Classroom Truths Part II: 8 More Survival Tactics

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This is part 2 of a two part blog on teacher hints toward being successful at the front of the room.  Take a look at Part I: Classroom Truths: Realities & Useful Hints and tell me what you think.

1) Allow fresh starts. Some teachers will read students’ files to get a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before the first day’s school bells ever ring.

Instead I publicly announce to my students on the first day that I do no such thing unless warranted. I also don’t seek prior teachers’ thoughts on my incoming class. Allow me to explain why.

I want students to have a fresh start within my classroom’s walls. If they had fantastic years in the past… I tell them I hope that will continue, and if they’ve had a poor showing, it is now their opportunity to make a change. Does this work? I’ve had some great successes in which students have a banner year within my classroom yet can also recall students in which there was no change from previous year’s antics. Regardless, I stick to the premise that everyone is due an opportunity without preconceived notions.

2) Be open to criticism. No, I’m not referring to one’s supervisor but to one’s students.

I have the “parking lot” bulletin board in my room divided into four parts: positives / things you liked, things you would change, notes to me, and questions. So of course they like to share notes (it’s amazing what they will tell you about what occurs in the bathroom or in the cafeteria) and things they would like to change. I hear all about what I did that they didn’t like. It’s an opportunity to teach the importance of sharing positives — complimenting, doing something nice just because.

If a student thinks I am being unfair, I am open to hearing their complaint if done respectfully. Early on we discuss how to respectfully comment when we feel like we’ve been treated unfairly. It’s yet another skill worthy of developing in young people.

3) Know what button to push — this isn’t intended negatively nor does the knowledge come the first day as I mention above.

Sometimes a student needs a figurative push, sometimes they need their space. Sometimes they need to answer a difficult question, sometimes an easy one. Sometimes a quiet one-on-one conversation is best, other times a public word of encouragement or refocus is more effective.

As I write this, I immediately recall my classroom management class many years ago. I don’t know if my professor would like my approaches, but I will respond by sharing this. They don’t teach you in “teacher school” how to motivate students — whether toward academic success or excellent behavior. It’s yet another skill that teachers have to develop.

Taking into account their style and personality a teacher has to figure out what works for them. I should also mention this: the button to push changes from student to student, from day to day, from subject to subject, and sometimes… from hour to hour.

4) Use “the look” or “the tone” sparingly. These tools don’t work if you’ve worn them out.

5) Raise the bar. Convince students that they can achieve success in the classroom. At the beginning of the year I ask students whether they want a fair & tough teacher or unfair & easy. They always choose the fair option although it comes with difficulty.

After a few weeks I share with my students a “secret” — my tests are tougher than the state assessment. This tough standard might not look as good on the report card initially but the thought processes involved equate to success in so many other ways.

6) Stress Character. If students understand that your decisions regarding what you’ll accept in the classroom are based on a core set of values, they will understand (whether they want to or not) where you’ll draw the line in the sand.

7) Whisper when you want to be heard — students will wonder why you’re whispering.

8) Allow a student to be the teacher — students’ word selection and the unusual nature of them being at the front of the room might just convey what you couldn’t.

8) Lastly, the longer I teach the more I realize how much I’ve been affected by my first year as a teacher. Depending on whether you were supported and had excellent mentors, or not, that year sets a precedence for your success and student expectations. I was very fortunate to have a team committed to helping me survive my first year… and want to return to do it all over again.

I wish all teachers had the same experience I did but know that many didn’t… perhaps this will be good material for the next blog.

I hope you found these useful to you.  Please share your “secrets” below – I look forward to adding more to mine.

 

Classroom Truths Part I: Realities & Useful Hints

 

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A classroom of students who desire to be teachers is a wonderful thing.

There’s enthusiasm among peers. The desire to do good. Ideas and hope in what can be done at the front of the room.

Ah, the things they don’t teach you in teacher school. The truths of being the teacher.

Like the parent I once had who was quick to criticize. Again and again.

Or the woman who wrote me a note every day either asking for more specifics about homework or criticizing what she thought I did from the reports she received from her child. There would be no pleasing her.

Or the time I tossed a student a tissue box and heard a couple days later that the father was convinced that I had an anger management problem – that was over 10 years ago.

Or the mother who reported to my principal that I made her blood boil. Why? Because I had high expectations for her son to achieve. She had told me in her most convincing, angry tone that I needed lower them.

I should have known that nothing I could say would be enough or the right answer for any of them. It made for stressful days in which I worried a great deal more about what they thought of me. What I should have been worrying about was being myself in front of the classroom.

Trying to explain what a teacher does in the classroom is close to impossible. There are too many variables at play. I only teach basic algebra, otherwise I might be able to come close to explaining the concept mathematically – probably requires elements of calculus too… of which the mere mention brings beads of nervous sweat to my forehead.

When I tell, or is it unload, the day’s classroom antics to my wife she sometimes shares that she doesn’t know whether she would want to be a student in my classroom. I think it’s a nice way of saying that she does know – she in fact wants no part of having to sit in my class as a student.

Not being the one in charge for over 180 days allows for others to quite easily do a bit of armchair judging. I readily admit to doing it when I watch other teachers’ behavior – again, unfair.

Why is it that parents are so quick to criticize?

Would they do the same with their dentist, optometrist, lawyer? Imagine: hold on now doc, muttered between the saliva straw and numb tongue, I think that filling placement is all wrong. I just don’t have the nerve to even suggest that I know their job.

Perhaps it’s because we have all sat in a classroom.  Probably about 13 years at a minimum. We’ve had to endure loads of poor teachers unless you’ve won some sort of lottery and can say every teacher was awesome.  I bet you, like I did, had some thoughts about how to make it all more bearable?

So here’s a couple of ideas that might prove useful in the classroom. Whether they prove to remind current teachers about what they already know or help a starting teacher find footing, or give a glimpse into what teachers do… I hope you’ll think they’re at the very least… thought provoking.

Here’s my first six helpful hints.

  1. Be real. Students have been sitting in front of teachers for some time. Perhaps in kindergarten the students love you because you’re their kindergarten teacher but titles don’t work for very much longer. Students know when you’re being legitimate. As a colleague shares with his students: “Here’s how to be a great teacher… care about your students… and don’t fake it because it doesn’t work.”
  2. Understand that the ol’ adage holds true — you have to choose what “battles to fight.” The German side of me wants to be in control of every aspect. I have learned that it is much more effective, and healthy for my sanity, to take a more surgical approach. Of course there’s the worry of what my principal will think when she arrives to find students laughing or working noisily in groups.
  3. I utilize the Dr. Pappas Affect. I share this story at the beginning of every year. Dr. Pappas was a Political Science professor of mine at my alma mater at Redford University.He was an institution whose class was suggested by many. So I registered and remember sitting in his classroom wondering what would happen next. Whether by design or because “that’s just the way he was” his classroom was a space where unpredictability occurred.He whistled upon his entrance, consistently reassured us all that there was no attendance policy and wondered out loud why students kept at it, sang ridiculous songs that seemed to have some type of relevance to course content but quite honestly was over my head, and would consistently take a break from discussing the likes of Machiavelli with more odd behavior.His classroom’s chairs were always full even though role was never called.Lesson learned: predictability breeds discontent. Be a little unusual and so many other classroom problems dissipate.
  4. Be honest. Say you don’t know when you don’t. If a student asks a question that will result in an answer they many not like… ask the student again if they are prepared for brutal honesty.This requires a relationship with the student to have been formed so the sting that might be felt will be offset by their knowing you care enough to be honest with them. If I can’t be honest with students who I expect to be honest with me, then I need to be in another profession.Granted, I take into consideration their grade and wh. My honesty is always intended, and worded, to be helpful.
  5. Celebrate success. I have a Success Board where all A papers are stapled. Initially I think my students aren’t sure that they’ll ever get an A. They try to get me to put up their B’s which I refuse – B’s are great… but shouldn’t we strive for the best possible? Or let me say it a different way — what inside a child dictates that they aren’t capable of top tier success?I’m a believer in their ability to accomplish whatever they set their mind towards doing. After a few weeks, my bulletin board has papers stapled upon previous weeks’ papers. If classroom conversation ventures into the “I don’t think I can do it” I point to the board from across the room. A classroom full of examples in which they can do it, and have done it.
  6. Use technology. They love seeing a picture of themselves on the morning PowerPoint presentation, love the odd reference to your own childhood. I share my grade school class picture and ask them to guess which one is me. Kids love technology, it’s their world. If you can make it function towards meeting your learning objectives they’ll squirm in their seats wanting to see what you’ll do next…

For the next six, check out the next blog.

 

 

Parenting Advice: Let Sleeping Giants Lie

Girl Sleeping

Children have no problem sleeping.

It’s unfair.

Remembering back, sleeping toward early afternoon was tolerated by our parents as we entered our pre-teen years.

As a young adult entering the responsibilities of the working world, you can enjoy sleeping off the previous night’s rowdiness with no guilt and comforted by the thought that you deserve the time under the sheets.

You partied hard, as we once boasted, and recovery time is essential. Waking up shortly before noon was ok, the norm even among our peers.

And then parenthood arrives.

Everyone is initially overjoyed by the new arrival — as they should be.  In fact I still remember how my extended family created my wife and I as we pulled up into my aunt’s driveway.  I then remember how it seemed as if I was pushed aside as my relatives clammered to see the new arrival. I felt as if my job was definitely done as they pulled him from the car and took him into the house — well ahead of me who gathered all the assorted bags and paraphernalia that accompanies a first child wherever they go.

We had done the deed.  And a bit more.

My wife put in some serious time, effort and illness into the production.

I as the father spent serious time slaving away before the stove making the infamous Saucy Meatball recipe in hopes of fulfilling my wife’s cravings. Yes, I liked them too… but maybe not every week, every Thursday in fact, and sometimes twice a week.

BUT… no complaining is allowed, in all sincerity, because I did little of the human producing. My crucial responsibility in the production of this little person long since passed.

And when my son and later daughter arrived, there was much to celebrate.

They were cute. They fit into the crook of my arm and I immediately realized the degree of dependence they had on me. They even smelled good.

And the poop was amazing. At first.

My first days of parenthood were entirely fueled by adrenaline. And then it hit me.

I may never get enough sleep… ever again.

With the passing of time I understand that this thinking was a bit illogical. But not those first few months… the fear was real. I was generally worried.

Every two hours there would be rumblings in our home. There was feeding, rocking, diaper changing, walking, refrigerator opening, creaks from the wooden floors and stairway, raising up from the warm bed and returning to it with cold feet and tired eyes. The newness of parenthood had not yet passed.

We had been reminded constantly of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) during pre-birth classes, and night-time was not the relaxing time it once was. We were very aware that the “sleepy time” hours were not without danger. We even bought the sensor that reassuring ticked at regular intervals confirming that his heart was beating — another new sound.

Two more hours… just two more hours of sleep… please God. The promises of doing all good, forever… were made, and not silently in prayer, but out loud… for all to hear.

It was a scary time. One day I walked into my good friend’s office and a look of worry crossed his face. “Are you ok? You look like hell.” He was right. I, however, was so tired that I failed to see the sickly image looking back at me from the mirror in the morning. Pale and haggard. I cared little about image, little about food and even less about what used to bring joy to my pre-parenthood life. I cared only about my bed and the time I would be allowed to be with it… in it.

I had in fact been beaten by this tiny human. He had arrived a mere weeks prior. And he knew only four things — hunger, wet diapers, being tired, and an odd sensation that scared him — burps. Should one of these occur he made it known to all, at any time. My son had complete control over two adults. He now owned our time and determined our sanity. We had no power. Would this go on till he turned 18?

In our wisdom we placed his crib in the next room to our bedroom. Before you think us uncaring, the bassinet did stay in our room for what we decided upon to be adequate time — four weeks. In celebration we then placed his little body in the nursery so that sleep might return in larger concurrent increments for us all. What novices we were.

We did all you would expect from new parents. His nursery had furry fish, stars and even a large purple moon hanging from the ceiling. There were protective, soft, adorable borders on the interior of his crib. There were enough burp cloths and blankets to keep our washing machine busy. The walls were painted colors found only in nurseries — vivid blue and yellow. There was a changing table for all the essentials needed at any hour — day or night.

We were unsuccessful.

I heard him move at night. I heard this sound through the wall. I heard this sound in the midst of slumber. There would not be sleep. And then it happened. I remember like it was last night.

He learned to roll over. This reassured us because now maybe if there was a breathing problem, he could move himself to correct the problem. Too much heavy sleepwear because of anxious parents? Blanket covering his face during the night? He could fix it himself now. Ahhh… we could relax. Another novice move.

The piercing alarm shattered the still night… the alarm that warned that his heart had stopped… which of course it hadn’t. In the process of rolling over, the sensor beneath the mattress no longer detected a heartbeat. This fact did not register as an option.

I clearly remember launching myself from sleep and across the bed. Over my groggy wife. Like Bo Duke crossing the hood of The General in the television series Dukes of Hazzard. But without the fun and adventure.

Many years later coupled with a daughter of ten years, that fear of no sleep has somewhat subsided. Well to be honest, the fear still resides deep within me but I now know that there may indeed be a time when I will awake comforted. Not from the cry of the alarm clock, but I will greet the world rested and anxious to start the day — writing this sounds like a joke told to the uninformed.

And so I share with friends and others… I can’t wait till they want to sleep in. I will be the parent that we all remember. The one that clapped their hands as they woke us up on weekend mornings to rake the leaves. Or like my father who was determined to “warm up” the chainsaw at an early 7 a.m. and then ask me to help… no, tell me to get up and help him stack firewood. I think I finally understand.

Revenge is sweet.

I will bide my time and wait another few years for my teenage children to desire sleep. I will wait patiently. And when that time comes… I am told by those that have already endured teenage children… let them sleep. I’m guessing that they may be right as I will surely be sleeping too.

Except now I can’t sleep in even when my children decide to do so. Please God… just two more hours…

Successful Teaching and The Ripple Effect

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Too often we get caught in the moment.

I’m not talking about losing oneself selfishly.  You know, the kind of decision that leaves you sick the next morning or regretting the conversation that happened the night before.  Yes, it happens.  Certainly has happened and still happens in my life.

I’m talking about getting lost and forgetting the whole point.

If you’re in the people business of teaching, counseling, social work… any business in which people are the focus… so often our energy and concern is spent on the minute. We forget the greater objective.

Lately I’ve been asking what effect do I as a teacher have on my students’ lives?

We are often given an impossible task. Fix what others can’t. Repair what has been broken by years of insensitivity at home. Successfully help a child regardless of their challenges that take years to get the bottom of – and we aren’t given that kind of time.

And we believe we can overcome the insurmountable.  We can do the impossible. Maybe not astronaut or fighter pilot level of confidence, but we’re in the business of changing lives. We’ll put ourselves out there day after day knowing it’s important work. It may not be life and death work, but it ain’t sellin’ widgets either.

As a teacher I have had some frustrating days. The type of day that ends in exasperation. The kind that makes you throw up your hands and wonder where did it all go wrong?

I hate those days.

It’s the kind of day in which you yearn for a time machine to take you back and start over. Yes, teachers want a do-over… perhaps everyone else just jumps into the machine and goes back to a simpler, happier, easier time… nope, teachers want a do-over.

I know that every job has those moments regardless of the size of your cubicle, office or company car. I just think that if the bottom dollar is involved versus a human’s welfare, it’s a different conversation.

My friend Will shares the story of the pig and the farmer. Perhaps you’ve heard it.

Each day the farmer gets up early, which we of course know that’s what farmers do, and he mixes that slop in the ol’ pail.  Trudges out to the pigpen, splattered coveralls on and feeds those squealing little piglets.

He knows that all the cold mornings with boots covered in sludge will result in a payoff. When the days get shorter and the temperature falls, it will indeed be time for ham, sausage and bacon.  Throw a rib on the grill and you can just about taste the goodness.

This story I now tell to my students.

I tell them that teachers have a similar day of reckoning.  Every day we prod with questions and motivate with support.  We start the year building trust from the first minute students arrive knowing that without it, learning just won’t happen.

We tell jokes to brighten a student’s day.  We get stern when classroom management requires it. We motivate countless ways – whether treasure chests or lunch with the teacher is the reward. We console when there’s an injury on the playground and counsel when friends stop being kind.

And then I tell them why. We want a return on our investment too. We’re not up at the front of the room because we enjoy the performance, we enjoy the outcome – their learning.

And then to their surprise I tell them them that I’m not talking about learning objectives spelled out on the state’s department of education website. I’m not talking about them just doing well on SOLs.

I’m talking about life lessons.

Math is important – you gotta know if you’ve got enough money to pay the bills or buy the popcorn when you’re on a date. Writing leads to an application being filled out well and forget passing the driver’s test without being able to read. This however does not make the warm fuzzies happen.

Last year I had a tough class.

Lots of drama resulting in lots of energy spent on resolving issues that had nothing to do with students learning. If I felt that I was making inroads in those conversations, I would feel better about all the efforts I attempted. I just don’t feel better. I was frustrated.

And then the standards of learning scores were presented to me a few weeks after my students sat before their computers and punched in what I hoped would be the right answer. I admit it, I was stressed. I wanted them to do well, but not for me.

I wanted them to be successful and prove to themselves that they could succeed even though it was tough.  I wanted them to stand up from those computers realizing that they could overcome the challenges placed before them.

Those scores were good it turned out. A few didn’t do as well as I would have liked and their results would cause me to rethink how I had taught a lesson or ponder what else I could have done to increase the score.

Administration was happy. There were smiles and congratulations given.

Was I happy with the scores? I was relieved, but I wouldn’t say happy.  My assistant principal asked me why I wasn’t overjoyed to which I responded with this:

“If my students leave my classroom being better people than when they arrived… that’s what would make me happy. A score on a test is important, but that’s not why I became a teacher.”

I know that we will not know what far reaching effect our influence has had on those we teach. For those of us who stand in front of the classroom, there will undoubtedly be students who will vaguely remember all of our efforts.

There will, however, also be others.  Just like you and I remember the odd conversation or interesting experience we may have had years or decades ago, so will they. We cannot know what specific efforts result in an experience recalled years later, yet it will undoubtedly occur.

And then there is the ripple effect. This inspires me even more so.

Just like the stone that leaves ever expanding ripples as it touches the water, we too leave memories in whose lives we touch.

Now imagine if what we have set into motion to be recalled later will be repeated by them to the benefit of others.  How far reaching might our words that we share today be?

If you have shared with others how someone has treated you then you have participated in continuing to allow that experience to effect others.

Imagine if the story you told was one filled with love and care, a desire to make someone laugh, brighten up a day, or motivate someone to succeed when they thought they couldn’t. What if it was so great of a story that others couldn’t help but share it with their friends, and then they shared it with their friends…

If we can impart that kind of feeling in those people that we work with in our professions. If I can instill a positive memory that changes a person for the better or perhaps might instill within them to care for others as I have tried to do. If my students leave my classroom better than when they arrived… then that is what makes me happy.

And that is when I feel as if I have been a successful teacher.

Welcome to the Beginning of a Story

 

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My name is Steven Kaminski and my goal is to share with you my insight into the world around us.

Almost sounds like I’m at a meeting about to confess, doesn’t it?

It is my belief that our daily walk comes with interesting insights and experiences. You may agree on what I share with you. I’ve been told that if we disagree, that’s ok too – as long as it creates a dialogue between us or gets you thinking. Or gets me thinking. Or gets you to share an insight I haven’t even thought of yet – there are plenty of those.

As each day begins, we are faced with a choice – do we even get out of bed?

Too often the alarm clock’s wonderful creation – the SNOOZE button – puts a delay on the first thing we must decide. If we push that darn little button too often, isn’t that a sign that we need to make a change?

For the past twelve years I have risen and driven off to an elementary school. Perhaps one close to you. I have shut the door behind myself and my students after the morning bell and taught fifth graders.

Until this year. Now I stand before third graders who arrive with smiles, frowns, worries and laughter. More smiles and laughter that my fifth graders did – a wonderful change. But still too many worry and anxiety for someone who has lived for a very short eight or nine years. So I have tried to make a change in their lives. Sometimes I am happy to report that I am very successful in bringing forth a smile, some laughter and a memory inside the classroom that counted.

This blog is an additional change. It’s a return to what I tried doing in my 4th grade summer – when I was 9. Of course that wasn’t the last time I put pencil to paper, but it is my first memory of spending time crafting a message. I think that story attempted to mirror my favorite TV show at the time – M.A.S.H. Now my daughter is a fan.

I plan to publish every Tuesday morning to start. I just finished reading Michael Hyatt’s Platform which led to listening to a few of his podcasts on the way to and from work. Which in turn led me to his first rule: write great content. A big enough challenge from the start. Also on the list – publish regularly. Additional hint: start with once a week to begin the habit.  So here it goes.

I acknowledge that my starting point is no where as exciting as I would like it to be. There are no fancy plugins and comment fields that appear out of thin air. Nor have I figured out how to get my words to be read by more people. There is no mailing list form which I know is vital. And there is no free e-book to offer. Nor is there a hook to buy any sort of product.

I am reminding myself to be patient and just begin. Baby steps.

#1 goal: just create great content.

I hope you find this content is worth reading and that you enjoy the stories. Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to leave a comment.

So, after rereading my words above for the last time, let me post this and begin…