Category Archives: classroom management

Classroom Toolbox: Strategies for Survival

boy swinging

They outnumber you.

While the calendar says you have about 180 days together, those days will fly by unsuccessfully if you don’t wrangle and redirect your students.

Here are nine strategies from my classroom toolbox I use to motivate, entertain, refocus attention, and encourage reflection.

I hope one or two will prove useful to you in your own classroom.

Laser Focus: Last year, two of my students were beyond impressive in watching my every move. I called it “laser focus” and I still refer to them both as examples of how to listen to me as I try my best to teach them. It was even more impactful that they both performed at an advanced level once those state assessment scores were returned. When students’ eyes are wandering to the far reaches of the room – I prompt them with the laser focus command.

Why or How?: After years of being given the assignment of teaching concepts that are sometimes developmentally beyond the understanding of my students, I have the following conversation.

During a lesson some students will want to know why and grapple with understanding a concept until the why is fully understood – this may, of course, take some time. For some students this will be accomplished in a matter of minutes, while for others it could very well take days. For the remaining students, even after repeated attempts using various approaches, a concept just may never “sink in” within the current academic year.

Time to go to How. I clearly remember blindly following my teacher’s instruction in math when I was in school. Instead of why we were regrouping (as an example) I immediately went to the just tell me what to do and I will do it exactly that way. This is obviously not what we want our students to do – we want questions and thought provoking conversation, however we also can’t have students participating in mass melt-downs as the curriculum becomes more difficult as the year progresses.

Sometimes teaching the how, and waiting for students to ask why is ok. Sometimes acknowledging that students just asking how is perfect for that moment.

The Success Board: When my students have achieved an A and have shown the paper off at home, I ask them to return it to school so I can staple it on our Success Board. I then frequently refer to it as the days pass claiming that each of them can indeed achieve awesomeness. Each of them has within them the ability to achieve anything they desire – I hope that seeing it, will help them believe it.

Your Choice: When I ask my students to read as they sit in the hallway and wait to use the restroom, or when I want them to begin their homework and instead they want to stare at the ceiling I tell them it’s their choice. They can do as I ask or they can do it during recess. While some teachers may get upset and raise their voice, I prefer a little logic prompted by a carrot.

Crush It: The other day my students and I spoke for some time about the state assessments and the choice each of them had. They could take them and hope for the best, or they could crush it. I continued telling them that my hope was they would not just prove their capability to people who loved them, but they would prove to themselves that they could overcome any challenge. The constant battle of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards is one with which I continue to struggle as society looks to equate learning to getting a reward

The Worm: Students’ nature is to be competitive with one another. Often this leads to a race to the front of the line. For some reason being first is worth falling on the floor or pushing others out of the way. This is when I introduce “the worm”. As we reach our destination, whether lunch or resource, I have the last person swing around and become the first person. As they curl around, I remind them to worm around behind one another.

Teaching With My Head Down: Too often students feel it appropriate to put their head down and listen to my instructions. So I pretend to teach with my head on my desk. It leaves the same impression on them – except I’m sure I look sillier with my head on my desk.

Foreign Language Redirection: when we have a student in class who is a non-English speaker and we’re determining how to help him, I pause and speak to them in German for a minute or so. Hearing an unfamiliar language of an uncomfortable amount of time helps hit home how our ESOL students might feel each day, every hour, every minute.

Speaking in a different language also encourages sleepy heads to perk up and look around while they wonder for a moment if they haven’t in fact fallen asleep and awoken in a world where no English is spoken.

The Mumble: Some students are really loud. Others are very quiet. I can relate to both. Until I entered my senior year in high school, I was that quiet boy in the class who hoped no attention would come to him. If I can get my student to smile, perhaps I can get that quiet person inside to show a bit of themselves.

So occasionally I will repeat a student’s question with a reply that doesn’t have a thing to do with what was asked. For instance: “why yes, when the moon spins backwards my hair does grow quicker.” Not done too often or when my student is having an off day, I make sure that the smile I’m hoping for will likely come quickly. I then prompt them to ask me their question again.

I’m curious what tactics you have for those everyday occurrences in your classroom. I know I need to add a few to my toolbox to keep both myself and my students interested.

What tools do you pull out when necessary?

13 Thoughts After 13 Years Of Teaching

Thirteen Thoughts on Thirteen Years of Teaching

Thirteen years have passed at the front of the classroom and I’m about to begin my fourteenth. Fourteen! That’s big WHOA for me.

Here are 13 thoughts I’d like to pass along to you. Whether a teacher, parent, aspiring teacher, all three, or none of the above.

No particular order, just important enough, I think, to know before you cross the classroom door threshold for the first time or you have yet again found yourself in front of the little people.

Here they are…

1. Unless you’re a teacher, a parent of a teacher, dating or married to a teacher… you’re just not going to understand what a teacher endures.

You might have heard a few things about the profession here and there, but you’re not going to get it.

I expect that all professions have their moments. I know doctors, nurses, engineers, call center representatives, salespeople. All important jobs, sure. It is my believe however that teachers, different than other professions, serve in a multiple of roles over the course of a day – it’s daunting.

It’s still daunting to me.

We console, prod, commiserate, care, reminisce, counsel, redirect, nurse, celebrate and encourage. We do all this with children – not adults. Additionally we have the added challenge of being expected to succeed regardless of whatever “roadblocks” we ourselves or our students encounter.

I will be bold enough to say we even do some parenting. We live in a time, I believe, when parents expect great things from schools – maybe even unfair expectations. We also live in a time when parents sometimes aren’t interested in defining right from wrong at home. That lesson has fallen to teachers as well.

I’ve encountered parents who are mystified that they need to practice lessons at home when their child doesn’t grasp it after numerous times at school. They’re expected to help their child academically, and they’re confused about why (see #7 below).

Therefore, if you’re interested in the profession, seek out an educator who will give you the real “skinny” on what happens in the classroom.

I often meet prospective teachers and invite them into my classroom. The best teacher preparation programs get students into the classroom early on in their coursework – imperative to ensure you’re ready for, and still interested in, the challenge of teaching little people.

2. It’s about motivation as much as it is about content knowledge.

Motivation isn’t something I ever remember being reiterated to me while I was in school. I don’t remember a class conversation and there definitely wasn’t a course. We spoke about reading, about math, about classroom management, about technology, and definitely about learning disabilities. What we did not cover is what to do when a student says they just don’t want to. Instruction didn’t cover what to do when a group of students decides they’re going to run the classroom or take over recess.

When to convince, when to prod, when to take a step back and when to step forward are skills worth knowing if you want to be effective.

Consider classroom management skills the life vests you grab when the ship is taking on water. You don’t want to drown surrounded by students looking right at you.

This skill set is going to take time and filling your toolbox, if you will, will happen through experiences as an educator. In the meantime, seek out colleagues who you see making strides in their interaction with their students and “borrow” what works for them. You can’t, of course, be someone you’re not and pretend to be them – but learning from others is a good start toward developing your own style.

3. It’s also about classroom management as much as it is about motivation and knowing your content.

I know I said motivation was more important than content in #2, but if your students are so motivated that they’re standing on your desks (like in my summertime nightmares you can read here) they’re not really going to learn what you’ve planned for them are they? They will learn other things of course, but not anything that’s on a state assessment.

So you’re in charge. You have to be. How you do that will be easier over time. I suggest, like I do when I direct substitutes in my plans, to take the stern approach. Doing so from the beginning will help you sort through content and everything else that will be thrown at you, until you figure out what works for you.

My mentor my first year shared that she had seen teachers fail when they were either too stern or too lackadaisical. Being too much one way or the other was a recipe that resulted in students eventually not caring.

So you’re going to walk a tightrope on this. You’ll find that balance (pun intended) with experience.

Want a little more in how to run your classroom? Here are my Top 7 Classroom Management Strategies.

4. There are three rules I use to make my life easier when it comes to what appropriate behavior looks like in my classroom.

1) Does it keep me from teaching?

2) Does it keep the student from learning? or

3) Does it keep other students from learning?

When I started I spent a lot of printer ink money making my own huge posters that outlined my classroom rules. I was under the impression that if they were posted, I could point to each one and recite when necessary. I took my lead from The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of making that first day and first week of school an example of what’s expected every day and week for the remainder of the year.

I was therefore convinced that posting these on my classroom wall and discussing them the first week of school would certainly result in none of my students telling me they didn’t know the rules.

Wrong.

I’ve since figured out that students know exactly what the rules are and don’t need a colorful, ink laden poster. They’ve been sitting in a classroom for years and are well aware of what they shouldn’t do.

Now what I do is review the three rules I listed above, however I don’t feel the need to point to a poster and recite them repeatedly – I find that it just wastes the time of those following the rules. It’s better to just have a one-on-one conference with the student privately and later.

If you’re up to it, a great classroom management book I would recommend is Teaching with Love and Logic. It was handed to me early on in my career and I constantly return to it when challenged by a student’s behavior.

5. A teacher can always make their lesson better, but when do you stop?

No lesson planning is ever complete. A teacher can spend hours making their lesson better, great, or the best that anyone has ever seen. I guarantee you there’s another approach out there that just might be better. You can beat yourself up making things great while you work late into the night – you’ll also be exhausted the next day though and your delivery will suffer.

At some point you just have to call it a day and teach what you’ve planned. Keep it in your files and make it better next year. Your students won’t benefit even the slightest if their teacher is incoherent because they are exhausted.

6. It’s ok when it doesn’t all go your way. You’re human. Give yourself a break.

Some days are just like that. Stop beating yourself up. Just like your students, you’re human and you definitely won’t be at 117% every day.

Think you can? Try it. I guarantee that you’ll be calling in sick before too long and it’s going to take quite a long time for you to recover.

Teaching is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

7. Students are little people.

They are not little widgets. They are going to be excited one day and uninterested the next – maybe even from hour to hour. Subject to subject. It’s normal. You, as their teacher, haven’t done anything wrong. The students sitting in your classroom are human.

Some students are going to understand your learning objective the first time, some of them won’t. Some of our students won’t grasp your carefully laid out lesson plan until next year –  a whole year after they have left your classroom.

That’a tough one to realize.

That’s frustrating, but that, unfortunately, is  not uncommon.

As you might expect, I often find myself at the copy machine making class sets of copies. I do this not because I like copies upon copies of work for my students to do, but because students need to practice what I’ve learned.

As I’m standing in line behind other teachers who may be teaching students younger than mine, I sometimes standards being taught that my present students haven’t grasped.

This is not because they’re not good teachers.

It’s because our state mandated learning objectives are so numerous and our county timeline is so fast. Students who might struggle, i.e.: aren’t awesome at everything, often don’t have the time to grasp what they don’t know and why.

Our students aren’t great at everything, nor should they be.

Regardless, it still bugs me to no end that I haven’t been able to correctly convey the material in a way that the student will understand it. It’s then that I remember and have to realize, mostly unsuccessfully to be frank, that my student is not a machine. He may not get it yet.

Our students aren’t robots and neither are their teachers.

8. For those of you just starting out, this teachin’ thing ain’t easy.

Just so you are aware: Year 1 is overwhelming. Year 2 is better because now you know what’s coming. Year 3 is when you feel finally start feeling comfortable.

I clearly remember one afternoon during my first year when my principal looked into my classroom to check on how I was doing.

“Do you feel like you’ve been hit by a semi?” he asked.

Yes, yes it did.

He also did a great job of providing a forum for us newbies to gather occasionally and reflect on how we were doing. Our mentor described the first year in chart form which I found online and posted below.

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So it’s ok to have some ups and downs. That’s normal. From anticipation early on to the same feeling as the year ends and some time away for the Summer is granted.

9. State mandated standards tested throughout a student’s life are important, they are not, please remember, the most important thing.

Too often teachers are drawn into the zaniness that is testing. Their results determine whether teachers are successfully imparting knowledge and whether principals are leading effectively – all wrong.

I expect no one teaching pursued the profession and jumped through all the hoops so we could impart test taking strategies and worry about scores.

No test proves learning that is given on one specific day when a child, is feeling overwhelmed, having a bad day, didn’t get enough rest the day prior, or failed to eat breakfast because there was no food in the house.

There’s a whole lot more going on in children’s lives that doesn’t include testing, preparation for that testing, or worrying about testing.

Additionally, no test shows whether a child has left our classroom a better person that when they arrived at the beginning of the year.

Isn’t that the point why we became teachers?

10. Once you have a year or two completed, rely on your previous lesson plans.

Don’t recreate the wheel. DO improve the wheel. Take one lesson a week and recreate it making the best it can possible be.

11. Today’s classroom is not the classroom you sat in when you were in school.

I believe most people are quick to critique the profession because everyone of us has been a student well before being a teacher, parent or voter – therefore people have strong opinions on how things should be.

If only it was that easy.

Too many variables exist at too many different times during the day. Use one approach and it might be ineffective before you have time to consider its effectiveness – being a teacher is not without variability.

12. You’re the teacher, but you aren’t always the one who should do the teaching.

We have all sat and listened to one person go on… and on… and we have all shut them out if they didn’t provide either amazing insight or we were spellbound by visuals or props.

No matter how awesome we think we are or we think our lesson is, it’s still us doing all the leading and talking.

Allow students to teach one another. Whether working in groups or from the front of the classroom, let students help each other better understand your learning objectives.

Check out Kagan Cooperative Learning if you haven’t had the chance. Putting your students into groups in which they help one another using various strategies is inspiring to see.

13. Have fun.

Remember the teacher you had that you hated to see at the front of the room? Do you remember them as having fun? Probably not.

If you’re not having fun in the classroom, when is it ever a better time to start?

Fun makes the history lesson come alive, helps math problems worth solving and who doesn’t like a funny story?

Another thing, it definitely makes my day go by faster.

Here’s a post I dedicated to the importance of having fun.

What pointers would you give to other teachers who are either new or returning to the classroom?

Teacher’s Nightmare(s)

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Every year about this time it begins.

Every year. Without fail.

The last two nights it’s happened again.

Nightmares about the beginning of school.

It’s getting close to the end of summer, but I know I have plenty of time left. Time to work on the house, go on a little end of summer vacation, write, ride my bike in the morning without being rushed, or think of my next dinner and the required shopping list.

What you didn’t see listed is lesson planning, calling parents, worrying about a student’s academic challenges, considering a parent’s concerns and how I might address them, SOL preparation, grading papers, or making today’s lesson better,

And that’s ok. I have time. Still some time left before those school year realities begin.

My mind, however, thinks otherwise.

It’s rare that a summer doesn’t include some sort of a series of nightmares driven by anxiety or what the unknown future holds. It happens not just during testing, but also about this time of year.

What do these nightmares contain?

Here’s a glimpse.

Students out of control. Throwing paper airplanes, out of their seats, not listening to my instructions, screaming at the top of their lungs, talking to one another, still not listening to me, rearranging their desks, destroying their notebooks, not facing me as I try to regain control, and lastly, mocking my efforts, still not listening to me – in fact they are turning their backs to me in defiance.

Even now my anxiety has risen. Cold sweat is about to start rolling down my forehead.

You would think that after over a decade of teaching that this teaching thing is all second nature. That I can enter a new year of teaching students without a thought, do it in my sleep even.

This just isn’t possible. Not for me anyway.

Perhaps because over a decade’s worth of teaching has provided a good number of surprises.

I’ve had my share of students proudly exclaiming to both myself and the rest of the class that they weren’t going to do the work – it didn’t matter what I was going to do either – they proudly told me that too.

I’ve worried about students when they have been in the bathroom too long. I’ve worried as I’ve looked around as we headed through the school building only to start stressing about the whereabouts of a particular student – they were absent that day and I had forgotten.

I worry about the quiet ones that don’t quite know yet that I’m there because of them. That their voice is important, that taking a guess is ok. I worry that maybe no one has ever told them that they count. Some of them won’t believe in themselves and think that they have no god given gifts. I worry that I won’t make a connection that will help them see that regardless of challenge, they can indeed overcome it.

I stress about the unruly ones. The ones that come to school and act either completely different than they do at home or exactly how they act at home, either way, not good.

I feel though, that I am lucky. I am not a kindergarten teacher who instructs half their class, or more, on what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Those colleagues take students who may have never been read to or may have never seen an educational tv program (you know, Sesame Street) and then teach them what it means to learn and prove that learning. Kindergarten teachers are amazing – their gift for patience and love seems unending.

I’ll add that when I taught fifth grade, they would say similar things about my job and how they could never do what I did. The feeling, my K friends, is mutual.

So I am lucky that for several years before my students arrive in my class, they have already been taught right from wrong, what a test requires, and hopefully that asking questions is ok.

Therefore when that student comes to me and begins the first day being defiant, I don’t think that it’s me. When a student spends the first few days trying to be impressive for all the wrong reasons, I am stunned and cautious. They’ve made an interesting first impression and I have to wonder, what’s next?

So for these reasons I expect the nightmares to continue.

Sadly.

But I suppose there’s a reason for the anxiety. Until that first day of school when the unknown becomes the familiar, I will worry about each of my students.

Even though I haven’t met them, don’t recognize their faces, don’t know their personalities, character or aptitude for math, I will worry.

I worry because I want this year not to just be impactful, but also a place they want to arrive each day. So here’s to what awaits all of my fellow teachers and I.

An opportunity to impact a few, a few more, maybe even connect with the majority. Soon the bell will ring and the first-day-of-school-jitters will be felt by both my students and I. We will settle into our routine and begin the new year learning together.

For now though, I hope the nightmares end soon.

I would love for you to comment on this blog and share your specific anxieties about the new year. How do you overcome the nervousness?

Am I the only one waking up in the middle of the night from the sound of paper hitting the back of my head?

Offer A Smile to Start Your Lesson

Smiling is Light

Each morning I wait by my classroom door. I wait with a smile.

I hope that will make a difference.

You really can’t over emphasize the importance of that simple gesture.

I don’t ask my students if they have their homework or anything else that has to do with school. I don’t remind them about classroom rules as they sit down.

And I do have to remind myself at times to have the kind of human interaction I would want to have if I were walking into my third grade class. The first thing really shouldn’t be about writing in a journal or turning in last night’s homework – it should just be about a little kindness.

Often many of my students say good morning to me before I have a chance to say it first. We do in fact spend some time at the beginning of the year talking about the importance of kindness. And yes, reminders on this one have to happen occasionally.

But then it happens… a good morning shared by not just that one student whose day is almost always a challenge, but like dominoes the others behind him chime in too. A steady stream of greeting as they unpack their backpacks.

There’s a lot of joy in hearing that from a third grader. No matter how my morning routine has evolved over the last couple of hours, hearing them share some enthusiasm at the beginning of the day encourages me.

It erases my worries about the state tests that are coming closer by the day or the necessity of finishing the reading assessments.

I admit to you though, if my students don’t immediately get started on that morning work after they come into my classroom… it annoys me. However I remind myself that if it was me, I would choose to talk with a friend too.

I’m not a factory worker making widgets that have to meet some consistent standard. I don’t slap an Inspected by #47 sticker on their foreheads as they leave every day. That would be odd.

I just ask them how they are. How their weekend went. What the best part of last night was or how their little sister is doing.

If I can get a smile or laugh out of them, that’s even better.

Kids are honest. I think the younger they are, the more honesty you get in return. If they know that you care about how their night really went, you’re also going to get some interesting responses which in turn requires you to spend some time really listening to their stories.

The replies have reminded me that our job isn’t to teach objectives. Our job is to teach little people. Little humans. Children that have struggles and successes.

My students worry and are stressed. They know when things aren’t good at home and why that is. If their parents worry about money, so do they. If people at home let on that times are tough, they embrace that despair too.

Like little sponges, they’re taking it all in. It surprises me how resilient they really are as they endure what happens around them – whether at home, in the grocery store, or on the way to school.

Knowing this, I try to encourage conversation that’s upbeat. That doesn’t dwell on what isn’t, but what can be.

And I start that conversation by a simple hello and smile standing at my classroom door.

I’m curious and would love to hear what do you do in your classroom to start off the day?

Laughter: A Requirement In The Classroom

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The other day I was rushing to the copier in hopes of beating the bell before students arrived.

“Don’t ever smile,” is what I overheard a colleague share with a student teacher as I raced by. “You’ve got to be serious all of the time.”

I nearly snapped my neck wondering who would give that kind of advice.

Really?

I’ve heard other bits of sage advice about being personable in the classroom as I’m sure you have as well.

Don’t smile before Thanksgiving or your class will become unruly. You’ll never get control of your class after you share a joke. It will be chaos, you’ll see.

If you’ve ever taught or are about to, how to act in front of your classroom has definitely been part of the conversation. Whether in the classroom as a student yourself or in the teacher lounge, antics from the front of the room are often debated. Too nice, too mean, too strict, too casual. What’s the best approach?

To be frank, this last week has been draining. Perhaps it’s me or my students or both of us. We’re tired of prepping for the state assessments coming up in about two months and we obviously have a while to go yet. So I’ve had to force the funny and they’ve had to reel in their zany demeanor at times.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Sure it’s more work to rein them in at times – I just love the genuine third grade smiles and laughter. Their enthusiasm is impressive as well. Their jokes brighten my day as much as I hope mine do in their lives.

Can they control themselves? You bet they can.

Can they transition back to seriousness as we return to the lesson? Definitely.

I admit that sometimes the funny doesn’t work. However I don’t think you stop trying. The power of the funny is too important.

Funny breaks the ice that first day of school. It allows us to laugh at ourselves when we mess up. It reiterates that we’re not robots.

Funny puts people at ease.

One can also convey seriousness when the funny isn’t used. When a serious subject or topic is needed, the absence of laughter is definitely noticed.

Funny is an approach useful in motivating when students just don’t want to do the work anymore.

Going after the funny helps your students realize that you’re human, after all. Being human is good.

I suppose every teacher has his or her standards.  Not laughing, smiling, or enjoying myself at the front of the classroom just isn’t on my to-do list.

Remember the class you had when your teacher just seemed to be there without any emotion whatsoever?

You and I are not alone with those memories. That teacher no doubt served as inspiration in a film you’ve undoubtedly seen.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

That guy has made a name for himself with his monotone delivery. Not only do I not want to have to sit in his class and hear him drone on and on. I don’t want to be that kind of teacher either.

I’ll take my lead from Dr. Pappas as I briefly mentioned in Classroom Truths & Hints. He held us spellbound with antics that startled and amused us into never missing a class regardless of his no attendance policy. He had us when he walked into class mimicking bird calls.

Here are a few of my attempts at funny.

  • Birthday hats made upon request. All you need is some construction paper, a pair of scissors and a stapler. A simple endeavor in which the crazier the hat is made the better. No two are alike because it’s just impossible to do that kind of zaniness twice. Students love it and more than one has told me how they’ve kept theirs for years afterward.
  • Nicknaming students. Obviously take some time to get to know your students to better anticipate whether they will take offense if you suddenly call them Bubba or Bubbette. Sometimes nicknames even find their way home or heard on the playground. That’s when you know that Frozone was the perfect name for the student that calculated his math problems with icy precision.
  • I try to include stories in the middle of my lesson. It not only offers a mental break, but it encourages another opportunity for students to get to know me better – building relationships = better learning.
  • I throw in accents occasionally to be a head turner.  They not only awaken the student at the back of the room who has ventured to the beach by the look in his eyes, but they result in all students listening a bit closer to what you’re saying. You can actually see them lean forward listening intently.
  • Cheese and Crackers. I’ve long since forgotten how this title emerged. The premise is a student volunteers to come to the front of the room and sit on the stool. We get to ask him or her questions about favorite dessert or vacation. I start it off with a few and then students raise their hands to be called on by the student. It’s a combination of laughter and sincerity as we learn more about each student. After a few questions, it is quickly apparent what little we know of our students even though they sit in our classroom day in and day out.

School doesn’t need to feel like school.

Yes, students’ jobs are to learn, but they didn’t sign up for this job did they? It’s not as if they stood in line for an application hoping to get the position of student.

School is hard enough without making it an experience that they will enjoy. Sometimes it’s the engaging lesson, and sometimes it’s starting the day with a smile.

Add in a quick story about something funny that happened on the way to school that morning and your students are already engaged.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about being funny at the front of the classroom.

Do you agree that adding humor is acceptable, if not crucial?