Category Archives: classroom management

It’s What The Teachers Are Themselves

“No written word, no spoken plea

can teach our youth what they should be.

Nor all the books on all the shelves

it’s what the teachers are themselves”

I was going through some old files on my computer and found this letter that I had received during my 3rd year of teaching:


It reminded me of the importance of the poem above.  That poem was recited by  by John Wooden – legendary UCLA basketball coach (and also high school english teacher) during a Ted Talk he gave.  If you have 17 minutes somewhere in your life to spare – I would spare it by listening to this talk:

John Wooden – Ted Talk

I know not all my students were born into great upbringings.  One of my philosophies in teaching is that I believe students probably have adults in their lives who are emotionally unpredictable – happy one day, sad or stressed the next.  So I will not be that for them – They will only ever see me in a good mood.  I will not carry any negative energy into the classroom.  And it’s kind of funny because on the other side it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The year prior to receiving the letter above I had a 2nd period class that was particularly disruptive.  And I had a 3rd period class was well behaved to a point that I felt like I probably didn’t deserve them.  The problem was that the events from my 2nd period class often left me upset and stressed out, and I would carry that into my 3rd period.  Near the end of the year I realized that too often 3rd period didn’t get the teacher they deserved, because he was always altered by the earlier interactions.  That was never going to happen again.  It was a learning moment for me.  Don’t carry baggage class to class –  Let it go and start each anew.


Looking For Our Classrooms

A retiring colleague of mine gave the graduation speech last year.  He is someone who I looked up to a lot and always appreciated my interactions with him.    One point he made during his speech that struck me was when he spoke of how thankful he was to have spent his life in such a “spiritually challenging profession”.  He talked about how it made him a better person, and then a better teacher.  I understood myself to know what he meant because much of my own classroom clarity came from a similar realization.  There is a beautiful quote from a book I love by Robert Pirzig called Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance which describes this spiritual challenge perfectly, albeit not from the perspective of a teacher:

“The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does.  All the time we are aware of millions of things around us – these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road – aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see.  We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think.  From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it.  We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”

It is so hard to know if you are really seeing your classroom for what it is – rather than what you want it to be or what bugs you about it.  Or as simply a collection of small events that deviated from your predictions of how you thought it would go, or heard it would go, or read it would go.  We share stories of our classrooms and those stories are a collection of things that stood out.  Little pieces of awareness that we brought into consciousness.  But who knows what we missed or how our consciousness mutated the actual events in the room.  They are by definition incomplete stories and maybe at the end of the day the best teachers are the ones who can reconstruct the clearest and most accurate picture of their class as a whole.

How do we thrive in a spiritually challenging profession?  These bullet points are my two cents:

Along the way I’ve realized that every time I felt out of control, or stressed, it could be alleviated by improved lessons, or new structures.  No doubt about that.  But somewhere below all of those great teaching strategies that we know work – there are still personal insecurities that need to be understood.  Teaching will make you confront those.  That’s the spiritual part.  I thank my profession and my students for exposing me to my own.   It made me a better person…  who then became a better teacher.




My First Class

I remember the very first time I stood up in front of a room of teenagers and asked them to do something.  I nervously gave them a scattered lecture on the intricacies of y = mx + b.  As I was talking they were writing down the things I was saying, and whatever I put on the whiteboard they also put into their notebook.  During the lecture I even asked the students some questions, and a few of them even raised their hands and offer up answers.  Next I told them to get out their workbooks and there was a huge rustling of paper as they actually did it.  I told them to go to section 5-4 and do problems #1 – 20 or something like that, don’t remember the exact numbers.  Either way, in unison the class asked me “which page number is that?”, I mean it was probably only two students but it felt like they were all asking.  I learned students prefer page numbers to section numbers.

At that point it was about answering individual questions.  So I basically just floated up and down the rows, or at least it seemed like I floated because I don’t remember hearing my footsteps.  Or maybe I just ignored them because the sounds in the room were really beautiful – I was hearing words I wasn’t used to hearing teenagers say, like “slope” and “intercept”.  And I was hearing words more familiar to me like “yesterday” and “that’s cool”.  The students all knew each other because it was the middle of the year.  I was just there for one day as a requirement before beginning a student teaching assignment.  I was a guest in their house.

At the end of the period they all turned in their papers to me – full of calculations and circled answers.  And their names were all at the top right even though I never asked them to do that.  Then a bell sounded and they all packed up and left.  I looked at their papers, more specifically their names, and thought about how cool it would be if I actually knew who they were.  If I was actually their teacher.

I was amazed at the whole experience.  And I’m not saying it was the ideal class, nor am I advocating for any particular teaching strategy – I’m just saying I was amazed.

My Fellow Teacher

“How’s it going my fellow teacher?”  One of my students told me that.

I’ve been telling my students that people call me a teacher because I get paid to teach. But being a teacher isn’t about a paycheck – it’s about teaching someone something. So all my students are teachers because of all the times they work together and help each other. When we pair share I will say things like “give your fellow teacher a fist bump before we get started”, and they will give each other a fist bump. It has been fun to watch them pick up and run with the message.

Motivation 101 – Define Success

I tell students that success in our class means everyday you leave better than you showed up.  And to leave better means you learned at least one thing about algebra.  It doesn’t matter if you have an A or an F, that simply measures how you have done in the past – but today you are success if you can learn one thing.

Everyday I write the goal for the days lesson on the board.  The goal could be to simplify rational expressions, but I always remind the students that the actual goal is to learn at least one thing about algebra.

I tell students to look for things they don’t understand and be excited when they encounter them because it is precisely those things that are going to make them a success.   If I’m helping a student and they get it – they go from a place or not knowing to knowing, I tell them “good job, you’re a success today, keep it up”.

At the end of class I always recap the day for the final couple minutes, and I provide them with time to reflect on what they learned.

Look I guess what I’m saying is that you want to define success in such a way that allows every student to feel good about themselves everyday, regardless of past performance.

Why Algebra? – The Basketball Analogy

“I think less of us would drop out if we just knew why the hell we needed this stuff”

That was said by a student who was simplifying rational expressions.  I had a positive relationship with her so the quote was simple honesty and not some veiled attempt at making a teacher feel bad by calling their job pointless.  I knew at that moment I needed to be more purposeful in my attention to the question of ‘Why Algebra?’.

Periodically throughout the year I dedicate a few minutes to tell them why Algebra is important.  I always remind them there are many different reasons, and that no reason by itself will feel sufficient because we are all such different people.  But when we take all the reasons together, the total picture will hopefully be able to answer the question for each student.   I usually start with a basketball analogy because I used to coach basketball.  It’s how I explain that you will need to use algebra in more advanced math.

We learn algebra differently that we learn most things in our life.  For example you generally play basketball first.  And then you decide you want to get better so you practice some rebounding drills.  Then you realize that you need to be able to dribble the ball and you start doing ball handling drills.  Algebra is typically constructed the other way around.  We practice algebra drills without ever playing math – essentially we are practicing dribbling drills without ever playing basketball.  This of course is not always true in algebra class and we are playing math as much as possible in my class – but I’m not trying to spend a lot of time in gray areas to make this point.

With that setup I show the students this video of MIT Instructor Lydia Bourouiba (I begin it at the 1-minute mark) going over a Separable Equations problem in a Differential Equation class.


There are multiple places in this video where she does algebra steps.  Like at the 1:09 mark when she puts all the y-variables on one side of the equation, and the x-variables on the other.  Except she doesn’t show any of her work, she just does it.  In basketball you don’t think about how to dribble, you just dribble.  So here I pause the video and do that step like we would in our class, I multiply both sides by dx, canceling the dx’s on the left.  Then I divide both sides by y^2, canceling the y^2 on the right.  Students are surprised to see that they understand something Lydia is doing, and also wondering why she didn’t show her steps like I did.

I end up pausing the video in several places.

I’m basically showing the class that someone in a multivariable calculus class is using the exact things we practice.  Except that the algebra she uses is not an end unto itself – rather it is another step towards a greater purpose.  She is using algebra in the process of resolving a larger question.

Here’s an exchange I had with a student after I made the points above:

MM – “Similarly, in basketball you practice your cross over dribble because its going to help you in the game.”
Student – “Yeah Mr. Miller, but how are we suppose to remember what we are doing here 10 years from now?”
MM – “Do don’t have to remember it, because you’ll just do it.  When you are playing basketball you don’t remember that first dribbling drill you did 10 years ago.  You just dribble.”

And I shit you not – I saw and heard multiple aha moments around the room.  And then the closing line:

MM – “I know what you are all thinking.  I know if I was you, when I was your age, I would be thinking to myself ‘That’s fine but I still don’t care because I am never going to take that class.’  (pause for laughter and general agreement from the class)  But you never know.  I ended up taking that class”.

That takes a few minutes – and then I begin the days lesson.  Are students instantly motivated?  No.  But at worst the student who honestly thought there was no reason – now knows there is some reason.  Maybe they don’t think that reason applies to them, but they know its there.  And if your students do not embrace the unknown quality of their futures; embrace the fact that they don’t know where these open doors lead – then your job as a motivator is not done yet anyway.

Never Again

Around the end of the year I like to look at my class and remind myself that in a couple weeks the course will be over.  And after that, those 30 students and I will never again be in the same room together.  For all eternity there will never be another moment when a room will have this exact collection of souls.  I think about how our lives have intersected –  and it amazes me that for 1 hour a day, 180 days, we lived together within these walls.  And the fact that it will never be again makes me cherish each remaining moment.  Makes me cherish every time that magical bell rings and those 30 young people walk into room A3.

It is a simple thought but it keeps me excited to go to work, and keeps me insulated from feeling overly exhausted or too impatient for it all to be over.

The Day I Didn’t Get The Joke

Instead of getting the joke – I gave a Long Form.  Here’s what the student wrote.


Daniel (not his real name) asked for a Short Form, so I gave him a Long Form.  I should have laughed it off because it was not actually a problem.  Not every behavior is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

I did not get the joke because at the time Daniel and I were experiencing two different classrooms:  I was experiencing one where a student was challenging my authority and disrespecting me.  Daniel was experiencing one where he was making a light-hearted joke to a favorite teacher.  Both realities cannot be true at the same time.  I do not know for him, but my perception was altered by the fact that I was still frustrated by the actions of another student a few minutes prior.  I was upset and probably waiting for a student to do anything that would allow me to show my authority.

A class has a certain vibe that you just have to feel in order to make good discipline decisions.   You have to know when to act, when to laugh, when to give a referral, when to give a Short Form, or when to let it slide.  It sounds like a daunting task but it’s not – at least it’s not if you don’t overthink it.  Basically you just need to be in a good mood and you’ll make good decisions.

In teaching there are moments when you have to laugh.  There are moments when you have to get the joke.

You Are Not Your Lesson Plan

We spend lots of time and energy creating the best possible lessons that we can.  We get excited about them and feel good about them.  Thus many days, armed with well thought-out lessons, we achieve a measure of success in our classes.  But then there are those days when nothing works.  When the lesson we poured our energy into falls flat on the floor.   The kind of day when the lesson is getting disrupted by off-task students, and a carefully scaffolded intro leaves student after student saying “I don’t get it”, “what am I supposed to do?”.  The volume of off-task chatter rises and opens the door to increased behavior problems.  Behavior problems by the way, that are ripe for misintrepretation by the now frustrated teacher.

First thing to remember during these times – You are not your lesson plan.  Thus every student act of ignoring it, failing at it, brushing it aside, sleeping during it, distracting it, or any other negative, is not a personal affront to you.  That took me awhile to realize.  In my own practice, in the midst of my favorite lessons failing it would bring up anger and frustration, often towards the students who were most clearly rejecting me (of course they were not actually rejecting me, but hence the point of this post).

There are an array of reasons a lesson might fail, but you will be unable to properly diagnose any of them if you are angry.  Anything in your teaching practice that creates negative energy towards your students, your profession, or yourself, needs to be analyzed and reconstructed.   These negative emotions commonly end up concluding that the lesson failed because the students are lazy, don’t care or don’t pay attention.  Maybe they were or didn’t, but if that is the primary conclusion then you are overlooking a couple important facts:  First – there is a way to improve the lesson and those students are helping you discover it.  Secondly, deep down you were probably personally offended by the way the students interacted with your lesson, which is intimately connected to your identity as a teacher.  Thus you feel like a failure, and angry at those who exposed you.

Experience doesn’t necessarily help in this situation.  This problem of identifying with our lesson plans actually got worse for me as I became more experienced.  Because often at some point we as teachers, who pour ourselves into teaching, begin to recieve a fair amount of praise from adminstrators and students.  We start to look at ourselves as great teachers, which makes the day when that identity is challenged even more difficult to take.

So bottom line is this:  You aren’t your lesson plan.  Don’t take it personal.  If you have a lesson that collapses into failure don’t get upset, don’t get stressed out, don’t get frustrated.  Stay positve and do whatever you have to do in that moment to teach the best you can.  Afterwards,  I recommend you take a moment to reflect on what went right, what went wrong, and how it could be improved.  Make sure you properly file that reflection so you can use it the next time you plan the lesson.  After that, just finish the day and be done with it.

This Is Too Grand To Be Said

In college I had the honor of taking Elliot Aronson’s last Social Psychology class at UCSC.  He had been a professor there for many years and was going to take a position at Stanford.  The large lecture hall was packed for that last day, filled with his current and former students.  He ended the class by reading the final lines of  J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour, An Introduction”.  He got all choked up and started to cry midway through.  The passage itself is a wonderful reflection on life and teaching, and I get why Professor Aronson choose to end his last class with it.  Here is what he read to us that day:

“Nonetheless, I’m done here.  There are one or  two more fragmentary physical-type remarks I’d like to make, but I feel too strongly that my time is up.  Also, it’s twenty to seven, and I have a nine-o’clock class.  There’s just enough time for a half-hour nap, a shave, and maybe a cool, refreshing blood bath.  I have an impulse-more of an old urban reflex than an impulse, thank God- to say something mildly caustic about the twenty-four young ladies, just back from big weekends at Cambridge or Hanover or New Haven, who will be waiting for me in Room 307, but I can’t finish writing a description of Seymour-even a bad description, even one where my ego, my perpetual lust to share top billing with him, is all over the place-without being conscious of the good, the real.  This is too grand to be said (so I’m just the man to say it), but I can’t be my brother’s brother for nothing, and I know-not always, but I know-there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307.  There isn’t one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny.  They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine.  This thought manages to stun me:  There’s no place I’d really rather go right now than into Room 307.  Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.  Is he never wrong?

I’m filing this post under classroom management because our own personal happiness as teachers is often the most important ingredient to a positive and productive classroom.