Tuesday, July 30, 2013


     In my first couple of years of teaching I was very concerned, well actually I was in fear of my room full of middle schoolers getting out of control and creating such a disruption that my colleagues would complain and then I would be sitting in the principal's office having to explain why my students were "so loud and disruptive".  
     I thought I would be branded as a teacher that couldn't control their classroom.  I pictured myself sitting down in the teacher's lounge and my colleagues getting up and moving away.  Outcast!  On Friday spirit day, when everyone was wearing jeans and their school colors, I would be wearing the Scarlet Letter "O". Fellow teachers would whisper as I was walking by, "You know he is the one!  The Outcast that can't control his classroom!  
     Of course my fellow teachers or principals never treated me like this.  They were always very supportive and kind.  I was probably paranoid about this because of how I viewed my experiences in classrooms when I was a student.  Nevertheless, I was determined to not have my students be a "bad" example to my colleagues.  I didn't want to end up in the principal's office again.  It's understandable to be in the principal's office as a kid, but as an adult, it's a walk of shame!
     I decided that I would keep my kids busy.  You know the old phrase, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop."  I took it to heart. I wanted to keep my kids busy from the time they entered the room till the time they left.  There would be no time to meddle in someone else's business or get involved in a discussion of what happened in the world's news.
     My first school year was in 1990-1991.  One of the major historical events of the decade happened in that school year.  If you are old, I mean experienced, like me you probably remember the day when U.S. troops invaded Iraq. It was January 17, the start of the Gulf War.  You were probably glued to the TV, just like my students were, watching the night vision footage of missiles being shot and exploding over and on Bagdad.  
     The next day in my class we had a chapter test scheduled.  When my kids asked if we could talk about the invasion, what did I say.  Nein, we have a test!!!  Actually I didn't say use the word nein but the look on the student's faces sure made it seem that way. This would have been a great time because the student's attention was ripe for the picking. It was "A Teachable Moment".
     I was the history teacher for crying out loud!  It was a start of a war, you dummy!  I could have been easily justified to stop the content and talk about what was happening in the world.  But no, I was too busy thinking about how we needed to stay on pace with the content and not cause a disruption.  “I will keep the students occupied with my fast paced lectures and when I get tired of talking I will give them a "Shutteruppersheet"!  hat will keep them quiet!”  My reputation as a teacher would be on solid ground for teacher lounge small talk.  
     If you read my last post titled "The How is More Important than the What", you read that I eventually discovered that engaging my students in the lesson or projects became more important than keeping them quiet.  Some projects would get a little loud!  If I knew that in advance, I would apologize in advance to my next door teacher.  What was their response?  Shame on you for wanting the kids to learn, you Scarlet Letter "O" teacher!  No, they were very supportive in what I was doing and told me to not WORRY about it!   My attention was turned from worrying about what others thought of me to worrying about engaging my students in the classroom!  No more long fast "Kentucky Derby" lectures or "Shutteruppersheets" but more engaging lessons that involved students in their learning.  
     The more I engaged kids the less lecture and worksheets were needed.  My world opened up as a teacher. I saw my students as individuals and not factory workers in a system.  When I left teaching and moved onto being a building principal, I literally missed those students because I missed them as people.  I missed those moments when "they got it" in a project or discussion.  Or when they got excited about discovering more about a topic that was being covered in the class.  I never would have had this opportunity to see these kids fully if I would have kept lecturing all hour and giving them those shut up sheets. 
     I'm sure they were better students because of my shift in teaching, but when it came down to it, I was a better person because I stepped out of my comfort zone and got involved with my kids.  What about you are you involved with your students in their classwork.  Do you have them too busy to learn and reflect?  Does your teaching style allow them to be the leaders of the classroom or spectators?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The How is more Important than the What!

I will be up front with you in this post.  I have one sole purpose and it is to get the reader to think about the main topic.  The title of the post has probably already got you thinking.  It could been any thoughts from, "What is he talking about?"  to "What is the How and What is the What?"  I promise this isn't going to be an Abbott and Costello type conversation, similar to their comedy skit, "Who’s on First?"

To be clear in my title, I have explained what my topic is.  The topic is the teaching in the classroom.  From what we teach to how we teach it.  How we teach is more important than what we teach.  Now before any of you strict curriculum people get your britches in a bind, I want to clarify something.  I am not saying what we teach is not important.  If fact, what we teach is one of the most important components in the future of a student's success.  What if we left out addition in math?  Or didn't cover the definition of a noun or verb?  Would our student have success in future settings?  I think it would be safe to say that we would be limiting the success of our students if we believed the "What" of the classroom was not important.

The main point I'm trying to make is how we teach is more important than what we teach.  Let me put it to you this way.  If the students never remember what we taught them because of how we taught them, then what good does it do to emphasize the what in the classroom?  Wow, that really does sound like an Abbott and Costello skit.

When I first got back into teaching back in 1990, the majority of my college instructors lectured in their classroom.  When I got into the classroom, what do you suppose was my style of teaching?  That's right, I lectured most of my way through the class I taught.

It didn't take me long to recognize that my students were not paying attention.  My students had the best intentions. They would pay attention for fifteen or twenty minutes, but eventually they’d give into their day dreams and glaze over.  Before I knew it I had a room full of glazed over students.  Almost sounds like something you would pick up at Dunkin Donuts.  Except this was suppose to be school and my students would not learn a thing of my content if they were a glazed over donut, I mean student.

Still I pushed forward with my style.  I told myself, "I will make them take notes. That will get them to pay attention!"  It worked like a charm, because they had to stay on top of their note taking to keep up with my Kentucky Derby lectured pace.  My version of "And Their Off" was "Take Out Your Notebook".  Students knew once I made that statement it was full speed ahead.  What I discovered was that the students were on task but were so busy taking notes that they missed comprehending my content.

Eventually I would learn to pace my lecture, ask students questions to check understanding, and even stand beside the ones that were almost ready to turn into a glazed donut, I mean student.  I became better at my art, but in the end, the students were not getting any better at grasping the content.

So I decided to do something a little different in my class.  I decided to turn the tables on students. Instead of me doing all of the teaching, I would let them lead the class.  I broke my classes up in groups and told them to teach the next chapter to their classmates.  They had three class days to prepare their lessons and then they would teach their content to their peers.  I would be in the back of the room grading them on their content and presentation.  Guess how they taught?  Yes, that is correct they lectured most of the time.  Sure they took turns in speaking, but pretty much had me glazing over in fifteen or twenty minutes.

It was at that point in my teaching career that I decide how I taught became more important than what I taught.  No glazed over student, no matter how many strategies I tried would understand the content I was covering.  I had to find ways to engage these students to be an active part of my teaching.  I had to step back from my teaching role and let the students take charge of their learning.  Once I released control of my classroom I allowed the students to learn more than they ever could have learned from my lectures.  I still maintained high expectations in the class.  Loafing was not an option! Active participation in either the activities I developed (still had to come up with some) or they developed were the expectation.

By giving up this control not only did I become a better teacher my students became better.  They learned to interact with their classmates in their activities.  They were understanding the content more because they were involved in the classroom.  Students started to learn more because the how was emphasized over the what.  With this type of style eventually the what of the classroom became more important to the students.  As a teacher how is the how of your classroom?  Are students really getting the content? Survey them and ask them to be honest.  Look at the results honestly, without malicious intent and you might learn something from your students.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Don't Be a Vacuum Salesman!

Did you ever want to be a kid again? Think about it. Everything is paid for! You can eat about anything in sight and not gain any weight. Playing in the back yard for hours on end is super fun! Your meals are prepared for you! Your laundry is taken care of! Who wouldn't want to be a kid again?!

Okay, in all seriousness, being a kid has some great advantages and some disadvantages. Bed time always falls on the start of the Super Bowl! Having to eat your vegetables isn't all that it's cracked up to be. And puberty?! Once was enough for me.

In my world of leading, sometimes I overlook one of the most important characteristics in leadership. How can I relate with the people I am leading? As a leader it's important to do so. Why? Leaders can get stuck in a vacuum if they are unable to relate with the people they lead. There is only one thing to remember when leading in a vacuum: There is only going to be one person that you will lead and it's yourself. No one else is following because a vacuum leader is usually by themselves in gathering facts and making decisions.  

Need another way to look at it. Being a vacuum leader sounds a lot like being a vacuum salesman. Think of the vacuum salesman when they come to your door. For those of you that don't remember, there actually were individuals that went around door to door selling vacuum cleaners. What did most people do when they saw a vacuum salesman coming to the door? Some people would shut the lights off and turn off the TV. They would pretend not to be home. If your mom had you do all of this when you were a little kid, it's more than likely that a vacuum salesman was at your door. Either that or one of those weird relatives were making a surprise visit. "Hurry kids hide! Your Uncle Ernie is coming up the walk! You know the one that smells like beef and cheese!" Everyone scattered quicker than you could have said, "Who cut the cheese?"

But I'm digressing. Either way, if you are a leader making decision in a vacuum or a person that goes door to door selling vacuums, you won't have a positive impact as a leader. The lesson here is...Don't be a vacuum salesman! Er, I mean, don't be a leader that makes decisions in a vacuum. Get out and gather information from the people you work with and lead on a day to day basis.

As educators, we work with kids most of our days. To get a good perspective on our lesson, we have to put on our "kid goggles" and see how our lessons look to them. If you polled your students and asked them what they honestly thought of your lessons, would you listen to their input or chalk it down as "they just don't know what is good for them"? Listen to this Ted Talk presentation from an expert. If you are open-minded, you might just learn something about kids from a kid.