Published Online: September 25, 2007

Teaching Secrets: Hallway Hints II

In excerpts from their e-mail discussion group, members of the Teacher Leaders Network share advice on managing and thriving in the classroom.

Let the Students Do the Work

“The fact that the teacher does most of the work at school explains why there is little learning in school,” Harry Wong, author of The First Days of School, has written. “The research says that the person who does the work is the only one doing the learning.”

TLN member Claudia Swisher, an English teacher from Oklahoma, agrees. “It’s amazing how much kids will sit back and let teachers do the work for them,” she says. “And if we let it happen, who can blame them? I haven’t read my syllabus to my high school students for years. They read it and each student writes a quiz based on the content. They also write a key to the quiz. I collect the quizzes and distribute them. Everyone takes a quiz then returns it to the ‘author’ who grades it. By the end, kids have been through the material three times, and I haven’t strained my throat or bored the socks off all of us. I always tell my students, ‘I wrote it; I don’t have to learn it!’”

As part of a partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Ginny White teaches gifted classes in a Florida middle school. She has this sign prominently posted on her classroom wall: My goal this year is for everyone to go home equally tired. “It's a good reminder for me to see on a daily basis,” she says. “It prompts me to talk with the kids about shared responsibility for learning and keeps me thinking about ways to make sure I’m clear with them about the what and why of the work, but that they are doing the work.”

Another Florida teacher, Mary Anne Kosmoski, shares a timely tip from her student-teacher days nearly 30 years ago. “In 1978, my cooperating teacher looked at me as I labored cutting out letters and pictures for an activity and said, ‘Don't ever do something the kids can do.’ It was simple advice,” Kosmoski says, “but over the years it has saved me thousands of hours, and given my kids many extra opportunities to learn. They have paged through historical photos looking for just the right ones. They have manipulated stencils and found creative ways to divide the labor. They have assumed responsibility for everything from delivering and recycling newspapers to deciding what needed to go into a first aid kit for a field trip. It has helped develop classroom community and discussions. Sometimes it’s just easier to do it yourself. But letting the kids do it is worth it in the long run.”

Plan, Plan, Plan

Harry Wong also tells new teachers, “If you don’t have a plan, you’re planning to fail.”

Kathie Marshall, a literacy coach in the Los Angeles school system, recommends that new teachers plan and prepare two weeks’ worth of lessons before the first day of school and then stay well out in front as they find their teaching rhythm. “Getting your timing down takes time to learn, and there are a lot of special issues that pull teachers away from instructional planning in the beginning,” she says. “Having your lesson planning done well in advance reduces a lot of unnecessary anxiety.”

Ariel Sacks, who’s beginning her fourth year in the classroom, couldn’t agree more: “For the first week or so of school, the night before each lesson, I actually wrote through everything I planned to say to the students throughout the class period and printed it out for myself. Of course I did not read from the ‘script’ the next day in front of the kids. I barely even looked at it, but it helped to have thought through the actual words I wanted to use in advance. It allowed me to time the lesson better--to anticipate the details (like how to administer supplies) and the necessary transitions, and how I would direct them.”

Sacks, who now coaches new teachers, adds that “beginning teachers often talk too much, even ramble sometimes out of nervousness or lack of a clear vision of what they want. Over-planning helped me avoid this.”

Elaine Hawkins, a 35-year veteran from Franklin County, Vir., expands on the details of planning. “Always figure out what students will do when they are finished. They complete tasks at different rates. To avoid restless disruptive students, make sure you have something meaningful for students to do while slower students are continuing to work.” Well-thought-out transitions are key, she says. “Think through how will you pass out papers with the least amount of down time, how will you collect papers, how you will move from one activity to another when some students haven't finished and others have been finished for 15 minutes.” With careful planning, she concludes, “you will not experience disruptions that will reduce the amount of learning that takes place in your classroom.”

Take Time to Marinate

TLN charter member Marsha Ratzel, who is currently teaching middle school math and science in the Blue Valley, Kansas, school system, says it’s also crucial for teachers to learn to be patient. “I’ll admit it that I’m very type A personality,” she writes, “so when there’s a task to be done, I’m pretty much a nose-to-the-grindstone person. In my early years, I taught like a type A teacher. If it was on my schedule for us to accomplish X, Y and Z on a given day, we pretty much did. I told myself this was acceptable because I had planned out time to have class-building activities. It wasn’t just all about task completion.”

“The more years I taught,” Marsha recalls, “the more I realized there were times when students needed me to linger. They needed me to tarry so that I could ‘hear’ them learning. I began to think about this process as marinating; a time for me to soak up the classroom environment. I needed to stop and watch their faces--not only to ensure they understood the concept but to help them celebrate their learning victories. And sometimes they needed reassurance that if they didn’t get it today, they’d get it tomorrow. ‘Math is hard, but you’re smart, so we’ll get there.’”

“Learning to marinate in my students’ learning changed not only my heart, but it changed my head,” she concludes. “It led me away from my urge to organize everything to the ‘nth’ degree. Today, I’m much more time-inefficient, and that is discomfiting for a type A person. But I believe my students and I have become much more invested as young scientists and mathematicians because I valued them as people first.”

Kids Will Be Kids

When Mary Tedrow began her first year as a “wet behind the ears 22-year old teacher,” she was amazed at how radically kids had changed since she was in high school. “They didn’t seem to know much about anything, and it appeared to me that the entire teenage population had suddenly become delinquent,” she says.

It took several years, she says, for her ah-ha moment to come. “I realized that the basic behavior of students hasn’t changed for eons,” she recalls. “I may have avoided some 'types' during my own school days, but kids have remained kids since the beginning of time. For me, that was the beginning of the end of blaming ‘these kids today’ for not learning, and accepting more responsibility for the effectiveness of my teaching.

“When I mentor new teachers now,” Tedrow says, “I gently try to guide them into seeing each student as a puzzle to be solved rather than a problem requiring me to exert my teacher power. Most behaviors have a genesis that makes sense somewhere along the line. The fun part is trying to figure out what put the behavior in place and then resolving the issue for the student.”

Renee Moore, a Mississippi teacher and Carnegie Scholar who works with her husband in his youth ministry, agrees. “We are frequently disabusing adults of the notion that children and teens of today are ‘so much worse than we were.’ Frankly, if I had been allowed the chance many of these children have to see and do unwholesome things, I would have been any teacher's nightmare. Fortunately, I had a strong, extensive network of adults all around me who reminded me daily that I was going to ‘be somebody someday’ and what a real responsibility that was.”

Moore continues, “Too many of our students do not have such a network, nor a consistent message about what is and is not acceptable behavior. To them everything is relative to one's own selfish whims ("doing what's right for you”). Others are in more tragic situations where they are being abused, neglected, and getting a distorted view of life upon which to build their personal values. Part of the teacher’s job is to work to understand each student and what has led them to the behaviors they exhibit.”

Don’t Take It Personally, But Make It Personal

Kim McClung, a high school teacher in Kent, Wa., remembers the behavior-management advice she once got from her cooperating teacher: "Never take it personally." And it’s easy to take it personally when a kid is confrontational or rude, she says. “We think the anger is directed at us. Instead of getting angry in return, talk to the kid in private and in a caring voice ask him or her what's wrong. Nine times out of ten, that will disarm them and you will find out they had a fight with a parent, or had to go without breakfast, or just broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend and have no appropriate outlet for their emotions. They almost always end up apologizing for their behavior.”

By using this technique, McClung says, “I find that I very rarely (once or twice a year) have to go to parents or administrators to get help with discipline. Plus, it helps the kids realize that I care about them and am willing to help them with more than reading and writing. Never doubt that this relationship with troubled students is the most important thing in helping them achieve.”

Claudia Swisher believes it’s also important for teachers to apologize when they make mistakes. “When I ‘blow it’ with a kid, misunderstand a situation or overreact, I apologize,” she says. “I even shake hands with my student and ask to start over. This really disarms a student who’s not used to adults admitting mistakes. I hope I’m doing powerful teaching when I apologize. I think young teachers are afraid apologies will weaken their stance, but I believe it strengthens our relationship.”

Susan Graham, a long-time consumer and family sciences teacher, agrees about apologies, with this caveat: “I would apologize once. If the student wants to pursue it beyond that, offer to meet with them after class because it's important that students realize that acknowledging a mistake in instruction or classroom management does not equal relinquishing your authority to direct learning.”

Finally, John Holland, a nationally certified pre-school teacher, reminds novice and experienced teachers alike that classroom discipline is not “a zero-sum game.” Teachers must be flexible, he says, and remember that “discipline is always about relationships.”

Holland recalls a familiar quotation from teacher Haim Ginot that begins, “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather.”

“When I talk to new teachers,” Holland says, “I like to follow Ginot’s quote with this: A child has a difficult time changing behavior until a behavior has been identified, the child has served a consequence, and they have been forgiven or absolved of their guilt. Otherwise, they will continue to create the infraction in order to be forgiven.”

“When children see your joy in teaching and learning, they will learn to be joyous, too,” Holland believes. “Teach everywhere, in line for lunch, while waiting to use the bathroom, on the playground, everywhere and anywhere. Have fun. If you love it, they will love it, too.”

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