being a teacher, hidden rules, listen, Student-centered

Sometimes We Have to Break Our Rules

image from icanread

It’s 3:40 AM and Ida is inconsolable.  My normally calm, happy baby just will not stop crying; she is clearly miserable.  I have tried everything in the baby books; swaddling, ssshhing, feeding, rocking, singing, pacifier, but nothing, nothing works besides holding her in my arms.  So I do what I had promised myself not to do this time around, fall asleep with her on my chest, and finally we both get some much needed rest.

Why do I share this story?  Because sometimes doing the thing we had promised we would never do is exactly what we need to do in our classrooms to progress.  Sometimes we have to go against what we have read, go against what we have thought we would do, and simply figure out how we can help a child.  Because when that child clearly has needs we are not fulfilling and we stumble across some idea, or we realize that our procedures and policies simply do not work, well then, we have to break those rules.

In the end; helping all children succeed is what we were put into our classrooms for.  Even if that means sometimes doing things we never thought we would do.  And I am ok with that.

classroom management, hidden rules, Student-centered

How We Became that Room

“…And if you walk into our room you may be surprised at the noise and the mess, but to me that means the students are engaged.”  So ended an elementary teacher’s presentation to my class on classroom management and I was horrified.  Noise?  Mess?  Not this teacher!  I was going to run my classroom like a machine.  Those kids would know routines for everything, even down to when they could sharpen their pencil, and they would love me for it because that was part of my expectations as well.  Equipped with all of my Harry Wong ideas, I was ready to whip these kids into shape and they would be so thankful.  After all, how could anyone possibly learn in noise or out of their desks?  

Now some years later I look around our room and we are that classroom.  The one you can hear coming down the hallway, the one where students are splayed out on the floor, discussing, laughing and gosh golly sharpening their pencils whenever they like.  There are no laminated rule posters hanging on our walls, there are no reminders of how to get their stuff or how to come into the classroom.  There are no sticks to move or stars to give.  Just a classroom being run with the students and by the students.  To the untrained eye it may seem chaotic.  After all students crave routines, even in their classrooms.  But if you look closer, you will notice they are there.  Students get to work and stay focused, they treat each other with respect.  They tell me in the morning when they forgot to do their homework and they ask to work on it during recess or to get it to me the next day.  They have their things organized, they know when I need their attention, and they know how to treat each other.  Behold, the managed classroom without the overt rules.  

I did not start this way, in fact, I am not sure any new teacher should.  As a new teacher it is so important that you discover who you are as a teacher, that you discover your own best practices and then start to question them.  Question the ideas you are taught and see how they fit into your vision.  I was taught that I should post the rules of my classroom so that the students would be continually reminded of what the expectations were.  Except I like clean walls, and I don’t think students need constant reminders.  Down came the posters and my room somehow got uncluttered.  I was taught that I had to be the ultimate authority in the classroom or it would turn into Lord of the Flies, except I found out that by sharing the authority I created autonomous learners that were much more engaged.  I was taught that students would learn better if they were rewarded with stickers or A + but found that we didn’t need the extrinsic motivation if the learning was worth it.  How did I learn all of this?  By watching my students and questioning my own practices and then trying it.  I was terrified the first year I threw out the rules.  When I told my students there would be no rewards and no punishment I thought I would have a riot on my hands, kids who refused to work, homework that would be weeks late, and instead?  No change.   In fact, the kids shrugged, no big deal, they knew they had to get to work.  
So this year I did the unthinkable; I didn’t tell the kids the rules.  I instead asked them what the routines should be and what type of classroom they envisioned.  They discussed without much of my input and that was it.  We didn’t make a poster, we didn’t all pledge to follow the rules, we moved on to more exciting things.  Now students live up  to the they expectations set and they help each other work well in the classroom.  If a day is louder than normal, then I know we need to get out of our desks and I adapt our learning to their moods.  By being clued in to what their behavior is telling me, we have a lot smoother days because I am not trying to squeeze them into my box of expectations.  They are in the truest sense of the word active learning and teaching participants.
So how can you make this work for you?  Start to question what you have been taught.  Question those tips and tricks you were given that didn’t seem natural to you.  Ask yourself how do you learn best and then ask everyone else you meet.  The answers may surprise you.  Ask the students; their voice is the most important one in the room.  Yes, that’s right; their voice, not yours.  Create a space where the students feel comfortable, welcome, and have ownership.  Show them you trust them to make great decisions and then give them an opportunity to do so.  Change your curriculum to fit their needs and get them moving; long periods of stationary work lead to restless bodies which means their minds have long since wandered off.  Have i fit their age; I teach 5th graders so I can expect a lot more autonomy than I can from a roomful of kindergartners, but even our youngest students can own the room.  And most importantly; believe in your students.  Believe that they have buy-in in the room, believe that they care about it, and then give them a learning experience that they actually do want to care about.  Tear down the authority between you and them and give them a chance to prove you wrong.  Give them a chance to show that they can work without the overt rules, that they can set the expectations, that they can rise to the occasion.

being a teacher, being me, classroom expectations, classroom setup, hidden rules, our classroom, student driven, systems

No Size Fits All – Some Thoughts on Prescribed Systems in the Classroom

I am sometimes asked what system I used in my classroom; which system do you prescribe to to get them to act this way, which system do you believe in for your philosophy.  I always feel like a disappointment when I tell them, “None.”  It is not that I am pioneer within education, or a maverick, but rather that I don’t believe in systems.  A system to me means prescribed, a system means rigidity, rules to follow, and scripts to use.  I tried that for 2 years when I first started teaching and it failed, horrifically and miserably.  My classrooms doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t fit into a book description.   So while some people may say I fall under whatever system they think, I always giggle a little because the truth is much simpler.

I follow the Pernille system.  The one that says to listen to your students, give them a voice, get out of the way, and then change your mind when needed.  The system I use has no book or no guidelines but only common sense and a lot of reflection.  I don’t manage my children, they are not stress I must constrain.  I guide them, they guide me and we trade spots more often than I can count.   I do not read a book to see how I should train my students the first week of school; they are not circus animals getting ready for a performance.  Instead we get to know each other and we laugh a lot because laughter is a key ingredient in my life.   I do not hide the “real” Pernille from my students because I believe education must be authentic to be meaningful.  My students share their emotions and opinions whenever they can.

I know that if I wanted a book-deal or masses of followers I should call my system something, my husband jokes about that all the time.  That way people could refer to it and ask themselves, “Well what would Pernille do?”  And then they would be confused as to why my system wouldn’t work as well for them, because  a system has to be as personal as your classroom.  You borrow, you steal,  you get inspired by others, but in the end your voice and that of your students is the one that needs to  shout the loudest and it needs flexibility and adaption skills.  So trust in yourself, sure read the books, ask the questions and then reflect; what will you do and what will your students do?  Hint:  It requires conversations with your students to create your own system.  Good luck.

classroom management, first day, hidden rules, new teacher

Do We Need to Set the Rules? Or Do Kids Already Know Them?

Photo Courtesy of Bloggertone

Yesterday was my very first day with my 24 new 5th graders.  I don’t know who was more nervous; me or them.  As we got settled into our new tables, 23 sets of eyes on me  (one child is still on vacation) eagerly awaiting what this teacher would share with them I asked; what is the first thing teachers usually talk about on the first day of school?  Hands shot up and one child blurted out “Rules!”

It’s true, isn’t it?  One of the first things we welcome students into our rooms with is indeed the discussion of rules.  Walk into almost any classroom on the first day of school and somewhere on the agenda is a discussion of rules or an explanation of the rule poster that is already on the wall.  As some of you may know, there are no rules posted in my room.  And yet the kids knew that rules had to be discussed.  They knew it was important, they knew that in fact it is one of the first things we choose to welcome students with.

The room got really quiet, the kids were waiting for me to list the rules but I didn’t.  Instead I asked them whether they knew the rules?  A couple of kids nodded.  “Again, don’t you already know the rules of a classroom?”  More nods.  “Isn’t this your 6th year in school?”  All nodded and starting to wake up a little.  “Do you need me to explain the rules or can you tell me what they are?”  With this, the buzzing started.  That little bit of chatter that kids get involved in when they start to see the light.  “We know the rules, I know how to act, we can set the rules….”

So I told them to discuss rules at their tables; what works for a classroom, what type of environment do we need to learn in, what do you need, and the kids took it from there.  They all brainstormed and then shared their ideas and guess what; they knew it all.  How to respect, how to work, how to be a community.  We discussed fidgeting which in my book just means the teacher is boring or you need to get out of your seat.  We discussed interruptions and blurting out, how to be safe, how to be nice (You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you do have to be nice to them).  And then we decided that we didn’t need to discuss anymore because we all knew what the expectations were.  In fact, they decided we didn’t need to post our discussion because our rules are going to change and that maybe they shouldn’t be called rules but rather just expectations.  And with that our expectations were set and for now I don’t need to spend anymore time discussing them.

I gave my students a voice and let them lead and they showed me they already know.  I am so excited for the rest of the year.