I’ve previously written about the importance of classroom management (you can read my post “If They Aren’t Listening” here). I firmly believe it’s one of the foundations of effective instruction, and in this post, I want to share one of my favorite and most frequently used techniques in my classroom management toolbox.
Teachers frequently give multi-step directions. For example, while in the classroom, I might have given my students this directive to transition from one subject to another – “Please put away your math book, take out your science book, and open it to page 85.”
Now, in a situation like this, some students will hear the first part of the directions (“Put away your math book”), immediately put the math book away, and not hear the other two instructions. While the rest of the class would then have its science books out, these few students would be sitting at their cleared desks, wondering what to do next (much to the chagrin of the teacher). The teacher would then have to repeat the directions to ensure that everyone is ready to move on. If you’re a teacher, this situation probably sounds familiar.
While in the classroom, here’s what I did to try and prevent situations like this from happening. Before practically every direction I gave, I first said these magic words – When I say, “Go.” For example, with the instructions previously mentioned, here’s what I would have said:
“When I say, ‘Go’……Please put away your math book, take out your science book, and open it to page 85.”
Beginning on the first day of school, I trained my students to wait for that “Go” before doing anything. Did it take a while for them to learn the routine? Yep. Did students still sometimes miss a direction? Yes. But by using this classroom management technique, I was able to dramatically reduce wasted time involved in having to repeat directions. It only took a second or two to preface my directions with these four simple words, but the time saved was measured in minutes (and over the course of a school year, hours). I used this technique for so long that it became second nature to me. On a couple occasions I remember giving my students a direction, only to have them just sit there and do nothing. I recall staring back at them thinking What are they waiting for? Then one of the students told me, “You forgot to say, ‘Go’.”
If you’re looking for an easy way to save time in your classroom, give this technique a try. Just don’t forget to say, “Go.”
How are students in our classrooms like a glass of iced tea? Kind of an odd question, but read on to find out.
Before becoming a teacher, I, like many other college students, paid my bills with money earned waiting tables in a restaurant. For over five years, I served up turkey pot pies, Caesar salads, and apple pie a la mode to hungry customers at Marie Callender’s. Though I didn’t know it at the time, some of the training I received during those five years would serve as an excellent illustration of effective teaching. Restaurant training leading to good teaching? Let me explain.
When I first got my job as a server, I was taught that each server in the restaurant was responsible for a particular number of tables and customers seated at those tables. Nothing unique there. This is standard practice at all restaurants. But one thing the managers of Marie Callender’s emphasized was that servers should work as a team. Yes, each server was supposed to pay particular attention to his/her assigned tables, but I was taught (and reminded of time and time again) that when walking the floor of the restaurant, I was to keep an eye open for customers in need of assistance, regardless of whether or not they were seated in my section. For example, if I had a free moment and walked by a table where a customer needed her iced tea refilled, I should refill it. Makes sense. Not the most novel idea in the world, but stop and think about it for a moment. How often does this happen to you when you dine out? In my experience, not very often. You don’t have to have waited tables to know what I’m talking about. How many times have you been in a restaurant, needed a refill or something from the kitchen, but your server was nowhere to be found? We’ve all been there. Frustrating, huh? And how many times have you, while waiting for your server to return to your table, seen other servers pass by or stand idle against a wall, completely ignoring your empty glass that’s begging for a refill? If you’re like me, this happens all the time. Why? Because most of these servers have tunnel vision, focusing only on their assigned tables. Unfortunately, the servers who pass us by in the restaurant probably are thinking If iced tea needs refilled on Table 21, that’s not my problem, because I’m only responsible for Tables 16-20.
So here’s the question – Are we treating students like empty iced tea glasses? Are we passing them by, thinking That’s not my student, the same way servers pass by customers thinking That’s not my table? It’s easy for teachers to focus solely on the students in their classroom and on the subjects they teach, just as servers focus solely on their assigned tables. But is this what’s best for students and their learning? I think we’d all agree that restaurants offer better service to their customers when their employees serve not only their tables but are open and willing to assist anyone in need, regardless of where they’re seated. What if educators adopted this mindset?
I’m an administrator at a middle school, so I’ll use that educational setting as an example. What if science teachers stopped looking at their students as strictly science students, but as reading students as well? After all, there’s plenty of reading involved in science. What if a social studies teacher, while delivering content about the American Revolution, worked individually with a student who struggles with comprehension? What if a PE teacher came alongside a student and said, “Hey, I hear you’ve been working really hard in Language Arts class and did well on your last test. Keep up the great work!” Nurturing the affective domain of students is just as important as delivering the ABC’s and 123’s. How much more would students learn, and since we live in a world of high-stakes testing, how much better would they perform on the English Language Arts section of the state test if they had six teachers helping them with reading rather than just one?
The bottom line is this – they’re all our students. Returning to the restaurant analogy, if the glass needs refilled, fill it. Remember, the important thing is not who fills the glass (teaching), but that the glass gets filled (learning).
If you haven't seen this commercial from Kaplan University, please take 60 seconds and watch it.
Despite being a couple years old, I think this ad does a great job of illustrating where education is headed. Actually, I believe it’s already there. One line from the commercial states, “It’s time to use technology to rewrite the rules of education.” As we see in the commercial, learning should no longer be confined to the four walls of a classroom, between the hours of 8:30 am and 3:00 pm, Monday through Friday. The reality is that learning can (and should) take place at 6:30 pm at the kitchen table, in bed on a Saturday morning, or in a subway station on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s face it, students don’t always “get it” the first time a concept is taught. Students benefit from reteaching and/or review sessions. But what happens when the bell rings and a student needs to see or hear it again? Should he/she be told, “Sorry, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to learn.” What about those students who don’t want to wait until tomorrow but are excited to learn now? What’s the solution? If only students could take the teaching, not just the textbook, home with them. Oh, wait. They can!
Mobile technology continues to find its way into the hands of students. I’m an administrator at the middle school level, and it seems like every student has a cell phone, most capable of playing audio and video files. What if teachers leveraged that technology instead of fighting it? Now, I’m not saying students should have free reign of their cell phones during the school day – that’s a discussion for another day. But what if teachers delivered content to their students that could be accessed on their cell phones, iPods, and iPads after hours? What if the reteaching and review sessions previously mentioned could be put in a format kids embrace, namely audio or video on their mobile devices? Fortunately, the technology tools available to teachers make this not only possible, but actually pretty easy.
While in the classroom, I provided my 5th grade students with audio review sessions called StudyCasts (you can listen to them here). I got the idea from former Missouri Teacher of the Year Eric Langhorstwho graciously shares his ideas with other educators. Before each Social Studies and Science test, I recorded myself going over the material that would be covered on the test. What I love so much about StudyCasts is that in addition to going over the notes students took in class, I was also able to review examples I gave or stories I told during class that weren’t necessarily in the notes. I didn’t do any editing of these recordings. If I coughed during a recording, I said, “Excuse me” and kept going. They weren’t meant to be polished works of art, they were meant to help my students study. StudyCasts weren’t intended to replace traditional studying, but rather to provide an additional study aid. I posted the broadcasts on my classroom website and in iTunes, making them easily to download to iPods or iPads. For students without Internet access, I would burn the broadcasts onto CDs for them. I would also burn a few extra CDs and raffle them off to all students. Their reaction? You would have thought I was giving away gold. Seriously, I worked my students into a frenzy by doing what? Giving away my teaching. I just packaged it in a way my kids thought was cool.
There are several applications out there you can use to easily create audio broadcasts like StudyCasts. Here are a few free resources I have used:
Here are some video-creation resources I’ve used:
“I like the StudyCasts because I can listen to them on my computer while I’m doing my homework. I listened to the Puritan StudyCast five times and I got a good grade.”
If we build it, they will come.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) conference led by Rick and Becky DuFour. If you are not familiar with the DuFour’s work with PLCs and ever get a chance to hear them speak, take advantage of that opportunity. The information you take away will change the way you teach (plus, they are extremely entertaining speakers).
It would be impossible to share all the amazing information presented by the DuFours, but one thing struck me more than anything else during the two-day conference – there is no shame in teachers admitting that they can’t do it all by themselves, or perhaps better said, it’s okay to admit that someone else in the building may do something better than you can. Everyone has teaching strengths and everyone has areas that, though they may not be considered weaknesses, are not as strong as those around them.
Let me give you an example from my teaching career. When I taught 5th grade, I taught with a man named Bryan, someone who was stellar at teaching writing. In discussing common writing assessments and sharing student samples with each other, I was consistently amazed at what he could get his students to produce. By comparison, my students’ writing was not nearly as descriptive. While I didn’t consider myself a bad writing teacher, it was obvious Bryan was better. The proof, writing samples from both our students, was right there in front of me. I was faced with a choice – go back to my classroom and try to hide the fact that my teaching methods were not as effective as they could be, or swallow my pride and learn from my friend. So I went to him and asked, “How are you getting your kids to write like that? What exactly are you doing?” And to Bryan’s credit, he shared with me his expertise. He didn’t think to himself, Wait, if I share my strategies, my secret will be out and I’ll no longer be the best. No, he realized that teaching is not about hoarding a “secret formula” so that his test scores would be superior to mine. He understood that our job was to work together to reach all of our students, not simply the ones on our individual class rosters.
One of my favorite concepts regarding teamwork comes from an excellent book called High Five! The Magic of Working Together by Ken Blanchard, Sheldon Bowles, Don Carew, and Eunice Parisi-Carew. In it, the authors beautifully illustrate this concept regarding teamwork – collective skill transcends individual skills. It is more important to build the skill level of the team than it is to have a group of skilled individuals who work by themselves. When teachers share their skills with the rest of their team, the entire team benefits. Then, if a highly skilled teacher leaves to go to a different school, the team can still function at a high level because the shared skill does not leave with the teacher.
I think a real-life example of this concept is currently playing out in the National Football League. Peyton Manning, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has not played this season due to injury. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, a future Hall-of-Famer. Yet as I write this post, the Colts have a record of 0-10. For the past decade, the Colts have been consistent Super Bowl contenders, but with the loss of one highly skilled player, they have not been able to win a single game. Now, while this is not a perfect example, since Manning’s skill as a quarterback cannot be fully taught or shared with his teammates, I think it illustrates the point that if a team is only as good as one of its members, how good a team is it?
We all have strengths. I encourage you to share them with those around you.
Note: For any Colts fans out there, please know that I’m not trying to bash your team or kick them while they’re down. After all, I’m a fan of the San Diego Chargers, and we’ve all seen how bad they’ve been this season.
Throughout my career in education, I’ve heard my share of four-letter words. Unfortunately, I’ve heard them all. But over the last few years, I’ve realized there’s another often-used, yet widely accepted, four-letter word that can be very offensive. It’s a word I’ve heard countless times from students, and it’s become a word I don’t allow when used inappropriately. To which word am I referring? Just.
Ironically, this is one of my favorite and least favorite words, all depending on how it is used. When defined as “guided by truth, reason, and fairness,” it’s one of my favorite words. Injustice is one of my biggest pet peeves, so in this sense, I love the word just. Personally and professionally, I strive to create environments that are just. But when the word is defined as “only or merely” and precedes something important, the word rubs me the wrong way.
Let me explain. Too often I hear the word just used to excuse poor behavior choices. For example:
“But I did my homework. I just forgot to show my work.”
“I didn’t hit him. I just pushed him.”
“I was just kidding when I said that to her.”
“I got the right numbers. I just put the decimal point in the wrong place.”
When used in this way, the word just is intended to minimize the importance or significance of whatever follows the word in the sentence.
“I just forgot to show my work.” This implies that showing work isn’t important, despite the fact that it was a requirement of the teacher.
“I just pushed him.” This sends the message that pushing another student is an acceptable form of behavior.
“I was just kidding when I said that to her.” So being unkind and disrespectful to a classmate is okay because you said, after the fact, it was simply a joke?
“I got the right numbers. I just put the decimal point in the wrong place.” The answer is still wrong. Close doesn’t count.
In addition to academics, I’m a firm believer that educators must teach students to be responsible, and not only for things like remembering to complete their homework every day. Students must learn to take responsibility for all of their behavior choices. Allowing them to excuse inappropriate behavior with the word just is not doing them any favors, because the real world doesn’t work like that.
Suppose a banker tells his supervisor, “I entered all the right digits into the computer. I just put the decimal point in the wrong place.” The supervisor’s probable response? “You’re just fired.”
When I began my teaching career, people would often ask me, "So, do you want to be a principal some day?" My response was always along the lines of "No way! I have no desire to become an administrator." And I didn't. I became a teacher because I wanted to teach, not because it was a stepping stone to the administrative ranks.
As an elementary school teacher, I was also asked during the early years of my career if I ever had plans to move up to middle school. Once again, I usually responded by saying that I was happy at the elementary level and had no plans to make the move to middle school.
Yet here I am, an assistant principal at a middle school. Who would have thought? Never say never.
I write this post after completing my first two days of the school year as a middle school administrator. How'd it go? It went well. My principal was ill and was forced to miss the final two days leading up to school starting as well as the first two days of school. That added to the stress of my new position, but my fellow assistant principal and I did our best to rally the troops, and all things considered, the first day went very smoothly. I even had the pleasure of speaking with a very, very upset parent. But I survived. The second day saw fundraiser assemblies, more breaks and lunches, and despite several dress code violations, the day once again ended well.
One of my big goals this week was to make connections with students, to try and make the campus a place of safety. See, I had a miserable experience when I was in middle school. I was consistently picked on and rarely felt safe when I had to leave the classroom and walk around campus during breaks and lunches. So as I walked the campus these past two days, I saw myself in many of the 1,500 students. I saw myself in that scared boy or girl who just wants to feel comfortable at school, to make new friends, to fit in. Was I able to assuage the fear and uncertainty of every student on campus? Unfortunately, no. But it's my prayer that those I was able to meet and talk to felt a bit safer, a bit more comfortable, that their assistant principal is there to do everything he can to make sure they don't feel the way he felt when he was a 6th grader.
I have a lot to learn, but I'm excited about this opportunity. God has placed me in this position for a reason, and I look forward to seeing what He has planned for me and Shivela Middle School.
“One stage of your journey is over, another begins.”
- Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Who knew that a quote from one of my favorite movie trilogies would become applicable in my life? Well, it has, as next school year I will be leaving the classroom after 15 years of teaching to become an assistant principal at Shivela Middle School in my district. While I will greatly miss the staff, students, and parents of Tovashal, I'm absolutely ecstatic about the opportunity to support teachers as they support their students.
Some of you may be wondering what will happen to mrcoley.com, my classroom website. The resources on my site will remain online for teachers and students to access, but the site will no longer be updated as I shift my focus to my new position. I will continue to blog, however. :-)
This is not the end. I hope you’ll continue to follow me as my journey leads me to new and exciting places (like middle school).
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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