Picture a circle on the center of a blank page. Along the circumference of the circle are six spokes, evenly spaced. If you were to write down one word for each of the spokes that defined who you are, what would you write?
For me, these words are: female, older sister, Chinese, Canadian, teacher, learner... These are important parts of my identity, they fundamentally shape who I am and how others view me, however, if I am not careful, they can also label me and lock me in. We all have assumptions about ourselves that can hinder us from reaching our true potential. To be more specific, I recently had a conversation with a good friend of mine who told me about an article she read that said the reason why many females are overqualified for their jobs are because women tend not to apply for a position if they feel they do not fulfill all the requirements, whereas males will if they feel they fit most of the criteria. I wondered how many opportunities I missed because I told myself I wasn't good enough to try.
I recently interviewed for a position that required teaching AP physics. With my measly, almost-two years of full time teaching, and zero experience with physics (or AP for that matter), I definitely did not think I had all the requirements for the job. But I thought about what my friend told me, and I said- to no one in particular- "Heck, what do I have to lose?" Lo and behold... I was stunned when I landed an interview... and even more amazed when they called me back for a second one.
If such a small shift in my thinking could have led to such a significant outcome, no doubt this can apply to all areas of life and learning as well. I am currently reading Mindset by Professor Carol Dweck. I wonder a lot about how I can help my students uncover the hidden assumptions they have about themselves in order to develop a growth mindset. We talked about what it means to have a fixed versus growth mindset at the beginning of the year and what that looked like for different people. We explored the nature of science and how important it is to acknowledge failure in science. We discussed our ideas about how success is like an iceberg; magnificent and grand on the outside, when in fact much of it is submerged and hidden below the surface. I try to make it real for my students and have them connect it to their own lives, but most of all I'm trying to build a classroom culture that enables them to feel safe taking risks, making mistakes, and to fearlessly embrace new challenges. I struggle with this every day. Sometimes I feel like I am making good headway, and other times I feel like I'm picking my students up by the feet and trudging them through the mud, shouting, "Come with me! There is a light at the end of the tunnel!!! Just keep moving!"
And with that last bit of imagery, I shall kindly remind myself that learning is a process, and that we each move on our own time.
When I think about Carol Dweck's research on mindset I am reminded of my grandfather, who, throughout all the years I have known him, has shown me in his own way that it is NEVER too late to learn a new skill or to grow your mind. When I was eight or nine, I remember grandpa practicing to get his truck driver's license. He had only been in Canada for a few years at that point, had never driven a truck before, did not have access to one, and was unable to take lessons, but that did not stop him. He took us out to Canadian Tire and bought a toy truck with remote controls. I remember watching him maneuver it around the carpet in his bedroom, studying it from different angles, gathering information about the spacing, and so on. He practiced like this diligently for days before his driving exam. Even I tired of watching the little truck move around in endless loops, turns, and parking maneuvers, but grandpa always aimed for perfection. This was the type of man my grandfather was.
I used to hate going to Chinese school on the weekends, but grandpa insisted that I persevere because he was afraid that I would lose my heritage and that my future children would forget their ancestry. This thought frightens me also. I never used to think learning Chinese was very important. I just knew how going to Chinese school made me feel - stupid and inadequate. It was like being sent to a correctional facility for not being born to the right circumstances. To hide my feelings of inadequacy I worked even harder to get good grades. I memorized difficult words, I practiced spelling them out over and over, and people told me how smart I was.
It wasn't until one day my grandpa said something to me that I finally was able to breathe. I didn't even know it then, but I was suffocating. I had been trapped by the need to prove how good I was, that I too could read and write, two things that seemed to come so effortlessly to others. I used to cry myself to sleep because it seemed that no matter how hard I tried or how much I worked at it, I would never be fluent in Chinese like my family. So, when grandpa said those words to me I knew the facade was up. I didn't have to pretend anymore. He said, "Even if you are not very smart or talented at something, with effort and practice we can make up for the things we lack. This is me, your grandfather." And then he said, "You and I, we are both hard workers, no?" I will never know what prompted grandpa to say those words to me, but I just know that when he did, at that very moment, I felt true clarity and a huge sense of relief. It didn't matter that I wasn't great at something, what mattered was that I tried.
Angela Duckworth is an American psychologist whose work is dedicated to helping kids succeed (you can read more about her here or watch her TED talk here). Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance provides a summary of her own research and related findings on grit and it's reliability as a predictor for future success. The last chapters also include insights on parenting grit and examples for how teachers can create a classroom environment that supports grit.
As evident in the title of her book, Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. It is reminiscent of Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset, the idea that your skills and abilities are not fixed, but can be developed over time. The message of grit is similar to one that my grandfather has often repeated, "I might not be smart, but I know how to work hard" - that is, hard work exceeds talent. With effort-ful and deliberate practice, we can all acquire the skills we need to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.
Duckworth's research has been mentioned in Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed (see my blog post here) which in large is what compelled me to learn more about her work. Of particular interest to me is how I can use this information to better inform my classroom practices as an educator. Throughout my reading I made some observations and reflections, which I share below.
The 'Fragile Perfects' and Creating a Classroom Culture of Error
The term "fragile perfects" was coined by Duckworth to describe those who have yet to experience failure in a particular area, like straight-A students who have yet to receive a failing grade before they reach university. "Fragile perfects" are most at risk to be lacking in grit in their adult life. In order to develop grit and resilience, however, opportunities must first arise that demand it. While I do not believe it is within our scope as teachers to intentionally help our students fail, I do believe, however, that setting high standards* and creating a classroom culture of error can go a long way in fostering grittier students.
(*still trying to figure out exactly what this means)
First, it is important that each student is adequately challenged in the classroom. When basketball coach Ken Carter (made famous by Samuel L. Jackson's portrayal in the movie Coach Carter) benched his entire team for their low academic performance, he was met with anger. "Basketball is the only positive thing these kids have in their lives," many teachers and parents argued, "If you take that away from them, they have nothing." But therein lies the problem, Carter asserted. If we hold our students to low standards, we box them in and we send the message that they aren't capable of doing more. Carter had higher aspirations; he believed that every one of his students could go to college. Rather than relenting to public opinion, Carter fought to continue the lockout despite protestations from his community. Playing basketball, like learning, is a privilege that needs to be earned. As teachers, we need to resist allowing students to fall into passive learning modes and refuse to accept anything less than their best. One of my favourite quotes from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov is, "The reward for a correct answer, is a harder question." I think that as teachers we need to send the message that great success demands a high level of challenge and rigor, and that everybody is capable of success so long as they are willing to put in the work.
Next, it is important to show students that perfection and being right is not as important as the ability to bounce back from failure. Creating a classroom culture of error means that teachers need to be conscious of how we react when we make mistakes in the classroom. Do we get flustered and embarrassed, or do we say, "Oh it seems I've made an error somewhere, let me try again"? How we respond to incorrect responses and the words we choose when praise students also matters. Do we praise on intelligence or effort? "You're so smart!" sends a different message than "I like the way you kept trying to rework the question even though you didn't get it right the first time." Adequate challenge, a culture of error, and specific praise all make a difference in creating situations in which students gain more confidence taking on increasingly more difficult challenges.
One approach to prioritizing goals in your life is to create a list of all the things you want to accomplish, and organize them according to their goal hierarchies. It's easy to say, "I want to be an all star baseball player," but it doesn't always work out that way. In the short term, you might be praised for your ambition towards this higher level goal. However, simply having a high level goal without any mid or low level goals to support it is just an empty goal. Aligning your goals into one goal hierarchy that supports a higher level goal looks something like this:
"Pitching . . . determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I'm awake. It determines how I spend my life when I'm not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can't get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too . . . Pitching is what makes me happy. I've devoted my life to it . . . I'm happy when I pitch well so I only do things that help me be happy." - Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver in Grit
Generally speaking, we are not all that extreme. Nor are we all fortunate enough to have realized what our passions in life are. As a teacher, I think it's important to realize that most of us only see our students in the classroom context. We cannot force our students to enjoy learning science or math, but we can share the joy of learning and help students develop the skills needed to accomplish their personal goals. I admit, most of my students will probably never have to use advanced trigonometry ever again in their lives, but it doesn't mean that they shouldn't learn advanced trigonometry. In learning content that is difficult and challenging, students inevitably hit a brick wall. It's what they do in those moments of difficulty that is most defining. Whether they give up or persevere can either set them on a path for future failures or successes. Thus, I believe that the value of content is its ability to drive skills development in order to help learners become proficient citizens of the 21st century.
Developing An Interest - Play, Passion, and Purpose
The importance of discovering and developing one's interest is a topic explored in depth throughout the book. Is it true that the more you are interested in something, the harder you'll work at it? Or is the opposite true: the more you do something, the more interested you'll become? Duckworth contends that there is a third, more important consideration - do you find your work meaningful? To illustrate her point, she recounts the tale of the three bricklayers:
“There were three bricklayers. Each one of them was asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The first one said, 'I’m laying bricks.' The second said, 'I’m building a church.' The third one said, 'I’m building the house of God.' The first one has a job, the second a career, and the third a calling. "
Duckworth's insights are not groundbreaking or new. Time and time again, we are told to follow our passions and that if we are able to do what we love, not a single day of it will feel like work. Yet how does one develop a sense of purpose? I noticed an interesting parallel between Duckworth's ideas about developing and interest, and Tony Wagner's beliefs about fostering innovation in today's youth. According to Wagner, play, passion and purpose are forces that drive young innovators. Both Duckworth and Wagner emphasize the importance of a childhood of unstructured play and supportive parents who give their children permission to pursue their interests and develop their passions. As a classroom teacher, the most powerful tool I can provide my students is choice. In giving them room to explore a variety of topics that interest them, I can hopefully pave the way to helping learners develop a lifelong purpose.
I would recommend this book to any educator, administrator or parent looking to foster a culture of grit in the classroom, workplace, or in their children. In education, there seems to be an increasing trend in emphasizing the development of positive character traits (e.g. grit, resilience, optimism...etc.) rather than intelligence, which is well supported by the points made in this book. Also, I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and stories which helped make the research findings more relate-able. Moving forward, I'd like to adapt some of the ideas in this book into my classroom teaching. Specifically, I want to open conversations with my students about growing grit and developing a growth mindset. I hope that these conversations will be the spark needed to set students on a path to continued self-improvement.
Duckworth, Angela. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Simon & Schuster.
So I've been reading a lot recently. Nothing new there. The most recent title being How children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Tough explains the science and psychology behind the power of character and how it is a more accurate predictor of future success (in academics, health, family relationships...etc.) than IQ or socioeconomic status. This then got me thinking about my own character and how it has informed my thinking and my decisions; my experience in schools and how well my teachers prepared me for the Real World; and lastly, it got me thinking a whole lot about chess.
From the young age of 8, I had learned enough to know that I was not gifted, nor did I possess any special talent for the subjects like English, Math, and Science, which are valued by our school curriculum. I only needed one standardized test to figure out that in my teachers' eyes, I was not considered special. I remember feeling overlooked as some of my peers were exclusively "selected" for specialized gifted programs. I now realize how misplaced those feelings were. At the time I was considered an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner (the acronym now more adequately replaced by ELL for 'English Language Learner), which meant that my reading and comprehension levels hindered me from performing at my true ability. Secondly, even if my English skills allowed me to perform at grade level, who is to say the test could accurately predict my academic achievement anyway? Maybe 8-year-old me was not able to comprehend the severity of the tests and the bearing it would have to my future academic success. Or perhaps I was bored and just began filling out bubbles at random because I couldn't read the damn questions anyway.
Somehow, I managed to pull myself out from "struggling ESL student" status to "straight A student" by the time middle school rolled around. That was a transformative period in my life for me, because that was when I consciously attained what researcher Carol Dweck refers to as "growth mindset," the belief that intelligence is malleable. I was able to experience firsthand that hard work and dedication could get you the results you wanted, which in my case was good grades. My obsession to prove myself in school, however, led to a complication later down the road - a loss of creativity and independence. The school system is set up in such a way that only certain students are seen as "good" - those who conform to the school rules, listen to adults, follow instructions, and can memorize facts for a test. Not to say that these traits are not valued, but it was not until high school that I encountered teachers who really pushed me to think critically and creativity. To put it bluntly, teachers liked me because I was easy to teach. Oftentimes, I find myself looking for the same traits in my students as a teacher, but those are not the only qualities I wish to value in my future classroom.
So, what is this thing about chess anyway?
Reading about chess coach Elizabeth Spiegel and her students at IS 318 in Brooklyn was kind of . . . awesome. And inspiring. Not knowing much about the chess culture myself, I found it fascinating the amount of rigor in which Spiegel and her students put into their work, and also the incredible amount of strategy involved in the game itself. I mean, I always knew chess was a game of strategy, but I never really gave it much thought until now. I am probably the worse kind of chess player out there, only thinking about my own moves one step at a time, moving pieces with no real motives or reasons to do so, and seldom stopping to analyze my opponents tactics. Personally, when I play games, I prefer those that require minimal mental effort. Yet, I am also a little envious of Spiegel and her students, and disappointed at my own lack of determination. But what I am determined to do, is apply the same amount of determination and rigor into my own teaching, and I think blogging is a good place for me to start.
In his book, Tough poses a question that I often ask myself, Is it better to be a little interested in a lot of things (like I tend to be), or a lot interested in one thing (like Spiegel)? For Spiegel, the answer is obvious. Being deeply dedicated to one pursuit allows full immersion and to understand what it is like to be passionate about something, an "optimal experience" by the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Optimal experiences are "those rare moments in human existence when a person feels free of mundane distractions, in control of his fate, totally engaged by the moment (136)." I wonder, how many people can say they have had experiences like that, and better yet, how many are able to set themselves up to have more of those experiences?
I am a newly certified teacher. And while I've still got the energy, patience, and starry-eyed optimism, I know that I have to confront the reality that this overly optimistic attitude will not last forever. Over the years, I have met a lot of well-meaning teachers who, despite still wanting the best for their students, have become bitter at their jobs and their students. While I accept that there will be days when I too, will feel like calling it quits, I do not want that to be a forever-feeling. I am aware that as a first year teacher I will be investing a lot of time and energy into my practice; developing lessons, reviewing material, creating assessments... the list goes on. Therefore, I need to find ways to channel my time and energy wisely early on to avoid burnout and to keep myself motivated throughout my first year (and of course the years to come). Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn R. Jackson is an excellent read for both new and experienced teachers that breaks down the seven most essential principles of great teaching into its individual components.
The seven principles of great teaching are as follows:
Simple, right? With the exception of maybe the last principle, all of these are straightforward and should come at no surprise. Any teacher will be able to tell you why adhering to these principles is important. But what does it mean to start where your students are? How does one demonstrate this principle in practice? Moreover, how many educators purposefully act out these principles and regularly reflect on them?
To become a master teacher, Jackson asserts, is to develop a master teacher's mindset. Many teachers attend workshops, conferences, and events to hear about the latest fads and techniques. They apply them to their classrooms, and can end up with disappointing results. I admit, I am guilty of this myself. The first step is to focus on the why rather than the what or the how. Strategies only work inasmuch as you believe in them, and only if they align with your own principles of teaching. Jackson writes,"... [What] separates master teachers from the rest of us is that master teachers learned how to use the principles effectively, and rigorously apply these principles to their teaching. In fact, these principles have become such an integral part of their teaching that master teachers no longer have to consciously think about them. Applying these principles have become a natural response to students' needs" (5).
Below, I list a five of my top take-away points from the book.
#1. Understand the currencies you and your students are spending and use them to help your students acquire classroom capital.
Knowing your students is not just about learning your students names or playing get-to-know-you games. There are some things you cannot learn about your students just by playing two truths and a lie or getting them to fill out an information sheet. This is not to say that these activities should be stopped, but I think it is important to remember that there is much more to each student than what they choose to present themselves as in class. Remember back in the day when you used to think teachers lived at school and how surprised you were when you ran into one at the grocery store? Well, it's kind of like that. It's easy to slap labels on a student and call them "lazy," "trouble-maker," or "class clown," especially when we rarely get to see them outside the context of our own classrooms.
Jackson encourages us to think in terms of "currencies." What currencies do you value in your classroom? For instance, an ideal student to me is one who shows up to class on time, is inquisitive, polite, asks for help when needed, and has good learning skills like initiative, teamwork, self-regulation...etc. But let's be real - most students come to class with their own set of currencies, and those may not be congruous with the ones you choose to accept. A good starting point is to become aware of what currencies you value, and what currencies your students are spending. Then, look for ways to bridge the disconnection either by helping students acquire classroom currency, altering your own, or rewarding students in the currency they value.
#2. Unpack curriculum standards BEFORE you start looking for activities and worksheets for a lesson.
It wasn't until reading this section of the book that I had realized I had been approaching lesson planning all wrong. In attempts to speed through the process of lesson planning, I spent countless hours after school searching up activities, creating worksheets, and making SmartBoard or PowerPoint presentations that explained a particular concept that was related to the unit I was teaching. Looking back, this was a very scattered and disoriented approach; it was partly driven by the fact that I had limited control over the unit planning as a student teacher, and partly because of my limited knowledge and experience. To put it crudely, my approach to lesson planning was more "How can I best fill up this 70 minute period?" rather than "What is the best way to teach X topic so that my students can meet the curriculum standards?"
The best way to begin is to unpack curriculum standards. Read through each curriculum expectation and decide if it is asking for content or process mastery (e.g. "Describe the characteristics of a quadratic function" v. "Find the roots of the function"). There may be other implicit content or process knowledge required to achieve a certain goal. Jackson suggests breaking each of the goals down by mapping out a detailed trajectory to achieving mastery and identifying checkpoints along the way.
#3. Your expectations say more about your own sense of efficacy than your students' abilities (84).
Wow. Just think about that for a minute. High expectations does not mean making a course more challenging. It is not just about believing in your students' abilities to do well. Jackson's mathematical analogy for what an expectation is is so beautiful I will repeat it here:
In mathematics, an expectation is the probability of an occurrence multiplied by the value of that occurrence. In other words, expectation is comprised of your belief that something is true, and how much value you assign to it. Thus, having high expectations for your students means believing that you have the ability to handle it, and that you think it is important to do so (82). (The Stockdale paradox also serves a relevant point here).
#4. Show students how to fail.
Some may call me perceptive, empathetic, and caring, but at times, these are just euphemisms for "she likes to tip-toe around students' feelings." I don't like watching students struggle, and it's hard for me not to step in and support them. I want to see them through to the end. I want to make sure they "get it." But sometimes, you just have to let them struggle in order for them to see the value in learning from their mistakes. I'm getting better at this the more I teach, but my weakness is definitely helping students who have math anxiety. It stresses me out to think that such a wonderful subject can cause so much panic.
To show that you value incorrect contributions, it is important not to shut down incorrect answers because then you just run the risk of playing "guess what the teacher is thinking" (a horrible way to learn I might add). Instead, if a student gives an incorrect answer, you could respond by saying something like, "Thank you! That is a wonderful non-example."
#5. Never work harder than your students.
This requires that you have a clear understanding of your responsibilities versus what
your students' responsibilities are. For instance, our duties are to:
1. Be well-prepared to teach.
2. Determine what will be taught and to what degree; what behaviors you expect students to demonstrate as they are learning; what procedures you and the students will use to learn it; what products students will produce; and at what point the lesson will close.
3. Provide clear instructions and explanations of the material and ensure that students understand the criteria.
4. Clearly communicate, model, and enforce behaviour expectations.
5. Demonstrate enthusiasm for subject matter and for students.
6. Establish structures and supports so students can access the material.
7. Assess student progress, adjust instruction based on the feedback, and share feedback with students.
It is not our job to solve our students problems. Remember that we cannot control our students, but we can influence them by showing them how to manage their own behaviour.
Hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave your questions and comments below.
Jackson, R.R. (2009). Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
I love books. I love the smell of them - of new books in particular. Sometimes, if I can't decide two books I really want, I will give them each a good sniff and see which one gives off a nicer aroma.
While I was at Queen's University I worked at the Education Library where I got to sample hundreds of children's books, resource books, guide books, and books about teaching. It wasn't until summer of last year that I really fell in love with nonfiction. In the past, I had always been a fan of fiction (fantasy, historical fiction, action/adventure, sci-fi...etc.) because reading that I could travel to different worlds, meet new people, and have adventures of my own all in the comfort of my cozy little reading nook. I read a quote somewhere that went something like this, "if you don't like reading, then you haven't found the right book," and I think there is much truth to that. After finishing The End of Molasses Classes, I was hooked.
At first, my journey into the nonfiction world had began as pure information gathering. I wanted strategies and ideas on how I can improve my own teaching practice. Soon, this knowledge would be amalgamated into my own professional knowledge and teaching philosophy. I eventually experienced a hunger and a thirst for reading nonfiction that I was all too happy to satisfy. The more I read, the more questions I had, which led, of course, to more books. A tip: Always befriend the librarian, because she will have the most up-to-date information about the latest books and will be sure to give you a good recommendation.
Some books I read this past year:
You will notice that many of these titles are directly related to the teaching profession, and I highly recommend all of them. Two of them (i.e. Creativity Inc, and Outliers), I read out of pure interest, but found indirect ties to my teaching practice nonetheless. Creativity Inc, for instance, is about Ed Catmull's journey to building an animation empire (Pixar Animation) held up by pillars of creativity, joyous storytelling, and "emotional authenticity." His building an empire, and teachers leading a classroom are more or less analogous, if not the same thing. In teaching, I think it is also beneficial to draw from sources of inspiration outside the realm of education because it broadens your thinking and opens your mind up to more possibilities. Otherwise, you run the risk of stagnating and taking up the "my way or highway" mentality, which I actively try to avoid.
Officially an Ontario Certified Teacher (OCT), I now have access to the Margaret Wilson Library, which is a library dedicated to all the certified teachers of Ontario. So naturally, the first thing I did after I finally received my membership was order a book! More on this later.
For anyone who works with children, we often are made aware of the burdens they have to bear, but in many instances we will never know. We will never have an awareness of the pain they are feeling and the struggles they have to endure. What we can do, however, is love them and see them as individuals we care about and respect. I often stop to ask myself, "How would I want another teacher to handle this situation if she were dealing with my own child? -- Ron Clark
I recently finished reading The End of Molasses Classes by Ron Clark, and in all honesty, I wept like a child. This book not only contains wonderful tips and suggestions for teachers, parents, and schools, but Ron also shares many inspiring stories with readers about his struggles and successes as a teacher. I have to give it to him -- this guy is bold. The enthusiasm and energy he brings to his classroom are way beyond my expectations for the ideal teacher. The best part about reading his book was that even though several of the solutions he proposes may seem otherworldly and unrealistic within the public school system (due to financial costs, or lack of teacher collaboration), the philosophy behind each one of them is one and the same -- love your students and love what you do. Moreover, he offers less extravagant alternatives that allows teachers to obtain the same results. Below, I have paraphrased the top ten tips that resonated most with me.
1. Wait. "...if I have called on a student, it becomes that student's opportunity and that student's moment" (201).
I've often noticed during peer presentations or with new teachers, the speaker will usually ask a question, and upon not receiving immediate feedback, they will proceed to answer the question themselves. This is a huge pet peeve of mine because if you are going to take the time to ask your audience a question, you should expect your audience to attempt an answer. Or, how often do we see teachers pick on a student for an answer, and when the student is silent, or answers, "I don't know," the teacher will usually move on to another student? As Ron points out, this promotes the wrong message, because you are essentially giving up on that first student.
If a student doesn't have an answer immediately, wait. Don't let other students come to the rescue. Instead, guide the student and do what you can to help him or her achieve the answer, but DO NOT simply give it to them.
2. Use class cheers to help students uplift each other. A simple way to do this is to get students to clap for their peers whenever they accomplish a difficult task like giving a great answer to a question, or achieving above 80% on their last test. Your tone of voice should be enough to signal to students when it is appropriate to clap and when it is not. Not only does this help create a positive classroom atmosphere, it gives students an outlet to release any pent up energy.
To up this another notch, teachers can also divide the class into "house teams" and get students to come up with their own house cheers when completing group tasks or assignments. Or, teachers can also teach class chants that help motivate them when encountering a difficult problem. For instance, Ron might say, "This question is hard. Have y'all got this?" And students will respond:
We're doing fine
We're gonna shine
Now throw your hands up in the sky!
We're gonna keep trying
Adding those lines
Now throw your hands up in the sky! (206).
[To the tune of "Good Life" by Kanye West]
3. Turn a difficult lesson into a song. Whether you're trying to teach students to remember the order of operations, the chronological order of all the prime ministers of Canada, or definitions of difficult words, you can always put it to the tune of a popular song! Students can have fun while learning, and they can even create their own dance moves!
4. Not every child deserves a cookie, but when they do, give them all the praise in the world. Don't reward mediocre work. If a student produces a wonderful display of all the stages of life of a flowering plant, but say forgets to include labels in their diagram as a part of their assignment, that student should not receive a passing grade. I myself struggle with this idea because as a new teacher, garnering points for "like-ability" seem to be very important. But that's a selfish goal; I'm there to push students and help them reach their full potential. I recognize that not every child is going to like me, and maybe I'll get called a "hard-ass" every once in a while. If every child in my classroom likes me 100% of the time than I am probably doing something wrong.
5. Show parents how to help their child study. Both parents and teachers are on the same team, but more often than not they can seem like competing forces. Parents will argue on behalf of their child, teachers will call parents out for being unreasonable, and quickly the child is forgotten. One way to develop a meaningful relationship with parents is to show them how to help their children prepare for an upcoming test. Ron Clark gives the example of giving parents "paper gold"-- practice tests about ten pages long that have questions similar to what will be on the test the following week. He will then give each parent an answer key, "and many of them look as if I just handed them a million dollars," he writes. Under each problem Ron will write out exactly how he got to the solution, so that "it enables the parents to have the power and knowledge to become their child's tutor, even if they aren't good at math or whatever subject that is being tested" (256).
6. Dress professional. This one is important. Look sharp and be professional, because let's face it -- teaching is a professional career!
7. Set the bar high. What about students who are struggling with below grade level work? Personally, I don't have much expertise in the manner, but I agree that setting expectations to meet the standards of your highest performing students rather than catering to the class average achieves two things: 1) The lower-achieving students benefit from working in a motivated and academically challenging environment, 2) You prevent the higher-achieving students from becoming bored and inattentive.
8. Expect more from your colleagues too. Share ideas and challenge your colleagues to be innovative with their lessons. If they come to you with an idea, and you think that they are capable of doing better, you should tell them so! A simple "You can do better" can really push teachers to excel, vamp up the energy and quality of work of the entire staff.
9. Make field trips meaningful. If you're planning on taking your students to the zoo, have them do research on the types of animals they are going to see. Incorporate this into a math lesson by researching the prices of food and snacks there and have them do worksheets dealing with taxes and percentages. By preparing and planning for trips ahead of time, you can help make learning fun!
10. See the potential in every child. "When we raise our children, we need to remind ourselves that they will become what they see in them." (155)
I've always loved to draw, and when I was younger, I had dreams about becoming an artist. I didn't care about the money I would make or whether people would like my art, I just knew that it made me happy. "You're going to starve as an artist," I remember my mom telling me. Lo and behold, I am no longer pursuing my childhood dream. Other examples of this type of behavior we see in parents include comments like, "You keep a messy room!" "Your writing skills are so horrible" "You're no good at math." These ideas are subsequently molded into the mindset of children and can quickly become unwanted cases of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ron offers us a neat solution, "next time your child exhibits a behavior you'd like to see repeated, such as holding a door for you or offering to help bring in the groceries, say to him, 'You always make sure to hold the door for me. I can always count on you for that"' (156).
Ron, if you're reading this -- thank you.
Clark, Ron. The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck --101 Extraordinary Solutions. Toronto: Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book.
Teacher, Friend, Adventurer. (Not necessarily in that order)