A Radical Thought

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m heading to southern Arizona (pretty much Mexico, which sounds way cooler) to receive coaching and help courtesy the AZ K-12 Center on my National Board Portfolio. I’ll be there all weekend. That has nothing to do with this post, but please wish me well. I have so much I hope to accomplish.

Now onto that radical thought. Teachers having input on policy decisions about education? It seems common sense, but if only that were true.

And despite my adoration and customer loyalty for any and all products boasting that cute white logo of an apple with a bite out of it, I really want to hug Melinda Gates for writing this. You have to read it and tell me what you think!

P.S. For those of you sick of my attempts to wax eloquently on educational psychology and philosophies, I promise to soon share some lesson ideas!


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I promise it’s not about you …

I love reading Diary of a Public School Teacher. I was recently catching up on the posts, and this one really hit me!

I promise it’s not about you … no, in all honestly, this is a chastisement to me. If you know me, you don’t believe that, and I don’t blame you. You see me cringe when I hear students described as “behaviors” rather than as “people” or “children”. And if you know me, you’ll see me being an outspoken advocate for my students, always erring on the bleeding heart side, probably to a fault. Most likely annoying and upsetting , playing the Mama Bear, to those who might seem to threaten the well-being of my cubs. But it’s true, I’ve been a bully in my classroom. Much more so in the earlier years of my career, but even today. I woke up grumpy, and when a student in my 3rd hour class was giggling, coyly flirting, and disrupting, I called her out in front of the whole class, rather than talking to her privately. I didn’t think about it in the moment, but I was really trying to shame her into submission. Power through intimidation. Sounds like a bully.  Yes, it stopped the immediate behavior, and yes, she was well-behaved the rest of the day, but it hurt my relationship with her and with all of the other students in my room who witnessed that and felt empathy for her. One grumpy morning will affect all of my students’ levels of motivation and feelings of safety in my room.

But even more troublesome are those teachers who don’t realize their “management” is really bullying and intimidating students. What breaks my heart and (I’ll admit it) brings me to tears once I’m behind closed doors is hearing education professionals speak in derogatory ways about their students. “She’s a behavior,” “He makes me miserable,” “She’s a piece of work,” “Oh, THAT student …” I swear, I’m not that sensitive a person.  I hardly ever cry, and I’d like to think I’m pretty tough (I mean, I’m from Detroit!), but these words tear apart my soul. No lie. These kids are other people’s babies. They are the future. They are little, young, innocent souls in sometimes big, growing, and clumsy bodies.  And they want to succeed … they all really do.

But I think the worst are teachers who know they are bullies and don’t care. I don’t think much more needs to be said there. You know if you are. I know that because I was this teacher in the past. The first year of my career, I was a long term sub and had a class of 43 kids in a subject I’d never taught. I had no idea what to do, so I bullied and intimidated to manage my room. I wanted to have as few referrals as possible so the principal might hire me. I did win the favor of the principal and other teachers, but I failed at all I was trying to teach. The school psych had a poster in his office that read “Are you a teacher or a bully?” I felt guilty every time I looked at it, but those times I actually dared to read the bullet points under the damning headline? Forget it! Guilt to the max! Thankfully, I was hired into an amazing school the following year with fabulous colleagues. I learned so much from them and continue to, even though only one still works with me.

I guess I’m just trying to be that poster in the school psych office. You may cringe to look at my  headline and recoil even more when looking at the details. But bullying kids should be unacceptable. My grumpy nagging today … unacceptable. Saying mean or negative things about students should be taboo on our campuses.

I’d like to think that I’ve changed. I have good relationships with all of my students (at least from my perspective, and I hope from theirs). I was less than thrilled, to say the least, about returning to work yesterday after the winter break, but I kind of lit up inside when I saw their faces, tired but ready to work hard. All these special kids who are entrusted to me. All of these one-of-a-kind personalities testing and trying new idea, ways of communications, styles, and everything else about being human. All of them doing all of this in these short 9 months I get to hang out with them. Who else gets to soak up this much of the human experience?

Most likely, my students will forgive my grumpy morning. Kids have the benevolence to forget quickly. I’d like to think it was rather out of character, and they’ve already forgotten, but who knows.  I’ll do better tomorrow, and I hope you will too. Not because we need to, but because we can. And won’t they learn so much more from a little mercy than from relentless justice (Yes, I had to throw in a little comment inspired by Les Mis. Victor Hugo was pretty cool, but I really liked Anne Hathaway.)

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For a New Year


I’m thinking about sharing this with my students on Monday, but most likely I’ll wait until the end of the year as 8th grade promotion draws closer and they start thinking about high school.

I love it for so many reasons, but on first glance some may not notice that it’s attributed to Neil Gaiman, popular and award-winning author of YAL books like Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

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Kindness Goes a Long Way

So teachers, do you have things you’d like to get your students to do? Maybe take off a hat, spit out some gum, or stop clicking a pen (over and over and over and over and over until you feel like you could scream)?

Here’s my formula for success:

Use the student’s name + Genuine smile + Genuine compliment + Softly spoken, kind request = No Stress Success

For example, a young man often is sent out of his other classes for being disruptive. Per our school behavior plan, my room is sometimes the place he’s sent. The first few times, he was terribly disruptive … calling out, throwing spitwads, roaming the room, lying on the floor, etc, etc, you can imagine! After experiencing this 2 or 3 times, I thought I’d wised up. I decided to be proactive. When he came to my room, I found a minute to slip to the back and kindly, calmly, and quietly state my expectations for his behavior. This DID lead to improvements in his behavior. But maybe it was 10 instead of 100 spitwads. Or bothering a few students rather than shouting out in front of the whole class. Either way, I wasn’t able to teach with that going on.

New plan – when said student comes to my room, I walk up and say “Hey Student X, how are you?” I listen to his response, smile, and if appropriate respond back. Then I ask “Are those new shoes? I really like them. Where did you get them?” I listen attentively, making eye contact and nodding to show I’m listening. Now I say “Hey, do you think you can do me a favor? I really need to teach my class today, so can you sit here quietly?” Student X nods and does what I asked.

Student X is pretty much EVERY KID. When needled or neglected, he’ll act out. When shown genuine care and concern (this takes about 45-60 seconds), he will comply.

Let’s stop initiating conflicts and start modeling good interpersonal skills with our students.

Student’s Name + Smile + Compliment + Request


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The Art of Invisible Strength

I believe in using invisible strength to manage my classroom. I take this term from Amy Tan’s “Rules of the Game”, which is an excerpt from Joy Luck Club. The character Waverly was a first generation American born to Chinese immigrant parents. Her mother told her “Strongest wind cannot be seen.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this in terms of classroom management.

Here are some small recent examples of invisible strength.

– We were reading an article with a big picture of a man’s face on it. I knew they’d black out teeth, draw mustaches, red eyes, devil horns, etc. So instead of fighting it, I put a time limit on it. The whole class got 90 seconds to decorate the face as they’d like. Then, they got to hold them up and show off their “artwork”. After that, no more coloring the face unless they took it home to color.

– Recently, a kid raised his hand in class and asked “Can I meow?” If you are not a middle school teacher, you’re probably wondering what prompted this. If you do teach middle school, you’re nodding your head. Kids just do this. I figured that chances were good that he’d meow whether I said yes or no. I took a gamble hoping he might not want to meow if I allowed it, so I said yes. The student did, indeed, meow. Everyone looked at him, and we proceeded with our lesson. If I’d followed my gut and said no, I’d have had to figure out a consequence for having a student meow when I said not to … and who wants to do that!

I swear I had more examples, but I’m a half day away from a 4 day weekend, and I lost it. Please chime in with your examples of using invisible strength to manage your classroom.

On the surface, it seems like a weakness, like giving up control. But I think the strongest person (teacher or otherwise) doesn’t always have to exert his/her power and is someone who isn’t afraid to let go a little bit. The strongest person knows that you don’t have to control and manage everything in order to have strong control over the things that matter.

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An Adolescent’s View of School

I have been grading and grading and grading today until I felt like I was in some kind of grading nightmare. I seriously questioned whether or not I was awake at one point, and maybe I wasn’t. But during a waking moment, I came across a gem that I just had to share.

This isn’t the most amazing writing in the world. The grammar isn’t perfect. In fact, the assignment was to use personification like Steinbeck used in The Pearl to describe the town, and this student used similes and a metaphor. Clearly, I am not a perfect teacher.

I wanted to share this because it reminded me that we teachers are doing something that matters. I still firmly believe that I need to continually be focused on my own professional development and on the development of my school. I am not a perfect teacher, and I never will be, but that I still need to work towards that. But sometimes we all need to remind ourselves of the importance of the role we play in kids’ lives. This is real, not just some numbers game we play with test scores and teacher evaluations and rubrics. We create the environment for one of, if not the most important places in our kids’ lives. Read on, and be reminded.

“MV School is like a dictionary giving us information 5 days a week. It is also a future teller saying what we should do or have in our future. School is like a clinic, it takes care of all their children. Our school is a good educational and fun school to learn at. It is also a specialty building, where it takes our talent out so everyone could see. To meet new friends, school is the best place to come, especially MV. GO HAWKS!!”

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Poverty and Relationships

I haven’t blogged in ages. National Boards is sucking the life out of me, and I fear sometimes out of my teaching as well. But I think (or maybe hope?) it is supposed to make you feel that way. Ah well. I’ve still been learning a lot lately, and I’ll plan on updating about that learning over the next few weeks.

About two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending (for the third time) a training on Ruby Payne‘s research on poverty. It’s absolutely fascinating. If you have not read A Framework for Understanding Poverty, I’d really encourage you to do so. It’s an easy read, and I really think it’s applicable for anyone with any job, but if you teach kids in poverty, you’ll learn so much that can dramatically improve your practice!

Payne explains that poverty is not just defined as people at or below a certain income level. Poverty is a lack of resources including financial, emotional, mental, spiritual/hope for the future, physical, support systems, relationships/role models, knowledge of hidden rules, and formal register.

For people living in poverty due to lack of resources, their greatest value is relationships. In the middle class, we value achievement. We see it as our ticket to successful lives, and since we live in a predominantly middle class world, achievement is the ticket to success for most of us. Achieving makes us proud of ourselves. It makes us proud of our children, students, and loved ones. It’s really what school is all about.  But in poverty, relationships take that role. Relationships are the ticket to successful lives in poverty. If someone threatens you, you need relationships … people to have your back. If the money runs out, you need relationships … someone to allow you to stay with them. Payne explains this all so much better in her book, but you get the idea.

So for people like me who teach middle school kids living in poverty, this is so important. We know from science that adolescents are driven by biology to seek out and pursue relationships. Their brains process the need for relationships much in the same way as their brains process their need for food and water. They feel as if they’ll quite literally die without them. If you spend any time at all around adolescents, this should make sense. They’re not just being dramatic. It’s hard-wired. So then how much more should we focus on relationships if we teach adolescents growing up in poverty?

A key to building appropriate relationships with students is developing mutual respect. In the workbook that accompanies A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Payne details 15 behaviors teachers can practice to build relationships and develop mutual respect with students. They aren’t necessarily what you’d think … at least not what I’d think.

1. Calls on everyone in the room equitably.

2. Provides individual help.

3. Gives wait time (allows students enough time to answer).

4. Asks questions to give students clues about the answer.

5. Asks questions that require more thought.

6. Tells students whether their answers are right or wrong.

7. Gives specific praise.

8. Gives reasons for praise.

9. Listens.

10. Accepts feelings of student.

11. Gets within an arm’s reach of each student each day.

12. Is courteous to students.

13. Shows personal interest or gives compliments.

14. Touches students (appropriately).

15. Desists (does not call attention to every negative behavior).

These are things I need constant reminders of. I need to hang them up in my classroom or something. I hope you can find them applicable. Every time I examine them, I realize improvements I need to make in the way I deal with my students.

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