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.

Coping with Extreme and Violent Behavior

There are an increasing number of news articles, opinion pieces, and anecdotal evidence that students are becoming increasingly disrespectful, verbally and physically violent.  Many teachers I know have described teaching as becoming more and more difficult and exhausting.

A recent television news report described how teachers in Des Moines, Iowa, feel unsupported by administration and parents as they try to deal with children (grades K-12) who used foul language towards peers and teachers, and children who “lose it” so violently that the teacher must evacuate the rest of the class to the hallway while the student destroys the classroom.  https://whotv.com/2019/05/31/extreme-violent-student-behavior-pushing-iowa-teachers-to-breaking-point/

Extreme and Violent Student Behavior Pushing Iowa Teachers to the Breaking Point, WHO-TV, May 31, 2019

When I did an internet search on “violent children elementary”, I got thousands of hits, from almost every state in the US and from many countries world-wide.  Clearly this phenomenon is not isolated to Iowa, let alone the US. And it is not confined to elementary student either.

These articles offer dozens of ideas on why this behavior seems to be on the rise.  They suggest or lay the blame on many different reasons, like the following:

  • parents who raise their children too permissively,
  • teachers who do not know how to manage a classroom
  • colleges that do not prepare teachers properly
  • unmet physical or emotional needs,
  • integrating special needs children into the mainstream before they are ready,
  • too much “screen time” or exposure to violence through media and video games
  • a lack of free time to play
  • overwhelming boredom with and lack of engagement in school
  • experiencing childhood trauma,
  • social disrespect of teachers
  • a society that idolizes teaching as a calling and expects teachers to do it all without compensation or support
  • administration that is unable or unwilling to deal with disrespect or violence harshly enough
  • in Iowa, the law that says students may not be restrained or isolated even if they are having a violent episode unless it is to prevent them from hurting themselves or others
  • a lack of money for mental health services for students
  • a lack of social support for mental health services for young children

Probably for every proposed cause, there is another article refuting that reason and proposing another.

There are fewer, but many, opinion pieces written by parents that say that whatever the reasons, their child deserves an education free of the fear of violence, and an education uninterrupted by disrespectful and violent classmates.

There are dozens of articles examining the how and why on childhood violence and trauma published by the National Institutes of Health   You can see this list at https://search.nih.gov/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&affiliate=nih&query=violence+children&commit=Search

As many articles as we see on violence and disrespect, we see and equal number telling us

  • we need to engage students with media or interesting projects,
  • we need to keep students entertained
  • we need to teach social and emotional skills
  • we need to teach self-regulation skills
  • we need to make education relevant
  • we need to reward students who do the right thing
Teachers are Frustrated!

Whatever the causes or solutions, it is very difficult to hang on to the reasons why one became a teacher when one feels surrounded by chaos and are constantly struggling to keep control.  And the constantly changing initiatives to try to resolve the situation is liable to give a teacher whiplash.

There is often a kernel of truth in every article on the causes or solutions for extreme behavior and violence in the classroom. I have opinions on many of the proposed causes and on ways to confront these.  In addition, walking around in schools and observing in classrooms has shown me that there are classrooms where students appear to be better behaved than in others.  I also have opinions on the myriad of proposals to keep students interested in school and to keep them engaged enough to behave in ways that educators call “appropriate.”

What I would really like to know is this: 

  • What do teachers see as the difference between classrooms that are relatively better behaved than others?
  • What do teachers believe is the main cause of violence among school children in K-12?
  • What are the top three things teachers believe need to be done to turn this problem around?

Please comment or visit my Facebook page (Roe’s Rules:  Classroom Management for THAT Student) and join the discussion there.

Teaching School-Appropriate Behavior

When we work with children who use a dialect of English or who have a different home language, we teach those children to “code-switch”, changing from speaking in one’s home language in some circumstances and switching to another language in other circumstances.  We do not penalize the child.  We teach him/her when each language is appropriate.

The same principle is true for behavior.

Children come to school with many ideas about what is the best way to behave.  What is okay at Mindy’s house may be not okay at Henry’s house.  When these children do things that are not appropriate for school, we can blame the parents and deplore the behavior, or we can plan how to teach children what is acceptable at school.

When I was a principal, an eight year old boy was sent to my office.  I was on the phone, but he stormed in and threw himself into the visitor’s chair.  He began talking before I finished my phone conversation.  When I hung up, I interrupted him and said, “Charlie, I am going to show you the school way to come to my office.”  I showed him how to knock on the door frame and to wait until I said, “Come in.”  Then I had him practice doing that.  At first I stood by him and praised what he did right and then corrected any mistakes.  When he had that down pretty well, I sat at my desk and had him try the behavior on his own.  We high fived when he got it right.  Only then did I ask him why he was sent to the office.

The school counselor watched this with her mouth hanging open.  Later she told me that most of the teachers had given up on Charlie, believing he would never behave in the way they expected. 

Charlie was sent to the office many times during that school year, but he never forgot how to ask permission to come into the office.

I offer this story to show that kids can be taught exactly what to do in “the school way”.  Phrasing it in these terms takes away the idea that what children do at home is wrong and what we do at school is right.  That just makes children confused and parents alienated from the school system.  Instead we need to say It is just a different way to behave in a certain situation.  In other words, we are teaching the children to “code-switch” between a place where X behavior is appropriate and a place where Y behavior is expected.

It is difficult to do this at the end of the school year, but we can plan to teach children to code-switch their behavior at the beginning of the next school year.  Here is what to do:

  1. Make a list of the behaviors children seemed to have difficulty with in previous years and what you would rather the children do.
  2. Prioritize the list.  What behaviors are the most important ones?  By prioritizing your list, you will know what behavior procedures you need to teach in the first few days of school and which can be taught later on.
  3. Decide when to teach the behavior.  Something that is of paramount importance to you might need to be taught before you begin the process of handing out books or other beginning of the school year activities. 
  4. Decide how to teach the behavior.  If you can teach the behavior in the context of a subject area lesson, more power to you! 
    1. Explain the behavior.
    1. Model the behavior.  You may choose to first model a non-example.  If you do, model the expected behavior, then the non-example, then the expected behavior again.
    1. Have students practice the behavior.
    1. Reinforce verbally.
    1. Repeat steps A-D as needed.
  5. Remember to re-teach the expected behaviors regularly during the first couple of weeks.  Plan to remind students of the expected behavior after a long weekend or a school holiday.

Teaching children to code-switch their behavior between “home behavior” and “school behavior” saves wear and tear on our nerves.  The time we spend on teaching those behaviors up-front saves our stress level as the year goes on.  In addition, it helps kids understand what to do in a given situation at school instead of just telling them they are wrong.  Learning to “code-switch” behavior is a life skill worth cultivating.

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.

Apology

This past Monday I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
As of this writing, I have eleven more day in this sling, then four weeks of physical therapy. I am only able to write with one hand. I apologize for not writing a blog post. I will be back at it when I can use both hand again. You can see posts I share from other writers on my Facebook page, Roe’s Rules.

Is THAT Student a Perfectionist?

You’ve just introduced students to the idea of subtraction with regrouping.  You’ve put the students into small groups to work together to solve 5 problems.  Aaron has contorted himself around his chair and appears to be playing with something – whatever it is, he is not interacting with his group.  He spots you looking at him and he immediately asks if he can sharpen his pencils.  You gently say, “No, Aaron.  It is time to work with your group on the regrouping problems.”  Aaron pouts and crosses his arms in a huff.  Inwardly, you sigh.  You’ve seen this behavior over and over again.

One possible explanation for Aaron’s behavior is that he is a perfectionist. 

We often think of perfectionists as supremely confident individuals to whom most things seem to come easily.  We think of perfectionism as ultimately leading to success.  The truth is these stereotypes are rarely, if ever, true.

Perfectionists are often anxious and fearful.  They fear being seen as a failure.  These fears can manifest themselves in the classroom in many ways. 

  • Doesn’t take risks in learning
    This is the student to always seems to keep to the easier “stuff”.  He will choose books below his instructional reading level.  She will copy others’ creative or open-ended answers for fear of having a product or answer that is different from others.
  • Avoids tasks, especially challenging new work
    This is the student who seems to ask to use the bathroom whenever he is asked to do something new in a subject.  She regularly starts a different task or continues with a previous task instead of what she was asked to do.
  • Gives up easily
    This is the student who declares, “This is stupid” and gives up.  She huffs and pouts and becomes stubborn.
  • Is exceptionally slow when working
    This is the student who draws each letter in a sentence in slow motion.  She seems to take forever to get anything done.
  • Has a meltdown when mistakes are pointed out or when s/he makes a mistake
    This is the student who has us tiptoeing around telling him about what he got wrong because we are afraid he will throw a temper tantrum, or she will start shouting and overturning desks.
  • Uses diversionary tactics
    This is the student who tried to get you and the class off-task or off topic.  She will ask questions that have nothing to do with the subject at hand.  He knows what can get the teacher off on a different subject, telling stories, or reminiscing about something else.  When he is  successful, the lesson stalls and suddenly it is the end of the class period or it is time for a “special”.
  • Procrastinates
    The student avoids getting started on an assignment or project, or simply doesn’t hand something in.  She figures that if she doesn’t get started she won’t be up against the possibility of failure.  If he never handed anything in, he can say, “I could have done great on that, but it just wasn’t worth my time.”

Many students are often masters at hiding their perfectionism.  We think he can’t possibly be a perfectionist because he doesn’t dress or groom himself well, his desk or locker or backpack is a disaster area, his handwriting is sloppy, or he loses things with alarming regularity.  It fits with the stereotypes we have about perfectionists when we think a student cannot be a perfectionist because she is not “perfect” in every area of her life.  Yet perfectionists often seek “perfection” in only one or a few aspects of his/her life

How can you spot a perfectionist? 

  • Look for the behaviors above and watch for patterns in behavior.  Being slow at completing an assignment once can be attributed to having a bad day.  Twice might be a coincidence, but three times can be a pattern. 
  • Examine your own stereotypes about perfectionists.
  • Think about why a student might demonstrate a particular behavior in that particular time and in that particular place.  What is she attempting to get or avoid with the behavior.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “she just wants attention”.  Attention-getting behaviors quite often are far more complex than a simple bid for attention.  We have to ask ourselves why he wants that kind of attention at that particular moment.

What can I do if I think one or more of my students are perfectionists?

  • Model making mistakes
    When I first started teaching, I would be horrified if I made a mistake when students could see it.  I came to realize that often children do not have particularly good role models for making mistakes.  They may have adults in their lives who do not ever seem to make mistakes, or who use any or all of the coping strategies listed above.  It can be empowering for students to see an adult make mistakes without the world coming to an end.
  • Model how to recover from making mistakes.
    Showing students that you can laugh at your mistakes or that you can learn from them is a valuable lesson for them.  I used to tell students to carefully watch what I was writing on the board and to try to catch me in making a spelling mistake.  It provided an opportunity to apply phonics skills and kept students engaged, even if they were only engaged in seeing if I goofed.  When I student caught me in a spelling error, I would ask the student to spell the word for me while I corrected my mistake on the board.  Then I’d write his name on the board with a tally mark after it.  At the end of the lesson, or the day, or the week (it depended on the age of the students), I would ask everyone who caught me in a mistake to take a bow while the class gave them a round of applause.
  • Demonstrate thinking about how to learn from mistakes.
    Pretending to make a mistake when doing that subtraction with regrouping problem on the board, and thinking aloud about how to both recognize the mistake and how to learn from it helps students understand the process.  Try marking papers with the number correct over the number possible on the page.  For example, if there were 12 possible answers on an assignment and the student got 3 wrong, write 9/12 as the score rather than a percentage or a letter.  This puts the focus on what the student did right and not on what s/he did wrong.  Allow students to discuss with other students where they went wrong.  You can try putting them into small groups based on what they got wrong (Everyone who got sidetracked with problem 11 meet here) or in mixed groups to review each part of an assignment.  You can even have a discussion on what may have happened on a particular part of an assignment.  For example, “I noticed that about half the class had difficulty with ___.  Who will share with the class their strategy that helped them figure out what to do instead?”  This latter can only happen in a class where students have become comfortable with making and learning from errors.
  • Anticipate common errors and show students how to avoid those.
    Teachers can anticipate the ways that students will get new concepts wrong.  With the subtraction with regrouping example, we can predict that students will make these common errors. If we can anticipate that someone will likely make these mistakes we can incorporate that into our lesson.  For example, say, “A lot of times people get mixed up about how exactly to subtract with regrouping.  I’m going to write some mixed up problems on the board and I want you to try to figure out where I went wrong.  Now don’t get tricked!”
Did you spot the common subtraction errors? Check your work at the end of the blog!
  • Don’t get tricked vs. don’t make a mistake
    Mistakes are scary to many students, but avoiding getting tricked is a game.  When a teacher frames “mistakes” as trying to avoid getting tricked, it casts the possible mistake in the light of a puzzle.  Children who might react negatively to making a mistake often see puzzles as fun to do, and delight in outwitting the task or teacher.
  • Try to set aside our own perfectionist tendencies.
    Teachers are no different from other human beings.  There are many of us who are perfectionists, who fear making mistakes, and who see our own fallibility as something shameful.  We can convey those beliefs to students.  If we are more comfortable with making mistakes, we can convey that attitude as well. 

We often do not think of THAT student as a perfectionist yet that exact trait may be what makes THAT student do THAT.  We can look for the signs of perfectionism and create a class culture that helps students cope with being imperfect and learning from our imperfections.

What went wrong with those subtraction problems?

    null
  • 61 – 17 =  56:  The student subtracted the 1 from the 7, inverting the ones column.
  • 62 – 17 =  58:  The student added the ones column.
  • 62 – 17  = 54:  The student regrouped, subtracting 7 from 11, but did not write down the regrouping in the 10s column so he subtracted 10 from 60 instead of 10 from 50.
  • 62 – 17 = 52:  The student made the 1 a 10 and subtracted 7.
  • 62 – 17 = 1:    The student added 6+1 to get 7, and 1+7 to get 8.  She then subtracted the smaller number (7) from the larger number (8) to get 1.

Is THAT Student Depressed?


Photo by Mohamed Abdelgaffar from Pexels

Depression in children is tricky to diagnose.  Children who are depressed do not always have the same symptoms as adults.

The list of possible symptoms is long.  Here I am going to look at those we are most likely to see at school. 

Grouchy, crabby, or prickly and prone to anger
Some children act out when they are depressed.  They take offense at the littlest thing.  They grump and complain through the day, refusing to do this or that or becoming angry and shouting or saying something offensive.

Verbal outbursts or crying
The irritability can lead to children to talk back, blurt out, or even cry.  Often these behaviors seem to come out of the blue and finding the antecedent is difficult.

Distractible or Short Attention Span
Almost all children distract easily and children do not have the attention span of an adult.  One rule of thumb is that children usually have an attention span of their age in minutes.  That is, a five year old would have about a five minute ability to focus, a ten year old would have ten minutes, etc.  Children of any age must practice stamina to stick with an activity.  A depressed child may have an even shorter attention span, or an uneven one where s/he can be focused for X minutes today but only half that tomorrow.

Social Withdrawal
A depressed child may pull away from his/her usual friends.  S/he way stand on the sidelines during recess when s/he used to be actively engaged in kickball or swinging from the monkey bars.  When working in small groups, s/he may be quiet, apparently day-dreaming instead of joining in.

Sensitive to Rejection
A depressed child may seem to over-react when s/he feels rejected.  If a friend wants to play with someone else s/he may act out or cry.  If s/he gets a low score on a test, s/he may act as if it is the end of the world.  Things that other children are able shrug off seem to hit the depressed child like a ton of bricks.

Sometimes we pass these behaviors off as the child being immature for his/her age.  We may characterize him/her as “needy” or “moody”. 

Photo from Pexels

Of course, all children demonstrate these symptoms from time to time.  A child may be depressed if these behaviors persist.  This is where is careful record-keeping can help.

There are many ways to keep track of children’s behaviors.  Some teachers have a three ring binder with alphabet tabs and a sheet of paper for each child.  Others keep a card file box with a card for each child. 

I’m afraid those teachers are far more organized than I am.  I learned to have a file folder for each child.  I would jot down a thought or an observation about a child on any scrap of paper, date it and drop it into the file folder.  When it was time to talk to a parent or colleagues about the child, I would take out the file and organize the slips of paper into chronological order.  I could add to the information to expand on my chicken scratches.

You may have an entirely different system that works for you.  The important thing is to jot down the behaviors you observe so that you can report it as needed.

If we see a child who persistently shows the behaviors, or some of the behaviors above, we can say, “Kathryn seems to be depressed.”  We are not psychologists so we cannot diagnose, but we can express our concerns. 

If we see some of the symptoms above, we do have an obligation to report them to the child’s parent and to ask for assistance from the school counselor or behavior intervention team. 

Sadly, when I was a principal, I often saw children who seemed depressed who had gathered such a negative reputation that teachers labeled them as “bad”, “naughty”, or said the child didn’t care, or was doing this or that “because she just wants attention”.

Take a look at THAT student.  Try to look past the frustration that you feel about his/her behaviors.  Could s/he be depressed?  Sometimes even just considering that there is a cause for the behavior aside from seeking attention or trying to deliberately get under the teacher’s skin can change how we feel about THAT child.

Decades of Progress

International Women’s Day was March 8.  Contrary to what some commercials seem to say, it is not a day to wear pink ruffles and feel nurturing.  It was started in 1909 as a celebration of women’s rights, and a way to advocate for more rights.  The rights women agitated for at that time included being paid equal to men and the right to vote.

By 1900, women made up 75% of teachers.  High schools were not as common as grades 1-8.  Many schools had turned to female teachers in an effort to save money.  At that time, women could be paid a fraction of what a man was paid, and they could be expected to clean the school as well.

In many areas, a woman could receive a teaching permit by passing a series of tests.  In addition, she had to have people attest to her “deportment”, her behavior in the community.  She was expected to dress modestly, avoid spending time with men especially if there was no chaperone, attend church, and remain single.  She could be fired at the first hint of “immorality”.

I was not born in 1900 even though many of my students seemed to think I was a contemporary of Moses.  I have, however lived through some significant changes in education with regards to women’s rights.  In honor of International Women’s Day I would like to outline some of the changes I’ve seen during my lifetime.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that none of these changes came from above.  They were won by teachers fighting for those rights through their unions and, in some cases, through lawsuits.

When I was in high school, girls were required to wear dresses to school.  We can thank Mary Ann Tinker , her brother, and her parents for filing a lawsuit against the Des Moines Board of Education for changes to the dress code.  The Supreme Court’s ruling was the “students do no leave their Constitutional rights at the school house gate”. 

Mary Beth Tinker and her brother

This ruling affected many areas of schooling.  For example, I was not allowed to take a drafting class in high school because drafting was for boys only, and, according to the teacher, “Your short skirts would distract the boys.”  Girls were not allowed to take shop classes and boys did not take home economics classes.  In the latter, we girls were taught to sew, cook, clean, and care for children.  Shop and drafting classes were expected to teach boys skills they could use to get a job right out of high school. 

In Illinois, I was not allowed to do certain jobs or play sports because of what was called “protective legislation”.  That is, the state had passed laws that were supposedly designed to protect a woman’s smaller size and reproductive abilities.  In the grocery store where I worked, I was not allowed to stock shelves, a higher paying job than working the cash register, because it would have required lifting more than 25 pounds, the limit placed on women.  Playing sports would damage our ability to have babies, or so the lawmakers said.  We could watch Iowa girls playing basketball and softball on TV, but Illinois would not allow it.

It was not until I was out of high school, in 1972, that Title 9 was passed.  Among other things, Title 9 said that girls had to have equal opportunities for sports.  Girls did not have to have the exact same sports available to them, but they needed to have something so that there was balance.  For example, boys played football while girls played volleyball. 

Schools were supposed to provide equal amounts of money to each sport.  Some schools got around this requirement by using booster clubs to pay for “additional” expenses. 

It was not until 1974 that female teachers won the right to be visibly pregnant in the classroom.  Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, most school districts required women to stop teaching before the 4th month of pregnancy and to remain on leave until the child was a specified age.  Usually women were not guaranteed to be reinstated in the classroom.  Instead, they were supposedly given “given priority in reassignment to a position for which she is qualified”.  In other words, before the Supreme Court ruled on this, a woman had to quit teaching if she became pregnant and she couldn’t count on getting her job back again even with the required doctor’s certificate that she was healthy enough to work.

Newspaper article explaining the 1974 Supreme Court decision.

When I applied for my first job in 1978, I had several shocks. 

The first came during my first interview.  I met with the superintendent of schools.  There was no committee or model lesson to teach.  It was just the two of us with him asking questions and me nervously answering.  I needed this job to support my husband and me!  I was stunned when he asked me what kind of birth control I used.  I must have looked at him strangely because he explained that he didn’t want to hire someone who would be going on maternity leave right away.

Now, that question is considered illegal.  And he would not have asked it if I were not married.  Why?  Because an unmarried teacher was not allowed to be pregnant at all.

The latter situation was covered under what were called “morality clauses” in teaching contracts.  In these, signing the contract showed the teacher’s agreement to not do anything that was considered immoral by public standards of the time.  Immoral behavior could mean becoming a single mother, living with a man she was not married to, drinking or becoming drunk in public, or even public displays of affection.  It could mean wearing one’s skirts “too short”, or clothing that was too tight.  It could mean being gay, being arrested, taking part in political demonstrations, having an extramarital affair, or talking back to the principal.  In short, immorality could mean anything the school board said it meant.

Many teachers learned to live outside the school district, and to be very careful when in public.  Nonetheless, I received a reprimand from the Board during my first year as a principal in the 90s.  I was painting my office and needed some supply or other.  I ran out to WalMart wearing my paint-covered, grubby clothes.  This was not, the Board said, the way a principal behaved.

When researching for this blog post, I was surprised but not shocked to find that in many states even today teachers may be dismissed for not conforming to the community’s “morals”.

States (shown in red) with Education Laws that Include Morality Clauses

Dress codes continued to be strict for at least another decade after that embarrassing first interview.  Female teachers had to wear skirts or dresses, which meant wearing nylons and “appropriate” footwear.  Some places were so strict that I learned to take out three of my five earrings as having multiple ear piercings could be construed as too racy.  There was no getting away with other piercings, or visible tattoos.  And one could not wear denim except on very special occasions.  When I moved to a district that allowed women to wear “dress slacks”, I felt like I’d been given a marvelous gift!

A Fourth Grade Class in the 1960s

After I got divorced, I could not get insurance for my son through my work.  The policy was set up for singles or for families, and a mother and son were not considered a family.  Birth control was not paid for through my prescription drug coverage until we entered the 21st century!

We still have not achieved equal pay for teachers from PK to 12.  The gap is closing and is much narrower than when I first began teaching.  Back then we were told that elementary children are easy to work with and that to teach high school one needs more education.  Even then that argument didn’t hold much water.  To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had elementary teachers who got their teaching license after attending a two year school – the equivalent of an AA.  When I first became a principal, I had a couple of elementary teachers who had such degrees, but they were ready to retire.  Yes, high school teachers take more in-depth classes in a single subject, but elementary teachers take more classes in more subjects and more in-depth classes in pedagogy.  I think anyone would be hard pressed to try to argue one was a more difficult job than the other.

1984 United Federation of Teachers Newspaper Ads Advocating Increased Teacher Pay

Unions have helped a lot to achieve parity between the grade levels!

There is still a lot of difference between the pay principals at each level receive.  Women are still under-represented in administration, and because individual principals negotiate their contracts individually, they can still be offered less than a male counterpart.  In one district I was told that the brand new elementary principal would be receiving half again as much money as I was making even though I was working with a higher grade level and I had four years of experience.  I was told flat out that the difference was that I was a single woman and he had a family to support.  I don’t think anyone would be that blatant to say it so blatantly now.  At least I hope not.

Despite many advances, women are paid less than men in almost all areas.

Things have changed a lot for women since 1900, and I’ve only been around to see a fraction of those changes.  I haven’t even touched on things like women’s suffrage, the laws that finally allowed women to own property in their own right, being allowed to have a credit card in our name, or being allowed to prepare for any career we want. I haven’t mentioned the college professors who brushed women aside saying we were in college only to get our MRS (to get married). I haven’t mentioned the constant struggle women felt when it seemed everything in the world was against us. I’ve only brushed the surface with my little trip through educational changes.  I probably forgot a lot more of them!

I didn’t describe how difficult the struggles were to achieve those changes.  Just think about it:  It took the better part of a century to do this, and it has taken the last 50 years to make most of the changes I’ve described.  It would be very easy to lose the gains we’ve made.  Think of that when you listen to the news or when your local district negotiates its next contract or when your state contemplates making changes to education law.

Can You Change Mid-Year?

Winter weather has certainly disrupted schools here in the Midwest.  Our local school district has had 8 snow days so far and a friend whose school is a bit farther north has missed 12 days!  Teachers know this means more than simply missing almost two or almost three weeks of classes.  Missing school for any reason means that students of any age get out of step with our best laid classroom management plans. 

Even during a school year where there are no weather cancellations, students can get out of step.  Or a teacher can discover that something that sounded like such a good idea at the beginning of the school year just isn’t working the way s/he thought it would, or, worse, s/he realizes that she hasn’t followed that plan consistently.

What can a teacher do?  Is it ever okay to change the plan in the middle of the year?

The short answer is yes, although it is a bit more complicated than that.

The first thing to do is to determine if the problem is really the classroom management plan or if it is the number of days we’ve missed. 

Any time students are out of school can lead to students forgetting or getting out of practice with classroom procedures, routines, or expectations.  In fact, at the beginning of a school year, I recommend that teachers begin by going over expected procedures daily for the first week, then each Monday for a few weeks.  After that, it is a good idea to review after each school vacation, or after school cancelations. 

I can almost hear some readers saying, “Well, they should remember that!”  Maybe they should, but their brains are not as mature as the teacher’s adult brain is.  Remember, on average, our brains do not fully mature until age 26, so we cannot expect students to have the judgment that older adults have even if they look all grown up,

If you decide that the problem is not the amount of time that the students have been away from the classroom, then it is time to decide if the issue is consistency.

Educators know consistency is key to so much of what we do in the classroom!  It is very easy for a teacher to be inconsistent with a procedure!  It doesn’t make us bad people or poor teachers.  It just means we are human.  

If you’ve decided the procedure hasn’t had a fair chance to succeed because of inconsistency, the next step is to decide if you are inconsistent because you are just human, or if the problem is really that it doesn’t fit the class or you. 

If the problem is any reason other than really needing a new procedure, it is time to do the following:

  • Point out that X procedure hasn’t been being followed
    • Apologize if you have not been consistent
    • Blame the number of days out of school if that is the problem
  • Review the procedure, step-by-step
  • Have the class practice the procedure
    • If students practice it well, use praise and encouragement to reinforce it
    • If students do not do the procedure as planned, have them practice it again.

If the problem is that the procedure doesn’t fit your style, is too complicated, or just doesn’t work for any reason other than the above, then it is time to come up with a new procedure. 

It would be a good idea to ask the class, especially if they are older than kindergarten through second grade, for their input into planning the new procedure.  You can, of course, steer the class conversation to doing it in a particular way, but asking for input can mean that students have a greater buy-in for the procedure.

Teaching a procedure

The bottom line here is that, yes, you can change how you do things in the classroom at any time during the year.  You can pick back up procedures that have fallen by the wayside or you can create entirely new ways of doing things.  The main thing is to make sure you follow the three steps to teaching anything new:  teach, practice, and reinforce.