25+ Elements Teachers are Expected to Infuse Into Their Lesson Plans

I used to wonder why I couldn't seem to get all my lesson planning done in the 1.5hr planning period I'm given every other day for the purpose.  Then I started keeping track of all the "unfunded mandates" heaped on me and my fellow teachers by administrators, professional development resources, and society.  These are extra skills, theories, and best practices that we are expected to infuse into our lessons IN ADDITION to content mastery.  Believe me, a LOT of creativity and extra work are required to design lessons that serve multiple purposes at once.   But which of the following are you willing for you student to forego?  Yeah, that's the rub - once you read the list, I think you'll agree they're all worthwhile. I think I finally understand why I - and so many other consciencious teachers - end up regularly working an extra 12-20 hours a week to make sure that all of the following happens:
  1. Bloom's Taxonomy.  This widely-regarded theory of learning posits that learning can occur at different levels of cognitive challenge, in the following order from least challenging to most challenging: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating.  What teachers are expected to do is to ensure learning is always occuring at the highest possible level of cognitive challenge. 
  2. Schlecty's Design Qualities of Choice.  Mr. Schlecty's contribution to the body of educational wisdom is to posit that children are most engaged in learning when the following conditions are met: the learning is focused on a product that is interesting or that matters to them, the task is "authentic" (has real world significance), they are allowed to work with peers, they are able to exercise some level of choice, the assignment includes novelty/variety,  and their performance will be affirmed in a meaningful way.  Accordingly, effective teachers will attempt to infuse these principles into their teaching and assessment.
  3. Marzano's Instructional Strategies.  Based on a metastudy of instructional strategies, Marzano et. al. identified a list of strategies that have been proven by research to increase mastery and retention of information.  The challenge for teachers is to ensure that they utilize these research-based strategies to deliver their curriculum.  Bet you're wondering what these miracle strategies are!  In fact, they're pretty intuitive, and include: identifying similarities/differences, summarizing/note-taking, reinforcing effort/providing recognition, homework/practice, cooperative learning, nonlinguistic representation, setting objectives/providing feedback, generating/testing hypotheses, and using cues/questions/advanced organizers.
  4. Differentiation.  This buzzword encompasses the enormous task of creating instruction that can be easily customized to accomodate the needs of learners with different strengths and challenges.  A laudible goal that most teachers heartily endorse, but it's a whole lot more easier to create a lesson designed to teach the same thing the same way to everyone, than to teach the same thing in different ways to different groups of students (simultaneously, by the way) ... all without creating the perception that some students are in any way less capable than others.
  5. Special needs.  IDEA codifies the (entirely appropriate) conviction that students with special needs have the right to be educated in classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers whenever possible.  The good news is that, except in the case of the most impactful disabilities, this is usually entirely feasible.  The challenge, however, is learning/physical/emotional disabilities don't "go away"  just because a student has been placed in a regular classroom. Teachers need to be mindful of the nature and impact of the learning challenges of these students, and to ensure that curriculum is presented in such a way that these students are able to access it.
  6. ABA/Behaviour Modification.  It is often necessary for teachers to take an active role in assessing or modifying the behaviour of students with special needs (or suspected of having special needs).  Their curriculum must be designed so as to allow time and opportunity to measure/plot learning and behaviour (ex: behaviour charts, ABA, Response to Intervention).
  7. Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  A gentleman named Howard Gardner posited that IQ can't be measured in one realm; rather, humans demonstrate intelligence in eight different realms: spatial, linguistic, logical/mathematical, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.  The challenge for the teacher is to find ways to assess students that align with their intellectual strengths - for instance, allowing a student with strong linguistic IQ to respond verbally, a student with strong musical IQ to respond musically/rhythmically, or a student with strong naturlistic IQ to respond in a wholistically.  Definitely a challenge!
  8. Learning Styles Theory.  This widely credited theory posits that students learn visually, orally, and tactilely - but that each student possesses relative strengths or weakenesses in each of these three aptitudes. Therefore, teachers are expected to present material in all three styles, and to assess student mastery in the style in which they are strongest.  (NOTE: recent research has suggested no increase in content mastery or retention when this technique is used, so maybe someday this "unfunded mandate" will drop away ... but for now, the theory is so widely known and accepted, it will probably take a long time before it is as widely discredited as an educational best practice.) 
  9. Transition/Career Skills.  There will always be disagreement over the ultimate goal of education (is it to teaching critical thinking? create cultural homogeneity? train students to be good citizens/good workers/good taxpayers?) ... however, most people's definition includes preparing students to gain successful employment.   To this end, schools/teachers are expected to infuse into their lessons such vital career preparation as how to use IT, write a resume, create and comprehend informational text, work as a team, etc.  While we're at it, we're also expected to expose our students to a wide range of career options, and to encourage them to explore/consider career prerequisites.
  10. Functional Skills.  Another purpose of public education most folks would get behind is the necessity to produce students who will be able to function as adults: balance a checkbook, make good choices about health, identify a scam, effectively identify/weigh pros and cons before reaching a decision.  Accordingly, we teachers are asked to infuse these skills into our curriculum.
  11. Cooperative Learning/Teaming.  This is a specific skill that students will require in order to succeed in life, and one that schools are expected to take the lead in modelling. 
  12. Critical Thinking.  Ask someone who has graduated from college and they will almost certainly support the idea that a critical function of public education is teaching students how to think.  In this increasingly complex world, it is increasingly important that we produce citizens able to evaluate complex variables, recognize subtlety, and project consequences. As teachers, we possess a unique ability not only to encourage students to engage in critical thinking, but to expose them to the ways in which critical thinking has shaped our current world (science, politics, literature, etc.)
  13. Literacy.  A fundamental goal of public education is to create a literate society. However, a single English class every year is almost never sufficient for teaching true literacy - the ability to effectively communicate and comprehend through the use of written language.  Therefore, teachers of all subjects - including math, science, history, physical education - are asked to create lessons that will build literacy skills.
  14. Cultural Literacy.  This term is used to define the "universal information" that citizens of this country need to understand in order to be interpret allusions, comprehend language, and recognize the origin of certain widely-held beliefs, customs and shared ideas.  Imagine watching a show as basic as The Simpsons without a basic understanding of history, literature, custom/culture, proverb or idiom and you'll see what I mean.  (And don't even try comprehending more sophisticated cartoons like Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes.)  Our job as teachers is to ensure that students possessing a staggering range of cultural, racial, social and economic backgrounds emerge from school possessing enough commen knowledge to be able to effectively comprehend and communicate with each other. 
  15. Multiculturalism.  Speaking of students with different cultural backgrounds, schools are expected to build familiarity with and respect for diverse cultures.  You think not?  Then explain why most colleges require 3yrs of a foreign language in high school.  It's no good being able to comprehend and communicate with folks from different cultures if you're ignorant of (or, worse yet, scornful of) their cultural differences.
  16. Cultural Sensitivity. A subset of "differentiation," this describes the imperative placed on teachers to be aware of how cultural differences impact learning.  For instance, students from some countries may feel very uncomfortable with assignments that require direct competition, while others may come from cultures that condone speaking out and interrupting others.  Good teachers are expected to design lessons that respect and accomodate these differences.
  17. Socioeconomic Sensitivity. Yet another subset of "differentiation," this describes the imperative placed on teachers to be aware of how socioeconomic differences impact learning.  For instance, students who are hungry, homeless, or emotionally scared by the stress of monetary struggle may have difficulty focusing on classwork, completing homework, or staying awake in class.  Good teachers - and caring people in general - are expected to recognize the symptoms of socioeconomic struggle and accomodate learning appropriately.
  18. Test Taking Skills. Alas, as long as NCLB continues, it won't be good enough for students to be smart - they will need to be able to prove they are smart on a variety of standardized tests.  Accordingly, teachers are expected to infuse their lessons with test vocabulary (ex: which of these best describes ...), test-taking tips/tricks (ex: eliminate distractors), and practice tests formatted to resemble the standized test du jour.
  19. Note Taking Skills.  Contrary to popular conception, many students don't naturally develop effective note-taking strategies.  Therefore, it is important that teachers expose students to a variety of techniques (ex: outlining, Cornell notes, box and underline), model their use, provide opportunities for students to practice the skills, and provide feedback so that students can continue to build effective note-taking skills.  Try getting through college without good note-taking skills ... or try borrowing notes from someone who has no clue how to take them!
  20. Learning Strategies. Another popular misconception is that students know how to study.  If only! Therefore, it is necessary that teachers to expose students to a variety of study techniques (ex: flash cards, outlining, mnemonics, cover&quiz), model their use, provide opportunities for students to practice the skills, etc.  I feel especially sorry for smart kids who don't have to learn how to study ... until they get into a tough college and find out that now that they have to, they have no clue how to go about it!
  21. LEARN Model/model-practice-do.  Research suggests that students learn best when your organize your information in the following order: Link new information to old --> Engage the student --> Activate learning --> Reflect on what they've learned --> foreshadow what comes Next (LEARN, get it?).  Another version of this is model-practice-do.  However, to structure lessons in this way requires thought and considerable planning, to ensure skills are appropriately broken down, introduced in a scaffolded way, and organized accordingly.
  22. Active Learning. Research likewise suggests that students learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning process.  This means creating lesson plans that encourage the students to "teach themselves" through hands-on learning, high-interest activities, cooperative learning, or other active learning techniques.
  23. IB/IBMYP.  Our school participates in a pyramid (pyramid = elementary schools, middle schools, and the high school(s) they feed into) that has adopted the International Baccalaureate curriculum.  That means infusing the elements of IB (areas of interaction, approaches to learning, etc.) into the regular curriculum. 
  24. Citizenship/Social Values/Community Service.  Another core value of IB is social values/community service, but many schools not involved in IB place emphasis on the importance of teaching students to be good citizens.  Does your school require that students earn a certain number of community service hours? Or participate in community service projects? Hold voter registration drives? See?  This burden is especially borne by Civics teachers, though all teachers are expected to infuse good social values into their curriculum.
  25. Appropriate Behaviour.  There was a time when instilling good behaviour was widely accepted as the obligation of parents, but over the years schools have been expected to take more leadership in the process of teaching basic respect and responsibility.  Behaviours often specifically targeted include bullying, sexual harassment, poor self-esteem, and intolerance.


Quotes About Education

True story - I was inspired to "career switch" from consulting to teaching by a quote: "You need to be the change you want to see in the world" - Gandhi.  After years of reading (and sometimes authoring) reports that predicted various dire future outcomes for our world, eventually accepted that the only way to avoid the calamities these papers kept forecasting was if people start making better informed, better considered choices than they have made so far. 

There may have been a time when readin', writin', and 'rithmatic were good enough, but the world we live in now demands that its citizens possess serious critical thinking chops.  We desperately need citizens who can be relied upon to proactively gather info, analyze it, prioritize it, and then take appropriate action upon it. 
The quotes gathered below have been assembled from various publications and websites, over time, to remind me (especially after one of "those" days) why I am doing this.

The purpose of education
  • "Give a child a fish and he eats for a day; teach a child to fish and he will never go hungry" - old proverb (variously attributed)
  • "Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained" - James A. Garfield (1831-1881) President of the United States
  • "Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends" - Benjamin Disraeli
  • "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave" - Lord Brougham
  • "Whenever people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government" - Thomas Jefferson
  • "Remember that our nation's first great leaders were also our first great scholars" - John F. Kennedy
  • "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world" - Nelson Mandela
  • "Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war" - Maria Montessori
  • "Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army" - Edward Everett
  • "The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action." - Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) English philosopher, political theorist 
  • "Education is not the answer to the question. Education is the means to the answers to all questions" - William Allin
  • "Education costs money, but then so does ignorance" - Sir Claus Moser
  • "A liberally educated person meets new ideas with curiosity and fascination. An illiberally educated person meets new ideas with fear" - James B. Stockdale
  • "A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and of vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness" - from The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe, 1764.
  • "History is a race between education and catastrophe" - H.G. Wells
  • "Only the educated are free" - Epictetus (55 - 135 AD)
The nature of education
  • "Education is not filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire" - William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) Irish poet, dramatist
  • "An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know.  It's about being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't" - Anatole France (1844-1924)
  • "Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance" - Will Durant
  • "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" - Aristotle (384-322 BC)
  • "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field" - Niels Bohr (1885-1962) physicist
  • "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows" - Sydney J. Harris
  • "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school" - Albert Einstein
  • "I am still learning" - Michelangelo
On teaching
  • "Who dares to teach must never cease to learn" - John Cotton Dana
  • "A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops" - Henry Brooks Adams
  • "I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think" - Socrates
  • "The job of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts" - C.S. Lewis
  • "Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left alone to educate themselves" - Abbe Dimnet
  • "Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve" - Roger Lewin
  • "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand" - old proverb (variously attributed)
  • "Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself" - Chinese proverb
Just for fun
  • "First, God created idiots.  That was just for practice.  Then He created school boards" - Mark Twain
  • "It'll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers" - variously attributed
  • "A gentleman need not know Latin, but he should at least have forgotten it" - Brander Matthews
  • "Education is what you get when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't" - Pete Seeger
  • "You can get all A's and still flunk life" - Walker Percy


12 Things Teachers Should Know About Students With Autism

What follows is information geared towards helping teachers work with the types of higher functioning autistic students who they are increasingly seeing in their general education classrooms.  This list reflects my insights as: (1) a person with a masters degree in special education, with specific emphasis on autism spectrum disorders; (2) a general and special education teacher; and (3) the mom of a son with an autism spectrum disorder.   
  1. Autism is a "pervasive development disorder."  That means that individuals with autism demonstrate "pervasive" (lasting) impairment in three or more developmental areas.  The most common areas of impairment include: gross motor functioning (awkward gate/odd facial expressions); fine motor functioning (poor handwriting/odd pencil grip); social functioning (poor social skills); cognitive functioning (impaired critical thinking skills); speech/language functioning (odd speech patterns); semantic/pragmatic language comprehension (impaired reading and listening comprehension) and emotional functioning (difficulties with empathy, excessive anxiety). 
  2. Autism is a "spectrum" disorder.  This means that each individual with autism exhibits a unique mix of relative strengths and weaknesses in the above areas of functioning. For instance, some students may demonstrate good critical thinking but poor handwriting; or, they may demonstrate relatively normal speech patterns but facial tics or grimaces.  Be prepared for your students with autism to require very different levels and types of support.
  3. Stims.  Short for "stimulations," students with autism often have physical gestures, "tics", noises, or words that they repeat, particularly in situations in which they are experiencing stress. (Examples include: rocking, tapping foot, touching nose, making repetitive noises). These stims are coping/calming mannerism; generally speaking, it is better not to try to extinguish these stims unless you are in a position to simultaneously introduce a replacement stim (possibly something more socially acceptable or less noticeable) that can serve the same functional purpose (self-calming).
  4. Sensory sensitivity.  Students with autism may have an unusual (oversensitive or undersensitive) reaction to physical stimulii.  For instance, they may be oversensitive to noise, light, pressure (seatbelts, elastic waistbands), or texture (food, clothing, water).  Simultaneously, they may lack sensitivity to pain.  These sensory sensitivities may trigger "meltdowns" (see below).  As a teacher it is important to understand that though these sensory sensitivities may not be reasonable (or even discernable), they are very real to your student, and therefore need to be addressed in some fashion. 
  5. Obsessive interests. Students with autism often have one or more areas of obsessive interest.  These areas of interest range from fairly functional (example: a fascination with math, physics or history) to fairly eccentric (example: a fascination with school buses, maps or laundry machines).  Obsessive interests may change/evolve over time. A good way to motivate students with autism to learn is to build their obsessive interest into the curriculum.  (Example: let them write reports related to their interest; create math word problems related to their interest.)
  6. Literal comprehension.  Students with autism tend to have very poor pragmatic (practical) and semantic (social) understanding of language. As a practical result, they may have extreme difficulty comprehending non-literal information.  When possible, information should be presented in a clear and literal fashion.  When teaching these students to identify and comprehend implied information, it will probably be necessary to explicitly teach them how to look for "clues" in the text (oral or written).  Here are some corollaries to this: (1) students with autism rarely lie, as they find it difficult to use language in non-literal (untrue) ways; (2) students with autism have a tendency to perceive decisions are black/white, failing to appreciate that there may be options "in between"; (3) students with autism respond well to "rules-based" instruction - give them a rule and they will follow it!
  7. Eye Contact/Body Language. Students with autism often have difficulty recognizing and decoding "body language." As a result, they may (without realizing they are being inappropriate) stand too close, speak in monotone, use inappropriate volume, miss non-verbal signals (example: "I'm bored of this topic" look), or stare at inappropriate parts of the body. You may need to extinguish these behaviours in explicit ways: for example, by using point charts or some other incentive-based system.  Making eye contact can be particularly uncomfortable for them. (And largely pointless, since they are unable to "read" messages conveyed by facial expression). If possible, allow students with autism to avert their eyes when talking; alternatively, you may wish to encourage them to look at the speaker's mouth, which will make it appear as though they are making eye contact.
  8. Troubles with generalization. Students with autism may have difficulty generalizing information learned in one context to other contexts. For instances, if taught that jogging is healthy, they may not intuitively comprehend that walking is healthy as well. Or, if they had a good time in lunch yesterday, they may not intuitively predict that they probably will have a good time in lunch again today.  Connections between old information and new information often need to be explicitly pointed out to them.
  9. Troubles with "theory of mind." Students with autism often have difficulty grasping that other people think and perceive the world differently than themselves. They genuinely believe that everyone has the same background knowledge as themselves (which explains why they often launch into conversations without providing necessary introductory info); they genuinely do not understand that everyone does not share their interests (which explains why they expect others to share their obsessive interests); and they genuinely believe that everyone shares their perception of right/wrong (which explains why they can be very defensive when told that they have done something "wrong" - they do not perceive it as being wrong themselves and, therefore, can't understand how anyone else could perceive it otherwise).  You may choose to remediate each of these separately, but it is useful to recognize that they stem from the same underlying cognitive deficit.
  10. Anxiety.  Because of their deficits in generalizing, comprehension, and critical thinking, students with autism constantly find themselves in situations that are unfamiliar.  This, in turn, triggers anxiety.  (Imagine never being able to anticipate what's coming next or knowing whether it's going to be something safe or terrifying ... you'd live with a high level of anxiety too!) The best way to treat anxiety in students with autism is to establish "safe" areas and familiar patterns.  Visual schedules work well for helping them anticipate upcoming events.  When a pattern needs to be disrupted, it is useful to foreshadow the disruption - perhaps even helping them come up with a "script" they can use to cope with the situation - well in advance.
  11. Meltdowns.  Students with autism may succumb to a unique type of tantrum known as a "meltdown." Understand that this is not the same thing as a temper tantrum, and must not be handled in the same way.  Temper tantrums commonly arise when children attempt to manipulate a situation that is not to their liking.  Meltdowns, in contrast, occur when the child's coping mechanisms fail and they lapse into a state of panic in which they instinctively seek those most fundamental of protective instincts, "fight or flight."  Students in meltdown are not capable of processing logical information, no matter how calmly delivered.  Yelling or punishment, rather than extinguishing meltdowns, will usually escalate them by making these students feel even less safe.  The most effective way to cope with meltdowns, once they occur, is to remove the student from the stimulus, place them in a neutral (preferably prearranged) environment in which they feel safe (a room, a corner, even a closet), and give them time to recover their senses.  An even more effective strategy is to prevent meltdowns from occuring by recognizing the physical signs that a meltdown is building (ex: tensing of muscles, increase in stims) and immediately removing the child from whatever stimulus is threatening to overwhelming them.  Eventually, your goal should be to help your students with autism learn to self-monitor and self-implement appropriate coping mechanisms (example: asking that a stimulus be removed or modified; seeking safe harbor) to negative stimulii.
  12. Separate them from students who manipulate.  Although there may be some compulsion to place all your kids with "social skills issues" in one group, it is very important to separate students with autism from students with conduct disorders/disabilities.  Students with autism are not only incapable of manipulating others (they lack the social sophistication), but they are incapable of realizing when they are being manipulated.  The worst possible situation in which to place them is teamed with students who gain power/positive motivation by manipulating others.  (Think lambs among wolves ...!)


16 Most Effective Classroom Management Techniques

I'm a special ed teacher, which means I choose to work with kids that have attention deficit, oppositional/defiance disorder, depression, bipolar disorder/mania, and other behaviours that make classroom management challenging. Yet I'm also a gentle soul who doesn't like to yell.  How do I do it? After reading lots of books and trying out lots of things in my classroom, here are my tried and true, truly indispensible tools of the trade.  (NOTE: This is one of the few lists that is copyrighted - see copyright notice at the bottom - as I may wish to work these ideas into professional articles or books in the future. Please DO NOT use without the author's permission!)
  1. All seats face front. Our "base" classroom configuration is all seats facing front, with as much space between them as possible given physical constraints of the room. When we do cooperative learning, I have the kids move their desks into pairs or fours ... but this base configurations sends the message that class is about facing front and paying attention, not chatting with friends.
  2. Assigned seating.  You aren't being the "cool teacher" when you let students sit with friends who distract them ... you're just being irresponsible.  Your job is to give your students the best possible opportunity to focus on instruction without distraction. You can build friend-time into the curriculum, but for the students, this should never be an expectation.
  3. Non-verbal prompts.  When the purpose of misbehaviour is to attract attention, drawing attention to the misbehaviour positively reinforces it.  That's why it's important to develop non-verbal ways of moderating behaviour.  The "mom/dad stare" (the one that says "cut it out now; I'm not kidding") is an indispensible tool.  Hand signals, prearrange signals, subtle shakes of the head, and eye contact also work well.
  4. Proximity Control.  Constantly move around the classroom. Teach from wherever you are standing.  Kids generally won't misbehave when you're standing right next to them.  This also gives you a chance to proactively monitor for engagement and understanding. 
  5. Class rules. I know the Great Gods of Education advocate a few (3-4) very general class rules, but consider a backup list of rules that address specific issues that arise in your class population.  No need to duplicate school rules; the purpose of class rules (no more than 10) is to "clarify" the way in which those general school rules apply to certain specific behaviours. For instance, my kids tend to do a lot of play-fighting, sound-alike cursing, singing/rapping, and beating on desks.  Therefore, I have class rules that specificially address each of these behaviours.
  6. Consistent Rules, Consistently Enforced.  Create rules that are authentic, reasonable and fair; make sure your students understand not just the rules but the reason for the rules; and then, enforce them consistently.  It is the nature of kids to "push" their teachers to find out what they can get away with.  You do them a favor by establishing a wall so obvious and impervious that they know to stop wasting their time testing it.  Just don't err in the opposite direction, a tactic I call "overthreatening" - threatening a consequence so dire or inappropriate that it's obvious to the kids you won't actually go through with it.  Students can tell the difference between a real wall and a fake "I'm-pretending-there's-a-wall-and-it's-big-and-scary!" wall.
  7. Punish the behaviour, not the child.  Disapprove of behaviours ... don't disapprove of children!  Children need to understand that your reminders and constraints come from a place of caring and concern, not from a place of censure.  Remind students that your primary concern is maintaining an environment in which everyone has the best opportunity to learn ... so when you move someone to a new assigned seat, or ask them to be quiet, or tell them to lift their head off their desk, it's not punishment ... it's a modification designed to help them (or the other members of the class) learn more successfully, because it matters to you that they are successful.  I remind my students throughout the year that as long as I'm picking on them, it means I still care; it's when I stop picking on them that they know I no longer care. (Naturally, I never stop picking on them!)  When they give me attitude, I like to ask: "Why do you think I'm picking on you?" It's hard for them to stay affronted after they've grudgingly answered: "Because you care."
  8. Teach respect and responsibility.  Don't assume students intuitively understand how to apply these terms to the vast number of real-life situations that they encounter in the course of the day.  Help them out by verbally identifying appropriate behaviours and why they are appropriate.  (Ex: "Mr. Smith - It's disrespectful to interrupt someone when they're talking to you because it implies that you place little value on what they are saying"; "Ms. Clark - A true apology means not just saying you're sorry, but modifying your behaviour to prove that you are sorry.")
  9. Model respect and fairness.  Treat students as you yourself would like to be treated - which means addressing them with courtesy (I make liberal use of the courtesy titles "mister", "misses", "sir",. and "ma'am"), listening respectfully to their ideas/opinions, and treating them with consistency and fairness.  Any military commander will tell you that controlling the high ground is strategically critical; so too is occupying the moral high ground in your classroom.  Hoever (big caveat)  ... also make sure class rule #10 is "The Ref is always right." Life doesn't come with instant replay, which means that sometimes, as a teacher, you are going to need to "call them as you see them." Help your students understand that sometimes the calls will go for them, and sometimes against them, but that the ref's call must be respected as the final authority.  This is an important lesson for the classroom and for life.
  10. No downtime! Downtime/boredom is the enemy of classroom management.  Not only do you lose whatever time you waste, but you lose even more time refocusing your students on the task at hand. For students, "no downtime" means bell-to-bell instruction with smooth, seamless transitions between activities.  For teachers, "no downtime" requires being prepared, deploying your materials in advance, and anticipating/planning for contingencies.
  11. Use positive reinforcement.  Nothing is as poisonous as an atmosphere in which errors are promptly corrected but good behaviour is "expected" and, therefore, unacknowledged. My own experience has taught me that you must provide positive reinforcement at a ratio of at least 3:1 to negative reinforcement.  But (big caveat) - no overpraising! Kids know when they are being condescended to and will lose respect for your judgment if you persist.  Also, don't stop positively reinforcing a behaviour just because it appears to have become "habit."  While it is appropriate to fade your positive reinforcement over time, students deserve periodic recognition for sustained good behaviour.
  12. Vest students in their own learning.  External motivation only goes so far; eventually, kids have to become internally motivated to learn. To foster internal motivation, you must be proactively help kids understand the direct relationship between what you are teaching and the skills they need to achieve their goals as adults.  If they understand why their efforts are important, they will gradually place a higher priority on those efforts. Caveat: don't make the mistake of assuming "so you can pass the test" or "so you can get a good grade" are sufficiently motivational. Many kids don't care about tests or grades ... but they do care about college, being able to work a job they enjoy, living independently, helping their families, and being able to have choices about their lives.
  13. Use humor (but never humiliate).  Humor is good - it makes awkward moments less awkward (as when a student gives a wildly inappropriate answer), it makes boring lessons less boring ("let's learn hyperbole by telling mama jokes!"), and it personalizes you as a teacher.  Sarcasm, however, is wicked - a form of humor that involves the humiliation of someone less clever by someone who is more clever.  Not only is the humiliation (in any form) of a child by an adult inherently shameful, but it almost always has an effect opposite of that intended, as children who have been humiliated are rarely chastened by their teacher's display of wit or power: more often, they become angry, sullen, and/or defensive.
  14. Pick your battles.  If you fight every battle with the same ferocity, you'll soon grow exhausted ... and, by the way, deprive your students of an opportunity to appreciate that life is rarely black and white, but mostly grey.  Let your most important objectives drive your most important battles.  (Ex: making them understand the interaction between the three branches of government is important. Making them remember to sharpen their pencil at the beginning of class, not so much.  So, save your energy for negotiating with the student who has his head down, and learn to live with kids sharpening their pencils in the middle of class.)
  15. Never escalate.  Along the same lines, remember that, as the adult, you are the authority in the room.  You never, ever compromise your authority by allowing a student to control or escalate a situation.  Some students find the attention - even negative attention - to be positively reinforcing.  In such situations, the only way to win is not to play. (My favorite quote from the '80 classic Wargames.) You retain control of the situation by (1) removing the child from the classroom, so that the attention of peers is removed as a positive reinforcer; and (2) remaining calm, reasonable, consistent, and fair.
  16. Make your lessons active and engaging.  This may be last but it is in no way "least." Always, always remember that your students are children.  They crave activity, mental stimulation, and play.  Create lessons that make them feel like they're playing, and classroom management takes care of itself.
Copyright 2010 by Shirley Jeanette Thomas


11 Characteristics of Highly Effective Teachers

I was in the process of generating my own list when a teaching colleague forwarded me an article from The Atlantic that seconded most of my observations, but verified by data collected by Teach for America (a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools) over the past 20 years.  So here's the list, and also a link to the article:
  1. They figure out what the students need to learn and then plan backwards from there
  2. They don't waste time - every activity purposely and deliberately moves students towards the desired goal
  3. They are organized and prepared (relevant, valid materials; smooth transitions)
  4. They constantly revise their teaching methods to improve effectiveness
  5. They set high expectations for students (and their families)
  6. They constantly assess to ensure that students are genuinely learning
  7. They establish a consistent classroom routine and stick to it
  8. They use engaging materials and active learning techniques
  9. They employ research-validated instructional techniques, such as I do, we do, you do (teacher modeling -> guided practice --> independent practice)
  10. They model enthusiasm for the subject they are teaching
  11. They create a classroom environment in which students feel safe, respected, and confident


9 Educational Reforms We Need NOW!

As both an educator and a citizen, I am increasingly troubled by the widening gap between the education we are providing our children and the education they will actually require to become functional, responsible citizens.  Doesn't anyone see the discrepancy between a world that is growing exponentially in complexity and an educational system that hasn't changed in any meaningful way in the past 50 years?  (NOTE: This is one of the few lists that is copyrighted - see copyright notice at the bottom - as I may wish to work these ideas into professional articles or books in the future.  Please do not copy or paraphrase without author's permission!) 
  1. Teach Critical Thinking.  Life doesn't come with a textbook, so why are we teaching our students to copy answers out of textbooks?  We need to present learning as a puzzle and then teach our students how to effectively gather, piece together, and interpret information to create meaning.  Moreover, we need to teach in ways that require students to use authentic materials and generate answers in authentic ways.   FYI, the International Baccalaureate program, an international standard curriculum which is slowly gaining momentum in US middle and high schools, emphasizes teaching critical thinking skills - requiring, for instance, that students take a "theory of knowledge" class that forces them to reflect upon the ways that humans acquire, synthesize, and apply knowledge.
  2. Teach Rhetoric.  Speaking of which ... in this increasingly slick and sophisticated world, it's critical that citizens be able recognize and evaluate the rhetorical devices that advertisers, politicians, and others use to shape and manipulate public discourse.  I'm not advocating reverting to some ancient Greek model of teaching; however, every student ought to be able to construct a basic syllogism and identify/recognize the basic forms of logical fallacy.
  3. Make Kids Write.am aware that most adults don't end up having to write papers for a living. But that's not the reason why we need to be spending more time teaching students how to write. Rather, the discipline of writing forces the writer to organize, prioritize and support his ideas ... a skill that, as adults, we use every day of our lives.
  4. Update our Science Curriculum.  Our science curriculum is not keeping up with the modern world.   We need to seriously beef up our science curriculum to ensure that students graduating from high school understand the pros and cons of alternative fuels, the difference between organic and conventional farming, and how their cellphones/ipods/computers work. 
  5. Ramp Down the Advanced Math.  While I do agree that all Americans should understand the basics of algebra, trig, geometry, and statistics, I believe that only those destined to enter mathematics or a science should be required to take calculus or any of the other advanced maths.  Truth is, the vast majority of students in the course of their lifetime will never use advanced mathematics, and the time we're spending teaching them advanced mathematics could be put to better use.
  6. Revisit the Foreign Language Requirement.  The world changes, globalization marches on ... but our colleges still require every student to complete 3 years of a foreign language (generally Spanish, French, German or Latin) for admittance.  This is archaic. I contend that while we should (by all means) continue to encourage students who wish to pursue a foreign language to do so, we should no longer be requiring all students to do so.  However, we absolutely should be requiring students to participate in coursework designed to introduce them to the cultures, conditions, and issues facing specific countries and our globe as a whole.  And, while we're at it, we also need to eliminate our current Euro-language bias and start providing more opportunities for students to learn world languages.
  7. Teach Technology.  In a world in which just about every job requires a working knowledge of technology, we can no longer afford to relegate technology classes to the "electives" department.  NO student should be allowed to graduate without a working knowledge of basic hardware and software.
  8. Teach Functional Skills.  It seems unconscionable to me that we are graduating students who can apply the Pythagorean Theorem, but who have no idea how to balance a checkbook, calculate interest, determine the return on an investment, fill out a WE-2, or do a cost/benefit analysis.  If we want our citizens to stop signing up for risky mortgages, taking out credit cards as usurious rates, or choosing the $2000 cash back instead of opting for the 0% interest, we need to teach them how to make these decisions ... because it's clear that they're not figuring it out on their own!
  9. Teach Ethics.  Every generation faces its challenges, but I would argue that no generation is going to face as many ethical dilemmas as the students in our schools right now.  Ethics is critical thinking + values ... which DOES NOT require teaching values (too many people confuse "values" with religion; these are NOT the same thing!), but DOES require teaching students to thoughtfully evaluate the role that values should (and should not) play in making decisions that impact individuals, cultures, and society as a whole.
Copyright 2010 by Shirley Jeanette Thomas