Monday, March 27, 2017

Plant Your Trees

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

This proverb is so appropriate when we think of our careers in education.

How many times have you put off that great idea you had? How often do you kick yourself because you imagine how far along you would be with that idea if you had started the moment you had it? How defeated are you just thinking about that right now?

This is the teacher's lament. We convince ourselves that we are so busy and so overworked that there's too much to attend to. You feel like the world is just passing you by and that the ideas and passions that once filled your bucket aren't worth the effort anymore. We are all guilty of beating ourselves up and saying "it's too late". Giving up rather than investing in our ideas because it seems futile anyway. The prophecy is self fulfilling. The only boundaries preventing you from your dreams are created by you.

Working in technology I see this a lot. Teachers who do not believe that something new is accessible to them. That freely admit, "I never learned how to do this." I think the saddest part of this mindset is the assumption that the story of their life is written. That they are bound to spend the rest of their career face pressed up against the glass watching the rest of world pass them by.

There's truth in the proverb. The best time to change WAS 20 years ago. It was also 10 years ago. And last year. And yesterday! But you cannot go back. And while time is passing you by, NOW is still the perfect time to act.

Action requires guts. It takes guts to admit to yourself that you need to change. More guts to commit to changing. And to admit you are worthy of what you want. When you think about it, every step you have taken to get to this point has been a choice. What is preventing you from making this one? Nothing but the barriers in your own mind.

In education it is very easy to get overtaken by the mundanities of the day to day. If you haven't been there, it's only a matter of time. Inevitably we will lose touch with our desire, our inspiration. We will stop feeding our passion, we will deaden our fire, and we will begin to go through the motions. That's natural. But not permanent.

What I find exciting and interesting about this is that, sometimes, if we are lucky, we can get that fire back. If we are open. If we seek opportunities. If we indulge our passions and desires. If we invest in new relationships. If we allow things we have long forgotten to re enter our hearts, we can refocus.

Being a connected educator is a large part of this for me. Connecting with passionate individuals makes that kind of change real. When I am feeling uninspired and that I have forgotten to plant too many trees, I just hop on Twitter and I look at the forest growing before my eyes. I pop into some classrooms of teachers I haven't seen in awhile and soak in their energy. I visit a new colleague in a new school and find something wonderful I have never seen before. I try out a new tool or app that I have been interested in but haven't opened my time up to. I read a dusty book that's been sitting on my shelf for too long.

If your classroom is a garden, what condition is it in? There are seasons when we are busy planting, toiling, and enjoying the fruit. There are seasons where we are maintaining. And then there are seasons when the weeds are coming too fast and we get discouraged and lost. Which season are you in? Here's a process for the uninspired to tend their garden.


No gardener plants until their soil is ready. Have you prepared for change? Have you challenged yourself to learn something new? Redesign an aspect of your practice? Until you set a target, you can't start moving. Read a new book and get an idea. Check out a hashtag on Twitter. Get your soil ready.


Where will you grow your tree? What kind of tree are you growing? You know what you want to do, but you need a gameplan on how to do it. Consult some mentors in your life. Lay out a timeline or a target so you know what it will look like when your tree has grown.


Every gardener needs the right tools to do the job. A quick way to short circuit any real change in your life is to neglect to invest in that change. Education, experiences, relationships -- there are a lot of paths this can take. Attend a conference. Join a book study. Take a course. Create a cohort of teachers in your building. Do something to equip yourself with the necessary skills to help you reach your goal.


Every garden grows a weed or two. Or 60. The process of change isn't an easy one and there are going to be some ugly messes that pop up in the process. How well you handle setbacks will dictate your progress. When things get hard are you going to quit? Or are you going to double down and find a way to make it work? Everything worth growing requires some maintenance to help it bloom into something amazing.

Pick your fruit

Hard work deserves rest now and then. Don't be afraid to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Bask in the beauty of what you have created. If we can't look on what we have cared for and grown with a satisfied smile, we might be going about this the wrong way. It is inspiring to see how far you've come. Accomplishment is motivating and feeds your desire to move on to the next task. Make sure you give yourself that simple pleasure.

Reflect and Recharge

This work is hard. Take a break and think back on the process. What worked? What didn't? What will you do differently next season? Just like our gardens might not yield the perfect results in our first season of growth, neither will anything we try for the first time. Reflection and adjustment is a crucial part of informing the process for your next attempt. Remember, you can try again. Now rest and get ready to make your impact greater next time.

What are you waiting for? Seize the day. Sure, the best time to get started was 20 years ago, but you're here today. The present is still the perfect time to make a difference. Plant your trees now so you don't end up back here next time you wish things were different.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Control What You Can. Manage What You Can't

A lot of what you experience as a teacher is out of your control. You cannot change the administration. You can't change the policies. You can't pick your students, or your curriculum, or the time you are in the building.

If you want to own what you do, you've got to own your classroom. I finally learned that after I had been teaching for a few years. This, of course, doesn't mean that we don't TRY to change anything else. I have been known for investing my my building, seeking out leadership opportunities, and being a present force for positive change on a large scale every day. But my classroom has always been my number one priority. And the only change I could control is what happens there.

I have worked with and mentored many teachers. No matter how many warnings I give about classroom management, no matter how I model for them, teachers always have the same issues. And it makes their lives harder. Daily I am met with defensiveness and hostility when I give advice about classroom management. And I totally get it.

As a first year teacher I was awful. My year was awful. Seriously. It was perhaps the hardest year of my life. I killed myself every day because I kept expecting my students to change. I was counting on administrators to punish my students into compliance.  After affirming that I wasn't going to quit (I really considered it after year one), I vowed to never allow my classes to be like that again.

That summer I studied every resource I could find about management. I picked the brain of any teacher I could find. I scoured the internet looking for ideas. This mindset created something inside of me that "got it". If I could manage and lead this group of diverse people in my room every day, everything else would be easy. My second year wasn't perfect, but I was on my way. Since then I have had minimal discipline problems. I work with some tough kids. They all learn. They didn't need to change. I did.

Now I walk through classrooms as a mentor and I see again and again nearly EVERY classroom problem attributed to poor classroom management. Even teachers I see that have been in classrooms for twenty years struggle with it. They make the same mistakes over and over again. They make their lives and their student's lives miserable. They go home exhausted. They hate their jobs. They are hoping that kids will change.

No matter my test scores, no matter the positive feedback I get from teachers and administrators, no matter the fact that kids literally sing about how much they love being in my class, most teachers still don't believe me. If you believe me, and know it's a problem, and want to learn more, let's keep going.

Set the Tone Early

Everything--and I mean EVERYTHING--you do during the first week of school sets up the next 10 months. You must plan for this week accordingly. I recommend that you have all your processes and procedures built into your week one lessons. You need it down in your brain before students walk in. Before the first day you need to figure out how you want your classroom to operate. Every detail. Then, make sure students are doing it right. Some things will take practice. On day one if the group comes into your class like a herd of wildebeest, they need a do over. No judgement. Just another opportunity with some positive feedback about how it's supposed to be done.

I DO NOT mean that you spend hours practicing walking across the room, using pencil sharpeners, etc. What I am saying is that from day one you must integrate feedback of student expectations in your classroom into every event. Lay it on thick. Lots of noticing language. Lots of praise.

"Wow, Johnny, I love how you put the scissors back without being asked! Thanks!"
"Oh my goodness Sally, you were walking so quietly back to your seat I thought you were a ghost!"

You'll also find the more you do this, the more habit you create for positive noticing and feedback. You'll naturally start doing this kind of thing the rest of the school year. This is key


Everything you do from this point on must be in line with what you set up your first week. Many teachers start off strong, but then become more lenient, to the point of dismissing their initial plan and expectations completely. You must avoid this. DO NOT start being nice and relaxing on your rules for any reason. I tell my students it doesn't matter if it's day 1 or day 180, you break a rule, we'll be having a chat.

Positive Classroom Culture

Again, this starts on day one. I am a big believer in PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support). Look it up. Anyone who has seen me work with students would probably say that 95% of my interaction with students is positive. I notice what they are doing right constantly. This of course doesn't mean I won't call out a student or deal with a classroom issue, but I always frame the feedback with positive language. This is not easy and requires practice and patience, especially when the kid that really knows how to push your buttons is leaning back in his chair with scissors in his mouth for the 4th time this week.

Some examples:

"Wow, I love how Sally entered the room and started working right away. Well done!"
"OMG you guys entered our classroom so quietly. Thank you for making it easy to get started today!"
"Johnny, I can tell you are working really hard on this project today. Thanks for the effort."

Some days it's corny. Some days you are off and you just aren't feeling it. But every day this is required. Even if you don't put your heart and soul into every positive comment, it's important to stay consistent so the culture of your classroom emphasizes positivity and willful compliance.

Some day after your lessons are over, reflect on your interaction with students. Is your language mostly positive or negative? Does the way you talk to students make you feel good? Does your language sometimes deepen your frustration?

Set a goal. Say 5 positive things to your class tomorrow. Then ask yourself the same questions. See how it's different.

Mutual Respect

I only have a few major rules in my classes. With each class I think of the major rules that will promote the most positive learning environment for that group of kids. My number one rule is of course the Golden Rule, and that generally takes care of everything when your class runs on respect.

On day one I will say something like this:

"In life, you're never going to like everyone you work with. You're never going to like every teacher. Some of you might not end up liking me. But, we should respect each other anyway. We're going to have good days and bad days, but those days are always going to be spent together. We all must respect each other to make this work."

I'll be honest, students don't ALWAYS like me. But this mindset stops students from acting out simply due to that fact. I wish every student loved me, but that's unrealistic. But we can still respect each other. And usually, even if you don't like someone, if you treat them with respect, you end up becoming friends whether you like it or not.

Relationships with Parents

Please stop seeing parents as enemies. I see teachers mess this up all the time. People call me weak, but I will always work to satisfy a parent and do what they need unless it's completely unreasonable.

If parents like you, their kids will probably like you. If they like you, they will most likely come to you first with concerns before running to administration. If parents like you, they will overlook your simple mistakes. If parents don't like you, all these situations become huge dumpster fires.

So pick your battles. If a parent emails me and asks for an extension on an assignment for junior, I'll give it to them. Why create an enemy and manufacture drama to save two days on an assignment? There are always going to be requests -- some are going to be unreasonable. Be able to live with your choice AND the consequences of the choice you make.

Make sure your first interaction with parents is positive. DO NOT wait until parent teacher conferences to speak to a parent for the first time. Parents should be able to pick out their teachers in a crowd within the first month of school. Get creative with how you manage this. Have a family night in your class. Invite guest readers or presenters. I also call at least one parent every day before I go home just to say something nice about their kid. Small gestures like that can go a long way. Even if you have to leave a voicemail.

Here's an example interaction with a parent. Totally corny, but I don't care:

"I love the relationships I form with students and parents. If I am ever having any issues or concerns with your student, you'll be the first to know. I truly thank you for your support at home and please understand that involved parents like you truly make the difference with our kids. Thank you so much for your time."

I have conversations like this DAILY. If you invest in parents early and their kids know their parents trust you implicitly, that is going to go a long way with some of your chronic behavior issues. Of course, I still have issues with parents -- what I am saying is that by being proactive and engaging parents positively early and often, you can ensure that 99% of your interactions are positive.

Don't be a Dictator

Rules are important. Unfortunately I see teachers sometimes put rules before the students they are supposed to teach. We all must do the things our administration tells us to do, we have no choice on this. But on the stuff we can control, we really need to pick our battles wisely.

An example: You have a no food rule. But Tommy brought in a cookie today. He has started eating it, but he is also working intently. He's not making a mess. He is not distracted. It's the first time he's done this.

My response: "Hey man, I noticed you brought a cookie today. You know we have a no food rule, but since it's not a huge problem right now, I'm going to let you finish your cookie. I appreciate that you're working and not making a mess. But, in the future please remember our no food rule."

I have also seen teachers lose their minds over something like this. Exploding and blowing up the kid and in the process derailing the entire learning environment for the rest of the class. It just makes no sense. You've also ruined that kid's day and probably made yourself a lot angrier than you really need to be about the situation.  Two things matter when dealing with a classroom discipline problem; how you frame your language and which battles are worth fighting.

Chances are that if you address situations positively and and respectfully, they will work out. I see teachers that yell constantly and cause scenes about small issues regularly. These teachers are feared. If that's just your style, fine. I'd rather have kids that don't fear me and I'd rather not have a heart attack before I'm 40.

Save your mean voice for when you need it. I rarely yell, but when I do, my students l-i-s-t-e-n.

Off Days

Even the best students will have bad days. Pick and choose how you handle these moments.

Let's say one of your students just broke up with their boyfriend and they are super depressed about it. Should I blow them up about taking notes? I think I'd rather pull them aside and personalize my approach for dealing with this.

"Normally you're on task, but I can tell something is wrong. Today I'll let this slide, but could you maybe write me a letter about how you're feeling so I can understand? If you can't do that, I'm going to need you to get on the notes. Why don't you go get a drink and come back when you've made a decision about how the rest of class is going to go?"

Some students will write the letter. Some will take notes. Either way, I can live with it. The point is, I worked with them to overcome the problem. It didn't need to be a big deal. A lot of the behavior problems we deal with are due to something happening outside of your classroom. Don't try to fix something you can't control through force. Try and manage it.


Build in some breaks and rewards. Some people are 100% against this and think kids need to invest and want to be successful for themselves. I agree, but I think there's space for both mindsets. Hear me out.

If my students are super hyper and getting out of control, I'll flip the lights off and tell them to "get bored" for a minute or two. Shut off your brain. I swear this works. And it prevents huge problems that I can see coming pretty clearly. When things are calm, we can start again.

Create opportunity for transition and movement. Most kids can't sit and get for more than 15 minutes. Unless you are the worlds most fantastic and engaging speaker, you are going to need to give kids a break. I do simple things like having students get up and touch the backs of twenty chairs and then sit back down. Or have them get up and shake hands with five people before returning to their seats. Not every student needs or takes advantage of these breaks, but many kids absolutely need this.

Some teachers are opposed to the idea of rewards on principle. I'm not! Here's what I do:

  • Thank you notes, especially for the "cool kids" that hate when you shout out how awesome they are in front of class
  • Classroom Incentives -- I've always done classroom points that I award for positive behavior I see. We might earn a game day, pizza party, ice cream -- I usually let the kids pick.
  • Random Treats - nothing will get your kids pumped like a box of donuts in the morning. "You guys have been working so hard, I thought I'd pick up a treat for our class. Thank you so much, guys!"
  • Student Awards - Stuff like Student of the Month/Character Traits/Superlatives. Administration and grade level does a lot of honoring, but you can do the same thing in your class. Find a nice certificate template online and print some awards. Call home with the kid and brag to their parent. This goes a long way.
  • Get creative. Free homework pass, teacher chair pass, 20 minutes extra reading -- find something your learners are about and use it.
I know some of these things cost money. Obviously I don't do this all the time, but a small investment can go a long way. Some of you lucky folks out there might be able to get your school to help with this as well. However it comes, the investment is always worth it.

Controlled Chaos

Sometimes your classroom is going to be out of control. It'll be loud. It'll go off topic. Kids will mess around. When this happens, do you have a way to bring them back to earth? No matter the grade level, every teacher needs a quiet signal to get your kids attention. Have one. I don't care what it is. "Give me 5", "If You Can Hear Me...",etc... 

No matter how messy your class gets, if you can bring them back, you'll always have control.

I tried this but......

So you say you're doing this and it still doesn't work. Your class is still out of control. You're still having problems with students. Your next step is to make a plan with administration and parents. This means that you have done every intervention (calling home, guidance, conference, etc.) and this student has not changed. 

This means there's more to the story. You need to completely understand the rules and procedures in your school and how situations like this are addressed. If I have done everything I can for a student, and it still isn't working, then it becomes an administrative issue.

That's It

No matter how many times I work with teachers, they seem to choose the hard way. Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I see teachers use the same strategy with a difficult student, even if it is not working. If it is not working, stop doing it!

Get on the pathway to new management. As the end of the year closes, what in your class needs to change? Did you have processes and procedures this year? Were you consistent? What worked and what did not? Do you truly have classroom management? Reflect on your practice. Take what is good about who you are and bring it into your teaching. Change what doesn't work. Control what you can. Manage what you can't. And don't be afraid of change.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Stop the Assembly Line

The title of this post refers to a conversation I recently had with a new teacher and his disappointment that his mentor teacher did not "gift" him his lesson plans upon completion of his clinical teaching practice.

"But another guy in my class had his mentor teacher give him 40 gigs of lesson materials! 40 GB!"

That's a really great gesture. And I totally get wanting to set up a new teacher with that kind of support to make them successful. But that's so bad for students. And the teacher. It's bad for our profession.

Here's why:

1. You have no clue what grade level you will be teaching. Let's say you are certified 6-12 as a social studies teacher (most states give their certifications in this way). That means that there are a total of 7 grade levels that you could potentially be teaching. Since your mentor gave you buckets of lessons, you didn't prepare for your new gig adequately. Now it's the first day of school and your room looks great, but you have no idea what you are teaching!

2. You have no clue what classes you will be teaching. Let's use social studies again -- You might be teaching US history, Geography, and Civics. What if you are teaching world history? What about another elective like psychology, law, sociology, philosophy, comparative government, religion, etc.? This isn't unique. Your certification entitles you to teach in that content, but within our content we see increasing diversity year by year in course offerings. This doesn't even scratch the surface of interventions or remedial classes or units you might get thrown into.

3. You have no idea what the academic level of your students will be. Let's say your friend with the 40 GB of lessons student taught an AP class at a suburban high school. Those lessons will be basically worthless if he/she is teaching a lower level class in a Title I school. Lessons should be created to match the needs of the students. There is no magic lesson plan that could be given to any student.

4. You have no idea of the cultural background of your future students. A lesson created for a wealthy, majority white suburb will crash and burn in a lower income, majority-minority school. As I said above, there is no magic lesson that can be given to every single student. The magic comes from you building relationships with students, getting to know about them and their culture, and then shaping your lessons to match their academic and cultural background.

So stop the assembly line. There's a feeling among some teachers that once you teach for a couple of years, you have done all the prep work for the entirety of your career. That you can take any student that comes into your classroom and slap your content on them as if they rode through your room on a conveyor belt. And then your job is done.

This in practice is terrible for students, but it's also poison for a teacher's mindset. If you truly believe that you can get to a place in your education career where you no longer have to design learning experiences based on the unique qualities of the learners in your classroom, you are mistaken.

We all have to be reflective and mindful of our students and our relationships with them. We must value professional development and seek to make our practice in the classroom better every day. We must be connected and collaborative with colleagues in ways that challenge us and support us to be better, but don't simply provide with a "magic pill" to fix our teachers.

If you want to be proactive and prepared for your first years, your best bet of finding a stash of lessons will be when you get hired at your first position. Ask your department head and the other members of your content team for access to their lessons (or in most cases, Google Drive folder). I'm sure they'll be more than willing to share. However, you will still have to modify their lessons to reflect your teaching philosophy and your students background. What if the lessons you get are all lecture-based and you like to incorporate student movement or Socratic seminars? What if the lessons you get are for AP but you're teaching on level? What if you like to have students write using a certain strategy or format but the lessons you were given are the complete opposite? For me, I'd rather just put in the extra time to make the lessons (or piece them together from other lessons I find) than use someone else's lessons.

When it all boils down to it, like it nor not, the best lessons are the ones that start between your ears. Now ditch that assembly line and become the artisan your students deserve.

Monday, March 6, 2017

It's Easy for You

Dave Burgess has a great line about the six most insulting words you can hear from a colleague, 

"It's easy for you, you're creative." 

The implications of statements like these, when made by teachers, are serious. First of all, nothing about this is easy. Someone like me that has a lot of passion and energy for what I do, I deal with it daily. There's a suggestion that, for some reason, there are magical fairy teachers out there that don't have to work as hard because they have some sort of natural gift. They were born with the lesson planning gene.  I hear it all the time. Conversations usually start like this:

"How do you manage?"

"When do you sleep?"

"When do you see your family?"

Sure these statements are usually made in jest, and are designed to be complimentary. They make me feel like I am one of the teachers in those crummy clipart pictures, arms folded as I look knowingly at the camera. But when I tell teachers that my personal life is fine, that I get eight hours of sleep (most nights) and that I wrestle with my kids on the living room floor every night, I get the same response.

"Well, I don't have time for that."

I think it goes without saying that no one gets better at anything without some sort of persistent effort. Some sort of personal sacrifice. But in education we are always trying to figure out how we can get away without doing that. Getting maximum output without changing the way we do anything. Newsflash -- you can't.

At some point you have to challenge yourself. Look in the mirror and make a commitment to try something new, get uncomfortable, push the envelope in some way.

I think about the trajectory my career has taken. I began my career as a very mediocre and uninspiring elementary teacher. I apologize to the kids in my classes those first few years. I was worried about myself most of the time -- worried about it being easy. Four years later I quit teaching and took a job working in student affairs at a local college.

After living in the non-teaching world for a year and seeing the soul-sucking nature of not enriching the lives of students every day, I decided to challenge myself. I took a job in a new district, teaching something new. I made a commitment to be outspoken and be a leader. To challenge myself as I challenged my students. Something clicked.

I pushed further. Took on leadership roles. Started coaching. Then I challenged myself to advance my own education with a masters degree. I became invested in my job and I became a teacher leader. And I reached every goal I set for myself.

I continued to challenge myself -- get certifications, present at conferences, mentor other teachers. Things kind of started to snowball. That's gotten me where I am today. The thing is, it's never been easy. It's been work the whole time. Hard work. And I have never loved my job more.

There's no substitute for being good, and there's no way to be good at what you do without tremendous amount of effort. Yet, knowing this, and knowing what it takes for a teacher to move from mediocre to good to great, we still have teachers that say crazy things like...."It's easy for you."

Really, it's not. But even if it is, that's only because it was hard for a long time.