Category Archives: Life in the Classroom

Student Behavior, Teacher Behavior, and Getting Cussed Out

For some reason, my heart has always been with “those kids.” The ones who sneer at you the first time you meet them. The ones who push buttons and boundaries. The frequent fliers in the “tank” (In School Suspension) and who know the campus security guards far too well.

I was talking to the principal at the smaller of the two high schools in our district recently, and without consulting my brain, my mouth spoke my truth: What a privilege it is for me to be the adult for that kid at whom they can scream “F— you, Mr. Gardner!” And then tomorrow, we can talk it through and figure out where that came from; I can teach about repairing relationships, and we can strategize how to handle it better next time…and the time after that…in a safe place where they won’t be risking their paycheck or their marriage or their freedom; in a safe place where they can start to learn some important lessons that don’t show up in the Common Core.

Read no sarcasm here, I mean it: What a privilege that I get to be that person.

While I think I’m a pretty good teacher of the academic stuff, I think what has made me successful is the way I handle moments like that. I don’t always do it perfectly; none of us do. The idea of student discipline is one that I often think over, and in particular in my role this year as a new-teacher mentor. Classroom management and discipline, creating those safe, productive educational spaces, are central lessons for the beginning of a teaching career. Recently, at a conference related to the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program here in Washington, this topic of how teachers handle student behavior was at the core.

It was at this conference that I was handed some data that did what data is supposed to do: It made me think.

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Making Student Growth Matter

I am no fan of standardized testing, so one of the greatest strengths of our teacher evaluation system in Washington state is that it empowers teachers to use classroom-based assessments (and data) to illustrate how they are fostering growth in students’ knowledge and skills. Closer to the kid always is the way to go, so using an assessment I designed or chose with my learners in mind will always (for me) trump using a corporate product, no matter how “standards aligned” it might claim to be.

One problem that I am seeing throughout my district and in other districts whose staff I support through WEA is that with all the many moving parts of teaching, student growth examination often ends of falling into the realm of “whatever is easiest to count.” Further, as I engage in deeper conversations with teachers who go this route, the whole student growth process becomes an exercise in compliance and thus a box to be checked.

When this occurs, we’re letting ourselves choose to waste our own time.

I have worked with teachers for several years now to design and implement student growth goals, and some patterns are starting to emerge:

What teachers are doing that works: Continue reading

Collaboration, Introversion, and Stifled Innovation

There’s a stage of social development that most kids go through somewhere between ages one and three where they engage in “parallel play.” At this stage, kids will play near one another, enjoy one another’s company, but are more “coexisting in play space” than interacting with one another’s play. One child’s play might influence the other, but they can’t really be said to be playing together.

At the risk of casting myself as developmentally arrested, parallel play is how I prefer to collaborate in my job. (We each do our own thing, have the chance to see how the other plays, maybe get inspired by what we see, and we can ask for things if we need them.)

Despite the work I do daily, I am a remarkably introverted person. I think of all of the quasi-social moments (adult to adult) in my work and how painfully exhausting those moments are… and how deeply, deeply awkward I feel when I’m not in teaching, coaching, or facilitating mode. Try to strike up a social conversation with me and I want to either (1) change the subject to talk about education policy or (2) hide under the table. Oddly, when I am in front of a classroom full of teenagers or even when I lead teacher or principal PD, I shift confidently into what, by all outward appearances, is a distinctly extroverted disposition. Though I almost always end up physically exhausted, those kinds of interactions are intellectually invigorating.

Where my introversion does emerge in my work is very specific: I do not like collaboration as it seems to be happening in the profession right now, with the emphasis on “group production and alignment” and what often feels like the sacrificing of individual innovation in order to appease the common. The net product almost never feels as satisfying as if I could have just worked independently with occasional advice and consultation of peers, then reported back to the group.

A recent article grabbed my attention because it pinged twice on my radar: It referenced teacher mentorship and introversion. The article from The Atlantic about how teacher burnout is more likely among introverts (the link is worth reading from to top to bottom), highlighted how collaboration is prized so vehemently in modern school systems and how incompatible and unsustainable these are for those of us who tend toward introversion… to the point that it drives some out of the profession altogether.

What it boils down to for me personally is this: for introverts, collaboration isn’t actually about doing work. Collaboration is a social exercise. For an introvert like me, such a social exercise is stressful and exhausting and inefficient. Worse, it feels like it allows no room for any innovative or creative impulses that don’t feel instantly palatable to the group.

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Classroom Management and the Teacher Shortage

Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.

In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.

Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.

When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.

Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)

Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.

Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.

Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.

Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.

Our real problems: Continue reading

There’s Always Hope

esperanzaBy Tom White

I was sitting around the other morning thinking about former students. And when I do that, my thoughts invariably turn to Vincent. Because Vincent was memorable.

Eighteen years ago, on the first day of third grade, when I had my class “write something about themselves,” he just sat there. So I took him outside to see what was wrong. “You can write about something else; anything you want,” I offered, “just write something.” He turned to me and screamed, “I can’t write!” and threw his pencil farther than I would have thought possible.

That pretty much set the tone for what was to be a long year.

Vincent was tough and angry. He acted out. He threw things: pencils, books, foul language, a chair. He refused to work. He refused to be quiet. He refused to sit down. But what made him legendary was the passion with which he did and didn’t do those things. To get an idea of how hostile Vincent was, picture your most challenging student ever and multiply that image by the number of years you’ve been teaching. That was Vincent.

So I was sitting around, wondering (and fearing) what he was up to. With time on my hands, I Googled him and looked him up on Facebook and before long I found him. And after exchanging a few texts we agreed to meet for a few beers.

And he told me his story.

Although he couldn’t articulate it at the time, Vincent knew he was smart, but he also knew he couldn’t do what the other kids could do. He had to move around and talk in order to process information. Sitting still, listening and reading, didn’t work for him. He described school as a plunge into a dark cylinder; the more he tried to engage on his terms, the more we forced him to engage on our terms and the angrier he got. And the angrier he got, the more trouble he got into and the farther he plunged into that darkness.

In other words, we failed him.

But he wouldn’t let me tell him that. He takes full responsibility for his behavior; then and now. He remembers feeling terrible for acting out. Day after day. And now he feels embarrassed, and worries that some of us quit our jobs after a year with him.

That surprised me. Because the familiar narrative when it comes to kids like Vincent is that they’re angry about something; they take it out on the world and they hold the world responsible for the consequences.

This narrative also has one of us turning Vincent around. Setting him straight. But none of us did that for him. There was no Annie Sullivan; no Jaime Escalante. Not that we didn’t try. I remember countless conversations, trying to figure him out. I remember trying to connect with him, going to his Little League games. Nothing.

It was Vincent who turned Vincent around, along with a junkie house painter that he worked with after stumbling through high school. This guy apparently scared him straight; talked him into going to community college, holding himself up as the eventual alternative.

The strung-out painter was the catalyst, but it was Vincent who enrolled in classes and got straight A’s for two years. And it was Vincent who got accepted into ten different universities, including Stanford and UW. And it was Vincent who received a full ride to Purdue, where he graduated two years later. And it was all Vincent who landed a great job at a major tech firm, where he’s been promoted several times.

Most of us are pretty realistic. We know that every Quinton Tarantino movie has a villain and every Warren Zevon song has a hero. And we know those characters are based on real people; people who plowed through the public education system, leaving terrified teachers in their wake. And we know what usually happens to those people.

But sometimes there’s a happy ending, and I was privileged to spend an evening with one.

Vincent is relaxed, funny and centered. He’s completely different from the feral nightmare I knew 18 years ago. I couldn’t be happier for Vincent, his wife and their two-week old son; a kid who has no idea how lucky he is.

And for me, the message is as simple as it was powerful: there’s always hope.

 

Where did 1351 go?

I was incredibly excited to start the 2015 2016 school year.   After spending twelve years in a portable classroom, our high school moved into a brand new building, full of sunlight, windows, and classrooms.  We even have empty rooms.  But, my room is far from empty.  As soon as the construction company gave us “occupancy” I was in my room trying to figure out how to arrange my 30 desks.  I settled on a U shape because I like to be able to easily access all of my students when they need assistance and the arrangement is conducive for whole class discussion.  Prior to the beginning of the year, I watched my rosters and when the first day arrived, I had 36 students in one class period.  Soon the emails were flying among our staff, 38 students here, 40 students there.  

Here’s the good news-parents want their kids to come to our school.  I love that!  Enrollment is up and admittedly, creating a balanced schedule is challenging for small schools that try to offer competitive courses.  Our union has bargained language (I helped bargain that language) that creates limits to the number of preps a core teacher teaches so this also places a hardship on the schedule and can tie the hands of the registrar and administrators.  I know that all stakeholders in my school see this as a problem.  I don’t place the blame with them.  I had faith that we could all put our heads together and come to a solution.  Afterall, we are smart people-we can figure this out.  I also believed that no one was going to argue that having 38 students in a math class was a good idea.  Now nine weeks into the semester, my excitement is far more contained, the dust has settled and adjustments have been made.  In order to bring class sizes down, a few staff members agreed to give up their prep period so that a few extra class periods can be placed in the schedule, creating more scheduling flexibility.  I don’t have 36 students anymore–I’m now down to 32.  The classroom still feels packed and it is a challenge to manage all class discussions let alone mobilizing to assist students on assignments.

I suppose I could blame all sorts of factors.  But I can’t help but feel that my school and students could have seen some relief with 1351.  Voter approved Initiative 1351 would have reduced K-12 class sizes.  While the initiative may have not directed the legislature to increase taxes or reallocate funds directly, approval of the initiative should have been viewed by the legislature as a mandate from the people.  When the 2014-2015 legislature delayed the implementation (see the Associated Press article from July 9, 2015) of the initiative by four years, they sent a message to voters and to my students.  My current students will see no immediate relief from the legislature.  How frustrating it is to to tell my students that the popularly elected legislature cannot figure out a way to enact a voter approved initiative that would directly impact their learning.   How is it that a legislator can see class size as a ‘luxury’ and not a necessity?

As our state legislature and court system evaluate what a basic education is in Washington, I can’t help but think that basic education must encompass quality instructional time between a teacher and each student.  While it’s challenging to quantify what quality instructional time looks like, it’s not a reach to assume that students in smaller classes have more access to a teacher during class time than students in larger classes.  It’s difficult to run around and work one on one with students on the writing process when you have 32 in a class.  Is that what a basic education looks like? 

What is the purpose of democracy if an act passed by the electorate in a democratic manner is set aside by the legislature?  I teach government and politics to high school seniors and our legislature has failed to recognize what democracy looks like.  How do I explain to my 17 and 18 year old students that voting matters when the outcome of an election can be suspended by the legislature?  Do I chalk that up to the Madisonian Model of checks and balances?  I have to admit-that’s not an example I intend to use with my students.  With the legislature under pressure again, I hope that 1351 isn’t dead.  I hope that democracy will eventually rule.  I have to believe that because it’s the foundation of the course that I teach.  What message would I be sending to my kids about the power of democracy?  I refuse for it to be the same message being sent to them by our legislature.  

 

High School Redesign?

Last week, the Obama Administration announced the offer of $375 million to support what it calls “Next Generation” high schools in an effort to improve graduation rates and career and college readiness (with a distinct emphasis on STEM as the be-all, end-all solution).

I am not anti-STEM, but I do not believe that preparing students for STEM careers ought to be the sole valued purpose for school redesign. As I read the press releases and fact sheets, I also see repeated references to innovation. Paired in the right sentence, “high school redesign” and “innovation” are truly exciting. However, if the word “innovation” is intended to mean “more STEM,” then I don’t think we’re heading down the right path. Adding more science and math is not a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t amount to innovative redesign. If we are going to truly redesign what high school looks like, we need to do more than revise the course catalog or offer more internships in the community (also a major theme in the redesign literature released last week, also not a bad thing, but also not really a realistic “innovation” for all communities and all students).

Ultimately, adopting new standards, offering new classes or internships, layering on teacher accountability measures, or mandating exit assessments will not broadly result in school reform until we address the one resource that no school reform movement has meaningfully addressed: time.

By this I do not mean adding more time to the day or even the school year. I mean that we need to utterly rehaul how we structure the time both teachers and students spend at school. And by how we structure time I also mean whether we structure time.

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When Tragedy Strikes Over & Over & Over Again

 

Teaching in an urban, high poverty school isn’t like teaching elsewhere. The lack of resources, sporadic community support, systemic inequalities, and high mobility cultivates an environment filled with trauma. In this environment, it necessary to be in a constant state of alert. My kids are on guard. I’m on guard.

Tragedy is around every corner.

Literally. Every few months–it seems–there is an altercation that results in the death of a young man or a young woman. Usually a young man. A young man of color. It was Elijah yesterday.

Having taught in a suburban high school, I know this is not the same experience. Yes, there were deaths and sadness but there wasn’t an air of expectation. An air of resignation to the facts of life–that hardship, struggle, and sorrow are moments away. It’s an air of “we hope this never happens again” combined with a whiff of “we aren’t surprised anymore.”

Our students are constantly faced with loss and death, but are expected to be resilient and move on. They mourn in whatever way they can—through stories of precious moments, through over-sized T-shirts tagged “in loving memory” and through altars of remembrance. The district sends in extra grief counselors and we all pray the day hurries to a close so we can stop pretending to care about Shakespeare, transitive properties, and Government. Tomorrow will be better we tell ourselves. And it will.

But what about the days after the initial event? Who is there to help our students process this grief? How about the next tragic event? And the one after that?  Five counselors, two psychologists, and a few administrators can not carry the psychological and emotional weight of 1400 students and 90 + staff members.

Education administration professor, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, argues that urban youth are undergoing “toxic stress”. He further postulates that,

When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration.

In a classroom of 30, that is one third of my students. Where are the discussions on mental health, toxic stress, or urban PTSD on the local and national level? Are we waiting to see how the Compton Unified class action lawsuit against the district for failure to respond appropriately to student trauma pans out?

I have my suspicions why few want to address these issues.  

Regardless, if our students are coming to school with more PTSD than a soldier, how are the staff in any building prepared to mitigate this? In 2012, the AFT published findings that 93% of teachers never received any bereavement training. The report elaborates that teachers are asking for it. Clearly, teachers want to be better prepared to serve all student needs not just ones related to Common Core. I think it’s just as important for Larry to know how to respond to his triggers as it is for him to read grade level texts.

Alas, when I browse through the catalogues of professional learning opportunities of surrounding districts, I notice I can sign up to learn how to set up a flipped classroom. I can get tips on how to use love and logic for my discipline plan. I can learn the ins and outs of the TPEP evaluation system. What I can’t find is anything on how to manage the grief my students bring with them to the classroom. I don’t see courses on mediating toxic stress for students or colleagues. I can’t seem to find a training on conflict resolution or tips for designing lessons that maintain academic rigour and give alternative activities to lower the affective filter. I can’t find a class to help me understand and respond to the differences between trauma and grief.

It is critical that schools with high percentages of students living with toxic stress receive more short and long term support addressing these conditions. Staff need more than momentary pep talks or a handout on the stages of grief. We need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to cry in the bathroom and then pretend things are fine and go back to teaching Things Fall Apart. We need to stop ignoring that our urban youth and their teachers have unique needs that aren’t being addressed system wide. We need professional learning opportunities that equip our teachers to handle grief—their own and a classroom full of it! If we develop sustainable programs truly addressing the whole child, then both our teachers and our students will be empowered to handle whatever is around the next corner.

Positive Behavior Supports

This year my district adopted Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), so our teachers got several days of training. In August I attended an unpaid PD day, mostly as a show of support for my new principal. (Remember my article last year “TPEP Is Killing My Principal”? He resigned in the spring. He’s now working for a small private school—and looking a lot more relaxed.) We had a second day of training right before school started and a third in September.

The feds recommend PBIS on their site (http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html). One goal of the Department of Education is to decrease expulsions and suspensions. After all, students who are out of school for discipline issues are not likely to make academic gains while they are gone.

On one hand, PBIS focuses on teaching and modeling correct behaviors and offering tons of positive support. On the other, it mirrors RTI in that it helps schools identify Tier I, II, and III level behavior and the types of interventions appropriate at each level.

My class helped make videos of how to behave on the playground, in line, and even at the sinks outside the bathrooms. They love watching themselves show off how to do things right! Our school now has common expectations for the halls, lunchroom, recess, cafeteria—with the entire staff is using the same language, from the four expectations to the numbered noise levels.

common_expectations

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Unfortunately, this year we are struggling with a number of Tier III students. So far PBIS isn’t a magic solution for those students.

Our principal, counselor, and interventionist are dealing with emergencies all day, every day. Experienced, seasoned teachers are strained and strung out. Teachers that last year I encouraged to go out for National Boards are equally strained and strung out. As much as we want to fix everything immediately, it’s impossible to effect big, systemic changes overnight.

Under PBIS, my classroom is both a time-out space for students to write reflection sheets, and it’s a haven for emergency evacuations. Late in September, while I was working with my math group, I looked up and realized there was a bunch of “littles” in my room. The dozen second graders had entered so quietly I hadn’t noticed! They were sitting crossed legged in the front of the classroom, hidden by the big fifth grader desks. Their teacher had sent them to my room for safety.

I peeked my head out the door. Three administrators stood there, observing one small student. The administrators said it wasn’t safe to bring my class through the hall to lunch. I had to find another solution, for them and for the second graders suddenly in my care.

How can we solve the problem at our school? We’ve met with district administration and our union president. Multiple district administrators have spent extended time at our building. We’ve received extra support in terms of additional trained personnel. We are working on problem-solving every way we can.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to do small things that might make appreciable differences.

I have one little guy who is a frequent flyer in my classroom. Call him Greg. He comes in often to fill out a Time to Reflect sheet. He’s not very cooperative. He’ll knock over a chair or make rude noises.

But I saw him in the office with an ice pack a couple weeks ago or so. I said, “Oh, honey, what happened?” He told me he hurt his eye. I said I was so sorry and gave him a hug. He melted into me. The principal gave me a surprised look—that was not his normal interaction with adults. But she said, “Good for you, Jan.”

A few days later I saw him in the office again. I said, “Hey, Greg, how’s it going?” It turns out he’d earned a reward and was in the office to collect. I told him how proud I was of him and gave him another hug. He clung to me again.

Now whenever I have a few extra minutes I stop by Greg’s classroom. I kneel by his chair. I ask him to read to me or show me what he’s writing. (His teacher is delighted that I’m giving him this extra support—I did check!)

This week when I said, “See you later,” Greg said, “No.” Surprised, I asked if he didn’t want me to come by any more. It turns out he didn’t want me to leave.

Ok, Greg is not a Tier III kid. He’s a Tier II. But he’s the one hard-to-manage kid who’s frequented my classroom. And if I can be one more adult building one more positive relationship with one more kid in my school, it can’t hurt.

And I also bring brownies for the staff room.

 

Secrets Student Share Help Me to Help Them

Irene

This guest post comes courtesy of Irene Smith, an EA ELA NBCT in Yakima, Washington, who teaches English Language Arts, Social Studies and more to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Discovery Lab School.  She and her students produce a full length Shakespeare play every year, and she is currently writing a companion text for The Tempest.

You may find this strange.

I collect students’ notes that they pass to each other. Sometimes I catch them passing their little missives and keep them. Sometimes I find them left on a desk or floor, tucked into a drawer or left on a filing cabinet. My students are aware of my fixation with their notes. Sometimes they even purposefully pass one in class in hopes that I’ll collect it in order to find the “Hi Mrs. Smith!” folded up inside. Some students purposefully intercept or find notes to bring to me.

I never read the notes aloud. I just save them until I’m alone to see what the message is. Mostly they are of relative unimportance- I m bored L. But not infrequently, they are full of mystery and angst.

Middle school students are careless, but I suspect they may sometimes leave these notes in order to let me in on their secret communications, to become more closely acquainted with their private worlds, and to help me understand them better.

Dear people at my school, I’m so sorry I’m weird. I’m sorry I don’t fit in. I’m sorry I don’t look pretty like all of you.

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