Monday, February 1, 2016

power struggles with students

"Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, 
anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending."

The year is halfway over, and while we can't really make a brand new start at this point in the year, there are ways to shift planning, instruction, assessment, and management to make a real difference in how a classroom functions. This post will focus on one management struggle common for new teachers: the power struggle. It is easier to set the tone at the beginning of the year, but can be done at a new semester or if things are not going well. Now can be a good time to test out alternative processes and procedures if classroom management is not working effectively. 

Teachers know that there is not a winner if a power struggle begins with a student. When frustrated, it can be difficult to know what to do in the moment to maintain the integrity of your instruction while addressing an issue with a student. Several key resources can help you find strategies that work for you and your students.

Intervention Central provides ideas for disengaging, distracting, and deescalating power struggles with students. NEA makes suggestions for planning and building relationships through a list of dos and don'ts as it relates to power struggles with students. And an article on Edutopia shares the perspective that it is not about getting the last word in these management struggles.

What are your most effective management strategies when faced with a power struggle?

Monday, January 18, 2016

disillusioned, 2016

Every year around this time, I start to feel a little down. The lights around town come down, I’ve overdosed on chocolate, and it’s just too cold. While I might have recharged a bit over break, goals I wanted to reach with students still seem to loom too large, and I’m not sure I’m making a difference.

While this time can be really frustrating, it is also comforting to know that it is normal and that it ends. It is very common for teachers to experience this phase. For some, it begins midway through the fall after the excitement of the beginning of the year wears off. For others, it happens in mid-winter, when the dark and cold make it harder to feel optimistic. While not all teacher experience it, most do at some point, especially in the early years of teaching.

What can you do? I’ve offered some ideas to help you through this time here and here. Other ideas are outlined in this article from Education Week include avoiding highs and lows, letting go of perfectionism, expecting obstacles, and seeking support. The article is worth a read for some helpful hints in understanding these suggestions and making them work for you.

Whatever you do, just know that others have been there, and that you can work through it. Find your support, and lean on them.

What do you do to help you get through disillusionment?

Friday, January 1, 2016

how to begin again after break

Hello dear readers! Happy 2016! I hope you've all been enjoying a lovely winter break. Once New Year's Day hits, signaling the rapid approaching end of break, thoughts begin to turn to lesson planning, assessments, relationships with students, and goals for the remaining months of the year. Returning to school after break can be a challenge. The time with family and friends is often rejuvenating, but all the holiday bustle can be tiring too. While the transition back to work is difficult for teachers, it can be equally difficult or even more so for students.

I recently read an interesting article with some great ideas for the first day back after break. In the article, the author, a neuroscientist, argues for planning the first day back around what the brain needs. For example, students are naturally curious about what their classmates have been up to over break. To ignore this and launch right into a lesson will likely set up the class for management issues. Give students a chance to talk and share with one another before beginning any lessons planned. Other suggestions include: active lessons, changing the room arrangement, and trying a new instructional activity. Find a great funny book or poem to read to get students engaged. Start the new year with an exciting new experiment.

Easing back into the (almost) second half of the year might take some time and planning. But do spend some time planning how you will help your students get back into it. They will appreciate the planning (and so will you)!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

time to recharge

Winter break provides a perfect chance for teachers to recharge. While August always and forever will feel like the true “new year,” the passing of one year ushering in another on January 1st provides an opportunity to reflect on what has gone well this year and what can be done to shift anything that is not going as well.

While you’re very ready for a break, it is important to know that some students feel a lot of stress as break approaches. School provides a structure some students crave and do not get when school is out of session. It is important to be mindful of this and watch for signs of distress in students as winter break gets closer. And remember that after break things might be stressful as students get back into the structure of school.

But for you, while the holidays can be so busy and overscheduled, you do need a chance to relax in order to be ready to tackle the end of the first semester and gear up for the second half of the year. Do what feels best – yoga, ice fishing, wine night with friends. Find a way to fill up your reserves so that you can return to school in January healthy, happy, and ready to support students through the remainder of the year.

Happy New Year, readers! See you in 2016!

Monday, December 7, 2015

the difference a phone call can make

When was the last time you called a student’s parents to tell them good news? These calls are often few and far between. And yet they can do so much good for the students, their guardians, and their relationships with you as the teacher. You're completely overwhelmed with the responsibilities of teaching, and now I'm telling you to add one more thing? It might seem hard to fit into a schedule already bursting at the seams. But think of this as a proactive way to support students and manage classroom behaviors in a positive way.

All too often, the only news that comes from a phone call home is bad news. Parents are often surprised to get a “good news” call, sometimes confused and wondering when the other show might drop. But reaching out to guardians this way can create allies, which are so important for students - both when things are going well and when they are not.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

they just won't stop talking

One of the most common complaints of teachers is that their students just won’t. stop. talking. Students aren’t trying to be naughty or disrespectful, they just chat. And chat. And chat. This is a management challenge that frustrates teachers at best.

One of my favorite “teacher books” is Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead by Jim Burke.  It is a collection of letters that Jim Burke and a new teacher, Joy, teaching down the hall from him, wrote throughout Joy’s first year of teaching. Burke had told Joy that if she had any questions, just ask. And ask she did.

In September, Joy wrote to ask about how Jim manages a class of 35 students that won’t stop talking. Jim provides a perspective of how intrusive behaviors in the classroom require teachers to ask why and sometimes that causes teachers to have to make hard choices in order to address needs that are not being met in the classroom. He references Frank Firpo, a master teacher in his school, and what he believes students need: comfort, safety, control, tradition, friendship, nuturance, recognition, success, independence, variety, curiosity, enjoyment.

A reflection on a management issue, such as talking, can begin with a reflection of the above values. In what ways does your classroom provide structures for these needs of students? Are there ways that classroom environment, instruction, and assessments could better support these needs? Specifically, Jim prompts teachers to think about these structures:
  • Are the rules clear? Are they consistently enforced?
  • Are there consequences for inappropriate behavior? And rewards for appropriate behavior
  • Do you talk with those that are the chattiest? What might be going on? If they need attention, can setting aside time to connect with them help?
  • Are the tasks of the class appropriate for students’ content knowledge, skills, and interests?
  • Do you have assigned seating? If so, can it be improved?
  • Can you make an agreement with student(s) with rewards and consequences for specific behaviors?
  • Have you tried exit slips to get a sense of how things are going from students?
  • How can you use student talk to support learning?

It would make life so much easier if there was a simple answer to the question of how to get students to stop talking. If only! There isn’t an easy answer, and there isn’t a simple trick to try. But reflecting on the above questions is a good place to start.
Burke also provides an action planner in the appendices of the book. As part of the process of determining how to solve an issue in the classroom, Burke suggests the following steps. While it is in the context of students’ talking as the concern, these steps can be applied widely for teachers (and students!) when a problem needs solving.
  1. Define the problem.
  2. Generate a list of possible causes.
  3. Describe the desired behavior or outcome (and why).
  4. Identify possible obstacles to success, such as knowledge, skills, stamina, adaptability, elasticity, commitment.
  5. Determine necessary resources (people, materials, facilities – not lessons or information) to help students make necessary changes.
  6. Identify the necessary knowledge – both for you and the students – to help students succeed.

I’ve used this process to help in a variety of ways in my teaching. Most of the time, I’m successful in implementing a change for the better. When I’m not, it usually is an indication that I haven’t thought of all the causes, obstacles, and resources needed to make a change. Give this a try – see if the process works for you and your students’ chattiness!

Reference: Burke, J. (2006). Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Monday, October 19, 2015

instructional options

Here we are, the end of October. School has been in session for a couple of months. Routines are established, beginning of year assessments are completed, and the heavy work of the academic year has been the focus for weeks.

When thinking about instruction, it can be so valuable to think about a variety of options. We all know this, but we fall into patterns really easily. We move, say, from whole group, to small homogeneous group, to one-on-one conferences and use this pattern for all lessons. But there are other options to keep in mind...

Whole group: Whole group instruction is appropriate when planning for common goals and experiences for the entire class. It can allow a teacher to provide valuable background in a new topic, directions for a procedure, or provide an experience with a new concept. Whole group instruction is a useful strategy for teachers in that it requires less preparation and fewer management strategies to implement. It's important to think about how to keep all students engaged throughout whole class lessons - think-pair-share, thumbs up-thumbs down, stop and summarize, write a question on a white board, reflection.

Small group homogeneous: Sometimes it is important to pull students together that all need to work on a particular skill. These homogeneous groups should be flexible and dynamic, and should change as students grow and progress. While it might be hard for teachers to resist, it is particularly helpful not to assign names to these groups - somehow the act of assigning a name to the group makes it harder to adjust. So, if the purpose of the lesson is to help students progress in particular needs, then homogeneous grouping works best. 

Small group heterogeneous: Heterogeneous groupings also work toward a common goal, but students have varied backgrounds and skills in the topic at hand. Groups can be randomly or intentionally assigned, depending on the purpose. Assigning roles to group members can help keep all students engaged in the work at hand.

Peer pairing: Partner work can help students beginning to work independently on a concept while working in a supportive environment. Peer partnering can also allow the teacher to work with small groups and one-on-one with students. 

One-on-one conferencing: When working one-on-one, the teacher can really target the specific needs of a student. These sessions are likely to be brief, but can be powerful. Knowing your students and their needs well will help make the most of these individual lessons.

While it might not work for students to experience all of these within one lesson or even across each day, they will benefit if they learn in a variety of contexts across the week. You can think about your instruction for the week with a chart:

Whole group
Small group - homogeneous
Small group - heterogeneous





Keep track of when you use which strategies, and try to increase the variety. Of course, the benefit of this is not just for variety's sake; the purpose is to differentiate to meet the needs of all students most effectively. So you'll have to choose appropriately for the content and student needs.

Happy planning!

Resource: Howard, M. (2012). Good to great teaching: Focusing on the literacy work that matters. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.