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.

Planning Ahead

The end of the school year is close at hand.  Teachers are trying to stay smiling while many feel they are at their wit’s end.  I don’t need to enumerate these end-of-the year stresses. 

Many teachers, on top of everything else, are already planning next year, thinking about what they can do differently.

Here are four things you can do now to plan for a better 2019-2020 school year:

  1. Plan how you will take care of yourself.  When the teacher takes the time to take care of herself, students as well as the teacher benefit.  Self-care could include better nutrition, regular exercise, and getting a full eight hours of sleep.  I know I used to think I simply did not have time to plan better meals, walk for a half hour, and try to get more sleep.  It always seemed like everything I did ate up any time I might use to cook, exercise or sleep.  What I discovered was that if I worked out for a half hour, I was more likely to sleep better, I was more likely to think about preparing veggies instead of loading up on carbs, and I had more energy to tackle whatever else needed to be done.  Really. 

    How can you force yourself to do these things?  I recently worked with a college student who was taking a class on how to be a personal trainer.  I showed up every day we were scheduled to meet, even though I frequently grumbled all the way there.  Why?  Because the student’s grade that was dependent, in part, on my showing up.  The lesson I learned:  find someone to whom you feel you are accountable.  This could be friend, a colleague, a spouse.  Schedule your time to meet to work on self-care.

    Use the summer to get into the habit so that it is easier to do when school starts up again.
  • Consider what procedures worked this year, which ones could be improved upon, and any procedures that might make your life easier in the fall.  Remember, procedures are the bedrock of managing a classroom.  Rules do not manage students and students often see rules as a dare.  They test us for days and weeks to see if they can get a consistent answer about whether or not we are serious about them.  In part, it is for that reason that I would rather teach in a school that had no rules and lots of procedures than in a school with a lot of rules and no procedures.

    It is all right to have procedures that benefit the teacher!  My students would tear pages out of spiral notebooks to turn in.  The “fringe” on the pages seemed to lock together irritating me no end.  The solution was to teach a new procedure.  I put a pair of scissors on a string next to a waste basket.  I showed the students how to cut down the “eye” of the spiral fringes, holding the papers over the waste basket to catch the resulting confetti.  Problem solved! 

    Think about what procedures might make your life easier in the classroom next year.
  • Think about ways to keep your enthusiasm for teaching alive and well.  If we are enthusiastic about teaching, that enthusiasm shows.  Students know which teachers are passionate about teaching, not just about the subject.  That passion is contagious.  The students catch it and our colleagues do, too.

    I always found that taking a class, whether or not it was for credit, and reading the required books or articles kept me on my toes.  Even when I didn’t take an actual class, joining others to talk about books, articles, videos, etc., helped me think of ways to keep my instructional craft fresh.   Lately I am apt to turn to social media to help me remember why I went into teaching in the first place.
  • Contemplate how you will find compassion for THAT student.  You know you will have someone in class that will fall into being THAT student.  It is inevitable.  Yet when we start thinking THAT student is purposely out to get us, or that s/he can’t learn or can’t behave, we begin treating him/her differently.  We don’t mean to, but we do. 

    I have used the “Ten good things about ___” strategy taught to me by another behavior disorders teacher.  That is, when I find myself thinking negative thoughts about THAT student, I sit down and try to list ten positive things about him/her.  If I can’t think of ten things, and I frequently can’t, I set myself the task of looking for positive things about him/her to round out my list.  Looking for good things, especially if I am planning on sharing that information with THAT student’s parent(s) helps me focus away from the negative.  I almost always find THAT student does something that I find amusing or endearing, some little thing I would not have noticed if I didn’t look at him/her with that in mind.

    What can you do to be more mindful of what is good, or interesting, or worthwhile about THAT student?  What can you do to view his/her behavior as clues to how to help him/her?  Planning strategies to look for ways to like THAT student can actually help you treat THAT student in ways that defuse his/her more irritating behavior.

Teaching is a far more difficult job than most people realize until they actually are teaching.  Planning now for a better next year can help smooth over some of the inevitable rough spots so we can focus more on the joy than the day-to-day difficulties we are sure to encounter.

The Solution is More Suspensions, Right?

I am taking a little break from writing about good rules and poor rules to address a concern I’ve heard frequently over the past several months.  What I’ve heard over and over again is people saying that the solution for chaotic schools is to get rid of those students who are disruptive so teachers can work with the students “who want to learn.”  These comments have come from those in education, and those outside of education. 

I want to start by saying that I can hear the frustration in the voices of those who express these ideas.  The teachers who say it are stressed and often bewildered by what is happening.  People outside of education are often saying this because it angers them that their loved ones have such a poor work environment, or are expressing nostalgia for the “good old days” when allegedly students behaved in school.

No matter what age one lived in, there have always been disruptive students in the schools.  Yes, we did deal with those students differently in the past.  They were often urged to drop out of school, even as young as in elementary school.  Their absence did make schools more peaceful, but at what cost?

In my grandparents, or even my parents time, it was possible for a person to be functionally illiterate and to still make a decent living for themselves and for their families.  There were factory jobs or manual labor jobs where one did not need to read, write, or do math at all, or not at a very high level.  That has changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century and even more so in the first decade of the 21st.


(Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morison, 2006)

Using figures from a PBS article describing an episode of Frontline called Dropout Nation  from 2012, we can see that even six years ago, the cost of dropping out of school is expensive, not just to the drop out but to society as well. 

  • The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241. . . That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate, and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
  • While the national unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent in August [of 2012], joblessness among those without a high school degree measured 12 percent. Among college graduates, it was 4.1 percent.
  • According to the Department of Education. Dropouts experienced a poverty rate of 30.8 percent, while those with at least a bachelor’s degree had a poverty rate of 13.5 percent.
  • Among dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, incarceration rates were a whopping 63 times higher than among college graduates, according to a study by researchers at Northeastern University
  • When compared to the typical high school graduate — a dropout will end up costing taxpayers an average of $292,000 over a lifetime due to the price tag associated with incarceration and other factors such as how much less they pay in taxes.  (Breslow, 2012)

These are dismal figures.  Worse, additional research shows that this “by the numbers” snapshot is getting darker, not better.

Confusing matters further, each state has set their own age where a student may drop out of school legally.

States vary in when they say a student can drop out of school legally.

Age for drop out varies.  This figure is in the individual states’ hands.  Most have set the legal age at 16.  However, fifteen states and the District of Columbia set the legal drop out age at 18.  Nine have set it at 17.  As of 2011, six states, including Iowa were debating raising the minimum dropout age to 18.  In other words, 38 states plus the District of Columbia have or are considering raising the age when a student can legally leave school.  (K12 Academics, 2011)

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, advocates for raising the legal dropout age to 21.  Why?  The NEA cites much of the above information and adds that a study done at MIT shows that more than a quarter of the students considering dropping out of school  stay in because  of compulsory attendance laws.  (National Education Association, 2012)

So we see that there is a high cost to the student and to society when young people drop out of school.  But that leads us to the next strand of this issue:  what is the connection between using in-school suspension, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and dropping out?

First we have to look at suspension and expulsion, why schools do and don’t use it.

In the aftermath of mass school shootings in the 1990s, new policies were put in place at the federal, state, and local levels regarding students bring guns or other weapons to school, and how we handled violent students.  These policies came to be called “zero tolerance” policies because any student who brought weapons to school or who were too violent were expected to be taken out of the school – we were to have no or zero tolerance for such behavior.

I was a school principal when “zero tolerance” became the buzzword in conversations about school discipline.  In districts all around mine and across the country, students were being suspended for “offenses” as small as bring a knife in their lunch box to cut up an apple, making their fingers into “guns” and having imaginary gun battles, and bringing their grandfather’s pocket knife to show and tell.  I believed that such a strict interpretation of the zero tolerance policies was absurd and I refused to suspend the kindergartener who brought that pocket knife to school, although I did keep it in my desk until his parents could come get it.  I was much more concerned with the intent behind the behavior than actually bringing the item to school or playing “cops and robbers”.  At that time, I often declared that if someone wanted to take me to court over it, I figured no judge would condemn me.  I still stand by that position.

Yet many did not and school suspensions and expulsions rose dramatically.  However, during the Obama administration, states and schools were sent a policy memo asking for a more moderate interpretation of the policy requirements.  Sadly, after the Parkland shooting, federal level law makers have called for a return to the literal interpretation of “zero tolerance” and for increasingly punitive responses to student behaviors.

We have had two decades to study the results of those zero tolerance policies and to see if they do indeed work.  The short answer is “No, they do not work.”  Why? 

A synthesis of a number of studies shows that schools that have high suspension rates demonstrate low academic performance rates for the school.  These performance rates are those measured by whatever academic assessment has been required by the state.  Additionally, studies of student attitudes show that schools that have a high number of suspensions have students and families who believe the school to be punitive instead of trying to help students and their families.  The students in the studies often cited the reason for a suspended student’s behavior as being rooted in institutional oppression based on race, creed, socioeconomic condition, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  These observations made the students less likely to view the school, its teachers and administrators as sympathetic to the needs of young people, and more likely to be unfair and arbitrary.  (Black, 2018)

In other words, the greater the number of suspensions and expulsions in a school, the more poorly the school did academically and in the perceptions of the students and their families.


(Maxwell, 2013)

Further, there is a direct correlation between suspension and the so-called school to prison pipeline.  In an article about the reasons why school punishments do not work, Marie Amaro cites an Australian study that found “students were 4.5 times more likely to engage in criminal activity when they were suspended” than when they were simply truant.  She further asks, “Jails are full of people who do not respond to the threat of incarceration so why do we think that loss of recess or suspension will change a student’s behaviour?”  (Amaro)

To be absolutely fair in this discussion, I must report that I was not the only administrator who disliked the zero tolerance policies and who did not always follow them.  However, often the reasons why school leaders did not follow them had to do with another punitive piece of legislation:  the 2000 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The ESEA has been around for nearly 60 years, and is renewed approximately every 10 years.  Each time it is revised, it is given a new name:  Goals 2000, Every Student Succeeds Act, or, in 2000, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The ESEA is currently called Every Student Succeeds Act and does away with many of the NCLB regulations — therefore, those who lay the blame for the problems in education on NCLB may need to look at the ESSA more closely.

NCLB was the first time that there were punitive measures against schools and districts that did not show “adequate yearly progress” in academic achievement, or in school behavior issues.  Under NCLB, schools that were deemed “persistently unsafe” were sanctioned in progressively harsher ways.  As a result, many school superintendents directed administrators to under-report acts of school violence, and to deal with, for example, fist-fights, without resorting to out-of-school suspensions. 

This institutional dishonesty resulted in some very interesting efforts to encourage young people to avoid violent behavior.  In one school district near the one where I worked, the middle school principal would fly a special flag outside of the school building on days when there were no fights.  Other schools adopted school-wide reward programs such as point and level systems that gave students rewards such as weekly movie afternoons if the student had earned enough points to be considered at the highest level of positive behavior.

Many schools seemed to jump onto the positive rewards bandwagon in an effort to encourage positive behavior.  We saw systems like “catch them being good” in which adults would give a tangible reward to students who did something positive.  We saw “Character Counts” programs in which students were expected to demonstrate one of the six pillars of ethical behavior, and in which students who did demonstrate those behaviors were given a tangible reward of some kind.

The common theme of these programs was to give students tangible rewards if they followed the rules and who were recognized by teachers and staff as “behaving”. 

I can almost hear readers saying, “What’s wrong with that?  That’s the opposite of punishing misbehavior, isn’t it?”

Well, yes, and no.

Yes, giving tangible rewards like movies, or extra recess, or special privileges, candy, treats, tickets, or whatever, is the opposite of punitive measures that seek to punish those who do not “behave”.  But the reality is that these programs do not work either.

We have known since the 1970s at least that giving a person a tangible reward actually decreases their enjoyment of that activity.  Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, summarizes these studies from an economics perspective.  (I highly recommend listening to or watching Pink’s TED Talk.)  But Pink is not the first person to call for end to “stickering students to death” as I used to call it.  Alfie Kohn has long been an outspoken champion of making schools less about rewards and more about learning. 

I’ve written about this phenomenon before, and I will repeat here:  promising treats, extra recesses, or other tangible rewards will not make students more successful.  It will not make students adopt the behaviors that are rewarded.  In fact, it will make students less likely to see the behavior or academics as something worthy to do, and more likely to make them see those things as means to an end.  They will do the minimum to get the maximum reward.  It will not make those students who are not rewarded envious enough of the reward to have them change their behavior on their own.  It does make students see the reward as handed out consistently to students based on something other than their behavior – for example, students perceive that athletes get rewards more often than non-athletes.  It can also result in the same phenomenon reported in Black article, that students see rewards and punishments being unfair and punitively applied to those who really need help.

Dr. Ruby Payne, quoted in an article about the effectiveness of punishment in schools, says that while teachers may see punishment and rewards as flip sides of the same problem, students do not.  She goes on to say that behaviorist theory that says to reward one behavior and punish another may work when one is observing rats in the laboratory, or training animals, but it doesn’t work so clearly with human beings.  (Morrison, 2014)

Rick Wormeli ,another “big name” in education, comes at this argument from the perspective of making meaningful changes in schools and from standards-based grading.  In one of his videos available on YouTube, he discusses the concept of make-up work and assessing students who fail to turn in homework.  In it he says, that students who raise their hands, sit down in their chairs, do work when we tell them to do it, do it, not from a fear of punishment, but from hope.  He says it is not about “you can get a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  No, it is about you can get a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.”  He advocates for making students “thirsty” and to do that they have to have hope.  (Stenhouse Publishers, 2010)

So how do we, as Rick Wormeli says, communicate hope to students? 

First, we have to change our perspective on what works and what does not work when talking about managing behavior.  All of the resources I consulted stated this:  We must reform how we manage student behavior, not with punishments or rewards, but by teaching students the behaviors we expect.

Harry and Rosemary Wong have advocated this approach for decades.  They say that if we just give rewards or apply negative consequences, we are applying discipline, we are not managing the classroom or the behavior.  They repeat over and over again that we must teach students what we expect them to do, not just with academics, but with behaviors as well.  (Wong, 2018)

Understand, this is not a quick or easy fix.  Many teachers have not received much instruction in classroom management.  They have been expected to simply acquire these skills by osmosis or some other process.  Those who were required to take a specific class in classroom management often did not really embrace the information.  They did what was expected of them, but continued to believe that punishment was the real way to change student behavior.  After all, the college students would say, they changed their behavior when their parents punished them.

This last is a misconception about how parents teach children about what to do in any given situation.  Parents teach children in several ways that do not include punishments.  They demonstrate what they want, using what we educators would call direct instruction.  They also employ indirect instruction by modeling expected behaviors – sometimes behaviors educators do not want to see in schools!  Parents have children practice the desired behaviors over and over again, primarily because parents have more opportunity to be with children – they are with children when they are not in school and during school vacations.  (I am using “parents” loosely, as meaning whomever stands in for parents, including those providing child care.)  In addition, parents are usually loved by children, and are far more important to the child than a teacher.

This latter part is especially true if the child has the perception that “the teacher doesn’t like me” or “the school is out to get me.”  This is the result of the negative side of the self-fulfilling prophesy, and of being both on the receiving end of school punishments or observing that these punishments are applied in a manner thee student sees as unfair.

I often hear, “By this age, students should know . . . “  Yes, they probably should know, but they have just demonstrated they do not know.  Or they may know what Ms. Jones down the hall means or expects but not what you mean by something or what you expect students to do.  It may be fine to just toss work onto Ms. Jones’ desk, but you want the work put neatly into a particular tray.  You must teach students how to do that!  It may be fine in Ms. Jones’ room to holler across the room, “Hey Teach!  I need some help here!”  It may not be okay with you, and if not, you must teach the desired behavior!

When we teach behaviors, we have to follow the formula we use when teaching how to find the area of a rectangle or the steps in the scientific principle:  teach, practice, reinforce, reteach, practice some more, and reinforce again.  Just saying do this or do that at the beginning of the year won’t help.  Expecting students to remember everything you expect when they’ve had 3 out of 5 days home with snow days, won’t help.  We must teach the behaviors, and review them when students have been away from school or in a situation where the expectations have been different for a while.  Review expectations after having a sub as well.  It doesn’t have to be a big, long review.  It can be as simple as, “In just a minute I’m going to ask if you all turned in your homework when you walked into the room.  Tell me what it is you are supposed to do when you turn in homework?  Jackie?  Yes, that is correct, we . . .”

Middle school and high school teachers often describe student behaviors that they find particularly difficult to change.  This can be true for a number of reasons. 

First, one of my personal rules is “the larger the kid, the larger the behavior.”  Behaviors that started out fairly small when the student was in kindergarten have compounded until they are “larger” by the time they are in 7th grade.  A kindergartener who throws a temper tantrum is more easily handled than a 7th grader who is nearly the height and weight of an adult. 

Second, as children get older, there are more opportunities for life experiences to leave a permanent mark or scar.  What may have made a child cry in 1st grade has become so deeply entrenched by 7th grade that it may have completely changed that student’s perspective on life, leaving him/her with chronic depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.  The 7th grader has had at least 8 years of school experiences, making re-learning or changing a behavior that much more difficult. 

Third, the peer group has become more and more important.  An early elementary student may do something just to have the teacher smile at him.  A 7th grader is much more likely to try to get other 7th graders to approve of his behavior.

Fourth, a 7th grader has had far more opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t work.  She may have learned that if she doesn’t like math, she can act like this or that and she will be sent out of the room.  He may have learned that if the lunch room is where he will be bullied, he can earn a detention and avoid the lunch room all together.  If she think that teachers are usually out to get her, she will see what the teacher does, not what the teacher intends, as reinforcing that belief. 

All of these are even more true of the high school student.

One obvious solution would be for specialized teachers to work with disruptive students.  I started out as a special education teacher, and that is what we were expected to accomplish.  However, I have worked in teacher preparation for 13 years and as a school principal and curriculum coordinator for 12.  In the last 15 years, I have seen a troubling trend in special education.  That is, these specialists are viewed as people to help students complete work assigned in “regular” classes rather than as having something to teach students separate from the “regular” classroom.  More recently I have seen this trend in states or in districts that have a near 100% “commitment” to the integration of special needs children into the regular classroom.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not advocating for a return to the bad old days when kids with special needs were hidden away in basement rooms and who never saw the rest of the school or their peers except in art, music, and PE classes.  (That latter is another story altogether.)  What I am saying is that students with special needs in learning disabilities and behavior disorders need to have specialized instruction in how to work with their different abilities.  The LD student needs to know how to use his/her strengths to help him/her learn.  The BD student needs to learn ways to better control his/her behavior before being out in the general population.  Both are areas of instruction that a teacher with a four year degree has had no time to learn.

In teaching a junior/senior class in classroom management, I was appalled to learn that the students knew nothing or next to nothing about working with ADD/ADHD students who do not necessarily qualify for and IEP, let alone knowing how to work with BD students, and nothing about oppositional defiant disorder let alone conduct disorders.  Yet they were expected to work with all of these children in the regular classroom often without support from a “push in” special education teacher.  Even worse in my eyes was that many were getting additional endorsements in special education besides their “regular” teaching license with almost no additional training. 

How can we expect any regular teacher with a four year degree to know what to do about students whose poor behavior has taken root for so many years?

Yes, these students can benefit, sometimes, from having an aide work with them.  However, few special education aides have any training whatsoever in working with these students.  And what do we expect when we pay them minimum wage for 30 hours a week or less so we can get by without providing health insurance? 

Neither is what is meant when we write an IEP that says a student needs an aide or when we say that s/he is eligible for specialized instruction.  Folks, that is exactly what it means when we say a student is eligible for an IEP!  We are saying the student needs specialized instruction from a teacher trained to work with his/her disability. 

Besides the lack of training, many teachers find that the special education teacher is bogged down with far too many students than s/he can teach effectively, even if s/he is only expected to help students complete work assigned by others. 

To be fair, those who set the school budget and who oversee the instructional program too often do not have much more training than the regular classroom teacher, and often that training came many more years ago.  School board members in many states do not need to have any particular level of education to qualify for the position.  They are elected on whether or not their campaign promises strike the voting population as needed or reasonable.  And few of the people in a community will vote to raise property taxes to improve school funding.

So we must understand that changing this situation will not bet a quick or easy fix. 

There are a few things a teacher can do to help improve the situation.  But it will not be a silver bullet!  And often, the best time to start these changes is at the beginning of the year.

What we can do:


Relationships 
Teachers can and must develop relationships with students.  It is not enough to develop a relationship with those students who follow the rules, complete homework, and are generally viewed as “the good kids.”  When we do this, we perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophesy.  Students live up or down to the teacher’s perceptions of them, even if the teacher does not consciously treat the students differently.

I recommend greeting students at the door of the classroom at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of each class period.  When I first heard of doing this, I was teaching science and saw the passing time between classes as the time when I could quickly set up equipment for the next class.  I had to revise how I structured my working day, arriving at school a bit earlier and setting up the equipment for the whole day, not just class period by class period.  I had to get over my initial feelings of how unfair this was to me, and to focus instead on the students.

I also recommend that teachers work to improve their relationship with students by improving their relationship with the students’ families.  Making positive phone calls home is the best way to do that as study after study has shown.  Families view a voicemail message as being much more personal than an email, especially when it appears the email is mass-generated.  And we still cannot guarantee that adult family members will use electronic media with any regularity!  I’ve written about ways to go about making positive parent contacts.  When I taught middle school I saw about 120 students a day, but I managed to usually meet my goal of contacting each student’s family by phone once per month.  It meant making about 6 phone calls per day.  I was always sure to have a quick thing to say, hoping for voicemail, but telling parents who actually answered the phone, “I have about 30 seconds to let you know this” so they would be more understanding if I had to cut the call short.

Although I do not have the article at my fingertips, I recall reading where a teacher would quietly some of the more problematic students as they entered the room, “I’m glad you are here today.  I’m planning on calling your mom (or aunt, or foster mom, etc.) today and telling her how you are doing in school so I’m going to be watching you closely today to be able to tell her something good.”  It sounded a bit like what I did as a principal.  I couldn’t hope to call every family about every one of the 500 children in the building each month, so I picked out those kids who had the worst reputations for behavior and focused on calling home each month with something positive about those students. 

I can say from experience as both a teacher, a principal, and parent that those positive phone calls work!

Use Praise and Encouragement, not Tangible Rewards
We know tangible rewards don’t work so don’t use them.  Yes, that is difficult when other teachers use them, but it can be done. 

When I am talking about praise and encouragement, I am not talking about saying, “Good job, Kathryn”.  That is not praise.  In fact, most students hear it as so much noise – think how Charlie Brown hears his teacher talking.  Others see that “good job” as something other kids hear but that they don’t – more ways we perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophesy.

Useful praise tells the receiver exactly what s/he is doing right and why.  Students cannot hope to replicate the behavior if they do not explicitly know what it is they are supposed to do!  Here is the formula for effective praise and encouragement:

  • Get the student’s attention – usually by saying their name quietly or by talking directly to the student
  • Tell the student what s/he has done that is right or praiseworthy.  For example, saying, “You were able to hold your tongue and not say something mean to Gloria when she knocked your books down.” 
  • Tell the student why that behavior is positive.  For example, “Remember how when you would yell at the other student, it was usually you that got into trouble?  By holding your tongue, you were able to avoid making the situation worse and having you get into trouble.”
  • If you can, acknowledge the effort the student made to do this thing.  For example, “I know it takes a lot of effort and self-control to do that.”
  • Then you can add words of praise like, “that was awesome”, or “good for you”, etc.

It is important that teachers make the praise about the students, not about the teacher.  Saying something like , “I like how you did this or that” is not effective because it makes the praise contingent upon what the teacher likes.  Students need to know that there is a goal larger than what a teacher likes or dislikes.  If it is just about what the teacher likes, we reinforce the perception that teachers are arbitrary and unfailr.

Use Restorative Justice Practices instead of Punishments
There are some very good articles about restorative justice practices found on the Edutopia website.  In a nutshell, restorative justice practices focus on helping students make up for what they have done, and learn from the situation rather than applying punishments.  Students do not learn from punishments because they are designed to make students fear the negative consequences of a particular behavior rather than learning an alternative to that behavior.

A case in point:  many schools use detentions and they do so because they believe students will want to avoid getting a detention.  This does not acknowledge that students often do not know how or what to do instead of the behavior that earned them a detention, that detention is often preferable to being with others at recess or in the lunch room, or that often older students have incorporated the idea of being “given” a detention with their personal identity.  (Note, in schools that do use detentions, never say you are “giving” a detention.  That again reinforces the idea that detentions are awarded in an arbitrary or punitive manner.  Instead, always talk about the student earning the detention or “In this school, that behavior means you must go to detention.”  Never make the behavior about what the teacher likes or dislikes!)

Too often we think that if this small negative consequence didn’t work then we just need something stronger to use as a deterrent.  Not so.  Less harsh penalties often have a greater effect on the student than the fear of a harsher one.  It is more effective to hold a student after class for a minute or so to talk with the teacher (keep it short!) than to threaten a detention. 

Don’t assume!  Teach the expected behavior!
I often hear, “By this age, students should know . . . “  Yes, they probably should know, but they have just demonstrated they do not know.  Or they may know what Ms. Jones down the hall means or expects but not what you mean by something or what you expect students to do.  It may be fine to just toss work onto Ms. Jones’ desk, but you want the work put neatly into a particular tray.  You must teach students how to do that!  It may be fine in Ms. Jones’ room to holler across the room, “Hey Teach!  I need some help here!”  It may not be okay with you, and if not, you must teach the desired behavior!

When we teach behaviors, we have to follow the formula we use when teaching how to find the area of a rectangle or the steps in the scientific principle:  teach, practice, reinforce, reteach, practice some more, and reinforce again.  Just saying do this or do that at the beginning of the year won’t help.  Expecting students to remember everything you expect when they’ve had 3 out of 5 days home with snow days, won’t help.  We must teach the behaviors, and review them when students have been away from school or in a situation where the expectations have been different for a while.  Review expectations after having a sub as well.  It doesn’t have to be a big, long review.  It can be as simple as, “In just a minute I’m going to ask if you all turned in your homework when you walked into the room.  Tell me what it is you are supposed to do when you turn in homework?  Jackie?  Yes, that is correct, we . . .”

Look for the Positives, not the Negatives
It is very important that teachers always focus on what kids are doing right, not what they are doing wrong.  That means recognizing and reinforcing when students take baby steps in the right direction.  We do that when we teach kids to do double digit multiplication.  We will say, “Yes, you got this part and this part right.  Now, what do you do next?”  Sadly, we forget that behavior is also something that is learned and changed incrementally.  When we look for positives, we are much more likely to see the student who is taking those baby steps in the right direction.  We are more likely to notice that student who didn’t yell at Gloria when she knocked his/her books on the floor.  We are more likely to get the behavior we want when we actually look for it!

I know this is much easier to say than to do.  It takes a true shift in perspective.  I used to make little notes to myself, usually in the form of a symbol, and put them where I would see them, just to remind myself to do this and not that.  For example, I would use symbols like these to remind myself to use the effective praise formula.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
We have to let students (and parents) know that we really like them.  We may not like something they did, but we like the person the student is.  We cannot do that unless we focus on the positive!

On a larger scale, there are things schools must do if they are going to turn things around, if the school is going to improve the experience of schooling.  It is not going to improve if schools and districts adopt policies that punish students rather than help educate students to live better lives.

Don’t expect that adopting any of the above will change things over night, or in a week, or even in a month.  Remember, most students have had too many years of negative school experience to overcome.  Indeed many of these recommendations work best if initiated at the beginning of a school year.  However, one can make improvements in our own lives as well as the lives of the students by even taking small steps.

Given that the school year is half way done, I would recommend doing the following:

  • Make positive phone calls home
  • Teach, practice, reinforce (and repeat) the expected behavior
  • Hate the sin but love the sinner

I know that I have not addressed all of the concerns expressed to me about this topic, but this blog post is twice the length of any other one I’ve done, so I will have to look at those areas in other posts.

Take a deep breath!  You can do this!

Works Cited
Amaro, M. (n.d.). Why Punishment is Ineffective Behavior Management. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from The Highly Effective Teacher: https://thehighlyeffectiveteacher.com/why-punishment-is-ineffective-behaviour-management/
Black, D. W. (2018, March 15). Zero tolerance discipline policies won’t fix school shootings. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from The Conversation: Adademic Rigor; Journalistic Flair: http://theconversation.com/zero-tolerance-discipline-policies-wont-fix-school-shootings-93399
Breslow, J. M. (2012, September 21). By the numbers: the cost of dropping out of high school. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from PBS: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/by-the-numbers-dropping-out-of-high-school/
Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (2006). The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from gatesfoundation.org: https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/TheSilentEpidemic3-06Final.pdf
K12 Academics. (2011). School Leaving Age. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from K12 Academics: https://www.k12academics.com/dropping-out/school-leaving-age
Maxwell, Z. (2013, November 27). The School-to-Prison Pipeline Is Targeting Your Child. Retrieved September 12, 2018, from Ebony: https://www.ebony.com/news/the-school-to-prison-pipeline-is-targeting-your-child-405/
Morrison, N. (2014, August 31). The Surprising Truth about Discipline in Schools. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/08/31/the-surprising-truth-about-discipline-in-schools/#5bdd6ec93f83
National Education Association. (2012). Raising Compulsory School Age Requirements: A Dropout Fix? (An NEA Policy Brief). Retrieved February 13, 2019, from National Education Association: http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/PB40raisingcompulsoryschoolage2012.pdf
Stenhouse Publishers. (2010, December 14). Rick Wormeli: Redos, Retakes, and Do-Overs, Part One. Retrieved February 16, 2019, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM-3PFfIfvI
Wexler, N. (2018, November 29). Why Graduation Rates Are Rising But Student Achievement Is Not. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2018/11/29/why-graduation-rates-are-rising-but-student-achievement-is-not/#271c02216a7f
Wong, H. a. (2018). The First Days of School: How to be an effective teacher 5e. Harry K. Wong Publications.

Special Education Students and General Education Teachers

A study released in May 2018 showed that the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities is “lagging”  (Heasley, 2018).  The study examined trends in having such students taught in regular education classes since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1976 through 2014.  IDEA requires that students with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive environment”, meaning that they should be placed in a regular education classroom as much as possible.

I’ve read several articles about this study and I’ve found that there seems to be some confusion about what the term “intellectual disability” means.  I won’t go into a complete definition here but the term is generally used to describe students who have problems with general mental abilities that affect functioning in two areas:  intellectual functioning (such as learning, problem solving, judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living).  Some of the articles included students with ADHD, receptive and expressive language issues, those with poor social skills, etc.

This got me to thinking about teachers and special education inclusion. 

I do not think there are any teachers who believe that inclusion is bad for students.  The majority would say that inclusion has real, tangible benefits both for the student with special needs and for the general population of PK-12 students.  On the other hand, there are many teachers who believe that they are not the best person to work with special needs students.  A person outside of education, would, I think be unlikely to understand why that is, and would probably cast those teachers in a negative light.

All teachers take a course or two about special needs students.  At the college where I taught, this class was a 100 level class meaning it was generally taken by freshmen.  Another course in assessment was required for elementary education majors; this course primarily focused on special education assessment but was also supposed to include assessments teachers might use for “regular education” students. 

I taught an upper level course on classroom management and I found that, almost without exception, these pre-service teachers had a limited view of special education and almost no understanding of various behavioral issues that a special education student might demonstrate.  To a student, none knew anything about specific behavior disorders.

This is not to condemn those who teach classes about exceptional learners.  Not by a long shot!  Understanding students with disabilities and what it means to work with these students in the general education classroom is simply too much for one, three credit hour class.  In addition, in my experience, few freshmen can fully grasp the topic.  It is not because freshmen are deficit in any way.  It is because they are usually quite young, 18-19 years old.  They are usually away from home for the first time and exploring how to be independent from their parents.  In addition, college learning differs significantly from PK-12 learning.  College students are expected to have the discipline to do most of the educating on their own – for every hour of credit, the student is expected to do two hours of work outside of what is happening in the classroom.  In other words, the college student is expected to be in charge of his/her learning whereas the high school teacher is expected to “make” students learn. 

This is a very difficult transition for many young people.

Those who major in special education may receive more specific training in working with students with special needs, but those teachers are the ones destined for the “special education classroom” and for collaborating with regular education teachers who are working with special needs students.

So why don’t colleges require students to take more classes where they learn more about working with special needs students? 

Have you looked at the requirements education majors must meet?  Where I taught education majors, the list of classes that met requirements for an elementary teacher meant that an elementary education major could not take any electives unless s/he wanted to add a semester or so onto his/her college time.  Few students want to do that.  As it is, elementary education majors often have to take 16 or 18 credit hours per semester even though 12 credit hours per semester is considered full time. 

Many college professionals recognize that education could easily become a 5 year degree, or even a 6 year degree if courses and field experiences were added to ensure that all of the education majors were adept at teaching their own subjects and special education.  I have heard of only a handful of colleges that have made this a requirement.  The thinking is that students will vote with their feet, avoiding the 5 year programs in favor of those who say they can get the student through the program in 4 years.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

There are many outside of education who believe that the regular education teacher receives significant support from the special education teacher.  The special education teacher is supposed to help that regular education teacher find accommodations to use to help the student with special needs meet the same expectations as the other students in the classroom, and with modifications if the special education student is expected to be held to a different standard.  Many believe the special education teacher will be working along side the regular education teacher, co-teaching and collaborating.  And, really, that’s the way it is supposed to be!  But how many sp. ed. teachers are really able to do that? 

Consider an elementary sp. ed. teacher.  States use a number of plans to determine how many students a sp. ed. teacher has on her caseload.  There are students with whom she simply consults with the regular education teacher, students who are expected to have the teacher or another trained professional working with them for a significant part of the day, and everything in between.

The sp. ed. teacher might have students in multiple classrooms who are supposed to be receiving services from a “trained professional” at the same time.  She has to create a schedule where she is in this classroom for this amount of time, and that classroom for a different amount of time.  She has to have the time during the day to meet with the general education teachers for collaboration.  She has to have time to administer alternate assessments for some students, and assessments with accommodations for other students.  She must write and update Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and report on students’ progress to various people.  She must work with the parents of the students, too.  And she is expected to direct para-professionals on what to do with the students with whom they work. 

This is probably not half of what most special education teachers have to accomplish.

Some districts hire aides or para-professionals to work with special education students on a one-to-one basis.  Many districts pay only minimum wage to these aides and keep them under 30 hours per week so that they are not considered full time and do not receive benefits.  As a result, few of the aides can truly be considered “trained professionals”.  Some states require special education aides to receive training, but this training varies.  It could be an online overview of special education, or it could be a few hours of face-to-face instruction through a college, tech school, or district led inservice training.  Few states require special education aides to have a baccalaureate, and few states require aids to receive a salary commensurate with that level of training.

In short, most sp. ed. teachers wish they could be cloned so that there was enough of them to go around.

What this means for the general education teacher is that s/he is expected to accommodate or modify lessons for the special needs students assigned to them, find alternative materials as needed, work with the students developing social skills, helping the students change negative behaviors, etc. 

I’m sure there are many, many regular education teachers who are delivering fantastic services to special needs students!  My point is that those wonderful regular education teachers often have to figure out how to do all of that often based on what they were supposed to have learned in one or two college classes.

Some school districts try to “fix” the problem by integrating students with IEPs into “specials” like art, music, and physical education.  I used to be an art teacher, and I used to be a special education teacher.  My training as an art teacher did little to help me understand how to accommodate or modify art activities for special education students.  Special subject teachers in general receive no more training in working with special needs students than any other “regular” teacher.

As a special educator, I worked primarily with students with behavior disorders (BD).  Out of that experience, I’ve seen that it is very difficult for a regular education teacher to work with a BD student and assure that the other students in the class are learning.  By definition, BD students have problems with their behavior and can disrupt a regular education class regularly.  Regular education teachers can become frustrated and resentful if they are expected to work with a BD student without intensive support.  That frustration and resentment is communicated to the students in very subtle ways, even when the teacher truly does not want to project that.  (See the blog posts about teacher attitude.)  I found it was to the BD student’s benefit to keep him/her in a special education classroom where we could work intensely on his/her behavior, and to slowly integrate the student into regular classes. 

It takes a teacher with super powers to provide for everything a special needs student needs to be successful academically!

My hat is off to those teachers and paraprofessionals who are working hard to provide the best educational opportunities for both the “regular” and the “special” student!

In my opinion, that is why so many students with IEPs are served in classrooms separate from their general education peers.  It is not ideal.  It is not the intent of the law. 

And that is why, in my opinion, why we do not see an 80% or better inclusion rate.

If we really want special education students to be included in the regular classroom 80% of the day or more, we need to provide supports for both the students and the teachers.  We need more special education teachers and more training for regular education teachers.  And most teachers would say they also need fewer students – smaller class sizes or caseloads.

Sadly, I suspect that the student mentioned at the beginning will spur state agencies and local school districts to boost the number of students in the regular education classroom.  I also suspect that there will be no requirement for additional training for teachers or paras.

If you are a special education teacher, please have some compassion and empathy for the regular education teacher.  Help him/her develop effective accommodations and modifications.

If you are a regular education teacher, work as closely as you can with the special education teacher and recognize that s/he is probably doing the best s/he can with all of the things s/he is expected to do.

I encourage all teachers to request more training in working with special needs students, and I encourage all teachers to seek out more information themselves.  Advocate for the students by advocating for more support and training for all of the adults who work with special needs kids.  Remember:  being positive about what you do, tends to get more results that telling people how bad your day is!  We catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The kids deserve it and so do you!

Take your advocacy a step further:  let your local school board know what you must do each day and how you do it.  Do this in a positive, informational way.  Help state and federal representatives know how the legal expectations for special needs children play out in the classroom. 

Let everyone know what the good things are that go on in your classroom and how students benefit from your dedication to the education all students. 

I hope I can do you a service by suggesting ways to work with THAT student in your classroom!


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It’s That Time of the Year!

It is that time of year again.  December.  The month when elementary teachers

  • Observe students that seem to gravitate to either eerily good or Grinch-like badness and sometimes both in a single day.
  • have to try to hush the kid who is bragging about there being no Santa Claus when she knows that another student fervently believes.
  • wish snowsuits could go on in 5 seconds or less and without teacher intervention
  • wish snowsuits came off in 5 seconds or less and without teacher intervention
  • dream they could take coffee intravenously
  • Ponder getting a long term sub so they can do the expected holiday things for their family AND for school
  • Secretly want Santa to lace the students’ drinking fountain with valium

I’ve seen new teachers go from chirping about how much they love Christmas to asking obsessively when the holiday break begins.  And I’ve watched the color drain out of their faces when they realize that the break is far shorter than the break they had during college.  Poor things.  Welcome to teaching!

All of the teachers I know talk about the stress that comes this time of year.  It doesn’t surprise  me.

Teaching at any time of the year is stressful.  And no wonder!  Having to constantly make decisions is stressful and teachers are estimated to, on average, make 1,500 decisions a day.  Having to constantly exert self-control is stressful, and teachers must keep tight self-control or they would be making sarcastic comments to students, snapping at parents, and telling insensitive supervisors where to go and what to do with it when they get there!  Teaching is one of the few professions where one cannot attend to bodily functions whenever one feels the need; teachers have to train themselves to go to the bathroom during prep time or recesses.  A 2017 survey reported by AFT says that teachers feel a lack of societal respect for a variety of reasons and feeling like one is being watched and judged constantly is another form of stress.

This is not mentioning the amount of paperwork, the long days, the constant pace of the school day, feeling like one is trying to teach more and more while the available time to teach it all has decreased . . . oh, and let’s not forget the day when you are starting a lesson you’ve planned so very carefully only to find that three kids are out with the flu, the internet is down so you can’t show the video clip and, oh NO!  Johnny just threw up on his desk.

Add to the generous amount of stress educators encounter on a daily basis to the stress many feel during the holidays and a teacher can feel like she is about to break in half.

So what’s a teacher to do?

I know you’ve heard this advice over and over again, and it is SO much easier to say it than do it:  You have to take care of yourself!  This means getting a reasonable amount of sleep at night, eating healthily, drinking enough water, and exercising.

I know it is easier said than done because I am struggling with doing those things myself.  I constantly wonder what I can do that will force me to choose wisely when it comes to food and will make me want to exercise despite the cold and early darkness and lack of will power.  One thing that was suggested to me was to put alarms into my phone reminding me to drink water or to get up and move.  I’m ready to try it!

Maybe we all can help each other?  Maybe we can approach another educator or school worker and ask him/her to be your school “mom”?  (You know, moms take care of everyone.  Who doesn’t need a mom to take care of us at school?)

I certainly am open to ideas on what and how to do these things!

The other thing we can do is this:  Create a “Why I Teach” file.  A WIT file is where you put those sweet notes kids periodically write to us, the email from that parent that said that nice thing, or even a photo of something good kids have done.  My WIT file has cards from kids and parents, notes from kids, emails with rather cryptic remarks that I’ve had to explain in the margin.  Your WIT file could have newspaper clippings, marvelous quotes from famous authors, funny cartoons.  It could be almost anything.  The idea is that you are collecting things that you can look through when you feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope.  It is a gift you give yourself for those times when you’d like to chuck the whole career out the window.

Most of the time I am fairly positive, but there have been times when the tongue-in-cheek newspaper clipping feels like it could happen and I have thought my WIT file was the only thing that could remind me of why I chose this profession.

There are a lot of people who will tell you that teachers make a difference.  But I’d like to echo Harry and Rosemary Wong when they say, “You ARE the difference!”

Take care of yourself, and take care of your fellow educators!  Have a good holiday!

 

Please share what you are doing to take care of yourself during this time of the year, and what you are doing to help take care of other educators.