What do you think of when you think of a teacher? Boring? Long-winded? School… ew? Or, perhaps, inspiring? Entertaining? I would bet the majority of people in the United States would, unfortunately, say one of the first three. Why is that? Teaching is not a profession that is highly regarded, highly paid, nor highly praised in our country. And possibly… rightfully so. Before you want to kill me, you should know that I am a teacher.
Why would I say this about my own profession? Because we aren’t doing a good enough job. We’re looking at the problems instead of the solutions. We’re being boring when we need to be entertaining. We need to change.
“Kids just aren’t the same as they used to be.” I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard a fellow teacher say that phrase in the last several years. Experts have different opinions on the topic, as to why they aren’t the same:
—Kids aren’t getting enough attention at home.
—Schools aren’t getting the parents involved enough.
—Teachers aren’t qualified.
—Public schools are the problem.
—ADD and ADHD diagnoses are too rampant.
—Common Core is the problem.
—Modern technology is to blame.
Maybe a combination of all of these is true. I don’t know. And, while I agree—kids aren’t the same—what should we do about it? Until we can change what’s so wrong with society, we have to compensate somehow. To me, it seems like complaining about it isn’t getting us anywhere. I’m a doer. If something needs to be done, I do it. So it bothers me to no end when I overhear my co-workers complain about our students just not being “like they used to.” Now, I’m not going to lie; I have, of course, complained about my students every now and again because I just don’t understand what makes them the way they are, but I’m not going to get stuck in complaining mode. I’ve resolved to DO SOMETHING.
If I were in any other profession—say someone in advertising and my product wasn’t selling—I could easily revamp my product or change my target audience completely. When I think about it in terms of education though, I come to this question: As a teacher, do I change the way I teach to fit the audience or do I change the audience to fit my teaching? There is an obvious answer: I can’t change my audience. I am a public school teacher. I get whatever students come to me; I don’t really get a choice. With that being said, as much as I may want to change my students, I can’t, which means instead of changing my audience, I have to change either what I’m teaching or how I’m teaching.
I know change is one of the scariest things on the entire planet for most people. But that’s what has to happen. The United States is currently ranked around the 24th country in the world in education. When you look up the countries that are above us, it’s a little embarrassing honestly. But why aren’t more people talking about this? Why aren’t people more upset about it? I am not vain. I don’t think the U.S. has to be number one in everything, but 24th?
I was recently blessed with the opportunity to hear Ron Clark speak and he made so many excellent points about how we have to revolutionize our education system. He inspired me to write this piece and to be an advocate for CHANGE in education. I think all of us who work in the school system know that change is necessary, but we want to make excuses as to why we don’t want to do it. We complain about the kids, we complain about not having the resources, we complain about the politics of it all, and we complain about not getting paid enough. All of those are probably valid complaints, but what difference is all of our complaining making? Let’s all look at ourselves in the mirror and vow that this school year is going to be different. Instead of making excuses, we’re going to make changes, maybe small ones at first, for the betterment of our students. After all, if you’re an educator, you’re in it for the kids anyway.
This all leads me to another question: What is best for kids? And how do I change my teaching to fit what’s best for them?
First, think about what students like where you are. Use those things to interest your kids! Last year, fidget spinners were THE thing. I think I can speak for our entire district when I say, “Are you kidding me with the fidget spinners in every single store?” Am I telling you to let them have fidget spinners? No, not necessarily. But could you possibly plan a lesson around them? Allow them in class as a reward? Have them write a narrative on why they love fidget spinners so much? Think about all the possibilities! (FYI: Pinterest and TeachersPayTeachers.com are two of my favorites for great ideas.)
You are creative. You are intelligent. You care about kids. If you weren’t these things, you wouldn’t be a teacher. Maybe we can’t change the whole system right now. But what if we all made small changes in our own classrooms to make things better for our own students? What’s crazy is that we would probably all enjoy our job a little more too. Maybe you’re not ready for changing up all of your lessons yet. Start here instead.
What should we change first? Think about what will make the most impact on your individual classroom. Here are the FIVE things I’m changing this year:
—Students will be part of a family. Did you know some of your students think you live at school? They don’t think you have a family and they think you grade papers for fun. First of all, your students need to know that you are a real person. Even if you are a private person, I know you can think of (or make up) some real stories about your life that go along with your lessons. If students know you are willing to share somewhat personal information with them, they will trust you. This year, I’m going to start the year with more-than-usual get-to-know-you activities and I’ll participate in them too. These are SO important in creating a safe, comfortable learning environment. If you don’t know all of your students’ names by the end of the first week of school, you should take their pictures home and study them. Seriously. It’s THAT important. (You should know how to spell them too. Remember that Lexi J. has an -i and Lexie R. has an –ie and there are three Johnnys, all spelled differently. I know, it’s not easy.) It will take time and effort, but it will be so worth it when students want to come to your classroom and have somewhere they feel safe. See Pinterest and TpT for other ways to create culture. This is just a starting point.
—Students will take ownership. My students this year are going to have to “sign in” and “sign out” of class every day. This is my way of making them say to me, “I’m here. I’m ready to learn,” even if they don’t want to. At the beginning of the year each year, I have students write their names on clothespins and put them in a box for each Language Arts period I teach. I use them for random name draws and to hang up absent work. This year, I’m going to use them for more. Each student will have a notebook they keep in my classroom for bell work and notes. They will use their clothespins as bookmarks in their notebooks and when they enter the classroom they will pick up their notebooks, hang their clothespins on a string in the front of the room, and then go to their seat to work on the bell work in their notebooks. At the end of class, they will put their clothespins back in their notebooks and place their notebooks back in their respective crate. They will also have leadership roles (i.e., Attendance Taker, Paper Passer Outer, Time Keeper) so they learn responsibility, take pride in the work they are doing, and feel a sense of belonging.
—Students will participate in their learning. This may sound strange. If they’re learning anything, aren’t they participating in it? Well, no. I know in the past I have tended to do all the work. The students are sitting around passively while I’m up here lecturing and “discussing” and creating this and that. My students this year will be tracking their learning in binders, keeping up with their own Book of Knowledge (see ReadWorks.org), creating the questions for discussions and tests, and making lots of products. Our students are capable of doing so much of the work we try to do ourselves. We just have to let loose of some of the control and watch what they can do. It will amaze you! Our job is not to just stand up and lecture anymore (though it probably should never have been—who learns best like that anyway?); our job is to create and facilitate learning experiences. You will be less stressed, they will feel proud of themselves, and you will both succeed.
—I’m going to smile at them ALL YEAR LONG. This may seem so weird to you, but I have been told since my first year of teaching not to smile at the kids until after Christmas. I understand the reasoning behind this—you want them to take you seriously, you want to make sure they understand your expectations, etc. I get it. However, I can’t do that. It’s not in my personality. I can’t not smile, especially when one of the kids says something that is actually, truly funny. There are other ways to make sure they take you seriously and get your expectations than being rude to them. I think sometimes we look at our students as less-than, but remember they are still people. Of course, we are in charge and they aren’t our peers or friends and I firmly believe those lines should be drawn from the beginning. However, when our students know we care about them and their success, they will be more likely to care about their grades in our classes, each other, and you as their teacher. A few years ago, I had a student who had given me heck all year and I kept trying to figure out what buttons to and not to push. One day I had just had it and I snapped at him. I didn’t mean to; it just happened. When I looked up at him, I could tell his feelings were hurt. I quietly went back to him and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t handle that appropriately. Please forgive me.” He didn’t look at me, but he nodded his head slightly and I had ZERO problems with him the rest of the year. I humbled myself and apologized and that’s all it took for him. That experience taught me to throw that “not smiling until Christmas” business out the window. This year I am going to start every class with a smile and welcome and when they leave I’m going to tell them to have a great day.
—I will dress professionally EVERY DAY. Last, but not least, one of the hardest changes to make… I LOVE jeans and school shirt Friday. Like REALLY love it. However, I’ve decided to give them up this year. I don’t know why it took me so long to put this together, but when I coached basketball a few years ago, I noticed something strange. Every time I dressed down, even in khaki pants, every time I didn’t wear my high heels, the girls played poorly. At first, I thought it was a fluke, but the thought occurred to me: what I’m wearing is influencing the way they see this game. I dressed up and wore my heels every game from then on—even the really far away road games and the Saturday games. Likewise, our students take their cues from us. When we are dressed professionally and prepared, they know it is business time. When we are dressed down, they think it is play time. How many more discipline problems are there on Fridays? It’s not just because it’s Friday.
Like it or not, we have to change to fit our audience. But notice the changes I mentioned above aren’t huge, life-altering things. If you’re ready to make more changes, stay tuned for my next article.