Make the most out of communicating with parents!

I’m not sure about other teachers, but I found talking to parents particularly intimidating when I first started teaching. Having no children of my own and being in my early 20s, I was unsure of myself and it showed. Here are some tips to get the most out of communicating with parents:

1. Make contact before official events such as parent teacher conferences or report cycles. Get in touch to let parents know about your class, your expectations with regards to homework, and show them their child is in good hands.

2. Do not bombard parents with information. People these days get a lot of emails and text messages. Keep it short and to the point. Rule of thumb: The older the students are, the less the parents really want to read about what they did in class.

3. Praise students to parents. Send pithy emails or postcards about how great their child was. I sent a few off at the start of the year with what turned out to be a difficult class of 15 year olds. The most difficult of the students actually carried that postcard around with him for months. You can usually find something that a student has done well.

4. Don’t try to soften the blow with teaching euphemisms if you need to convey difficult or hard-to-hear information. I ran some of my best jargon past a friend of mine and she had zero idea that I was even giving bad news. If you need to say, “Your child is ruining every lesson with their poor behavior,” only sugar-coat this information lightly. Consider, “Johnny’s poor choices often mean he does not make any progress and makes learning harder for other members in the class.”

5. Don’t be a ‘yes’ man. If a parent is wrong, it is okay to let them know. Obviously you would not talk to them like they were a child. However, an adult-to-adult professional conversation should not always end with you agreeing to whatever the parent says. I watched in awe as my old boss talked down a parent who was insisting that his son should not have been suspended for a disciplinary issue because ‘everyone else was doing it’. She was masterful. She was gentle and polite but she was firm and gave no ground. And in the end, the parent agreed with my boss.

 

New Teacher Survival (series) #4: Working with challenging students

Let’s face it, kids are human, and some of them are more easygoing than others. We’ve all had that one kid in our class who knew exactly how to push our buttons and seemed to make it his or her mission to ruin our day. Sound familiar? If not, you are lucky! I have at least one student every year who pushes all the boundaries and tests my seemingly endless patience.

There is definitely a spectrum of bad behaviors and I’ve seen them all. From subtle eye-rolling and forgetting to raise one’s hand, to literal assault and blood-shed. I could write multiple volumes about what works and what doesn’t, but for now I’m going to focus on the low-level, everyday annoyances that can disrupt learning and derail your class on a daily basis.

Just like you have tiers of intervention for academics, think of behavior management as having multiple tiers as well. Tier 1 would be your run-of-the-mill, whole class point system. This is the level that generally keeps things moving along and relies mostly on peer pressure to be successful. Tier 2 is an additional level of behavior support, think star charts for individual students, or weekly communication to parents.

If you feel like you need more behavior support for a particular student, ask yourself a few questions first:

1. Does the disruptive behavior happen at a particular time, or during certain types of activities?

If you can identify what is causing the behavior to happen, you are halfway to solving the problem. If you can determine that a student is bored, struggling, or having a hard time at home, you can try and adjust your teaching or help them in another way. Preventing the behavior from happening is better than constantly doling out consequences.

2. Does the student respond to positive reinforcement?

If so, try to capitalize on this. Give praise every time they do something right, even if it feels excessive. Make sure your positive comments are more frequent than the negative. Using a classroom management tool like ClassDojo is great for this, because you can actually see the breakdown of positive to negative feedback for each student.

3. Is their family supportive of your efforts?

If so, try to communicate with them frequently. The most powerful tool you have to improve student behavior is a good working relationship with their family.

4. Still not improving?

Don’t reinvent the wheel! My first year, I had four different students on four different behavior plans which was almost impossible to maintain. If you need to implement a behavior plan, use your existing structure, and focus on 2-3 behaviors at most. For example, if you use ClassDojo, or another point system, come up with a contract that states how many points for a specific behavior a student must receive each day or week to earn a prize. The prize doesn’t have to be fancy, it should be something that is easy for you to provide on a weekly basis. It also helps immensely if there is a reward at home as well. Your student should help design their behavior plan. Students are much more likely to buy in if they’ve had a voice in its creation.

Like I said before, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to behavior issues, but this is a good place to start!

 

This is Part 4 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here

The Law of Attraction… in the classroom!

Ever hear the phrase, “Birds of a feather flock together”? How about, “Like attracts like”?  Or…“You reap what you sow”?  All of these sayings loosely describe an incredible phenomenon that fortunately is becoming more and more acknowledged in our society: the Law of Attraction. For those of you who have read The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, you probably have a general idea of what the Law of Attraction (LOA) is about. For those of you who haven’t or could just use a refresher, LOA basically affirms that we are all made up of energy fields and we are constantly giving off energy.  The type of energy we give off at any given moment simply depends upon our thoughts and beliefs.

The type of energy we give off draws certain experiences into our lives. For example, if we give off positive energy we tend to attract positive experiences. If we give off negative energy, we tend to attract negative experiences. Most people don’t recognize that they hold such power over their own lives and often find themselves stuck in the revolving door of negative experiences. “Why me? Why do I always have the worst possible luck?” — these thoughts contribute to the situation.

Our thoughts about ourselves are just as powerful as our thoughts about others. It’s time we use the LOA to shed positive experiences on our students. “Kids live up to the expectations we have of them.” This sort of belief can result in tremendous growth from your students. The old saying, “You have to see it to believe it,” is more accurately put, “You have to believe it to see it.”  Teachers must focus on the strengths instead of the weaknesses of their students. In doing so, students will be better equipped to succeed and teachers will create a better classroom environment for everyone. If you change the way you see things, the things you see will change. After all, it’s the law!

New Teacher Survival (series) #3: Classroom management 101

As I prepared for my first year of teaching, I was so excited for the school year to begin. I wrote each of my students a postcard welcoming them to my class. I bought each student a pencil box and used my fancy new label maker to put their name on it. I felt so ready my first day, I had everything scripted, every moment planned. And then my students arrived. Within the first five minutes of my opening circle, one of my third graders had tied his shoes together, another student had locked himself in the bathroom, and two girls were crying. I only had 20 students in my class, but I had completely lost control. Unfortunately, this day set the tone for the year, and I never quite recovered. But I sure learned a lot! Here are my top tips for managing your class:

1. Have a procedure for everything

Before the school year begins, you should have an idea about how you want things to be done in your room. Write everything down, from sharpening pencils, to using the restroom. Within the first few days of school, teach these procedures explicitly, and practice them repeatedly. You can even make it a game! Challenge the class to beat their time lining up quietly, give praise or rewards when they succeed. Make them do it again when they don’t. This can seem tedious and time consuming, but it will make your class run much smoother.

2. Be proactive not reactive

Figure out what your classroom management system will be before the students arrive (like many teachers, I use ClassDojo). Make sure it is something that is easy to stick with. If you have a point system, make sure you know what will happen if your students receive a certain amount of points. Don’t make the prize too difficult to obtain, or students will lose interest. You also need to decide what consequences will occur when a student breaks a rule, or misses an assignment. Try to connect with every student, if a student is particularly difficult, go out of your way to catch them doing things right and praise, praise, praise!

3. Take it off stage

At those inevitable moments when someone misbehaves in front of the whole class, it can be hard not to react immediately. Especially because you don’t want your other students to think that kind of behavior is ok. The best thing you can do in the moment is acknowledge the behavior in a calm voice, and tell the student that you will be discussing the incident at a later time. As soon as you have a chance, take the student aside and discuss a consequence away from your other students. Sometimes this 1:1 conversation is consequence enough.

4. Be consistent, follow through

Give praise, follow through on consequences, then follow through, and follow through some more. No matter what you decide to use as a classroom management system, you have to be very consistent. Students will quickly pick up on your failure to follow through and may feel that you are being unfair, or may take advantage. A student teacher once asked me what to do when a student was constantly interrupting her. In my class, interrupting the teacher results in the loss of a ClassDojo point. I asked her if she took a point from him the first time he did it, and she said “no.” Of course he continued to interrupt, there was no consequence! She did say she felt bad taking points away from kids, so it is really important to consider what you feel comfortable with when designing your classroom management system. My feeling is that as long as you give a lot of positive feedback, negative feedback should have the desired effect of correcting the behavior, without damaging your relationship with your students. You can also think about it from the other students’ perspective. By taking away a point from someone who breaks a rule, you are being fair to the students who do not break rules, and protecting their learning.

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 4 here

What should I expect?!

As humans we crave expectations, clarity, and common language. It feels good to go into a situation (especially a new situation) knowing what to expect and what is expected of you. People of all ages, from children to adults, feel more confident and capable when they know what to expect in different settings.

Consider being invited to a social gathering such as a dinner party. You might find yourself asking certain questions: “What is the dress attire?” “What kind of dish shall I bring?” “How many people will be in attendance?” Answers to these questions would allow you to be proactive with your behavior and appropriately organize for the upcoming event. Additionally, these answers would give you the confidence to walk through the door of the host’s house knowing that you will be socially, emotionally, and behaviorally appropriate to meet the expectations that have been established for the occasion.

It is critical to have clearly defined expectations in a school setting. Expectations allow a common language to exist and help to ensure appropriate behavior throughout the entire school-site. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, family members, and community members all want to know what is expected when they walk through the doors of a school building. They may not always express this desire, but it would be difficult to find someone who would not want to know what is to be expected. The nature of human behavior is to want to do what is expected in different settings in order to appropriately fit into the established social norm.

Here are a few suggestions I’ve learned over the years:

  • Creating clearly defined expectations for the different settings of your school-site (i.e. bus, front office, hallway, cafeteria, gymnasium, classroom, playground, etc.) can help ensure comfort and security of those entering the building and can help create a safe and supportive learning environment for students.
  • Do not assume that everyone already knows the expectations of a given setting. It is important to establish these expectations with all stakeholders and then teach the behaviors you want to see, just as we teach academics. The truth of the matter is no one wants to show up to a hundred-person black tie affair in ripped jeans and a t-shirt holding a six-layer taco dip that feeds four.
  • Be proactive! Set the stage for this school year and help everyone in your building feel part of a positive school culture.

Would love to hear your ideas on setting expectations in the comments below!

Give teachers a student perspective on ClassDojo!

A middle school colleague and I recently were given the opportunity to present for our district’s summer tech class series. Of course we jumped at the chance to show the benefits of using ClassDojo. Generally when we present, we outline the basics and define new features. However, we realized that this presentation could move in a different direction. This class was held in a tech lab, allowing us to give our audience a more engaging, hands-on lesson. We planned on going over account setup, adding classes, and working with custom behaviors. We created a class list for teachers to use during the presentation. Needless to say, we were thrilled to be giving this presentation.

While planning, my colleague suggested we develop a class using our participants as the students. It was a brilliant way to model how we use ClassDojo in our classrooms, giving the attendees a student perspective on the product. This was a great opportunity for teachers to experience the excitement of seeing their avatar for the first time, or hearing the sing-song of receiving a positive point. We even purchased a couple of gift cards for the “student” who had the most points at the end of the class.

During the presentation, we secretly gave these “students” Dojo points as they asked questions or had insight on how ClassDojo could be used in their classrooms. When the time came to go live and show our attendees what we had been doing, their reaction was just what we had hoped. Just like our real students, they commented on each others avatars and how many points they had. This gave us an opportunity to discuss how their reactions were very similar to what they will find among their students. After our little experiment, we were able to show the teachers not only how useful ClassDojo can be in their classroom, but how exciting and positive it can be for their students.

We then gave them the freedom to explore ClassDojo. We walked among our participants to answer questions and give them one-on-one assistance. It was a wonderful to help them work with ClassDojo rather than just showing the app for a change.

In the end, this presentation was the best thing we could have done — we gave these teachers an authentic experience with ClassDojo. It reminded me that seeing is believing — but then again, doing is even better!

From Chaos to Calm: improving middle school behavior

When people find out I teach middle school I get the same reaction, “Wow, that’s a tough age!” It absolutely is. Middle schoolers tend to be highly energetic, socially awkward, and emotionally unpredictable — but that’s what I love about it. This “tough” age group is also quite malleable. By implementing the following behavior management strategies my “tough” middle schoolers have transformed into a group of students who successfully manage one another, with a little help from me.

In attempt to control the chaos, consistent routines and procedures must be in place: entering class, warm-up activity, organization of materials, handing out materials, clean-up procedure, closing activity, etc. Keep these routines consistent. When students know what they are expected to do, they begin to monitor each other. Instead of you managing the class, students will manage themselves.

We often hear educators talk about “wait time,” a powerful tool used to give students a moment to gather their thoughts after being called on. Teachers also need “wait time,” used after an attention grabber to give students a few seconds to quiet down before the teacher speaks. If your students don’t quiet down when you ask them to, don’t raise your voice, give wait time. If you are consistent students will start to “shush” each other because they want to hear what you have to say.

Middle schoolers crave compliments and are extremely competitive. Give them what they want! When students are on task, being respectful, helping each other, etc., students receive a positive ClassDojo point. However, when students are late to class, disrespectful, bullying, etc., they receive a negative ClassDojo point. The first 5 students in that particular class to receive 20 ClassDojo points are rewarded. This gives students the pat on the back they are looking for.

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To reinforce the importance of teamwork I have a large “ClassDojo Points Board”. If you click on “reports” in the ClassDojo app you will see the percentage of positive points the class received that day. I teach four periods, each class receiving 0-100 points each day. At the end of two weeks, the class with the highest cumulative amount of points will receive a reward. Having periods compete with each other keeps them behaved as a group, craving bragging rights for being the winners of the “ClassDojo Points Board.”

Go ahead, let your middle schoolers manage themselves. You can then start to enjoy what makes teaching highly energetic, socially awkward, and emotionally unpredictable middle schoolers so much fun!

 

3 tips to become a “new” teacher this year!

Do you remember what it was like to be a “new” teacher? I do. I was lucky enough to have student taught for the campus I was hired on. The principal brought me my contract while I was in the cafeteria on lunch duty and I thought I was going to cry in front of all of those students — I was so excited!

Once I knew what subject I would be teaching, I started planning. I had to come up with every aspect and detail of my classroom. My classroom trajectory was a blank slate! How was I going to get kids to line up? Was I going to have classroom jobs? How would I hand out textbooks? Would I have a seating arrangement?

I spent most of that summer thinking about my classroom — my home away from home. It was certainly an exciting two months. I had no experiences with uninvolved parents, so I designed elaborate newsletters that would share every detail of our classroom. From upcoming lesson plans to expectations at home, these newsletters were going to highlight the week’s happenings. There was even a section for a student-written piece each week.

I had no experience with unprepared students, so my plans were designed with the highest of expectations. Projects, collaboration, ideas galore…I had no concept of a district imposed testing schedule. Cross-curricular planning? You bet! We had science and math connections each week, with a student artifact as their summative assessment. My students were going to complete every assignment, on time, and perfectly… because I was going to teach content that thoroughly!

The novelty of being a “new”  teacher is the absence of being jaded. You arrive with the best intentions and pie in the sky ideas since you have few past experiences to constrain or even ruin your ideas. You’re excited to have this job. You know and believe you will change lives.

I challenge you to start this new school year with that same mindset — the one that some may call naive. If you’re a veteran teacher, let go of the past. After all, every classroom is unique. Find that blank slate again, and be ready to change lives and conquer the world! How can you do that? Try to start with these classroom “refreshers”:

  • Change the layout of your classroom. Do something totally different with your seating arrangement. Dump your teacher’s desk. Change your “power zone” of teaching.
  • Start on a different foot. That first week folder? With those same “get to know you” activities you’ve been doing every year? Trash it! Do something new this year!
  • Block it all out. This year, don’t listen to anyone’s opinions about your upcoming class. Every year is a brand new beginning for every student and every teacher. Start with the highest of expectations for each child. You are the defining factor in how your students behave in your classroom, and you have the opportunity to set the tone for the year — make it a positive one! Let your classroom be full of good choices, mistakes, do overs, and grace.

The reality of my first year, obviously, didn’t pan out quite the way I was thinking it would. But, I came back the second year, just as excited, and full of even more plans and ideals. No matter how veteran you are, I hope that you can become a brand new teacher again this year!

Building a productive environment with other teachers

When entering a store, we typically know which door to enter through, where to make our purchase, and which door to exit through.  When entering a restaurant, we typically know which door to enter, whom to ask for a table (or where to get one ourselves) where/how to place our order, where/how to pay, etc.  If we cannot easily figure these answers out for ourselves, we know exactly who to ask to get the answer quickly.

Systems exist everywhere in our world.  Some systems are more official, documented, and/or sustainable than others.  For example, the fact that we all have to get a new sticker for our license plates each year, or that we can only park in that parking space between 12:00pm and 3:00pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays are official, documented, and mandated systems.  Figuring out who sits next to whom in the teacher’s lounge during lunch or which lane to drive in on a four-lane highway are less official systems, not documented at all, yet still fall under the umbrella of being somewhat “understood” by the general population. Typically, when systems are put in place it makes processes, routines, and outcomes more effective and efficient.

Schools are no exception.  There are many smooth-running systems that are currently in place in every school building.  Where and when to turn in grades, where and when to enter attendance, where and when and with what materials to show up for Institute Days, PLCs, staff meetings, etc.  These are established systems that help the adults in the building do their work of supporting youth more effectively and efficiently.  These routines, calendars, documents, communication trees, policies, processes, etc. were created, established, and then taught/documented so that they could be sustained by other adults for years to come.

Consider a teacher’s classroom as well as the entire school at large.  Do you/your school have effective systems in place?  For everything?  Chances are that some things are systematized and some things are more haphazard in nature.  If you were to aggregate data surrounding these different systems (or lack-there-of) you would probably find that when effective systems are in place there are more positive outcomes than when systems are lacking.

In the next 2 months, consider establishing 1-2 systems around something in your classroom or building where a system does not already exist?

  • Decide when you will make a positive contact home.
  • Decide when you will send someone to the office or handle it within the classroom
  • Decide how often your staff will acknowledge one another.
  • Decide how often your staff will acknowledge students.
  • Decide how often/when you will look at data in your classroom.
  • Determine are roles and tasks documented?  Could some of the work you do continue if you left your school building?  Or is there a lot that you do to help the school function that is not documented- thus no one would be able to pick up and support the youth where you left off.

Remember when you were little and you were one of the last three standing in a heated game of “Simon Says”.  It was down to the wire and you moved your hands to cover your ears while the other two stayed crouched down low touching their toes?  That moment…”ahhhh” (slow, loud sigh of defeat).  It feels so bad to be out of sync, not in line, off the beat with the rest of the group.  Systems help adults (and ultimately our students and families) to feel better, to have expectations, to have common language, and to work efficiently and effectively.  Everything we do in our work is made up of tiny little systems that come together to create the “powerful machine” that is our school.  The more systematized we can make things, we will ultimately be helping to create a more effective, efficient, and positive school culture.

Finding a Teaching Job, Part 3: Interviewing for a Teaching Job

What to Expect

If you have passed the initial screening process and have been offered an interview, congratulations! Interviewing for a teaching job is not all that different than interviewing for any other job, but there are a few things you should expect.

  1. You will likely be interviewed by a panel of administrators, teachers, and parents. The administrator will likely make the final decision, but the other panel members may have quite a bit of influence, so try to engage everyone!
  2. You may be asked to come back for a demo lesson. This is pretty standard, so make sure to have your calendar ready in case you need to schedule on the spot.
  3. You will be asked about your teaching philosophy everywhere you go. Make sure you know what you will say, and that you can back it up with examples.

Be Prepared

It is not difficult to anticipate the kinds of questions you will be asked. I found this site by doing a simple Google search, I’ve been asked all of these questions before. I don’t recommend memorizing everything you will say or giving canned answers, but having some idea of how you will respond to the “why did you become a teacher?” question will prevent you from saying, “because I love children” (which may be true but it’s a totally lame answer!). Instead of scripting your answers, think of some examples of your best work. If you say you love project based learning, you better be prepared with an anecdote about how you’ve used it. If you claim to use assessment to inform instruction, make sure you can demonstrate how.

Ask Questions

The Q & A portion of the interview is your chance to determine if the school is a good fit for you, but it’s also your chance to share any valuable tidbits of information about yourself that may not have surfaced yet. If you really wanted to talk about how much of a leadership role you played in a previous position, ask, “are teachers given the opportunity to fill leadership roles?” This opens up a dialogue about the topic and you have the opportunity to explain why this interests you. Avoid questions that don’t add value to your interview, don’t ask about parking, or other logistical things.

Follow Up

I’ve often been advised to send thank you cards to everyone on an interview panel. While I have done this out of superstition, having been on the receiving end of these cards, it doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of difference. I’ve never based any decision on post-interview correspondence, but it certainly can’t hurt. When I say follow up, I mean send your interviewer a quick thank you email. Tell them you appreciate their time and consideration, include a link to your portfolio, then sit back and wait. If it seems to take a while, you can send another follow up email, but keep it very short, and don’t be pushy! You want to seem interested, but not overbearing. I received an email from an applicant last week detailing all the reasons I should interview her. She emailed me several more times, each time with more urgency, demanding my attention. Needless to say, she did not advance to the interview stage. It is possible to be overzealous.

Hopefully all of your hard work, and patient waiting will pay off and you’ll get an offer! Teaching jobs are unique in that there is often no room for negotiation, you are placed on a salary schedule, so you can accept your offer right away without haggling, and start teaching!

This post is Part 3 of a three-part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.