Why The Little Things Matter
Originally posted on June 25, 2014
So often parents and guardians can get caught up making sure the big things are taken care of they forget how much focusing on the little things matter. Getting good grades and staying out of trouble are vitally important, but when you focus on the smaller lessons, like patience and politeness, they can have a much larger impact than you think.
I was in the store the other day behind a mother with two children. The infant was snuggled into a baby carrier while the preschool-age daughter with the cutest smile and dishwater blond hair was sitting in the top basket behind the handle. As the checker was about to ring up Mom’s purchases, the girl made a sound and grabbed for Mom, who asked if the girl wanted to play a game on her smartphone. Initially I was thinking this was just a parent handing a child a phone in order to keep her quiet. When I stopped to really observe what was happening, I witnessed so much more.
Before handing the phone over, she asked her daughter to make eye contact with her and politely ask for the phone. The daughter buried her face in her hands, prompting Mom to ask her again to say “Mommy, can I please have the phone?” When she didn’t follow the simple request, Mom said, “Since you didn’t ask nicely, I’m not going to give you the phone right now.” There was no yelling, sighing, or frustrated tone. Mom wasn’t issuing an ultimatum, she simply was stating a fact. When the girl looked her mom in the eye and asked correctly, Mom let her use the phone, but not before reminding her: “What do we say?” “Thank you” the girl replied. A few seconds later, the child asked to be tickled, which the mom did, as she was talking to the checker and paying her bill. At no time did the cherubic toddler’s giggles rise above the general sounds surrounding us. As the mom left, she noted that her infant was squirming around and fussing a bit, but neither mom nor children made a scene of any kind.
Perhaps my amazement by this display is unwarranted, but I so often am used to the opposite from young children, who seem to run around and squeal without correction or comment. A few days back I was waiting to pick up some food from a restaurant when a child who had been wrestling with his younger brother or cousin ran into me, paused for a moment and then hit me with his cap for some inexplicable reason before walking walk. Mom and grandma, who both were nearby, didn’t even notice what was happening. I admit having 35 kids at once who typically are compelled by law to listen to me for 55 minutes is not the same as having 3-5 kids every night, all weekend and summer who may have a penchant for yelling and screaming when you are just trying to run some errands. And, while many parents tell me they would not have the patience or self-control to do my job, I would have the same challenges switching roles. In all things, I try my best to be understanding.
In neither of the two situations did I offer a comment. While pointing out the latter’s behavior might have had little effect, I would like to think my comment to the mother of two would have been appreciated. Since I cannot speak to her individually, I will share my comments collectively. You are to be commended when you politely but firmly require your children to display common courtesy and respect. By the time they get to my classroom, I usually can tell which ones were raised with such diligence and which ones were not. Those who were raised thusly are appreciated and assisted more often and achieve higher grades. Those who were not tend to be sullen, smarmy and struggle to succeed. You may not think the little things like “please” and “thank you” really matter, but they do.
So, if you want your student to do well in school and life, please continue to teach them these small, but valuable, lessons.
The Fault IS in Our Stars
Originally posted on June 20, 2014
As a society, we are quick to praise products, places and people. Whenever we buy something, read a book, go to a movie or restaurant, people ask us to rate our experience. More often than not, while we are willing to issue a poor rating, we are loath to give an average one. If we see a five-star rating system, we will give an average product or experience an above-average rating. If something is above average, we will mark it as outstanding. If it is outstanding, we think extra exclamation points will make our case.
This practice of doling out excessive praise has been in education for years. In our field, we call it grade inflation and teachers have bemoaned the trend ever since it arrived on the scene. Once upon a time, we noticed that children felt better when they received a gold star or a higher grade so we started to dispense them more liberally. This boosted their general happiness and, of course, pleased parents as well. Those who criticize the trend said we never stopped and thought out whether the sometimes-unmerited praise established a false sense of excellence when the student in question would not, by objective standards, be considered superb or better than most of his classmates.
The foundation for such concerns rests upon two underlying assumptions. First, a teacher should never issue grades students do not earn. I often give praise when I am impressed by a student’s work. I also will offer advice and encouragement to students, sometimes in response to a request and at other times when they appear to need it but are unwilling to ask. But a student begging to be given a grade that is unearned is like when she petitions a parent for a gift, opportunity or privilege she has not merited. You know it is easier in the short run to give in, but you will be paying for it down the road when she expects more and more. The same is true with grades.
Which leads to my second point – letter grades have an agreed-upon meaning forgotten by some in today’s world. A-level work declares your student’s effort and the quality of his final product is outstanding, meaning that it stands out as being superior to that of the others in the room. When your student earns a B, her work is above the average quality of work in the room. Receiving a C, therefore suggests the work your student completed for the class was not significantly better or worse than the majority of students in the room. Following this trend, D and F grades tell us your student performed below the average or failed the course requirements outright.
Perhaps it is helpful to borrow an example from the world of politics to best understand the approach many teachers have to grading. Political scientists make the distinction between equal opportunity and equal outcome. For example, everybody has the chance to get a job, but not everyone is guaranteed they will be given employment. In a similar fashion, teachers give every student the opportunity to earn an A, but are well aware not all in the room will merit such a high mark. If they see a disproportionate number of students earning As, they likely will consider reevaluating the expectations they have, as the A grade no longer means the work of a particular student stands out from his classmates.
While it feels better to give a gold star or high grade for average work, doing so on a regular basis, gives students a false sense of confidence and does not prepare them for a world that may not judge them so generously. I would be doing a disservice to your student if I let her think she is better, or worse for that matter, than everyone else when that is not the case. Having support and understanding from parents that honesty is the best policy in this regard is crucial.
Failing your student by telling him he is outstanding when he is only above average or average sends him straight to outer space when he should only be in low-earth orbit. And when he comes crashing back to Earth in the next class or the next year, the fault will belong to all of us.
The Three F’s
Originally posted on August 18, 2014
With the first day of school fast approaching, this is the perfect time to ensure your student is prepared to be successful right out of the gate. In the educational world, the letter F has a very negative connotation, but I hope to redeem the sixth letter of the English alphabet as we discuss how Food, Folders and Faith can be key to starting off the school year well.
It seems elementary to suggest eating a good meal is vital to being a good student, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t see this principle flouted every day. Students regularly stroll into my classroom with a large, sugar-laced, blended coffee concoction and perhaps a doughnut or fast-food breakfast sandwich. They may not be allowed to eat or drink them in my classroom, but I know these items will not magically turn into a glass of water and piece of fruit when they carry them out the door. For the students who don’t wake up in time to eat, setting an alarm 15-30 minutes earlier than normal can address this issue. Even those who have lower incomes can qualify for our free and reduced-lunch programs, which some students do not take advantage of this because they are embarrassed about how they will be perceived by their classmates. No matter what excuse they give us, we need to be united in the proposition that a healthy diet will result in a fit physique and robust academic performance.
The next most important element in student success is organization. For every three or four reasonably well-organized backpacks I see students lug from class to class, there is one teen who is just carrying a poorly organized folder or a pack so messy he or she could hide a small land mammal inside and no one would be the wiser. While students often will balk at the nod to conformity, if they don’t have an exact place for their papers, I can pretty much guarantee their work will mysteriously disappear mere seconds before it’s due. Time and again I have observed a direct correlation between a messy folder and lower grade in my class. Again, for those who cannot afford backpacks, PTA groups or individual teachers or staff members have been known to purchase them for those in need. Even I, who spent my high school years arguing that a clean desk was a sure sign of a sick mind, know the more organized I am the better I can do my job.
The final part of this puzzle is for students to have faith in themselves and their future. Whether beginning their high school careers or just coming back from a summer away from the hustle and bustle of projects, exams, homework and dating drama, it is always good to have a fresh start. I always tell my students I care about their future much more than their past. We all have high expectations for these young people, but if we can encourage them to do well and remind them they can, and should, learn from their failure then they will have the internal faith needed to handle the challenges they will face in and out of the classroom.
So, while it may not be applicable on their report cards, getting down these three F's might be a surefire way to earn the As and Bs you and they both desire.
Starting Off Well
Originally posted on June 14, 2014
When I return to campus this August after a summer of writing and resting, I am scheduled to have several sections of freshman classes, more than I’ve had in a while. Whenever a new crop of students enters our school, it always fascinates my fellow teachers and me to see what is true about the group as a whole.
While one would expect a bit of excess energy that comes with the age group, we are very curious to see which ones are relatively serious about their studies and which ones are not so concerned about success. There is a perceived notion that at the junior high/middle school level there are not enough significant consequences for failing academically, leading some students to believe the first year of high school doesn’t really matter. If they fail a class here or there, it won’t be a big deal because when they have four years ahead of them, there is time to make a few mistakes along the way. The teachers and counselors will make sure they don't actually fail high school.
The problem with that kind of thinking is it’s only true in a very limited sense. Some schools have the option for remedial courses after school and in the summer, but if students begin to dig themselves too deep a hole it will be really difficult, if not impossible, to get out. While our most dedicated students are filling every period with strong, academic courses and taking summer school each year to get ahead, even the students in the middle of the pack know it is not smart to mess around when it comes to grades. In addition to being placed in a mandatory study period, spending hours during the summer or after school taking make-up classes is not the best use of their time. They might even need to transfer to a continuation or alternative school setting to make up the units just in order to earn a high school diploma. This is not a position they want to be in.
Also, let’s be honest here – some of the students who consistently fail classes are involved in less than ideal activities. Whether it is having a general lack of direction and tendency towards disrespectful or disruptive behavior or something more serious like substance abuse, students who don’t take school seriously can more easily be drawn into crowds unconcerned with their future well-being.
Let this, therefore, be a friendly warning to parents of students entering high school. Do whatever you can to make sure your student is prepared for success on day one of his or her high school experience. Make a connection with teachers in the first few weeks of class. Back to School Night is a great place for this to happen. Make sure they are taking classes best suited for them and doing the best they can in those classes. Include enjoyable electives where you can, but remember that focusing on the academic courses likely will help them in the long run. If you need an incentive to encourage their continued focus, let them know that if they work hard, there is the possibility of choosing a fun elective, teacher’s aide/office aide job or even an open period their junior or senior year.
In short, whatever you can do to keep them focus on doing well will do them well in high school and beyond.
Originally posted on June 10, 2014
While many teachers and parents in America are focused on the rollout of new educational standards, there is an interesting conversation going on across The Pond. Recent news articles out of London have highlighted a debate in the British government about plans to enforce stricter consequences for parents whose children are not in class on time and fail to show respect for teachers and the educational process.
At my school, like many others, we have an assortment of positive and negative incentives to attend class and participate in learning activities. From detentions for tardies to prize giveaways sponsored by local businesses for perfect attendance, we strive to help students understand the importance of being in their seats when class begins. We also honor students throughout the year both as a staff and individually for their efforts to do well in class and help others do the same.
While the problems in the United Kingdom are specific to the country itself, the proposal of holding parents responsible for the actions of their children may launch an interesting discussion on this side of the Atlantic as well. The proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child” naturally comes to mind here. Despite the best efforts of teachers and staff, it is all too easy in a student population of several hundred to several thousand for some students’ poor attendance or behavior to go unchecked. This is why we need to work together to help students be on time and on track. Teachers, counselors and support staff often put in significant effort to helping students succeed, but it is only with the help and assistance of parents and guardians that we will achieve this goal.
Whether or not we need to adopt these specific policies, hopefully this conversation is a reminder we all are responsible for teaching children positive habits and behaviors, whether or not we possess a teaching credential.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.