Wednesday, October 11, 2017
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you. That’s not my job.”
That’s what the A/V guy said to me before he left me in the room with a computer that wouldn’t play the audio on a video I was supposed to show. I was working as a presenter at a conference in downtown Chicago, and this was my first experience with labor unions.
What I didn’t know is that audio and visual belong to two different unions. The organizers at the conference had to hire two sets of workers to support its presenters in technology. The so-called A/V guy was in actuality just a V guy. He belonged to the video union. He could help me with anything involving the video aspect of my presentation, but he wasn’t allowed to touch the audio stuff, which was the realm of the A guy, who happened to be elsewhere when I needed his technical support. Meanwhile, the trash collectors’ union was on strike, so stinky bags of garbage piled up on streets in front of shops and in alleyways. No one was allowed to do anyone else’s work. That was the rule. “It’s not my job” was something we heard a lot that week.
I wonder how often we adopt that not-my-job mentality in education. In Texas public schools, we don’t have unions, but it seems like we are quick to disavow any teaching task that doesn’t fall neatly into our subject or specialization area.
Here are five areas which, as I see it, are the jobs of every adult in a school to teach, no matter what:
1. It’s everyone’s job to teach reading. I hope I’m not the first person to tell you that reading needs to happen frequently in every classroom. If we are preparing students for their futures, which will likely include at least some post-secondary education and a career, we must make them competent, confident readers who are able to comprehend and think about texts. That means not pre-digesting material for them and spitting it into their mouths like a momma bird. That means providing students with rich, high-interest content-area texts and giving them the tools to comprehend them in authentic ways—not study questions, packets, and worksheets. That means having discussions with students about what to do when they struggle with a word’s meaning (hint: the answer isn’t always “look it up in the dictionary,” but that’s an okay option if you’ve exhausted other possibilities), what to do when they realize that their comprehension has broken down, and how to adjust their approach for various reading purposes. You don’t have to have a degree in reading to do this; if you know how to read (which I assume you do if you’ve made it this far into this article), you have the skills to help kids get better at reading. They’re not going to get better at reading unless they read, and if reading only happens in their language arts class, that’s probably not enough practice to lead to growth. Make it part of your job to help your students improve as readers.
2. It’s everyone’s job to teach writing. For some reason, writing scares teachers, even English teachers. Can we all just agree that the ability to write with clarity is an essential academic skill as well as an essential skill for most careers? If so, we need to get over our collective fear and start implementing writing in our classes on a routine basis. This doesn’t mean we have to start writing research papers in math class. Teachers can easily incorporate writing as a learning tool in any content area. Start with something simple like a quick write or an exit ticket. Give students something engaging to think about to introduce a lesson and have them write about it before discussing it with the class. Ask students to explain a concept or a process in writing. I can hear what you’re thinking now: “I am not a writing expert. I wouldn’t know how to grade writing. I have forgotten all about grammar. What if I teach them the wrong things?” Put those doubts and fears aside. Here’s the only question you need to ask yourself to be a competent writing teacher: “Does it make sense?” More important than any feedback you can give is the opportunity for students to write in every class multiple times a week. Show them real-world examples of what writing looks like in your subject area and ask them to identify the traits and qualities they notice. Help them come up with rubrics and indicators of excellence. Most importantly, give them opportunities to write. I can tell you from experience that the more frequently we write, the easier it gets. Make it part of your job to give your students plenty of practice writing.
3. It’s everyone’s job to teach critical thinking. The world requires us to solve problems every day. Math class shouldn’t be the only place where students solve problems at school. Providing students with coaching on how to analyze situations, break complex tasks into parts, generate and test solutions, and evaluate the outcomes will help build independent critical thinkers. Breaking everything down for students and reducing everything to a set of pre-thought-out steps may help students learn to follow directions, but it won’t do much to assist them when they encounter difficulties that can’t be solved using the previously learned recipe. That’s why we all need to make sure teaching critical thinking is part of our job.
4. It’s everyone’s job to teach persistence and perseverance. When life gets rough, it’s important to keep going. Shouting “Don’t give up!” and “Push through it” at kids doesn’t do the trick for most. Teaching students to have grit requires two things. First, you have to provide them with worthwhile challenges, ones that are meaningful to work toward but are not easy. In most instances, what challenges one person doesn’t challenge another, so it’s advisable to plan several tiers of difficulty to provide appropriate rigor for each student. Second, you have to be upfront about normalizing difficulty and openly discussing with students ways of dealing with struggle. Provide exemplars of others coping with challenges. Offer second and third chances. Stop mid-problem and strategize with your students. Make your class a safe space to take risks. Point out your students’ resilient moves as you witness them. Celebrate successes when they come. Like reading, writing, and critical thinking, teaching persistence and perseverance should also be part of your job.
5. It’s everyone’s job to teach kids to be decent human beings. They’re not learning it from the media. They may or may not be learning it at home. And, some aren’t learning it from their friends. The list of life lessons in the “decent human being” curriculum is long and multifaceted. Get along with others. Share your toys. Learn to win and lose with grace. Take an interest in others. Take responsibility for the world around you and for the public good. Communicate. Be honest, trustworthy, and upstanding. Listen more than you speak. Do the right thing, even when no one is going to know about it. Be kind, patient, and polite. Treat one another with respect. Don’t let the world tread on you. Speak out when you see injustice. Earn the admiration of others for being a person of integrity. The list could go on for pages. If every educator modeled these traits, reinforced them in norms and class expectations, and took advantage of teachable moments to guide students to grow as humans, not just as learners, we’d be making unimaginable impacts on the future. Indeed, teaching kids to be decent human beings should be everyone’s job, too.
It looks like I’ve dumped a lot on your plate. The good news about these is that none of these is an extra prep; all of them can be easily worked into your existing curriculum. In many cases, I suspect you’ll find that the additions actually enhance what you are already teaching. Reading, writing, and thinking critically about your content will all deepen students’ understanding, and teaching students to be good people who don’t give up easily will pay off in greater success for students who are more delightful to spend time with. If we make these everyone’s jobs, together we can achieve incredible results.
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Do you know how to use a can opener? Not the fancy electric kind. The old-school hand-held contraption with the twisty-knob on the side.
Imagine you are a student in a class where the teacher gives everyone a can opener pre-test. Each student gets a can opener and is asked to try to open a can. A handful of students complete the task effortlessly. Some of your classmates just look dumbfounded. Others fumble around a bit and manage to finally get the utensil to latch onto the edge of the can. The lefties in the room gripe about this task being especially difficult for them because the knob has to be twisted with the right hand, but some master the procedure nonetheless. Several minutes later, the teacher takes stock of the situation: some of the students are successful, and others are not. She marks that down in her gradebook and proceeds with the lesson.
It’s time for the can opening lecture and demonstration. The class dutifully takes notes as the teacher explains how to open a can with a can opener. Next, it’s time for the can-opening YouTube video, a five minute thriller in which a voiceover narrator explains in detail how to open a can while showing the process four times, once in slow motion to break it down for everyone. The teacher pauses the video twice to wake up or redirect the off-task behaviors of students who came into class already knowing how to open a can.
Noticing that the bell is about to ring, the teacher announces the homework assignment: “Go home tonight, get twenty cans out of your pantry and open the odd-numbered ones. Bring the opened cans to class tomorrow so that I can check your work.”
The bell rings, and you are dismissed.
If you were one of the students who already knew how to open a can and demonstrated it during the activity at the beginning of class, how excited are you going to be about this homework assignment? If you’re a compliant pleaser, you’ll go home and waste time (and money) opening 10 cans to bring to school. If you’re one of those kids who is easily bored and isn’t motivated by grades, chances are that you will get a zero on this assignment.
My friend’s son J.T. Is one of those kids who would get a zero on this.
J.T. is a high school junior who has the (mis?)fortune of having two educators as parents. In other words, J.T. sometimes knows too much for his own good.
For instance, J.T. once asked his math teacher why, if he made a 97 on her formative assessment, he was having to do the same homework as the entire class. Instead of getting an answer, J.T. got sent to the office for insubordination.
We can speculate all day about this scenario and the cause of J.T.’s punishment. Maybe the teacher was having a bad day. Perhaps J.T. has a history of misbehavior, and this was the final straw. It could be that the studies are accurate that say that young black males are disciplined disproportionately and that J.T.’s reasonable question was viewed as an attack intended to disrupt the class and derail learning.
I suspect, though, that the real root of the problem was that J.T. asked a question that called out an indefensible practice. If an assessment is truly formative, it is used to inform instruction. If the purpose of homework is to provide practice on content so students can master it, students who have already demonstrated mastery shouldn’t have to do it. And if gradebooks are designed to communicate mastery toward objectives, homework grades of zero for noncompliance don’t give any worthwhile feedback to the person viewing the gradebook.
I can’t even think of an answer to J.T.’s question that makes sense. Because I said so? Because homework builds responsibility? Because it’s good for you? Because it’s not fair to the other students if you don’t have homework?
What answer would you accept from your teacher if you asked why you had to spend your evening opening half the cans in the pantry when you already knew how to open a can?
Formative assessments aren’t any good if we don’t use them to modify our instruction. We can pat ourselves on the back all we want for using exit tickets, pretests, Kahoots, Plickers, Nearpods, quickwrites, and quick quizzes, but all of those tools are useless if they aren’t giving us a guide for what needs to happen next for the class as a whole and, in most cases, for subsets of students within the class.
Formative assessment is one of the most powerful tools in the educator’s toolbox but only if it’s used the way it’s intended. Don’t use a can opener to floss your teeth.
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Energetic. Enthusiastic. Hyperactive. Uncontrollable. Impulsive. Eager. Rambunctious. Vibrant. Wiggly. Kinesthetic. Athletic. Rowdy. Unfocused.
Curious. Questioning. Challenging. Defiant. Inquisitive. Searching. Intrigued. Intrusive. Disrespectful. Interested. Complaining.
Chatty. Talkative. Verbal. Charismatic. Mouthy. Communicative. Motor-mouthed. Conversational. Social. Gregarious. Interactional. Unreserved. Rude.
Everyone has a series of lenses through which they view the world. We see what we want to see. We identify good in the things we value or that match our own viewpoints, preferences, and experiences. We frequently overlook the positive in what is unfamiliar, is different, or challenges our own ideas and views. What one person sees as a negative could be viewed as a positive by someone else.
Does society place the same value on an assertive man and an assertive woman? Do some groups of people receive praise for questioning or challenging authority while others are criticized for it? Do you look differently at a person who speaks passionately about political ideas you agree with while disparaging those who oppose your stance?
I worry that as educators we allow ourselves to get in the way of seeing the potential in every student we teach. Worse, we find fault in places where we could be looking for greatness. What if we could train ourselves to look for potential in spots where we previously ignored it? What impact could that have on the kids we teach and how they view themselves?
I am not a confrontational person. I tend to avoid conflict, hate engaging in an argument, and am more likely to back away from any kind of disagreement until I am able to speak calmly. Furthermore, I’ve never been especially physical. Horseplay was never my thing. I wasn’t one of those kids who squirmed. I’d rather sit for hours with my nose in a book or at work on a creative project.
As a teacher, it’s easy for me to see the greatness in a student who comes to class, engages, and plays along. I can find a million positive things to say about students who are eager readers, thoughtful writers, and deep thinkers. I appreciate student creativity, especially if it makes me laugh because of its cleverness.
When things get heated in class discussion, however, my first inclination is to retreat into my shell. When students get uber-competitive in a game or get a little rambunctious during a class activity, I become a little nervous. I have to remind myself that the students who seem argumentative, confrontational, rowdy, and unruly to me during those activities could be passionate, principled, persuasive, engaged, energetic, and eager if I view them through a different lens.
Identifying and acknowledging our own biases is the first step in learning to seek the potential in everyone we encounter. Some biases are easy for us to spot; others exist on a deeper, unconscious level.
A 2016 study found that students of color are underrepresented in gifted programs nationwide. More specifically, black students are about half as likely to be identified as “gifted and talented” as their white peers with comparable standardized test scores. The researchers crunched all sorts of numbers to try to determine the cause for this disparity. Only one factor made a significant difference in identification of “gifted” black students: the race of their teachers. The put it more bluntly, white teachers aren’t good at spotting giftedness in non-white students.
This study has so many implications for the world of education. Not only does it underscore the importance of having teacher demographics that mirror student demographics, but it also invites all of us—regardless of our race—to examine our own implicit biases. It’s easy to shift the blame for this inequity to other people, but the data indicates that those of us who are pointing the fingers also need to take a look in the mirror.
Implicit biases are natural. Everyone has them. And because they are implicit, we usually don’t know we have them. These biases exist on an unconscious level. I’m not sure we can ever identify every bias we hold, but I do think that the important work for each of us involves acknowledging the existence of these biases, trying to become more aware of them, and then taking action to correct them.
Project Implicit, a non-profit research project led by professors from University of Washington, Harvard, and University of Virginia, has a number of tests you can take that are designed to help identify implicit biases. The information they gather from participants helps further their research. Always one to contribute what I can in the name of learning (but mostly because I was curious), I took a few of their tests. Of course, I was certain that the results would indicate that I was without prejudice or bias. That’s what we would all like to believe about ourselves, right? I was wrong. The tests pointed out some things that I’d never even considered to be biases I held. I have since shared the website with others, and what we uncovered made us uncomfortable and uneasy but opened up some extremely worthwhile conversations about our biases and, more significantly, what we should do about them. It was easy to beat ourselves up for having those biases, but we soon realized that our self-criticism was counterproductive without taking steps to change.
Trying to make the shift toward actively looking for potential in others—students, coworkers, strangers I meet at Kroger—has positively altered the way I see the world and the results I get from those around me. I’m not always great at it, but I’m working at improving. I’m sure it’s something I will have to keep working on forever. If it leads to finding more of the good in others and helping them find the good in themselves, the perpetual work will have been worth it.
Thank you for all the work you do to look for potential in places where it’s not easy for you to spot.
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
This wasn’t originally what I planned to write. I had a perfectly good idea that I attempted to write about on multiple occasions during the week. I’m sure I will return to it in the future, but this week, like much of America, I have been consumed by the images and words that have filled my tv screen, dominated my social media feeds, and disturbed my dreams.
The unimaginable devastation of Hurricane Harvey is impossible to ignore. I can’t even fathom what it must be like in the midst of the destruction, but watching from afar has been horrifying. Last night, I sat mesmerized for hours watching news footage of people escaping rising waters, abandoning what is left of their homes, clinging to rescuers for security, and entering shelters in hopes of finding safety.
Watching the families and individuals filing into the shelters reminded me of an experience 15 years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To offer whatever help I could, I signed up as a volunteer for the Red Cross, attended a fast-tracked version of their disaster-response training, and reported on Saturday to Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas to work at the shelter that had been set up there.
I did many jobs that day: serving meals, distributing toiletries to people who were about to have their first shower in days, sorting supplies, and working the main floor of the arena where families were setting up cots and staking out the tiny squares of floor they would call “home.”
“Hopeful relief” is the phrase that best describes the atmosphere in the shelter that day. Though the people there had traveled for miles, had left all but minimal possessions behind, and were uncertain what the future might hold, they knew that at last they were safe. Love was everywhere that day. Children played games and colored together at tables at one end of the arena. Grandparents read stories aloud and hugged their grandkids tightly. Fathers returned from DART rail trips to the Cityplace Target with clean, new shirts and socks for their children. A small choir of teens practiced a song to perform at a local church the next morning. One elderly woman told me she was eager to go to a house of worship to give thanks for the safety of her family.
After thousands were fed and bedtime approached, the shelter began to settle down. The harsh overhead lights were dimmed and quiet hours began. Voices were at a whisper as the elderly and the very young began to drift off to sleep. One father sat in a silent vigil, watching protectively over his wife and children as they slept. There were some quiet tears amid the snores as the room drifted into a deep slumber. Peace and safety replaced doubt and anxiety. Life might look different from this point forward, but things were going to be alright.
An hour later, the silent night was disturbed by the sound of a bullhorn and the glare of the arena lights being turned on suddenly. It seems that several other busloads of evacuees were due to arrive the next morning, and the man in charge of overseeing the operations at the shelter decided that we needed to make room immediately for them and others who might show up later. The volunteers were told to squeeze everyone into half of the arena floor. With no concern for the comfort, safety, or humanity of the people, the man barked orders into a bullhorn, rudely waking the room and destroying any sense of home created during the day. The space was no longer a safe one.
I do not recall ever in my life feeling so bad on behalf of others as I did that night. These volunteers who had spent all day ensuring the safety and helping to establish community in that shelter were the very ones who had to disturb sleep and attempt to explain why it was so crucial to move everyone in the middle of the night. I couldn’t explain it because it didn’t make a bit of sense to me.
All of these memories remind me of the importance of creating safe spaces for students in our schools and classrooms. Many of us will encounter students in the upcoming months who have been displaced by Harvey. All of us already have students in our classes who experience traumas of their own every single day. During childhood and adolescence, even tiny problems can seem insurmountable. Unfortunately, many young people deal with issues that no one would call tiny. Homelessness, depression, domestic violence, abuse, death, crime, neglect, divorce, abandonment, substance abuse, poverty, and so many other traumas we can’t begin to imagine are everyday parts of the lives of some of our students. For many, school is their safe place away from all that, their escape.
In high school psychology, we studied Maslow, who said that safety was one of the needs—second only to physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter—that must be met before things such as learning can occur. People who don’t feel safe are constantly on high alert. Their brains are in the fight-or-flight stage, and they aren’t receptive to things that don’t impact their immediate survival. Learning doesn’t take place when students don’t feel safe.
Creating and maintaining a safe space for learning should be the top priority for anyone who works in education. We create safe spaces in many ways:
- by the family or community we build
- in the ways we speak to students and they ways we allow them to speak to others
- through our responses to mistakes, errors, and imperfections
- in the rules and norms we set up and how we enforce them
- by listening, even when we are busy
- in our preparation and readiness for each day of class
- with our policies and procedures
- through our body language and physical arrangements of the learning space
- in the ways we accept and celebrate the wide variety of personalities, learning needs, backgrounds, perspectives, and physical types that inhabit our classrooms
- by our words and actions on the days when we are the most stressful ourselves
A teacher told me today about a student who wrote and shared a piece of writing about what it felt like to have a seventeen-year-old older brother who will be in prison for the next ten years. The class listened intently and cried along with this sixth grade boy as he read aloud about an extremely sensitive and personal part of his life in a classroom he had only known for six school days. That teacher has clearly created a safe space for that young man to take risks and share important aspects of himself with others.
Safe spaces take work to create and even more work to maintain, but the results are worth the effort.
May your students find refuge in your classroom from whatever storms they are weathering. For some, you will be the lifeboat that rescues them, the compass that guides them, the rudder that steers them in the right direction, the life vest that keeps them afloat, or the rock they can cling to when things get rough.
My day working in the Katrina shelter was one of the best and worst days of my life because I experienced the power of creating a safe space and then witnessed what happens when that safety disappears. To our sisters and brothers affected by Harvey, whatever the future brings, I wish a speedy return to safety and stability.
May we all soon inhabit safe spaces because only there can we be our very best selves.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
In the Harry Potter series of books and films, the baddiest of the baddies, Lord Voldemort, is so dreadful that he is often referred to as “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” He strikes such fear in the hearts of others that the mere utterance of his name is completely terrifying (not to mention, what’s up with that creepy reptile nose?).
In education in Texas, there’s another word that provokes similar fits of terror in young and old alike: STAAR. The pronounceable acronym of our state test—in addition to its not-too-distant high school cousin, EOC—raises the pulse rates of all who hear them.
I would like to add STAAR, EOC, AP Test, final exam, MAP, and the name of every other high-stakes test to a list of Words-That-Must-Not-Be-Spoken.
What would happen if teachers never mentioned the names of those assessments until a few weeks before they took place? What would happen if no educator ever told kids, “You’re going to need to know this for the [insert name of test here]”? What would happen if we completely eliminated any language that insinuated that what we are teaching or practicing is important solely because they have to know it to pass a one-day, three-hour ordeal nine months from now?
Here’s what I think could happen:
Teachers could teach meaningful lessons focused on the TEKS and guide students toward rigorous content-area habits of mind that would prepare them for much more than just a test. And, because the learning was guided by the assessed objectives, they would be prepared for the test without preparing for the test!
Students might believe that what they are learning matters beyond one silly test because they see the usefulness of the learning in a real-world context.
Learners wouldn’t be beaten down by mind-numbing practice problems, fake multiple choice items, and tedious bell ringers swiped directly from released tests or test-prep workbooks. Instead, they could move away from a multiple-choice world of predetermined responses and enter a realm where students get to generate their own answers.
Students would believe that their teachers care about their learning, not just about their standardized test scores.
School could be fun. Did I just say that? Fun? I did. Fun! Or if not fun, at least not miserable.
Students who are worriers—and there are more than a few of them out there—won’t spend the majority of the school year paralyzed by anxiety as they endure the 150-day countdown to the Big Test.
A week or so before the test, teachers could tell their students, “By the way, there’s an end-of-course exam coming up next week. The reason I haven’t already mentioned it is that I’ve been so busy teaching you things that it slipped my mind. No need for you to worry about it. You’ve got this. I’ve prepared you. All you have to do is show them what you’ve been showing me all year.”
It’s kind of an exciting possibility. Let’s make a pact. I won’t say the Words-That-Must-Not-Be-Spoken if you don’t say the them. We can teach what we’re supposed to teach, make learning exciting, create a culture of happy scholars, and have a fantastic school year.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Your teacher is having a yearlong party….and everyone is invited.
That’s the message—the invitation—I want students to receive on the first day of school from every one of their teachers. I’m not talking about a wild, out-of-control, call-the-cops-and-shut-this-craziness-down kind of party. The type of party I’m thinking of is one where everyone is excited to attend, has a good time, meets and learns from interactions with others, and leaves with lasting memories and anticipation for the next get-together.
But it’s not easy to make such a life-changing experience happen. To learn how throw a superlative party, it’s a good idea to consult the experts. Emily Post was someone who knew how to entertain a houseful of guests. This wealthy, white East Coast socialite with her finishing school education and extravagant inheritances, though clearly not representative of most of America even during her lifespan, rose to prominence in the 1920s as the nation’s leading authority on etiquette and proper comportment. Her seminal 1922 book, Etiquette, and the website of the organization she started, The Emily Post Institute, provide some gems for educators as they ponder how to pack some punch into the “party” they’re planning for the upcoming school year.
According to the writers at The Emily Post Institute, party organizers should consider “Six Ways to Be a Good Host.” Fascinatingly, these time-tested party tips also apply beautifully to what we as teachers do in our classrooms with students:
1) Invite clearly. Include necessary information for your guests in the invitation: the date, the time, the place, the occasion, the host(s) and when and how to respond “yes” or “no.” Add any special information such as what to wear or what to bring, say, for a pot-luck. (All quotations in blue are from emilypost.com.)
Most of us don’t get to invite students to be in our classes; students either sign up or they don’t, and schedules are magically assigned by a counselor or a computer. We may not be able to decide who shows up at our party, but we have the chance as we communicate with students, parents, and adults on our campus to make sure our language, tone, and body language send the message that we truly believe everyone is invited into our classrooms. Eliminating phrases such as “isn’t honors (or AP) material” and “doesn’t belong” can go a long way to changing our own perceptions of our students. No longer will our party be like Studio 54 with a bouncer at the door ready to block the entrance of the undesirables. We can make sure every student is on the guest list. Having guests with wide and varied backgrounds, interests, perspectives, and experiences makes a richer party with livelier and more engrossing conversations.
2) Plan well. Take care creating your guest list. A great group of people will make any party a success, even if it rains on the picnic or the food is a flop. Get everything ready—your meal prepped, the table set, your party space tidy, refreshments ready—well before your guests arrive, so you’ll feel relaxed from the very beginning.
That part about getting everything ready before your guests arrive is spot-on advice for teachers. If you’re scurrying around trying to complete last-minute plans, write the learning target on the board, return unanswered emails, gather supplies, update Google Classroom, and put the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation as students enter the room, you start out the period agitated, and students can sense that. If you feel relaxed and can fix your attention on your students from the outset, class will run more smoothly for you and for the kids. Excellent preparation ensures a seamless flow of activities and efficient, unobtrusive use of materials, which lets your “partygoers” know that you’re the one who has taken meticulous care to make this the best party ever.
3) Be welcoming and attentive. Make sure guests are greeted warmly, then made to feel welcome throughout the party. Look after each guest as much as you can. If you notice a guest with an empty glass or if there’s one person standing alone, take action and remedy the situation.
Meet your students at the door. Learn their names AND how to pronounce them correctly. Show every student consideration and hospitality. What is hospitality? Emily Post addressed the topic herself in Etiquette: “The atmosphere of hospitality is something very intangible, and yet nothing is more actually felt—or missed.” Students may not be able to tell you when they feel welcome in a certain teacher’s class, but they are acutely aware when they don’t. Remember that each student is a guest in your classroom and, as such, deserves to be treated with the highest level of kindness and hospitality. The ancient Greeks had a word for this, xenia. In their case, the kindness they showed strangers stemmed from their fears that the stranger might be a deity in disguise who might strike them down if they didn’t treat him well. In today’s world, teachers should just be hospitable because it’s the right thing to do. Our hospitality expert again provides some sage advice on the topic:
“If you take some one under your roof, he becomes part of, and sharer in, your life and possessions. . . . You receive your guest with a smile, no matter how inconvenient or troublesome or straining to your resources his visit may be, and on no account do you let him suspect any of this.”
-Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)
A welcoming teacher has an extraordinary poker face that never lets that one student (or his classmates) know that he drives the teacher crazy or is an ever-increasing test of patience. I am still working on perfecting that skill.
4) Be flexible and gracious. Your soufflé falls. Or one friend arrives with an unexpected guest. The ruined dessert? Have a fallback. The uninvited guest? As discourteous as it is for someone to spring a surprise on you, be gracious. No polite host would ever send an uninvited guest packing.
Guess what? You’re working with kids. Something is going to go wrong. Things will happen that are not as you planned. Frequently. Some timid teen is going to show up in your room on the first day of school with your name on her schedule, and you are going to have no prior knowledge that she is coming...and may not have a spare seat in your crowded room for her. Have a plan B and a plan C. Welcome that student like you would all the others and find a spot for her, even if it means giving up your own desk chair for the day. I assure you that students are a whole lot more nervous on day one than you are; the way you handle those unexpected surprises makes an indelible first impression.
5) Be the leader and the spark. It’s your job to run the show and let your guests know when it’s time for dinner, or dessert, or charades. Circulate among your guests, introduce newcomers, and stay with each group long enough to get a conversation going.
This timely tip has two components, both of which are important for party-planning teachers.
Be the leader. You’re the one in charge of your classroom, but you can walk a fine line between host-in-charge and dictatorial tyrant. Have you ever been to a party where the host met you at the door and began rattling off a list of things you could NOT (underlined and bolded and perhaps in all caps for emphasis) do? “There’s ABSOLUTELY NO chewing gum at this party. Using your cell phone WILL result in a ZERO. DO NOT talk to one another unless I give you permission to do so. DO NOT get out of your seat. And, if you have a question, DO NOT blurt it out. Those who show up to the party late will receive a warning the first time and then will NOT be invited back next time. . . .” If your host greeted you with that tirade, I suspect you wouldn’t stick around that party for long. A good party planner welcomes guests, orients them to what they CAN do at the party, and trusts that they will behave in a civil manner. Nine times out of ten, when the party is well-planned, responsive to the needs of the guests, and run by an amiable host, the partygoers will behave. When and if a problem occurs, the host speaks with the offending guests in private because no one likes to be shamed publicly. The Puritans did the public shaming thing in the early days of the colonies in New England, and the Puritans didn’t exactly establish a historical reputation for having fabulous parties.
Be the spark. A host is the spark of the party, igniting the enthusiasm of each guest and getting things rolling. In the classroom, teachers kindle the fires of learning, but they must begin by building a strong classroom community. That involves taking a personal interest in every student, getting to know them all. For party hosts (and educators) who can’t be bothered with getting to know every guest, our friend Mrs. Post has some harsh advice:
“Introspective people who are fearful of others, fearful of themselves, are never successfully popular hosts or hostesses. If you for instance, are one of these, if you are really afraid of knowing some one who might some day prove unpleasant, if you are such a snob that you can’t take people at their face value, then why make the effort to bother with people at all? Why not shut your front door tight and pull down the blinds and, sitting before a mirror in your own drawing-room, order tea for two?”
-Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)
(Ouch, Emily. But thanks for speaking the truth.)
6) Be appreciative. Thank people for coming as you bid them good-bye. And don’t forget to thank anyone who brought you a gift.
As your guests leave your classroom each day, let them know you were glad they made the effort to show up and participate. Modeling gratitude and appreciation builds capacity in your students to share their gratitude and appreciation with others.
Odds are highly unlikely that a teacher would receive an actual gift from a student on the first day of school, so the idea of thank-you notes seems irrelevant in this unwieldy educational metaphor. Though there may be no Starbucks gift cards, tacky coffee cups, or apples left on the teacher’s desk, the teacher-as-host has the opportunity to notice and be witness to the gifts the students bring with them every day— those character traits and habits of the mind the teacher can reinforce through praise. By pointing out the gifts in our students when we spot them, we celebrate what we value and generally see more of it down the road. Mrs. Post touches on this idea when she writes about the actions of the ideal partner at a bridge party:
“The ideal [bridge] partner is one who never criticises or even seems to be aware of your mistakes, but on the contrary recognizes a good maneuver on your part, and gives you credit for it whether you win the hand or lose…. Also, to be continually found fault with makes you play your worst; whereas appreciation of good judgment on your part acts as a tonic and you play seemingly ‘better than you know how.’”
-Emily Post, Etiquette (1922)
The power of appreciating the gifts in our students is that is makes them “better than [they] know how to be. “ It is so easy to find faults in things. I’m a champion at it. Fault finders don’t win popularity contests. Those who find and celebrate the good things others do, however, bring out the best in those around them. People want to be around them; they want to come to their parties.
My wish for everyone who reads this is that your classroom is a party all year long and that students learn, achieve, grow, connect, and surpass their own expectations as well as yours. May you be the “host with the most” and have cheerful students who are excited to return to your classroom every single day. What are you waiting for? Get the party started.