Starting Over in January

You made it!  New teacher or veteran, you survived the First Day, the First Week,  Open House, Parent Conferences, the First Grading Period, and Final Exams.

And soon, here we will be again, at the start of a new semester.

I hope you will spend a little time, in the midst of the celebration and the holidays, to reflect on the first semester. What went well, what you plan to dump, what you’re going to change up a bit.

Here are, the way I see it, the four specific areas of teaching that every educator strives to master:

  • Organization  (How you’ve set up your classroom)
  • Classroom Management (How you approach discipline)
  • Instruction (How you fill those 50 minutes)
  • The Soft Side (How you relate to the kids)

All four of these categories are crucial to success.  You may like the way you are doing things now, but the best teachers always ask “Is there a better way?”


Seating arrangements. If you want more discussion, change the seats so the students face each other. Talking to the backs of heads doesn’t promote dialogue.  On the other hand, if things have gotten too social, maybe you need rows.  Here’s a great (free) web tool for redoing the room arrangements:  Click on “Classroom Architect.”

Absent Work. When kids are absent, do they drive you crazy asking what they missed?  Do you forget where you’ve put the handouts from the day they were gone?  Consider establishing a place in the room especially dedicated to helping absent students find what they’re responsible for.  Here is one example of a “While You Were Away” spot in a classroom I’ve visited.  

Posting Objectives, Agendas, and Homework.  How many times do kids say, “What are we doing today?”  “What’s the homework?”  “Why are we doing this?”  These questions, too, can drive you crazy.  Another dedicated wall space can solve the problem.  Here’s another sample board from a high school classroom. 

Classroom Management

Procedures. When we greet students the first day with a long list of rules and punishments, some kids just naturally seem to want to buck the system.  If you have been having “discipline problems” and want fewer challenges, try developing procedures instead of rules.

Best book about procedures: Harry and Rosemary Wong: The First Days of School. In this, their first book, they explain in depth their strategy for teaching procedures: Teach/Rehearse/Practice.

Teach your students procedures. As the Wongs explain, procedures are positive. They’re easy to follow.  They help us all know what to do in a given situation: How to install an app on our phones. How to buy a gift from Amazon. How to report an absence.  Everything is a procedure, really.  In the classroom, too, it’s all procedure: How to pass in papers. How to exit for a fire alarm. How to get out your computer.  Same with these things:  What to do when you’re late to class.  What to do when you’re finished with your work.  What to do when your pencil breaks.  Decide on the procedures you want to make routine in your classroom and then teach them to your students.

Rehearse the procedures. On the first day of the new semester, explain to students what you expect and show them how to do whatever it is.  It’s worth spending a few minutes rehearsing what to do in any of these situations because, after that, when someone doesn’t follow the procedure, you just remind them: “This is the procedure I expect you to follow.”  

Practice the procedures again if you have to…or periodically throughout the semester.  And be patient.  You can last longer than they can.  Eventually, they’ll get the message.  Well, 99% will.  And then there are steps you can follow for that pesky 1%.


Write objectives: Robert Marzano published this great book: Classroom Instruction That Works. In it, he described the 9 instructional strategies that bring the most bang for the buck in terms of student learning. One of those 9 is setting objectives.

John Hattie published Visible Learning for Teachers. It’s a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of a ton of teaching strategies and conditions.  Guess what? Setting objectives is one of the most effective moves you can make.  Hattie calls it “Teacher Clarity.”

Post your objectives.  It’s not enough to have objectives. You have to communicate them to your students, too.  Make them visible. Refer to them at the beginning of instruction, during instruction, and at the end of the lesson.  

Objectives vs. Agenda.  Your objective is not the same thing as your agenda. You do a lot of things in the course of 50 minutes, but the objective relates to the instructional piece:  What you want the students to know or do.  Take a look at this board from a classroom. The teacher has separated the agenda for the day from the objective of the day. This one isn’t fancy, but what students need to know couldn’t be clearer. 

Instruction includes strategies and activities–what you will do, what you will have the students do, to deliver on the objectives.  This is such a huge topic that I am going to leave it at this for now. But, search my blog and sites online for specific strategies you’d like to try or ones you’d like to refine. 

The Soft Side

They have to know you care.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t take much for the student to realize you do.  Here’s what they say:

  • My teacher greets me at the door.
  • My teacher remembers what activities (sports, drama, speech, etc.) I’m in—or where I work—and asks me about it.
  • If I’m absent, my teacher asks me if I feel better.
  • My teacher sends positive notes home.
  • My teacher attends school events.
  • My teacher keeps the grade book up to date so I know where I stand.
  • My teacher walks around the room and helps us.
  • My teacher smiles at me.

“Caring” to a student is recognizing that he or she is an individual.

So, because this is the gift-giving season, take some time over the holidays–while there still is a little time–to reflect on the gifts you can give as a teacher.  Deliver them in January:

  • A well-organized classroom
  • A management plan that emphasizes the positive
  • A learning plan that kids can understand
  • An approach that says “I care”

And Welcome Back!!

A Change of Environment

dsc00686Olivia had some advice for 8th graders considering enrolling in the Maverick Launch program at my high school: “Don’t be worried,” she said. “This is a safe place. You’re always welcome here.”

Recently, I spent a day in McCutcheon High School’s freshman intervention program, called the Maverick Launch, which was initiated a few years ago to meet the needs of incoming at-risk students. Really, this is a school-within-a-school, an innovation in education that has brought success to targeted students in many districts across the country. Maverick Launch is the name of the program—the school mascot is an unbranded steerand it is also the name of the building where approximately 100 lucky students attend high school every day.

“The best thing about Maverick Launch,” a freshman girl, Brittney, told me in an interview a few days later, “is the help from teachers.”

Maverick Launch students follow the same rigorous curriculum as every other freshman student at McCutcheon High School (English students had just read the Odyssey and algebra students were graphing linear equations), but there are only 15-20 students in each class. Thus, learning is much more personalized than it can be in classes that regularly exceed thirty.

Another big difference is that Launch students have two math classes and two English classes every day. One English class focuses on literature; the other on writing and language skills. In math, the first hour is for the presentation of new materials; the second for homework and extra help. The students also take science and FACS every day with their cohort.

Because of the additional English and math learning opportunities, Maverick Launch students can earn two extra credits their freshman year. The extra support means an increased expectation that they will pass Indiana’s graduation qualifying exam sophomore year, and the extra credit hours provide room in the students’ schedules for elective classes in later years.

Students also take two classes each day in the main building, blending easily with the larger student body. “I expected to be treated differently by the kids in the main building, Ethan said, “but I am not.” Like other freshmen, Maverick Launch students choose from the full array of high school course offerings for those two hours, enrolling in such classes as World History, PE, 3D Art, a world language class, computer applications—wherever their interests lie.

Maverick Launch students participate as well in McCutcheon sports and extra-curricular clubs. This year, 47% of the Maverick Launch students are on an MHS sports team and 75% are involved in at least one extra-curricular activity.

Students report other benefits to enrollment in Maverick Launch, too. For starters, former Maverick Launch students are welcome to return anytime throughout high school for extra academic help. Some even choose to serve as teacher’s aides for their former instructors.

Another plus has been the friendships formed in this small-school environment. “We’re like one big family out here,” said Andrew, a graduate of the program.

During my day with the Launch students, I encountered a young man I’d seen in action the previous year in middle school. Robert. He’d been a difficult student—uncooperative, disengaged, often rude. I didn’t even recognize him when I saw him in the Launch. He was working with another student on a collaborative project and he looked happy. His teachers loved him. Something important had changed.


In this small and supportive environment, it is clear that students are developing habits of learning that will increase their chances for success during the rest of their high school career. They raised their hands, came to class on time, kept their voices down, and apparently did their homework. Not a one balked at giving an oral presentation that was slated for 1st hour the day I was there. They didn’t pack up early and rush the door at the end of the class period. I could tell these were behaviors they’d been taught and ones their teachers expected them to observe. But the atmosphere wasn’t robotic; it wasn’t even regimented. Classes felt relaxed, low-key. 
I noticed as I traveled from class to class that the teachers are consistent in terms of their expectations and procedures–and that leads to a safe and welcoming setting. Kids know what to expect.
Once, during a math class I observed, students began drifting during the teacher’s presentation. He said, in an even tone and barely missing a beat, “I’m reviewing now from Friday. I need your attention. Those of you holding up your head with your hands: Exercise your neck muscles. Hands down. Sit up straight.” All this was delivered in the same voice Mike Etzkorn, the lead teacher in the Maverick Launch, uses for instruction. His redirect was not a chastisement, just a summons to the task at hand.

This is the same teacher who allows earbuds while students are working on the “homework” problems he’ll go over with them the second time they meet, later on in the day. He knows that some kids concentrate better when they’re oblivious to classroom distractions.

This is the same teacher who asked every student, as he made his way around the room, “Are you doing okay?” To one girl, who was randomly hitting the keys on her computer, he said, “Are you just playing?” When she replied that she didn’t understand, he bent down and re-explained.dsc00693

This is the same teacher who said to students, “I’m not ready for you to start the homework”—not, “You’re not ready.” The message came through as “You can do this, but I haven’t spent enough time helping you understand.”

It would be easy to say that the small class size or the double dose of math and English is responsible for the success these students meet, but it’s more than these two factors, critical as they are. These teachers have formed caring relationships with their students, all of whom have learning challenges of one kind or another. Sometimes that caring is communicated in very simple ways: reminding students of their choices when their classwork is complete, giving them a 2-minute warning that lunch is about to start (There are no bells in the Maverick Launch), nudging them about a quiz the next day. Sometimes it’s by asking about the weekend or letting students who need to listen to music as they work, or sitting down next to a student to help her through a problem.

The teachers are consistent in their approach, clear in their directions, and non-judgmental in their reactions. The students trust them because they’re predictable.

dsc00705Mr. Etzkorn explained that the goal is to ease the transition from middle school to high school by establishing a caring, familylike environment. The teachers work as a team. In fact, they meet together at the end of every day–while their students are taking one of those classes in the main building–to plan, confer, and strategize. That planning time together is another ingredient in the recipe for success. The teachers see their students from multiple perspectives and know how they’re doing in subjects other than their own. They know when any particular student is having a bad day, and they all learn about everyone’s challenges and successes.

In this school-within-a-school, Mr. Etzkorn told me, “Students are given the time they need to mature and grow academically.”

In the end, it’s the atmosphere these teachers have established that makes all the difference.

Paul Tough, a journalist-turned-education-sage wrote a book a few years ago called How Children Succeed. In that book, he confirmed everything I’ve known for years—from experience and by instinct—about why some kids are successful and why some aren’t. It isn’t about IQ; it isn’t about money and family resources.

It’s about having the discipline to make yourself study when you’d rather be playing video games or texting or driving around town with your friends on a fine spring night. It’s about persistence—about seeing a teacher after school to get something explained, about giving up a lunch period to visit the math lab, or revising that paper when the assignment to do so is optional. It’s about memorizing the formulas and going over the study notes. It’s about setting a goal and moving toward it, step by step by step.

But Tough has good news: These “character” traits, as he calls them, can be taught.

dsc00709In his most recent book, Helping Students Succeed, Tough writes: “If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first is his environment.” Tough’s new book addresses the academic failure that 51% of America’s public school students experience because of poverty and its attendant problems. Poverty may be the root cause of the problems some Maverick Launch students experience, but not all of them. Similarly, they are not students who were identified because of poor discipline records, yet some are familiar enough with the principal’s office. What they do have in common is that all of them were identified in middle school, for one reason or another, as being at risk of not graduating from high school.

Robert, the boy I saw whose experience in the Launch environment has been transformative, is learning how to be a student. In this nurturing environment, he is experiencing success. He is developing the traits of character and the habits of learning that promise a better future.

He is not alone.

When these students move into the main building their sophomore year, their chances for continued success will have improved exponentially. Impressively, one-third of former Maverick Launch students are able to complete their high school coursework and graduate early.

Abby, a sophomore who was enrolled in the Maverick Launch program last year, is now a teacher’s aide during her study hall period. She told me this: “The teachers connect with everyone. They take their time to help you understand.” And then she added, “I’m grateful for all the program did for me.”

She is not alone.

License to Sew

Middle School FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) isn’t the cooking and sewing of yesterday. In fact, many FACS teachers don’t teach sewing at all P1040022these days.  It’s not in the state standards as a stand-alone skill.  Fashion design, care of resources, reading instruction manuals: These are covered in the standards, but not teaching of sewing per se.  Fortunately, the middle schools in my district still have sewing machines, local standards still allow for teaching kids how to operate them, and the teachers understand that the justification for omitting sewing from the state standards—“No one sews anymore”—is not entirely true.  In my part of the world, 4-H is still a big deal and fabric stores still exist. In the larger world, the world beyond the borders of my county, the fashion industry is HUGE—and people who enter into that world need to know how garments are constructed if they’re going to design them.  Learning to sew is a career skill for some kids—no less important than learning to draw, play a musical instrument, or use basic computer programs like Excel and Word.

So it was a thrill yesterday to watch a sewing lesson—and one that was about as perfect as any lesson could be.

The kids came into the room, put their binders and paraphernalia on the desks in the classroom portion of the FACS room, and proceeded without delay or loud chatter to their assigned sewing tables.  Their teacher took attendance by simply asking the tables to report out the names of the missing kids.  Two kids were gone; she recorded their names later. Then she began the class with three very simple, short directives.  First, a correction to a privilege she’d accorded the students earlier in the year (one sentence, very clear, about music and iPods). Then, a review of the parts of the sewing machine (The students pointed appropriately as the teacher called out the names of the parts: presser foot, bobbin winder, feed dogs, and so forth).  Finally, the day’s agenda (Steps 8-11 on the License to Sew).

Have you ever tried to explain a complex task to an 8th grader? Try thirty at a time on a potentially dangerous, motorized machine.  Can’t you just see the apprehension in a novice teacher’s eyes? The constant hands in the air? The ever-rising level of talk as the students  wait for the teacher to run around the room to each one individually identifying parts, showing each one how to load the bobbin, confirming that the machine is correctly threaded? The horsing around that middle school students are so very capable of? None of that happened in this FACS room.

Here’s how this teacher did it: She issued those students a “License to Sew.”

P1040025If you look closely at that “license,”  you’ll see genius at work.  To start with, the students taught themselves the parts of the machine and how to thread it (including bobbin winding) by reading the instruction manual.  Anyone with a question first asked a fellow student at the same sewing table.  On the blackboard, the place of last resort, was the teacher’s HELP list.  The teacher answered the questions of the kids who had put their names on that list. What that meant was that she wasn’t frantically trying to answer thirty questions, all exactly the same, many about trivial matters, or running around reassuring the anxious ones and restraining the ones with the potential to cause harm.  She was helping kids who genuinely needed her expertise.  For all the rest, self-reliance and a little help from a friend did the trick. Incidently, that’s an important goal of the FACS standards: helping kids learn to act responsibly and productively.  Kids moved ahead at their own pace, and a quiz later on—taken individually, when the student was ready, in a one-on-one minute with the teacher—confirmed knowledge of the parts of the machine and the necessary application skills.  The next step was practice sewing on paper templates. I missed that scene, but I saw the templates, commonly used in introductory sewing lessons to give the students practice without wasting resources–in this case, precious fabric.

When I was in that FACS class yesterday, about a third of the way into the P1040019hour, when everyone had been issued their “license to sew,” the teacher conducted a quick demo.  The kids—orderly, quiet, attentive— clustered around her as she showed them the next steps in their first project, a pincushion.  She showed them how to pin two pieces of fabric together (“Right sides kissing!”), leave a hole, turn the item inside out and stuff it, starting with the corners. Then she released the students to the machines.

At one point, a student I was standing near asked me for help. Her bobbin thread was hopelessly tangled, but I didn’t know the machine, and besides, the rule was, ask a friend first.  So I suggested that and reiterated that if she P1040015didn’t understand, she should write her name on the HELP list. Another student overheard my response and stepped right up: “I can help you with that,” she said. Exit me.

Imagine some of the other things that could have been going on in this classroom:  At a table covered with fabric scraps (from which the students were to choose two pieces for the pincushion), no one was tussling over the fabric, pushing or shoving others, or throwing fabric wildly about. The scene was orderly—and  the teacher wasn’t standing nearby controlling this situation, either.  She was seated at another table where kids who finished could line up with their license and their project in hand. She P1040024measured their seams and checked off the steps on the license. All over the room, kids were working at their own pace, and everyone was engaged.

When the end of class grew near, the rest of this teacher’s clearly articulated and rehearsed expectations played out: Without reminders or fuss, the kids stowed their possessions, picked up the room and put all the equipment back where it belonged. They disposed of the fabric bits that had fallen to the floor and pushed their chairs in. Exit them.

A spectacular class: Specific skills were learned, character traits like self-reliance and independence were honored and nurtured, and the instruction the teacher provided and the procedures she had instituted allowed for students to progress at their own rate and take responsibility for their learning.  I’ve seen art teachers and music teachers and technology teachers do this same thing.  In any project-based learning scenario in any subject area, the procedures must be clear and the pacing has to be orchestrated to accommodate different kids progressing at different rates. The class must operate (forgive the pun) like a well-oiled machine.

This one did.

Going for Gold

• The bell rings before you reach the lesson’s close.
• A befuddled question from a student translates into a moment of clarity for you: The student doesn’t understand. You’ll have to back up and start over.
• Kids aren’t listening, so you interrupt the lesson to redirect them. But then other kids lose the thread because your intervention is far more interesting than the lesson.
• Your explanation is unclear. You’ve even confused yourself.
• Three boys are spending more time fooling around than completing the task at hand. You shouldn’t have put them in a group together. But too late now. The lesson is underway and there isn’t much you can do.
• The technology fails–the ENO board won’t work right, perhaps, or a bulb blows on the overhead–and your lesson depends on the technology. You spend 10 minutes trying to get it to work. It never does. Worse than that, you lose your cool.
• Eye rolling and snickering from teenage girls: it’s unnerving and makes your knees jump. You can’t shake them off, and you can’t concentrate on your lesson, either.
• The activity you planned is too complex–the kids are not moving into and through it smoothly.
• A parent calls to register a complaint that seems to come out of left field. How could you have anticipated that?

Plenty of things can go wrong every single period of every teaching day. A teacher is a human being interacting with thirty other human beings every period. That can mean 150 kids—sometimes even more—in the course of a day. There’s a text to be understood, a concept to be explained, or a skill to be taught—and an array of technological supports that can fail at any time. When any one of the infinite number of variables goes wrong, any teacher is troubled.

I have experienced every one of the scenarios sketched in the text above.

Imagine if all them (or even just several) happened on the same day. A novice teacher could easily be thrown: her confidence shaken; her resolve, dissolved. Even one such incident can haunt a beginner, and one hour that goes badly can color the whole week. You can feel like a failure within a very short time.

I remember spending one whole weekend, when I was a beginning teacher, obsessing over something that happened on a Friday afternoon and second-guessing my response to it. I had had a “horrible week,” I declared to my husband, but in reality, I’d had one bad incident on Friday. By Monday, whatever had happened had been completely forgotten by the students, and I felt silly for letting it ruin my weekend.

This fixation on failure happened to me more than once. I’d let one or two “disasters” during a week dominate my assessment of myself as a teacher. The optimism and confidence I’d started the year out with were soon gone, and I really was in danger of failure. What was I going to do? I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children—and not a negative difference, either. After a lot of fretting and frustration, I hit upon a strategy for dealing with disaster: I created a mental calendar to set the record straight.

It was like this: I taught six classes a day, five days a week, so (I told myself) there were thirty chances for success. Each week began with—in my mind—a blank white page gridded like a calendar: five squares across, six squares down, one for every period I taught. If a period went well–nothing spectacular, but nothing awful, either—the square remained white. If a class went badly, I colored the square black. But if the class went well, I made the square yellow, a cheerful color, one most people associate with happiness.

The object, of course, was to achieve a solid yellow page. In the beginning, I was gratified if there were no black spots on the grid. A page that was still white by the end of the week was a huge relief, and on the few intermittent yellows, I rode high. Gradually, my grids started looking like a case of measles—my yellow squares were sprinkled throughout the week. A whole day that was solid yellow was cause for rejoicing; a week of yellow–which took a long time to achieve—provoked a celebration equivalent to the Fourth of July. As time went along, the black days disappeared and the yellow ones dominated. Occasionally, one of those dreaded black marks did occur, but because of the grid, I could put that period into perspective. It was one period in a matrix of thirty opportunities. Not the whole picture, not a portrait of failure. My confidence increased, square by square, and with the confidence, guess what? More and more yellow squares began to appear.

Naturally, as the years passed by, I raised my standards, expected more of myself. Yellow became the new norm. I started going for gold. My explanations became clearer and were illustrated with examples kids could understand. I learned how to structure groups and keep students on task. Through trial and error and a lot of deliberate action, classroom management moved from nightmare to second nature. I learned about learning styles, adjusted my instruction for students at various levels, developed better questioning techniques and pacing strategies. And so on.

I got to gold. One square at a time.

I tell this story now to beginning teachers and others who are temporarily off their stride. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t let one bad day spoil the weekend. Don’t let one bad hour define you. You’ll get to yellow. One square at a time. And then you’ll go for gold.


Some years ago, the guidance counselor appeared at my classroom door with a senior boy in tow. We were already three weeks into the first quarter, and my Basic English class of eighteen kids was a cohesive and productive unit. I would have preferred it to remain that way.

She pulled me to the side. “There is no place for him,” she said. “His schedule’s been changed and he needs English. Will you take him?”

Everything I had heard about him was true. He wouldn’t do his homework. He tried to sidetrack discussions with impertinent remarks. His body language said, “You can’t make me!” and on Friday afternoons he jingled the coins in his pockets and spread the money he had collected for “partying” out on his desk for the class—and me—to see.

I started with the money.

“Put that away,” I said.

To his own surprise, I think, he cleared his desk. Slowly—it took all semester—he began to settle down, to speak pleasantly, to read his assignments. He started to take tests seriously, too, although he’d protest the unfairness of each one, just in case he failed.

His contribution to discussion was less and less often an outburst, but even in December, he still didn’t raise his hand.

At the semester, he needed a new class. The one I would teach next was a step up in difficulty, and there would be thirty students. He asked what it would be like.

“There will be more reading,” I said, “and you’ll have to raise your hand. You won’t be the center of attention.”

He considered this. “Okay,” he said, “but you’ll never make me a ‘pencilhead’.”

“Pencilhead,” of course, was a derogatory term for a smart kid.

And that’s when he gave himself away. That’s when he told me he wanted to learn.

“Pencilhead” didn’t become a scholar overnight, but he did earn a B in the class. His mother said in June that he’d read more books that year than in all of his years of school combined. I will never forget the day he pulled his chair into another group’s reading circle so he could hear a second discussion of the book his group had just talked about.

After he graduated, he joined the military. He served overseas, and once he wrote me that he was taking an English course—“Introduction to Writing.”

Eventually, he returned to the community, gained employment, and went on for post-secondary training. For a few years, he occasionally came to school to see me. Once he brought McDonald’s for lunch. He always gave me a hug. He had become a success, and he told me I’d taught him that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

In truth, his success had more to do with him than me. He’d decided to grow up that year in my classroom.

But we teachers remember students like “Pencilhead” long after they have left school, and their stories become our personal folklore. We recall such stories to nourish and reward ourselves for the work we have done, the risks we have taken, the tears we have shed.

Most of us go into education hoping to make a difference in someone’s life.

“Pencilhead” stories tell us we have.

Note: “Pencilhead” was first published by Red Sky Books in 2001 in Pass-Fail, a collection of stories about teaching edited by Kurt Kleidon and Rose A.O. Kleidon.

Discipline Lessons II

It’s been years since I sent a student from my classroom to the office. This realization came upon me today when I witnessed an altercation between a frustrated teacher and a huffy young man. When I was first teaching, I was afraid to send anyone to the office; I thought such a move would signal my incompetence. It might have, but principals form impressions of their teachers through all kinds of informal observations. They don’t need direct evidence like a string of miscreants in their office to get the picture—although a run of kids like that can’t help but influence them.

No, it’s the other students’ opinions a teacher needs to worry about. Sending someone to the office, if it occurs repeatedly, signals to students that you can’t handle the class. That gives them the upper hand. But sometimes, turning a ruffian over to the authorities is a good idea.

My first teaching position was English 7 and English 8 in a small junior high school in Wisconsin. I was newly married and so young looking that every year I was there, the company that took our school pictures mixed mine in with the students’. I lived about two blocks from the school and walked to and from every day.

My assignment began in January; I was the replacement for a veteran of twenty-five years who left for medical reasons. She was to undergo open-heart surgery and doubted she could return to work afterward. The English department in this school was small—only four teachers—and every one of us was a rookie. That fall, in a gesture of collegiality, the veteran teacher had swapped all of her ace students for the “bad boys” that the new teachers were contending with, so when I came in January, I inherited them all.

They followed me home from school, interrupted during class, threw things, dropped their books on the floor so they thudded loudly, and generally made me feel—and look—inadequate. I caught one boy, who supposedly couldn’t read, avidly studying something he had hidden behind his English book. He was clearly enthralled by whatever was there; I suspected it was not the text. What I removed from his grasp was a dime novel called Nympho Nurse.

I wanted to shrivel up and die right then and there. I am not sure what I actually did, but I know I didn’t have the presence of mind to turn the tables on my young “reader”—to make him the one who was embarrassed. Lacking such finesse, I probably should have sent him to the office so the others could see that I wasn’t putting up with such stuff. But I didn’t.

Instead, my husband chased after the boys who were trailing me home and scared them out of their minds when he caught up with them. That ended the nonsense from those boys; a colleague, a brawny math teacher, silenced the rest when he backed another boy up against a locker one day and read him the riot act. So I was rescued. But I knew I’d have to learn how to control boys like this on my own. I wouldn’t always have the luxury of strongmen on my side and in proximity.

I taught in Wisconsin for another four years, and during that time I took advice from more experienced teachers and put into play techniques I picked up on my own. I discovered that real control came from the expectations I set and from the work of the classroom, not from rules and regulations. I slowly gained the confidence I needed and grew into the authority I wanted.

After a hiatus of several years as a stay-at-home mom, I began a second teaching career in a junior high school in rural Indiana. I remembered my earlier encounters with adolescent boys and hoped being older would ease my reentry into the world of schooling. I hoped I wouldn’t have to send anyone to the office.

I needn’t have worried. The principal at my new school was so physically intimidating that few students ever even risked a trip to his office. He helped me establish myself not because he handled the discipline problems, but because his mere presence in the hallways set a tone that discouraged them.

Mr. Christopher had a linebacker’s build. He stood at the entrance to the school every morning, arms crossed tightly over his chest, scrutinizing every student as each one climbed down from the school bus and entered the building. He always faced straight ahead—if he wanted to inspect you further, his eyes followed you, but his head stayed put: like the Mona Lisa. To be honest, it was kind of scary, even for teachers. It seemed like Mr. Christopher could see into your soul.

The fact is, Mr. Christopher is a kind man with a wry sense of humor. He understood kids well, and usually, a conversation with him had a marvelously reforming effect on those who did end up in his office. He believed, rightly, that kids need structure. If right and wrong are clear, if expectations are spelled out, a child will be supported as a seedling is by a stake in the ground. Under those conditions, a child will stand a good chance of growing tall and strong.

I sent a student to Mr. Christopher exactly once. It was a 9th grade speech class in the early 1980s, and I was videotaping commercials the students had written. (An historical aside here: In those days, kids weren’t allowed to touch the expensive, new A-V equipment. Today, I would gladly turn the filming over to them!) Anyway, the boy whose turn it was to have his commercial recorded held up his “prop”—a book—and began his pitch. The book was entitled The Yellow River by I. P. Daily.


I stopped the tape, snapped the lens shut, and emerged from behind the camera. Though I said nothing, my “look” was enough. The boy left the room, headed straight down the hall to Mr. Christopher.

It makes me laugh to think about this now. Today, kids who are sent to the office usually aren’t so intimated, and what they are sent for is far, far removed from The Yellow River. However, that was the worst offense in those four years at Southwestern. I must have learned my discipline lessons well—or maybe—no, most certainly—Mr. Christopher was the stake in the ground supporting me. I established a reputation, and after that, I was much less frequently tested.

Young teachers struggling with discipline need to know that with time and experience, things do get better. But that day comes faster if there’s a Mr. Christopher beside them while they grow into the job.

Discipline Lessons I

Many years ago, when I was living in Connecticut, an educational psychology professor at Yale, who was conducting some of the early teacher effectiveness studies, hired me to observe and evaluate teachers in a New Haven public high school, one that had been the scene of violence the previous spring. I was in all kinds of classrooms, watched all manner of teachers, and learned very quickly that effectiveness isn’t the exclusive property of any particular teaching style (though some approaches have more potential for deadliness than others).

Tasked with observing the interaction between classroom control and teacher effectiveness, I saw that students in the classrooms of effective teachers—whether they were traditional lecturers or innovative strategists—were deeply engaged in the learning process. Sometimes it was the sheer complexity or elegance of the content that kept the students’ attention, sometimes it was the specific techniques the teacher employed, and sometimes it was simply the teacher’s charisma.

But the effective teachers had control, even when the students were running the show, as in the case of one young English teacher whose students were conducting a mock trial, a culminating project for a novel they had read. She sat on the sidelines, but she was following the action intently, completely focused on the proceedings and on her students’ interactions.

In every case, it seemed to me, the teachers’ control came from a clear set of objectives, high performance expectations, and personal confidence, not from a rigid set of rules and imposed penalties.

Years later, when I was required by my school district to write up my classroom policies and procedures—all the rules and the corresponding penalties—I complied with the request but told the students, orally and in writing, that the whole thing really boiled down to two concepts: Do Your Best and Respect Other People.

Of course, achieving effectiveness isn’t as simple as that sounds.

It starts with confidence.

My student teacher this past spring stood in front of her first class—9th grade—looking, frankly, terrified. The students, mostly boys, none of them “bad,” but all of them squirrely, wouldn’t sit still, talked when she talked, fidgeted with their papers and pens and books (if they’d brought them to class), dropped books on the floor, looked out the window—in short, did everything but sit tall in their seats and pay attention to the teacher. For her part, my student teacher wasn’t signaling that she ought to be paid attention to. Her voice was high, and when she spoke, she tripped along at record speed. She moved all over the place while she spoke to the students, and she constantly looked at me for reassurance or help. Her directions were vague and alarmist: “Don’t do that!” Exactly what the students shouldn’t do wasn’t clear.

In truth, she reminded me of myself in my very first teaching position.

Over the years I learned some tricks—the hard way—and was happy to pass them on to her. Things like:

• Lower your voice; don’t raise it. Students will have to be quiet to hear.
• Stand still when you talk to them—they’ll have only one place to look.
• Make your directions explicit: “Keep your hands on top of your desk and your feet on the floor under it.”
• Deal with disruptions immediately and in private. Most students who disrupt are really seeking attention. If you reprimand them in front of others, they have the audience they seek and will use it to cast you as the villain. Bend down and tell the student quietly what you expect. Even something as simple as changing a student’s seat can and should be done privately.
• Don’t engage in public debates about the purpose of a correction or the rightness or wrongness of one. It is what it is. Turn to the topic at hand. A student who wants to argue can certainly talk to you—after class.
• Don’t be afraid to call parents if a student has been disruptive. The failure isn’t yours: It’s the student’s. Most parents will be your allies, but they can’t help you out if they don’t know what’s going on. So what if the lesson wasn’t as good as it should have been? So what if your directions weren’t clear? Those aren’t reasons to tolerate disrespectful behavior. Parents won’t ask about the fine points of your instruction. They’ll ask what Johnny or Sally needs to do. Tell them.

Simple things like this, I learned by trial and error. Every one of these scenarios has happened to me—and it was discouraging at the beginning of my career to have to learn what to do, one agonizing crisis at a time. But every time I successfully handled a situation, my confidence increased. Eventually, I wasn’t afraid of my own shadow and wore my authority comfortably.

But it was a bumpy road to that confidence, so my sympathies were with my student teacher. Luckily, she was a quick learner and soon had the classroom under her control. She grew in confidence daily, and before long, she was ready to concentrate on other components of effective teaching. For her, too, discipline became as “simple” as Do Your Best and Respect Other People.