hour after hour. Student distractions are minimized and students become more likely to work instead of trying to find out just how many inches they can go toward the heater or that friend on the left. Every distraction you can eliminate becomes one more win for learning, and minutes saved will add up steadily as the year goes by.

It’s late in the year. You can still take a stand on desks, however. Explain why the system is changing. Explain why you expect desks to stay in place, emphasizing the loss of learning time that has occurred because of desk movement. Then make those desks and associated student movement a priority. Call parents if you must. Write referrals if you must. Issue reminders throughout the day.

Seating sometimes gets neglected because of the sheer size of the teaching workload, and the struggle to prioritize as you begin to learn your craft. But not much that you do matters more than where you sit certain students with respect to other students. An appearance of order will also provide subtle support in other ways. Kids tend to behave better in neater and cleaner surroundings.

Have a great week!



When the Center Did Not Hold — Or Your Classroom Management Plan Imploded — Continued

Hi, new teacher. See my preceding post for evaluation advice that may be useful next year, even if this year’s evaluations have flown by.

Going back to March’s current struggles, these posts are based on the presumption that one or more of your classes have slipped off the leash. The students in that class don’t follow the rules. They waste time. They listen only intermittently. They talk, talk, talk. And you are having about as much fun as a goldfish in a school of piranhas. Thinking of that class may even make you wonder if the money you spent on education classes went toward the wrong major.

Take a deep breath. Remember, the research shows that first- and second-year teachers underperform their more experienced colleagues. Some people do seem to be naturals, but many starting teachers struggle, especially those working in academically underperforming districts. You are not alone. Your administration will probably support you, too, if you show that you are trying to learn your craft.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a little help — although too many requests for help can prove problematic. A fine line exists between “I could use some advice,” and “I don’t know what I am doing.” You want your Principal to believe you are passionate about learning your craft as you ask to go to that professional development on classroom management, to see you as a teacher-in-the-making. But too many and too plaintive requests for help can result in a Principal thinking, “I don’t know if Jones has what it takes.”

So pace those requests for help. Spread out those requests for help. Find informal mentors as well as assigned mentors to give you advice — maybe even people you know in other school districts. Get tips from more experienced colleagues in district and elsewhere. Read books on teaching. Make new seating charts while you experiment on your own. If you try to get all your help from too few sources, you risk becoming a pest.

Be careful not to be too dramatic as you seek advice. Don’t tell your mentor that 7th period is out of control. Tell her that behaviors are slowing down learning. Ask for help managing specific behaviors and events. Hone in on the problems you want to fix first. You might want to start with talking, for example. Ask friends and mentors how they manage talkers who are not listening to presentations.

Eduhonesty: My advice for today’s short post is to break down your struggle with your personal “7th period” into as many pieces as possible. Then prioritize. Which problems are hurting learning the most? Tackle those problems first, in small groups or one at a time. As pieces begin to fall into place, other problems may solve themselves.

The more detail you can provide for a specific problem, the more likely that colleagues can and will be able to help you. Just as “Can you help me jump my battery” can be counted on to work better than “Can  you fix my engine?”, a specific request such as “Can you share some strategies on how to keep Johnny from getting out his seat?” will work better than, “Can you tell me what to do with Johnny?”

If you are reading this post, you may be having a tough March. Please remember — Classroom management gets easier. You will learn the traps that steal your class minutes. You will find your style.

Hugs and hang on to that growth mindset. 🙂

When the Center Did Not Hold — Or Your Classroom Management Plan Imploded

Hi New Teacher! Or anyone who has had a tough year with 7th period or the like….

So you followed the many instructions from your professors at school. Maybe you even contacted a few of them for advice. You put all the supports into place. You defined roles and expectations. You asked coaches for advice (but not TOO much advice) and you sought out a classroom management seminar, not to mention a few webinars. You gave the management piece your very best shot.

Middle school and high school teachers: Yet the movie title that comes to mind when you look at your 7th period is “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” You are trying to teach the First World War. At least a few students seem determined to start that war in your own classroom. (Hopefully you have not reached the “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Children of the Corn” stage. 🙂 )

Practical advice: I’m late with this advice, but some readers may benefit.

If you are coming up for an evaluation, think ahead. You may be given a choice in which class will be observed. Prepare a sound reason why that period should not be 7th period. Some possibilities:

  1. We are working on reinforcement right now. I would rather present an original lesson.
  2. I could use some advice in 4th period due to the number of students with IEPs that require accommodations. I am not always sure how to include my lowest students. (Any area in a class that is functioning well where you can use advice makes a perfect suggestion.)
  3. I get nervous when I think about being evaluated. I would be happy to get my evaluation out of the way early if that works for your schedule.

The above assumes that you do not have a disciplinary meltdown underway, just one tough class or two. It only takes one student to make a class more difficult. Two or three can complicate life enormously for a new teacher.

Eduhonesty: I will be floating shortly.  As a retired teacher who subs, I sometimes pick the mystery lollipop, labeled “floater” on the sub system. I think I will publish this and finish it later. If readers know anyone who might benefit, please pass this on.

Response to feedback: In response to comments, I’d like to agree this post has an odd feel. It’s not the usual post about how to get ready for an evaluation with reminders about incorporating visuals and managing transitions. Yet I feel the need to share these thoughts.

The teaching evaluation process can be inherently unfair, filled with politics and based on sometimes only an hour or two’s real-life observation. I once watched a second-year colleague get axed essentially because a group of girls (who liked me a lot, thank God) decided to take her down. Kids understand the evaluation process. That out-of-control class which first and second-year teachers may encounter can result in an ugly evaluation that unfairly targets a teacher. My second-year colleague wanted so badly to be a great teacher, and I believe she would have reached her goal. She never got her chance. She never got a second chance, either. Her area of endorsement was too crowded.

Especially in schools where administration turns up rarely, maybe only for evaluations, teachers must strategize to put their best groups forward for review.

P.S. Stuck with that review of 7th period? Plan and strategize the heck out of that lesson plan. Do a version of the plan a few times before game day so that everyone knows exactly what must be done. Consider sacrificing a few of the evaluation shibboleths if you don’t think your class can manage them well. For example, skip the gallery walk if Nathan, Johnny and friends are likely to sabotage that walk. Only do activities you know your class can do well.

Before the evaluation, throw out carrots and raise the specter of a few sticks.  “I’d like to relax the seating chart sometimes but I have to know we can manage if…” or “I really hope to make some positive phone calls home this week-end to tell your parents how well everyone has been doing.”


Bummed Out in the Blue Room and Feeling Helpful

The big issues are taking me down out here. I am avoiding the news. I feel like holding up a cross and throwing holy water at the T.V. every time my husband summons Wolf Blitzer into my home. Instead, I retreat to Words with Friends, good books and stashed paint brushes.

I will march on the 24th to add my voice to the cry for gun control, but I just shake my head at the relative who bought an automatic weapon for fear sales will be shut down next month. There’s been a big run on guns that spray bullets in a continuous stream. My relative, his friend, and some random guy got the last automatic weapons in a local gun shop. Never mind that my relative already owns a big, scary, automatic rifle. The waiting period before you can take your spiffy new automatic rifle home is a full 24 hours in Illinois, by the way. You have to wait 72 hours to take your handgun home.

I know who to hunker down with during the zombie apocalypse, anyway.

So for a while, I plan to drop the big issues. Last year I did a series of tips for new teachers. Let’s resume those tips. Admittedly, March seems an odd time to strike out in this direction since you new teachers made it this far. You are probably feeling much less shaky than you did in August. If not, maybe my tips will help.

The following tip is part of a larger concept: You need to hoard classroom minutes. Those minutes are the lifeblood of learning.

Tip #1: Your classroom, your rodeo. You are in charge. Don’t let education school idealism make you treat your room like a democracy. Yes, students should have input. They should help you make the rules so they can have ownership in those rules. Kids push back against excessive authoritarianism and feelings of powerlessness. But even social scientists freely concede that democracies tend to be inefficient users of time. We wait to vote after long discussions and thousands of advertisements, advertisements we evaluate and sort.

One of the first teaching big lessons I had to learn was not to listen too much or too often to attempts to change routines. As soon as rules become negotiable, you will find a pack of future attorneys willing to argue for hours. “But you let us listen to music during the Civil War activity,” one kid will say, and others will then chime in. “Yeah, and music helps me to concentrate.” “Ms. Smith let us listen to music.” “Music relaxes me so I can read better.” “I think we should decide when we need music to concentrate, not the teachers.”

Minutes will always slip away. A student will walk into the room carrying a stack of official letters from the office to pass out and there goes yet another closing activity. You don’t want to freely give your minutes away, however, and if kids think they can change classroom procedures by talking at you — Oh, will they talk!

You may be tempted to say, “O.K. Music is fine,” but that choice will come back to bite you the next day or the day after that.

“You let us do it last week!” “Yeah!” “Please?!?”

Eduhonesty: The rules should be clear. The rules should hold. If you relax the rules, you must be explicit about why that relaxation is occurring and firm about the fact that this one-time exception does not mean the rule has changed. Kids being kids, I recommend relaxing the rules only in exceptional situations, and briefly explaining why you are allowing a change.

P.S. It’s March. Have you relaxed those rules? Maybe too many of those rules? Trying to reclaim your rules at this stage may lead to open rebellion. It’s far, far easier to loosen up than to abruptly get stricter. I’ll address the tricky question of reinstating rules in my next post.

Please Don’t Arm the Teachers

 Her name was Mary Thorson. Her pictures show curly brown hair, light brown eyes, a wide smile, and a button nose. Her bronzed complexion hints of African-American ancestry. Mary stepped out in front of a semi-truck. This 32-year-old teacher who taught in Ford Heights, Illinois, left behind a six-page suicide note, mostly about her job. While looking up her half-remembered story, I stumbled upon a Chicago English teacher, Joseph Hillebrand, who had stepped in front of a Metra train.

Mary had served honorably for eight years in the Army Reserves, but her position in a small, impoverished school district proved so stressful that she chose suicide by semi on a major Illinois expressway. Reading between the lines, her stress seemed mostly to be coming from problems with administration, and other teachers reported administrative bullying. Mary had already been suspended once from her position after allegedly striking a student,  a gesture she called a “playful tap”, and she would be suspended again the week before her death for cursing at a student, according to a coworker. 

Yet Mary was a caring teacher. In a district where more than 98% of students were classified as low income, Mary used her own money to buy school supplies and even warm clothing for students. A fellow physical education teacher said her students loved her and “gravitated” toward her.*

Toxic work environments in education have become big news in the recent past. I remember the Brooklyn teacher who faked a fall down her school’s stairs to avoid a poor performance review. I have held crying colleagues devastated by those reviews, especially after Illinois, like other states, decided to rely on the Charlotte Danielson rubric to judge teachers. Suddenly, many points were in play, and performance was boiled down to numbers, many of them made up, since no one can assess twenty-two areas of expertise by watching one person for an hour or less.

Mary Thorson was expected to go home for the holidays on the night of Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 2011. She never made it. Instead, the police showed up with the saddest news any parent can receive. I am sure there have been no happy Thanksgivings since that tragic day.

Eduhonesty: What if Mary had been carrying a gun? She would have been an extremely plausible teacher to arm with her eight years of honorable military service. That semi-truck became a weapon of opportunity. What might she have done with a gun instead?

I fell in my school parking lot years ago. I still remember a coworker’s loud, plaintive shriek, as she came over to help me up: “Why couldn’t it have been me?!!??” If she had fallen, I am sure her teaching years would have ended in that parking lot that day. She was nearing the edge, the throw-yourself-down-the-stairs edge. I just got up and dusted myself off, a lucky fall onto the ice in my long, thick, down coat.

Here’s my take on the arm-the-teachers plan. If we do, I believe one of those teachers tempted to throw herself down the stairs will shoot her Principal instead. Or she will shoot the students in her afternoon English class, the ones who made fun of her when she tried to introduce the new project that she had cut sleep to prepare the night before.

According to Fast Facts from nces.ed.gov., in 2015 the U.S. had over 3 million public school teachers. Pick any group of 3 million people and you will find a number who are overdue for mental healthcare, a number who are taking the wrong meds, too many meds or none of the meds they have been prescribed. Even men and women who have always shown solid mental health unravel sometimes, unable to manage after a family death or an unexpected affair and divorce. Add to that the fact that teaching can be an extremely high-stress job, especially in poor and urban districts trying to hit unrealistic test-score targets. Let’s throw in the factoid that around one-half of public school teachers quit within the first five years, unable or unwilling to do a job for which they may still owe many thousands of dollars of student loans. That figure gets bandied about regularly, although I am not sure it’s up-to-date. The number may be higher today.

If even a fraction of fraction of 1% of those more than 3 million teachers lose their temper while armed… The body count will rise swiftly. And all those nifty new locks we keep installing in schools across the nation? Those locks will be useless.

Some of the sanest people I know have ended up seeking out mental health care in times of crisis. Others simply crumbled. They crawled into bed and came out months later, when they came out at all. Being a teacher in no way guarantees mental health. Nothing guarantees mental health.

If we arm our teachers, we will be meeting a new enemy — and that enemy will be us.

P.S. This post ignores one other aspect of arming teachers that requires at least a mention. That football player who once pushed me out of a doorway because he was bigger, stronger and determined not to let me slow him down? What if he had decided to go for my (then-nonexistent) gun instead? As we add guns, we add to the risk that students will gain access to these guns, accidentally or deliberately.









Cheating the Security

I watched the President and Secretary of Education as parents and children of gun violence pled for saner laws and limits on access to firearms. Where are those laws? The current situation would be utterly absurd — if it were not heartbreaking. I went into an elementary school where I sometimes substitute last week and was asked to put my car keys in a box until I returned my substitute I.D. at day’s end. I am familiar with this procedure from other schools; subs do sometimes walk off with those I.D.s which may have room keys and even keys that open the school. It’s easy to forget about the “necklace” that is a school’s lanyard.

But this request was new. Shortly before the Florida shooting, a small elementary school in a quiet community had added a fancy lock to the interior office door of the school. I could only get in or out of the school office via the already-secured front door or by scanning a key in the back of the offices. I learned how to use my new key.

Eduhonesty: My problem is not security. My problem is I think I may have bypassed that security the last four out of five times I went into a school. I sometimes wince now as people let me past that security, and I may start gently reminding the helpful that today’s security exists for a reason. So many people obligingly hold open doors for me, no doubt because I look like a teacher with my Yoda bag bulging with papers. Sometimes I carry an owl or Avengers bag. I reek late middle-aged teacher and I always have sensible, flat shoes and glasses. But who knows what’s in my many stuffed bags?

Profiling works for me. People let me into schools all the time, not always through the front door. Students let me in. Teachers and other adults let me in. Especially on freezing winter days, people take compassion on me as I trek through parking lots and around schools. Not all of these helpful folks have seen me before.

Readers, the next time you see that woman with her Yoda bag? Please, make her follow procedures. The stakes have become too high to take chances, even the tiniest of chances.

My next post will be about arming teachers.

Why the DACA Kids Must Become a Priority

Drop-out numbers provide more evidence for the U.S. achievement gap when broken down, and hidden in those numbers is a Dreamer fact that seems to escape many of our nation’s leaders. Our schools are teaching Dreamer children, the sons and daughters of undocumented workers facing an uncertain future. These children, like all children, only bring so much hope and resilience into the classroom. The amounts vary. Some kids can ignore the reality of their daily lives almost completely while happily planning to be part of the first Martian colony. Others take more prosaic views of their lives, however, and believe what older siblings and adults tell them.

“You can’t be a nurse. You don’t have a social,” big brother says. (Short for social security number.)

“You can’t be a teacher. They are going to make us go back to Guatemala anyway,” big sister says.

That “social” is an especially big deal. Without that magic number, many occupations are effectively closed to Dreamer children. Factory or yardwork jobs are possible, but any position that requires a background check is pretty much off-limits. Almost all college loans require that social, too, although a number of colleges and universities are running their own loan programs.

Dreamer children easily lose hope, and often at a young age. I have watched many slip away from me in middle school, using their Dreamer status as a reason and sometimes an excuse for the studying that never happens and work that never gets turned in. Giving adolescents an excuse not to work will always be a loser. Giving them no reason to dream is criminal.

The Hispanic dropout rate always comes in highest when we look at government charts, despite the fact that many of these children come from intact families with a solid work ethic. Mom and dad may be working three or four jobs between the two of them. For the year 2015, the U.S. government estimates 4.6% of whites dropped out of high school, 6.5% of blacks, and 9.2% of Hispanics.*

We might pause to congratulate ourselves that the gap between whites and African-Americans stood at only 1.9 percentage points in 2015, down from 6.2 percent points in 2000. But if we want to see a similar narrowing of the gap between our Nonhispanic White and Hispanic students, we will have to address the challenge of those Dreamer children, the ones who do not see the point in finishing high school because they don’t believe 1) that they can afford college and 2) that college will allow them to realize the dreams they once had, before a realistic friend or family member explained how that “social” number worked.

*https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_219.70.asp?current=yes See also https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=16

Data Leading Us Astray

We use cooperative learning to group students so that stronger students can teach weaker students when the differentiating teacher is busy scaffolding elsewhere in the room.  If we have the resources (teachers often spend their own money or try for crowdfunding options), we split into different groups with different books – when allowed. Administrative demands for grade-wide, comparable data may force the use of one book and one set of materials so that all tests and quizzes throughout a grade can be measured against each other. Data, data, data.

Our children are not data. They are children. Considering the costs of gathering data, we should be asking if the informational benefits received warrant the extra effort and lost time that result from all those spreadsheets. What was wrong with report cards, the data of the past?

Among other considerations, let’s be clear: I don’t need 25 spreadsheets to tell me that “Sadie” can’t read. I figured that out the first time I sat down beside her and listened to her try to read.