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Letter to a New Teacher.

I was recently connected (via email) by a friend to a new teacher who is struggling.

I’m never quite sure what to say. For what it’s worth, here was my response:

> stress and anger management.

Heh. That seemed to define my first year.

The crappy thing about teaching is that (I’m convinced) no one knows how to teach how to do it. For all the talk of “education”, the people who are supposed masters are basically throwing us inn the deep end of the pond, and seeing who stays afloat.

That being said, here are a couple of ideas that stuck with me from my first year:

- You are responsible for the kids in your classroom. If they’re not learning, its your fault. Sure, it’s easy to blame parents or gangs or whatever else, but the truth of it is that for most of those kids, there is a teacher somewhere on that campus who’s made them want to learn. Be like those teachers, not the ones who constantly complain about the kids. This sucks to hear, but I’ve seen too many teachers with good potential get ruined because they couldn’t believe that changing what they did would change the kids.

- Observe observe observe. Use your conference period. Find out who’s good at classroom management, and go watch them teach. If you don’t see them in the first week of school, you won’t see how they got there. But you will see that it’s possible. (To which – every new teacher should be required to watch the 5 best classroom managers on campus for the first week of school, lesson planning be damned.)

- Only change one thing at a time. If you feel out of control, accept most of it for what it is, and only work on changing one thing about yourself at a time. The first thing I worked on was not answering a kid who just yelled at me – I had to teach myself to wait for them to raise their hand. I had post it notes reminding me of that everywhere. The kids laughed at me, didn’t change much, but eventually learned that they had to respond to me rather than the other way around.

- Make your expectations clear, in excruciating detail. Repeatedly. I spend about a week at the beginning of the year teaching them (as opposed to just telling them) my expectations. And still, every day, I need to remind my 5th period what they’re supposed to do before the tardy bell rings. Every week when I give a test, I go over the 3 rules. Even then, I’ll have a kid who starts talking before the test was completely over. But it happens rarely. If a kid ever does something I don’t want them to do, and I haven’t taught them about that, I take it as my fault. Sure it seems like they should know how to do some stuff as a student, but the reality is that they want to know that you know how they’re supposed to act before they’re willing to put in the effort.

Prevention is worth tons of cure, and I haven’t so much learned to manage my anger as find ways to prevent things that might make me angry from happening. I spent a full month of seven hour days during the summer after my first year making a list of things the kids did that drove me nuts, and then coming up with alternate behaviors to teach them, and then lessons to teach those things. Eventually, I got good at catching the precursors to those things as well as communicating those expectations, to the point where I can substitute a class from hell and have them eating out of my hand in 5 minutes.

That’s down the road, though. right now, pick one thing about yourself to change, and start practicing it.

And remember to get enough sleep.


I’m a little bit late jumping on the pseudoteaching meme. I’m wondering whether it’s the right thing to attack.

Look at that. I can’t tell if it’s wordle, or imitation wordle made by hand. But it’s front and center at our school lobby as “evidence of learning”. I can’t blame anyone for putting it there – it’s certainly more visually interesting than what I gather as evidence, and that space is supposed to be visually interesting.

But I also see people advocating twitter for communication. Or Powerpoints1 for final projects. Or any other number of things that seem to mostly look pretty, rather than cause a student to dig deep and struggle.

Our standards are so dense and thick that we are coerced into teaching them by rote – investigative lessons are mostly used to supplement the learning, rather than as the foundation of it.

The 1right3wrong tests we are judged on are yet another incentive eschew deep learning in favor of memorizing simple patterns. All of the pressures I see for how to teach seem to encourage flash over depth, and I’m not surprised that teaching at large is following along.

If things are to change, it needs to come from the motivations being given to us, and I for sure don’t see that happening any time soon.

1 Sure, Powerpoint can be effective. But I have a hard time believing that 5 slides with 18 words arranged as bullet points requires the same amount of thought and connection of concepts that a properly constructed 7 paragraph essay would.

Point Loan Followup

I did some more thinking after my Point Loan post the other day:

  • This probably a direct result of my Dan style SBG: even though the grade is an aggregation of a number of different scores, I see it as so representative of a students skills that I am loathe to twitch it a little bit for fear of losing its fidelity. This is a huge change from where I was a couple of years ago.
  • This attitude seems to reflect itself in my students. I can’t remember the last time a student complained about the grade that I “gave” them. It’s all about what grade they got.
  • Out of all of my qualified students, only one took me up on the offer. The other dozen or so decided that they’d take what they deserved, and keep their threshold for next semester just a little bit lower. Rather than seeing this as a wasted effort, I see it as a validation and reinforcement of how I want them to see their efforts.

Repeated Whatever

I’m working through Euler Problem 188, which causes me to to go look up the Wikipedia page on tetration. At some point, while my brain is spinning, trying to figure out exactly how and where modulus operations can be incorporated into this to make the problem solvable, I become very glad that the “Multiplication is not repeated addition” folks never got their hands on that page.

Even if they’re smart enough to understand tetration without describing it terms of repeated lower order operations, I’m quite sure they’re not smart enough to get me to understand it that way.

If anyone reads this blog anymore, I’ll probably find that I’ve poked a very large noisy bear.

With no teeth or claws, thank god.

What the hell are we doing here?

There’s a bit of a stir about Natalie Munroe’s blog. (Sure, it’s been deleted, but the cache lives on).

For all the handwringing about how a teacher could say that about a student, that’s not what concerns me. I’ve heard similar in every faculty lunchroom I’ve been in. I’ve heard the same sorts of justifications for ineffective teaching bandied about at union meetings every time the topic of teacher evaluations comes up. She certainly gets enough commiseration in the comments (of her earlier posts, at least). And I wonder if these people all have completely different job descriptions than I do.

I watch the news (well, not all that much really). Or I read articles. Or I see other popular media opinions about teaching (coughWFScough). And they seem just as alien to what I do in a classroom every day. I don’t even know where to start a dialog, because the presumptions about what teaching is are either based on fantasy, or ideas out of the middle ages.

I see teachers fresh out of their credential classes going nuts because they don’t even have the basic tools to do their job, and have been thrown off the deep end to learn to swim. They’re at the “Is there a worksheet for this I can use?” stage. I know they want to be at the “I know all the different misconceptions a student can get while learning this, and have a store of problems in my head that will illuminate those fallacies without actually doing any of the explaining myself” stage, but I’m sure I can’t show them how to get there. After having had a whole load of professors and coaches whose alleged purpose was to facilitate that, I don’t think anyone else has a surefire way of doing it either.

And on the flip side of the spectrum, I can walk into three different teachers’ classrooms, who are by both subjective and objective measures better than I am, and see a range of styles that you couldn’t blend with a Blendtec. That’s nice, but I’m at a loss to describe to someone who doesn’t do this job what it is that makes them effective, and those other teachers not so much.

How can I feel so clueless?

How can people who know nothing at all be so sure?[1]

I’ve had this growing feeling for a while now that whatever professionalism there is in this job is a sham, and it’s just turned into another resource to be mined and discarded, like the mortgage market was, or the energy market before that.

The only bright spot in my mind in all of this is that I feel none of this cynicism when I’m in the room with my kids. Then it’s just me and them against the world, and every day we get just a little bit closer to kicking its ass. But as soon as they leave, the suspicion that I’m just a cog in a big giant sham creeps back in.

1 I keep meaning to do a post about this paper. It’s informed my teaching and my life on a number of different levels, so much so that I keep getting hung up because I can’t do it justice. Read it yourself, maybe it’ll hit your head like it did mine.


I didn’t feel like a proper member of this school until just now:

The woodshop class made me a sign:

Point loans

I have a couple of kids who came into my class this year with a huge deficit. They had to make it up, and a large number of them did. (One of my students was failing horribly, about 20% on his tests or so, for the first month). A lot of them have put in a huge effort, and managed to get back on level. A couple of those are just a percentage point or two short of where I’d like them to be.

Ordinarily, in the past, I’d give them a point for effort, but this time around, I decided to make a bigger deal out of it.

I’m letting them (qualified students only) borrow a point or two to bring their grade up this semester. They need to make it up to me next semester, by getting a correspondingly higher score to match that grade.

I’ll probably still waffle a bit, but it’s looking like this is a good way to keep the effort those kids have been making as high as possible

Performance Reviews

Some days you couldn’t pay me to quit teaching.

Back to School

Back to School night is in a week.

I’m think of, instead of my usual presentation, videoing my kids presenting the information. It’s nervewracking, but I get my best things done by just jumping in and doing, and only worrying later about how much it might suck.

I’ve always got the old deck as backup, but there’s a bit of pressure when the kids have been part of a project – they’ll want to see the end result.

Be still my nerves.


I am the least organized person on the planet. My office at home looks like a disaster area. Before automatic bill pay, I got those pink envelopes all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever balanced a checkbook.

As a teacher, this can be fatal. So I’ve had to learn how to fake it. I’m still disorganized, but I’ve found a couple of key things that make me look a lot more organized than I really am, and have a great bang for their buck.

Color code. RoYGBiV. 7 colors of the rainbow, in order. 2 of them don’t show up in the 5packs from major product manufacturers, but you can still keep the other 5 in chromatic order: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet. In a 6 period day with 1 conference period, that makes one color per class.

It’s a godsend during parent conferences, and I can ask the kid to get their folder and tell just from the color which period they’re in.

It also keeps me from misplacing their assignments or important papers.

These are colored folders to match the color scheme above. To the front of each I have stapled a medium heavy duty transparency, just by the very edge. I can slide a seating chart under it, and it stays there by static electricity. I can then take attendance, points, and track behavior all with an overhead marker. and reset every day. New seating charts (generated randomly by Easy grade pro) are also easily replaceable. I make my seating charts to be viewed from the back of the room – this gets me to move away from the attention area, and it’s also easier for the kids to read when I import then into my daily deck.

Inside each one I keep unreturned tests for students that were absent, or tests with postits for students who have yet to take them.

Finally, I have about a dozen of these bins, from Lakeshore. These two, however, are special. The left one has all of the leftover handouts from the previous day – If a student was absent I know where to easily find it without actually have a whole cataloging system. Likewise, the one on the right is my dumping ground for stuff that comes out of my mailbox. Invariably there was something important in there that someone asks me for 4 days later, this way I can always find it instead of in a pile on my desk.