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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

‘See Me After Class': An Interview With Roxanna Elden

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 24, 2015 6 min read
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It’s that time of year again, and I will be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful to us educators. New questions will begin in September.

This post in the fourth in my authors series - I was able to interview Roxanna Elden about her book, See Me After Class: Advice For Teachers By Teachers (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite education books).

LF: A line of your classroom management advice rang so true: “The first few times you think your class is under control and it’s okay to relax, you’re probably wrong.” What would be the one or two most important things for all teachers to keep in mind about this part of teaching?

Roxanna Elden:

Most of the management tips teachers learn in training are pretty solid. The problem is that - like a lot of good advice - they are easier said than done. Sure, we’ve posted our rules and consequences on the wall, they’re phrased in positive language, and we have every intention of enforcing them consistently. But then the students come in and present us with a non-stop series of judgment calls. At that point we’re not wondering whether it’s important to be consistent. We’re wondering whether that student who threw the paper ball was really aiming for the trashcan.

This doesn’t mean the original advice is wrong, though. In the book, all classroom management advice is divided into three segments: Why the basic recommendations usually work, why they’re sometimes easier said than done, and then how to troubleshoot when things fall apart.

LF: I especially liked your list of things teachers can do to like their students better. Which are your two favorites?

Roxanna Elden:

First, look for opportunities to see students as human beings. Second, look for opportunities to show students that we are human beings. Teachers can accomplish both of these in a variety of ways, including attending extra curricular activities, posting pictures of happy moments on the classroom wall, or building in a few minutes of conversation time on a Friday afternoon. The overall thing to keep in mind is that part of our job is just to be adults who care about kids. When students’ behavior or lack of effort is frustrating us, this can take a conscious effort. But sometimes we need to show students we care about them whether or not they are “working to potential.”

LF: You make many important points with humor pointing out the teaching world as it is, as opposed as the way we’d like it to be. For example, you write: “You may be told that your department does something called collaborative planning, in which teachers meet to plan ahead, share ideas, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Though many new teachers hear of this legend, few experience it.”

What advantages, if any, do you see in teachers collaborating more, and, if you think it’s beneficial, what might be some simple ways teacher can do so?

Roxanna Elden:

Collaboration works best when everyone in the room wants to be in the room. With that in mind, our best support may not come from a group of colleagues thrust together by administrators when they’d rather be catching up on grading.

This is why, no matter what your school does, every teacher should aim to build a personal “board of advisors.” These are people you select yourself and can adjust as your needs change. The list should include those whose teaching styles you admire, those who teach similar subjects, and those who teach similar students. These don’t all have to be the same people; they don’t even all have to work at your school. Additionally, you need someone you can vent to without worrying that your concerns will be repeated to others, and someone who might not even be a teacher, but who knows your strengths and can remind you of them when needed.

As for those collaboration meetings? They are a good chance to interact with your colleagues, and we all need a little of that - why do you think it’s so hard to keep the kids quiet? Plus, it’s good karma to support your fellow teacher who has to run a mandatory collaboration meeting. So attend and participate with the best attitude you can muster. And make sure you sign the sign-in sheet.

LF: You write that principals really want four things from teachers: “Do your job. Do your job well. Do your job independently and with as little drama as possible. Make yourself, your students, the school, and, yes, your principal look as good as possible.”

For principals out there, what are the things most teachers want from their principals?

Roxanna Elden:

Based on the interviews I did for the book, teachers would collectively make the following three requests from administrators - or collectively thank administrators who already do these things.

Give plenty of lead-time before making big changes: Teachers do our best work when we have time to plan ahead. Last-minute changes in classrooms, schedules, or curriculum waste the gas in our tanks and leave us feeling frustrated. With this in mind, we appreciate when you let us know who, what, and where we’ll be teaching as early as possible - and then try to avoid mid-year changes.

Back up teacher judgment calls whenever possible. Teachers have to make on-the-spot decisions all day, every day. Students challenge our authority. Parents question grades and consequences. Knowing we’ll have your support during a conference gives us more confidence in the classroom. If you do have concerns about how a teacher has handled a situation, make this a private discussion. Reversing teachers’ decisions or reprimanding them in front of others makes them seem weak and sends them back to class with destroyed credibility.

Have fair, transparent processes for making your own decisions. Make sure your faculty understands how you assign classes, distribute students with behavior problems, and make classroom upgrades. No matter who gets that new smart-board or has to teach the overflow class, avoiding the appearance of favoritism is good for everyone’s morale.

LF: There are a lot of teacher books out there, though I don’t think there are many that have the “tell it how it really is” tone yours does, which combines with a sense of humor. Why do you think so many of us educator/writers are so measured and take ourselves so seriously?

Roxanna Elden:

Because there are kids involved. It’s not okay to say, “I’m working with kids and I might be bad at it.” It’s not even okay to say we’re just okay.

This leads to tremendous emphasis on learning from the best members of our profession and the best moments from our colleagues’ classrooms. A side effect of this, however, is that teachers spend a lot of time comparing our unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels. We are surrounded by images of teachers who seem genetically engineered not to need sleep, and inundated with messages that are meant to be inspiring but sometimes feel terrifying: The future is in your hands! This is the most important job in the world! The kids can’t afford for you to fail!

All of this implies teaching is a mission for a superhero when in fact it’s a job. Not only that - it’s a job best suited for a well-rested, sane adult. The most regrettable moments as a teacher tend to happen on days when lack of sleep combines with an emotional rubber band stretched to its breaking point.

I wrote See Me After Class because there were three things I desperately needed and couldn’t find in existing books: humor, honesty, and practical advice.

When teaching is good, it is really good. But when teaching is hard, it is really hard. On a day when a second-grader curses at you, you don’t want a reminder that your job is important. You don’t want to hear that this would never have happened in the classroom of award-winning-teacher X. You want to hear a story about a kindergartener punching a teacher in the stomach.

It’s not because you’re mean. It’s because you need to know teachers can bounce back from their worst moments and still go on to become successful. And then you need to know the next manageable step to being a better teacher tomorrow morning.

LF: Thanks, Roxanna!

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