The Care and Feeding of Principals 101

I am a member of a couple of Facebook groups designed to provide advice to teachers on various subjects.  One of those groups has more members than live in the county seat where I live.

Something I read over and over again is “my principal is out to get me”. 

Full disclosure:  I was a principal for twelve years.  There were things I liked about it and things I loathed about it.  There were things I was very good at, and things where I needed improvement.  I think that is probably true for just about any job.

Because I was first a teacher and then a principal, I like to think that I have some insight into being an educator.  I am also a parent of a challenging student.  I like to think I’ve been on both sides of the desk.  In some ways I’ve been on all four sides of the desk.

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Contrary to popular opinion, principals do not have their hearts removed when they obtain that degree and license.  They do not have half of their brains removed either.  Really.  This is absolute truth!!

Yes, it is possible for a principal to dislike a teacher or other staff member.  However, I believe the number of really mean-spirited principals is a low percentage. 

The reality is that principals, like teachers (paras, secretaries, nurses, custodians, and lunch room personnel), are as human as you are. 

Teachers seem to have several complaints about principals.  In this blog, I’m going to try to summarize what I’ve seen on some of the teacher Facebook groups.

Believe it or not,

  • Principals are not spying when they walk through the classroom or stop in the doorway to see what’s going on.
    Making unannounced visits are part of their job.  Some call this behavior “management by walking around”.  They are seeing and being seen.  Some have been trained to do “walk though evaluations” in addition to formal evaluations. 
    • Suggested response:  If you see the principal in the doorway or in the room, smile, wave, invite them in without stopping the lesson.  If you are not engaging in direct instruction, quietly tell the principal what’s going on in the room and why.  Don’t act like you have something to hide.  Be proud of your professionalism.
selective color photography of person portraying of being fragile
  • Principals are not trying to hurt your feelings when they point out something on which you could improve.
    No one is perfect.  We can all improve on something.  We would rarely, if ever, feel belittled or picked on if our (sports) coaches told us to work on a particular skill.  A principal is supposed to be an instructional leader.  S/he must be able to point out things to improve.
    • Suggested response:  Nod.  Ask the principal for more information or a resource s/he recommends.  If you think the principal is off-base, try to calmly explain that.  If you feel too emotional, say something like, “Would it be okay if I come back to see you about this tomorrow?  I’d like to think about it a bit.”  Odds are the principal will agree.
  • Principals are not out to “get” teachers (usually).
    Yes, there are some bad eggs who become principals.  But the vast majority became an administrator because they believed they could make a difference in the lives of students and faculty.  They rarely set out to make a teacher’s life miserable.  If you think you are under more scrutiny than your peers, think about why.  Is there something you could do better or differently?  For example, are you spending faculty meetings grading papers or reading the newspaper; are you trash-talking the school personnel, parents, students, or others; do you turn in paperwork on time?  If so, what image are you projecting? 
    • Suggested response:  My mother taught me to “kill ‘em with kindness”.  That is, be polite.  You don’t have to take colleagues home with you or make them your best friends in order to work with them.  You don’t even have to like them.  No one knows what is going on inside your head.  Treat the principal the way you would like to be treated.  Poke your head into the office to say, “Good morning” to the office staff.  Smile.  You don’t have to be a “yes person”, but do consider the image you project to your co-workers.  (That includes the principal.)
  • Principals are not trying to make impossible rules.
    Principals must carry out the directions and policies of the superintendent, the school board, the curriculum director, the Title 1 coordinator, the special services director, etc.  A principal is considered “middle management” which means s/he is smack dab in the middle with demands from the previously mentioned people, but also from the union, faculty, paras, nurse, administrative staff, parents, and the community.  I’m not saying you should feel sorry for them; they knew what they were getting into.  But do know that being in the middle means that sometimes they make the wrong decision.  Like all humans, they don’t always see all sides of the issue.  I imagine you’ve goofed a time or two with students.  When that happened, what did you do?
    • Suggested response:  Rather than imagining the worst, try to imagine where this new policy is coming from.  If you believe you must speak against the rule or policy, do so calmly.  Offer a solution.  This last is very important.  It is easy to make an often justified fuss about something.  It is so much better to offer an alternative solution.
  • Principals are not instantly taking the side of students.
    Principals start out as teachers.  They know students try to put a particular spin on situations.  However, they also deal with students who are sent to the office for particularly petty reasons.  For example, I worked with teachers who would send students to the office for not having a pencil (I gave them one), or for looking out the window instead of doing their work (I told him/her to come work on it during their lunch).  In both cases, students were sent back to the classroom quickly. 
    • Suggested response:  Try to phone the principal (or A.P. or Dean of Students) and explain why the student has been sent to the office.  Use observable and measurable terms.  At the same time, consider the message you are sending to the student when you send him/her out of the room.  Are you doing what the student wants?  (I had a student who used to give himself a nosebleed on purpose at the beginning of math so he could be sent out of the room and miss math.  In other words, what is the student “buying” when s/he engages in this behavior?  Is his/her aim to get sent out of the room?)
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  • Principals are not instantly taking the side of parents.
    Principals hate surprises that do not involve cake and party hats.  They do not want to hear about an incident for the first time from a parent.  If a parent does call, the principal is obligated to follow up on the accusation.  They may believe the parent is out of line, but they must follow up.  In my experience, the most common accusation was that the teacher was allegedly “picking on” a student.  Often the teacher was doing no such thing, but sometimes they were.
    • Suggested response:  Let the principal know when something happens that you think might cause a parent to call the principal.  Even if you do this, sometimes students tell parents things in a certain way just to play the teacher and parent against each other.  (Shocked?)  Sometimes, a student takes something the wrong way.  If the principal talks to you about a phone call, hear him/her out.  Tell him/her what happened in observable and measurable terms.  And if you goofed, admit it and ask how to fix it.
  • Principals are not being unsupportive if s/he says you need to use sending a student to the office as a last resort.
    Sometimes teachers, especially inexperienced ones, expect the principal to step in and bring a class to order.  If the principal doesn’t do that, the teacher labels him/her as “not supporting teachers”.  The fact is, teachers are expected to manage the classroom.  That is something entirely different from disciplining the class.  Good management sharply reduces any need for discipline.  If a class is out of control, and if the principal steps in to fix the situation, the students see the teacher as weak.  If the teacher is seen as weak, there are students who will attempt to capitalize on that.  It becomes a vicious cycle.  The principal who refrains from disciplining your class is, on one hand, doing you a favor.  On the other hand, teachers are expected to know how to manage a class.  (Remember, the number one reason why teachers are non-renewed is because of classroom management issues.)
    • Suggested response:  If you do not understand the difference between management and disciple, read up on it.  The most widely recommended book for this is Drs. Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School.  Find and talk to a mentor teacher, or even the principal.  Don’t be afraid the overhaul your management plan midway through the year if it is not working.  However, don’t change things up every few days – if your plan has been weak, it will take the students a little while to test out your new plan and practice it.

Principals can be a very different kind of animal.  Still, they are educators first.  Remember “principal” stands for “principal teacher” or “lead teacher”.  Yes, there are some that are better than others.  However, just about all respond well to teachers who treat them with respect and courtesy, professionalism and kindness. 

Equity and Education in the Age of COVID 19

Image result for equity in education

On March 23, 2020, Ms. Betsy DeVos, the head of the federal department of education, issued a “guidance” on special education and distance education. According to an NPR article, the directive is a response to the many districts and states that have said online learning for K-12 students should be enrichment-only because not all students have access to the internet, or to the specific educational services outlined in their IEPs. The directive states:

“this reading of disability law [is] ‘a serious misunderstanding.’

“In bold type, the publication declares: ‘To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) … and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.'” https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/23/820138079/education-dept-says-disability-laws-shouldnt-get-in-the-way-of-online-learning

I am very concerned about this directive. It seems to say that it is acceptable to provide educational opportunity to those students who can be classified as “haves” and not those who are “have nots”, AND it says that those who, though no fault of their own, require specialized educational services can be ignored or “left behind”.

Should we allow the current crisis to move us backwards to when PL94-192 was first passed in 1975?

Many do not recall what education was like for “exceptional needs” students before that law was passed. Consider this: students who were failed and failed year after year because they did not learn at the same pace as “normal” children; students who were refused an education in districts and told they must be institutionalized instead; students who were labeled dumb or sub-normal.

Do we really want to return to those days?

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Since the passage of PL94-142, society and education have changed how it views equity for children with exceptional needs and for other students as well. We have embraced the idea that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, creed, beliefs, or disability have the right to a free and appropriate education.

In fact, the Department of Education website declares:

“The Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces several statutes that protect the rights of beneficiaries in programs or activities that receive financial assistance from ED. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), sex (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972), disability (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), and age (Age Discrimination Act of 1975).

The state in which I live, Iowa, has expanded upon this, requiring that all school districts comply with non-discrimination policies that include: race, color, national origin, sex, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, creed, religion, socio-economic status in its educational programs or hiring practices. https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/2015-2016%20Guidance%20for%20Nondiscrimination%20Notices.pdf

To be sure, society has not yet achieved equity in all of these protected areas in education throughout the United States. However, should we, as a society, be willing to erode the gains we’ve made?

John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Yes, he was of an era that used the term “man” to mean “human beings”, yet the meaning is clear: if we ignore the educational rights of students with disabilities, whose rights shall we relinquish next?

What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 2

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Last week, I discussed some trends in curriculum, focusing on “pacing guides”.

This week, we look at technology.

The U.S. Department of Education says:

Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity. Used to support both teaching and learning, technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and hand held devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning. Technology also has the power to transform teaching by ushering in a new model of connected teaching. This model links teachers to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems to help them improve their own instruction and personalize learning.
https://www.ed.gov/oii-news/use-technology-teaching-and-learning

One cannot dispute the fact that technology can open up a world of information accessible at our fingertips.  In fact, I am not at all sure what I would do without being able to check email, touch base with people around the world through social media, or relax while watching a streaming service. 

However, does technology itself live up to the promise of engaging and motivating students, teaching 21st century skills, all the while saving school districts money?

Image result for students with computers

Let’s look at these in turn:

Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.

There is no doubt that online textbooks save districts money.  Paper textbooks cost money to print and bind.  Online publications do not have to include those costs.

In addition, online texts can incorporate video and links to further information.

Some studies claim that about three quarters of students (K though college) prefer reading digital textbooks.  However, many of these studies have been funded by online publishers, so we have to take those findings with a grain of salt.

Other research has a more dire warning:  if one is reading more than 500 words, the equivalent of a very short article, then one is more likely to retain the information when one reads from an old-fashioned paper textbook.  ( https://hechingerreport.org/textbook-dilemma-digital-paper/ )  Despite this, students themselves tend to believe they retain more from digital sources.

More research needs to be done, especially research looking at kinds of reading (informational or fiction) and age groups.

The research right now, though, shows that more learning takes place when reading an actual textbook.

Image: World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education (2015)

Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century
There is an assumption among educational thinkers and curriculum directors that the so-called “digital generation” consume information best through screens.  Further, they assume that because the digital generation uses technology so much that they understand it, know how to use it, and are acquiring 21st century skills.

As a former college professor, I can attest to the fact that there are young people who do, indeed, know and understand technology.  Yet there are even more, in my experience, who do not. 

Further, the digital divide is real.  Some families have not embraced technology because of poverty or beliefs.  Some live in areas where WiFi is unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or patchy at best.  Others belong to cultures that put more emphasis on face-to-face or personal communication and interaction.

These lines seem to be along racial, cultural, and economic lines.

In my opinion, even those who have had access from a very young age rarely understand technology at the level professed by those who describe the so-called digital generation. 

The ability to use social media and download music do not mean that one has 21st century skills!  I have had college students who do not even know how to change the margins of a paper, let alone how to determine whether or not some tidbit of information found online is true.

Bri Stoffer ( https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills ) lists the skills employers want and need.  She says these are

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Information literacy
  6. Media literacy
  7. Technology literacy
  8. Flexibility
  9. Leadership
  10. Initiative
  11. Productivity
  12. Social skills

Note that only points 6 and 7 really refer to technology.

In fact, the very expensive private schools, the Waldorf schools, do not use much technology at all.  In Silicon Valley, parents say “technology can wait”, that their children need to learn much more than how to use a computer.  ( https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/07/waldorf-schools-teach-without-technology-heres-what-it-is-like.html )

If the twelve points above are the skills employers are seeking and companies predict they will need when this generation begins their careers, then we educators have much more to do than wrestle with whatever the “flavor of the month” technology is!

Person Holding Iphone X

Technology is supposed to engage students.
Educators were given multiple reasons why, supposedly, technology was supposed to cure the twin ailments of disengagement and apathy.  Yet if my K-12 teacher contacts are correct, then technology has exacerbated those problems:  students use their “one-to-one” devices to engage in almost everything except academics throughout the school day, and mobile phones have become teachers’ worst nightmare.

In fact, recent studies show that having a cell phone in the classroom, even if it is turned off, kept in a pocket or backpack, or turned face down on the desk, poses a distraction.  ( https://www.edutopia.org/video/theres-cell-phone-your-students-head )  These studies say that students are able to concentrate more fully on class when their phones are out of the classroom altogether.

Why?  Our brains are not constructed in a way that allows for them to multi-task despite the belief of many.  Instead of really multi-tasking, our brains merely flip back and forth between tasks.  Each time that “flip” occurs, the brain must recall what it was doing and refocus on the task at hand.  Doing this actually decreases the ability to “deep focus”, the mental state needed for learning and for creative problem-solving.

Other studies have shown that a screen, any screen a student has is distracting to other students in the room. It seems we just cannot take our eyes off of those screens!

Cell phone “cages” found in a thrift store by the author.

Please do not take all of this as a condemnation of using technology in schools!  I do not think that is the answer at all! 

What I am saying is that we cannot expect technology to be a panacea for all educational problems.  In fact, I would recommend that our curricular focus should extend beyond using technology for technology’s sake.  Instead we must help students with the following:

  • Knowing how to use technology beyond causal skills.
  • Knowing how to use technology wisely and ethically.
  • Understanding how to evaluate the information they see online or read in traditional sources.
  • Knowing how to study efficiently and effectively.
  • Learning the whole spectrum of 21st Century skills.

What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 1

Once upon a time, I was the curriculum person for a school district.  Since then I’ve watched what has happened in many school districts with curriculum with a certain amount of interest.

Lately, I’ve been troubled by what I’ve been seeing and reading:

  • A move to technology because
    • Technology is supposed to engage students,
    • Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century, and
    • Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.
  • A belief that purchasing various programs will turn around student achievement.  That is, a belief that programs are what works in helping students learn rather than investing in teacher knowledge and expertise.
  • Creating “pacing guides” that dictate what teachers are supposed to be teaching and when.  I think of this as “if today is Tuesday, then we must be on page 86”.

All three of these trends are counter to what good research shows.

In this and the next couple of posts, I will address these changes.

First up:  Creating “pacing guides”.

For those of you who do not know, a pacing guide attempts to dictate that each classroom progresses through the district’s curriculum at a steady rate. 

At best, a pacing guide helps a teacher determine what students are supposed to learn in a school year.

At worst, a pacing guide becomes an unreasonable attempt to make every class move through the curriculum in a lockstep.  Ms. Jones’ class is supposed to be doing X.  Mr. Smith’s class is supposed to be doing X.  Ms. White’s class is supposed to be doing X.

It is this latter kind of pacing guide that has me alarmed.

I can understand that sometimes a school has a teacher who seems to race through the curriculum so that students are left behind and she seems to finish up the year’s work before the year is actually done. 

Then there is the teacher who seems to drag through the curriculum, finishing the year accomplishing only a fraction of what is expected for a particular grade level or subject area.

Both of these teachers leave students behind (to use an over worn phrase).  Neither teacher has ensured that all students have achieved what the curriculum says they are supposed to achieve. 

Creating a pacing guide is supposed to make sure that students are not left behind.  However, it seems to me that there is a better way to ensure that these two types of teachers focus on what students are learning and better meet the needs of the students.

Putting classes in lockstep is not the answer.  Telling every class that they must do this on this day and that on that day is not what is best for students or teachers.  It will not help school districts achieve state standards.  It will not close the achievement gap.

If teachers are effective professionals,

  • They need only be told that their students are supposed to achieve particular standards. 
  • They can use formative assessments to determine whether or not students have achieved the standard, or if students need instruction to meet the standard.
    • They can create enrichment lessons for those who have already met the standard.
    • They can create lesson experiences and practice for those who have not met the standard.
  • They can determine if students “get it” after lessons, and back up and re-teach topics if students have not reached the required level of proficiency.

A pacing guide that dictates classes are kept in lockstep does not allow for any of the three points above.

What about the needs of the students?  What about our commitment to focus on student learning, and not on teachers teaching?

A pacing guide that dictates that classes move along in lockstep does not help students

  • Who need more practice to achieve a standard
  • Who have already achieved the standard and need enrichment or an opportunity to move on to another standard

Some curriculum “experts” say students that don’t “get it” this round, will have an opportunity to learn something when the curriculum comes back to the topic. 

This assumes that all subjects have a spiral progression.  For example, science tends to have a spiral progression.  Students learn, say, about living and non-living things in the first round.  In the second, living things are divided into plants and animals.  Much later, students learn that there are actually six groups:  plants, animals, bacteria, achaebacteria, fungi, and protozoa.

However, some subjects do not have spiral understandings.  Math is one area that does not.  Students who do not understand place value cannot move on to addition and subtraction, much less decimals.  Students who do not know multiplication cannot move on to division, and so on. 

So leaving kids behind in some areas affects their ability to learn later on. 

A lockstep curriculum guide is as detrimental to these students as the admonition beginning teachers were told fifty years ago to “teach to the middle” and let the “lows” and “highs” fall where they may.  It perpetuates the idea that students who don’t “get it” are okay to ignore, and the idea that those who are advanced will simply teach themselves as needed.  Neither is the truth. 

So let’s get back to the teacher who zooms through material and the one who inches forward. 

Neither of the two teachers is being effective.  It should be up to the instructional leadership of the school or district to offer those two teachers coaching so that they can evolve into effective teachers.  And if the two teachers refuse that coaching, perhaps it is time to ask them to leave.

In my opinion, it should never matter HOW a teacher moves students to achieve standards.  It should be up to the teacher’s professional judgment.  S/he should be able to tailor lessons to the interests and prerequisite skills of the students in that particular class. 

Grant Wiggins confirms this opinion. He wrote a piece explaining his position in 2012! See it here: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/on-pacing-guides/

So how do we convince the district level curriculum “experts” of this?  Good question!  I am very much interesting in hearing your ideas on this!

Keeping Up with the Students

There was a very interesting discussion on the We Are Teachers Helpliine facebook group.  A teacher wrote that her middle school students had begun saying she had “disrespected” them when she corrected them in some fashion.

Other writers said they thought the term “disrespected” didn’t mean being treated with something less than respect, but that, to the students, it meant being made to do something they didn’t really want to do, like complete class work.

The conversation was fascinating to me for a couple of reasons.  First is that I intensely curious about how language changes.  Second, I am constantly observing issues and situations that can have an effect on classroom management.

Language changes.  Fifteen years ago, I would receive phone calls from outraged parents who told me their child had come home saying, “The teacher yelled at me!”  To me, and to the parents, “yelled” meant shouting or raising one’s voice in anger.  However, to the students it meant the teacher had corrected them.  This correction could have been in a whisper but, to them, it was still considered “yelling”.

So perhaps the term “disrespected” also has changed.

I looked this up in the online Urban Dictionary.  The only reference was a post from 2007 that said “disrespected” was a means of bragging about a sexual encounter.  For example, “I totally disrespected my girlfriend last night.” 

That was eye-opening to me.  I had not heard that one before. (When did I get that far out of the loop?)

That made me start thinking about the gap between students and teachers.  It doesn’t matter how close in age the teacher is to the students, students view the teacher as an older person who cannot completely understand them.  That’s a tough realization for any teacher of any age!

I think most teachers want to understand students and build professional relationships with them.  Students expect teachers to “like” them and to “be nice”.  However, they do not expect or respect teachers who try to be just like the students.  They expect teachers to be grownups.  This is true even for high school students who struggle to be considered adults, even though they are not. 

Teachers do benefit from knowing a bit about the world in which their students live. 

But it is the exact same world, isn’t it?

No, not exactly.  The world of children (aged 5 through 17) is different than the world adults are in. 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about being a teacher was to spend time every once in a while researching the world your students live in.  That might mean watching some of the television shows that are popular with the age group you teach.  It might mean reading a book that is very popular with the age group.  It may mean figuring out the latest popular app.  Whatever the process, we have to keep current on what it is that is shaping and influencing students.

Some years ago, I read an article about words middle and high school students were using as a sort of code for sexual acts.  The article said that young people were using the names of board games to mean particular things. 

On the one hand I was impressed that someone would come up with such an ingenious code.  On the other hand, I started to listen to what the teens I knew were saying much more closely!

So what can we do to bridge the gap?  Try these ideas:

  • Ask questions.
    If you don’t understand what a student means by a word or phrase, ask him to explain it to you.  Do this gently.  For example, you could say, “Help me understand . . .” rather than saying something like, “Just what do you mean by that?”
  • Do research.
    Read articles.  Make use of resources like Urban Dictionary.  Watch television shows aimed at an audience of that age group.
  • Teach students what particular words or phrases mean to adults.
    For example, if students are using the term “disrespected” to mean “she made me do something I didn’t want to do”, help them understand what “respect” sounds like, feels like, looks like.
  • Pay attention.
    Language changes all of the time.  It was not that long ago that saying, “That sucks!” would have been unthinkable in polite company.  Adults who work with children and youth must pay attention to what young people are saying.  If they are using words in a way that doesn’t make sense, ask questions.  But you cannot ask questions if you are not paying attention.
  • Enjoy!
    Try to look at how students use language as something interesting and fascinating.  Effective teachers like kids, even the naughty ones, and even when they don’t always understand exactly what they are saying and doing.

Have you noticed a different way your students are using words or language?  If so, please share!

Does THAT Student Have Problems with Executive Function?

Executive function is a process that takes place in our brains.  There are three main areas that make up executive functioning skills:

  • Working memory
  • The ability to think flexibly
  • The ability to control one’s impulses

Roughly translated, these skills include:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing
  • Planning what one will do to get a task done
  • Prioritizing what to do first
  • Being able to focus on a task and keeping focused until the task is complete
  • Understanding different points of view, whether that is with real humans or fictitious ones
  • Keeping one’s emotions in check
  • Keeping track of what you are doing, whether that is working on a school task or interacting with others

Most people develop these skills without much input from parents or teachers.  However not everyone does.  This is not because that kid’s parents didn’t teach him the skills.  It is not because she comes from a less-than-desirable home situation.  It is because not every person’s brain is wired in the same way.

Students who have issues with executive functioning skills often are in danger of becoming THAT student.  Their behaviors often become a thorn in the teacher’s side. 

Here are some examples of how issues with executive functioning skills might show up in the classroom:

THAT student

  • Has difficulty getting started on what he is supposed to do
  • Doesn’t seem to be able to get the task finished
  • She can’t seem to figure out what is the most important thing to do first
  • He seems to instantly forget what he just read
  • She hears directions and almost immediately forgets them
  • He can’t seem to follow directions
  • She gets the sequence of steps she’s supposed to do mixed up
  • He gets agitated, anxious, or disruptive when the classroom routine changes
  • She gets upset out of proportion when she thinks classroom procedures have changed
  • He can’t seem to get his thoughts organized so he tells or writes stories in a jumbled up sequence
  • She seems overly emotional about little things
  • He seems to fixate on things
  • She can’t keep track of her belongings
  • His desk looks like the inside of a dumpster
  • Her time management skills seem to be nonexistent

By now, you are probably thinking of a student who shows one or more of these characteristics.

You may be thinking, “This sounds like ADHD.”  Many people with ADHD also have executive functioning skills.  However, one does not have to have ADHD in order to have difficulties with executive function.

What can teachers do to help kids with executive function deficits, and keep them from melting down in the classroom?

Think about how you can explicitly teach the required skills.

For example, if you expect students to write a newspaper article, you can demonstrate that the most important information comes in the first paragraph.  Subsequent paragraphs provide the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of that important information. 

You might cut up newspaper articles and have students work with partners to put the paragraphs in a logical order.  You might work with the class to create an anchor chart.  You can refer frequently to that anchor chart.

Think about how you can scaffold the desired behavior.

Let’s take that dumpster of a desk as an example.  Many teachers have found that creating “desk maps” helps all students organize their desks. 

But just posting the map isn’t enough.  The teacher must help students use it.  For example:

Teacher:  Boys and girls, in a second I am going to tell you to put away your math workbook and get out your writing folder.  Don’t start until I tell you!  First, tell me, where does your math workbook go?  Julie?  That is correct.  Sam, tell me what Julie said.  Yes.  Very good.  Now, where will you find your writing folder?  Jack?  Hm, I think you are getting the journal and the writing folder mixed up.  Look at the anchor chart.  Yes, Jack, that is correct.

The following chart describes some of the things teachers can do to help students with executive functioning issues.

You can find a 26 page pdf booklet about executive function at
https://www.understood.org/~/media/040bfb1894284d019bf78ac01a5f1513.pdf

We can help students learn executive functioning skills!

Should teachers be afraid of parents?

It is easy to say “no” to that question, but the reality is that some teachers are afraid and some teachers should be afraid.

How can both be true?

Why some teachers are afraid of parents:

  • Many teachers do not like confrontation. 
    Sadly, some parents are habitually hostile towards teachers.  These are the parents who assume that whatever has happened, it is the teacher’s fault.  They call and are rude or holler.  They show up in the classroom, looming over the teacher in an attempt to intimidate.  Those parents can be scary!
  • Some teachers fear parents because they are pretty sure they have done something that wasn’t quite right. Maybe they did scold the wrong child.  Maybe they did make a mistake when correcting a paper.  Maybe they weren’t as polite as they could have been.  Maybe they were a bit too harsh. 
  • Maybe they really did do something wrong!
    We’ll circle back to this in a bit.

Why some parents are afraid of teachers. 

  • They had bad experiences with teachers when they were children.
    Maybe teachers did not help them, compared them to siblings or blamed them for things that were not their fault.  Maybe they were told they’d never amount to anything.  An adult who was alienated from education as a child will be unlikely to see educators as trustworthy.
  • They think teachers will blame them if their child is not well-behaved, learning at an acceptable pace, etc.
    Sadly, teachers DO blame parents!  Teachers seem to classify many parents into several categories: 
    • parents who don’t care and who, therefore, don’t discipline their children, or who ignore their child’s education, or needs.  They don’t show up for conferences, do not answer emails or return phone calls.  These are also, according to some teachers, the ones who dress their children in dirty clothes, clothes too large or two small, or not appropriate for the weather.  They seem too busy to get school supplies, or who take children shopping on a school night instead of doing homework.
    • Helicopter parents who hover over children.  They are the ones who never let children make decisions.  They call and holler about a first grader earning a poor grade because it will allegedly keep the him/her out of a good college.  They do their child’s homework, or make excuses for their child.
    • Indulgent parents who seem to only want to be their child’s friend.  These are the parents who don’t potty train children before kindergarten, who let children stay up late or sleep in, the ones who do not discipline children, or the ones who buy the child everything under the sun.

There is another group of parents that is rarely mentioned:  parents who are legitimately concerned about how their child is treated in school.

A parent I know has a child who has a genius IQ and a learning disability.  She does not have an IEP because she has been able to earn “acceptable” grades despite the learning disability.  That is, she’s been able to earn a D rather than an A. 

What this child does have is a 504 plan. 

Let’s take a little aside here and explain the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan.  Both are legal plans that define accommodations for legally recognized learning differences.  The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) defines the kinds of specialized instruction and related services the child is supposed to receive.  A 504 plan does not require specialized instruction.  It defines the accommodations that will ensure the student’s  academic success and access to the learning environment.

So the main difference is that one required specialized instruction from a person trained to deliver that kind of instruction or services.  A 504 plan requires accommodations to instruction that can be delivered by a “regular” teacher.

The child has a recognized learning difference, but only needs accommodations, not specialized instruction, to ensure her academic success and full access to the learning environment.

The problem is that almost to a person, none of this child’s teachers have honored the 504 plan!  And she is now in high school!

The parent is not a helicopter parent.  She is not an indulgent parent.  She is certainly not alienated from education; she has a master’s degree and beyond.  We certainly cannot say this parent doesn’t care, ether.  Yet she has been accused of all of the above by teachers.

All she wants is for teachers to do what the 504 plan says they are supposed to do.

The teachers have given a number of reasons why they haven’t done this. 

  • They didn’t know she had a problem.
  • They don’t know how to do the accommodations.
  • They don’t see why she needs accommodations.
  • They say they think the mother is just trying to have the daughter’s grades inflated.
  • They say they don’t have time to make those accommodations.

Quite frankly, these teachers have simply frustrated both the parent and the student.  And the parent is angry.

So back to the original question:  should teachers be afraid of parents?

  • They SHOULD NOT be afraid if they
    • are reaching out to all parents to let them know what they’ve noticed that is good about their child.
    • genuinely like students.
    • welcome parents as allies in the child’s education.
    • have a good relationship with parents and make a mistake like those described previously.
    • Keep parents informed of concerns before concerns grow too large or have gone on too long.
  • They SHOULD be afraid if they
    • Don’t actually like all students
    • Don’t respect parents.
    • Aren’t doing what each student needs to be successful.
    • Aren’t following the law.

Teachers go into teaching to make a difference.  None that I know would ever say they are teachers to damage children or to make their lives miserable.

Sadly some teachers become jaded.  Some are frustrated with working conditions, administration, or students whose needs challenge their know-how.  Some develop beliefs that they know better than anyone else what a student needs.  Some may be right, but none should deny a student accommodations designed to help that child be successful.

If a teacher has a student with a 504 plan, find out what accommodations are.  Ask colleagues for help on how to do this if you don’t know how.  And above all, work with the child’s parents. 

In an Age of Technology, Should Schools Teach Handwriting?

Edutopia recently posted an article on handwriting.  (https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-teach-handwriting-and-why-it-matters )  The article does an excellent job of explaining how handwriting supports learning to read, and what happens in the brain when we write by hand.

I currently live in an area where school districts have committed to being paperless.  Curriculum directors have told teachers that it is pointless to teach children to memorize facts like math facts, or to learn to write using paper and pencil.  Why?  They said children are living in such a technological society that all facts will be available through phones or other devices and everyone will keyboard instead of write.

By contrast, the very expensive Waldorf schools generally limit any technological devices.  They do not have a one-to-one program.  Technology in grades K-8 is often limited to just a few devices used for special research.  The schools recommend parents limit technology use as well.

Who would send their children to such a school?  Many children have parents who work in Silicon Valley, at Google, or Microsoft.  Granted, those parents can afford the tuition – tuition equivalent to many mid-westerners total yearly net pay.  But it is far more than being about how exclusive the school is. 


View a 10 minute video filmed by CNBC about these tech-free schools:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAZ-fuWdz8M


Organizations like the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic recommend limiting screen time drastically.  They say studies show that US children in elementary school, on average, spend more than seven hours per day focused on screens.  The result is obesity, poor social skills, irregular sleep patterns, and behavior problems.

“Screen time” is defined by a person watching TV, using a computer, and using one’s phone. 

Guidelines synthesized from several sources say screen time should be limited:

  • Ages 0-2 years            no screen time
  • Ages 3-4 years            no more than one hour per day
  • Ages 5-10 years          one to one and a half hours per day
  • Ages 11-13 years        up to 2 hours per day

I can imagine the shocked gasps from people reading those numbers.  So  many public schools have students in those age brackets using more than the recommended amount of screen time. 

What would schools do without having students using technology?  That takes us back to the article about the advantages of teaching handwriting.

I have my own experience with what happens when schools do not teach handwriting.

Several years ago I volunteered in a fourth grade classroom.  The teacher was trying to differentiate math.  I was asked to work with a group of children who were struggling with double digit multiplication.

What I discovered shocked me.

  • They did not know multiplication was serial addition – 9 X 4 = 9+9+9+9
  • They did not know multiplication facts
  • They did not understand place value
  • They were unable to write a single numeral in a one inch square on one inch graph paper.

That last point is one I would add to the Edutopia article on handwriting:  If one cannot write well enough to form legible numerals, math will be significantly difficult.

The Iowa Reading Resource Center sent out a letter in May 2019.  It says, in part, “The absence of standards for learning to write in print or cursive may have communicated to educators and families that handwriting is no longer relevant.”

The letter stresses the importance of teaching handwriting skills in literacy development.


You can read the Iowa Reading Research Center’s letter here:  https://iowareadingresearch.org/blog/importance-handwriting-instruction


I highly recommend that teachers read the letter and begin having a discussion with curriculum leaders about how schools can reintroduce handwriting.  It may really make a difference in children’s lives.

The Classroom Decor Dilemma

Have you started checking out Pinterest for ideas on how to decorate your classroom this year?

We all want a good looking classroom.  I know.  Really, I do!  However, I’m going to suggest something that might make you feel a bit anxious:  don’t sweat it!

Seriously, think about how you feel when you spend lots of time and energy and, yes, money on having the best decorated classroom.  Now think about how you feel if the students mess it up, or, worse, ruin something.  Pretty awful, isn’t it?

Think about why kids may not show appreciation for all the hours you’ve spent on having a lovely classroom.  I often hear teachers blaming parents or children who “have no respect”.  I’d like to suggest another reason:  Students don’t necessarily value the time you’ve spent on décor, because you have spent the time on décor.

Let me put that in terms of another of Roe’s Rules:  the person(s) who put the most work into the room, have the most appreciation for that work.

It used to infuriate me when kids would mark up a lovely poster I put by the pencil sharpener, or when they would ignore a beautifully composed bulletin board.  One day I thought, to heck with it (using a more adult idiom), I’m just going to let the kids do it.  I was busy, after all, planning lessons, taking a class, and being a single mom. 

I took down that lovely bulletin board and left it blank.  When the students completed some work, I had the students put some of it up.  I didn’t spend time making a brilliant anchor chart,  we completed one together, and we put it up. 

Soon we had a room “decorated” with the work the students had done, and anchor charts cataloging the skills we were learning.  And before long, I noticed my stress level had gone down a bit.  I wasn’t constantly feeling under-appreciated.

That’s all well and good, but let’s face it, there are a lot of pressures on teachers to have a well-decorated room.  We also know that those pressures can lead to stress and burn-out! So what can we do about it?

Head, Face, Stress, Flame, Burn, Fire, Old, Voltage

Let’s look at some of the pressures we put on ourselves regarding room decor and what we can do about it.

What will parents think of me?
If your school has a back-to-school night, you might worry that parents seeing a bare room will think less of you.  Here are some ideas on how to cope with that.

  • Have a well-organized room and label where everything is.
  • On the bulletin board, put a sign that says “watch this space for how we are learning”, or something similar.
  • Put up a display of things the students did last year – photos of the room or of children working (blot out faces) – with a note about how “we learned so much last year!” or “Some of the wonderful things we look forward to learning.”

Students will worry that I won’t be any fun!
One of the best ideas for the first day of school, besides teaching procedures, is to show students what they will be doing and learning this year.  Make it seem like the very best movie trailers, or make it a show of “coming attractions”.  Your attitude and enthusiasm will show them that they have nothing to worry about.

What will other teachers think of me?
Let’s face it:  teachers can help other teachers have unrealistic ideas on what they should do.  They can be a serious source of peer pressure!  Stand firm and say something like:

  • I am so excited about showcasing the students’ work this year!
  • I decided to take one bit of stress off my plate.
  • I want to make it our classroom this year.
  • Wow, your room looks terrific!  You must have spent a lot of your summer planning lessons.  I guess I was not that organized. 
  • I’m spending my time now planning really terrific units.

The principal will look sideways at me!
Explain to the principal:

  • Students have not been as appreciative of your decorating efforts in the past and it led you to feel a bit of resentment for them. 
  • You want to have a truly student-centered classroom this year and having the students help with the décor is the first step.
  • You want a pleasant room, yes, and you want to spend more time planning really effective lessons this year.
  • Research has shown that classroom walls that are too cluttered interfere with student learning — see Association for Psychological Science and Carnegie Mellon University 

Stress leads to burn-out and burn-out leads to a whole lot of awful things that happen to our bodies and our souls. Quitting teaching is the least of it! We can remove some of those stressors!

Map, Learn, School, Courage, Training, Skills, Teaching

Remember, effective teachers do not spend their time making the classroom look like it should appear on the cover of Better Schools and Classrooms, even if there was such a publication.  Effective teachers plan for effective classroom management and effective instruction. 

And to be the most effective, we have to set some of those stressors aside!

Planning for THAT Student

The Fourth of July always seems to mark when I start thinking about school again.  I take a walk and see an unusual stone and pick it up for the classroom.  A friend starts to throw out something and I snag it thinking I can use it for this or that.  I’m sure you have had similar experiences.

It is also time when we start thinking about the students we will have in the coming year.  We look forward to getting to know new students to the grade.  As pleasant as that can be, we worry a bit about THAT student, the one we’ve heard so much about, or have had in class before.  Thinking about THAT student can tie our stomachs in knots.

The teachers I know report that the number of challenging students has changed, and the kind of behavior these students demonstrate has become more violent.

Articles about the nation’s schools seem to indicate that the number of students with behavior problems has not actually increased, but that the intensity of their behavior has. 

What can teachers do now to have a better 2019-2020 school year?

The first step to find a way to make ourselves think about THAT student’s behavior in a different way.  Every time a student acts out, she is sending a message.  We must think like detectives to decode the message.  We cannot just conclude the behavior stems from some fundamental core of “bad child”. 

The fact is that less than 1% of the whole population can be considered psychopaths, people who do not have that little voice inside their heads telling them what they are doing is right or wrong, people who can be considered “bad” in their souls.  This means that the student who throws a temper tantrum, who swears at the teacher, who flinches when someone comes near them, or who seems to over-react to the simplest thing is not bad.  They are not trying to get on your last nerve.  They are sending you a message.

This is where we have to start looking at patterns. 

Some are easier to see than others.  The child who has to use the bathroom the minute the class is supposed to work on math is likely trying to avoid math.

Other patterns are a bit more difficult to decipher.

There is much being written lately about the effects of childhood trauma or exposure to trauma.  These students may have short tempers, meltdown easily, or be unable to switch smoothly from one task to another. 

Children who experience trauma have classroom difficulties in five main areas:  forming bonds with others, hypervigilance, negative thinking, issues with self-regulation, and with executive function.

Forming bonds with others
Clues we can expect to see are:

  • Being wary of adults
  • Suspecting adults have an ulterior motive for being nice to them
  • Not knowing how to make friends with other children
  • Being “clingy” with children and/or adults

Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance is defined as being extremely alert for possible danger.  Children who are hypervigilant may give these clues:

  • Flinching when someone comes too close
  • Requiring more personal space than other children
  • Positioning himself on the edge of a group
  • Jumping or startling in situations that do not seem to require that reaction
  • Consistently expressing that this child or that is out to “get” her

Negative Thinking
Negative thinking is, in essence, seeing the world as a glass half-empty.  They have been led to believe they are “bad kids” and bad kids just don’t do well in school, or in life.  Clues about negative thinking may be:

  • Figuring that adults or children are thinking poorly about them
  • Being a perfectionist, or giving up because he cannot understand something or do something quickly enough.
  • Believing the teacher’s behavior towards them has negative intent.  For example, the teacher says, “Sit down,” but the child hears the teacher as if he has hollered the same words.
  • They melt-down or over-react to making mistakes.  They may attempt to hide those mistakes or say the assignment is stupid and not worth the effort.

Self-regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to wait to have one’s needs met.  It can also be the ability to calm one’s self when one is feeling “big emotions”.  Clues to watch for include:

  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • Negative behavior that happens when the teacher’s attention is focused on another student.
  • Negative behavior that happens when a peer’s attention is focused on someone else.
  • Being easily angered, easily frustrated, easily reduced to tears
  • Having to be first, first in line, first to be called on, first to be noticed.

Issues with executive function
“Executive function” is a bit like the role of a company’s CEO.  She is the one that plans, organizes, and choses the company’s direction.  Our brain’s executive function includes our ability plan, organize, pay attention, switch from on task to another, and makes choices about what to do now and what to do later.  Clues that a student has difficulty with executive function include

  • Difficulties with organizing his desk, his locker, his backpack
  • Appearing to fiddle around with things instead of getting right to work
  • Appearing angry, overwhelmed, or lost when it is time to transition from this task to another
  • Confusion about what to do first, second, next
  • Taking forever to complete a task
  • Giving up easily
  • Seeming to lose papers, pencils, books, and not being able to locate them even when they are in plain sight

Students’ behavior tells us things about what is going on inside their immature brains.  Situations that would not test an adult’s ability to function are already challenging to children.  (Remember, the brain does not really reach maturity until it is 25 plus years old!)  Those students who have experienced trauma find getting though the school day to be even more difficult than their peers do.  Their behavior may seem naughty, irresponsible, or downright mean, but it is really the child telling us she is having difficulties in the only ways she knows how.

Teachers can do some things that other professionals cannot do as easily.  They can try to teach students a different set of behaviors.  They can demonstrate that adults can be trustworthy and positive role models.  They can show kids they find something endearing about them even if they do not like all of the child’s behaviors.

Now is the time to think about THAT student’s behavior. Try thinking about the things THAT student does as messages, rather than malicious.