Friday, February 14, 2014

The Organized Classroom and Teaching

"Successful teaching requires the creation of strong
relationships with students and colleagues..." - Jon McGill
By Jon McGill, Director of Academic Affairs
Baltimore Curriculum Project
November 2013

New teachers, and those experienced teachers taking on new assignments in new schools, think long and hard about the kinds of things they will find in their new teaching contexts. How will the students be? How will I get along with colleagues? Will I be successful? The summer jitters never disappear, we just get more experienced in handling them. These questions emerge out of some truths we know from the start about teaching: that successful teaching requires the creation of strong relationships with students and colleagues; that good teaching is also about structures, organization and building culture in a classroom; that success is created over time, with consistency, clarity and compassion for our kids.

There are a myriad of “how to…” books, teacher guides, bromides, recipes and rules for teacher preparation. Many of them are excellent, like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion, for example.

In the end, good teachers take what they can from such guidance and adapt it to their personality and style. For example, there is a wonderful advice text entitled The Laughing Classroom, by Diana Loomans, but much of the advice it contains requires some of the skills of stand-up comedy, not everyone’s forte. While it may be true that good teaching requires some acting skills, we are not simply “showing off” and acting in our classrooms: this is much more complicated than that!

So what’s the right kind of advice for teachers going into our East Baltimore schools, either as brand new professionals or as veterans who are simply shifting locales?  Here is the advice I give to myself and share with you in the hope that it provides food for thought and, perhaps, some practical guidance that you can use to implement your strategies in your own way.

  • Forget the old bromide about “not smiling until winter break”: students want genuine interactions and that means we mix laughter and solemnity, seriousness and playfulness as the situation demands.

  • Focus intently on the culture of your classroom.  Ask yourself questions about the environment: what do the walls look like? What does the d├ęcor tell students about what we value? Why is organized “neatness” worth developing, even for those of us for whom tidy surrounds don’t come easily? How can I display student work in meaningful ways? Do I have a seating chart and do I stick to it? How does the desk and seating organization reflect learning priorities?

  • Exit and entry into a classroom might be the most reliable predictor of how well time is used. This is part of the transitions aspect of school life and many schools break down into chaos by virtue of transitions that are disorganized, unruly and unsupervised. Be ready from day one to teach your students how you want them to move around the room, to enter the room, to leave the room. Prepare to be diligent and stubborn on this issue. It will bring you rewards aplenty!!

  • Establish your set of classroom rules from the first day.  Limit the number of rules and make sure you have a rationale for each one: the kids will want to know and, in general, students comply with rules they know to be in their own interest.

  • Provide an activity for a student that lures them immediately to their desks as they enter the room: it might be a puzzle for them to solve, a riddle, a math problem, a fact about the world that will interest them or surprise them. One teacher might make the activity a journal entry; another might engage them with a story about a real-life event or person. We often associate routine with boredom but, in fact, routine is a prerequisite for effective learning.  Routine provides structure, clarity, and certainty, all of which students need.

  • Prepare, prepare, and prepare: go over your lesson plans the night before, look for new vocabulary or for ideas that will be new or challenging. Keep in mind that lack of preparation is what creates “dead zones”, those times in a classroom where you find yourself scrambling to find notes, or books or a transparency, or that story you wanted to read. When the teacher is thrown off course, so are the kids and they are harder to get back! Don’t be fooled into thinking that Direct Instruction, for you primary and elementary teachers, means you don’t have to prepare since you have a ‘script”: the best DI teachers got that way by rehearsing, preparing and being ready for whatever might arise.

  • Think about the impact of your vocal delivery: shouting is almost always counter-productive.  It still amazes me how well a near-whisper works when you want attention. Never, ever, be sarcastic, no matter how many times others tell you it’s really possible to be sarcastic in a “good way”. Your interpretation of the impact of sarcasm is not the same as that from a child. Most children experience sarcasm as cutting and unpleasant.

  • One-on-one relationship building is critical for teachers.  Spending even a five minute block of time with one of your students over lunch or at recess, checking in to see how they are, asking about family life (with some caution), letting children know you are interested in them, in all aspects of their life, this is important for relationship-building. It is also possible to do some one-on-one behavior management by finding ways to help individual children fit into your structures or to manage their behavior by teaching them some ways to handle anger or frustration. Remember that very few children set out to intentionally disrupt the classroom: something else is usually going on for those kids and our job is to find out what that is.  It won’t provide a magic behavior bullet but it will inform our strategies in the future.

  • Find out what is important to your kids and to their parents: what are their ambitions? Frustrations? Obstacles? What are their expectations from you? How have their prior experiences with teachers informed their attitudes?

  • Collaborate with your colleagues: this is often really helpful, especially when your colleague is someone who taught your class or an individual student the year before, or knows their backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses.

  • Invite observation: one of the ways we learn about our effectiveness is through the eyes of others who watch us teach: we have been trained too often to see observation as a threat when, in fact, it may be the best ally we have. Use the Baltimore Curriculum Project and site-based coaches for this: video-tape your class, watch the result with a colleague.  The more open we are to a helpful critique, the more likely we are to improve our efficacy and therefore the learning experience of our students.

  • Use the school structures and guidelines especially those that are set up for discipline.  If your school uses referral forms, then complete them without fail, even though it can be time-consuming.  Follow through with students, do not make “idle threats” (don’t threaten them at all!) but make sure they know the rules and the consequences and make them aware, by your behavior, that you are consistent, fair and stubborn!!

  • Incentive techniques are effective (and they are not mere “bribes”). They reinforce your standards, they provide positive perspectives and they also provide you with a chance to be creative and amusing.  We are always developing incentives for adults, why not for our kids also??? Incentives have long-term impact: bribery is short-term, changes nothing and puts the “briber” in a negative light!!!

  • Remember above all that our students want to succeed, want to learn, want to please and want to have positive relationships.  Our job is to teach them how to get this success and keep it. The act and art of learning is not genetically endowed: we have to learn how to learn effectively and keeping this in mind will remind you, I hope, that everything we do has impact, and is consequential. Many of the mistakes we have made in education over the years come from forgetting that our intentions and our practices must be in alignment.
I know that you can add to this list.  Share your thoughts, let others know what works for you, what failed, what you need in order to serve your students.  Best wishes!!!!