Coping with Our Brave New World

I have been silent in the blog-o-sphere for quite some time.  It isn’t that I don’t have anything to say.  It is just that I don’t know how I can possibly express how much I wish I had a magic wand to wave and make all of the stress and difficulties go away during the horrible challenges of 2020!  Sadly my magic wand is broken.

The Broken Wand. Old Elma always was a bit eccentric… | by Manu Chatterjee  | P.S. I Love You

I have considered what I can offer educators today while they try to figure out how to teach online when they’ve never been trained to do so, and while they try to teach face-to-face all the while coping with the additional cleaning, reminders about keeping masks on, and all of the schemes school districts have come up with the try to limit the spread of the virus.  And if you are in a district that is combining face-to-face with virtual teaching, you have all of the problems of both, plus trying to balance it all without losing your mind!

Are you a stressed out teacher? - Special Treat Friday

Here are my top five suggestions.

Procedures and routines are more important than ever.
When we teach face-to-face, most educators teach students “how we do things in this classroom”.  These things might include how to ask to use the restroom, when to sharpen a pencil, how to line up, what to do when a visitor enters the room, how to show you are paying attention, or where to put finished work. 

It is not so much different in a virtual classroom.  We have to teach students how to mute, how to unmute, how to submit assignments, how and when to email the teacher, etc.

10+ Humor for Teachers ideas | humor, teacher humor, teacher

Don’t assume students know how to navigate the digital world.
We tend to think that students today are able to navigate the digital world almost effortlessly.  Sadly, this is often not true.

Yes, we see students using their phones to check snapchat, post on tik-tok, or Instagram, but knowing how to do that does not mean they know how to do things in a digital classroom.

Even at the college level I had many students who did not know what I had assumed everyone knew.  (Yes, I know I should never assume!)  I’ve had to teach students how to change margins or fonts in Word, how to navigate student management programs (like Moodle or Blackboard), how to submit assignments, how to take an online quiz, etc.  I even had to have an informal lesson on how to use the calendar on students’ phones to set up due dates, appointments, and to-do lists! 

It is not so different with K-12 students!

Just as you are learning how to teach virtually, students must be taught how to learn virtually.

  • Remember:  s/he who does the most work does the most learning.

We educators tend to work ourselves to death trying to create perfect lessons.  I have to raise my hand and include myself in that number.  Just like you, I often forget to have the students do most of the work.

Let’s take a lesson on science vocabulary words. 

Choice 1: 
I create a series of slides to show students with the words, the written definition, and a photo that illustrates what the word means.  I’ve included animations that are designed to capture students’ interest and motivate them to learn.  I’ve researched and found online quiz sites students can use on their own time to practice the vocabulary.

Choice 2:
I give the students a list of the words they need to know for the upcoming lessons.  I can have the students work in pairs or singly.  I can have the students write their own definition of what the word means – no copying the definition! – then use the word in a sentence, and find a photo or drawing.  I can include having the students find helpful articles, quiz sites, etc., that can help them remember the vocabulary.  While the students are doing these tasks, I can monitor the students’ work.  When the students are done, I can call on various students to share their work.  Later, I can use some of the students’ work in a practice quiz to reinforce the lesson and help students with retrieving the information.  (If you are not familiar with retrieval practice I highly recommend that you explore this website: )

Choice 3:
I pair students up to lean about one or two of the vocabulary words.  They must research the words and do the following:  prepare to teach students what the words mean without parroting the definition found in the glossary, use an illustration to show the class what the word means, and come up with a unique way of remembering the words and what they mean.  I can use the illustrations and definitions in practice quizzes, and I can ask other students to explain how the presenters’ memory device can help them retrieve the information.

Let’s face it:  choice 1 puts the whole thing on the teacher.  No wonder we are exhausted!

Choice 2 is similar to a lesson one might use in any face-to-face classroom.  It begins to shift the lesson from the teacher doing all of the work to the students doing more work.

Choice 3 puts almost all of the work on the students.  The teacher creates the framework for the students to do the learning, helps build excitement about learning, and provides coaching as needed.  Choice 3 is more student centered and less teacher centered.  (For more about student-centered learning see Edutopia’s articles and videos about student center learning.  Here is one to get you started: )

Of course, choice 3 requires the teacher to teach students how to write their own definition, how to find meaningful illustrations, how to create a mnemonic, and how to make a presentation. 

We can think of all of those things are types of procedures.  In reality, those procedures ultimately teach students how to learn. 

I know I used to think that someone else taught students how to learn.  I’ve taught third and fifth grade, middle school and high school, and for a long time I did not teach students how to learn.  That, I think, is a misunderstanding many of us educators have:  someone somewhere else has taught kids how to go about learning.  If you, like me, have not considered teaching students how to learn, you might pick up some interesting ideas here:

Reach out to colleagues.
You are not alone in trying to navigate virtual learning, or even a combination of virtual and face-to-face learning.  Your colleagues are going through this, too.

If you are stumped on something, odds are someone else is as stumped as you are. Work together to find a solution. Ask if someone else has figured it out.  If you have an idea that has seemed to work well, share it. 

Many U.S. teachers seem to be worried or nervous about working with other educators to plan lessons or to improve their teaching skills.  This is not so true in other countries.  

I don’t think this is teachers’ fault!  In fact, most of our schools are set up in ways that discourage teacher collaboration.  We work within four walls, the only adult surrounded by students.  We rarely get an opportunity to sound out other educators on the topic of teaching and teaching well.  This means we are constantly re-inventing the wheel.

John Hattie, the educational researcher, has said that teacher collective efficacy is the most important factor in student achievement.  In other words, teachers must share the belief that all students can learn, and work with each other to achieve that end.  (Here is more information on this:

Take care of yourself!
I do not have to tell you that teachers are stressed right now.  In fact, you probably just reacted with, “Ya think?” or “Duh!” 

Between a global pandemic, having to learn new ways to teach, district expectations, etc., etc., etc.  It is a whole lot like being tossed into the deep end of the pool while chained to a cement block and having people who are not in the water holler at you, “Just swim!”  No one seems to get it that you are barely able to get your nose out of the water, let alone swim.

You are important!

When that kind of stress happens, in any situation, we tend to neglect the very things that help us manage best:  taking care of ourselves.

Yes, I know it seems like we need 36 hours in the day to get it all done.  But when we are so overwhelmingly stressed we need to take care of ourselves first! 

So try to eat to get those necessary nutrients, drink lots of water, do some physical exercise, and try to get eight hours of sleep.

You are no good to yourself, your family, or the students if you do not take care of yourself.

YOU Matter: 5 Tips for Self-Care - NCCJ

Yes, this is easier said than done.  However we can refer to point 4 on this one, too.  Reach out to colleagues to find a partner that will nag you about taking care of yourself, and in turn, you nag them.  There is power in helping others help you to think about self-care. 

Global employment: What is the world employment rate? | News |

Above all, try to remember why you decided to become a teacher.  Think of your purpose beyond liking children or being in love with your subject. 

I will tell you why I think you are worth all of the above:  you are doing the most important work in the world.  It is through you that our society’s future, and our world’s future is shaped.  It is through you that future generations will be able to think, to innovate, and to influence the course of humanity!

For that, I salute you!

Understanding Micro-Aggression

“Kenisha . . . uh . . . Wash-ee-nay-tock?  Am I close?  No?  Let me spell it:  W, A, S, H, I, N, A, W, A, T, O, K.”  Laughing, the teacher continues, saying, “Well, you’ll just have to bear with me.  My mouth isn’t made for that.”

“You speak English very well.  Did you go through our ESL program?”

“My goodness!  It must take you for-EVER to braid your hair like that!”

“Jose, will you translate for your parents?”

Teachers rarely have malicious intent when they say or do something like the above.  Yet, any of these can offend a student.  These little slips are often meant kindly, or even said to cover up a teacher’s embarrassment, however, they convey something else to THAT student!

What are microaggressions? – Hive Learning | The collaborative ...

These little indignities are called micro-aggressions.  They are teeny tiny statements, questions, or behaviors that convey to another that their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality is “other”, not “normal”, or at least not mainstream.

For example:

  • “Kenisha . . . uh . . . Wash-ee-nay-tock?  Am I close?  No?  Let me spell it:  W, A, S, H, I, N, A, W, A, T, O, K.”  Laughing, the teacher continues, saying, “Well, you’ll just have to bear with me.  My mouth isn’t made for that.”
    • I heard this when working on a Native American reservation where most of the teachers were white.
  • “You speak English very well.  Did you go through our ESL program?”
    • An Asian-American told me about a teacher who asked him this.  He was born in the US, as were his parents.
  • “My goodness!  It must take you for-EVER to braid your hair like that!”
    • An African-American student told me that a teacher said this to her.
  • “Jose, will you translate for your parents?”
    • Jose replied, “My folks don’t speak much Spanish, if that is what you are talking about.  Our family has lived in the US for several generations.”

Often micro-aggressions use stereotypes to get across the message.  When I was a principal, I asked a teacher why she only had boys go to the cooler to get the class’ morning milk – a Wisconsin elementary school staple.  “They are used to doing the heavier work,” she said.  I reminded her that the boys in this case were six and seven years old, and two of them had to carry the milk crate between them anyway.  She thought about it a while and reluctantly agreed that maybe girls could carry the milk to the classroom.  She then followed up with, “Do you think it will make the girls . . . well, you know, odd or queer?”

I refrained from rolling my eyes.

These micro-aggressions take on a more sinister edge when the statement or behavior is about a person of color.  Even former president Barak Obama recalled walking down the street and hearing people in cars locking their doors, or being followed in a store, ostensibly to prevent a Black man from stealing something.

You may say, “I would never do that!”  That’s good, however, a friend who claims she is not a racist recently made a remark wondering how long “we” would be allowed to drink black coffee given “the state of the country right now”.  She did not seem to really understand what I was saying when I took exception.  It was quite the conversation stopper. 

Micro-aggressions may often seem fairly innocuous, yet they are not harmless.

Classroom Trauma Triggers And How to Avoid Them

Take humor.  Jokes are often used to tell the listener what is and is not acceptable in a particular group.  For example, some years ago it was common to tell “queer jokes”, jokes that made fun of homosexuals, transsexuals, or even drag queens.  The message to the listener was that if one identified him/herself with that group, s/he would be, at best, the butt of jokes and at worst rejected by the dominate group.  The mental violence of such jokes was so great that LGBTQ listeners, or those who were sympathetic, would laugh.  Why?  They laughed so they would not be classified in the group that was the butt of the joke.

Some of you may be thinking, “But LGBTQ people tell gay jokes, and they laugh.”  That can be true, too.  Yet, when such jokes are told by members of the non-dominant group, they create a kind of bonding.

For some members of a particular group, slurs will never be acceptable.  Yet, others may embrace a term to take the sting out of it, or to reclaim the term for themselves.  It is not, however, something that can be used by people who are not in that particular group.  No matter how lovingly said, no matter how much it is acceptable to members of the group, it is NOT okay for the dominant group.

One of the best lists of micro-aggressions I’ve read comes from the University of California at Santa Cruz.  It is based on Derald Sue Wing’s book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life:  Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.  One of the things I especially like about it is the column that states the message the particular comment or behavior conveys.  The link to that two page PDF file is here: and in the “Works Consulted” list at the end of this blog.

We are just about half-way through what would normally be summer break for teachers in the US.  I cannot think of a better time to examine our practices and make plans for adopting new ones.

Works Consulted

Part 2: Do We Really Believe All Students Matter?

During the past week, I have had friends declare on Facebook that they are reasonably intelligent, well-educated white women and yet they had never heard of Juneteeth before this year.  I confess I had not heard of it until two or three years ago myself.

One of the women asked, “When is public education policy going to enter the racism conversation? I’m angry at the things I was never taught in school and am learning now in my 40’s. I am horrified and embarrassed at my own ignorance.”

That ignorance is an example of how racism permeates the U.S. public school system.

Image from News Times article

Last week, I wrote about how the Pygmalion effect creates two distinct school environments for students that teachers unconsciously categorize as “capable” and “less capable”.  I listed student characteristics that contribute to teachers labeling students as “less capable”.  Having black or brown skin topped that list.

I stressed that teachers do this mental categorization unconsciously.  I believe that; yet whether or not the process is unconscious, it is part and parcel of implicit bias.

More information on the Pygmalion Effect and Black students can be found here:

Implicit bias is the term used for the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

Much of implicit bias comes out in the classroom in the form of “microagressions”.  Wikipedia and other online sources define “microagression” as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups “.

Interestingly enough, when doing the research for today’s blog, I found only one article that focused on microagressions in the K-12 classroom.  The rest of the information I found was generated by colleges and attempting to remove these from college classrooms.

Still the lists of sample microagressions are relevant to K-12 teachers!

I recommend the following resources to learn more about microagression and what to do about it:

Implicit bias in teacher behavior is one aspect of how educational experiences are different for white students and Black students in the same school.  There is a persistent gap in academic achievement between white and Black and minority students.  There is also a significant difference in how each group is disciplined.

In some studies on how students are disciplined, Black students, especially males, were ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled for their behavior.  Other studies report the figures as 10% to 16%. 

I submit that part of the reason why Black students receive more hash discipline in K-12 schools starts in the earliest years of schooling.  Children who are viewed as “less capable” by teachers, even though this may be unconscious, have appreciably different educational experiences than do those viewed as “capable”. 

These radically different educational experiences cannot help but affect how children view schooling and how they view their ability to acquire an education.  Immature people do not express their displeasure at how they feel in mature ways.  Instead, they lash out, act out, become sullen, restless, fidgety, and “cop an attitude”. 

I dare say adults would probably resort to being less than well-behaved if we were in similar circumstances.

If you would like to read more about the disparity between how Black and Brown students and white students are disciplined in school, I recommend these resources:

Historians and social studies teachers are likely to say, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

Another applicable quote is, “History is written by the victors.”  The origin of the quote is disputed, yet it points out a truth about the perspective of history taught in schools. 

Education within a society is geared towards producing upstanding citizens of that society.  This aspect of school curriculum was much more apparent during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Civics and social studies texts of that time unabashedly promoted the idea that U.S. citizens held certain values and rejected all forms of Communism.

We would like to think our curricula and social studies textbooks today are free of bias, but they are not.

Numerous studies have been done of who and what is examined in textbooks.  These began as early as the 1970s.  These studies showed that people of color were added to textbooks as sidebars, a bit of information that was set off from the rest of the text, and, as a result were often overlooked or skipped as unnecessary.  (Similar “inclusion” can be seen in science textbooks.)

One can only describe this method of inclusion as marginalization.  Literally!

Reading the content of textbooks gives more insight into how “history is written by the victors”.  Not too many years ago, McGraw Hill, a major textbook company, was righteously called on the carpet for describing enslaved humans as “workers” and the slave trade as “migration of workers” to “agricultural plantations”.

Name it and claim it - Comic Strip of the
Textbook labels enslaved people as “workers”

Labeled as outright racism, the textbook company said they would change their online books to more accurately reflect the slave trade, but the in-print books were already in circulation. 

I don’t know about your school district, but the ones in which I worked did not purchase social studies books very often, so I expect those books will be in circulation for some time!

Many schools do not use social studies or history textbooks.  They use multiple resources to meet their state standards.  These resources may be up to the teacher, or up to the curriculum director, or up to the state. 

Another example of history being written by the victors played out in Texas not too many years ago.  A very conservative person became the head of the Texas state level school board.  Under his direction, the state’s social studies curriculum was overhauled. 

The result was

  • Slavery and the slave trade were down-played.
  • The African-American diaspora or any events in history involving African Americans was not mentioned until the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Jim Crow laws and segregation were removed from information on the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was barely mentioned.

Those are just a few of the revisions to history this particular set of state standards made.

If you would like to learn more about how K-12 textbooks whitewash history, I suggest these resources:

So what does all this mean for Black and Brown students? 

One result is the academic achievement gap.  Another is what is referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.  You can read more about that at the Teaching Tolerance website:

The most recent statistics I could find show that 80% of the nation’s teachers are white.  Yet only 44% of K-12 students are reported as white.  This means that the majority of Black or minority children never have a teacher who looks like them.  Research on this phenomenon is very clear:  all students benefit when they have Black or minority teachers.

You can read more about that research here:

[Many factors influence recruitment of Black and minority teachers at the college level.  I won’t go into those in this blog at this time.]

All of the information I’ve touched upon has been the subject of many studies.  It all adds up to the fact that the current way we educate children helps perpetuate the marginalization of African-Americans and minorities.  In other words, our education system as it stands right now supports racism in the U.S.

What can an individual teacher do about it?

First of all, each teacher must search his/her heart and soul and recognize that we contribute to this!  It is not easy to do.  It is not fun.  But it is vitally necessary!

Second, we must address implicit bias, the Pygmalion Effect, and microagressions.  That can mean having some very uncomfortable conversations with our students, our colleagues, administration, and the community.  That takes bravery and a willingness to listen.  However, it takes brave souls to be teachers, so we can do it!

Third, we have to step up to be part curriculum teams.  We need to point out to students that textbooks don’t always get it right.  And we need to promote thinking in our students, not just memorization of facts and figures. 

I believe education is the most important activity in which a society engages because it shapes the future of that society and the world.  I believe educators are the most important part of education.  They can sit back and let others shape education for them, or they can stand up and help do the shaping.

We can do this!  We MUST do this!

Do We Really Believe All Students Matter?

I do not know any teacher who consciously discriminates against any student for any reason.  If you ask a teacher, she will say, “I treat all students well!  I want them all to learn!”

In my experience, this is true – all teachers believe they want all students to learn.

Despite this, there is a persistent achievement gap between Black and Brown students and Caucasian students. 

We know for a fact that there is no difference in the brains of people. One cannot tell if a brain comes from a person who is Black, Brown, white, male, or female. While there may be individual differences in a person’s ability to learn, that ability is not dictated by the color of the person’s skin or by the person’s gender.

So what is the issue?

We have known something that makes an astounding difference in the education and IQs of students since 1964.  It is called the Pygmalion Effect or the Rosenthal Effect after the Harvard researcher who “discovered” it.

Elisabeth Caren | Pygmalion And Galatea | 1

In Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor.  He crafted a sculpture of a woman that was so lifelike he yearned to make her his wife.  His belief in her reality was so great that Galatea, as he had named the sculpture, came to life.

What Rosenthal discovered was that when teachers believe children are capable, or even more capable than they have previously demonstrated, they blossom.  Further, the children’s tested IQ increase dramatically.  The greatest increases happened with the youngest children.  In fact, some of the first graders in his experiment increased their IQ by 27 points!

Sadly, the converse is true.  Students whose teachers believed they were less capable fell further and further behind.

This has been studied many times since the 1960s.  It has changed many things about education.  Teachers are taught they must have high expectations.   The coursework required of prospective teachers has increased dramatically as well.  The underlying purpose of these changes is to better prepare the prospective teachers for the classroom, and to ensure that they have the knowledge of subject matter needed to model those high expectations.

The problem is it is not teacher knowledge of subject matter that increases high expectations for students.  It is the teacher’s behavior.

I have listened to numerous teachers in three states talk about students.  None believed they had low expectations.  So how do I know they thought of some students as less capable than others?

Two People Talking Transparent , Free Transparent Clipart - ClipartKey

There are clues in what the educators said.  For example:

  • Her parents just don’t care.
  • He comes from serious poverty.
  • Her family doesn’t speak much English.
  • His home life is really chaotic.
  • She comes from a broken home.
  • He is my behavior student.
  • She is my learning disabled student.
  • We have a very high number of free and reduced lunch students.
  • This is a Title I school.

I have heard all of these statements offered as a reason why a student is not learning.

Yes, none of the situations above are fun, and they can affect students’ emotional well-being.  But they do not limit the ability of the student to learn.

Research has shown that teachers make unconscious decisions about the ability of students.  They categorize them as “capable” or “less capable”. 

The result is that the teacher treats students s/he thinks of more “capable” differently than s/he treats those s/he thinks of as less capable.

Here is a table that shows the behaviors:

Teacher Actions“Capable” Students“Less Capable” Students
Calling on studentsCalls on oftenCalls on less often even when has hand raised
Wait timeGives significantly more wait timeGives significantly less wait time
Types of questions askedTends to ask “thinking” questions; higher level thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy) questionsTends to ask “recall” type questions; lower level (Bloom’s Taxonomy) questions
Allowing correctionsWill prompt student if s/he is wrong Will allow student to correct him/herselfWill move on to another student if s/he is wrong
Praising studentsPraises student for academic-oriented behaviorsPraises student for compliance to classroom rules or procedures
Helping students who don’t understandAsks student prompting questions, for example:  “What do you do first?  Now, what do you do next?  How will you know . . .”Demonstrates how to do task
Does the problem for student (e.g. math)
Gives student answer
Greeting studentsGreets students by name Talks with students about interests and activities Tone of voice sincere, warmMay nod
May not say anything May use backhanded compliment (“I wondered if you’d show up today.”) Tone of voice neutral or sarcastic
Informal conversationsPauses to talk with student about interests or activities Listens to all of student’s storyPauses for conversation less often
Cuts student off Suggests student finish story later
Eye ContactMakes frequent eye contactRarely makes eye contact

In short, the teacher creates a warmer, more welcoming classroom climate for the students s/he has unconsciously categorized as capable, than s/he does for students in the “less capable” category.

Children Having Their Exam

Let me be very, very clear:  rarely, if ever, do teachers do any of this consciously!  Nonetheless, researchers have repeatedly observed teachers engaging in these behaviors. 

I have observed this myself in classrooms from elementary to high school – and in every single case, the teacher was one who worked hard at teaching, who focused on student learning, and who believed s/he treated every student equitably. However, s/he did not do what s/he thought s/he was doing.

Research has pointed out several factors that influence teacher’s thoughts about whether or not a student is capable or less capable. 

  • Having black or brown skin
  • Speaking a language other than English at home
  • Being labeled as having dyslexia or dyscalculia
  • Receiving Title I services
  • Having a 504 plan
  • Having a physical disability such as being hard of hearing
  • Wearing dirty or ill-fitting clothes
  • Having poor hygiene
  • Living in “that” part of town
  • Transferring from a rural or urban school to a suburban school, or an urban school in the “right” part of town
  • Being a member of a different religion or denomination than the majority of students
  • Being less mature than peers, for example, thumb-sucking or crying about hurt feelings
  • Being overweight
  • If male, being smaller than peers; if female, being larger than peers
  • Having parents who are divorced or who have never married
  • Having parents who work blue-collar or pink-collar jobs

If you are like me, about now you are thinking, “OMG!  Am I doing this?  What can I do to change this?”

When I first learned about this research, I looked at the list of behaviors and felt overwhelmed. I could not change everything all at once. So I thought about which behaviors I thought would most likely affect learning.  I decided to focus on how I asked questions.  I put a class list on a clip board and made a tally mark by each student’s name when I called on him/her.  I did this for each of my classes.  (I was teaching middle school at the time.)

It would have been undoubtedly better to ask a colleague to come in and do this kind of tally for me.  If you are in a school with an instructional coach, they may be just the person to help.

What I discovered was that I was calling on some students more often than others!  Worse, when I looked at who I was calling on, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, I asked so-and-so that question because I figured he could answer it.”  Yikes!

Popsicle Sticks and 'Hands Down' are not Cold Call: Key ...

I thought I might force myself to make changes if I had a system to randomly call on students.  I know some teachers use popsicle sticks for this.  However, I felt popsicle sticks had disadvantages.  First of all, the can with the sticks was not as portable as I wanted it to be.  Second, I’d seen some teachers who made a production out of choosing a stick so it was slow.  And last, popsicle sticks seemed too “little kid” for my big middle school students.

What I needed was something that was portable, fast, and would not be offensive to middle school students.

I decided to make a card for every student.  I cut 3”x5” index cards in half and wrote a student’s name on each card. 

At that point I realized that if I had only one card per student, the student was likely to listen only until his/her name came up.  Then s/he would tune out until everyone else was called upon.

I made another set of cards.  This meant that every class had a deck of cards, and every deck of cards had each class member’s name in it twice. 

I taught the students the procedure:

  • I will ask a question.
  • Do not raise your hands.
  • I will give wait time.
  • I will turn up a card.  That student will answer or say pass.
    • If the student says, “pass” his/her name is put into the middle of the deck so s/he knows s/he will be called on again soon.
    • If the student’s answer is wrong, s/he gets a chance to correct him/herself or the card goes into the middle of the deck.

I had my system.  It was portable – in fact it fit into the pocket of my pants or blazer.  I could shuffle the cards in front of the students so they knew I wasn’t targeting anyone.  I could turn up cards quickly.  I used humor with it so those delicate middle school egos were not bruised unduly.

(I enlisted the help of the classes to help make sure I was providing an equal amount of wait time.  But that’s another story!)

You may choose to address a different behavior.  I hope you will share those ideas here!

Teachers can make students think of learning as something worthy and attainable, or they can make students believe they are incapable of learning.  It is easy to do the latter.  We even do that without conscious thought!  It is more difficult to make sure that ALL think of learning as something they can do.  Yet educators can, and must make sure we do this for every single child.  Every.  Single,  Child.

Works Consulted

  • Katherine, Ellison. “Being Honest About the Pygmalion Effect.” Discover Magazine. October 28, 2015. (accessed June 15, 2020).
  • Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  • Sadkur, Myra, and David Sadkur. Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1994.
  • Spiegel, Alex. “Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform.” NPR. September 17, 2012. (accessed June 15, 2020).

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.

Agatha Trunchbull | Villains Wiki | Fandom

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?)
Screaming Royalty-free Cartoon Clip Art - Mother Yelling Cartoon ...
  • 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

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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.'”

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.

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

Image result for curriculum

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.

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.  ( )  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 ( ) 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.  ( )

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.  ( )  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:

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

We can help students learn executive functioning skills!