Tag Archives: soft skills

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 What I Was Born To Do

I don’t watch American Idol looking for inspiration towards the teaching profession.  But I found it the other night.  Contestant Nicholas Mathis went on stage looking very defeated and full of doubt, and his performance was lack luster because of it.  After Mathis finished, Idol judge Keith Urban made the following remark to him about musicians, but I believe it applies even more for teachers:

“There’s a lot that pulls at you in this calling. And somehow we have to compartmentalize that and when we wake up at three a.m. in the morning on a tour bus and we wonder ‘What are we doing here,’ and we just cry, the only answer can ever be ‘This is what I was born to do. This is my calling.'”  –  Keith Urban

Except for teachers instead of 3am, it’s 3pm, and instead of a tour bus it’s a classroom.

The judges voted Mathis off after that appearance, and if we show up to the classroom like Mathis showed up to Idol, then we are likely to be voted off by our students.   We cannot show up to a class looking defeated – your students deserve a teacher who is positive and professional.  So you need to figure out how you are going to intrepret the things that happen in your class in such a way that keeps you positive and happy.  Realizing that you were born to do this, well, that is just one way.

Soft Skill #2 – All About The Individual

My second most important classroom management soft skill deals with maximizing the individual interactions I have with my students on a daily basis.  This is all about building personal relationships, and building goodwill.  It is the type of goodwill that I can draw from when I have discipline issues. 

There are two different routines I do that allow me twice daily opportunities to interact individually with every student.  Maximizing and acknowledging the importance of these routines, is the soft skill I am talking about here.

The first way is by greeting students at the door.  Dan Meyer has already written about the power of that technique here, so I will just say that I agree with his post, and then add a couple thoughts of my own.

Greeting at the door…

1.   does not have the same time restrictions that exist once the bell rings.  The fact that it is before class, means you get to talk to students without having to worry about the pacing of your lesson plans, or the need to assess learning and stay on top of class questions.

2.  lets me greet former students as well, which is fun and builds a reputation of good will.

The other way is how I check off homework.  Everyday while students are working on the opener, I walk around and check off students homework using my Palm.  I make sure not to rush this portion of the class.  It’s an important part of my management strategy, so if it costs me an extra 2 or 3 minutes to ensure that I genuinelly acknowledge each student, then it is totally worth it.  Here’s what I mean by that:

1.  I always say their name.  I never check off homework without saying the students name.  I want students to feel to like they are an important part of the classroom community, and I think just saying their names can go along way in achieving that.  I also randomly mix up my greetings, I do not want to cycle through the whole class saying the same thing “Good morning (insert name here)”.  For example – “Thanks Vickie, looks good”  “What do you got for me James?” “Looks beautiful Jordan”.

2.   It’s important not to get caught up in conversation with each student, but also don’t rush through them.  As I’m walking around I will always throw out a few non-sequiturs “How are your classes goin’?” “You like sunny weather or cold weather?” “Did you see that Giants game last night?”

3.  I love the inside jokes I develop with students after about a month or so.  Last year I had a student who always wanted me to call his homework beautiful.  So naturally I would be like “Scott, this is …(a few seconds pause)…  pretty good.”  At which point I would get an animated reaction from him, and we would have good laugh.  I have tons of stories just like that.

Lastly, after the bells rings I always say goodbye to the students.   I will always give a general goodbye to the class “bye everyone, don’t forget to stay hip”, “be kind to eachother out there”, “don’t forget to laugh and hug one of your friends”.  And then I will take it down to the individual level “Sam, see you tomorrow” “Taylor, good work today”.  I walk out with the last students because I want to be at the door as the first few students arrive for the next class.

Separating Management from Content

I think content and management are interconnected.  If you have engaging lessons that are matched to student ability, you have less management problems.  This means that when it comes to creating classroom management strategies, my time is best spent creating / finding great lesson plans.  Since content is the spark that drives me, this relationship is also very convenient.  I would much prefer to figure out ways to engage students, rather than figure out ways to discipline them.  That being said, I still think it is important to view management on its own merits, separate from content, and that is how I will treat it in this blog.

I separate the term management into two unique parts:  routines, and soft skills.  Routines deal with my class rules and procedures.  Soft Skills deal with my interactions with students.   I am not going to give a comprehensive description of each right now, due to my desire to keep my blog posts brief.  But I will be describing them over a series of future posts.

Dealing With The Disruptive

My most important classroom management strategy hit me like a lightning bolt one day, and instantly altered my teaching practice.  Yet it was not a specific management tool, nor was it a routine, or a new intervention pyramid, rather it was a mindset change.  I was driving home one day, lamenting a couple interactions I had with a few problematic students, wondering what I should do to keep them in the line – How could I keep them from negatively effecting the class?  It was as if they were the enemy.  That realization left me disillusioned for two reasons:  One, I was feeling unhappy even though I had a day full of positive interactions with a lot of my students.  Two, I did not want to accept that any students in my class were the enemy, and that their only role in the class was to make me angry and stressed.  It couldn’t be true that life would simply be better if they were put in some other class.  And then I realized that they were not there to make my life hell, or ruin my class, but rather they were there to teach me something.  To teach me how to  be a better teacher.  I had something to learn and they were there to make sure I learned it.  They didn’t know that is what they were doing, but they were doing it nonetheless.  I needed to learn how to deal with all types of students, and these disruptive students were allowing me the opportunity to do that.  And I thanked them for it.

At that moment it was crazy how the negatively just feel off me like dirt in the shower.  I began smiling, and shaking my head in amazement that I had wasted so much time thinking about them like they were the problem.  Thinking that they were there to hurt me and make my life worse, when the whole time they were there to help me and make my life better.  And here’s the key:  When that negativity drops, everything about your teaching gets better.  Everything.

So here’s the strategy –  when students are being the most annoying or disrputive, you need to remind yourself that they are there to help you be a better teacher, and be thankful for that .  Don’t thank them out loud or anything, but in your mind thank them.  Thank them for helping you become a better teacher:  for offering you the opportunity to learn how to deal with the situation.  Because when I began doing that all the negative energy that I held in those moments, for those students, just fell away.  I no longer got angry at them, which meant that I also never acted out of anger or stress when dealing with them.  And when you are not acting out of anger or stress, you naturally make better decisions.  You smile more.  You are more likely to laugh at something they’re doing.  And most importantly, you do not carry any negative feelings inside you, that you have to take to your next class, or home.

For me, this mindset change immediately made me a better and happier teacher, and instantly improved the way I dealt not only with the most disruptive students, but the class as a whole.  Because a few negative interactions with students can put you in a bad mood, and once you are in a bad mood, you are not enjoying yourself, and you can’t be a great teacher.  So now when a student is being disruptive, and I feel that negative stress and anger start to build up in me, I remind myself that the student is there to help me be better.  The negative feelings go away, and I get very thankful.  And the light at the end of the tunnel is when that negativity doesn’t bother showing up in the first place.