My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

I’ve been a teacher for two months now and my biggest challenge has not been the short attention spans of middle schoolers – or how much they crave lessons with computers and cell phones.

Eight weeks into my new life, I am shocked by the handful of kids who still want an old-fashioned teacher.

Yes, the kind of teacher who wants everyone in their seat facing forward, who writes everything out on the board and peppers lectures with the phrase “know this for the test.”

The kind of teacher my education course instructors and textbooks tell me NOT to be.

Not a ‘sage on the stage’

When I decided to leave my journalism career and teach Spanish to kids, I did not picture myself standing at a lectern and reciting verb conjugations until kids nod off. I did not want to be what modern educators disparagingly call “the sage on the stage.”

I arrived at the classroom with ideas for games, a stack of music CDs and links to educational videos that kids can dance to. Sure I planned to do short lectures but I expected to spend most of the time overseeing group work, encouraging kids to converse in Spanish and having fun with music, drawing and other activities that reinforce what we are learning.

With most students, this system works. At the end of last week, I gave out a boatload of As to kids who have worked hard, played hard and say they are enjoying my class.

But then there are the students who surprise me.

Some kids want an old-fashioned teacher

“You have only taught us ONCE this year,” one student complained a few weeks after the start of the school year.

It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to a time when I conjugated a verb on the white board because I could not find a creative image of the conjugation online and the verb was not in our textbook. As I wrote, I explained the rules for the conjugation. And I felt like a bit of a failure because the instuctions were not more fun.

But a couple other students chimed in after their classmate’s comment. They praised teachers who write out everything students need to know on overhead transparencies. And teachers who give long, and apparently comforting, lectures.

Nevermind that one of my textbooks calls the document camera and overhead projector the worst enemies of teachers. It is impossible to sit behind a desk and walk around to monitor student’s independent work at the same time.

So how did these kids get so traditional? And what about the majority of students who do so well in classes where teachers mix things up for a variety of learning styles, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence?

An experiment with tradition

After some long, soul-searching conversations with my principal, who tells me he is trying to get teachers out from behind the desk and at students’ sides, I decided to experiment with more traditional lessons.

We started out with an activity that always put me right to sleep when I was a public school student: Reading directly from the textbook.

But the previously unhappy students cooperated happily. As they read, you could feel the anxiety level in the room drop. I did not call on kids randomly but went in alphabetical order so they knew exactly what to expect. We went through the vocabulary words one by one until we had covered an entire page.

I was amazed. Students were focused. No one whispered or crumbled paper for spit balls. This was their way of learning. My college instructors would call them “auditory learners.” Most got As on the next quiz.

I am still a little baffled by this situation. Is my confusion because I learn best by reading about something, then writing or doing a practical activity related to what I have read? Perhaps. So, as I plan lessons for the second quarter, I am including more time for old-fashioned lectures and reading aloud for the kids who want it so much.

My worry – will they survive in AP classes?

Part of me is sad for the kids who learn in such an old-fashioned way. How will they make it in the more free-form high school honors classes that I know they are capable of taking?

I picture them in college waiting to take notes until a college professor opens the textbook and read it to them. Or in a high-tech work group waiting in vain for a team leader to write out instructions for that day’s work.

I worry about them.

Let it go, my teacher friends tell me. They will find their way.

And so I do. After all, I am finding mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

Turning a toddler’s potty seat into a bathroom pass seemed like a great way to discourage middle school students from leaving my classroom for too many breaks.

After all, what self-respecting 11-, 12- or 13-year-old would want to be seen walking down the hall holding a red and green Elmo seat with the expressions “Ha! Ha!” and “LOL?”

I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. Other teachers use it too.

Still, I was wrong. The potty seat goes into the trash and I am starting a new system this week.

Laughing Elmo seat was embarrassing

Elmo’s laughing image did nothing to discourage most boys from leaving my class as often as they pleased. Some would even come back into the classroom holding it high like a sports trophy — disrupting everything that was going on.

And girls who probably really needed a break would look at the potty pass, turn up their noses and go back to their seats.

It might have taken me more than a month to realize I was making a mistake by using the potty seat, but I was fortunate to recently spend a school day with master teacher Stephanie Franquinha, a Chandler, Ariz., Pueblo Middle School teacher and Spanish department chair for the Kyrene School District.

“NEVER embarrass your students,” Stephanie told me when I asked about her classroom management philosophy.

This idea made me stop and think about everything I have been doing since I began teaching in August . I have made rules and given passes, detentions, rewards and praise … but basic politeness has not entered into many of my actions.

I watched Stephanie’s finesse with her large classes of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Nearly all of the students were very clear about the rules and their responsibilities in class. When one would get out of line, Stephanie would walk over and talk to them quietly. She never stopped a class to call anyone out. The other students did not even look up when she redirected someone here or there.

Quiet classroom management works

At one point, Stephanie took a bottle away from a kid who was playing with it instead of paying attention. I was sure a few heads would turn and watch what was going on. Nope. She and I were the only ones who knew a student had been reprimanded. Everyone else was hard at work.

My own classes have been a bit calmer since my day with Stephanie. But I still have a lot of work to do on my system.

A few weeks ago I asked other experienced teachers  to share their wisdom. Here are a few more tips:

Tips from other master teachers

“Keep Sundays for yourself. Run your errands and do everything you need to do on Saturday. Then lay on the sofa with a good book or movie on Sunday,” recommends Kathy Nunez,  a history teacher at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School in Phoenix

“Find an exercise outlet that helps you physically and mentally,” advises retired Mesa Dobson High School English teacher Mike McClellan. “I used to take a four-mile run after school.”

“Self correct as you go along and never be too harsh on yourself,” says retired Mesa Redbird Elementary teacher Cindy Eckert-Timm.

“Nice matters,” coaches Beth Snyder, science teacher at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Phoenix. “You know how they say ‘Don’t smile before Christmas?’ Forget that.

“Laugh at yourself. Eat well. Hydrate. Sleep.”

“Remember that the kids will get it,” advises Sara Adams, a language arts teacher at Kyrene Altadeña. “All teachers doubt themselves but then there is that moment when the light goes on.”

What’s next for my students

Early on, I decided one of my missions is to teach my students how to plan their time and be responsible for themselves in the classroom. The Elmo potty pass was not doing anything to help kids with those goals.

So this week I am going to distribute two cardboard restroom passes to each student — to be used between now and the end of the term. Students don’t use the passes can turn them in before report card time and get extra credit points.

This idea also comes from Stephanie Franquinha. I will write again about how well it works!