Thursday, June 19, 2008

Classroom Management

Classroom management is tough, especially if you have the kind of personality that does not naturally lend itself to being an authority figure. Case in point – me. I’m a soft touch and I love to laugh. I enjoy my students and I hope that they enjoy [most of] their learning. We get things accomplished and we check off the lesson plans.

But we are not always on task and there seems to be plenty of ambient noise in my classroom. I get “in trouble” a lot for this – sometime I feel like every time I turn around, there is another administrator wagging his/her finger at me. I have gotten into arguments over my methods, but most everyone tells me I’m in the wrong.

So what am I to do? What are we to do, we teachers who need help with classroom management?

Have Engaging Lessons

I think it’s time to drag out that old saying: “the best defense is a good offense.” For teachers, we need to have good lesson plans that engage our students and make them do most of the work. If they are focused on the lesson, they are less likely to be a management problem.

This means you need fill up your class time – no dead space (and I, for one, am guilty of not having enough for students to do). Instead of lecturing the whole time, lecture a little bit, have students break into groups and go over some discussion questions, and have the groups report to the class. Have students come up with an activity or game – give them some guidelines, show the grading rubric, and let them get to it.

You can also search the web for interesting lesson plans and activities – for English, I like and for Latin, I like . I like to use movies and video clips to go along with what we’re studying. One of the great discussions to have is how the movie is different from the book and why the filmmakers might have made the differences.

Basic Classroom Management

First, set up a routine and teach it to your students. At my private, religious school, after the bells rings, the students all stand and we pray. We go to the warm-up activity, the main portion of the lesson (be it lecture, discussion, reading, or writing), and finally have a concluding discussion. I then let the students know what the homework is and what will be on the agenda for the next day. If the students know what to do every day, they should follow the pattern each day. Lack of routine can lead to chaos.

Let your students know your rules and consistently enforce them (another one of my issues). If, on day one, you tell your students to bring their textbooks or they get a detention, then every time someone forgets their book (no matter the excuse) then give them a detention. If you aren’t consistent and don’t enforce your own rules, your students won’t respect you or your rules. They’ll do what they want to do.

If you have engaging lessons, set up a daily routine, and be consistent in your rules, that should take care of your basic classroom management needs.

The Video Tip

Of course, there are some days that are just full on crazy days (like the days students get to dress up in costume for spirit week) and it’s hard to get students to concentrate. That’s when I get out ye olde video – snap it in and watch the students settle down and watch. You have to be careful, though. The video should relate to your subject matter – for example, don’t show Lethal Weapon 4 if you’ve been studying Shakespeare – and you need to monitor your students. Don’t go sit at your desk and ignore your students. They’ll fall asleep or do work from other classes.

And, after the viewing is over, either that day or in the next class period, make sure you talk about the movie and how it relates to what you’re studying. That way, you’re not wasting time and your students know that, even though you know how to have a little fun, you’re still about business.

Teaching to the Test?

One of the hot topics in education today centers around the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act - – which was signed into federal law in 2002. NCLB is designed to improve the performance of primary and secondary schools in the US. In essence, this means lots of paperwork and lots of standardized testing. If students pass certain tests in certain grade levels, the schools get federal funding. The NCLB act is supposed to hold individual schools accountable for what teachers are teaching and students are learning.

Teaching to the Test

One side effect of NCLB is that some teachers are “teaching to the test,” meaning they are only teaching students the things they need to know to pass standardized tests. Perhaps these teachers are feeling pressure from their administrators, or perhaps these teachers are putting the burden on themselves.

Whatever the reason, I believe we are doing a disservice to students by only teaching to the test. As stated in many schools’ missions, we teachers are supposed to educate the whole child so that they can function as independent, self-reliant adults. We are supposed to teach the student skills that they can apply in any situation, whether taking a standardized test or writing a report for a major corporation.

Feeling the Pressure?

I have been lucky – I have only worked in private schools where the emphasis has not been on teaching to the test. Yes, the administration has looked at PSAT, SAT, and AP scores, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the pressure was turned on if the scores dipped. I will say that the English department has been asked to work practice test questions in during class – either as warm-up exercises or devoting a whole class period to practice before an upcoming test day – so that students are familiar with the format of the test and the style of questions they will be asked.

I like this format, the weaving of a few practice standardized test questions into class. It’s an easy warm-up and hopefully your students will be less nervous on test day. Let’s face it – as students we have to take tests. In high school, it’s the CRCT, the ITBS, the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT. In college, it’s the LSAT, the GMAT, the GRE, or the MCAT. In post-grad, it’s the medical boards or the bar exam. Yes, it “sucks,” but standardized tests seem to be a fact of life these days.

Finding a Balance

As I seem to say an awful lot, you need to find a balance between teaching to the test and teaching for life. We can’t send students out ill-equipped to take standardized tests, but we also can’t send them out unable to function as an adult. The hardest part will be resisting the pressure from the administration or even parents to improve test scores. You as a teacher can only do so much – you need to be met part way by the students. That’s when you all can be successful. Resist the pressure and hang tough!

Quick Questions Answered

Class Lengths

How do you cope with longer class periods? I believe there is a huge difference between teaching a regular class length (45-55 minutes) and teaching a block (90+ minutes). I have taught both and I have to say I really prefer the shorter class periods. There are teachers that will disagree with me, saying they need all that extra time – that’s fine. Everyone has his/her own individual preference.

For me, 90+ minutes is torture. I have to figure out enough material to keep students occupied the whole time, plus dealing with their restlessness once the hour mark has passed. I have done different things with the time. Sometimes I use the opportunity to show a lengthy video, have students take notes, and have class discussion. I have also broken the class into two 40-ish minute halves with a 5 minute break in the middle – I run two individual (but related!) lessons so that we’re not doing the same thing for an entire 90 minutes.

I think I am the one teacher that loves 30-35 minute periods (we occasionally have them if we need to make room in the day for a special event). I love the pressure of rolling up the sleeves, getting in there and doing the work, and getting out quickly. I call it “kamikaze teaching.”

Handling Nerves

How do you handle your new teacher nerves? I was nervous the entire first semester – both times I was a new teacher. I was terrified of screwing up, of not teaching everything on the lesson plan, of handling fussy students, of accidentally breaking school rules. By the time late November rolled around, I was far too busy to be nervous. In December, I had a rhythm going and was fairly confident. Then January rolled around and I had new classes and I was nervous all over again.

If you get nervous, I don’t think there is any other way to deal with it except accepting it, taking a deep breath, and going for it. The hard part is not letting your nervousness show to the students – I had a professor in undergrad that was visibly nervous and I wanted to tell her to chill out, it’s not that bad! It was difficult for me to go to class every time and see the poor woman practically shaking.

First, I see teaching as part performance and being nervous is a great opportunity for that. Take a deep breath, step on stage, and act out your part. Develop your teacher persona, live it, and enjoy it.

Second, have a really good, solid lesson plan. Know exactly what you’re going to talk about for the entire class period. I found that the weaker my lesson plan, the more nervous I was. If I knew exactly what I was going to do, if I had a “mission,” I could get it accomplished without giving in to my nerves. In fact, plan something extra for your lesson in case you end up with extra time at the end of your class. This can be an activity that you can do at any time (a vocabulary review activity) or part of your lesson that, if you don’t get to it this class period, you can start the next class period with.

The final thing to remember is that you are the teacher and you know more than your students do. They are here to learn from you, so feel secure in your knowledge and confidently show off your stuff.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Getting Certified

If you are going to be a teacher, you will need to get certified – at least, in order to work in most schools. Some schools do not require certification, only that you complete core Education courses at a local college or university. If you want to commit to a career in teaching, you might as well go ahead and get certified. Some schools will even help you with professional development funds to pursue your certification.

My Certification Route

I started out by getting my Provisional Certification – meaning, I had a Bachelors degree and passed the Praxis exam in my field, so I downloaded the application from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission (GAPSC) at and submitted it with all my paperwork. A couple weeks later, I received my non-renewable provisional certificate, which gave me a couple of years to complete the requirements for a clear, renewable certificate. I highly recommend this as a way just to get you started if you’re about to jump into your first job and haven’t been certified yet.

At the time I began my actual certification program, I didn’t know about alternative routes that might and would apply to me since I had already been teaching for a couple of years. I joined the teacher prep program at Georgia State University – but GSU wouldn’t let me do just the program. I actually had to apply as a transfer student and be accepted to the university and be “degree seeking” in order to get into the program. That was just the beginning.

Let me just tell you that, although my certification courses at GSU were great and the professors were fantastic, it was the haggling with the administration that was frustrating. For example, even though I had straight As in my five upper level Latin courses at Emory University, GSU wanted me to take an additional four courses so that I would have enough for their B.A. and to make sure that I was “up to their standards.” I fought with the department chair, declaring I wasn’t going to get a second Bachelors degree in the same field that I already had the first degree in. He finally gave in, allowing me to take only two courses. I got As in both those courses and passed the proficiency exam in 45 minutes (they gave me three hours).

Once I submitted the paperwork to receive my official certification from the GAPSC, I officially dropped out of GSU. That still cracks me up – I’m a college drop out!

Other Certification Options

If you are already teaching or if you already hold a Bachelors degree, I highly recommend avoiding an official teacher prep program that requires you to be degree seeking – please avoid the frustrating two years I spent fighting with bureaucratic red tape.

To see all alternative routes, visit GAPSC here: . To receive your clear, renewable certificate, you will need to select the TAPP program: . This is the Georgia Teacher Alternative Preparation Program. There is also a Troops-to-Teachers program if you have been in the military: .

I don’t know much about either program, except that they avoid the “degree seeking” frustration I experienced.

Avoiding Certification

If you are hoping to avoid certification, I see three options available to you. First, find a private school that does not require you to be certified. This is especially true if your teaching field does not have certification available (e.g. Religion). They may require you to take some education courses, so be prepared for that. My first school did not require me to be certified, but did require that I complete 12 semester hours of core education courses so that the school could meet its accreditation requirements.

Second, go ahead and take the core education courses – I believe these are still Educational Foundations, Human Growth and Development, Educational Psychology, and Exceptional Children. These are actually good courses for a teacher to take and will help your case in getting hired as a teacher.

Third, don’t teach at the elementary or secondary level – get your Masters degree and teach junior college. This way you can still teach, but avoid teen drama and parent-teacher conferences.

Whatever route you choose, it can only help to get some kind of training. Check out professional development opportunities through public schools or through the state – visit the Georgia Educational Training Agency through - .

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Teaching Personality?

Is there one particular teaching personality? If you don’t have the personality, are you doomed to thirty miserable years in teaching? I think the answer to both those questions is no. There is no one particular personality that works – knowing yourself really well and being able to structure your classroom around that is what’s important.

I tend to have a playful, light-hearted, slightly odd personality – that is who I am and I make no apologies for that and I try to use that in the classroom. I almost see myself as being on stage, as performing, when I’m in the classroom. I use the force of my personality to engage my students and make them learn.

There is no one correct personality – I have seen stern teachers, college-professor style teacher, sarcastic teachers, and more. They succeed because their personality fits in with their teaching style. My goofy teaching style works for me because I adapt my teaching style to my personality.

Patience is a Must

The one characteristic you must have as a teacher of any age level is patience. If you do not have some measure of patience, you will likely go crazy.

For instance, you must have patience for stupid questions – and let me give you an example of what I mean by a stupid question. If my English class has a test on Friday and I have posted it on the board and on the class website for at least a week, and I have talked about it every day, without fail on that Friday, as I begin to hand out the test, I will have at least one student say “We have a test? You didn’t say we had a test!” You must have patience in order to not yell at or throttle said student.

If you do not have at least some patience, you will lose your temper constantly and your blood pressure will hit an all time high. Students are not adults; they don’t have the good judgment and common sense of most adults. This is an easy thing to forget, especially in the heat of the moment. But you have to keep it in mind.

One little side note…you should treat your students like you want to be treated, no matter how idiotic they get. Don’t yell at them, don’t denigrate them, and certainly don’t throttle them (no matter how much you want to). They will shut down and they will learn nothing from you. Have patience and dish discipline when needed.

Commitment to Teaching

Whatever your personality, whatever your level of patience, the most important factor is your commitment – to your subject, to your teaching, and to your students. If you are not interested in your subject matter, it shows. If you are not interested in really being a teacher, it shows. And as I’ve said before, if you don’t care about your students, it shows.

As long as you are committed to being a good teacher, you can work with your personality and develop your patience. Your students may still act like goofballs, but at least they will be your goofballs.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Keeping Kids Motivated

When Kids Don’t Care

I believe that there is some truth to the statement that kids today just don’t care. As I am sure you have heard time and again, the latest generation of kids is the most hooked in to the latest technology and pop culture. Things, like your lesson plans, have to be quick and entertaining to keep their attention. If your lesson plans are supremely boring, the kids check out fast.

Last time I posted, I talked a bit about juggling teaching duties while facing a classroom of apathetic students. It can be very hard for a teacher to find the energy to “wake up” kids and get them interested in learning. Some days I just want to throw in the towel rather than try and get through to all of those blank faces.

Finding a Balance

I do think we do kids a disservice by constantly feeding in to their “need” for everything to be fast and exciting. How are they going to be able to sit through long lectures and read dense textbooks in college? How are they going to be able to sit through a long, dry board meeting when they’re adults?

On the other hand, how can “boring” textbooks compete with the latest video games like Grand Theft Auto IV? There has to be a way to find a balance, to add some excitement and sensationalism to learning.

Getting Their Attention

One of the things that I do – and I fully admit this – is play up the lurid details of the stories we read. I am a fairly young teacher and my students are teenagers and we are comfortable in discussing human relationships – without crossing the boundaries of good taste. The more shocking something is in the story, the more excited the students get.

For example, in the fall in American Literature, we read The Crucible, a story of how a young woman scorned starts the Salem Witch Hunt. In one scene toward the beginning, Abigail reminds John Proctor of how he clutched her back like a sweating stallion. In every one of my classes, my students were practically leaping out of their seats yelling “No way!” After that, we referred to John Proctor as the Stallion, and any time someone was to read his part in the play we all called him the Stallion.

Creating Meaningful Activities

Of course, not every subject will be able to take advantage of the “sex sells” scenario and it is tough to play up such literary naughtiness day in and day out. What you, and your students – yes, they can help – is create meaningful activities that connect the reading or the lesson in with their own lives.

One way to make connections is to tap into current events. When teaching Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (i.e., good fences make good neighbors), my classes talk about actual walls like the Berlin Wall or the border fence along the southern United States. We talk about hypothetical walls like racism and prejudice. Then, to tie it all together, I show them a video clip from the Comedy Central website of Carlos Mencia, a Latino comedian, ranting about the border fence and racism. Chances are good that most of the students have seen his show on TV and are familiar with his rantings.

Another way to make connections is to tap into students’ own thoughts and feelings. When we read The Catcher in the Rye, I have students create personal scrapbooks inspired by elements from the novel. For instance, the main character Holden has a red hunting hat that he uses to show his individuality. The students have to select an article of clothing or item that represents them as a person, that makes a statement about who they are.

Make Learning Relevant

Whatever you choose to do, it has to be relevant to the students or you will lose them. Yes, there will have to be days of lectures, of reading out of the text, of writing essays. Neither you nor your students can get out of them. Not every day can be a lively party. I think you can find a balance, to space out the activities among the lectures so that you can keep the momentum going.

The most important thing, however, is to stay positive and interested – interested in your students and interested in your subject. Kids can tell when you don’t care and they can tell when you do care. If you earn their trust and respect by showing you care, it is much easier to get them to go along with whatever you are trying to accomplish.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Staying Positive When Teaching Gets Tough

Why Teaching is Tough

What makes teaching tough is the sheer amount of things that demand your time, your attention, and your energy. Teaching is not just about lesson planning, teaching the lesson, and grading papers.

Teaching is about teaching the lesson five times a day (equivalent to making a big presentation five times a day), managing the classroom and meting out discipline; it’s about managing your homeroom, your extracurricular activity (for me, planning prom), and attending school events. It’s about staying after school to meet with students, department chairs, parents, and administrators. It’s about meeting standards, keeping up with the curriculum, and trying to make everyone else happy while still accomplishing your own objectives.

Add to these overwhelming tasks a classroom full of apathetic students. You can begin to feel like what you do every day doesn’t matter and even worse, that you don’t matter.

Getting Frustrated

Staying positive can be difficult when you’re faced with the huge teaching demands and multiple classrooms of apathetic students. My first go-around as a teacher was like riding a massive emotional roller coaster. I went into the classroom with huge expectations and an idealistic outlook – I was going to connect with the students, challenge them, and mold them into creative and energetic adults.

Talk about a reality check when entering the classroom! In general, teenagers appear to be a self-centered, easily distracted, unthinking group. I kept getting so frustrated when I couldn’t get through to them, when I couldn’t even get them to pay attention to me. I let it get to me and I quit teaching after five years.

Staying Positive

In my second time as a new teacher, I made some adjustments. I abandoned most (but not all) of my idealism and I made a conscious decision not to let the kids get to me. I would say to myself, “It’s just not worth worrying about. Let it go.” When I go home at night, I leave the kids behind. It’s tough to do, but it’s totally worth doing!

Another trick I use to is to remember the individual good days that I have had, either by writing it down or sharing it as a story with someone else. I also keep a file of positive notes written to me by students, telling me how much they enjoyed my class or that they really like some particular activity. When I’m feeling bummed after a lousy day of teaching, I call up the memories or open up my file and remember when I did something well, and I let myself feel good about it.

One final trick I use is to connect with another teacher whom you can consider a friend. One of my best friends is an elementary school teacher and we get together regularly for coffee or dinner to share the ups and downs of our week. Having another “teacher friend” is great, because he/she is the best person to sympathize with your frustrations and offer suggestions to help get you through the rough times.