Come Together: Building a Global Teacher

Being a child of the 80s and 90s (Can I get a what-what?!), rap was a big part of music and pop culture growing up (and it still is today). While the music was fresh and funky, one thing that first comes to mind about the early era of rap music was the constant feuding, tension, and “haters” associated with this music movement (R.I.P. Tupac and B.I.G). Then, finally, someone realized rappers needed to (in the ever wise words of the Beatles) “come together,” stop hating, and start collaborating.  My first recollection of this was a Jay Z collaboration that blew my mind. This collaboration model concept caught on, and not only did more and more rappers start joining forces to bring better beats than ever before, but their songs (endorsements, and other products) soared to the top.

What’s my point? (…other than having a bit of a “Throw back Thursday” moment)

I feel like we are seeing an awesome teacher-collaboration movement in the education community.  Our industry has and most likely will always have controversy, opposing sides, endless change, and even some haters that you will inevitably encounter.  Even in my twelve short years as an educator, I’m happy to say that I have seen and continue to witness a shifting culture of increased support and collaboration.  Let me be clear: I’m not saying teacher collaboration is a new trend.  Rather, I feel that technology, ease of travel, and sheer necessity to collaborate (due to ever increasing demands on we teachers) has forged a fantastic network of educators reaching beyond the four walls of their classroom, the buildings they work in, and even states and countries to hold hands together, share, support, inspire, and collaborate through the endlessly challenging task of being a teacher in today’s world.  As we are more closely scrutinized than ever by the outside world, media, and politics, we must “come together” with our colleagues and fellow educators.  Doing so is proving successful for teachers, just as it did in the rap world. Teacher blogs abound with countless followers, districts are tackling Common Core together, educators are trusting other teachers for classroom resources and making major bucks in the process thanks to sites like TeachersPayTeachers.  All in all, connection + collaboration = teacher success in numerous ways!

So, how can you create your own collaboration?

Blogging Besties: If you are already a teacher blogger, you have likely experienced the surprisingly wonderful friendships and professional bonds you have formed with fellow bloggers and your blog followers.  Last summer I began my blogging journey as a Scholastic Top Teaching blogger and instantly met two fabulous ladies (Kriscia Cabral and Erin Klein) who became fast life-long friends and excellent educational collaborators.  If I have a question about teaching or need some inspiration to get out of a curricular rut, I reach out to those ladies, even though they might be in Michigan and California.  Getting outside perspective from teachers cross-country is an amazing way to shake up your instruction and stay current on national education issues. If you are not already a teacher blogger, follow and comment on other teacher blogs for the same type of advice and connection, or start your own blog… why not?

Recently I attended a national teacher-blogger meetup and it was amazing! Not only was I able to reunite with blogging bestie Erin Klein, but I made new friends like these lovely ladies from GoNoodle, and connected with both new and veteran teacher bloggers from across the country, including Angela Watson from The Cornerstone (we had a blast together!).  I can’t wait to reach out to and collaborate with these inspiring educators!

Local Connections: Don’t overlook the importance of starting new local teacher connections and maintaining existing relationships.  We are all so busy as teachers, that sometimes it is difficult to tend to our collegial friendships. Make it a goal to do something special for your teammates, keep in touch teacher friends from past grade levels or schools taught at.  If you want to expand your local circle of teacher connections, challenge yourself to reach out to teachers beyond your team, grade level, school, or even district. Within your school and district, make a point to talk to new people at meetings or times provided to collaborate. Beyond your district, join local educational organizations or tap into social media to make those connections (see below).

Webinars, Blogs, Social Media, Oh My!: If I had to pinpoint a singular catalyst behind this web of teacher connectivity, I would credit technology. You have so many vehicles for collaboration without boundaries thanks to online webinars, teacher/educational organization blogs, and social media. Check them out and mix up the way you follow and connect with people. Don’t limit yourself to in-person teacher relationships. Below you will see how I utilize different social media tools to connect with teachers beyond local borders.

  • Facebook gives me quick peeks at updates on blog posts, products released, reviews, and tips from teachers around the world.
  • Pinterest is one of my biggest obsessions. I search Pinterest for classroom ideas, resources, decor/bulletin board ideas, and organizational tips.  I’m super visual, so purusing through pics is a winning approach for me.  I could Pin away hours of my life and have gleaned some of my best teaching ideas from this source!
  • Instagram is my newest social media love, as it plays to my visual nature much like Pinterest.  I love Instagram because it allows me to often see more personal glimpses of the life and classroom happenings of teacher bloggers and fellow colleagues.
  • Twitter is the perfect forum for me to soak up top educational trends and tidbits, and then further explore via links provided if I so choose. I don’t have time to read every educational organization website, journal, or news report.  The people I have chosen to follow on Twitter provide short blurbs that keep me up-to-date and lead to further exploration of topics most relevant to my professional growth. Also, watch for and engage in top weekly educational Twitter chats that will provide a more personal interaction with Tweeting teachers.

Take a moment and choose even just one of these suggested ways to further connect and collaborate with other educators. If you do so, you’ll see that everyone wins…and most importantly, your students will benefit from the wealth of “good things” that emerge when we as teachers “come together.”

Don’t know where to start?

Connect with ME! I’d love to collaborate together.

Music in the classroom? Yes. When? Now.

What’s the first thing you do when you come home at the end of the day?

Turn on the TV? Take a shower? Pet the cat? Untangle your children from a roll of duct tape?

Many people put music on. It sets the tone, creates a certain kind of space: relaxing or energized, comforting or upbeat.

Each class period is a “space.” One class is fun, one is silly, one is energized, one is noisy. Sometimes this is due to the lesson plan, sometimes it’s related to what the students bring into the room. Students can bring an exhausted mood into a room or a chattery, distracted mood. They can bring frustration from whatever happened the block before, or anxiety. The mood students bring into the room can support student learning, or it can undermine it.

I use music to set the tone in the room. I use upbeat but not frenetic music, music that many students might not know but which they may enjoy.

Students know that when the music is playing, it’s not a good time to come ask me questions or distract me with questions about my weekend. All this must wait until “housekeeping.” While the music is playing, it’s time for students to find their seats, to look at the lesson plan (posted online or on the board), to see who their work partner will be, and to begin working on First Thing Work.

While the music plays, I take attendance, prepare my notes, check in with students with emergencies, and so on.

When it’s time for quiet, I begin counting down from ten and drop the music. When I hit zero, the music is silent…and so are the students. No shushing, no noise.

The mood is positive, and if I choose good music, the classroom feels like a great place to be.

Additional ideas:

  • Have a playlist ready on your iPod or laptop so if a song ends, another, appropriate song will begin, and so you don’t have to think about what to play.
  • Avoid ultrapopular (or worse, waning-in-popularity) music that might provoke a reaction.
  • Consider playing quiet music during quiet work or partner-work time. I find that some classrooms enjoy mellow jazz or classical music in the background. It’s not necessarily distracting, as long as it’s quiet, and in some cases, it actually helps maintain focus, especially if, for example, two students are working together out loud while others work silently; the music will help the quiet workers not to be distracted by the students working aloud.
  • When you finish class, consider playing music as the students leave! Why not send them on their way with something upbeat?
  • Invest in a 25 dollar micro-speaker which lives in your briefcase, backpack, etc. When you walk into class, turn it on, plug it into your iPod, hit play, and the beat is on! (I suggest a “Curve” by Cambridge Sound Works, an X Mini ii, or an iHome mini speaker. (The former is a little pricier and sounds better, but is a bit bigger. The latter two are cheaper and smaller and, for me, plenty for their purpose). Once in a while, I like to slip a song onto the mix that I know a certain student likes (look at what T-shirts the students wear or concerts they talk about). Sometimes, the student will make a positive comment about your choice of song. After class, ask the student for more suggestions, ask about the concert, or, if you are already a fan, yourself, start a conversation on music. Many of these informal chats have built rapport with a student who I previously had trouble connecting with.

Music/Musician Suggestions:

  • Anything by Dave Brubeck (Jazz)
  • Pandora stations: rocksteady, salsa, Frank Sinatra
  • Graceland by Paul Simon
  • Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  • Andrew Bird
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • Thomas Mapfumo

‘Buddy Classrooms’ — the answer to the suspension cycle?

Students get sent out of classrooms everyday. They are either sent to spend the day in the office, another teacher’s classroom, or sent home if they happen to be suspended. This is a punitive way of dealing with discipline and does not build on the student’s academic or social participation in their classroom community. In fact, students who spend an extended amount of time outside of the classroom, especially on a suspension-type consequence, are 23% more likely to drop out of school, according to a 2006 study in Florida. They are also more apt to being suspended again.

Why do these students who are suspended or sent out of classrooms for extended periods of time have a higher rate of dropping out or getting suspended? There are a number of possibilities. When being sent out of the classroom, the student consequently misses class work. The student then needs to do more work to catch up, and this can be frustrating. The student might act out because of this and then get sent out of the classroom again, further widening the gap between the student and his/her peers.

So what can we do, as educators, to not use punitive measures, like suspensions, while still keeping the classroom safe? A possible solution is what I like to call ‘buddy classrooms’. These classrooms are designated at the beginning of a school year, where two teachers agree to use each other’s classes as either ‘work classrooms’ or as ‘I need a break classrooms’. In this model, the teachers can give a student a pass to just have a different space to get their work done if they are unable to function as their best self in a classroom. There is a time-limit set on each work classroom, as to get the student ready to come back to the community in a safe way. If the student just needs an emotional break, this would function in the same way, with a time limit, and again, the end result having the student back in the classroom within the day, and even within the hour.

The goal is to have the student back in the classroom as soon as he/she is ready. Independence and self-monitoring of behavior can become a classroom norm. When a student needs a break, he or she can choose to take that time without teacher interference. Of course, this procedure has to be explicitly taught, modeled, and monitored (and should be grade appropriate). This gives control to the student while also keeping the classroom and the student on track academically and socially. Everybody wins 🙂

Students mirror teacher behavior — are you setting a good example?

Years ago, I worked in a school where faculty members routinely brought laptops to meetings. Everyone would gather in desks facing the front of the room, screens up, fingers furiously typing, while the facilitator spoke.  At first, I was determined to sit near the front, maintain eye-contact with the facilitator, and participate meaningfully in discussion.  Eventually, though, I gave up. It became clear what my colleagues thought of our meetings: this time was better spent preparing lessons, checking email, or even comparing Fantasy Football stats.

The way faculty meetings were run at this particular school was indicative of a larger, more pervasive problem: a lack of established norms and behavioral standards for everyone. If an outsider were to walk into any classroom, they would see students demonstrating similar behaviors and mirroring this same disengagement.

So what can administrators and teachers do to establish behavioral norms in classroom and school environments?

Step away from the situation

When a teacher comes to me again and again with the same behavioral concerns — students not using tablets or smartphones appropriately, calling out of turn, arriving to class late, using disrespectful language — I will often set the teacher to the task of observing and taking notes on the students in question while I get their class started for the period. This serves a dual purpose: teachers have the opportunity to step away from the situation and observe student behaviors objectively, as an outsider. In addition, the whole class is given a chance to reflect upon and re-establish behavioral expectations. As any effective teacher knows, the first thing you do when you walk into a classroom full of students whom you have never taught, is set norms through student input and empowerment. It’s amazing what happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect upon, and even make adjustments to their classroom behavior guidelines.

Walk in their shoes

Benjy was incredibly bright, intellectually curious, intrinsically motivated, and autistic. He also got kicked out of class a lot. One of the main reasons why this happened was because he couldn’t keep from punching holes in teachers’ logic. His brain was wired in such a way that it literally “itched” (his words) when a storyline contained flaws or loose ends, a complex math problem didn’t add up correctly, or a teacher gave out inaccurate or wholly incorrect information. Once teachers gave credence, and even respect to his practical natures (and supported his social development by teaching him how to properly address “itchy situations”) Benjy was able to stay in the classroom and really add to the intellectual value of discussions. Our brightest students will always be the first to disengage if we don’t make time for empathy and afford them the respect and validation they deserve.

Model academic risk-taking

A colleague recently told me about a social experiment of sorts that his high school conducted a few years back. Everyone swapped classes for one period of the day. English teachers taught Physics, Physics taught History, Math teachers taught English. What started out as nearly a practical joke, morphed into something slightly intimidating, and eventually, became an incredible learning experience not only for teachers, but also for students. Teachers found that they had to deliver instruction much more creatively using what schema they could access. They got really excited about uncovering new ideas and making intellectual breakthroughs (I think we call this “learning”). Their enthusiasm spread like wildfire. Students felt that teachers were as much their guides as they were their intellectual peers on an unexpected adventure in learning. When we allow students to see our humanity – our capacity to make mistakes and willingness to admit to our own lack of knowledge — they’re less likely to push back.

Follow your own rules

Speaking of mistakes, I made one this year. Just one. I covered for a teacher at the last minute when a family emergency arose, and in a hurry, I carried the remainder of my lunch into his classroom and ate it while the kids worked on a quiz.  About 5 minutes in, I heard a crinkle. Then a rustle. Then crunch, crunch. Before I knew it, this class of highly-distractible students (all of whom are diagnosed with ADHD by the way) began calling out:

“Can I have a chip?”

“Where’d you get that Rockstar?”

“I don’t like the Cool Ranch Doritos. The orange cheese powder is awesome….”

“You guys, you can’t eat food in there!” I said through mouthfuls of sandwich.

To their credit, they all put the food away and got back to their quiz. But it’s not always this way. It may seem almost too simple to state, but follow your own rules. Don’t pull out your phone in class, speak respectfully to students, arrive on time, and contribute meaningfully to creating a culture of positivity and support.

Changing the way students behave in classrooms, or the way faculty attend to their work, starts with brainstorming and buy-in. If we want to create this environment, we must model key expectations and be flexible and humble enough to reflect and revise when necessary.