Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Literature Woes

I love literature, and I wish I was better at sharing this love with my students. When we are reading a story though, and a student wants to share a comment, I always end up trying to rush them along. Why? Because the moment they start sharing, the rest of the class starts tuning them out and talking to each other. This aggravates me to no end. Often, when I want to add a comment of my own, they will not listen to me, but will instead talk to each other.

I know I could improve my classroom management marginally, but I honestly do not think my students are truly capable of behaving in a way that is conducive to meaningful discussion of literature. This sounds defeatist, mostly because it is. I still try my best for all of them to get something out of the lesson, and in my smaller English III class this is working great. But in my bigger classes, like my 30 person English I class, there are just too many side conversations to squelch. I think English classes work best when they are small. Just a thought.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Quitters Never Win, and Winners Never Quit

It is sad to see anyone leave the teaching profession when there are so many students in need of good teachers. I suppose that most people who leave teaching feel that they are not good teachers, and they use this as rationalization for leaving the profession. "The kids will be better off with someone else," they think. In Mississippi, however, this is generally not the case. Even a beleagured first-year MTC teacher will impart more knowledge than a typical long-term substitute. This thought was more than enough to convince me that I could never leave during my first year of teaching.

Is being a first year teacher tough? Of course. It's tough anywhere, what with lesson planning, learning a new school system, and practicing classroom management all demanding a great deal of time and patience. It is especially tough for outsiders to come to Mississippi and experience culture shock. However, there are several things more difficult than being a first-year MTC teacher:

1. Being a 19 year old high school junior. You still have two state tests left to pass, and you know the consequences for failure. You could be a mother, a father, an orphan, a homeless person, or a runaway. These problems are a lot more prevalent in the Delta than in Vermont where I grew up.

2. Being a substitute teacher in the Mississippi Delta. You only work a couple days a week and get paid between $40 and $45 a day. Sounds great, until the rent is due or you get sick and have no insurance. Kids treat you like crap, lie to you, and you don't know any of their names, so how do you write them up? I am speaking from personal experience here...subs have it tough.

3. Being a Delta principal. Everyone blames you for everything that goes wrong. Students mock you, and teachers talk about you behind your back. You are responsible for attending every school function, and school takes over every waking hour of your life. You are a human pinata. I would much rather be a teacher than a principal.

My number one suggestion to new teachers who are thinking about quitting? KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE. Whatever your situation, it could be worse. Things will start getting better for you as soon as you start to help yourself. There are ways to improve your plot if you just think outside the box. Finally, never forget that as bad as things get for you, there is someone out there with a hand much worse than the one you have been dealt.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Fix the Public Schools

There is certain knowledge that every American should possess. The problem is that no group of policy makers has been able to determine what this knowledge is. As a result, new teachers walk into a classroom and are told to "teach the frameworks." We are left with little to no materials and have to invent our own curriculum, trying at the same time to relate these to the muddled mess that are our district/state's frameworks.

This system is broken. Here is a way to fix it (IMO).

  1. Teachers need a curriculum. Tell new teachers what skills they must teach and give them lesson plans that earlier teachers have used. More teachers would stick around for a second year if they did not spend 30 hours a week making lesson plans from scratch.
  2. Have a national teacher lesson plan website. I should be able to go on the Internet and find ten different units on teaching subject verb agreement. Instead I have to sift through three or four teacher sites to find a worksheet here, a fifty-minute lesson plan there. Teachers need to share information. Notice I am not talking about a one-day lesson plan either: I think new teachers should be able to look for entire units that they can teach on everything from sentence completeness to figurative language.
  3. When a teacher leaves a position at the end of the school year, they should be required to write a letter addressed to the next person to teach that course. In that letter would be units taught, a list of materials used, and advice for successful ways to teach that course. This was a requirement at a summer school program I worked at, and it was helpful to know that someone before me had taught this class. Teachers all have the same mission: make our students smarter. We must be willing to share information/materials to do this.
  4. ACT/SAT materials should be made more accessible to poor students. I would love to buy a study guide for all my students, or better yet send them to tutoring sessions like rich parents can do. That's not an option though. Level the playing field by making materials available to ALL teachers interested in helping their students achieve success on this important tests.

There are more things we can do to fix public schools: they are not irreparable by any stretch. These are a few simple things I think could go a long way in making public school teachers and students more successful.

My Name is Joel Hebert, and I am a Motivational Speaker

There are two types of motivation: internal and external. Internal motivation comes from within, and mainly exists when a student wants to accomplish something because he has an emotional/personal stake in that outcome. For example, internal motivation might mean a student wants to earn an A because it will make him feel smart.

External motivation comes from outside the student, and often consists of rewards. Some teachers love to use external motivation, bribing and cajoling their students to try harder with the promise of cookies and stickers on their behavior chart. Neither system is without merit. But personally, I believe that internal motivation is the better way to get a student to work hard in your class.

I try to encourage my students to strive for the best grades possible. This is difficult because many of them are only trying to scrape by and do not understand or care that they will need good grades to get into college. What is there left to do? Try to get the students on your side. Don't give them compliments they don't deserve, but when they are doing something right, point that out. Use lots of smiley faces on papers. Encourage students to share their work. Call home and tell their parents how well they are doing in your class. If the students believe in you and your classroom goals, they will be intrinsically motivated to accomplish everything they can in your class.

Is this the only way to motivate? No. But I prefer this to motivating externally with cookies and candy, for two reasons. First, baking cookies takes a lot of time, and buying candy and other treats costs money that I would rather keep in my bank account. Secondly, people are shown to draw more satisfaction from something when they are not paid for it. Third, if students are only doing classwork to get candy, will they still work hard next year if their teacher DOESN'T give them a Snickers bar for acting like they are supposed to act? I think it is better to make your classroom a team environment, and show the students that you want the team to be acceptable. Give them easy, free bonuses--like story time and extra credit--when you want to reward them, and hold the whole class accountable when they act up. If you get the students invested in you and your mission, they will be internally motivated to be successful.

I have done a much better job this year of making my classroom a postive, productive workspace. As a result, my grades this year are much higher than they were last year, AND my students are learning a lot more. Motivate your students to be their best, and make the success of the class a reward in its own right.