Dear Students,

Dear Students,

You probably don’t need the reminder, but it is that time of year again.  Summer break is ending and school is getting under way.  Perhaps some of you are eager to return; you actually like school.  It is probably no surprise to you that you are in the minority.  Some of you don’t really care about school, but you have missed your friends and can’t wait to see them again.  Most of you, though, are filled with dread.  Sorry!  School is a rite of passage we all must endure.  You might as well make the best of it!

Regardless of which category you fall into, I hope you will keep your future goals in mind and try your best.  Remember that you can’t learn unless you try.  If you try yet still fall short, then seek help.  Though you might feel more comfortable asking a classmate for assistance, that may not always be in your best interest.  For one, how certain are you that he or she actually understands the lesson.  Second, that scenario also brings with it the temptation to simply copy his answers, which will get you both into trouble and doesn’t teach you anything.  If you have a reliable friend who makes good grades and can explain the assignment to you without actually providing you the answers, then great.  Let him tutor you.  Otherwise, your best bet is to seek help from the teacher.  Be prepared to stay after school though if you need significant one-on-one instruction; that simply isn’t possible in class when the teacher has to divide attention between thirty other students.  If you can’t stay after, then write down specific questions you have when you turn work in and see if the teacher responds.

Don’t give up simply because you earn a few low scores.  You won’t achieve your goals by giving up. Keep trying.  Keep asking questions.  And remember the saying, “Practice makes perfect.”  Sooner or later, it will click, and you will figure it out but only if you try. Whatever you do, don’t earn a zero.  At least attempt to do your work.

You might not always appreciate the assignments you are asked to do or understand how they relate to your future goals, but the teacher is privy to a bigger picture and wouldn’t ask you to do it if it wasn’t in support of your goals, or at least in preparation for the state exams.  Yes, I do realize that some teachers do give what you consider busy work.  I am not saying that all teachers are good teachers, but I do believe that the vast majority are rather brilliant.  That being said, not all assignments can be made to be fun.  Sometimes you have to put in some elbow grease to build the foundation before you can construct a beautiful home.  Education is the same principle.  You have to learn the basics and you have to master skills before you can apply them on a cool project or experiment.

If you hate school in general, hate that one class, or simply choose not to try the assignments, do your classmates the favor of not distracting them.  Be a stand up guy – or girl!  Don’t be the one to negatively impact the learning process.  Show not only self-respect but respect for your classmates and teachers as well.  You are not the only one with goals!  Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.

Having a great – or at least a tolerable—school year revolves around integrity and accountability.  Have integrity and be accountable for your own work, your own learning, and your own behavior.  Accept responsibility for your actions.  Do your part to make the classroom a place conducive to education.  Participate.  And if you choose not to participate, then observe rather than distract.  Your teachers and fellow students will thank you, and in the end, you might just realize that you actually learned something in the process.

Parents, It’s Time To Give Them Back!

Dear Parents,

While some of you wish that summer break could go on forever, I know many of you are excited to once again send your children off to school.  It has been a whirlwind summer spent chasing the little ones around the house, listening to the older ones complain of boredom, keeping everyone sane and out of trouble, and possibly even coercing your children to complete the dreaded summer reading projects.  Finally, you can take a deep breath and pass the baton to the teachers and school administrators.  Don’t get so excited though that you fail to aid both student and teacher in making a clean transition.

As a former teacher, I can assure you that you play an integral role in how the year will play out.  Start the year off right by attending Open House if possible or by emailing the teacher.  Future conversations will go more easily if you build a relationship now.  Alert teachers now to any vision or hearing issues, any learning challenges, and any behavior issues your child has been known to have.  It is so helpful to know these things at the start.  You have no idea how many students will tell the teacher a month into school that they can’t see the board. Often after accommodating them, the teacher suspects that the student’s complaint was really just an excuse to sit next to his best friend as the quality of his work has actually decreased and the level of distraction has increased.  Without parents providing such valuable information (preferably in writing so it can be referred to later), it really is just a guessing game for teachers.  Which students have legitimate issues and which are just trying to pull a fast one?

Another thing you can do to make the year go smoothly is to see the guidance counselor or registrar about getting online access to your child’s grades.  Every teacher has experienced the phone call of a parent who calls at the end of the quarter to say he or she should have been made aware of the child’s poor grade.  Please understand that teachers have the best of intentions, but they also, at least at the middle and high school level, have 100+ students and a mandatory twenty to thirty assignments to grade each quarter.  With 2000+ papers to grade every nine weeks, it simply isn’t possible to contact parents every time a student fails an assignment or doesn’t turn it in at all.  That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t want to hear from you.  They love to hear from concerned parents.  They don’t need you to be the helicopter parent that calls every other day, but they certainly don’t want you to be hands off either.  For most teachers, an email is often easier than a phone call as they can return it from home or in between classes or meetings.  Email them every couple of weeks to check on progress, behavior, and upcoming projects, but do what you can at home to hold your child accountable.  Be mindful that teachers are not just teaching the curriculum; they are also trying to instill in students a strong work ethic and other skills necessary to succeed as they move from school to the workforce.  Like you, they want your child to be a happy, healthy adult who is capable of chasing and fulfilling his dreams later on.  You and your child may not always appreciate the hard lessons of losing credit for late work or not having it accepted at all.  Just remember the teacher isn’t trying to be mean or lessen his workload; he is simply attempting to teach your child accountability.

There are a few other helpful pointers, which may seem like common sense to you, but believe me, they are issues in many classrooms.  First, don’t do your child’s work for him.  How else is he or she going to learn the material?  Not only that, what lesson do you teach when you do this?  It certainly doesn’t make the student accountable for or appreciative of his learning. It also shows him that teachers do not have your respect, which will, in turn, affect the respect he affords his teacher.  Second, talk to your child about the importance of doing his own work.  Classwork and homework are preparation for upcoming tests and if your child has copied answers from a friend rather than working thru things on his own, how will that impact his test scores?   He should also do his friends the favor of not letting them copy his work either.  He does want his friends to be able to pass the test, right?  Teaching them that copying is cheating and that cheating is wrong instills accountability, integrity, and self-esteem.  It is better for him to fail an assignment completed on his own so that the teacher is aware he is struggling and can offer assistance than to copy, get a good grade and no extra help from the teacher, and fail the test.  Third, know that lack of attendance and excessive tardies are a big issue in middle and high school.  Talk to your child about the need to be at school and in class on time.  Most parents are on board with this and struggle right along with teachers to nip this negative behavior; however, some parents knowingly allow students to regularly miss school.  By allowing absences and tardies without consequence, students learn that school is not important.  This leads to a lack of respect for authority and other such issues.  Please, please, please stress the importance of being at school.  Finally, talk to your child about being prepared for school and organized.  Yes, there are students who genuinely lack supplies and teachers/schools do their best to provide for those in financial need.  The problem is that approximately  one-third of students show up to class each day without paper, writing utensils, and other supplies.  Whenever I brought up this issue at parent/teacher conferences, nine times out of ten the parent informed me that the child had a full supply of materials at home and didn’t understand why these supplies weren’t making it to school every day.  Just imagine all the time that is wasted each day as the same students wander the room in search of these items.  Everyone expects teachers to offer up a pen or sheet of paper when needed and trust me I tried to do just that but as items borrowed were rarely returned, I found I could go thru at least a full case of pens bought in bulk every quarter.  This is an expense teachers can ill afford.

So to recap, here are my tips for a successful school year: 1) contact teachers now to get and give vital information; 2) monitor your child’s grades online and hold them accountable; 3) stress the importance of the student doing his own work; 4) let your child know you think school is important and he is expected to attend regularly and be on time; and 5) do what you can to provide the necessary supplies and ensure they actually make it to school.  By doing all of these things, you will give your child an academic advantage, make the learning process more pleasurable for other students in the class, and show support for the teacher who will be forever grateful.

Welcome Back, Teachers!

Teachers across America started returning to school this week and many more will follow over the next two.  Some are still trying to recover from the mishaps and sleep deprivation of last year, but most return with optimism.  They have charted their course for the new year and set sail with a calm, steady wind at their back.  Let’s be realistic though.  That calm, steady wind can easily turn into a typhoon by the end of September when the grading gets heavy, the students lose interest, and the meetings seem endless.  Try not to panic.  Take a deep breath and know that educators and parents around the world are rooting for you.  I am going to recommend taking a proactive approach. Rather than being surprised when the unavoidable waves rock your boat, prepare for them now by focusing on the four key elements mentioned last week: integrity, accountability, respect, and support.

As teachers, many things are out of your control, so focus on the things you can manage.  Set up a support system now, or even a variety of support systems.  Most schools mandate that you attend common planning meetings.  It took me a long time to learn to make the most of them.  Sure, my team and I would discuss what curriculum we planned to cover in the next week or two, as well as ideas for projects, essays, or quizzes but more often than not, we were all teaching the curriculum our own way and frequently considered these meetings a waste of time.  Often the conversations prompted some creative idea we might like to try, but how often do teachers find the time to implement these innovative new lessons once the school year is in full swing.  My advice is to get with your team now, before the students arrive, and decide on some things that are standard that each of you can contribute on a regular basis.  That doesn’t mean you have to teach the same things the same way all the time but use each other.  Perhaps one team member wants to be responsible for finding a current supplemental reading related to the unit, another wants to find an introductory video, and someone else wants to put the notes students will take into a brief PowerPoint.  You can each still do different activities with those materials; however, you don’t each have to create all you will need to teach the unit.  Decide on responsibilities now, so you can get into a routine and make those mandatory meetings a little more productive.

Develop a support group among your colleagues to not talk about work.  Meet after school once a week to walk the perimeter of the campus or go off campus for a bite to eat.  Do something together to de-stress.  If you really can’t make the time, then plan an occasional grading party.  Grading is often silent and solitary.  Why not grade with a friend to music and snacks?  Eat lunch with your colleagues and don’t talk about students.  Make that thirty minutes when you are trying to miraculously heat up your food, ingest it, and squeeze in a restroom break a complaining free zone.  Trust me!  You need that mental break or you will burn out.  If you don’t put these things into place now, you will find excuses later and the stress will get to you.  It is inevitable.  Teaching is a stressful job.  You support your students all the time; make sure you get support too.

Another easy way to gain support is to write notes.  Write a few notes to yourself and post them places where you will see them when you really need them.  For instance, in your desk drawer next to your pen place a note saying, “You can do this” or “You do get summers off for this”.  Put a note on your stash of referrals that says, “Breathe”, “Don’t let them see you sweat”, or “Yes, this day is almost over”.  Write what you know will bring a smile to your face.  Periodically leave a note for a colleague.  You never know when they might need the encouragement.  Get the support of your students by leaving notes for them as well.  And don’t just give them to the “good” students.  Give that student whom you regularly write up a note that says, “Your behavior sometimes makes me crazy, but I love you anyway” and it just might make him/her straighten up for a few days.  Now I know you only have so much time in your day, but set a goal to write notes to five students a month, whatever you think you can stick to, and then do it.  They don’t have to be long; one sentence is enough.  I’ve seen students slip those notes into the front of their binder and keep them there all year; that is how much it means to them that you gave them something you didn’t have to give.

Hold yourself and your colleagues accountable.  It is unrealistic to think that we can do it all; know your limitations, set goals you absolutely have to accomplish, and then follow thru.  Administrators and district leaders expect teachers to do a million things that are next to impossible to complete in a near to normal work schedule.  Don’t kill yourself working eighty hours a week because even when you do, someone is bound to be disappointed and you will definitely be disgruntled.  Try to anticipate as much as possible the expectations of those in charge and make a commitment now.  What things absolutely need to be accomplished and what things can take a backseat?  Now hold yourself accountable for getting those items you know are mandatory done.  Set a limit on how many hours you plan to commit to work each week or how late you will allow yourself to stay at school each day.  You won’t always be able to stick to your guns, but try.  Set a timer so you don’t look up from your desk and suddenly realize it’s 6pm, you’ve been grading for three hours, your stomach is growling, and your family is probably getting ready to send out a search party.  Set up a partnership with a coworker in a nearby classroom to shoo each other out of the building by a certain time each day. If you are always the last teacher to leave (like I always was), then make friends with the custodians and get them to politely kick you out. Unless it is the end of the grading period, leave work at work.  Don’t take things home with you, at least not on a regular basis.  You do want to hold onto your sanity until the end of the year, don’t you?

Finally, show respect, earn respect, and maintain your integrity as much as possible.  Do what you can to develop a positive and open relationship with your administration. Respect your administrators enough to be honest about how things are going in your classroom, whether you do it in person or on the yearly school climate survey.  Politely, let them know when you feel their expectations are unrealistic.  You don’t have to be rude or go on the offensive.  Let them know you are trying to be the best teacher possible, but you are struggling to meet all of their expectations.  Ask for clarification on how to complete a task or the reasoning behind a certain task.  Ask for support but also be prepared to offer support.  Earn the respect of fellow teachers by pulling your weight, keeping to the schedule, and being positive.  I’m as guilty as they come in regards to being pessimistic when stressed and yes, everyone needs to vent sometimes, but try not to be negative all the time.  Be respectful to your students, even when they pluck your last nerve.  Remember that though you might have behavior problems in your classroom, other students are also struggling to learn and maintain their positivity during the distractions.  Don’t lose their respect by arguing and making the disruption worse.  Handle it calmly and move on. Respect your students by making lessons meaningful.  That doesn’t mean your class needs to be fun and games all the time but don’t just give worksheets and busy work.

I am quite sure that none of this is new information.  However, I also know from experience that these things are often pushed to the side and forgotten once the school year gets under way when time is limited and stress is high.  Remember that you are a superhero and though I am no longer in your club, I will pray for you each and every day.  May this be your best year teaching yet!

Dear School Administrators

With a new school year quickly approaching, I find myself reflecting on my past experience as a teacher.  Education has seen many changes over the years, some of them good and some of them bad.  Sadly, teachers tend to see more of the bad.  Their workload has doubled while their pay has remained roughly the same.  Parental involvement has decreased and negative student behavior has increased. Teachers face many challenges and though I am no longer a member of this esteemed group of superheroes, I want to do whatever I can to make their jobs easier and to show my appreciation for their continued efforts.  Therefore, I am devoting the month of August to education and all of the players involved in the hope that I can make a positive impact. This week I am focusing on school administrators and policy makers.

Dear Administrators,

Let me first of all say that I know you want to see our educational system improve.  You would not be in this profession if you did not care about the quality of the curriculum and the future of our students.  That being said, it has been my experience that in the desire to improve things, those eagerly making what they hope will be positive policy do not always consider the long-term ramifications.  I realize that your job is not easy; I’m sure your job was much simpler before No Child Left Behind was enacted.  Now you constantly have to worry about accreditation and school ranking.  You want the community to see your schools in a good light and your schools to draw in quality students.  Being seen as the best is a noble goal, but too often these days the pursuit of that image leads to ineffective and sometimes illogical policy.  At times, it can even lead to illegal or immoral activity, as demonstrated by the number of school systems that have made the news for consciously allowing irregularities on state testing.  What I would like to propose is that we all take a step back and focus on four key elements:  integrity, accountability, respect, and support.

Integrity and accountability go hand in hand and have a trickledown effect. Having integrity and standing up for your beliefs is not easy, but it is worthwhile.  Every time you lower standards by forcing teachers to assign a grade when no work was submitted or to accept excessively late work, integrity crumbles.  When teachers are made to feel guilty for writing referrals because the number of referrals affects school image, integrity crumbles.  Whenever anything else is done that can be seen as fudging the numbers, whether it relates to grades, state exams, or graduation rates, integrity crumbles.  Every person in the system needs to be held accountable starting with those at the top; our system will not survive otherwise.  I know that administrators have perfectly valid reasons for implementing such policies, but I ask you to remember that we are dealing with children.  You might determine that giving a minimum grade of fifty will allow students who are struggling to learn a concept a fair shot at passing and an improved self-esteem.  Think about it from their perspective though.  If I can get something for nothing, why should I attempt the work?  That student knows he is struggling and wants to give up, and now he has an out.  He can go to sleep, talk to friends, or cause classroom disruptions instead of doing the assignment, and his grade will not drop because of it.  Of course, his grade won’t rise either, but he isn’t really concerned with that now.  Perhaps it will hit him at the end of the school year or the end of his school career but not now.  He isn’t thinking of the long-term consequences; he needs those in charge to think of them.  By putting policies in place which hold teachers accountable for teaching and students accountable for learning, you will maintain your integrity and allow students and teachers to do the same.  You will also earn their respect.  Will there be a few rough years while students adjust? Yes.  Will the numbers initially drop? Yes.  However, they will rebound and when they do, you will be able to feel pride that your school earned a positive reputation.

Another concern you may have is recruiting and retaining quality teachers.  When I was a student, it seemed the teachers were an institution; they were there for the long haul.  That is no longer the norm.  Each year of my teaching career I saw at least twenty new faces, many of which were gone within a year or two.  I believe the secret to keeping them is to show them respect and offer support.  Some of you are doing that, but it takes more than just a strong principal.  If school administration is great but district policy is not, you are still going to have a revolving door of teachers.  Work together.  Show teachers that you respect them by valuing their time.  Be mindful that even though teachers may have a planning period, it is not sufficient to lesson plan and grade papers for an average of a hundred students, especially if that planning period is also used to attend IEP meetings, common planning, or parent-teacher conferences.  Teachers are also expected to tutor students and attend department, faculty, and district meetings after school.  When do they do most of their grading and lesson planning?  They do it in the evenings and on weekends when they should be devoting time to their families.  Most teachers work 24/7 during the school year, so I ask you to please respect their time.  If the information can be relayed via email rather than calling a meeting, then send an email.  If that form, survey, or professional development is not going to be life altering, then make it optional.  Supporting your teachers does not need to take inordinate amounts of time or money.  Those luncheons provided two or three times a year are great, but they are not necessarily what teachers need in order to feel appreciated or supported.  Being visible in the halls and offering a friendly greeting is a start.  Let your teachers know that you genuinely care if things are going well.  If they are struggling to maintain discipline with a certain group of students, offer to stop by to assist on occasion.  Don’t just visit classes for teacher observations and evaluations.  Stop by to observe the students so you know just what issues the teacher is facing on a daily basis.  Let the teacher know you have his/her back.  Don’t criticize them for writing referrals.  Back them up with disgruntled parents.  Leave an encouraging note in a teacher’s mailbox.  Know which teachers have a difficult schedule, for instance those who teach an extra class instead of having a planning period, and offer to watch their classes so they can use the restroom.  That is a huge deal to teachers and will go a long way to showing that you care about their well-being.

If you maintain your integrity, hold yourself and others accountable for maintaining high standards, recognize there may be another side to the issue, admit you might be wrong, and respect and support your teachers, you will reap some serious rewards.  The school climate will change, teachers will stick around, and students will achieve.