“No Mitt Romney didn’t appeal to the Hispanic vote, that’s why he lost. His only approach was to target a white majority.” “Yeah, you’re right. Also, Obama got most of the swing states that Romney didn’t really reach out to. I mean, when you’re campaigning you really have to focus on the swing states because that’s where most of the important electoral votes are. It’s a numbers game.”
It was a rainy day and I was sitting in the middle of a school bus bumping along on the way to a field trip eavesdropping on some of my eighth grade male students who were having an intelligent and informed conversation over the results of the 2012 election. I was extremely impressed with my boys because my three months of targeted presidential election instruction had a visibly deep impact.
Fast forward to the present--Americans are now witnesses to one of the most divisive and nail biting elections in United States history. Since teaching my eighth grade class, there is more technology, social unrest, and political upheaval then there seemed four years ago. How as a teacher, can one instruct students about elections and politics without getting caught in the emotionally charged fray that could be played out in the societal microcosm of the classroom?
The Solution/Teacher’s Tips
The main ingredient to teaching students about politics is cultivating the Poker Face. This means that students should not be able to recognize their teacher’s political convictions and bias. Remaining calm and thoughtfully planning lessons (especially for older students) is a sure win in maintaining an even keeled classroom that promotes an intelligent conversation that rivals any 2016 presidential debate. How can this be achieved?
Teaching any subject well not only generates interest and respect but it ultimately achieves the teacher’s goal. This goal is to help students become independent and free thinkers. I knew I had done my job because four years later, through the world of Instagram and Facebook, I knew that many of my former students who were seniors in high school or in college had gone out and voted. Some had even actively participated in campaigns covering state or local issues. While I know I can’t take all of the credit, it is satisfying as an educator when I can see how my lessons have encouraged active political participation and citizenship in the next generation. It is this reality then, that can give Americans hope.
Teacher Tip #6: Parent Teacher Relations: Why Dealing with Difficult Parents Doesn’t Have To Be Scary!
“Where is his coat?!!!”
Twenty-five wide eyed students were looking at the parent who had just dramatically entered my classroom, interrupted my class, and scared everyone (including me) inquiring about the whereabouts of her son’s jacket. My students quickly shifted their gaze towards me with hints of curiosity--wondering as to how I would handle this situation. At the conclusion of the incident, all had been rectified as the parent had the wrong teacher and the coat, it was determined, was at home. While this was an extreme case, dealing with a difficult parent at any level can be an uncomfortable experience. Like students, parents have many personalities and come from a variety of backgrounds meaning that at some point in a teacher’s career, they will encounter a difficult parent. Yet how can a teacher navigate through a conversation with a tough parent while maintaining a positive relationship?
Surviving a meeting with a difficult parent is possible! First, a teacher must acknowledge that there are many different scenarios they can experience which can include but are not limited to parents who are; highly emotionally charged and come to the school unannounced, in denial about their child’s behaviors or academic challenges, disrespectful towards authority figures, negligent, or overinvolved. Second, once a teacher can identify the scenario, they can offer a “first response” which is either de-escalation or empathy (or both). Offer a parent to sit down at your level and acknowledge their feelings by saying “You seem upset” or “You seem worried about Johnny”. Validating a parent’s feelings will let them feel like you are on their side even if you disagree with their opinion or behavior. Third, once you offer a “first response”, let them talk without interruption unless they are making threats or speaking inappropriately. Letting a parent talk indicates that you are listening to their concern. Fourth and finally, once the parent is finished, offer an apology (if needed) and address their concerns using “I” statements which prevent the assumption of blame. Acknowledge that you both want the situation to be rectified and offer possible solutions. If the parent’s behavior remains a concern, seeking the help of another teacher or administrator is acceptable.
In my experience, most of the time, these strategies have proven effective. One positive effect of establishing good relationships with difficult parents is that a teacher can earn the respect of their administrator. Generally, an administrator likes when a teacher can establish rapport with parents because it shows that they are a team player and can be trusted with larger responsibilities. It also relieves the principal of some of the burden because they may have to deal with other school wide concerns during their day. A second positive effect is that even tough parents can build up the reputation of a teacher. Parents are usually a great resource and ally to have in the classroom, so keeping close and positive ties to even difficult ones can be beneficial because they will generate discussion outside of school about their child’s education. Remaining cool, calm, collected, and fair in difficult times will earn not just the respect of one parent but of an entire school community.
Three years after the coat incident, I was the teacher of the son with the lost coat. Because I was able to tactfully deal with his mother previously, I had no issues with the student in class (though he had a reputation for poor behavior with even more seasoned teachers) nor did I have any negative interactions with his mother. She even considered me one of the few teachers on staff that she could trust. A little can go a very long way.
Once upon a new school year, I received a position which required me to take over a 4th grade class ten weeks into the year. I was teaching in a new district which was one of the lowest performing districts in my state. I had discovered that my predecessor had decided not to teach any content with the goal to focus solely on creating a positive culture (believe me, it wasn’t positive!) through team building exercises. Additionally, I had the lowest performing and most poorly behaved students in the grade and throughout that year, I received four transfers all of whom had learning disabilities or severe behavioral problems.
Unfortunately, I was also in a school that wanted to maintain its academic reputation and therefore the culture didn't actually celebrate improvement but proficiency on a standardized test. Within this environment, the expectation for me was to have everyone proficient in all subjects in less than four months with my students already ten weeks behind. I was also told to forget about the special needs students who would just decrease my overall class scores. I felt like I was already set to fail. What was I going to do? While not everyone was "proficient" according to the seventeen standardized tests my students had taken by the end of the school year, 100% of them were proficient readers on or above grade level.
So how did I do it? It wasn't easy, however, there were strategies and practices I built into the school day that allowed me to enhance the reading skills of all my students, even those who I suspected had undiagnosed learning disabilities. My first approach was fixing my own attitude as a teacher. I had to adopt a solution oriented mindset and find ways to be creative with limited time and resources. I thought to myself, “Students can and WILL learn!” Second, I had to look realistically at the students in front of me. I went through my list of students and identified the skills in which they struggled the most. Third, I decided that I was going to celebrate improvement with my students by announcing weekly/bi-weekly those who had improved. Students would also track their progress with goal setting binders. Fourth, the students needed to have fun reading and I needed to create a culture of engagement. Fifth and finally, I employed my plan that I call the "Octopus" or 8 tier plan for ensuring sound literacy instruction.
By mid-June, all of my students were “proficient readers” meaning they were reading on grade level. On MAP reading tests, all of my students had increased their scores significantly. Though not everyone scored proficient on the school wide interim assessment based on the state test, I noticed that students did improve on the reading skills that I had targeted. I was able to get a few students assessed for learning disabilities and even found that my lowest readers were able to accurately pick up on context clues and use critical thinking strategies. Additionally, my advanced readers had also moved levels some of them reading at a sixth grade level. As a teacher, I realized that tests did not necessarily indicate the success of my students and that the changes that had occurred were significant even if they weren’t perfect. Change is often slow and I had realized that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What was most important was that my students were ready for 5th grade and they were able to celebrate and revel in this reality.
Teacher Tip #4: Being Prepared for the First Day of School: Avoiding the “September Meltdown Mentality”
The above was only a small portion of my yearly “beginning of the school year to-do list” that I created as I prepared for another round of students. It certainly was stressful! Every year, I wondered how I would get everything done while pulling my hair out in the process and eventually finishing all of the bullets on my list. Yes, I had worried too much. Every year I went through the same vicious cycle of stress- like a hamster in a wheel- like Atlas and his globe. I was the poster child for the frazzled teacher. While I am now on the other side of the classroom as a coach and educational strategist, I want to help all teachers avoid what I call the “September Meltdown Mentality.” But, how does a teacher stay sane at the beginning of the school year with so much to do and little time to do it?
While summer is glorious and well needed for any teacher, in my experience, planning ahead and taking time during the summer to prepare for the next batch of incoming students is the best way to decrease stress levels. It is important to note that most other professions get 2-3 weeks off a year, so taking an extra week of an 8-10 week summer to work isn’t a loss-it’s an investment in stress management. Like students, teachers have their own organizational and planning styles which can be effective or ineffective. One strategy a teacher can use is to do as much planning as they can at the beginning of the summer before they go into summer relaxation mode. Instead of closing down the room (unless a teacher has to due to a move or maintenance) a teacher can set up their seating arrangement for the following year or rewrite/tweak the past year’s first day of school lessons. If a teacher is really organized and has great materials, they can print everything on the dreaded school copy machine before it breaks over the summer or is bombarded by other teachers at the beginning of the next year.
It can be hard for teachers going into the summer to be motivated to plan ahead-especially if they have had a difficult school year, however, planning ahead saves worry and stress when coming back to school. In addition, a teacher can actually enjoy their summer without having to think about the tasks they need to do. This also leads to adopting a positive mentality when approaching a new school year with joy and a feeling of refreshment as opposed to dread.
Sign up for my free monthly newsletter on my website aeinstructional.com and get a copy of my Teacher Triage Chart which is an organizational template (non-app) that helps with prioritizing tasks.
“Ok, so who can tell me about the six aspects of a civilization?” I looked around. It was the beginning of class and all I heard was a deafening silence accompanied by students who had question marks in their eyes. No one knew the answer, which was unfathomable to me because it wasn’t a hard question. All I needed were six students to say one answer each. In addition, I had just spent a whole lesson the day before teaching the answer to this question. It was obvious no one remembered. It was even more obvious that I hadn’t taught it well enough for it to be remembered. I once had heard of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus theory of the forgetting curve, whereby it was determined individuals forgot a large percentage of what they learned. However, I knew I could get my students to remember more than just a few facts. But how?
The answer was the Do-Now. After my first year of teaching, I realized that asking disengaging recall questions at the beginning of class was not an effective strategy in reviewing content with my students. However, the Do-Now’s purpose is to “spiral” or review content, extending learned information from one lesson to the next. A Do-Now can also introduce a concept one would want to teach in a lesson where the entire onus of learning is put on the student. Put into action, A Do-Now is an engaging, five minute independent and silent activity that occurs at the beginning of class. Yet how can all of this be achieved in under seven minutes? By keeping it simple.
I began asking engaging and higher level questions that would allow my elementary and middle school students to express their opinion using previous knowledge. If you were living under Hammurabi’s laws, would you follow them? Why or why not? Are they fair? Do you think animals should be free or live in zoos? I then observed colleagues and worked with my instructional coach to find creative ways to review content such as having students answer a question on a post it note and then get up and post it somewhere in the room. Other Do-Nows included vocabulary bingo, content charades, vocabulary Simon Says, and countless other activities that engaged and challenged student thinking.
The Do-Now has multiple positive effects that I never considered as a new teacher. First, having a beginning silent activity gave me time to check homework while getting the students settled both behaviorally and academically. It also gave me the opportunity to circulate and observe students who needed help or were about to misbehave which allowed me the ability to effectively employ classroom management techniques. Second, the Do-Now was often a hook that engaged students and got them excited about what we would be doing that day. Third, since I incorporated movement into some of my Do-Nows, my more impulsive students were able to release some energy in moving around before a longer period of sitting. Fourth, students were able to review or preview content that actually helped them learn content. I was also able to use Do-Now’s to review information students hadn’t learned well. Fifth, the Do-Now provided a routine for my class each day and students knew what to expect. Sixth and finally, the Do-Now allowed me to build relationships with my students because they knew we could learn and have fun at the same time.
Teacher’s Tips: How can I incorporate Do-Now’s into my lessons?
* Links to Cool Timer and other timers
Video on Do-Nows
“This is boring, Miss. Can’t we do something fun?” As a teacher who prided herself on being a “fun” person, I always dreaded hearing such a comment from students. Being “boring” unearthed a deep fear in me that I was the epitome of ineptness. Therefore, I decided to incorporate a series of “fun” learning activities including mummifying chickens for my 7th grade social studies unit on ancient Egypt. However, I soon realized my fun learning activities were simply fun activities. In our advanced technological age, I was irritated with the fact that I had to compete with the short attention spans of my students as well as their sense of entitlement to be entertained. Frustratingly, after observing my teaching neighbor, I found that the same students who were bored in my class were extremely engaged and enthralled with reading the book “The Outsiders”. Why were these students more excited to read than participate in one of my fun activities?
The lesson I learned was that I needed to change my instructional mindset. Learning in and of itself is engaging and the act of learning should not be downplayed as a cheap amusement or “activity”. In addition, children of all ages seem to be intelligent enough to make the distinction between engaged learning and activities. They are quick to value that “fun” isn’t as important as learning. Therefore, great teaching is centered on writing lessons that are academically rigorous and challenge students’ thinking as opposed to a compilation of activities. This doesn’t mean that lessons should be void of engaging activities however it does mean that these activities should encourage higher level critical thinking.
Therefore, I decided to keep some of my instructional activities but incorporate a more academic component. I had students mummify their chickens in addition to writing a two to three page diary entry as an Egyptian priest documenting the steps of mummification and how it impacted the afterlife of the soul. As the years passed and I became a more seasoned teacher, I found students were engaged (and extremely well behaved) because they were synthesizing their knowledge in a way that challenged their metacognitive skills and helped them created an original writing piece reviewing content.
Teacher’s Tips: How can I be a more rigorous and engaging teacher?
What strategies do you use to promote rigorous and engaging lessons?
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
For at least three years, my greatest challenge as a teacher was being myself. As I was surrounded by several nationally awarded master teachers, I thought that if I imitated what they did in the classroom that I would be a natural success. That was an incorrect assessment. Of my colleagues, I wasn’t the attitudinal and sassy math teacher nor was I the gentle, soft spoken reading teacher who could calm even the most barbaric class. I was me--fun, creative, and nice with the ability to establish a positive rapport with the toughest parent and student. By the end of my third year of teaching, I realized that a part of my classroom management problems stemmed from the fact that students viewed me as “a fake” desperately trying to channel my authority from the teaching style of my other colleagues. So how did I become authentic? I made the decision to be me.
The summer before my next school year, I bought a more professional wardrobe that reflected my personal style. Once school began, I created “Academic Game Fridays” whereby students would earn fun ways to review content via homework completion and class behavioral points. After direct instruction, I also offered a five minute “Joy Factor” which were anecdotes I shared about my (appropriate) high school college experiences which included choosing classes, extracurricular activities, and college tours. Most importantly, I used humor to my advantage and adapted a classroom management style that not only fit my personality but was taken seriously by my students.
The end result? I had minimal behavioral issues, students learned, and I had such an enjoyable teaching experience that I looped with the same group of students the following year. This allowed me to make two years’ worth of instructional and behavioral impacts with students. The most gratifying effect was that my countless telling of “Joy Factors” led several of my students to attend my college Alma Mater. I believe great things happen to a teacher when they decide to become authentic.
Teacher’s Tips: How can I be authentic* as a teacher?
Share: How do you practice being "authentic" as a classroom teacher?
*Authentic Teaching is different than being an authentic teacher. Authentic teaching is an educational philosophy of instruction while the act of being authentic is considered to be one's true self. More posts to follow on authentic instruction.
As an educator who wants to pursue the noble path of sharing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I would like to blog “Teacher Tips” bi-weekly. As many teachers are not used to sharing best practices, the goal of this blog is to offer teachers simple ways to improve their practice. The tips are delivered via anecdotes titled “The Situation”, “The Solution” and “The Effects” which explain a legitimate teaching problem I had as a teacher, the solution I used to solve the problem, and the impact the changes made on my teaching. Following these anecdotes, I will provide “Teaching Tips” which are action based-solution oriented tips that you can employ in your classroom to enhance your teaching. I shall also provide links to research to further your education of the practice. To broaden the conversation, I’ll also put the tip on my Twitter page and educators such as yourselves can comment on how you’ve used the strategy, whether it works, offer a different strategy, or how you have modified the strategy for your classroom.
Happy reading and learning!
*These views represent my views alone and are not representative of my current clients, colleagues, or employers.
I am an education coach and consultant as well as an executive functioning coach for children struggling with ADD/ADHD. You can also check out this blog at aquinaseducationcoaching.wordpress.com and