Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Total Confusion? What to Do When No One Gets It

One of the most frustrating moments in a teacher’s school day can strike without warning. In the midst of a carefully planned lesson, it is possible for even the very best teachers in a school to experience the sinking feeling that happens as soon as they realize that no one is getting it. No one understands the lesson. Students are not learning. Everyone is confused.

This is a very different situation from the scenario where only one or two students appear to be lost. In this larger fiasco, there is a great deal that has gone wrong and that needs to be dealt with immediately. Savvy teachers do all that they can possibly foresee to prevent this, but inevitably it happens to even the most prepared teachers.

One thing is for sure. This is not a situation that can be overlooked. Things need to be fixed and fast.

One of the first mistakes to avoid is to blame students. Blaming will only waste time. Instead, be creative and calm and diagnose the situation as carefully and as accurately as possible. Ask for your students’ help. Taking a teamwork approach to the problem will convince students that they are capable learners and that the situation is manageable. A teamwork approach will also encourage student ownership of the problem and motivate them to solve it with you.

Here are some further suggestions to help you cope once you realize that many students in your class are struggling with an assignment. While some of these can be implemented at once, some will require a bit more planning. Having a quick back up plan or a change to another part of the day’s lesson may be in order to allow you enough time to think through what you need to do before you involve students.

  • Offer a choice of assignments that can help students remediate their knowledge. A choice board with five or six different assignments can allow students extra practice without the stigma of feeling as if they failed.
  • Rotate every student through kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning assignments so that all students can use their preferred learning styles.
  • Provide more examples, models, and demonstrations so that all students know exactly what they are to do and learn.
  • Provide models or examples of the mistakes or missteps that are possible so that students can be aware of them and plan how to avoid them.
  • Build on what your students already know by showing them how new material relates to what they have already learned. Ask them to share those connections with small group teammates and then with the entire class.
  • Ask students to diagnose what they find difficult about the lesson. To obtain the specifics that you need, hand out small slips of paper or note cards and ask students to list the problems that they are having. This will usually be more productive than asking students to just share their complaints with the whole group.
  • Allow students to work with peers in mixed ability groups. Often being able to discuss the work with a peer is all that is needed for understanding.
  • Consider shortening the assignment so that the basics are covered, but frustrating extra work is not required.
  • Supply students with support materials such as word banks, graphic organizers, and outlines to make the content more accessible.
  • Handouts that help students translate parts of the lesson into their own words can be effective as students work through the material. If students have trouble articulating their learning, ask them to work together to express the ideas in other words.
  • Ask students to draw diagrams, sketch concepts, or make charts of various types to translate the material into meaningful bits of information.
  • Reteach small parts of the lesson while recording yourself using the video function on your cell phone. Post the video to your class website or to YouTube where students can access it from home. Try to keep these videos under five minutes and be sure that they are tightly focused on only small, manageable parts of the lesson.
  • Ask students to pause in their work and list three things that they are absolutely sure of. You can share this information easily by first putting students into groups of four or five. Hand each group a sheet of paper and ask one student to record one thing about the lesson that he or she is absolutely sure of. That student passes the paper to the next who repeats the exercise. After the sheet has gone around the group several times, not only will you have a good idea of what they do and do not know, but students will have had an opportunity to share their learning with their peers and to possibly fill in any gaps that they have.
  • Rethink the concepts that you expect your students to have as prior knowledge. Do they really have these concepts mastered? Check for the prerequisite concepts or skills if you notice students struggling.
  • Sometimes all that is necessary is more time to complete an assignment.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How to Help Students Adjust to School after Winter Break

For many students, returning to school from the long winter break is not an easy transition. Staying up late, sleeping in, unstructured time, family stresses, or holiday travel can all make it hard for students to return to school ready to work productively. You can expect to see students who are tired, cranky, and just not as cooperative as usual because their normal schedules have been disrupted.

Experienced teachers know helping students readjust to their school routines requires understanding, patience, and a solid plan to make that first day back as pleasant as possible for everyone involved. Here are a few brief suggestions to smooth the reentry process for your students.

  • If you have a class website or group email system so that you can contact your students, consider sending an upbeat message a day or two in advance of their return. Remind students about the materials that they will need to bring to class as well as other relevant information to make the transition back to school life easier.  
  • Think back to the first day of school and the techniques you used then to make your students feel welcomed into your class. After all, returning after a long break is really just a mini-first day of school. Adjust as needed, but consider incorporating some of those same techniques to let your students know that you are glad to see them. Take the time to reconnect with each student so that they know that they are a valued member of the class and that their well-being is important to you.
  • Have extra books, papers, pens, and other materials on hand for those students who lost the habits of organization during the break.
  • If your students are old enough to communicate well by writing, pass out small slips of paper or note cards and ask students to tell you about their holiday in one hundred words or less. You can gain some valuable insights into their time away from school with this brief activity.
  • Have students use a checklist to work through the normal class routines on the first day. This will not only remind them of what they need to do, but will also get them back into the habit of working in a purposeful manner. Delivering a flurry of verbal directions will only stress everyone out.
  • Plan activities that are pleasant, but fairly low-key.  Brief games, review activities, pair shares, small group discussions, and other similar strategies are ones that can gradually and successfully reintroduce students to class routines without creating more stress.
  • Photographing or videoing students on the first day of class in the new year is also a good way to celebrate the milestone together. Print on ordinary copy paper and display in the classroom or share on a class website or in a class newsletter. 
  • Take advantage of the time of year as you plan the day’s lessons. Ask students to make predictions about the year ahead or to share their new resolutions. You could even develop class resolutions such as setting a goal for homework completion, improved study habits, or making sure the room is tidy at the end of the day. 
  • Allow time for students to visit with each other and to catch up with each other’s personal news. While this can be done as a whole group activity, small groups really work best as students can engage meaningfully with each other. You could offer open-ended questions for everyone to discuss as conversation starters: What is your favorite memory of 2015? What do you want to do in 2016? If you could change the world in 2016, where would you begin?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

How to Help Students Stay Organized

Disorganized students come in various guises: younger students, older students, male students, female students, well-mannered students, disruptive students, and, all too often, failing students. What these seemingly different students do share, however, is the tendency to be disorganized and overwhelmed. They are the ones still looking for their homework when everyone else has turned theirs in. They are the ones who never have a pencil or paper. They are the ones whose backpacks are stuffed with wadded up papers, broken pencils, and overdue assignments.  Fortunately, there is a great deal that caring teachers can do to help our students become more organized and successful. If you are currently teaching a student who needs help with organization, here are some simple strategies that may help.


Don’t let the problem grow. As soon as you notice that a student is disorganized, spend time working together to help that student become organized. Think in terms of small increments each day instead of an overwhelming clean out once in a while.


Make getting organized and staying that way part of the daily culture of your class. When students are aware of the expectations that their teachers have for them, then they are more likely to rise to those expectations. Good organization should be everybody’s business. The few minutes that you spend on this each day will reap big benefits when students can find work quickly.


Insist that students copy down their homework assignments in a planner. They should do this even if you allow them to photograph their assignments from the board or if it is posted on a class website. Using a planner encourages students to plan their work instead of just copying down homework in a rush.


Assign students to study teams or, at least, allow them to work on organization with a partner. Many students benefit from working with a study buddy so that they can check each other’s folders, binders, and book bags before leaving class. They can also take notes for each other and gather assignments when a team member is absent.


Keep the requirements for paper management as simple as possible. For example, ask students to use just one folder or binder for class instead of requiring them to several items to keep up with such as a binder, a spiral notebook, and folders with pockets.


Help students develop helpful routines for keeping belongings in good order. These routines should be as simple as possible so that they are easy to follow. Even simple steps such a packing up the night before will make a big difference for many students.


Make a point of checking in with disorganized students every class period to see that items are stowed away in a logical place where they can be easily retrieved. With frequent checks, the problems with disorganization can stay small.



Although creating methods of organization may seem obvious to you, be explicit in directing your students. For example, say “Clip this handout into the assessment section of your binder,” instead of “Put your papers away.”


Allow enough time at the end of class for students to pack away their belongings neatly. Insist that students clip their work into binders instead of stuffing them into a binder pocket or, even worse, into a book bag. Just two or three minutes of time with careful monitoring while everyone packs up will send the message that it’s important to be organized.


Provide students who struggle with organization problems with items that will help them stay organized. Calendars, planners, color-coded divider pages or notebooks, assignment notebooks, to-do lists, self-sticking notes, checklists, and pencil pouches will all help these students stay organized.


Monday, October 12, 2015

How to Manage a Successful Conference with Parents or Guardians

Now that we have had the opportunity to get to know our students, it may be time to schedule conferences to discuss some of the concerns that you may have about the academic or behavioral success (or problems) of your students. It is far easier to talk over problems and concerns early in the year when the solutions are still manageable rather than later when students are struggling under a huge burden of months of failures.

Teachers who want to communicate well with parents or guardians realize that what they want is to be reassured that their child is doing well and can succeed in school. Even though this may not be the current state of affairs with their child, families want teachers to work with them and with their children to make this happen. We need to connect solidly with the parents or guardians of our students if we intend to create a positive learning climate in our classrooms.

One way to have a beneficial conference is to make sure our goals for the conference are clear.
You should present yourself to parents or guardians as a friendly teacher who has their child’s best interests at heart and parents should leave with a sense of satisfaction because all of their questions have been answered and all of the points they wanted to cover were addressed. In addition to specific goals for a meeting with parents or guardians, there are lots of other steps that you can take to ensure that the conference is friendly and productive.

  1. Be considerate. Meet the visitors in the school office and escort them to your room unless you are sure they know the way.
  2. Be prompt.
  3. Greet them cordially and express your appreciation for the fact that they came to the conference. This will create a tone of goodwill that you should strive to maintain throughout the conference.
  4. Do not try to impress parents and guardians with your knowledge of educational terms and jargon. Use language that will make them comfortable.
  5. Begin the conference with positive remarks about their child. Talk about the student’s potential, aptitude, special talents. Focus on strengths even if the reason for the conference is a serious breach of conduct. Do not lose sight of the fact that this child is very important to the parents.
  6. Convey the attitude that the child’s welfare is your primary concern.
  7. State the problem in simple, factual terms and express your desire to work together on a solution for the good of the child.
  8. Allow upset or angry parents and guardians to speak first. After they have had the opportunity to say all of the things that they have probably been mentally rehearsing on the way to school, then and only then, can they listen to you or begin to work on a solution to the problem.
  9. Show examples of the student’s work that illustrate the problem. If the problem is not directly work-related, be prepared to discuss specific examples of misbehavior.
  10. If this is a problem that you have talked about before, perhaps informally or over the phone, share any improvement.
  11. Be specific about what you have done to help correct the situation.
  12. Listen to the parents and guardians. If you want a solution to the problem, give them your full attention throughout the conference. Your nonverbal language is crucial to the success of a conference. Be attentive, friendly, and positive.
  13. Encourage parents and guardians to express their ideas. You need their insight and help.
  14. Ask questions that will direct their thinking. These questions can also keep everyone focused on the problem at hand and on solutions to it.
  15. Summarize the points of the conference at the end. Be sure to outline what you will do and what they will do to help their child be more successful in school.
  16. Determine how you will follow up on the conference and keep them up to date.
  17. Express appreciation again for their concern and the time they have spent with you in the conference.

Monday, September 28, 2015

How to Help Students Fit In

Here is a brief excerpt from The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide about how you can help remove the barriers to peer acceptance in your classroom.

Although it is important for teachers to make it easy for their students to work together well, the undertaking requires diplomacy as well as dedicated efforts. Social inclusion is such a vital aspect of any student’s life, however, that the effort often results in beneficial dividends. Begin by identifying some of the barriers that could have a negative effect on your students.

          What are some of the most common barriers to social acceptance in school? Many students could feel excluded because they do not know their classmates. It is a mistake to assume that students know each other well. Even students who have attended school together for several years may not know much about their classmates.

          Another barrier is that your students may live in different neighborhoods. If you teach in a school where students may live at a distance or come from very diverse neighborhoods, it is likely that they have not had very many opportunities to interact with each outside of school.

          In addition, students who have not been taught how to behave courteously or who have not learned socially acceptable ways to resolve conflict often struggle to form appropriate relationships with their peers.

          Perhaps the greatest barrier that you will have to help your students overcome, however, is the perception that they may not have much in common with a classmate whom they do not know well. With effort and persistence, you can assist students in learning to recognize their commonalities so that your students can learn to accept and support each other. Use the tips in the list below to guide you as you work to help students remove the barriers to peer acceptance.

  • Make sure that each student’s strengths are well-known to the rest of the class.
  • If a student has an unpleasant history of failure or misbehavior, make it clear that it is time for a fresh start.
  • Show your students the correct ways to interact with each other. They need plenty of models and monitoring until they have learned to cooperate productively.
  • Let each student shine. Every student should believe that he or she is really your favorite.
  • Be sensitive to the differences that divide your students and to the potential for conflicts that those differences can cause.
  • Make it a point to recognize students who work well with others. Whenever possible, praise the entire class for its cooperative attitude.
  • Provide opportunities for students to get to know each other. These do not have to take up a great deal of time, but can be done in brief activities scattered throughout the year.
  • Plan enough work for your students to do so that they are focused on school and don’t have time to discover their classmates’ negative character traits.
  • Promote tolerance and acceptance with a display of posters and encouraging mottoes.
  • Encourage students to share experiences and personal information about their families, cultures, dreams, and goals while working together.
  • Make it very easy for students to understand class routines and procedures and to follow directions well.
  • Students who know what to do are less likely to make embarrassing mistakes for which they can be teased or excluded later.
  • Be careful that you model appropriate behavior so that you encourage your students to do the same.
  • Don’t give in to the temptation of eye rolling or losing your patience when a student blunders in front of classmates. Your actions could set that student up for social exclusion later.



Saturday, September 12, 2015

How to Move Beyond “Please, Please Don’t Torture the Sub”

Missing school is harder for teachers than many other professionals because not only do we have to leave appropriate plans and information so that substitute teachers can manage our classes while we are out, but also because even the best of students tend to have the classic, “Oh boy! We have a sub!” reaction. Unless you have a top notch sub and have done everything possible to ensure that your students will still learn while you are out, you will return to deal with the unpleasant aftermath of a disaster.

Being able to miss school without worries about your students and all the things that are going wrong in your absence is possible with a bit of planning and preparation. First of all, very early in the school year, create a binder filled with helpful information that any substitute teacher can use. When you change seating charts, add or drop students, or when other significant changes occur, update your binder. Here are some items that you may want to include in your sub binder.

  • Class rosters with helpful pronunciation clues
  • A photo seating chart. Photograph your students sitting in their assigned seats. Print these and write the name of your students under their photos. Your sub will know where students are supposed to sit and will be able to match names to faces right away.
  • Medical information for students with chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes
  • Your daily class and duty schedule
  • Classroom procedures for daily routines such as lunch, restroom requests, fire drills and other emergencies
  • A list of several activities that students can do if they finish early. You can do this early in the year so that it is handy just in case you are rushed for time.
  • A map of the school with exits and fire extinguishers marked
  • Copies of all necessary forms such as lunch or attendance counts
  • Names and room numbers of helpful teachers
  • A phone number where you can be reached
Next, make sure to leave workable plans that even the most harried sub can follow.

  • Your lesson plans for any day that you are going to miss should be specifically written for the sub.
  • Provide plenty of directions and a suggested time length for each assignment.
  • Do plan independent written work that will be collected and graded.
  • Make sure to photocopy, label, and organize all handouts.
  • Leave work that will occupy students, but that is not merely busy work.  
  • Avoid computer use, videos, media center visits, and activities involving scissors or other sharp tools.
Finally, it’s important to involve students in a positive way in maintaining the order and routines of the class when you need to be absent. You may consider having students write out what they can do to help the sub so that things can run smoothly. Having students be aware of their specific responsibilities is a positive way to enlist their cooperation. Have them take a pledge of instructional cooperation. Assign tasks such as turning in attendance or passing out papers. Make cooperation fun. Make it an intriguing class challenge. Best of all, make it their responsibility. When students own a situation, they will more often than not rise to the occasion and exceed even our highest expectations.

If your students have misbehaved while you were out, however, don’t rush to punish. First, have students write out their version of the events of the class. Read these, and think about what you are going to do before you punish an entire class or even individual students based on what a substitute teacher has told you. If you then have to deal with misbehavior after you have gathered the facts from the sub and from your students, strive to be fair.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Things I Wish I Had Known My First Year as a Teacher

Although I have published this list in various forms previously and in several places, I like to examine it at the start of a new school year as I make my resolutions for the upcoming term. Being an effective teacher does not happen by chance. Instead it takes planning, commitment, and a great deal of reflection. As you being your new school year, maybe this list can help you have the kind of terrific year that you would like for your students and for yourself. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun learning with your students. It’s okay to fail sometimes.
  2. Realize that you will have to prove yourself all year long. To students, colleagues, parents, yourself…
  3. Being regarded as trustworthy is an invaluable goal.
  4. There will be plenty of opportunities to learn from mistakes.
  5. If you don’t spend time reflecting on your teaching each day, it will be very hard for you to improve.
  6. There will never be enough time to get all of the things you want to accomplish with your students done.
  7. It’s important to think about student activities in terms of small blocks of time so they stay on task.
  8. Leave your problems at school at the end of the day. Balance is key.
  9. It’s important to show students how to help themselves. Learned helplessness does not have to be permanent.
  10. Take good care of school resources and teach students to do the same.
  11. Use your personal strong points and teach your students to do likewise.
  12. Be selective. Don’t fight battles you can’t win. Ignore the small stuff.
  13. Focus on what you can change and get then get busy doing it.
  14. Use a multifaceted approach when presenting material.
  15. Don’t just react to a problem. Solve it.
  16. It takes time to get to know your students and even longer to gain their fragile trust.
  17. Make it a point to build strong relationships with your colleagues. You need each other.
  18. Parents do indeed expect you to live up to their ideal of what a teacher should be.
  19. If you act like a professional, you will make it easier for others to defend you when you make a mistake.
  20. Paperwork must be dealt with accurately, quickly, and efficiently.
  21. Patience. Patience. Patience.
  22. You are a role model, ready or not.
  23. When you teach students to believe in themselves, you create lifelong learners.
  24. Don’t allow any student to be invisible. Draw them in. Build confidence and engagement.
  25. Establish routines for yourself and for your students. Everyone will benefit.
  26. Students need structure. They also need fun and creativity.
  27. Get them up and moving. Active students tend to misbehave less than those who are bored.
  28. Be prepared for class. This means having a solid Plan B.
  29. Spend more time telling your students what they do right than what they do wrong.
  30. When you make a mistake, admit it and move on. Teach your students this, too.
  31. Be unfailingly positive. After all, if you don’t believe in your students, who does?
  32. Students are far more concerned with the idea of “fairness” than you can imagine.
  33. Set goals for yourself and work with your students to set goals for them.
  34. Stay away from those negative colleagues. They will poison your day, your week, your career.
  35. Ask for help. We all need help at times. Speak up.
  36. Actively work to improve your skills and knowledge about teaching.
  37. Create your own PLN. Use social media to reach out.
  38. Volunteer for extra jobs at school with caution.
  39. Work hard to let your students know how special they are to you.
  40. The worst students deserve the best in you.
  41. No one comes to school determined to fail—despite evidence to the contrary.
  42. You will make a difference in the lives of your students…it takes time, however.
  43. Ask, “How can I help you with that?” and watch the magic happen.
  44. Say, “I know you’re better than that” when a student misbehaves.
  45. You will have some hard days as a teacher. Plan ahead how you will manage stress.
  46. You can’t ever predict how a lesson will go or what your students will do.
  47. Laughing with students is a great way to build a community in a hurry.
  48. Connections with students are vital if you want to have happy days at school.
  49. A well planned lesson is the best discipline plan you can have.
  50. Never, ever forget that you may be the only person who shows a student that you care.