Published Online:

Ask the Mentor

Getting Ready for the School Year: Part I

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The Mentor
Coleen Armstrong taught secondary school for 31 years in Hamilton, Ohio. She hosted a TV talk-show that covered education issues from 1990-1999 and in 2002, co-authored Please Don’t Call My Mother: How Schools and Parents Can Work to Get Kids Back on Track. She has won state and national recognition as a teacher, including being named one of five finalists for the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1996. Armstrong’s recent book, The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me, is a 2007 first-place divisional winner for the Benjamin Franklin Award. A self-described “love letter” to new teachers, Armstrong’s book offers those just starting out a quick course in appreciating the most mundane tasks and coping with the greatest challenges.

Coleen Armstrong
Coleen Armstrong
—Photo by William A. Windom

In preparation for their new classes, some teachers read about every child to get the “scoop.” Some take notes on their rosters to remind them of the issues. Some wait until they have met each child before reading about them. And some never read a file until there is an issue. What is your advice? Should teachers research their students before they meet them?

While there’s a lot to be said for not prejudicing yourself in advance, I know I’d be irresistibly curious. So yes, I’d give those notes a brief scan––and then put them away for a while.

You’ll get so busy so fast that you won’t have a moment to reread them until well into the school year. By then entirely new relationships, not to mention different classroom dynamics, will be firmly forged, and others’ insights will be good for either a hearty chuckle or an all-knowing eye-roll.

It also may be useful to remember that kids grow up a great deal over certain summers (between 8th and 9th grade and between sophomore and junior year seem to be especially transformational). So you’ll want to jettison all preconceived impressions. But I should also mention that my kindergarten teacher in 1952 absolutely nailed me when she said I was “determined, but quiet––yet someone who also plays well with others.” Kindergarten teachers seem to have a unique prescience. Or else we humans don’t really change our basic natures as much as we’d all like to think.

I'm a high school teacher and next year I will be teaching U.S. history for the first time. I want to spell out expectations and classroom roles for each student, but I want the kids to have input in this process so they feel a sense of ownership. Any ideas?

U.S. history? Lucky you, with so much fertile ground and many great teaching tools at your disposal––including a new Ken Burns series on World War II, coming this September. And the marvelous 1976 two-part mini-series, “Eleanor and Franklin,” is now on DVD. Show brief clips from such films and then follow them up with analytical class discussions: Did Roosevelt really lead us out of The Depression, or did he merely have enough charisma to convince us that we could recover from it ourselves? Could that happen today?

The key to creating ownership is establishing ownership. Your students will live a long time with whatever gets decided in the next few years in regard to health care, global warming, illegal immigration, and the alternative minimum tax. So if you align the past with the present and address every issue in terms of how it affects (or would have affected) them, you can take advantage of youthful self-absorption to create some very heated debates! Friday afternoons are good for this: Why does every generation seem to have its own war? Why do “temporary” taxes never go away? Why are vicious political campaigns (including Lincoln versus Douglas) so effective? Don’t climb onto your soapbox; let the kids scavenge for their own answers and then vote on who gave the best ones. Award extra credit points to each winner.

Your goal is to construct a congenial atmosphere where everyone looks forward to hearing what others have to say. Your greatest reward will come when someone greets you with an excited, “What are we gonna talk about today?”

I am getting ready to student teach in middle school this fall. I am not a young person, but a career changer––moving from the tech field to teaching. How can I get off to a great start with both my mentor teacher and the students?

Your age, wisdom, and experience will all be huge advantages. So wear an enthusiastic grin, and tell your mentor how much you’ve always admired teachers. Then listen far more than you talk, please, and avoid making references to your former job. It could create resentment. Remember, this is a new day.

With your students, however, you can speak more freely. Offer plenty of insights regarding the (profit-making) adult business world. Because they haven’t a clue yet about how to be professionally successful, they’ll hang on every word! (Your mentor teacher, locked in her classroom for years, may be equally rapt.) And every time a student asks why you’re changing careers so “late” in life, answer with, “Because I want to work with folks like you. Life is full of wonderful second and third acts.” They’ll remember that.

I must add that if you’re over 40, during the first few weeks next fall, you’re going to feel as if you’ve been hit over the head with a shovel. Teaching school is grueling! But don’t worry, you’ll hit your stride. Just try to get plenty of sleep.

I am making the jump from elementary to middle school. What advice can you give me for classroom management and organization?

There’s a definite difference between the two levels. Middle school kids are caught in a peculiar crossfire of simultaneously feeling their oats and being terrified of looking foolish. This creates many odd seesaw patterns of behavior. You’ll have your work cut out for you!

But you’ll also have the advantage of dealing with an age group where hardly anyone has shut down yet. They’ll try to act cool, but they’re so hungry for wisdom and understanding from adults (and most still genuinely want to please you) that your chances for success are unlimited. The best tip I can offer is one you already know: Treat them with adult respect and dignity before they’ve earned it. Most will happily rise to the occasion, and even those who don’t will have a shining example to emulate.

One master teacher (no, not me) once said that the real secret to establishing high expectations with middle schoolers was never even bringing them up! She began every school year with the assumption that everyone would behave well and do outstanding work. I was so intrigued that I dropped my opening-day “you’d better follow my instructions to the letter” speech like a bad habit and switched to one that sounded more excited and optimistic. It worked––and it was a lot less embarrassing weeks later when I realized how incredibly dynamic and eager these kids were. Yes, they’ll be exhausting––but also very energizing. Enjoy them!

I teach in an alternative education program in what is essentially a one-room schoolhouse. My students come to me after expulsion from their regular schools. This coming year, I will have 4th through 8th graders. How I can organize my instruction for a multiple-grade classroom?

Yes, I’m very familiar with the program; it’s excellent. If you’ve done this before, then you already know what really makes it work––your own positive attitude. Reassure everyone that they can be successful in an alternative environment, that not everyone is wired to sit motionless in a classroom all day––and that you believe unequivocally in their potential.

As for organization, since independent study is the name of the game, use different colored plastic milk crates for each group’s handouts and incoming assignments. Keep your opening remarks to the whole class as short and to the point as possible. Then concentrate on individualized (or small group) instruction, with either your moving from group to group, or their coming to you one at a time; you decide. Once you’ve established personal bonds, it’ll be clockwork. And once students know the drill–– that you’re really there for them, but they still need to produce every day––they’re unlikely to cause much trouble. One of the world’s best kept secrets is that alternative schools don’t have many discipline problems. Why? Because the kids figure out fast that they’ve got a pretty good deal going; they’re still in school, headed toward a diploma, but in the express lane! There’s not much left to rebel against.

Try not to get too irate when groups don’t stay on task every minute. Remain friendly and upbeat; no pompous lectures, please. The structure dictates a certain amount of informality. You may feel that things are moving at a glacial pace, but in reality progress may be faster than in a class of 30, where everyone’s shuffling along at the same speed.

What are the best ways to help students with ADD and ADHD adjust to the classroom and take responsibility for their work?

You may need to spend significant time, at least at first, offering encouragement. Be patient, but firm. ADD/ADHD kids can and do become successful in school. They can and do focus, if only for short periods of time. They are held responsible for producing, because that’s what the working world now expects of everyone. Acting out is always a choice, and we all have a tough time learning self-control. (Have you watched “Dr. Phil” lately?) ADD/ADHD kids just have a steeper mountain to climb. Spell it out.

Also, gather stories about famous and successful people who were probably ADD long before we knew what it was: Thomas Edison? Albert Einstein? Both were labeled stupid in school. Both Cher and Tom Cruise claim to have been learning-disabled, but there may have been an ADD component too. Tack their pictures on your bulletin board. Locate a productive adult who was once labeled ADD/ADHD; see if he’d be willing to speak to your students or offer friendly advice during parent conferences. (Actually, the whole class could benefit.) If you have a touch of the malady yourself, that would also be helpful. Don’t laugh; some theorists believe that our fast-paced, sound-bite society with its blaring TV commercials has made ADD far more commonplace.

What do you do when staff members speak negatively about the administration when they are not present?

Remain very, very quiet. You’ll find that some of the criticism has merit, but most of it just amounts to blowing off steam. So if you participate in any way, even if it’s to ask an innocent question, your name could be reported as the lead gossip! Your best tactic, then, is to pretend you are too busy grading papers or scanning the bulletin board to overhear what’s being said. Make notes about genuine teacher concerns later, when you’re alone, if you wish––they’ll come in handy if you ever plan on becoming an administrator yourself.

Speaking up in their defense is tempting, and it sounds noble, but it will probably backfire. Since schools are places filled with free-floating frustration, you could even become a target of venom yourself. Just remember that people with constant axes to grind get tiresome in a hurry. What goes around will eventually come around.

I am just beginning a statewide mentoring program. How can I make it successful? Thank you so much for what you do.

You’re welcome! First, you’ll need a “posse,” some reliable resources, the district mentors themselves who live in other states. Get hold of names and e-mail addresses of ten or so. (Log onto district web sites to reach the right gatekeepers.) Then send them a questionnaire that won’t take too long to fill out. Ask about things you really want to know: What works best within your own program? What is your greatest frustration? What do beginning teachers need most that we’re still not offering?

In short, find out what your mentors will need, give it to them, and then keep in touch regularly. I like the idea of an online newsletter, where people can compare both war stories and successes. Hope this helps.

Web Only

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories