The Ongoing Study of How and When Teachers Should Praise Students

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Should teachers praise their students?

 

 

It’s a simple question with a multiplicity of answers.

 

 

A 2020 study published in the journal Educational Psychology concludes that teachers who use praise see a 30% increase in good behavior from their classes.

 

 

Meanwhile, reprimands actually increase misbehavior and unwillingness to comply with instruction.

 

 

Researches suggest a 3:1 or 4:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio. So for every one reprimand, a teacher should provide three or four positive reinforcements.

 

 

Unfortunately, this study flies in the face of previous research.

 

 

According to a 2014 study by the Sutton Trust, teachers who give struggling pupils “lavish praise” can make them even less likely to succeed.

 

 

Too much praise can “convey a message of low expectations.”

 

 

Researchers warned that if failure brings students too much sympathy, they are more likely to associate that approval with underachievement.

 

 

Yet it’s fine for educators to express anger at underachievement because it doesn’t create positive associations with performing badly. In fact, it motivates them to try harder.

 

 

But another study from 1998 turns this on its head.

 

 

This examination found that it wasn’t a matter of praise or reprimand. What was important was the kind of praise being given to children.

 

 

In short, researchers concluded that the wrong kind of praise can have disastrous consequences.

 

 

If teachers praised the hard work students did on an assignment – even if that work was not completed successfully – it resulted in willingness to work out new approaches in the future.

 
However, if instead the teacher praised the students ability or achievement, that could result in a tendency to give up when confronted with future failures.

 

 

So what are teachers to do?

 

 

Frankly, researchers don’t know.

 

 

They look at discrete data sets and try to make broad conclusions.

 

 

However, when you’re dealing with something as complex as the minds of children, this approach is destined for failure.

 

 

There are simply too many variables at play.

 

 

And that’s something every classroom teacher with any experience knows in her bones.

 

 

Teaching is not like baking a cake. There is no one recipe that will work every time on every student.

 

 

Being an educator is an art as much as it is a science.

 

 

In my own classroom, I praise my students a lot.

 

 

I reprimand, too.

 

 

And though I try to focus on effort, I admit to commending students on the results at times.

 

 

This year I was tasked with creating a new writing course for 8th graders called “Writing is Fundamental.”

 

 

Each day, I give students a writing task – usually focusing on the more creative side – and then I wander from desk to desk observing, answering questions and ultimately reading and commenting on their finished work in real time.

 

 

It’s exhausting.

 

 

At first, I try to be positive even when the writing isn’t that great. But then as I get to know the students and their abilities, I begin to be more critical and offer ways in which they can – and sometimes must – try to improve.

 

 

The results are mixed.

 

 

Some students – especially the lowest achievers – tend to respond to praise like a flower does to light. They soak it up and blossom.

 

 

I had one student who entered the class so embarrassed about his writing he was literally hiding under the desk and making jokes about how terrible a writer he was.

 

 

After just a week, he was working longer than any other student in the class to craft his responses and made sure to share his work with me and sometimes the entire class.

 

 

By the end of the semester, he wasn’t going to win any awards, but his writing had improved by leaps and bounds. And his attitude was almost that of a different person.

 

 

However, in the same class, there were students who didn’t respond as positively.

 

 

One child who was used to taking honors courses was put off by the creative nature of the writing. He preferred to write expository essays and hated the focus on details, figurative language and creativity.

 

 

Students were not required to share their work with the class but doing so earned them participation points. So he felt obliged to do so and was extremely upset that – in his own mind – his work didn’t compare favorably with some of his classmates.

 

 

Other students more used to having their work evaluated on standardized tests were indignant at my continual pushing them to improve. They knew that what they had written would be good enough on the standardized test, so there was no point working any further to refine their craft.

 

 

When it comes to praise, teachers are put in a very difficult position.

 

 

We want to help encourage our students but we don’t want that encouragement to ring false.

 

 

If all I ever did was tell students what a good job they were doing, they would soon catch on that it was meaningless. Every child can’t win a self esteem prize every day for whatever they do.

 

 

However, an amazing piece of work from a student who always does amazing work isn’t as impressive as moderately improved work from a student who has struggled constantly up to this point.

 

 

More than writing, I try to teach my students that learning is not about a destination – it’s a journey. And only they can truly decide whether the work they’ve done has value.

 

 

I offer advice on how they might revise their work, but it’s often up to them whether they want to keep refining a piece of writing or whether they have done enough for the day.

 

 

I’d be lying if I said the relationships I had with students has no baring on this. Many of them want to make me proud of them, but hopefully they get beyond this point.

 

 

In a semester course, the relationships are more transient and not as powerful. But in my year-long classes, they’re deeper and more far-reaching.

 

 

And that’s really the point that I think this body of research misunderstands.

 

 

It’s not praise or reprimands that matter as much as it is relationships.

 

 

Students learn from educators they trust. And part of gaining that trust is giving the proper kind of feedback – encouraging but honest, critical but helpful, opinionated but respectful.

 

 

Maybe if we trusted classroom teachers more to talk authoritatively about their experiences, we’d know more about the realities of education.

 

 

Coming into the classroom occasionally to observe student behavior is extremely shallow when compared to the everyday empiricism of lifelong educators.

 

 

Perhaps before we decide whether to praise students or not, we should agree to give classroom teachers their due.

 


 

 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

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Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.

 

I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.

 

Text dependent analysis question? Check.

 

Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.

 

Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.

 

The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.

 

And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.

 

He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.

 

He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”

 

But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

 

The scores have gone down in the preceding year.

 
 
Nothing drastic but enough.

 

When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.

 

Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.

 

Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.

 

But look at these growth scores!

 

That’s where we can have an impact!

 

And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.

 

Growth!?

 

It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.

 

I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.

 

We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.

 

Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.

 

That’s just not how learning and teaching works.

 

We can INFLUENCE learning.
 
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.

 

But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.

 

Let me give you a real world example.

 

The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”

 

He refused to fix it.

 

Literally refused.
 
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.

 

He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.

 

So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.

 

I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.

 

But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
 
And he still wouldn’t do it.

 

That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!

 

As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.

 

I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.

 

I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.

 

By all means – evaluate me on that.

 

But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.

 

To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.

 

And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.

 

That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.

 

Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
 
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.

 

Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.

 

Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.

 

How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?

 

How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?

 

How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?

 

Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.

 

He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?

 

A hand went up.
 
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?

 

To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.

 

But the meeting was already over.

 

The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.

 

I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.

 

This is madness, I thought.

 

Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.

 

The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.

 

They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.

 

Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.

 

These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.

 

Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?

 

Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?

 

Wake up, America.

 

It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.

 

Teachers can’t do it all alone.
 
Growth, achievement, whatever.

 

Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.

 

If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Last Day of School

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On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

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When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

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“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

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“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

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 He was “fair to all students.”

 

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“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

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“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

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“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

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“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

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“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

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“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

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“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

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“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

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I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

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In academic circles the debate over homework rages on.

Does it actually help students learn or does it just cause undue stress and frustration for children and parents?

As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.

In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.

My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.

But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.

After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.

As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.

In fact, the closest we have ever come to an answer is a reformulation of the question.

It really comes down to a matter of causality – a chicken and the egg conundrum with a side of sharpened pencil and crumpled paper.

If we look really hard, we can find a correlation between students who do their homework and those who get good grades.

The problem is we can’t PROVE it’s the homework that’s causing the grades.

It could just be that kids who excel academically also happen to do their homework. If we removed the homework, these kids might still get good grades.

So which comes first – the homework or the grades?

There has been surprisingly little research that goes this deep. And almost all of it is anecdotal.

Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.

Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.

But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.

In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.

However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.

A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.

Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.

That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.

Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.

It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.

I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.

I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.

A 2014 Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that giving too much homework can have extremely damaging effects on children.

Still this isn’t exactly hard science.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.

They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.

So where does that leave us?

We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.

Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.

But I’m a classroom teacher. I don’t have to rely solely on psychological and sociological studies. Everyday in school is an opportunity for action research.

My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.

Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.

This applies to homework, too.

I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.

So why do I give homework?

For several reasons:

1)  It prepares students for the higher grades.

Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.

However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.

2)  It makes kids responsible.

There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.

3)  It’s good practice.

In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.

Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.

That being said, I think it is important that the homework I give be seen as something students can achieve.

I’ve had numerous co-workers tell me they don’t assign homework for the simple reason that their students won’t do it.

This isn’t a big problem in my class. Almost all of my students do the homework. Why? Because we go over it and they know it’s something they can do without too much difficulty.

I scaffold assignments building the difficulty progressively as we proceed through the year (or years). I make myself available for extra help. I accept late work (with a penalty).

And most of all – I stress that I’m not expecting anyone to be a genius. I’m looking for hard work.

I tell my students explicitly that anyone who puts in their best effort will pass my class – probably with a B or an A. And that’s exactly what happens.

Homework is a part of that equation. It demonstrates effort. And effort is the first step (the key, in fact) to accomplishment.

Do students complain about the homework?

Sure! They’re children!

I’d probably complain, too, if I were them. No one really wants to be given extra work to do. But it’s all part of the pattern of my classroom.

Students know what to expect and how to meet those expectations.

None of this makes me a super teacher. It certainly doesn’t put me on anyone’s cutting edge.

I’m just doing what educators have done for decades. I’m attempting to use best practices in my classroom with a full knowledge of the academic research and the pitfalls ahead.

I may assign homework, but I made sure to do my own before coming to that decision.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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I Used to be a Reporter. Now I’m a Teacher. I’ve Become What I Used to Observe

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A long time ago, in a newsroom far, far away; your humble narrator was a respected journalist.

Today I am a beloved school teacher in a suburban middle school.

Okay. That may be laying it on a bit thick.

Like any human being whose job it is to get children to do their best and learn something, I’m beloved by some and beloathed by others. And if I’m honest, when I was a reporter, I was never all that respected. But I did win several state journalism awards.

The point I’m trying to make is that like a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog, I made a startling transformation in career paths that flies somewhat in the face of popular wisdom.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American Lives.” Well, I’m on my third or fourth act and nowhere near ready for the curtain to come down yet.

It’s shocking how far I’ve come, though there’s a surprising amount of overlap between my two professions. In fact, the biggest difference is one of orientation.

I used to get up at 4 a.m., weave into the newsroom and type away for a few hours about the previous night’s school board or city council meeting before my deadline came down, the presses rolled and the morning edition went on sale.

Now I get up at 5 a.m., hobble into the classroom and go to meetings, grade papers or otherwise get ready for a 7-hour invasion by 12- and 13-year-olds, followed by more meetings and papers and planning.

I used to go into the classroom to interview teachers and students about special lessons, state and federal programs or standardized tests.

Now I’m in the classroom questioning myself about my students and what works best to help them learn, trying to navigate the state and federal programs so they get the best return and bang my head against the wall about the constant standardized tests.

I used to independently bebop all over my coverage area, asking questions, doing research, discovering things that many people would rather remain secret.

Now I independently plan my lessons, ask my students questions, do research on best practices and discover things about my children and their lives that many people would rather remain secret.

You’ve heard the old chestnut about education being a career for those unable to act. I’m living proof that it’s a lie.

As a journalist, I reported on. As a teacher, I do.

In my former job, I told. In my current one I show.

Perhaps that’s why I now find it so strange that many of my former colleagues have gone into public relations, communications or have become policy analysts.

I’m not surprised. I can’t say I didn’t know that that door was always open. But it’s peculiar.

In the newsroom, we all heard the stories about grizzled newspapermen and women with shelves stuffed full of awards and prized Rolodexes bursting with hard-earned sources who gave it all up for a 9-5 desk job writing the very press releases we disdained.

We all had friends who were making bank managing people like us and trying to get us to write what the company wanted or spin the story in the direction the advertisers liked.

There is no scorn, no disgust, no derision to match that of a journalist for a corporate sellout, and that’s because in our hearts we all secretly wondered if it wasn’t the better deal.

Every good reporter – like every good teacher – is a radical at heart.

You don’t get into either field to support the status quo. You want to rock the boat. You want to shake things up. You want to change the world for the better – all from the comfort of your swivel chair behind your computer screen or from the well worn tread of your classroom carpet.

Journalists live for the scoop, the big story, the article that shouts off the front page above the fold and which has everyone talking. Teachers live for the student epiphany, the moment the light comes on behind a child’s eyes, the transformation from ignorance to knowledge and – dare I say – wisdom.

But being a press agent or policy hack has none of that splendor.

You have to give it up – all for the right to have a chance at a life.

I loved being a reporter. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I got to do things, see things, talk to people, be there for things that I never would have been able to access otherwise. But I could barely pay my bills.

I was dirt poor in the newsroom. We all were.

We worked 50-60 hours a week, had no time for a second job, no time for a social life, no time for a family or kids, and we wanted more.

So I understand the allure of the steady paycheck and becoming a housebroken professional communicator of someone else’s message.

But being a teacher is different.

You still don’t get paid much. You still work long hours – though maybe not quite as long. But you can get that second job – often in the school, itself, tutoring students or in a summer or after school program.

And you get union protections that I only dreamed about as a reporter. A safe workspace, clean and tidy, no outrageous demands (or at least an upper limit on them), and a schedule you can predict and plan a life around.

Best of all, you still get to keep your idealism intact. Or you can try to keep it as you dodge this directive and that unfunded mandate and that deeply racist policy passed down from above.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming a teacher was hard work. I didn’t go about it the easy way – no Teach for America, one-foot-in/one-foot-out, cheating for me. I dove in head first.

I went back to college and took an intensive, accelerated masters program designed exactly for people changing careers. To get there, I had to swallow a few prerequisites I’d missed in college the first time. Then they placed me in a high school where I watched and then took over multiple classes – all while enrolled in education courses at night and in the summers.

By the time it was all over, I still had the most important things left to learn – (1) whether I could actually teach a full schedule, and (2) whether I liked doing so.

For me, the answers were unequivocally positive. I took to it like I’d taken to journalism. I needed lots of fine tuning, but the basics came naturally. And I loved every exhausting minute of it.

I regret nothing about becoming a teacher. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have.

As a journalist, I got to rock whole communities with exposes about corruption. As an educator, I get to impact individuals.

I no longer get to be the talk of the town, but I get to change lives all the same – one person at a time.

And there’s something deeply satisfying about it – to look in another person’s eyes and see the need right there in front of you, and to be able to heal it even a fraction of the way well.

This world is hard. It takes people, chews them up and spits them out. There is so rarely a helping hand, a smile, understanding. But to be able to offer your hand, to be able to share a smile, to attempt to understand – that’s pure magic.

When the day is done, I know it was well spent.

I’ve come a long way from the newsroom. And in doing so, I’ve broken journalism’s number one rule – don’t become the story.

I no longer report on the action.

I participate in it.

What a way to make a living!


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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How Many Decisions Do Teachers Make Every Day?

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Teaching is an exhausting job.

 

If you’re a parent, you know how tiring it is with just one or two kids.

 

Imagine having a room full of them — Twenty to thirty children, each demanding your attention, each requiring your urgent help – every minute, every day, for hours at a time.

 

 

Back in the late 1980s, before education became totally absorbed by standardized testing and school privatization, we used to wonder about the effects of such need on a single individual.

 

We used to wonder how much was really being asked of our teachers.

 

Today no one outside of the classroom really gives it much thought. We think of educators as part of a vast machine that is required to give us and our children a service.

 

We’re stakeholders. They’re service providers. And the students are a national resource.

 

None of us are people.

 

Perhaps it’s this dehumanizing economic framework that’s helped the edtech industry and testing corporations make so much headway trying to replace educators with apps and iPads.

 

We no longer give the teacher an apple. We displace her with a Mac.

 

But back in the days before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Barrack Obama’s copycat Race to the Top, or Donald Trump’s blatant Destroy Public Education, we wondered about teacher psychology and how to best help our human workforce meet the needs of our human children.

 

That’s when researchers observed elementary school teachers and noted that, on average, they made at least 1,500 decisions a day.

 

That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.

 

In the decades since, this figure has come to be associated with elementary and secondary teachers. In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that I wondered where it originated.

 

The first reference I can find to it comes from C.M. Clark & P.L. Peterson’s article “Teachers’ Thought Processes” published in the Handbook of Research on Teaching from 1986. (3rd ed., pp. 255–296). New York: macmillan.

 

Though subsequent studies came up with slightly different numbers, the basic argument holds.

 

Researchers Hilda Borko, Carol Livingston and Richard Shavelson mark the low end of the scale. In their 1990 article “Teachers’ Thinking About Instruction,” they summarize studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching or 42 judgements per hour, 252 a day.

 

 

On the upper end of the scale is Philip Jackson who wrote in his 1990 book “Life in Classrooms” that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 of these determination generating exchanges with students every hour (between 1,200-1,800 a day). Most of these are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teachers to make what they term shallower decisions or deeper judgments (p. 149).

 

So because teaching involves waiting for the right opportunities for learning, neither student nor teacher can say with confidence what exactly will happen next. It requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

 

As a classroom teacher with more than 15 years of experience, none of this is surprising to me.

 

Just imagine the various tasks teachers are required to do every hour. We take attendance, review homework, help with seat-work, ask questions, etc. And that doesn’t even take into account all the times we’re unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected – upset students, administrative announcements over the PA, student questions, equipment breakdowns, etc. Each one of these requires us to make spontaneous, unplanned calls before the lesson can continue.

 

It just goes to show some of the various roles teachers are expected to fill in the lives of their students. They are expected to be information providers, disciplinarians, assess student learning, administrate school policies, facilitate student inquiry, act as role models and even be foster parents.

 

In any given lesson, we have to make decisions based on our plans AND decisions based on things that just happen to crop up unexpectedly – multiple times each day.

 

In fact, it seems to me that the research fails to account for innumerable situations that also require determination and deliberation as part of an educator’s everyday routine.

 

What about curriculum and instruction design? Grading? Written and verbal feedback to students? Reflection and revision of lesson plans?

 

When you think of all that, 1,500 decisions a day seems like a conservative estimate indeed.

 

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this is where it impacts teacher quality.

 

And when I say that, I don’t mean the basterdized modern meaning of that term – that teachers are responsible for maximizing student test scores on standardized assessments. I mean the quality of authentic instruction teachers are able to give their classes.

 

When we expect educators to turn on a dime more than a thousand times a day, doesn’t that impact the depth with which we can accomplish the job?

 

Busyteacher.org certainly thinks so. I’m not sure where the Website got its statistics, but they are sobering.

 

In a fascinating infographic, the site claims that multitasking leads to a 40% drop in productivity. It causes a 10% drop in IQ. It causes people to make 50% more mistakes than concentrating on one task at a time.

 

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I don’t know if these statistics are accurate, but the general principle is sound. When we’re forced to “do more with less” we actually end up producing more with less quality.

 

Focusing on fewer things increases ones accuracy. Therefore, teachers who have to make fewer decisions in a day would probably be able to do their jobs more effectively.

 

And there are plenty of ways to accomplish this.

 

We could reduce class size. If educators can concentrate on the needs of fewer children, they would be more effectively able to meet those needs.

 

We could reduce the amount of time teachers have to be in the classroom in a given day. I’ve often thought teaching was analogous to being an actor up on the stage – but we’re also responsible for writing the script, operating the lighting, etc. And we have to interact with the audience many of whom would rather be elsewhere, and we have to do multiple shows each day.

 

In some countries, teachers spend a significant part of their days planning and grading and less in the classroom. They don’t have to do all that behind the scenes stuff on their own time without any additional pay.

 

In Finland, for example, teachers are paid 13% more than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average but spend 100 hours less in the classroom. And class size is between 9-14 students, the lowest in OECD countries. No wonder their children are near the top of the scale in international comparisons!

 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived in a society that valued education and didn’t try to turn everything into economic quantities for corporations?

 

We could actually focus on the real phenomena of educating children and not have to fight warped education policies more concerned with turning it all into dollars and cents.

 

Perhaps teachers wouldn’t have to make so many thousands of decisions if our lawmakers could just make this one.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile

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I’m standing in front of my first period class after a long Thanksgiving break.

 

Papers are rustling.

 

Pencils are being sharpened.

 

Voices are lowering to a whisper.

 

And it occurs to me how glad I am to be here.

 

So I tell my students.

 

“We have a lot to go over today,” I begin and most of my middle school faces turn serious.

 

“But I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be here.”

 

Curiosity moves across those adolescent brows like a wave from one side of the room to the other.

 

Some even looked worried like they are afraid I am going to tell them I’m sick or dying.

 

“It’s true,” I continue. “I’m glad to be here this morning with all of you.

 

“I think teachers sometimes don’t say that enough.

 

“This is a great class. You’re all really good students, and I’ve watched you work hard and grow.

 

“For many of you this is the second year you’ve had me as your language arts teacher. For others, this is your first time with me. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can be with you and help get you ready for the challenges that you’ll face next year in high school.

 

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I am not just some guy who stands up here and gives you assignments. I’m your resource. If there’s anything I can do to make your year a better one, please ask.

 

“If you’re having trouble with the work or you’re confused about something, I’m here. If you need help with something – even if it’s not school related – I’m here. If you just want to talk or someone to listen – I’m here.”

 

I pause to see if there are any questions.

 

There aren’t, but neither is their any apparent doubt, bewilderment, perplexity.

 

The class looks back at me in silence with serene eyes and smiling lips.

 

And then we go on with our day.

 

Is it a big deal?

 

No.

 

But I think it’s worth noting.

 

Not that I’m some super teacher. I’m not.

 

I mess up all the time. But I feel like what I said this morning was right somehow.

 

It’s simple and easy and more of us should do it.

 

Kids can get the impression that teachers aren’t human. They’re these mysterious creatures who pass judgment on them — and where do they even go when class ends? Who knows?

 

I remember when I was a young educator one of my mentors told me the old chestnut “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

 

I saw where she was coming from. It’s easier to command firm discipline if students don’t think of you as anything but an educating machine. But I could never go through with it.

 

I smile on the first day – probably the first minute students walk into the room.

 

I greet them with a grin – every day.

 

And I think that’s right.

 

Discipline is a means to an end. You have to have some sort of order in your class so you can facilitate learning. But that doesn’t mean you should preside over prisoners locked in a penitentiary of their own education.

 

Learning should be about choice, fun and curiosity. It should be about expressing yourself as much as it is about finding details and forming grammatical sentences.

 

Everything we do should be in service to the student.

 

Reading comprehension is to help the student understand what is being said and then form an opinion about it.

 

Writing is to help the student express the maelstrom of their own thoughts in a way that can be understood by others.

 

I think we lose sight of that.

 

It’s okay to enjoy the work – for both students and teachers.

 

It’s okay to enjoy each other’s company.

 

In fact, you SHOULD do so if you can.

 

It does not somehow degrade the experience of learning. It enhances it.

 

When my classes are over, I always have several students gathering around my desk wanting to prolong our interaction even if it means they’ll be late to lunch or late going home.

 

Kids ask about my break and I ask about theirs. We talk about favorite TV shows, songs we like or even local news stories.

 

They share with me their middle school crushes and ask advice.

 

You have to draw a line between teacher and friend – and between teacher and parent. Because the kids are looking for you to be both.

 

But you can’t.

 

We walk a strange middle ground, but I think that’s necessary.

 

If I’m going to help students know things, I have to let them know me to a point, and I have to get to know them.

 

I can’t share everything with them, but they have to know I care.

 

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

 

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

So go ahead and smile, teachers.

 

Let your students know you care about them.

 

It will improve both your lives – and maybe even your teaching.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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