Week 4: Being an Island, Staying Connected

Week 4: Being an Island, Staying Connected

I make a commitment to be as honest as possible in each of these posts – I really do believe that half-truths in teaching cause as much trouble as lies. Honesty is the same thing as integrity, and both those things make life simpler and more valuable.

The current political climate is bad for integrity. (If anyone is reading this 5 years later, or something, Trump was just elected.) People are angry, sad, confused, and they will be that way off and on for a long time. This leads to an extremely divisive society, and for some teachers who have felt this way at work, you know how much of your soul can be sucked away by that kind of climate. So it is as good a time as any to talk about not being an island.

Unlike classroom discipline tips, the advice to stay connected to other people in order to not get buried in work is prevalent. So what can I add to the party? Perhaps just a comment on leaving work at work. Early in my teaching years I was the kind of teacher who thought every activity outside of work had to be in some way connected to work, meaning that I spent most evenings at school competitions and events or volunteering for school clubs and community events. This approach does help a new teacher get to know the community they have chosen to join, and may help stave off miscommunication with parents down the road. However, for any teacher, too much time at “work” will make you go crazy (you may find yourself at your computer, typing the same sentence over and over, until you crack and stagger out into a snowstorm…you know what I mean?)

I recently met with a friend who just began their first year of teaching – they have joined the noble ranks of the teaching profession. This means that we were able to have a moment of telepathic understanding about teacher life. The moment was this: that you can easily be an overwhelmed zombie during the week, and on the weekend, you remember that you are an interesting person with a great personality and lots of friends. Where does that person go during the school week?

So, leave work at work. Do not live, eat, and breathe your job. The proof that this is important comes from teachers who are leaving the profession because they feel as though they can’t keep up – one is linked below in the extra resources. Staying connected to yourself is as important as connecting with friends, co-workers, and the community. And when John Donne said that “no man is an island” I do not think he meant only that everyone needs help, or that it is impossible to hide from society. I think he also meant that no man is an island inside – everyone is multi-faceted. Think about the fact that Mr. Donne was born in 1572 – math teachers, how long has staying connected been an issue?no-man-is-an-island-dwight

The other main point about staying connected regards how connected you are. Sadly, going out with fellow teachers on Friday night to drink and vent is not as helpful as we would like! You still wake up on Saturday with the same problems as last week. Here’s the hard part – opening up and getting help with your teaching; letting others know you are serious about improving. And why is this tough? See Week 2: Learning to Trust.

In a nutshell (or in a coconut shell carried here by a European or African swallow):

  1. Remember who you are outside of your job.
  2. Connect with others as honestly as you do socially.

Next week! I’ll introduce myself a bit more! In the meantime, share your tips about what works for you in order to stay connected to others and yourself!


Connect with these amazing sources:

What can you do in order to balance your life and learn from this teacher’s experience?http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/schools/a-teacher-speaks-out-im-effectively-being-forced-out-of-a-career-that-i-wanted-to-love-9695706.html

Need to smile right now? Check out Bored Teacher: https://boredteachers.com/blogs/the-faculty-room

Your local library! Singles or couples groups! Gyms! Pottery classes! Community music! Nonprofit volunteering!


Week 3: Why Discipline is Dangerous

As with any other skill, some teachers have a natural talent for relating to students. They quickly develop a rapport that is both professional and friendly, and leads to a very effective teacher/student relationship. They are respected, even by 13-year-olds, and they have an empathy with every student. Let me be incredibly clear – I am SO JEALOUS of these people. If you are one of these majorly cool people, you may as well stop reading and go help someone less fortunate. PLEASE.

Before digging into the problems faced by everyone else; I want to mention the common idea that people who were “bad” students make “good” teachers, because they know where the troublemakers are coming from, in their hearts and souls. You know what, it’s actually true! If, like me, you were one of those students who stayed up until 2 a.m. making sure your Science poster was perfect, you have no frame of reference for students who just don’t turn in their homework. You can’t fathom anyone not giving 110% to get a 100% grade. “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” you say. Unfortunately, you just limited the teaching jobs where you will be happy to 0.01% – those are the universities that have a zero tolerance policy for late work. (made up statistic)


Here’s your discussion question for the week:

  1. In your undergraduate teacher preparation program, did you ever have a class on classroom discipline? Sounds a bit like making a plan to make a plan…but think about this honestly. How much does your success and happiness as a teacher depend on classroom discipline, and how much time did you spend in your degree on classroom discipline?

My answer: 90% of my success and happiness, and 1% of my degree program. WHOA. So those of us without the natural talent, we’ve got a steep learning curve.

Now the most useful part of this post – the examples! And yes, they are all true.

  1. A student draws swear words on the walls of the classroom.
  2. A student constantly talks out of turn in class.
  3. A student challenges you on every idea you present to the class.
  4. A student violently threatens the teacher.

Here’s the good news: there is no one right way to deal with these discipline issues. And here’s the bad news: there is no one right way to deal with these discipline issues. This is why discipline is dangerous – you can dig yourself a big hole with one bad decision. Losing it and yelling in class, while not a problem you can’t recover from, is a BIG PROBLEM.

The more different schools you work at, the more disciplinary policies you will see. Some schools use a reflective process, where a student doesn’t “get in trouble” so much as they are asked to “reflect on their actions.” Some schools play baseball: 3 strikes and the student is out. Some try to combine the positive and negative: award or point systems, give and take away. Let’s see what happens with our examples:

  1. The kid who loves inappropriate language sits with the school counselor for a while and writes a report about why he/she felt the need to decorate the classroom.
  2. The chatty kid loses all their points. They earn no special privileges. They keep talking in class.
  3. Hey, the argumentative student obviously wants all eyes on him/her. They earn a strike, a visit to the principal, a call home to parents, or the teacher develops their own system in class of responding to the student’s commentary. Messy.
  4. Suspension. Does it help? Unlikely.

Sometimes, a reprimand or word of encouragement will work. The students know the rules, and on the days when the rules don’t chafe too badly, they will listen to the teacher. But just as often, we hit those brick walls as represented above.

So if you are now clamoring for the BIG SECRET TO DEALING WITH TROUBLEMAKERS, here it is! Two things: patience and kindness. Why? Because if the student knows you are on their side, they will come around. If your behavior is above reproach, a truly argumentative student runs out of ammunition. And if you are patient with each and every student, no matter what, you will have a place to stand on when the principal and the parents come to call. Why is discipline dangerous? Because continuous patience is HARD. If you can do it though, it you build a zen kindness that becomes as natural as breathing and can be applied every day:

  1. No reaction is sometimes the best reaction. Clean up any writing on the walls with the student, at a prearranged time.
  2. Meet the extra talking with silence. The student knows immediately from the silent look what your goal is.
  3. Treat the student as an adult. Admit that other points of view exist. Do not argue back. The other students in class can see the situation as well as you, after all.
  4. Probably the most difficult situation, and it does mandate a referral to the counselor, the principal, and the parents. Stay out of the student’s way while you arrange for someone from the main office to come escort the student out of your classroom. Depending on the severity of the situation, a friend may be able to walk them to the office.

We can’t solve discipline issues overnight, even if they keep us awake. We can’t get close to talking about everything to do with discipline – that is why every third week of every month of this blog will have a discipline-related topic. Teachers have to reach a different level of what it means to be a “good human” and sometimes all you can do is practice. Meanwhile:

Useful Book! Classroom Management for Art, Music, and PE Teachers by Michael Linsin

The Basics! http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/cte/ncteb-classmang.pdf

Videotaping Yourself! http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2011/01/19/the-best-posts-articles-about-videotaping-teachers-in-the-classroom/


Have your own classroom discipline stories or strategies? Your comments and stories are more than welcome!

Next week! “Being an Island: Staying Connected”

Week 2: Learning to Trust

Trusting the people you work with is more difficult in a teaching position than you might think. Job security is also different in a teaching profession. Finally, while teachers are not necessarily competitive, they are human. Check out the following scenarios and imagine how you would feel or react:

  1. One of your students tells you that you aren’t as nice as another teacher in the school.
  2. An administrator has gone to one of your coworkers and asked them questions about how you are “working out” for the department.
  3. You are having trouble with a student (homework is not turned in, causing interruptions in class) and the student’s parents tell you that you are the only teacher who thinks their daughter/son is a bad student.

These scenarios are not unusual. In fact, they all occurred for me in one week of teaching. But these are the types of incidents that make it hard to establish trusting relationships with coworkers. They are the types of incidents that can escalate quickly and make your life far more miserable than it should be. Read on for the trust problem of each scenario:

  1. Jealousy does not naturally inspire trust. Every teacher would love to be the favorite; but by definition, only one teacher can be. Children will be children – just imagine some of the things you said to your parents. Every teacher also wants to do a good job – and a student will work harder in a class if they like the teacher. (There will be a future post on teacher popularity!)
  2. The administrator is likely simply checking on how you are working with your coworkers, making sure that you have the support you need to do your job – that is THEIR job. But hearing about a “secret conversation” secondhand can make a teacher unreasonably fearful, and does not inspire trust.
  3. Will your administrator and coworkers back you up when you talk to the student and parents, or not? If you do not trust the people you work with to be in your corner, you can feel extremely alone at work. Worse, if you do not trust your administrator enough to go to them for help, you may not get the issue resolved. Oh no! The student and their parents will hate you forever! You will be fired!

Okay, we jumped to the worst-case scenario there pretty quickly. The point that I would like to make is that a school is a shared community – every student, parent, teacher, and administrator NEEDS to be connected to each other in order for ANYTHING to work. I honestly believe that building trusting relationships will help, significantly. Here is one more example for you:

Back when I was pursuing a graduate degree, I conducted a research study in which I went to several different schools to interview a principal and a teacher from each. The interview asked the same questions to all participants, but from principal and teacher points of view. The questions regarded the relationship between teacher and administrator; and included inquiries about teacher observation and evaluation, as well as communication throughout the school year. Without fail, each participant responded that they would like to know more about the others’ perspective and that they would like to have more communication with the other. Also without fail, each participant seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move. Which brings me to my major recommendations this week:

One: Communicate expansively from the very beginning of your teaching job. Ask questions of your co-workers, let the principal know if you have any worries, let the principal and parents know your plan for your classroom, email several parents with personal updates each week.

Two: Continue communicating honestly with your mentors – your former teachers, for example. They know teaching, and they also know YOU. They can help you find more ways to be successful in your position.

Three: Let the people around you know that you trust them, to be good workers and good humans. Do not be afraid to admit you are having trouble – after all, you get what you ask for.

Next week’s post, “Why Discipline is Dangerous,” will begin the discussion that you never got in college. In honor of Halloween week, I may share some scary stories from my own classroom – but all in the name of empathy and progress. In the meantime, if you want more, see below!

Have your own stories or advice to share about building a strong communicative foundation? Please enter comments below, or email teachingismadhard@gmail.com if you have a post you would like added to the guest posts section!

Want more? Check out Education Northwest’s booklet on building trusting relationships: http://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/trust.pdf


Week 1: Take the “Student” Out of Student Teacher


We begin with a POP QUIZ!

  1. What is the main difference between a student teacher and a teacher?

a. Maturity

b. Accountability

c. Salary

d. Responsibility

Duh, the answer is b. Accountability. (You may have been tempted to go for c. Salary, but don’t forget some student teachers have part-time jobs, so they can keep paying their rent in the semester before getting that “real” job.) As soon as you book that gig and have spent a week over the summer (or three weeks, if you’re precocious) decorating your classroom, you are suddenly flooded with confidence. You are a real adult now, and you are in charge of what happens in YOUR classroom. Heaven help you.

Student teaching is hugely important. You get to experience the schedule of a teacher, which is highly regulated; and you get to observe how they work with students in the classroom. If you’re lucky, you may even get to teach an entire unit of instruction and be present at staff meetings and parent-teacher conferences. It is the first time that you are acting as an adult, every day, away from the supervision of your professors. Congratulations!

Student teaching is also not an accurate representation of teaching. For one thing, not being the only adult in the classroom means that there is always someone there to step in if things get CRAZY. (Examples of crazy: the technology isn’t working, three students can not stop talking about the school dance, and another student just spilled the orange juice that they were trying to sneak a drink of.) Imagine Mad-Eye Moody saying “ACCOUNTABILITY” in the same tone of voice as “CONSTANT VIGILANCE.”

Also, some supervising teachers meet the requirements of the college student teaching semester, and the rest of the time, treat the student teacher as a glorified teacher aide. They don’t mean to, but they have a very good reason: It’s because the teacher only has a certain amount of time to make sure their classroom is prepared for the next test, the next performance, or the next state-mandated unit. It’s because the students will not see you as a “real” teacher yet, so they will treat your lessons with less seriousness – for you, it is serious business, but for them, it is a holiday from regular class time. This could also mean that the students will treat you BETTER than your students will treat you when you are the official teacher. Strange, but true – student teaching can give you “false” confidence.

Which brings us to two major recommendations about the student teacher to teacher transition:

  1. Confidence. See yourself as a mature adult, and believe that what you have to give the students is important. Practice your teacher persona immediately, rather than “babysitting” and making friends with every student. Think about how your student teaching experience is more than your last passing grade before graduation. This is so difficult to do – but it will help you transform the student perspective to the teacher perspective.
  2. Communication. Ask your mentor teacher deeper questions – dig for the real story about their job, their classroom budget, the school community, parental involvement in the classroom, and more. Ask them to explain how teaching in their first years was different from what they expected. Compare the amount of time you spend on your lesson plans with how much time your mentor teacher spends on theirs. Don’t be afraid to ask them anything – and ask them if you can stay in contact with them after your semester is over! I guarantee, the answer will be yes.


Next week’s post, “Learning to Trust,” will branch out on the topic of not being afraid to communicate, with some examples from the classroom of yours truly. In the meantime, if you want more, empathize and ask questions on the discussion page! Also, here are three articles about the student teacher to teacher transition:

“6 Lessons I Learned as a Student Teacher” by Heather Sinclair Wood, CNN: http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2013/06/17/from-career-to-classroom-6-things-i-learned-as-a-student-teacher/

“What Advice Would You Give a Student Teacher?” by Jennifer Gonzalez: http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/student-teaching/

Available with access to ERIC or 2 weeks free on deepdyve.com: “Jumping in: trust and communication in mentoring student teachers” by Randi Nevins Stanulis and Dee Russell

Image from this interesting blog: http://trampleasure.net/lee/index.php/865