Kids Become What You Tell Them They Are

I cannot tell you how many sub jobs I’ve walked into where the students blatantly say, “We are a bad class, it’s okay if you get frustrated with us, we’re the worst class in the whole school.” 

This is the most heartbreaking thing to hear come out of these students’ mouths. 

Kids become what you tell them they are. 

If you’re telling them how chatty, disruptive, and disrespectful they are, these attributes will remain on their mind and will not go away. 

If you tell them how respectful, helpful, and kind they are, I promise you they will live up to this standard you have set. I know, because I witnessed it. 

I did a long-term substitute teaching job in a first-grade classroom. Right away I had teachers saying under their breath to me, “Oh. You have that class? Good luck, they are the worst class in the whole school.” With this being my first real teaching job outside of graduating, it did not reassure me in any way. 

After observing this class a few times before I took over full time, I saw exactly what they meant. They were disrespectful, there was always side talking, someone was always out of their seat, and expectations were never met. The students even talked about how bad of a class they were because they were hearing it from teachers across the whole school. They believed it. I was grateful that I had time to witness this and process what was going on before my first day because I went in with a game plan that I truly believe helped shape our 8 weeks together. 

“Class, today is our first day together and we need to start it with the most important things first. Everyone come gather at the rug, I have some news for you.” 

They quickly took their place at the rug, everyone intrigued by what I was about to tell them. 

“Now, we all know your teacher is gone to have her baby for the next few weeks and I am here to teach you while she is gone. BUT, I want to tell you about the conversation your principal had with me when he called to ask if I would teach your class. Do you know what he told me?” 

“Yeah, that our class SUCKS.” A student yelled out. 

There it was. Not even five minutes into the day and they were already down on themselves for having the worst behavior.

I was determined to fix it. 

“No, actually, he said the opposite. He told me how kind, how respectful, and how fun you all are. He told me this classroom is a happy space and that I would be the luckiest teacher in the world to spend a few months with you.” 

Looks of shock covered their faces. I just went against everything they were ever told, who were they supposed to believe now? I continued to go on and on about how excellent of a class they were and how much potential they had. After a while, a little, shy voice popped up and said, “One lunch lady said we are a very nice class, so maybe it’s true.” 

A small smile grew on my face because it was working. Slowly, they would believe me. I knew it. 

It took time, lots of time. And it took a lot of reminding as well. I would walk them into P.E. or music and say out loud to the specialty teacher, “Have you met this class yet? They are the BEST class in the whole entire school. They are so respectful, so responsible, and are always ready to learn. They will be so good for you today!” 

I was shot a lot of confused looks at first, but it was incredibly helpful for my students to witness me talk so highly of them in front of other adults. It also became beneficial for other adults as well. As we would walk the halls of the school they would pass by my quietly lined up class and say, “Wow! Look how respectful these students are as they walk these halls! They are the best class!” 

I focused on their good behaviors and those shone through. 

I told them over and over how helpful, kind, and respectful they were and they started to not only believe it but act that way as well. 

I showed other teachers in the school just how great my class could be. 

A once rowdy, disrespectful class became an example to others throughout the school. 

Every single class and student out there has the potential to be amazing if you foster it and allow it. Look for the good and you’ll find more and more of it every single day. 

The Worst Phone Call I’ve Made to a Parent

My hands were shaking as I picked up the phone. I was about to make a phone call to a parent of one of my best first-grade students, a call that I never thought I would have to make during my time teaching, especially during my very first teaching experience.

“Hi, Mrs. Johnson, it’s Mrs. Ross, your daughter’s teacher right now while her regular teacher is on maternity leave. I’m calling about your daughter, we had an incident today that I need to let you know about. While we were doing an activity with scissors, a boy in the class took a pair to your daughter’s braid and cut off the end of it. It was about an inch of hair and she is devastated. Do you mind talking to her for a little bit?” 

When the phone was handed back to me a few minutes later, I apologized over and over to her. I couldn’t believe that something like that happened in my classroom. All of the reminders of procedures and the rules we had in place for using scissors, it all went out the door the second the little boy put the scissors up to her hair. I felt like a failure as a teacher. 

Her mom came to pick her up from school early, she was too upset to make it through the school day. Proper action was taken on the situation with both students, and at the end of the day when all of them filed out of my classroom, I finally let my emotions show. I sat with other teachers in the copy room while we prepped for the next day and I told them how awful I felt about the situation. All of them helped me feel better by swapping their own stories of situations they have been in with students throughout their years of teaching, it helped me realize I wasn’t alone, others had been in this boat before too. 

What really helped most was my conversation with this little girl’s mom the next day. She dropped her off at school in the morning with a fresh new haircut and I continued to apologize to each of them again. Her mom responded by letting me know that she wasn’t upset in the slightest, either at me or the other student. These kids are seven years old, they are unpredictable and emotional human beings and it would be impossible for me to keep my eyes on each of them at all times, it wasn’t my fault. She even ended the conversation by asking if she could volunteer for anything, even if it was just cutting up things for me (since we had a new classroom rule of NO SCISSORS ALLOWED until I could get over what had happened). 

I expected her to be more upset with me, blaming everything on me, so to have her be understanding and in my corner was refreshing and uplifting. It really made me realize how much we as teachers need parents. They can be your advocate in bad situations. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dealt with my fair share of difficult parents too, but that doesn’t mean they are all that way. Even though I was only in a long-term substitute teaching job, I wish I could have gone back and utilized parents more from the beginning. They really can be your best tool, if you let them in. 

I truly am curious, what is one of your worst teaching memories that you can hopefully look back on and laugh now? 

Why I Decided The Clip Chart Wasn’t For Me

Oh, the dreaded clip chart. You know the one I’m talking about. “So-and-so” is being great! Move your clip up! Oh, Jonny, that wasn’t appropriate! Move your clip down!” It’s no secret that teachers have become outraged by these classroom management resources. One quick google search will show you just how unpopular they are. 

The first three articles to come up when googling “Clip Chart”

The first day I walked into the classroom of my long term sub job, I noticed one thing right away on the whiteboard- a clip chart. The public humiliation display. The does-more-harm-than-good tool. I did my best effort to keep the clip chart during my first week taking over the classroom, but I soon realized why it didn’t work. 

  • It was used for negative reinforcement more often than positive reinforcement. It was easier to use it for students misbehaving than to remember to reward those that were behaving. 
  • It didn’t change the behavior of the students who were constantly dropping into the negative. They quickly became numb to it, they didn’t care about moving their clip down, or up for that matter. 
  • I felt like our whole day revolved around the chart. Because I realized how often it was used for the misbehaving kids, I put in extra effort to use it to praise students for good behavior. It took too much time and effort. The best way to manage a classroom is to have an effortless, mindless, mostly positive plan in place. I needed a classroom management plan that was easy and natural for our classroom. 

So what did I do once I realized it wasn’t working? I stopped using it, slowly over time. I moved clips less and less, never making it a big deal or a spectacle that the clip chart was non-existent. I forgot about it and so did the kids. In fact, not a single student ever asked about it after we had fully stopped using it. Even the star students that were always at the top every day didn’t mind me phasing it out, no one wanted their behavior displayed to the entire classroom, including all of our visitors. 

Here’s what we did instead. We started our money unit, so a coin system was easily put in place. Each student had a container for their money and was solely responsible for it. Not very often was I taking pennies from the students, it was used more for positive reinforcement, which made everyone happier. It was incredible the drive the students had to clean up the floor at the end of the day when I would announce, “I have one nickel for every student who brings me ten pieces of trash!” I think we could have won awards for how clean our classroom was each afternoon. The money earned was used to pay for extra bathroom trips, new pencils, and a teacher store at the end of the year. 

We did a group point system on the board. I numbered each group, wrote the numbers on the board, and gave them points for being on time as a team, working together, and having their whole table quiet and ready to learn. It promoted teamwork and gave them an incentive to do better.

What did the point system on the board go towards? Here’s the magic of it- nothing. The points went towards nothing. Once the tallies made it to roughly 10 points per team, I would erase and start over. They were working hard simply for tallies on the board! I had one student ask quietly what the tallies were for. There were plenty of other side conversations happening at the time, so I chose to focus my attention elsewhere. I never heard any questions again after that one incident. 

Since I was teaching first-grade students, passing around a tiny sticker to hard workers was a huge motivation for them. I also kept a box of Cheerios in my cupboard to pass around one Cheerio to quiet, on-task students. After one or two times of doing this, they learned fast. As soon as the box was in my hand to pass them out, every student would be working hard. It amazed me how motivating one piece of cereal can be. 

Clip charts clearly are not a classroom management win. It may work for some and could possibly be excellent personal behavior management tucked away in a desk for one or two students that need it. But as a whole class approach, there are better options out there. Positive reinforcement has been proven to be the most effective for changing behavior, and clip charts do not promote this. Let’s all take a minute to put down the clip chart and pick up a more positive approach for our student’s sake. 

Last-Minute Kindergarten: Distilling What Matters Most

Hi, there! Mary Wade back again for a quick post as promised on Twitter a few weeks back:

Jumping from teaching 5th grade to kindergarten certainly made for a steep learning curve in those first several weeks, intensified by the fact that everyone in my family has taken turns passing around various illnesses ever since school started.

But now that things have finally settled down and I’m feeling more like myself as a teacher again, I’d like to share some insights. When necessity forces us to keep things simple, what matters most? We already know the answer, of course: relationships, relationships, and more relationships.

That was not really a surprise. But what did surprise me was what does not matter as much. It turns out that contrary to what Pinterest or other pressures might have us thinking, being a kindergarten teacher does not require…

love of crafts (nope; hands-on exploration through centers is my jam)

Our Look Closer Center is probably my favorite.

Perfect handwriting (I really thought this would be so much more important for kindergarten as they are learning to form letters, but it’s just been a great chance for me to revisit my own letter formation!)

Haha, one of my favorite discussions on the year so far! We wanted to know the difference before practicing writing our letters and numbers in shaving cream. I definitely did not anticipate the conversation would go this direction, but that’s kindergarten for you!

Drawing skills for labeling everything (kids are more than willing to help with this, and it creates more shared ownership anyway).

I love our class calendar. Students draw pictures representing each day on halves of index cards and then staple them up. They are always so proud of their shared work.
A few students volunteered to draw pictures of the different emotions and problem-solving strategies we generated together.

Every manipulative or tool under the sun (I felt crushed at first under the weight of things advertised at LakeShore Learning; I since have learned that an exacto-knife + recycled cardboard can make letter tiles on the cheap in a much more environmentally-friendly manner, anyway). However, I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to my many incredible and generous family members and friends that donated all sorts of beautiful supplies and furniture to get my room assembled nearly overnight!

I didn’t have student whiteboards, but I did have dry-erase sentence strips, clipboards, and a basket. Viola! Student whiteboard for practice writing.
My classroom on the first day of school, thanks to the hard work of many family and friends.

Posters for everything under the sun, waiting and ready for kids (turns out, the kids pay more attention to things they help create anyway; and it really is OK to build things up slowly over time. I have had many moments where I felt the impulse to prepare something for students, but then realized that it would be a more meaningful learning experience to co-construct it).

This poster is full of “sneaky letters” students have found or made that I snap a photo of. It kind of makes me crazy that it skips around and is incomplete, but it’s been an excellent exercise for me to let go and let the students take the lead!
We talked about the different kinds of stories people make during writing workshop, and I drew pictures of students’ ideas; I ended up printing the photo of this discussion, and it is now posted by our writing workshop cart for students to remember possible picture stories.

Signing my contract to teach kindergarten 6 days before school started was one of the crazier things I’ve ever done in my life. But now, I’m grateful for the way that it forced me to let go of less-important extras, and to focus on co-construction, sustainability, and ultimately, better work-life balance for me and more ownership for students.

What are the most important elements that have distilled in your room over the years? What are you glad you’ve let go of? How have these decisions improved what matters most for you and your students?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How “Use Your Resources” Shaped My Classroom

“How do you spell _________?”

“What resources could you use to decide?”

“My pencil broke.”

“Could you use your resources to be a problem-solver?”

“I don’t get what we’re supposed to do at this point in our writing.”

“I bet you could use your resources to figure that one out.”

This was one of my go-to phrases with my students. But it wasn’t one of those silver bullet, use-this-and-the-kids-will-do-more-themselves kind of phrase. It took quite a bit of behind-the-scenes effort.

For one thing, there was a lot of ongoing dialogue behind it. 

We would discuss what it meant to be a problem-solver. I would always tell my students, “You may solve your problems in any way that doesn’t cause problems for you or anyone else.” For some, it took months before I could fully convince them that I meant it — for instance, that they could, in fact, use the bathroom without asking as long as they weren’t causing problems.

I would also continually spotlight when students would solve their problems in particularly creative ways, and would praise students for using resources effectively.

For another, I worked to set up a resource-rich environment that students felt comfortable using freely.

Whenever I gave any verbal instructions, I also wrote them on the board so they had that reference. Whenever we worked to uncover new writing or math tools, we wrote our strategies on anchor charts and then posted them as resources to check on. Whenever I brought in new supplies, I told my students about them and asked where would be the most effective storage place.

And perhaps most importantly, I worked to listen to student voice.  

They were always full of remarkable ideas for using and creating resources I hadn’t thought of.  The easy part of listening to student voice was keeping a suggestion box that we would review during weekly class meetings. The hard part was letting go to truly honor that voice by allowing sometimes imperfect or messy ideas to move forward.

After all, if “use your resources” meant they were only permitted to use my resources, or to solve problems within my set of solutions, I wasn’t actually cultivating an environment of student ownership. Real autonomy comes when those in charge don’t pretend they have all the answers.

I was certainly an imperfect executor of this ideal, but I’m enjoying the way I can use my current resources to learn more from my PLN to return to the classroom with a greater commitment to student voice, choice, and ownership.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Why & How to Abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?”

The way we handle one of our students’ most basic needs can reflect a lot about the degree to which we cling to control. Not only does this topic take a lot of honest self evaluation, but it requires genuine empathy for each of our students.

Why?

unnecessary interruption

When students are required to raise their hand to ask to use the bathroom, it often disrupts the flow of a discussion.  And with intercom announcements, drills, and more, don’t we have enough interruptions anyway? 

Domino effect

Particularly with younger students, a restroom announcement from one student often triggers several more deciding to go unnecessarily. This turns a simple, individual routine into a larger disruption to learning.

humiliation factor

We probably don’t need to list all the circumstances that may require a person to visit the bathroom more frequently than others.  And because those circumstances are often deeply personal and sometimes embarrassing, forcing students to raise their hand each and every time can be humiliating for some, and perhaps debilitating for others.  Students have enough on their shoulders without the added anxiety of whether they’ll be able to discreetly take care of their bodily functions.

Student autonomy


We often worry so much about our responsibility as teachers to keep tabs on all our students that we lose sight of their capacity. However, with some training and discussion, the majority of our students can handle the simple social contract of only using the restroom when needed, and to monitor appropriate timing to do so.  If you’re worried about them getting up in the middle of instruction, tell them that. Explain the concern that they will miss important instructions, and encourage them to utilize independent or group work time. Explain the privilege and associated accountability with this autonomy. And of course, continue to keep an eye out to pick up on misuse and possible intervention. See ideas for this in the tips below.

Put yourself in their shoes

We may think we’re teaching them responsibility to check in with you first. We may think we’re teaching them time management to tell them to just go during their breaks. But in the end, we must honestly ask ourselves the tough questions: how would we feel to work in an environment where we had to check in with someone each time we needed to go?  How would our concentration be impacted? What messages are we sending to our students when we strictly control their bathroom use?

How?

  • If you’re coming from a place of more thorough bathroom-use monitoring, start by opening up the conversation with your students. Arrange a class meeting and ask students how they would feel about a new bathroom procedure that allows them to take care of things without coming to you. Discuss the functions of trust, responsibility, and safety, both during that meeting, and throughout the year.
  • Set alternative requirements that will still fulfill your responsibilities as a teacher.  For instance, stipulate that students must put an object on their desks, such as a bottle of hand sanitizer, to indicate they have left (win-win). Another idea is to further require that only one boy and one girl may be absent simultaneously to avoid group bathroom hangouts.  

via 3rdGradeThoughts
via 3rdGradeThoughts

  • Really ask yourself, is one of  your main worries that they’re going to the bathroom just to escape? If so, ponder what you can do about your classroom environment or practices to make your room a more desirable place to be.
  • For students who are accustomed to total teacher control, they may view this new privilege as a continuation of the “me vs. teachers” game they’ve learned.  If this happens, work with that individual student, reminding him or her about trust.  You may find it necessary to create an individual system for that one student (small check-out sheet, etc), but make sure you do not punish the entire class for the lack of responsibility of just a couple students.

featured image: Sam Breach