Podcast

TnT 77 How to plan so you’re teaching everything you’re supposed to

For many new teachers, lesson planning ALONE is a huge source of stress and anxiety. Not only is there a billion other things to do as a teacher, but there’s the tiny detail of knowing how and what to plan. Yes, you definitely learned about it and even did some practice lesson plans. But now that you’re faced with your own students (and possibly teaching a grade that you weren’t prepared for), it’s a whole new ballgame. In this episode, I don’t tell you how to plan – I explain the mindset and big-picture view of planning an entire year, then down to quarters, units, and daily lessons.

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Some of you may remember me mentioning this, but when I switched from teaching band to English, I had a friend, Deb, who gave me everything she ever used to teach 7th-grade English. She actually vouched for me when we were convincing my principal to let me switch over. Deb ended up switching to 8th grade English and I took her spot. And since she was such a strong teacher, I definitely wanted EVERYTHING so that I wouldn’t have to start from scratch.

I can’t express enough how helpful it was to have all of her materials. It gave me an idea of what I should be teaching, how to teach it, how long I should take, and what to expect from my 7th-grade students. Over time, I tweaked those lessons based on my teaching style and student population, and eventually, I stopped. But they were a really good basis for figuring out HOW to teach English.

What I didn’t get from the beginning was a big-picture view of where my students needed to go. Because of this, they could do random skills well, but not enough to put them together successfully and produce a quality product. So today I want to go over how to do that so that your lessons and planning don’t feel aimless and haphazard.

Map out the year by starting with the end in mind

Use a regular calendar that shows the days in each month, not a planner with daily pages.

Take out any curriculum or pacing guides that you MUST use plus a list of your content-level standards

On your calendar, write down holidays, breaks, and other non-student days

Also write down any finals, other assessments, and state testing

Decide which SKILLS the most important. Notice I didn’t say standards. That comes later. First, I want you to get really clear on what you want your students to be able to demonstrate knowledge of and skill in.

For me, I focus on writing and literary analysis standards. I want my students to be able to write a RACE paragraph, either for literature or nonfiction. I want them to have a solid topic sentence for each body paragraph, evidence that directly supports that topic sentence, and an explanation of how each piece of evidence supports and is relevant to the topic. I want them to write an introduction that contains a hook, a preview of the topic, and a thesis statement. Those are just my top writing skills, and there are obviously literature ones, but I won’t go into those.

In real life, I want my students to be able to communicate their thoughts effectively through writing. That means that I want them to write coherent sentences, stay away from too many cliches and idioms, support their thoughts and assertions with evidence, explain why the reader should care, use higher-level and content-specific vocabulary when necessary, and do all of this in a coherent way.

To me, if they can do that in a variety of situations (especially ones that aren’t in English class), then I’ve succeeded.

My point is that you need to write down what you want your students to be able to walk away doing well. When they leave your grade and move onto the next, what do you want the next teacher to marvel at what your students can do? What do they need to be able to do in order to be successful in the next grade?

As teachers, we continually pass the baton to the next teacher in our subject, so we have to be sure to properly prepare them for what’s next.

So really get your head around what your students should be able to do by the end of the year. Then think about how you want them to demonstrate that. Some kind of culminating project or summative assessment, and you’ll most likely want to do this multiple times a year. I like to have something once a quarter so that I can continually assess their progress.

Some of you may already be thinking that this task can be a multiple-guess test. I challenge you to think beyond that and choose something where students demonstrate thinking like a professional in your subject area. This means they can think like a historian and demonstrate it. Think like a scientist and demonstrate it. Think like someone who uses math every day and demonstrate it.

THEN you look at the standards and you hone in on the ones that are necessary to complete these culminating tasks. You and I know that not all are equally important. You want to choose the ones that you know need repeating and building throughout the year so that they can reach that ultimate goal before the end of the year.

Below each summative assignment, write down all of the necessary standards that you have to teach in order for your students to successfully complete the assignment.

The beautiful thing is that you’ll be repeating or spiraling certain standards, and hopefully those are the ones that are the most important to your subject area.

After you’ve done that, take a look at what’s leftover. I will be completely honest and admit that I don’t get to every standard, and many of my colleagues are in the same boat. It’s not that we’re lazy, it’s just that there are so many more important things that we want to teach in-depth rather than taking a tour of all of the standards. You can probably squeeze some of the other standards in a bell-ringer, something to do on a minimum day, or something similar.

For example, I really don’t have time to dive into affixes, but it’s a standard I need to cover. So once in a while, my students will see these in their warmups, and I’ll sneak in a quick mini-lesson. I in no way feel guilty about this, and neither should you!

What if you’re new and you have NO IDEA about what students should be able to do? Simple – just ask. Ask your colleagues in your department. Take to Twitter and social media and ask. Go on Teachers Pay Teachers and see what types of activities other teachers in your same grade and subject are doing. While you’ll get a variety of answers, this will at least give you some ideas.

I have colleagues who are very reading-heavy and spend the majority of the time studying novels. They write as needed to complete analysis, but writing happens instead of it being the focus. I, on the other hand, am very writing-focused, and the readings revolve around the writing. I prefer short stories so that students have opportunities to practice writing for different situations. I like the repetition of skills within the context and have personally found that there are fewer opportunities with class novels.

Breaking it down into units

The next part is figuring out how you’re going to teach those standards that lead to skills. So you’ll want to start with whole units of study.

For me, one short story will be a unit of study. I’ll decide within each story what I want them to be able to learn and demonstrate, and which previous skills will be repeated. So I slightly review something we’ve done before like writing with the RACE format, and add levels of complexity.

I was lucky to have my Deb’s resources, but If I were starting out teaching English this year, I would immediately take to TpT. Some of you feel compelled to create everything because you only have the boring worksheets from your curriculum, and it’s ridiculously stressful. Now, there are so many resources that you can supplement or eventually replace those.

If you like what’s provided for you, then definitely use those. DON’T TRY TO WRITE NEW LESSONS! This may be a controversial statement, but as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re starting out, you don’t know what works and what doesn’t. So use other people’s lessons, whether it’s with your textbook or from a colleague, and spend your energy focusing on delivering the lesson smoothly, on classroom management, on being engaging, on checking for understanding, on pacing…pretty much on giving the lesson.

After a couple of times using that lesson, you’ll be able to determine if the thinking and method behind it is sound, if it works for your population, and if you’ll need to tweak or scrap it. But I really recommend NOT creating everything from scratch your first few years. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, will judge you for using other people’s lessons and ideas.

So back to breaking it down into units. Remember that you have your big culminating activities, and before that, you need larger units with their own smaller culminating activity, and then lessons within those units to teach and practice the skill.

For me, we have a culminating activity in November where students have to write an informative essay. The essay needs to have an introduction, 2-3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. So my PLC starts out with teaching how to write the body paragraphs, which involves teaching them the RACE format. Our students will first do a preassessment so that we can get a feel for their writing. Then we dive into reading both fiction and nonfiction texts where we practice answering questions and pulling out evidence to support our answers.

After practicing that, we teach them the RACE format so that they can see how it all goes together. We practice the RACE format for a while before moving on to writing introductions.

Do you see how we break up each part, going from simple to more complex? But in order to get to the daily lessons, I first had to work backwards. For each step, I had to ask, What do my students need to know and be able to do in order to successfully do this on their own? When I came up with skills, I asked the same question for each of those skills.

Then you find lessons to teach those. Some skills can be taught together, some need multiple lessons or days, while others are quick. This is why I suggest you use other people’s lessons that have been tested so that you can focus on pacing and checking for understanding.

Deciding how to teach the skill

You’re finally ready to break it down into what you do day by day. If you’re heeding my advice, you’re not creating these daily lessons but are instead using other people’s lessons.

You want to guesstimate how long each lesson will take and see what you can fit in. Since you’re just starting out, you want to over-plan each day with the intent of moving the last activity to the next day. OR you can add another activity on the same skill or a review of the previous skill. Either way, have more than what you think you need.

Also, decide when you’re going to give a formative or informal assessment. This is basically just checking to see if you can move on. It doesn’t have to be something that they’ve turned in, and I really don’t recommend putting this in the gradebook. Students shouldn’t be penalized for practicing a skill. Can you imagine if whether or not you win the Superbowl depends on how you did in practice? Or if your teacher pay was tied to the grades you got in your teacher prep program or undergrad in general?

When you’re deciding on which lessons to use, ask yourself whether or not the lesson actually gives students an opportunity to practice the skill. I’ve seen worksheets where students have to fill in the blank based on a textbook or presentation. While it may ensure that they’re paying attention, it’s kind of a waste of mental energy. Look for lessons where they can have some practice but then apply what they just practiced.

Also, you don’t have to have students do all of the exercises. If there are 20 questions and your students are getting it in 10, you don’t have to have them complete everything. Or maybe save the other 10 for them to do as a review later.

And decide which assignments will actually count toward the grade and are indications of learning versus just practice. Remember that in past episodes I’ve warned against grading EVERYTHING. Just assess over their shoulder during class time and practice, and grade the stuff that really has them demonstrate the skill on their own.

Before you teach the lesson, have at least two days’ worth of materials ready just in case they finish early.

During the lesson

Is lesson delivery part of lesson planning? You bet! You have to constantly assess throughout the lesson whether or not it’s going as planned, how your students are doing, if they’re staying engaged, whether or not the students can do some of the exercises independently, if it’s taking longer than you’d planned or if they’re flying through everything.

When you’re ready to teach the lesson, have an outline written down that you can refer to. Be aware of what students are struggling with or that they’re getting right away. If they’re struggling, slow down, reteach, add more I do, we do, you do. If their attention is lagging, add in more cooperative learning or a think-pair-share. If they’re getting frustrated, regroup and reteach. If they’re flying through it, don’t give them all of the exercises and move on (which you can do since you have the next day’s materials).

After each day, take a few minutes to write down what did and didn’t work. Another teacher taught me to write on a post-it what to keep and change for next time. That way when I’m planning the next year, I’ll know ahead of time and won’t make the same mistakes. I now do this in the Notes app if I’m teaching something new.

I know this was a lot to take in, but I think this is really important. You can beg, borrow, or buy lesson plans, but knowing how to put them together in a cohesive way is another monster. I really, really wish I’d known HOW to do this when I started out. And since I’m still encouraging you to use other people’s lessons, knowing how to put together the pieces to complete the puzzle is all that you need to focus on in the beginning.

As you teach and become comfortable with this or having your yearly mapping done, you can start to see what you need in your lessons based on your students and style of teaching. THEN you can start creating your own or using other people’s lessons as inspiration or a launching point. So if you get this big picture stuff down first, your ability to really improve your students’ knowledge and abilities in your class will improve greatly.

I’ll go over how to plan an individual lesson in a future episode, but for now, you can go to Episode 27 where I interview Laura Kebart and we discuss how to plan with differentiation in mind.

I hope that you found today’s packed episode useful, and don’t forget to complete the survey if you haven’t yet. It’s at teachersneedteachers.com/survey.

Thanks for making it to the end, and have a great week!

TnT 76 How to upgrade your group work strategy

Many teachers have students work in groups on assignments, but there are also quite a few that limit it. They don’t like the potential for chaos and bad behaviors, so for the most part, they avoid it. However, it’s impossible to keep students on-task and in silence for an entire class period. Those students may seem like they’re paying attention but are in fact playing the role of a student who’s working. They’re tuning out from the lack of opportunity to talk to their peers. This is where group work also helps!

In this episode, I discuss the pros and cons of cooperative learning, as well as my tips for how to make it not only just WORK in your classroom but increases student achievement.

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Today in episode 76, I’m discussing how to get students to successfully work cooperatively with their peers. This is just a fancy way of working in groups! Many teachers have students work in groups on assignments, but there are also quite a few that limit it. They don’t like the potential for chaos and bad behaviors, so for the most part, they avoid it. In this episode, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of cooperative learning, as well as my tips for how to make it not only just WORK in your classroom but increases student achievement.

I’m definitely excited to do this episode for you because I truly believe in the power of group work. I’ve even converted reluctant teachers who now have fully embraced it.

It’s impossible to keep students on-task and in silence for an entire class period. Those students may be playing the role of a student who’s working, but in reality, they’re tuning out from the lack of opportunity to talk to their peers.

BENEFITS OF COOPERATIVE LEARNING

  • Multiple brains are better than one. Students struggle through an activity and fill in each other’s gaps in knowledge
  • Teach each other. Students inadvertently teach each other and help clear up misunderstandings
  • Productive struggle. When students are trying to problem-solve together, there’s a sense of we’re in this together that helps them push through
  • Life skills. It’s obviously important to be able to work with other people. While there are solo jobs especially in a gig economy, everyone has to work with others at some point in their adult lives.
  • Tolerance. It can be hard to work with someone that you don’t get along with, but you have to learn how to compromise. Students learn this well in groups

CONS OF COOPERATIVE LEARNING

  • More assertive or alpha students take over. Even if that person is incorrect, they want to lead and have everyone follow them, even if it’s off a cliff
  • One person could end up doing all of the work, and not always by choice.
  • Depending on the grouping, a student could end up having to teach the content to everyone and not be stretched or challenged.
  • Can be difficult to manage. Some teachers are uncomfortable with the controlled chaos involved with any type of group work.
  • Not all students can handle it. For some students, the moment you have them do group work, they want to goof off.
  • Introverts don’t have a say. They often either secretly work alone or get pushed around in a group.

So you have to decide if a certain assignment would benefit from cooperative learning or not.

For me, when students are first learning a skill or concept, we do it together as a class, and then they work on it in groups. When everyone is fumbling around trying to work it out, it’s less threatening if they make a mistake. So a lot of class time is spent on working cooperatively in groups.

In terms of grouping, 3-5 work best. Fewer than 3 is just either a partner or working individually, and more than 5 is a mess. Someone always seems to be left behind and forgotten larger groups, so keep the size manageable.

In terms of how to group students, I’ve observed a few things.

First, I think it’s important to give introverts a choice with whom they work. It’s already exhausting for them to interact so much, but they’ll have an easier time speaking up if they’re friendly with their group members. In fact, there have time been times when I’ve grouped them together. It felt strange and I felt bad because everyone around them was talking excitedly while working. I thought they weren’t as engaged. But upon talking to them, they were really grateful to be able to have the headspace to work without a more gregarious group member taking over or talking endlessly.

Something else to consider is grouping students by ability. This is probably controversial and you’re thinking, seriously Kim? But hear me out. We’ve ALL been in a situation where there is a low, medium, and high student in each group. The higher-level students tend to take over and resent having to teach everything to or slow down for the other students. The lower students are too embarrassed to ask for help because of all of the students that “get it” and are taking the lead on the conversation.

But if you group by ability, you can differentiate accordingly. So if you have a lower group, you could do small group instruction or review and scaffold accordingly. If you have groups that excel, you can give them supplementary work to stretch them.

Regardless of which you choose, PLEASE don’t punish your conscientious students by putting a problem student next to them. It really sucks for them and they’ll resent you for it. The more studious student will also be stifled by the lower-level student. It makes sense though, since that higher student has to slow down and reexplain things. It probably seems like suicide to put more disruptive students with their disruptive peers, but you can still put them in a different group that 1) is more on their level, and 2) would be willing to advocate for themselves.

When it’s time for me to assess their progress, they work alone. I don’t grade group work, only work they do alone. This is so that a student doesn’t just copy what everyone else says and pass it off as their own. I need to see what their level of proficiency is, and that’s mainly what I put in my gradebook.

If you are going to have your students work in groups, know the difference between cooperative and collaborative work. If they’re working together but producing their own work on their own worksheet or device, then it’s cooperative. If all members are contributing to a final product together, then it’s collaborative.

If they’re doing collaborative work, how will you track who did what? What I love about using Google Classroom to disseminate assignments is you can track who edits. So if all students are working on a presentation in Google Slides, you can see who did what.

I also recommend having students put their name on the products that they create themselves or specifically worked on. So this would mean that if I worked on slides 3, 12, and 22, then those slides would have my name either directly on them or in the speaker notes.

You also want to check in with them every day to see who’s accomplishing what. Keep a clipboard or an online spreadsheet for keeping track. You could assign daily points if that makes it easier.

Plan out how the work will be divided. Students don’t naturally know how to do that, and either the alpha will take over or the students will waste time with indecisiveness. So split up the different tasks for them and then let them decide who is going to do what. A way of keeping everyone working is to have an individual part that all students must work on, a partner section, and then maybe checking/assessing somebody else’s. So each person contributes their own plus a collaborative effort.

Make it so that you can grade in a fair way. You might consider assigning an individual part, like a reflection, research, or analysis that you grade based on your standards or skills. Then have them apply that part to the group project, which can be worth less since you don’t really know who did it.

A lot of teachers like to assign roles in groups, such as a scribe, timekeeper, materials person, leader, etc. If you do go this route, assign roles that are meaningful. For example, if students are working on a collaborative project, a timekeeper can be handy, but a product checker is a boring job if they don’t get to do anything until the end. 

If you’re going to go this route, it helps to have visuals so that students can regularly refer back to what their role is. This means some kind of poster or handout that describes the role. You then want to check in regularly to be sure that students are following their roles. It takes some training, but students get the hang of it quickly.

My students mainly work cooperatively and are discussing together but working individually, so I don’t give out roles. I’ve tried using roles in collaborative groups, but I find that some students get stuck with a role because they spoke up last, or they forget that they have a role and just dive into the conversation. 

Whether or not students have roles, it’s important that they come up with norms. You can either do this as a class or have each group do it. Reminding them of these norms helps with accountability and staying on-task. Some good norms involve staying on task, contributing fully, or putting your full effort into your part of the assignment.

Just as teachers need norms when working together, so do our students. They too would rather socialize, doodle, or play games. Many teachers are on their phone, grading, or playing games during PD or staff meetings (you KNOW you’ve seen someone do it!). So teach students how to set norms and self-monitor to see if they’re following them.

If you have students that refuse to work with their group, deal with them individually. I actually find this a lot in my accelerated classes. Those students tend to like to work alone because they can get their work done faster. However, faster isn’t often better and those students make mistakes without knowing it. They only find out if we correct the assignment in class or in a week or two when I return the assignment. So talk to those individuals and not in front of their group.

You may find that you also have a student that demands to have their own way and won’t cooperative unless they get it. While I appreciate their passion for their opinion, these students might need to work individually on that assignment for certain parts. You also need to talk to them and coach them on how to be a good group member.

TnT 75 Why building strong parent teacher relationships is non-negotiable

One of your strongest and most helpful allies as a teacher are parents. They can rescue you when you need help creating materials for your class, volunteer to help chaperone events, and run fundraisers for your classroom. They can also question your teaching practices, make excuses when their child misbehaves, and go over your head and complain to your administrator.

Either way, it’s important that you build strong relationships with your students’ parents right from the start. But how do you do that? What if you’re uncomfortable with or intimidated by them? How should you handle conflicts with them? In this episode, I go over everything I’ve learned about creating positive parent relationships as well as how to deal with issues when parent-teacher conflicts arise.

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Many of you know that I’m both a parent and a teacher, so like many of you, I’ve experienced this push and pull. One the one hand, there are times when I’ve unfortunately been that parent, and of course I’ve also been that teacher. Why? Because I didn’t know any better. Because I want to protect my darling child. Because I want to stand my ground as a teacher and be bullied.

And because I’ve been a crazy parent and an unreasonable teacher, and because I’m super reflective and always want to improve, I’ve gotten better and have seen the faults in my ways. It’s crazy to me when parents email or contact me about silly things, and I remember when I was that way when my daughter was in elementary. Yup, I put on my teacher hat and questioned what her teacher was doing. Can you believe that?

And of course, I’ve been a teacher that thought that some parents were being ridiculous when, in fact, they did exactly what I did to my daughter’s teacher. So needless to say, you guys are going to learn A LOT about how to deal with these situations so that you don’t quit and run for the hills.

But first, it’s important to review how both parents and teachers points of view when it comes to a particular student.

Parent’s Point of View

  • Parents know their kid better than anyone else
  • Parents want what’s best for their kids, but they don’t necessarily know what that looks like educationally. They vaguely remember what their education was like, but they probably don’t know what it’s like now. And obviously, things have changed.
  • They want to believe the best things about their child. Even when they know that their child is doing something wrong at school, it still hurts to hear it. So we have to keep that in mind when we’re sending those emails or notes home, or even calling them to deliver some bad news.
  • They’re biased and don’t realize how their need to protect their child can actually do more harm than good. Many parents don’t want to see their child struggle or fail or be sad, so they become lawnmower parents. This is where they’ll remove any obstacles that could get in the way of their child’s happiness and success.
  • And of course this happens! Very few parents ENJOY seeing their child be sad, anxious, or upset! But they forget that the productive struggle is actually good for the child and necessary for their growth.
  • Am I making generalizations? Absolutely. But these are based on what I’ve seen and the many emails I receive from parents when their child has an A- instead of an A.

Teachers’ Point of View

  • Teachers are subject-area experts in the field and want to be treated as such
  • It can be frustrating when parents second-guess a teacher’s judgment since that teacher knows what’s best for their students at that grade
  • Some teachers are afraid of dealing with parents and will avoid it at all costs. This means they won’t communicate when a student is doing something wrong and will just immediately send them to the counselor or principal to deal with. They’re either intimidated by parents, don’t want to be hassled, don’t know how to handle parents, or some combination of all of the above. DON’T BE THAT TEACHER! Ironically, these are the same teachers that also appear to have a lot of the “problem” students. It’s a strange phenomenon that I’ve witnessed over and over again.
  • On the other end of the spectrum are teachers that become combative with other parents. They HAVE to be right and are completely unwilling to see the situation from the parents’ point of view even if they’re parents as well! They typically have many meetings with the parents and their administrator, and may even have a reputation for being a difficult teacher in the parent circles.

As you can see, nobody can really be blamed for parent-teacher struggles. Both sides are operating with different priorities and stereotypes about the other. So how can we be proactive so that we can prevent conflict, as well as deal with problems when they arise?

Setting the intention for positive communication

When you’re starting out the year, establish a habit of reaching out to the parents because communication is key. If you communicate early and often, then parents feel like they know what’s going on with their student and are more at ease. It could be as simple as reminders before an assignment is due, a monthly update on what you’re working on in class, a calendar with school events and important deadlines in your class. They should regularly keep in touch with parents so that the parents aren’t in the dark. You’re less likely to have issues if a parent feels informed and a part of their child’s education.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask parents to let you know about anything major that’s happening in their student’s life. Parents may be going through a divorce, have a newborn in the house, a family member is terminal or has passed away, or the student has high anxiety or depression. And don’t just ask at the beginning of the year since situations change all the time. This can give you insight on why a student is acting a particular way, and you’re better equipped to help them or refer them to someone who can.

From time to time, explain how things work in your school. You’d be surprised how little information a school provides about things like what to do if a parent needs to take their child out of school early for an appointment, how to report an absence, how to contact a teacher, how to add money to the child’s food account. Informing parents about this will create a lot of goodwill since many are uninformed and anxious about what happens at school. You could add this as a tip to parent emails or in a classroom newsletter. 

I especially recommend this if you teach a major transition year, such as kindergarten, 7th grade (or 6th if your middle school starts with 6th grade), and 9th grade. Parents are hungry to know what’s going on, so they’ll definitely be relieved with this type of information.

Another tactic that I need to do more of is contacting parents with good news and not just bad news. I used to pick 10 students every Friday and send a short message home saying something positive about their progress that week. That meant that by the end of the year, each student had received two positive messages from me.

For whatever reason, I’ve fallen out of habit of doing this, but I definitely plan to pick it up again! I do this even for the problem students because it’s nice for them to hear something positive from a teacher.

When you need to contact a parent with bad news

First, teachers need to be strong communicators. You don’t want to avoid parents or be afraid. Sometimes younger teachers are intimidated by more outspoken and often older parents. While you may feel this way, you have to be kind but assertive if you want to be taken seriously.

You don’t want parents to walk all over you, but you also don’t want parents to think that you’re incapable of controlling a class. They’ll automatically peg you as incompetent and begin challenging your decisions.

So remember that when you’re corresponding or talking to parents, you do it with compassion and grace while being forthright and honest. Beating around the bush leads them to believe that nothing is wrong with their child, so when a serious problem comes up, they won’t believe you.

When problems do arise with a student, try to handle it in-house first and document what steps you took to deal with the issue. This is important so that you can track patterns, as well as have some evidence for when you need to discuss it with the parents.

If you do need to contact the parent because their child is misbehaving, try to first understand how the parent will take it and where they’re coming from. Use this frame-of-mind when discussing it with them so that you don’t automatically put them on the defense. When conflicts arise, work on finding a middle ground. Don’t just dig in your heels so that you can win or have the last word. Honestly, it’s not worth the stress, and you could be inviting yourself for more drama down the line.

But also be ready for parents who won’t believe you and will defend their child to the bitter end. For me, it’s been about half-and-half in terms of parents that are apologetic and have a serious discussion with their child and parents that think that I’m the problem.

I’ve had parents who, after prodding and through lengthy conversation, finally admitted that their child has had issues all throughout elementary. However, when I told them about how their student behaved in my class, they had a whole slew of excuses. Even with the type of documentation that I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, they still think I’m picking on their student. Even after showing them the comments of other teachers who had similar issues with that student, they wouldn’t believe us.

At that point, you just follow the disciplinary protocol. If after so many infractions you normally assign detention, then do it. If they persist and the next step is being sent to the assistant principal, then do it. But before you get to that point, you want to try to repair the relationship with the student like I mentioned in Episode 62. Doing this instead of just writing them off will also help repair the relationship with the parent, which is important if you want to get them back on board to support you and their child’s success.

It’s important to also keep in mind that when these types of situations do arise, it’s not okay for parents to be abusive towards you, but you need to realize that tone and intention make a WORLD of a difference. These don’t come across very well via email unless you’re good at being diplomatic online, and if we call after having a tough day, we may be unintentionally short and snippy. 

So stay calm and realize that escalating or getting dragged into an argument won’t help the situation. Come in with the intention of working out a solution and not just telling on that student. That doesn’t mean that you should let the parent walk all over you either. In episode 29, I explain how to handle angry parent emails and the drama around it.

And if they want to get into an argument, don’t take the bait. Be very matter-of-fact, and if they become belligerent, just tell them that you’re going to hang up now and then let your administrator know. At this point, you need their help because some parents can make your life hell if it’s not resolved properly.

Getting past pre-conceived notions

Often both parents and teachers make assumptions about the other, which can be cleared up with purposeful communication. Parents assume that a teacher is incompetent and difficult, and teachers assume that parents are unreasonable and overbearing. How do we get past this and find common ground?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that both parents and teachers are dealing with the exact same struggles. Have you ever thought, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed, there’s not enough time to get everything done, I don’t have enough help or support, I’m doing everything myself, I’m doing my best,  I’m constantly stressed out, I feel like I still have a job after work?

Guess what? BOTH parents and teachers feel this way! When you send that email or make that call after school, the weight of the day comes through in your message. When a parent comes home after fighting traffic, making dinner, and paying the bills, their frustration comes through in their response.

I can’t change how they’ll respond, but I can do my part to finesse my message so that parents are more open and reasonable to what I have to say. So tone and delivery are key here.

If you’re explaining how a student violated a policy, consider how you word it. You may have a strict late policy for assignments, but you want to word and present it in such a way that’s fair and that doesn’t make parents call foul. While students do need to learn responsibility, it’s still important to be human. Sometimes parents create the problem or situation where their student can’t do the assignment on time, so it does nobody any good if your policy makes both the parent feel guilty and the student resentful of that parent.

If you sound like a stickler and unyielding, then a parent may equally dig in and go over your head to complain. All you wanted to do was let them know that Liya was out of her seat multiple times in a period and all of a sudden you’re stuck in a parent/teacher/administrator conference.

Also, how school should work is not the same in all cultures and sets of values. In some cultures, teachers have more authority and reverence than others. While you may have an idea of how parents and students should treat education at home, you ultimately can’t control that. You need to listen and learn about the norms and work together to find middle ground. Your policies may be truly foreign to them, so when you explain, don’t do it in a condescending way as if they’re stupid for not getting it.

TnT 74 Conquering classroom management right from the start

Having a solid classroom management plan is ESSENTIAL for a successful year. No amount of curriculum planning will be effective if you have multiple students disrupting the learning. So now that you have a plan, how do you implement it? What are the possible things that could go wrong, and why do they happen? In Part 2 of this 2-part series, I dive into how to train your students to follow your plan, as well as how to deal with parents when their student misbehaves.

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Why is classroom management such a big deal? Have you ever seen a classroom where everyone sits silently and obediently? Have you seen a classroom where students are busy and actively learning? Have you seen one where students are screaming, running around, and the teacher can’t get them to settle down?

All of those are examples of good and bad classroom management. In our minds, we would love it if our students would just listen to us and do what we ask, but we also know that that’s a dream.

Or is it? Can we really expect that from students?

If you have the right classroom management plan and you implement it properly, then yes, you really can have it. You’ve obviously seen it in action, so it MUST be possible, right? But as a new teacher, it seems to be more difficult because classroom management is just ONE component that we have to think about while teaching. You’ve also got standards, checking for understanding, student engagement, assessments….you know what I mean.

Here’s the thing: if you get your classroom management plan down pat from the beginning, you actually spend LESS time worrying about it later on. Seriously, it just happens naturally. So here’s how to implement your plan correctly from the start.

Starting off the year right

The key to having a relatively smooth year in terms of classroom management is to set the right tone. You want a tone is warm, safe, and business-like. Students WANT to like their teachers, and part of liking you and feeling safe is knowing where the boundaries are. This is CRUCIAL because if your tone is off, you’ll have battles all year long. You can diminish the number of troublemakers by simply connecting with them the right way.

So right off the bat, students will be noticing different things: your appearance, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Being business-like but friendly will put them at ease but also communicate that education happens here. Even if you have younger students that need more hand-holding, they need to understand that you’re not their parent and you won’t let them get away with everything.

There’s a balancing act that has to happen here – you can’t be too nice or too strict. Too nice, and your students will automatically think you’re a pushover. Sure, they’ll like you instantly. In fact, they’ll like you so much that they’ll show every facet of their personality without any regard to others. And when you try to discipline them, they won’t take you seriously or wonder why you’re being a jerk.

If you’re too STRICT, then students will fear you – but only for so long. For the students that tend to have behavior problems in the classroom, you’ve just presented a delicious challenge. They’ll dig in, and no amount of consequences will get them in line. Their parents may have already given up on them and are used to receiving messages and requests for conferences. And these students will behave just long enough to NOT be held in from recess or lunch, and will then proceed to be bonkers in your class.

One way to set a more positive tone is to NOT over the rules on the first day. While younger grades need to be explicitly taught the basics like how to line up, how to ask to go to the bathroom, how to raise their hand, where to hang their backpack, etc., you don’t need to go over a million rules the first day you meet them.

And especially for secondary, don’t start with rules. They JUST met you. Can you imagine going on a first date with someone and listing off a bunch of do’s and don’ts about yourself? The same goes for your students. These students have learned some basic behavior rules from elementary school, so assume they’ll automatically implement those. 

On the first day, take the time to let them get to know you, learn about the fun things you’ll be doing this year, and perhaps where everything is in your classroom. Then teach them policies and procedures throughout that first week, and allow them to practice and demonstrate it.

I’ve heard of teachers spending an hour on the first day discussing classroom rules and grading policies. Seriously? You’ve just COMPLETELY turned off your students. You are now like every other teacher that talks at them, and you’ll have to work harder to build relationships with them. If you’re in secondary, all of your students’ teachers are going to be suuuper boring that first week, so you should stand out by embedding the boring stuff around activities that are more engaging.

For me, in order to set the right tone, I plan engaging activities right off the bat that encourage students to work together. I love to do the activity Slip or Trip where students have to decide what happened to a man who is laying at the bottom of a staircase. This gets students excited, and so they naturally engage with each other. It also sets the tone that your classroom is going to be fun and exciting, and I can sneak in what they should do when they want to volunteer an answer. 

Teaching all of this

When you get your group of new students each year, you’re going to find a mishmash of different types of behaviors. Some teachers will be stricter than you and have lots of rules, while others are pretty relaxed and just go with the flow. You’ll hear, “But last year Mrs. So-and-so let us talk while we work” or “We just use a little hand signal for the bathroom and then we just go.” This is why it’s important to really teach your rules and consequences. 

As I mentioned before, it’s better to spread out your rules and expectations over the first week. Students can only remember so much in the beginning, especially if they’re in secondary since they have multiple sets of rules from multiple teachers!

Students will quickly learn your expectations and will be more than happy to meet those if they have a good relationship with you. When someone breaks a rule in the beginning, implement the first consequence without humiliating them. You could just pause and give them the teacher look. Later,  you can privately ask them if they knew why you had to stop and look at them. 

When you DO go over your rules and expectations, take the time to demonstrate and model what they should and shouldn’t do. Then have THEM model what they should do. Then have a student act out what they shouldn’t do, and have students explain what they did wrong. Finally, have students explain the consequences for those behaviors.

When it comes time to enforce it, don’t get emotional. You need to be very matter-of-fact. You don’t want the student to believe in any way that you don’t like them. Once they feel that the relationship is damaged, they’ll stop trying to please you or want to listen to you.

So if you have to relocate them, just calmly say, “I need you to go sit over there for now, ok? Just for today. Thanks.” If they ask why or stall, just say, “We’ll talk about it in a minute, but for now, I need you to sit there. If they STILL won’t do it, then you give them a choice. “You have two choices, you can move over there for today and we’ll have a brief conversation about it, or you can stay here and I can ask the assistant principal to take you while I call home” or something like that. You can add, “one of these choices involves just talking it out with me while the other involves more consequences. It’s your choice.”

Here’s the thing: you HAVE to follow through. Don’t be scared or flake out because you don’t want to call home or you don’t want to bother your assistant principal. That student needs to know that you mean business or they’ll NEVER, EVER follow your directions and will know that you make empty threats.

Where parents fit in

If you have a frequent flyer who can’t seem to follow the rules, chances are that their parent has been made aware of it in the past. Some parents will deal with the child after being contacted, while others will defend the child and insist that you got it wrong.

Whenever you want to contact a parent about a behavior issue, you have to stay fairly emotionless about it and just state the facts. It’s so easy to come off as not liking their kid, so you have to be careful how you explain the behaviors and what you did to try to fix the problem. 

Don’t come in with swords blazing and put the parent on the defense. In that situation, there’s no way you can win. They may even go straight to your administrator and complain about how you handled the situation. Even if they know it, nobody likes to hear that their child is a monster. So don’t communicate that you feel that way.

Whenever I have to email or call a parent about a behavior, I first explain what happened in class. I follow up with why their child is great and then explain that the student needs reinforcement from both school and at home so that they can be successful in class. Then I ask if they could help me out by talking to their student about what happened and how they can prevent it from happening in the future.

Here’s an example: “Today I had to ask Johnny to sit down five times. He was walking around, talking to people on his way to the trash can, and was, in general, a disruption and nuisance in class.” OR you could write, “Today Johnny had difficulty staying in his seat. While I realize that he needed to throw something away as well as get a tissue, he was talking to other students along the way, which made it very difficult for me to teach my lesson and for other students to focus. I’m hoping we can work together and talk to him about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior so that he can continue to be successful in my class.”

Also, you need to document every phone call and email exchange. This way if a parent says that you never told them about their child’s behavior, you have proof. And when you send that student to the counselor or administrator, you can show them what you’ve done to try to remedy the problem.

In teacher preparation programs, a lot of time is spent on rules, tokens, and consequences. These mainly work in the earlier grades, but in middle school, they develop apathy towards them or they eventually learn that they don’t need to comply unless you reward them. You end up teaching them to expect some sort of token in exchange for doing what they should be doing anyway.

Also, yelling is not discipline. Yelling is an attempt to instill fear in order to control a class. After a while, the students consider your yelling voice as your regular voice, so there’s not much left to do when you’re really serious. Also, humiliating or punishing students will backfire. It will be harder to repair that relationship later and they’ll stop trusting you. It may seem easier at first to punish a student for misbehaving, but when the threat and fear of punishment disappears, what’s left? Being proactive and patiently teaching a student how to behave will go much further and leave you with less stress. 

Finally, if a student is a repeat offender on a daily basis, you should wipe the slate clean each day. Give them a new opportunity to right the wrong and demonstrate that they’ve learned how they should behave. This can be really, really difficult, especially if they get on your nerves. Chances are that student already knows that you’re annoyed with them and they feel like they can’t win your trust again. So they just continue to act up and you end up having a miserable year.

If you take a listen to episode 62, I discuss how to repair the relationship with a student that chronically misbehaves. This would be worth listening to, especially when you have that one student that just doesn’t seem to get it!

TnT 73 How to craft an effective classroom management plan

Classroom management is BY FAR every new teacher’s biggest struggle. They may have had success when they were borrowing someone else’s class during student teaching, but when faced with their own, it can be daunting. Despite the tips and tricks taught in pre-service preparation programs, most new teachers still feel woefully unprepared for dealing with student behaviors. In Part 1 of this 2-part series, I discuss how to get in the right mindset for classroom management, as well as how to craft a solid classroom management plan.

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Today on episode 73, its part 1 of a 2-part series on classroom management. This is by far all new teachers’ biggest struggle, so I’m going to break it down for you into manageable parts.

With the school year right around the corner (or maybe for some of you, it’s already started), you really need to have your classroom management solid. This is a topic that many new teachers struggle with, and since it’s a complex topic, I felt that it should be split into two episodes.

Classroom management isn’t so much about discipline, rules, and consequences as much as it is about preventing negative behaviors from arising in the first place. If you think about it, it’s like our health. It’s easier and cheaper to prevent illness rather than treating it. So if you set the right learning environment and have positive relationships with ALL students, students are less likely to misbehave or try to push those boundaries.

For some of our toughest students, they struggle to read, write, and do math or just hate it altogether. They channel this frustration and shame into negative behaviors as a coping mechanism. They’ll also stonewall or refuse to work because they don’t want other students to know that they’re not capable. In their mind, you can’t criticize their work nor will they come off as stupid if they haven’t given you anything to criticize.

Once they fall behind, it obviously gets tougher for them, so they start really making them part of their coping mechanism of the mindset. Reading and writing have most likely been boring for a lot of your students. Math won’t make sense at all. 

On the flip side, they could also be completely bored out of their minds and act up to entertain themselves. Both situations suck for you as the teacher.

Unless the right conditions are set, these factors will lead to more students misbehaving or checking out in your class. In this two-part series, I’m going to dive into both mindset and practical aspects of classroom management. As you’re listening, I want you to think about your own interactions with students, the policies that have been passed down from others that you’ve tried out, and how to create a system that works with your own personality and teaching style.

Let’s start with mindset.

Child development

In order to figure out what kind of classroom management plan you want, you have to first learn everything you can about child development for the students you teach and use it to frame how you handle your classroom. Your expectations have to be in line with what can be expected of them. This means that you’ll have to work with younger kids on impulse control and with older students on being responsible.

There are a lot of articles, blog posts, podcasts, and books about kids at that age. Research and take notes on key points that could affect how they behave in class. Don’t skimp on this part, especially if you’re new to teaching a certain grade because it’s key to your classroom management plan.

So once you have a working knowledge of what your students are going through at that age, you’ll know what behaviors to expect. What, then, does your ideal classroom look like? If you expect a group of 35 middle school students to sit quietly and be completely engaged in your lesson for 60 minutes, you’ll be disappointed on a daily basis. If students tapping, squirming while sitting on the ground, and random outbursts annoy you, then you need to find a way to get past that if you teach elementary. You have to take what is normal for their age, combine it with what students need to learn and determine how you’ll communicate your expectations to them.

For example, a lot of 7th graders hate drawing attention to themselves. That’s why so many of them don’t want to raise their hand to volunteer in class. So with that in mind, I have policies that allow them to be more subtle when they need something. If they need to go to the bathroom, they just cross their fingers and hold it up and patiently wait for me to make eye contact and nod at them. No discussion is needed, no interruption of the lesson and they’re eternally grateful that they didn’t have to raise their hand. If they need a tissue to blow their nose, they don’t need to ask. It doesn’t bother me if they get up because the rest of us are so engaged in the lesson. Plus, if they ask to get a tissue, then people’s attention is on that student walking to the tissue box and listening to them blow their nose.

Younger students enjoy and are receptive to call and response. Something like “clap once if you hear me, clap twice if you hear me,” or putting the peace sign in the air, maybe saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m waiting for quiet,” those work really well with younger students. Older students find it cheesy and are less likely to respond without a good dose of sarcasm and eye-rolling.

When it comes to transitions between activities, what can you reasonably expect? If you did direct instruction for 30 minutes, your students will most likely talk during a transition. It’s okay – let them empty the cup a bit. With elementary students, you’ll probably have to show them specific routines in terms of how to take out certain supplies, where to put them on their desk, etc. With secondary students, they need less hand-holding and will actually be annoyed if they feel like you’re nagging them.

Engagement and classroom management go hand-in-hand

In episode 70, I discuss the importance of being an engaging teacher. This is important because when you’re engaging, and students are engaged, you’ll have far fewer problems. So if you want more information on how to not only make your lessons engaging but also deliver them in an engaging way, check out episode70. 

One of the many reasons why students misbehave is boredom. They already know what you’re teaching or are so confused and don’t want to ask. But if your student engaging is high, they won’t have as many opportunities to be disruptive.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be bouncing off the walls and hyper to entertain students. We’re not here to keep them entertained, and not everything has to be fun. But your delivery and content should be engaging enough that they want to pay attention and work with their group. If you’re quiet, meek, and monotone, then even the best student will space out and stop listening. So making the material rigorous and relevant to students is key.

Coming up with a plan

Now that you know what to expect from your students at this age, you need to decide your classroom management plan. This includes your rules and consequences.

When we think of rules, we can’t help but think of the things students SHOULDN’T be doing. I mean, in our minds we can picture all of the behaviors that we DON’T want to see, right?

But you want your rules to be about the things that they SHOULD do so that learning can happen in a safe and caring (and dare I say FUN) environment. You want a rule to be phrased in such a way that it’s obvious that by not following it we can’t get on with the fun stuff and learning.

You’ve probably already heard this, but you also want to make your rules apply to multiple situations in that you want the rules to blanket a lot of different behaviors. And you have to think about your own teaching philosophy and craft rules around that.

For example, something as simple as respect yourself, others, and learning encompasses so many possible scenarios. If a student answers out loud without raising their hand, they’re not respecting others and learning. Same goes if they’re talking to a student across the room. Or if a student is eating or chewing gum in class, they’re not respecting others or learning.

Come prepared to learn is another simple rule that can apply to multiple situations such as bringing your materials, staying awake in class, doing your homework on time, studying for tests, etc. 

You can also make a specific rule such as only water is allowed to be consumed. I do this one because I don’t want any food or colored drinks in my class. We have an ant problem in our school, and even one crumb will bring on a hundred ants!

So now you have your rules. What will happen when one of these rules is broken?

Consequences

You want to really think about this because whatever you choose, you MUST enforce it, even if it’s broken RIGHT AFTER you explain the rule.

If you’ve ever seen a consequence in action that made you cringe, don’t use it. If you felt sorry for a student after a consequence, don’t use it. If you felt like it was fair and effective, then use it.

Most teachers start out with a verbal warning or giving the “teacher look.” You want to explain to students that this is their ONLY time to fix the problem before you start implementing consequences.

Why only one warning? Well, how many times do you want to stop instruction for this student? If they see that they get multiple warnings, they’ll keep acting up until they’ve used those all up. So you have to be clear about this, and more importantly – STICK TO IT.

What happens the second time? That’s up to you. For younger students, a timeout situation tends to work as long as it’s not too lengthy. If you give a student a timeout, it helps to follow up with a discussion in that timeout, otherwise, a timeout inadvertently is a reward.

For secondary, I’ve found that relocating them helps. You might want to consider having an empty seat near the back where they can go and not try to be the center of attention. This also allows you to have a private conversation with them once you get the class working.

Whenever I have to relocate a student, I keep track of it. If I’m having to do this several times a week, I make sure to inform the parent. You don’t want to give them detention or send them to the office without any warning – that’s a sure way to ruin any chance of working with them or having them cooperate!

Some teachers assign daily points for behavior and deduct those for each infraction. Others have students write a reflection sheet. Some have students stay in during recess or lunch. Whatever you choose, be consistent and fair. If you know that a certain consequence makes you uncomfortable or you come up with reasons why THIS instance doesn’t count, then it’s not a good consequence.

You want to make sure that you’re aware of any school policies when it comes to discipline. You want to follow all of the protocols before a student is ever sent to an administrator. This usually means dealing with it in-house and talking to the parent. You don’t want to send a student to your administrator without having contacted the parent first – otherwise, the parent will be angry that you never told them, and your administrator will resent you for putting them on the spot like that. It ends up being doubly bad.

When thinking of possible consequences, make sure they have equal weight as the infraction. For example, if a student talks out of turn twice, that’s probably not grounds for lunch detention. However, if a student hits another student (even in a joking way) or throws something across the room, a verbal warning may not be enough.

If you’re at a loss in terms of what your classroom management plan should be, ask other teachers on your team or that teach your grade. Go on social media and ask your tribe. Be aware that some of their policies can be on the extreme of lenient or draconian, but it’ll give you an idea of what others are using successfully.

Also, if you observe a teacher that has amazing classroom management in the same style as yours, pick their brains, even if they teach another grade or subject! Find out what they’re doing, how they teach students their policies, what has and hasn’t worked…all of it!

When you’re starting out as a teacher, you’re going to try a lot of different systems until you either fine-tune it or find the right one. Be willing to take risks and see what works for you. You’ll also find that both your teaching philosophy and delivery will change over time, so be reflective throughout the process so that you can find something that fits.