5 Ways to Make Kids Hate Your Class

The text of my article for Middleweb from March 24, 2105

We’ve all read the rhetoric from self-styled school reformers perpetuating the myth of schools full of bad teachers. This has not been my experience. Most teachers I know are consummate professionals constantly striving to improve their practice.

Nevertheless, there are some ways that even the most talented teachers can undermine their own effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to slip into these bad habits that make kids hate coming into your class. The best defense is a good offense, so it pays to be mindful of these ineffective teaching behaviors and avoid them when you can.

teacher-giving-orders1. Kids hate it when you over-control them

Because teachers are the dominant force in sole charge of a classroom of children, it is easy to become controlling. Furthermore, when so much else in our day feels out of control, we tend to clamp down on the things we can manage. However, leading with a heavy hand causes resentment among students because they feel helpless.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • deny them access to the restroom or a drink of water
  • keep them after class causing them to be tardy for the next one
  • get into power struggles with them in front of their peers
  • yell at or punish the entire class when not all of them were causing a problem

2. Kids hate it when you neglect or ignore them

boy-left-outTeachers are human beings, so it is only natural that we are drawn to certain students more than others. That being said, it is never appropriate for this to be known by the students. Even if you think you are treating children equally, they are very sensitive to real or perceived slights.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • give preferential treatment to obvious “favorites”
  • don’t bother to learn a child’s name or how to pronounce it
  • call on the same children all the time without giving others a chance
  • spend class time on your phone or computer rather than teaching

3. Kids hate it when you teach them badly

boy-puzzledTeaching in an all-consuming, exhausting profession. At any given time, there are a million other things we could be doing rather than getting our teaching just right. However, there is no excuse for forgetting the reason you are there—to teach the children to the best of your ability. Every time.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • impose a strict deadline, yet take an inordinate amount of time to grade or return their work
  • be easily distracted and go off on an irrelevant tangent instead of covering the material for which they will be responsible
  • come to class unprepared and disorganized
  • don’t accept responsibility for poor teaching and blame them for not studying
  • give grades with little to no feedback or explanation
  • use the same materials for years on end, regardless of the needs of the current class

4. Kids hate it when you blindside them

boy-hard-at-workThere are already so many times in a child’s life when they feel powerless. School should not be one of them. There is no place in school for “gotcha” teaching and grading practices. Think about how you as a teacher would feel if an administrator did equivalent things to you.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • put trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs”
  • include material on a test that you did not cover or mention in class
  • take points off of their work for minor infractions such as forgetting their name or a spelling error
  • call on them when they appear to be off-task
  • single them out in front of everyone

5. Kids hate it when you damage them

cartoon illustration of a boy talking with his mom isolated on whiteThis is the single most important thing to remember about teaching:You are trusted with the ultimate treasure – a child’s heart and soul. It is your solemn duty to protect this gift. Too many times, we forget that these are just children with fragile egos, and they can be severely damaged by something that seems insignificant to an adult.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • use sarcasm regularly
  • participate in any kind of shaming (e.g., stapling fast food restaurant applications to a low-scoring test)
  • compare them to other students, classes, or siblings
  • reveal confidential personal information in front of their peers
  • publicly berate them for small infractions such as not having a pencil
  • tease them over sensitive issues

I can’t imagine that teachers do any of these things to their students intentionally, but they do happen. We are not perfect, but we can be cognizant of our own behavior. None of us wants to be the teacher kids hate.

When we chose teaching as a profession, we did so with the implicit understanding that we would not only teach but protect and nurture the hearts and minds of our students. Keeping our classroom practices positive and supportive will go a long way in achieving that life-long goal.

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I Am My Words

ID-10094137My SmartBlog on Education article for 12.04.14

As a child, any report to an adult of another child saying mean things to me was met with the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Those adults were so wrong. Words in the hands of the right person can be weapons of mass destruction.
As a teacher, I am acutely aware that my words have the power to uplift or destroy. An entire year of progress can be undone in an instant. This was reinforced for me recently when I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I saw many of my students’ favorite authors speak and a common thread emerged. In their early school careers, many of these authors were in the classroom of a teacher whose words and actions left them deflated and hopeless. They began to believe that they had no worth as a student, or more importantly, as a person.
So what changed the trajectory of failure for these authors and prevented these damaging words from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? One teacher. Each of them could point to the one teacher who saw them as a person with individual gifts and talents and did not penalize them for not fitting a preconceived mold. That one teacher got the message across that they were worthy and this gave them the will to become their authentic selves.

These authors put into words what I wanted as a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom — a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated and cherished. They need to know that they have value solely for who they are.
My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I am extremely careful with my words and actions and I am quick to apologize and try to make it right if I ever do realize that I have hurt a child. My words have power, and I must use that power for good.
A few years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite, because they are. They and their parents have trusted me with their minds and hearts, and my main duty is to protect that like the precious gift that it is. Hiam Ginott, who pioneered the idea of supportive conversations with children, said, “If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

http://smartblogs.com/education/2014/12/04/i-am-my-words/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Teacher

This time of year, teachers all over the country are meeting the parents of this year’s students. Without fail, when a teacher meets a parent of a child who has stood out in some way (usually negatively) he or she will say something about the apple not falling far from the tree. It does seem to hold true that many mannerisms, behaviors, or beliefs can be explained when one meets a child’s parents. However, I never hear these teachers say the same thing when a child is having a negative experience in their class. If parents entrust us with the care of their children for several hours per day, it stands to reason that we, as educators, must bear some responsibility for the results of that education. Like it or not, the apple also doesn’t fall far from the teacher.

I have gone on record saying that when a child performs poorly in my classroom, I bear some of the responsibility. True, I can lead the child to the knowledge, but I can’t dunk their head in the trough and force them to drink. That being said, there are numerous reasons as to why a child fails and in my experience as a special education teacher consultant for children with behavior or learning difficulties, I can tell you that they are generally not failing deliberately. Failure does not feel good and it is human nature to avoid it whenever possible. As a teacher, I need to put in the time and effort to determine WHY a child is not performing up to par in my class.

Some of the reasons why students fail a class have nothing to do with school. Unfortunately, there is often very little a teacher can do about harmful home or social issues, but we can try to help lessen their detrimental effects. Regardless of (or despite) outside issues, there are steps a teacher can take to have a shiny, happy classroom full of successful, engaged learners.

Motivation is the key to a child’s learning. Motivation leads to engagement, and engagement leads to success. So let’s begin at the beginning.

Much has been written about what truly leads to intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, Daniel Pink in Drive, and my edu-hero, Rick Wormeli, are great reads on the topic. One thing we know for sure—carrots and sticks don’t work. The will to undertake a task and reach for success must be organic. Sadly, for many chronically failing students, they have never experienced much academic success and have just come to accept that they never will. We want students to actively participate in their literacy development and must help put students on the path to success.

It is not as if students do not have literate lives. They text, direct message, and Facetime with friends. They play video games or read beauty books where they have to read directions. They write song lyrics or stories for fun. The success of teen novels has led to numerous movie franchises. Many adolescents just don’t want to participate in the literacy activities that teachers design. Sadly, most of these activities are not particularly motivating or engaging. Therefore, reading and writing in school become something that students must “get through” in order to pass, but they never really care about the material.

How You Can Help Motivate A Struggling Student:

The assignment may be something students do not see as relevant to their lives. A good teacher can bring all texts (even “boring” classics) to life if they show the universal connections and themes that exist. (I’m working on this for my next series of posts.)

Many students have too many things diverting their attention from the task at hand. If their home life is difficult, perhaps speaking to a trained school professional may help. If it is a social relationship issue, time is a teacher’s best friend as many of these resolve themselves. If they don’t, this could become a teachable moment to recommend reading material, have a general class discussion, or suggest a writing assignment on the topic to allow a child to process his or her thoughts. If the problem is that a child is legitimately overscheduled, then assistance with how best to prioritize his or her time may be in order. I have been in meetings with parents where I’ve addressed this topic and asked for the parents to work with me to develop a plan so the child can pursue passions and still find time for schoolwork.

For some children, reading is arduous, not enjoyable. Asking them to read material that they must slog through causes them to give up. A good teacher can assist the child in understanding by facilitating lively class discussion, allowing for audio texts (which I love), or encouraging them to read with others. Additionally, there should be safe, low-stakes activities designed for all students to practice and make mistakes without severe academic consequences. Practice without meaningful, targeted feedback and support can lead to poor learning. Meeting with the student often, or scaffolding the reading activities to build confidence, is crucial.

If a child has never developed language skills to the point where he or she can comfortably participate in class, this must be addressed. There are numerous avenues available and no stone should be left unturned. This problem will only get worse and intervention is of paramount importance. With individual coaching and explicit instruction, the student will make progress. Once a child experiences some sort of growth, they will want to continue on this path. Nothing breeds success like success and baby steps can be cause for private or public celebration.

As always, choice and opportunities for collaboration motivate students. The more they can be involved in and direct their education, the more invested they will be to produce their best work. The use of technology can also be motivating as long as it is not a substitute for or replication of weak pedagogy. If technology is more than bells and whistles or rote practice, it can assist students with self-expression and understanding.

Positive, supportive relationships between the teacher and the student are the key to classroom management and student learning. The classroom environment can support or undermine a child’s success. I wrote about this previously in How to Create a Shiny, Happy Classroom and The Class Where Everyone Knows Your Name. As Rita Pierson says in her TED talk, “Students will not learn from a teacher that they don’t like.” They also will not learn from a teacher who does not like them. Research proves that a positive classroom climate creates the conditions necessary for true student engagement.

A classroom full of successful learners does not happen by accident. The teacher has more influence over this than many acknowledge. Taking even small steps toward motivating students can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of failure. All great teachers want to lead students on the path from motivation to engagement to success. Make sure the apples in your classroom don’t fall far from the talented, caring teacher tree.

 

The Shiny, Happy Classroom

One of my favorite bands is R.E.M. They wrote this fluffy little song called “Shiny, Happy People” and hearing it always makes me smile. I want my students to have this same experience when they think of my classroom. I want thoughts of life in Room 132 to bring a smile. These are some of the steps I take to try to make that happen.

As teachers begin this school year, their thoughts undoubtedly turn to the classroom climate they want to establish and maintain. One question that I am often asked (especially by newer teachers) is what kind of classroom management program I use. My answer is that I don’t. What I prefer instead is to develop a classroom that does not call for a system to handle misbehavior because it so rarely occurs. No checkmarks on the board, no list of consequences, no rewards. Just engaged, productive, friendly students.

I won’t go into the many well-known programs for establishing a positive classroom climate, but all it takes is one quick Google search to retrieve millions of hits. There are dozens of books on the subject already written and more arriving every day. I feel much of developing a positive classroom climate is common sense about all how to treat people. After all, our students are people and should be afforded the same graces many of us save for our significant others, friends, and families.

In my experience, there are three things that need to happen for a shiny, happy classroom to exist.

1) Students must feel safe,
2) Students must feel valued, and
3) Students must feel successful.

Safe:

In order for a classroom to be safe, it must be under control. This does not mean that a teacher needs to be authoritarian dominating every aspect of its function. It means that a teacher needs to be authoritative and implement policies and procedures that encourage physical, social, and emotional security. A safe classroom is not that difficult to achieve by following a few basic tenets.

1. Hold high expectations of all students.

This does not mean the same expectations of all students, but rather a high, but achievable standard for each child.

Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will do the right thing the majority of the time.

Believe that they can all reach their potential. For that matter, believe that they all HAVE potential.

2. Be firm but fair.

Firm does not mean overly strict or outright mean. It means choosing your battles and determining what is most important to you and having a legitimate reason for that policy.

Students remember nit-picky things like failing a paper because they forgot to put their name on top and it will only damage the relationship in the long run. Is their name in the upper, right-hand corner REALLY the most important thing to you?

3. Model the behavior you wish to see from students.

You cannot be overly emotional or dramatic on a regular basis in front of the students. There is nothing scarier to some students than a teacher who randomly flies off the handle and explodes at unexpected times. On the other hand, I have seen students make it a game to be the one to send a “yeller” over the edge. Mood swings of any kind generally make others uncomfortable and they will begin to block you out.

Don’t tell them they need to pay attention when you are talking and then be a bad listener when they speak.

Don’t tell them they need to be respectful of others and then “tease” some of the students. If you expect them to be kind to one another, then you must also be kind.

Valued:

I wrote about this more extensively in a previous post (The Classroom Where Everyone Knows Your Name), so I will only briefly reiterate those ideas.

1. Get to know students as individuals.

A positive rapport with your students is the secret weapon when it comes to having a happy classroom. If this does not exist, nothing else you try will ever work.

If you know a little bit about the children beyond the classroom, it will go along way. Integrate their interests into the classroom.

2. Always maintain their dignity.

Sometimes it is necessary to have a discussion with a child about his/her behavior, but it should not be done in front of other students and should never humiliate a student.

Whenever possible, determine a solution to a problem WITH a student rather than imposing your will on them. Giving them the tools to manage their own behavior is much more effective than you deciding how to control them.

3. Choose your words carefully

You are your words—so choose wisely. Always bear in mind that your words have the power to uplift or crush a child. Use your power for good, not evil.

Successful:

If a student is not doing well in my classroom, I bear some responsibility. As a teacher, I must do everything in my power to find an avenue for that child to succeed academically. Yes, this is a lot of work and often involves circumstances beyond my control, but if I expect their best effort, I must give mine as well.

1. Provide engaging instruction

Make sure you know what you are doing before you step in front of the students. Nothing undermines you more than not appearing as if you had a plan.

Incorporate novelty, technology, collaboration, etc. when appropriate to the content. (I find Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate to have brilliant ideas for getting students’ attention.)

2. Whenever possible, allow for choice and student directed learning.

A student-centered classroom is crucial for all students to succeed.

3. Clearly communicate your expectations for the assignment.

Students can’t hit a target that they can’t see.

Don’t make them guess what you were looking for. Let students know what a quality assignment looks like in advance.

4. Provide regular, constructive feedback.

There is no place for a “gotcha” grade at the end of an assignment. Students should know their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving BEFORE it “counts.”

5. Nurture and celebrate their successes.

6. It’s okay to have fun. “Don’t smile until Christmas” is ridiculous and was bad advice even when it was new.

Practicing What I Preach

I just participated in an invigorating NCTE twitter chat http://www.ncte.org/community/nctechat about the Teacher as Writer. It was very thought provoking and I wanted to get my feelings down on paper while they were still fresh.

I believe in the power of the right mindset in achieving one’s goals. I encourage my students to take risks and I don’t penalize them for mistakes. I want them to practice in a fun, low-stakes environment in order to improve their reading and writing skills. I have designed the class so that they share their work with others often. I often tell them to “write what you know.” I remind them that they all have a story to share that others want to hear. Why, then, it is so difficult for me to internalize my own advice? Why do I find the act of writing for others so intimidating when I expect my students to do so on a daily basis?

I have had a varied and rewarding teaching career and have always shared what I have learned with others and learned from them in return. I took on leadership roles at school and have taught teacher candidates at Eastern Michigan University. I’ve enjoyed these experiences, but always had a desire to write a book on student motivation and engagement. However, I’ve never been able to follow through on this and put the ideas on paper. A large part of this is my own insecurity about sharing my ideas with a larger audience. I am very sensitive and am afraid I would respond badly to real or perceived negative criticism. I guarantee several of my students can relate and I have empathy for them.

I met several members of the Nerdy Book Club http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com at the Michigan Reading Association conference in March of this year. After experiencing their passion and enthusiasm for literacy, I was inspired to start blogging my own ideas about teaching and learning, but was still a bit terrified of taking the leap. But I knew I must be that role model for my students, so I started writing.

On the day my first blog post went live, I was petrified. I was opening up my heart and soul in addition to my ideas and I didn’t know how I would be received. I was writing what I knew and wanted to tell my story. I truly didn’t care if anyone read the posts, but I wanted them to be kind in their feedback if they did. I have now posted several entries and can’t believe that people have actually read them and even commented. The response has been more than I expected and very positive. Even though it is a little bit scary, it is a bit of a thrill to know that something I have written may be meaningful or helpful to a fellow educator. Plus, I truly enjoy the forced reflection of the entire process. This is the feeling I want for my students so I must keep this in mind as I conference with them about their writing.

Once again, I am reminded that teaching affords me immense power and I must use this power to uplift and not destroy. I am sure many of my students are also frightened of having an outsider (even if it is just the teacher and classmates) read their writing. They may not feel they have a valuable story to tell. They may be afraid that it is not worth writing if it is not perfect. I understand how that feels and can relate. My role as their instructor is to be their coach as well as their cheerleader. I need to be mindful of the words I choose when giving feedback. If I do it right, they may experience the same joy in writing as I do now.

I guess my next challenge is to actually write that book.

 

The Class Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I believe that students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they realize this—watch out! The potential for learning in your class will be limitless.

When I was in high school, I started watching “Cheers” on TV. I watched in part because Coach made me laugh, but mostly because I loved the theme song. Every time the singer crooned,

“Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name”

I would think to myself: Yes. Yes, I do want to go to this magical place where everyone liked me and choruses would erupt when I walked in the door. How great would that be? Who wouldn’t want that?

Since I was a child, I was a good student and well behaved so I was largely ignored by teachers and never encouraged to reach for more than just getting good grades. Most teachers knew little else about me besides my academic standing and they didn’t seem to want to know more. I lost count of the number of times I was called by some other dark-haired girl’s name. (The principal even said my name incorrectly when announcing my scholarship at graduation!) I got the message that hard work and good behavior was all that was expected of me. I got used to being invisible. I never stood up for myself. I shut down emotionally. Even though I loved learning, I never liked middle or high school. I wonder if this may have been different if any adult outside of my immediate family had ever told me that I mattered and that I was enough. (See Angela Maiers’ “You Matter Manifesto.”) However, it did make me the kind of teacher that I am, and my students benefit from what I never had.

My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished.

My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know them personally to achieve this environment. The first few days of my class are devoted to learning their names and a bit about them. Several years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite. They give me this feeling in return. And I know all of their names.

Finding the Gift in Every Student

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw a slide about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from a presentation given by Rick Wormeli. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As an educational psychologist and former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. With the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many of these students are depressed and disenfranchised? Does this practice anger anyone else as much as it does me? There has to be a better way. (http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/TabId/270/ArtMID/888/ArticleID/372/Perseverance-and-Grit.aspx)

There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Unfortunately, many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. I was enrolled in these gifted programs in school and remember that time as being highly motivating and enjoyable. Herein lies my frustration. If these are the best teaching practices we know of, why are they not used with all of our students?

 

I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be somewhat facetious, it is based in my truth. I am a constructivist at heart and believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. To that end, I’ve always incorporated techniques recommended for teaching gifted learners. In an article on teaching gifted children written by Carol Ann Tomlinson in 1997, she states, “What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.” In short—a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Why is this not what we want and demand for all students?

This leads me closer to solving the issue I posed in previous posts–developing a “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I’m going to continue to develop and provide more Project Based Learning and Genius Hour experiences. This will not only address the standards I want to teach, but it will do so in the manner I want to teach. Since I believe all of my students possess their own gifts and that all of them need motivating learning experiences, I’m looking forward to exploring how to make all the puzzle pieces fit.