How to Have Courageous Conversations With Your Child’s Teacher

http---www.pixteller.com-pdata-t-l-210867

Every year it has happened to me, you check your email or your voicemail not expecting much and there it is; a message from “that” parent that makes you so upset.  That message that makes you question everything you have been doing, everything you are trying to do.  And you cannot help but get a little angry, but get a little defensive, to immediately want to protect yourself rather than stop and think.  It is so hard sometimes being in a world where communication is so easy and words can be interpreted in a million ways.  And while those messages may seem hurtful at first, they can become the biggest inspiration for growth, if we let them.

No one sets out to be “that” parent.  No one sets out to send an email that can be read a million ways, to make a phone call that you know might dampen someone else’s day.  But sometimes we have to start the types of conversations that we hope to never have with our child’s teachers.  Sometimes we have to ask things that may be seen as questioning them.  And it is so hard.  Especially when you are a teacher and you know exactly how something can be taken.

And yet, for the sake of our children we have to find ways to have tough conversations.  When something is not working for our child it is our right and responsibility to speak up.  But there are ways to do it nicely, to where it will not immediately be taken as an attack but rather as an invitation to further discussion.  So what can you do?

Be nice.  Politeness goes such along way.  If you are about to ask some tough questions, use your manners and do not speak down to someone else.  All the teachers I know take great pride in their work and no one sets out to have bad experiences in their classroom, so show respect by the tone of voice you use whether written or spoken.

Investigate by asking questions.  If I believed all of the things our daughter, Thea, told me, I would have a crazy view of her school, after all she is 6 and sometimes pretty tired by the time she gets home from school.  So when something happens I always ask questions before I jump to any conclusions.  Often times what really happened is not what a child shares, so give the teacher the benefit of the doubt.

Do your research.  We oftentimes think that teachers have all  the power over what happens in their classrooms, but we do not.  Anything from district initiatives, state standards, and federal regulations all influence what we do in our classrooms, so make sure the teacher has control over whatever it is you are questioning, particualrly if it something that has upset you.

Ask for clarification.  When Thea came home with a reading log 5 days into kindergarten I emailed her teacher asking what the reasoning behind it was without sharing how much I hate reading logs.  I needed to make sure her teacher knew I was not questioning her, but rather trying to understand.  Once I had more information then I could ask further questions.

Leave room for conversation.  When we come across as brash or hotheaded, we are not inviting further conversation.  Ask for help.  Ask for support and ask to be a partner rather than dictate what someone should do.

Over-explain.  I would rather a parent over-explain their reasoning than under-explain.  Sometimes when we are too brief, we leave a lot of room for interpretation which almost always ends up being a negative experience for the recipient.  So state your point, explain why, and give enough information for the teacher to have something tangible to respond to.

Be specific.  If something is harming your child tell me how.  If your child has reported something to you tell me what that is.  I cannot sort through a situation or even respond to it well if I do not know the details, which can lead to further misunderstanding.

Keep it to your child.  If you are concerned for your child, state that, but do not generalize or ask questions about other children.  Teachers have to adhere to strict privacy laws and often cannot answer questions about children.  If this is a concern for many parents have them as part of the conversation to, do not just say that you speak for them.

Go to the teacher first.  Sometimes our gut reaction is to head to the top when we really need to first speak to the teacher.  It is common courtesy to give someone a chance to speak before others are involved.  That does not mean administration cannot be involved, it just means the teachers should have a chance to respond first.

Call rather than email.  Email can be misinterpreted in so many ways, trust me, I have probably misinterpreted intentions at least once a month, but a phone call or meeting is easier to navigate.  If someone is truly upset about something, I would much rather they seek me out and schedule a meeting, letting me know what we will be discussing, then sending an email.  And also, be mindful of school hours; if a teacher is in the middle of teaching they probably cannot speak to you at that moment.

Treat the teacher like you would want to be treated.  I cannot stress this enough; teachers are human  and sometimes we mess up.  It is not because we tried to, but it does happens.  If you treat us the way you would like to be treated in a tough conversation then our conversation will be much more productive.  Much can be handled via an honest and lighthearted conversation, even serious topics.

Gently question.  There is nothing wrong with questioning a teacher’s practice if you are seeing it harm your child, but do so gently.  Teachers spend a lot of time planning for best practices, and thus take pride in their work.  That does not mean it is always in the best interest in the child (public behavior charts, I am looking at you) but that can be a pretty hard thing to face.

And finally, a word to all of us teachers.  While criticism, even if just perceived, is hard, it is also a chance for us to reflect, grow and become better teachers.  Yes, there are times when criticism will be just that and those moments are hard to get through.  But in the end, I truly believe that when a parent asks us questions, even if they come of as a rude or disrespectful, within those questions are a seed for reflection, an opportunity to pause and make sure that what we are doing is in the best interest of children.  We are all trying to do the very best we can, after all, let’s not lose sight of that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

Who It’s Really For

http---www.pixteller.com-pdata-t-l-198685

I could say that I am an amazing teacher.  That what I do is not something others could do.  That the way I connect with kids is a special talent that only I have developed, and that if you buy my book you could perhaps learn how to teach just like me, that some of my amazing “me-ness” will surely go your way.  I could say that I have discovered the one way to be great and all you have to do is try to be more like me.

But I would be lying. (And making a fool out of myself in the process).

Because there are days when I am not so great.  There are children that I do not connect with.  There are moments when no matter what I try it all falls apart and one of my teammates steps in and saves the day.  Saves the lesson.  Saves the student.  I am a better teacher because of those I teach with.  I am a better teacher because of the students that teach me.

You see, being a teacher is not about us.  It is not about the great things that we can do.  It is not about all of the things that we will teach.  It is not about what will work best for us, nor how we will change the world.  It is about the kids.

It is about what they will do.  What they will learn.  How they will change our world.  How I get to be a part of the process but I am only as great as my students.

And we seem to forget that at times.  We seem to forget it when we share the stories that do not highlight what our students are doing, but instead what we have done.  When we advocate not what is best for children, but what is best for ourselves and hope that children may benefit as well.  When we teach the way we would like to learn, and forget to ask the students what they need.

It is a balance and it is hard to keep at times.  I know I am guilty like so many others.  Yet, in this public way, I renew my promise to keep it about the kids.  To keep it about what they need, what they want, and what they dream for.

I am not the greatest teacher, I have so much to learn, and I cannot forget that.  We must remember what we are doing all of this for, because it is not for us, it is for them.  And that is how it should always be.  May we never forget that.  May I never forget that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

Some Ideas for Re-Engaging Students

tumblr_nu5tz1bcUO1qzr04eo1_1280

For the past few days student engagement has been at the forefront of my mind.  Well, who am I kidding, it is always on my mind.  As I gave a workshop on student engagement, I was asked for quick tips on how to re-engage in class.  While these aren’t just simple ideas, I hope they can help you work through engagement lulls in your own classroom.

You can have an honest conversation with students.  If the same class is off-task or the same group, please pull the whole class or group together to discuss.  Do not judge, simply ask what is going on and then ask them to help you solve it.  Often students will blame being bored so then ask them how they can make it more exciting.  Part of creating classrooms where students are engaged is that students are expected to take control of their learning journey meaning you should not be trying to solve everything.

You can change it up.  Too often we fall in love with a routine like the workshop model and then forget that too much predictability can be a bore.  While I am not advocating for a zany show, I think it is important to be tuned into whether the routine is working at its optimal level or not, then tweak and change as needed.

You can turn on some music.  I have found that using music that has the opposite tempo of my students’ mood is great for refocusing them.  So if they are slow and lethargic, I play upbeat music while they work, if they are very energetic, I bring out the mellow tunes.

You can practice mindfulness.  I started using some short breathing or yoga videos after assemblies with my students because there was no way they would settle in on their own.  Once my 7th graders get past their giggles, they also benefit from 3 minutes of focused breathing.

You can stop a train-wreck.  When a lesson was going poorly, I used to ride it out to the end hoping that by then they would get it.  Now I know to stop, ask why they are not understanding, and then fix.  I also have the luxury of completely revamping it throughout the day since I teach the same class five times in a row (one of the only positive things about that).

You can move location or just move.  Sometimes my students have simply been sitting too long.  Past elementary level we sometimes do not realize how much time students spend sitting since we only see our slice of the day.  A natural restlessness is therefore bound to occur.  So we move around in the classroom either by sharing with peers, doing short book recommendations, or showing off our work, or we pick up and move altogether.  We can head to the library, outside, or into our team area.

You can affirm and replace.  This is a technique I adapted from the awesome book Awakened by Angela Watson.  When my students seems bogged down as a class, we spend a few minutes speaking about what is going on and then I try to help them replace those thoughts by shifting the focus to something else. It is important for students to feel validated in their thinking but then also for them to move beyond it.

You can find a different way for them to show off their knowledge.  We use turn-and-talk quite a bit, but I also ask students to act answers out, draw things out without speaking and any other way that will get different areas of their brains to light up.  This is not something I do the entire class period, but it is vital that we have students show knowledge in a variety of ways, rather than just one way.

You can make it personal.  Yes, personalized learning is a major buzzword right now, but I am talking about the personal connections that students can have to the learning and how we can tap into that.  A lot of disengagement comes from students being bored with the content, so we do need to re-evaluate the content we are focusing on, as well as what the students are doing with it.  Students may want to engage with the content in different ways but we won’t know that without knowing our students.

You can use technology.  We integrate technology throughout the year but sometimes introducing a new tool like Kahoot does fire students up in a new way.  However, with any new ideas, moderation is key because this does not address the problem in the long-term but simply changes the pace at that moment.

In the end, student engagement is just about the quick fixes we can make, but about the instrumental changes we need to have in our teaching philosophy.  It is too easy to just blame the students, although they do carry responsibility in all of this, so we must reevaluate whether what we are doing in our classrooms is truly worth being engaged in.  The bottom line is; we have to believe in what we are doing and show that passion every single day, because if we don’t, we have no right asking students to.

PS:  This is part of a three part series on student engagement.  The first post discussed the truths my students shared with me on why they are disengaged, the second post discussed the three areas we must re-evaluate.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

These Three Areas May Be the Root of Student Disengagement

tumblr_nu3wgu161v1qzr04eo1_1280

image from icanread

Yesterday, I shared my students’ reasons for why they become disengaged, yet sometimes it is hard to figure out the why for longterm change.   It is easy for us to blame curriculum or things outside of our control, yet often, disengagement is happening because of a few simple things in our classrooms.  Therefore, I offer you up the three areas to evaluate as you try to engage your students.

Evaluate yourself.  Are you the reason they are off-task?  Did you speak too long or did you not make sense?  Do they like you?  This is huge.  If students do not like you, they are much more likely to be off task and the more we hammer down our authority, the more they will battle us.  So if you are not creating real relationships with students, then off task behavior will often turn into disruptive behavior.

Evaluate the content.  Does it make sense?  Is it engaging?  If it is something that you need to “get through” then students will treat it as such.  I often tell students that we are working on creating a foundation of knowledge that we can use to try new things, I try to steer clear of saying we have to just “get through” anything.  Also, does the content allow for them to speak to others, to move around, to use the information or are they listening to you deliver the content and then working silently with it?  Try to think about how much we ask students to work in silence all day, and then we wonder why students lose their voice?  Student choice and voice is a huge part of this.

Evaluate the time and place.  My third hour class (after study hall) and my sixth hour class (after lunch) are loud and take a lot more to become engaged.  They are wired with energy and need ways to work that off.  Their work often looks different that that of other classes because I need to tap into their energy.  I may play soft music when they come in, speak in a calm tone, and also have them reflect quietly for a few minutes after their independent reading time, all so they can get back in the zone of what we need to do.    My first class and my last class of the day needs energy.  They are tired.  They have either just woken up or have been sitting most of the day.  So I play fast music, get very animated and I create opportunities for them to get up and move around the room focusing more on group learning to get their energy up.  Are you adapting your teaching style to the time and place of the day?

While there are many sub areas we should also be evaluating, I have found that most of the time the answers lies within one of these.  And if in doubt, ask your students.  I know I sound  like a broken record but sometimes I spend hours thinking about why something is happening where I should have just asked the people it involved.  Yes, some times students will tell us things that are hard to hear, but I would rather hear the truth so that I may change, than pretend that I have it all figured out.

PS:  Stay tuned for part 3 of this series, the final part is all about the small changes we can make.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

Why Are They Disengaged? My Students Told Me Why

I used to think that when students were disengaged it was their own fault, and while sometimes that is still true, I have found in my years of teaching that a lot of the fault lies with me as the teacher.  Yet, realizing that I may be the cause of my students disengagement is hard to swallow.  It certainly has not done wonders to my self-esteem, and yet, there is something liberating about realizing that while I am a part of the problem, that also means that I can fix it.  Or at the very least fix the things I control.  Student disengagement is something I can do something about.

But why are students so disengaged?  What lies behind the restlessness, the misbehavior, the bored stares?  Every year I survey my students throughout the year, and particularly on those days where nothing seems to be working.  I ask them simply to explain what is going on and they share their truths with me.  So here are their truths on student disengagement.

Students become disengaged, because..

They feel no connection to you.  I often notice that students are much more off task in the beginning of the year when we don’t know each other, right after the honeymoon is over.  This is when we seem to be in limbo and so I spend a lot of time having a lot of conversations with my students, I share stories from my life, and I speak to them in the hallways.  Students will work for you if they like you, so I try to be likable.  It may seem simple but it is repeated so often by my students.

They feel no urgency.  I have 45 minutes per class so the urgency is always there.  It is not the threat of a deadline that makes my students work at a faster pace, it is the promise of the next adventure that lies ahead.  My students and I make a deal that if they work hard and stay focused then I do not give them homework.  They know that they are given as much time in class as I can give them so they know to use that time well.  The students that don’t; they have to do the work outside of school.

They feel there is no purpose.  I use to assume that students knew what the greater purpose of something was, but they don’t.  So now we spend time deconstructing our standards and we speak about the connections between things.  We speak of why we are learning something and how it fits into our lives, not just how it is preparing us for the next year or for college.  We speak about how the learning we do right now allows us to become better human beings.

They feel they have no power.  When students feel powerless in our rooms, most become disengaged.  Particularly those kids who have often had behavior issues in the past.  Those are the kids, in particular, that need to feel like they have more control over their day.  This is why I proselytize about student choice.  Give them choice, even if just in a minor way like telling them they can sit wherever they want.  Give them power over their day so that they feel like who they are matters.

When the teacher talks too much.  We do.  We need to stop.  We need to set a timer or whatever will stop us from going on and on.  Give them knowledge then let them work with it.  Give them a chance to speak as well, after all, they are the ones that should be doing the learning.

When the teacher does not personalize.  How often do we know whether a child already knows something?  How often do we plan to find out so that we can create new learning experiences for them?  If a child has already mastered something, then let them work on something else, something more challenging.  But to do that, you have to find out what your students know.  Ask them whether through a survey, an informal pre-test, or a conversation.  Not everyone comes to us as a blank canvas.

When they do mostly worksheets.  I have moved far away from worksheets over the past few years, but that does not mean all worksheets are bad.  If a worksheet gives foundational knowledge that will be used for further learning then it can be ok.  However, if using a worksheet is part of the routine every day, or is not used for anything more, then there seems to be no deeper learning purpose behind it.  Students have told me they feel like when most teachers give them a worksheet it is because we are too lazy to teach them.

When the learning becomes something to just get through.  I have done this, said that we just need to get through this to get to fun thing.  Yikes.  When we say this, students automatically disengage from the task, after all, if teachers see no value in it, why should they?  Yes, there are things that we don’t love to teach as much so then make it better.  If it is boring or a struggle for us, then think of how it feels for the students.  We are in charge of bringing the passion into our rooms.  Not just the students.

While there are still days in our classroom where I know that students were not as engaged as I hoped, there are more great days than bad.  There are more days where students stay on-task, where they get involved, and where meaningful learning occurs.  Every year, I start over with my students and how to best engage them.  Every year I learn a new way to keep them on-task.  Yet I have learned that the biggest thing for me is to keep the above list in mind at all times.  Even if I feel like I have planned the very best lesson.  Even if the day before went really well.  I do not take my students’ engagement for granted, instead it is something I work for.  Do you?

PS:  For ideas on how to evaluate why students are becoming disengaged tune in tomorrow.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

6 Things New Teachers Remind Me to Do Every Year

recite-15tsff

You can usually spot a new teacher a mile away.  There is just something about the way they talk about the upcoming year, how they hold themselves, and even the very air that surrounds them.  So much joy, so much enthusiasm, mixed with a certain air of fear.  Right now seems to be the time where people start talking about all the mistakes new teachers make their first year and pass on advice to them whether they need it or not.  Yet, every year I learn so much from the new teachers I meet.  Every year they teach lessons to me.

  1.  Be enthusiastic.  The joy that comes with teaching  your very first year is one we should chase after every year.  We should love teaching, not take it for granted, not get caught up in the misery of all of the outside things that make teaching difficult.  Let’s all be excited that we have a job and that we will get to do what we love so much for another year.
  2. Ask questions.  New teachers know that they don’t have all of the answers so they ask a lot of questions.  As a veteran teacher, I sometimes think that I should know all of the answer so I feel stupid asking many questions.  Yet teaching is about learning and we stop learning when we stop asking questions.  Ask away and don’t be embarresed if you don’t know something, embrace that you are learning.
  3. Know their students names.  My first year of teaching I spent hours memorizing names with faces so that on the first day of school I knew all of my students by name.  This small gesture of respect went a long way in building classroom community.  As a middle school teacher, I have a lot more names to memorize – I think I am up to 136 students this year – and yet I have started looking at their pictures already.  I want to know all of their names by the end of the first week, no later.
  4. Say”Why not?” a lot.  First year teachers tend to question many things we see as established norms, and sometimes I think veteran teachers, myself included, can get a little bit offended when something we hold near and dear is questioned.  Yet it is in this questioning that we start to discuss new ideas, we find inspiration, and we change the way we teach.  we should all be asking “Why not?” a lot more than we are.
  5. Stay true to our noble intentions.  I became a teacher to help students become better people, yet within my first few years, I lost sight of that.  New teachers joining our profession may seem idealistic or delusional to some, yet within their dreams is something we should all be chasing; the belief that what we do matters.  The belief that we can make a difference.  That we can create schools that students actually want to be a part of.
  6. Make connections.  As a new teacher you don’t know that many people so all year you are trying to find your tribe.  yet, often, we settle into our patterns of who we speak to and shut ourselves off from the rest of our community when instead we should be continuing to make connections as often as possible.  why can’t you know all of the people in your school?  Why not reach out across your district?  While it is nice to have people that know you well, make sure you make connections with new people as well.  You never know who will become a part of your tribe.

If you are a new teacher reading this, welcome, this is truly the best job in the world.  May you love it this much or more each year you teach.  And if you are a veteran like me; I hope your year is filled with wonder, with laughs, and with joy.  We are lucky to be teachers, even if the world sometimes seems to be against us.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.