Tag Archives: teaching

Finland Is Making Me Mad, Again

For teachers the summer is a time to take a break and recharge. Many resent us. Many though, are happy when their kids return to us.

I’ve always relished the time and spend the weeks off catching up on household responsibilities. My yard and projects around the house require my attention — something I don’t actually mind as it’s a welcome change of pace.

All of which means I try not to get too involved in what my profession is currently in the midst of — education policy, changes in state standards, the newest and greatest approach to teaching.

I know that this is ignorant. Perhaps poor form of me. I just need some time to be with my family and be able to plan some adventures together.

And then there’s Finland.

I’ve never been. Although it does sound intriguing. It’s beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen.

However its beauty is not what makes me mad.

It’s this constant comparison of their education program versus ours.

I remember “U.S. versus…” conversations in my teacher certification courses almost 15 years ago. The luster of how we stack up against other countries around the world seemingly hadn’t, and still hasn’t, worn off.

Here’s the latest that appeared on my Facebook feed just today. Produced / directed by a fellow who likes to push some buttons. He’s not a favorite of mine, I admit, but I watched it anyway because it’s summertime. And I have some time. And I feel like I need to think about education. And it’s about Finland again.

Do you see what I mean?

I want more time for my students to play.

I like the idea of students being more engaged in their own learning.

I like the idea of teachers being less stressed.

I don’t like state assessment testing either.

What is it with the U.S.?

And just when I’m annoyed enough to wallow in how we’ve got it all wrong, because well, it looks like the United States is yet again behind other nations (#29 the video notes) I happen to look down and see Finnish viewers’ comments.

Viewers noted that the video had it wrong. Homework was indeed a thing that had to be done in Finland. Others mentioned how inaccurate the video is in its entirety.

Hmmmm… more to the story? Yet I clearly remember that this issue must have been a common theme, even 15 years ago.

From my journalism courses in college, I know it’s difficult to present an impartial article — and that’s if one strives to do so. Additionally, there’s only so much space on paper, only so many words allowed by editors in charge of editorial space.

Here are some other Finnish school bits and perspectives I came across.

Global grade: How do U.S. students compare?

So what’s my verdict on whether we really are that far behind our Finnish colleagues?

It is interesting to read about the number of Fulbright applicants interested in Finland seeking solutions to our nation’s educational woes. Seeing how U.S. students compare to Finland’s in various aspects is revealing. Knowing that the Finnish system was once equal to the U.S. yet made a concerted effort to improve forty some years ago is encouraging.

If the comparison was easy to make, we would have surely implemented changes and determined what we “should” be doing in the United States.

There are just too many variables in play.

Regardless though, there’s a lot we should be doing different. A solution to what we’re doing in the classroom needs to be sought out and implemented.

Why a solution?

I believe logic demands that we acknowledge that students being tested at the young age of eight and endure considerable stress learning strategies to “beat the test” seems downright counterintuitive.

How will a child love learning if they’re worried more about getting the answers right than trying out different solutions based on what they already know?

Isn’t it ok to be wrong and not endure a poor grade because a risk was taken?

Isn’t education’s intent to teach students to understand how each learns differently than their peers? To encourage them to solve problems collaboratively? To understand how to both lead and follow?

Isn’t it obvious that sitting all day without end is painful to us all – regardless of age?

Shouldn’t we worry about students enjoying their education? Be interested in their happiness? Seek a happy life?

So solutions are in order.

I challenge you to share your thoughts in the comments answering: How do you think we stack up against Finland?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Required Summer To-Do List for Teachers

What? Another list of requirements before you head out the door and escape into Summer?

Well no. This one is intended to save you from making the kind of mistakes that will result in your being diagnosed as unfit to teach in the Fall.

So, in the spirit of Summer and recognizing that teachers everywhere are counting down the days that remain alongside the children they teach – here is the required Summer To-Do List.

  1. Spend time with family. It’s their turn. They have watched you grade papers while you tried your best to watch your favorite tv show, and failed. They have tried to pull you away from worrying about students who weren’t as worried as you were.They have been patient about you not always being there when you should’ve been. They have wondered why you get home so late when school was over hours ago. It’s their turn now… go spend time with family.

  2. Go to the restroom at will. You do not need to get a child, sibling, partner or spouse to watch the living room and any antics that might occur within that space. It’s ok to finally take your time. Just go to the restroom. NOTE: chain around the above facility used only for training purposes to begin in late August.

  3. Do NOT go to Pinterest in search of new ideas until #8 is adhered to. It’s quite enticing to see what better ideas are out there. And they’re out there – you’re smart and you’ll find them. If you go to this space where perfection is shown to any well meaning searcher, you will already feel stressed about what you think you need to do in September — and that’s just plain silly. It’s vacation time, remember?

  4. Don’t worry about having to tell another human being when they can go to the restroom. If you have children at home you might need to require them to make a visit, but otherwise there’s little need to now determine if the little ones really need to go. Also, if you’re shopping and see a little person with a worried-I’m-going-to-pee-in-my-pants look, you do not need to get involved. Allow it to play out without your expert opinion. Grab a coffee and sit down if you must, and watch from afar. You can worry about this issue again in September.

  5. Don’t go to work early, don’t stay after work till it’s late. Don’t go in at all. It’s ok. If you’re like me and are a career switcher, having off for many weeks really is unusual. Relax. If you find it difficult to relax, you need to get in your car and take a trip to a relaxing spot and require yourself to stay there until you admit to yourself that you’re relaxed. This might take some time, I know, just leave a I’m-safe-and-relaxing not for your family. Your children in the Fall will be better that you’ll return refreshed.

  6. Get away, take some time away. Go on a trip. Plan to visit a place you wouldn’t normally. Go on an adventure. You earned the time to explore. Since last Summer you’ve been required to be in that room, at that time, for those hours, and unable to leave regardless of bladder issues, or the insanity that awaits you in the morning. Go far, see what you haven’t yet seen, and maybe take a picture or two to share with your class when you return.

  7. You may now schedule any and all medical appointments. You can do so without feeling guilty that you’re away from your students. It’s time to take care of yourself. You should have done so throughout the year, but you didn’t. Please only do so after reading the next to-do, if at all possible. NOTE: Are those medical instruments making you squeamish too?

  8. Do not, under any circumstances, think about school for at least two weeks after leaving the premises. You’ve no doubt packed up, followed all those many protocols in leaving your room in good order, and maybe even stacked the chairs and desks. There’s nothing there for you now, so allow the building staff to do their business while you stay away. Heck, the air conditioning probably isn’t even on except for the office area. Imagine working in that heat during this weather? Don’t think about it, don’t go back!

  9. When it gets close to the end of July, you may begin thinking about school. What you might want to do differently next academic year may surface in your head, and thinking about it is ok. However, do not spend excessive time on this. There will be more than enough time for this in August. Set your clock and spend no more than 15 minutes per day on any school related site. If you break this rule, you must spend an exponential amount of time at either a) the pool, b) sandy beach, or c) in front of the tv watching your favorite reruns. No cheating please.

  10.  Laugh. Laugh often. Laugh when people are watching and when you’re alone. Each year there are plenty of things that keep us from being joyful. Find the laughter within and around you.

Have a great Summer my fellow teachers. You’ve earned it.

LeVon Young Answers 10 Teacher Questions

Levon Young

For some time now I’ve been passing LeVon’s classroom on my way up the hall. I remember meeting him the first time in a staff development meeting where he launched himself up upon a desk – he’s quite the athlete. Ever since, we’ve spent time occasionally sharing experiences about being male in an elementary school. Here are my 10 questions that he’s been kind enough to answer. I hope by sharing these with you, it offers another insight into what it means to teach today.

1. Why did you become a teacher?

My mom taught in Chesterfield County for thirty-one years as a Special Education teacher; so I have been around it my whole life.  My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science.  But, the Spring Break of my first senior year at JMU, I went on an alternative Spring Break in Camden, New Jersey with the fellowship that I was involved in.  We had the chance to work with inner city kids.  It was a pretty life changing experience seeing how much they appreciated what we were doing, and the connections that we were able to make in just a short time. I contrasted what I had spent my undergrad doing in Computer Science, and thought about the difference and relationships that I had watched my mom make in addition to my experience on the trip.  The choice seemed like an easy one.

2. What has been your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge has always been my first 3 years teaching in Henrico.  I felt like I was taken through the fire in my experience there.  Most everything in comparison to that seems much easier.

3. What do you think makes you successful?

In relation to question number 2, I would say faith in Christ that gave me a hope that never waivers, my mom’s encouragement during that time, and a supportive staff, mentor, and administration that bonded because of the pressures of the environment.

4. How do you start your first day, first week of school?

If we are talking about my first day of teaching, it was a hectic one. My classroom was under construction (they were taking a big class and splitting it into two, and I wasn’t truly allowed to move in until the Friday and Saturday before school began.  Figuring out how to structure the classroom, implement the lessons in a timely manner, and control “everything” that goes on in a classroom that college could never prepare you for has always been a live and learn type process.

5. Do you have any daily norms?

Plenty outside of school.  But inside the realms of the school building, one of the things that I have grown to treasure is greeting students in the hallway while on hall duty in the mornings.  I love being able to watch former students grow, meet others, and being able to just be goofy and encourage them in the morning as they are walking by.

6. How do you motivate?

This can be a tough one given the age of the students and the rigors of the SOLs.  Adult-hood is so far away from the 1st graders that I teach.  My motivation for doing this is based on how having a solid education will help them out later in their lives.  That is a difficult argument to push to a 6 year old that is only looking forward to lunch and recess.  But ultimately I try to scale it back and express that what they are learning now is a foundation for them to be able to move into 2nd grade.  Whether they enjoy school or not, they are ALL excited about moving on to the next grade and getting older with more responsibility.  Understanding a little of what it takes to be in a place that some of the older students that they look up to are in often times motivates them to push a little harder.

7. Favorite subject / topic?

Hands down, Reading.  I love teaching the fundamentals of reading and waiting for that “lights on” clicking moment for them.  Reading can take you anywhere that you want to go in this life.  It can help you in Science, Social Studies, Music, Art, PE, and even Math.  Once they figure out what their interests are, all they have to do is pick up a book and dive in.  Non-Fiction boring?  No problem! Pick up a fictional book and get lost for hours in another world.  I love reading!!  I also love the moment my students go from, “I can’t read” to not wanting to stop.

8. How do you teach challenging students?

Cliche aside… I think the most important thing with challenging students is to somehow make a connection with them.  This is not always the easiest of tasks… and sometimes it doesn’t happen.  But if you can make a connection with them, they begin not wanting to let you down.

9. Best memory teaching?

Every year around May when the picture begins to come clear about how much growth everyone has made from September.

10. What do you think most people don’t know about the teaching profession?

The sheer hours that are put in, even if you are not spending them in the actual school building.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on LeVon’s experiences and thoughts on teaching. Please leave a comment on my site to encourage others to do the same – thank you!

We’re Not Making Widgets: Teaching Is Tough

Rubber Ducky

They arrive at 9 a.m. and leave six and a half hours later. Instruction, conversation, art, worksheets, questions, quizzes, homework, assignment pads, tests… what did we accomplish?

Sometimes we teachers drive home at night thinking… “great day! Yes.”

Then there are those other days.

Every new teacher is certainly told about those every experienced teacher has had. There are days when it seems no matter what was attempted, the end of the day brought frustration. All the planning and forethought… all the enlightenment we hoped they’d experienced… all the effort — to no avail. Those are the days we go “well that didn’t work… now what?”

But as a career switcher, I know from first hand experience that other professions have their ups and downs too. No matter what the workplace may look like, sometimes one’s drive home is happy… sometimes depressing. I think it’s fair to say that the difficult days make teachers say… “why do this?”

So I had a student teacher a few years ago now. She did a great job. Finished up her undergraduate experience in my class. What an ending it was for her. Watching from my desk and sitting on my hands, as they say, trying not to interrupt…

I realized all over again – teaching is tough. Why are we expected to do so many things well?

We plan outside of work hours. We grade then too. Teachers are asked to become experts in areas that they teach. In elementary school that’s defined as language arts, science, social studies, and mathematics. If every student doesn’t understand the concept, we’re asked to remediate until they do — regardless if the student even wants to understand. We need to both understand and identify learning disabilities. We are asked to differentiate instruction depending on an individual’s strengths. And of course we need to be sure that everything that occurs in class ties to district goals. And there’s lots more… but there’s one important lesson worth noting more than others.

You know… they don’t teach you how to motivate in teacher preparation courses.

They do mention that how your students do on the state assessments is how you’re evaluated.

Where teacher programs fail is that those assessments don’t have a check off box for that child to check off.

There’s no “I didn’t give it my all” or “I really don’t like math so I don’t care about my score” or “there are so many crazy things going on at home, I really couldn’t concentrate on school”.

Yes I know. Construction is tough. Accounting is tough. Firefighting is tough. Nursing is certainly tough too. I suppose everyone will argue that they’ve decided on a difficult profession.

But I’m molding human beings here. I’m not selling widgets. Determining success can’t always be quantitative. Saving lives as a doctor or rescue worker certainly is important work — rewarding too I’m sure. But for close to a year I not only meet the expectations set forth by the state, I try to also meet those of my parents, colleagues, administrators and… my students. It can be quite the tricky balancing act.

And there is no better feeling than when students return after continuing on to the next grade and they tell you how the zany things you did in class actually made a difference. How my origami lesson that frustrated them so much really showed them importance of details and perseverance. Or how a difficult subject was made easier because of something I said or did.

I don’t think a state assessment score really equates that I’ve been a successful teacher. Sure, seeing those pass advanced scores in print feels good. But after over a decade of doing this teaching thing, I think that’s just the beginning. What about the rest of the student?

Have I successfully encouraged them to go beyond what they thought possible?

Teaching is like overseeing 24 little nations (the current number in my class). Sometimes they get along, sometimes they argue and want nothing to do with one another. Sometimes they just want to be acknowledged. And each day is different.

I hope that when students leave my class after a year. They will remember me as someone who cared enough to be honest. Who was able to challenge them and they in turn met the challenge. Most of all, I hope I taught them that success is not determined by the degree of genius within. It is in fact determined by persistence and a desire to accomplish what they desire.

I call it a life lesson. Something that I think we definitely ought to be teaching. Can we please assess that too? Now how do they put that on a multiple choice form?

7 Top Classroom Management Strategies

empty classroom

It doesn’t matter what you teach or how amazing you are at knowing the subject.

If students regularly take over your room. You’ve got no classroom management.

To me, it’s what teacher nightmares are made of. Paper airplanes flying from the hands of students standing atop desks. Laughing at your best efforts while you try in vain to regain control. The mockery of all the time you’ve spent wanting to teach them. The look of panic in the teacher’s eyes as they cradle their head in their hands.

Makes me break out into a cold sweat.

It doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be this way.

It’s not hard to understand that having no classroom management equals the end of learning in your room.

Here are seven strategies to help you maintain order because once the door closes and it’s just you and your students, it can quickly be a scary place if you haven’t thought through how you will maintain order.

1) Find the happy medium between too strict and too lackadaisical.

Over a decade ago I prepared for my first week as the new teacher. I was nervous. I had done all the lesson planning possible, I even had lessons in case I finished my lessons. I was still nervous.

Years before in my first year at Redford University I had decided I wanted no part in teaching. I didn’t want to spend my days telling my students to be quiet. If only I had stayed the course and learned that it doesn’t have to be that way.

And here I sat the Saturday before school started worried that I had made the wrong decision to return to teaching after many years working in higher education.

I sought out the most experienced teacher on my team for help. What she said still resonates. She shared this.

The teacher who is strict or too lenient will fail as a teacher.

Every teacher needs to find that happy medium that works for them. Some of us are more comfortable with groups who are talkative and occasionally loud while others have zero tolerance. You have to determine that comfort level.

I tell my students that I don’t expect them to be soldiers. To be frank, I don’t want soldiers.

Students are little people with history, family heartache and worries. Each with a story, an individual. I don’t want them in lock step as they march toward the cafeteria.

I do however expect them to do their best in following our classroom and school rules. And that’s when I remind them of the following…

2) Three rules: Does it keep me from teaching, keep you the student from learning, or keep other students from learning?

When one of these happens, we don’t learn.

These three questions are simple to remember and can quickly be brought up when students have “forgotten” right from wrong.

Additionally these three remind me that the restless student who learns and doesn’t keep others from learning doesn’t need be redirected. He’s just fine fidgeting in the back of the room constantly standing behind his desk.

It also reminds me to constantly be on the lookout for those whose number one priority is to get the attention of everyone around them.

3) Be Consistently Fair.

Early on in the year I ask my students to make a choice: Do they want an easy and unfair teacher OR do they want a fair teacher that expects them to learn?

I give them an example or two of what those two teachers might look like.

One of them can’t be trusted to do the fair thing from one day to the next versus the other teacher who might be tough, but you also know he’ll be fair.

From their reaction I can tell that most students haven’t been given a choice. It’s the beginning of what I consider building a relationship of trust based on fairness.

4) Start with being predictably consistent.

When students are loud, follow with a consequence. When students get up without asking, follow up with a consequence. When students aren’t doing what you’ve expected of them, reiterate the consequence… by giving a consequence. You have to be that person.

Do what you said you would. Be predictable and be consistent.

5) Continue to unpredictability and continue to demonstrate fairness.

And now that you’re predictable… students have gotten bored.

They understand how the classroom game is played. They know exactly what you will say when they stop following your rules. They know your consequences because you’ve given them before and they know what to expect. They are no longer surprised.

Surprise them.

This is when you need to be fair, but a bit unpredictable.

You’ve no doubt heard about having tools in your toolbox.

This is when you need to be creative in order to reach that student.

Instead of mixing it up a bit, some teachers will chase the student into the principal’s office immediately. Won’t they be returned to you in short order? Perhaps even within an hour? Then what?

It’s why you can’t treat all students the same.

Yes, I said can’t.

Here’s why.

6) The consequences are different because students are different — by day, by hour, by subject, by the moment.

Our students are human and as such, every day will be different. We hope that the majority of days will be good. Of course they won’t be.

If the student that arrives every morning into your classroom with a smile and then one day you notice as soon as he enters your room that he’s having an off day, that’s to be expected. It’s time to console and lend an ear.

If a student interrupts your lesson every day, quarrels with her peers and keeps others from learning – then that’s a choice she’s making. It’s time to change the consequences and reiterate that your name is on the door – you’re the teacher.

One is having a bad day. One is choosing to ruin everyone else’s day.

Why would you treat them the same?

In my first year when each day was a challenge I hadn’t experienced, one of my students thought a great deal of himself. He acted like he was in high school at the tender age of 10 and no matter what I said about my expectations, nothing sunk in. He was rude to me and others. He wanted no part of learning. When he had an all day writing prompt, he gave me a paragraph within a half an hour claiming that was the best he could do.

His mom had already conferenced with me and was equally disappointed with him.

In fact mom had come into my room one afternoon and grabbed her son by his jacket lapels and started screaming. And what did my colleagues do who had been waiting with me in my room?

They left me, mom and the student in my room as if the fire bell had gone off.

Yes, mom was frustrated. So with his mother’s approval we began a new consequence. It was then that I introduced the concept of the do-over day.

Each day, if I felt like his day fell below my expectations, I would walk him back from the bus loop to the classroom as the buses left. As you might imagine, it left quite the impression. My student went from disruptive and defiant to the type of student I looked forward to seeing each morning.

Was he awesome in every way? No. He was however now doing his best. It took four days of staying after school with him before he realized I was serious about giving his best effort.

By thinking about how to change your consequence beyond a call home, you are reaffirming that your classroom is a place of learning. I will add that on the state writing assessments, he performed at the advanced level.

7) The first week is crucial. CRUCIAL!

Lastly, if you don’t draw the line in the sand the first day about your expectations, you will never reel them back in. Convey to those entrusted in your care the very first day or you will chase them for the rest of the year. There is no going back. There is no do over.

You don’t need to be the teacher that gets mad at the noise and chaos.

With some thought and reflection, your class can be one in which everyone understands your expectations and you can spend more time enjoying your time together instead of wishing the day over.

What do you do in leading your students?

Please share in the comments below. I’d very much like to add to my toolbox of approaches.

Failure is Good


The other day I told my class that it was ok for them to fail.

They looked at me wondering what other nonsense I was about to spout toward them. The look in their eyes revealed the beginning of real concern for my well being.

Actually though, I think I’m on to something.

Too often we are afraid of failing. Why is that? Are we afraid that failing will define who we are?

I think the need to always be right is entirely a result of the environment we’ve created in schools. It’s how public schools are set up. Whether that’s by design or consequence of good intentions.

My classroom has a board of success where I post all of the A papers earned by students. I believe in recognizing success – the kind that achieves top marks. These papers have gone home and returned back to the classroom, put in a pile, and then stapled up on the wall. There are so many now that they’re covering one another as the bulletin board has long since filled. I have created a place where the highest marks get rewarded with a place on our classroom wall.

But what about the student that tried their best and never reached that same A grade success? That for whatever reason, achieving what their peers can isn’t possible. Where is the Awesome Effort designation?

I have no board for overcoming difficulty. No ribbon to be proudly worn when a student has achieved what they thought impossible. That should be changed.

I do reiterate to students that if they haven’t gotten an A on every paper, that’s ok too. In fact at the beginning of the year I share with them the secret of success at school, what I call the Holy Grail of learning.

It isn’t about being awesome at everything.

It is about learning from mistakes made and then doing one’s best to not make the same ones again. It’s about learning what works for each of them. It’s about taking risks and raising one’s hand. It’s saying I don’t know the answer or I need some extra help. It’s about being ok with not knowing the right thing to say before anyone else says it. It’s about trying to figure it all out when confusion sets in right at the start of the lesson.

It really is about being ok with getting things wrong.

Each Tuesday when my students get their graded papers, almost all of them open up the envelope I’ve stuffed and they start rifling though it. I watch them peek into the stack of papers and see what grade they received. I expect that if their grades are good, great conversation will commence when they come in the door.

I know when my own children come home with poor grades, I’m definitely not applauding their effort. I see it as failure. Not good. I’m part of the problem too.

If you haven’t already done it, it’s time you make extra effort to encourage your classroom to be a place where failing is ok.

Because where else will failing be ok? It’s definitely not at school. We’re not set up to allow discovery to be determined by the timeline in which a student learns. Each student is different, it goes without saying, and therefore each learns both differently and at a different point. Just look how we approach state testing – all taking the same test, on the same day, in the same way.

If we don’t encourage some failure there are consequences. If we don’t take chances then slowly the fear of failure will overpower any future desire to try something new, to try something that hasn’t been tried before.

And isn’t the bigger question what our students have learned?

And isn’t a more important question what they’ve learned about themselves?