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Three Ways Teachers Can Make School Suck Less

—Image adapted from "Learning" by Flickr user CollegeDegrees360, under Creative Commons
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"School sucks."

My favorite scene from the sitcom “Louie” has Louis C.K. attending a parent meeting at his daughters' school, speaking the obvious to the baffled silence of the teachers and parents around him.

The parents have been pontificating on various theories for why there has been a “marked decline in the spirit and energy” of the children at the school. Louie offers this wisdom:

“It’s school. School sucks, right? I mean, you do what you can to improve it, but in the end there’s a limit. Because it’s school. Remember?”

On our best days as teachers, we have lofty goals. Inspire our students to greatness. Instill them with compassion, courage, and intellectual curiosity. Shape the next civil rights lawyer, Supreme Court justice, or president.

But I often have a more modest goal for myself as a teacher, focused less on the future than the present. As a baseline, minimum requirement: Make sure school doesn’t suck.

Plenty of factors make school miserable for kids, at least some of the time, and most of those factors are outside our control.

Kids have to spend about seven hours in school each day whether they want to or not—more waking hours than they spend at home with their families during the week. Recess has dwindled to 15 or 20 minutes a day for many kids, with almost all the remaining 400 minutes of the school day spent inside.

Testing has contaminated a startling percentage of days in school, with U.S. kids spending an average of 39 days taking tests between kindergarten and high school. And let’s not forget days spent on mind-numbing test prep (kids in high-poverty schools take the biggest hit), and reduced time for P.E., the arts, and even science.

Blech.

Still, there is plenty that does lie within our control as teachers. Here are my top three ways we can make school suck less.

1. Don’t take away recess—especially for the kids who didn’t do anything wrong.

I know it’s tempting. Kids can be annoying. Some behavior is so wretched that we burn with the conviction that today, this kid doesn’t deserve recess.

But kids need time to play outside. They need sunshine and fresh air. They also need to learn to navigate complex social worlds, with all the alliances, rejections, and compromises those worlds entail.

Sometimes kids don’t do their homework. And after the 78th time that Marvin meets our request to see his reading log with a blank, “What reading log?” stare, our blood boils.

But depriving a child of the only 20-minute period in his seven-hour school day when he can feel the sun on his face is cruel and unusual. Find a different way to make sure he does his homework.

Finally, don’t give in to the temptation to punish the whole class because eight kids were being rowdy, or because a third of the class forgot their homework.

In medieval England, groups of ten villagers were held responsible for the crimes of any one of those ten, a clever way to force citizens to police one another. But this is not the year 1400. There’s a reason that if your neighbor robs a bank, you don’t spend the night in jail. If your brother gets a speeding ticket, you don’t pay the fine.

When kids who have done nothing wrong get punished for the behavior of others in the class, all they learn is that adults are mean-spirited and irrational.

Leave recess alone.

2. Talk less. Listen more.

The main mistake I observe in my own and others’ teaching is that we all talk too much. Kids learn a lot more from thinking, speaking, and creating than they do from sitting passively while we drone on and on.

If we talk less, they can talk more. Try to keep direct instruction to five to ten minutes, even for older students.

Conversations are fundamentally different from lectures. Teacher talk in the context of a guided reading group of six kids, or a one-on-one writing conference, is a lot more engaging than a filibuster on the commutative property.

Get to the part of the lesson where the kids go off and read, write, do experiments, or solve thought-provoking problems, while you circle the room and check in with individual kids.

Their brilliance matters more than ours. Give them a chance to speak it.

3. Don’t yell.

Confession: I have yelled at my students.

Teaching is hard under the best of circumstances, and most teachers don’t work in the best of circumstances. We’re human, and we lose our tempers.

But no child deserves to be yelled at. For the misbehaving kids who ignite our anger, yelling won’t have much effect anyway—they’re used to being yelled at by the adults in their lives. But for the little girl who never gets in trouble, who sits at her desk quietly working away, the sound of an adult shouting at children will tie her stomach in knots.

For those of us who teach elementary, we have to remember that we’re physically a lot bigger than our students. Most adults would hate to be yelled at by a boss or colleague. But imagine if your boss was the size of LeBron James, or your angry co-worker was muscled up like a WWF wrestler. Scary, right?

When you do lose your temper, apologize to the students once you calm down. It teaches them by example that it’s OK to make mistakes, but you should say you’re sorry when you do. It also conveys that kids are worthy of the same dignity shown to adults. Just because they’re shorter doesn’t mean they should be treated with disrespect.

A side note: What you think of as simply “raising your voice” may sound a lot like yelling to kids.

Only recently, I was proudly going around with the idea in my head that I had not once yelled in class this year. Or so I thought. When I gave the kids a “stoplight” sheet to complete, a way to solicit feedback where the students list one thing they want you to start doing, one thing they want you to keep doing, and one thing they want you to stop doing, guess what most of the kids wanted me to stop?

Yep.

"Stop yelling." "Stop talking loud when you’re mad." "Stop shouting at us."

I was mortified. And I told them I was sorry.

The Brutal Question

Teaching is the hardest, most demanding work I know. On the best days, it is pure joy. On the worst, pure frustration laced with despair.

But even on those worst days, we have chosen to teach. We have chosen to be there in that classroom, doing the work that matters most, in the profession that makes all others possible.

Our students don’t have that choice. They’re in class because they have to be.

Let’s fill their days with as much joy, laughter, and purposeful work as possible. Let’s convey to the children in our class that we care about their lives, we’re interested in their ideas, and we enjoy their company.

Maybe one of those kids will give the State of the Union address in the year 2056. Maybe one of them will design the first colony on Mars, or be the first to set foot on that rust-colored Martian soil.

But whatever they do in the distant future, we can make sure their present doesn’t suck. We can make the seven hours a day they spend indoors, away from their homes and families, as enjoyable and meaningful as possible.

As Louie said, “Remember?”

Think back to when you were a kid. What did you love about school? What did you hate?

Ask the brutal question at the end of each day: Would you want to be a child in your class?

The kids in our care need that answer to be an unwavering “yes.”

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