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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Debunking those Pesky Classroom Myths

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

We have all heard the following classroom myths: If you want discipline to go well, don't smile until Christmas, and, if you want to have good classroom management, never turn your back to the students.

On campuses across the country you can hear such myths and others repeated over and over again. They demonstrate an attitude of pessimism that does not belong in American schools.

So, let's tackle some of those misnomers from the teachers' lounge:

  • Don't smile until Christmas. Harry Wong says to start the school year with a celebration and that the very first days of school set the tone for the rest of the year. I learned this to be true. The worst thing to do the first day of school is to go over the rules, ad infinitum. The very first day of school, I wanted my students to be able to tell their parents that they learned something useful. Students are all quiet and subdued the first day of school anyway. Minimal discipline is often necessary. We can go over the rules later the first week. Why not give the students a reason to want to stay in your class and learn the very first day? In her book, If You Don't Feed the Teachers, They'll Eat the Students, Neila A. Connors says, "Don't ever stop playing and laughing, and that day without laughter is also a day not fully lived. There is so much to smile about in our business; and we know that we don't stop playing because we grow old -- we grow old because we stop playing."
  • Never turn your back to the students. Building trust is the first thing a teacher should do beginning a school year. How do you build trust? According to Flip Flippen, founder of Capturing Kids' Hearts, trust is built by getting to know the students a bit, and letting them get to know you. He maintains that in order to build a high performance learning team, commitments must be made and kept alive. In the course of instruction and learning, the students have to know that the teacher cares enough about them to pull them back to the commitment that was made the first week of class when they stray out of line and the students can also do the same with the teacher.
  • Teachers know best. We teachers should know best, but that is not the point. The point is that students know best also, after all, they know when a lesson goes well and when it flops. They know when the teacher is prepared and when the teacher is shooting from the hip. They are an untapped resource for professional development. Getting feedback from students has made me a better teacher. I learn from the perspective of the student and the students appreciate the opportunity to share. They might not be able to tell me how to fix the problem, but knowing there is a problem is more than half the battle.
  • Students aren't interested in learning. They just want to have fun. I asked my daughter, Mercedes, about this and she said that students are not necessarily averse to working hard, they just don't appreciate work that is too hard, or above their skill or confidence level. It is not that students won't do homework, it's just not a priority in their lives. How does a teacher make homework a priority in their lives? Simple. Give a reason to do the homework that motivates them. Grades, and other threats, do little to motivate students. Rewards and bribery are temporary measures that work, but ultimately are not enough for the long term. The best way to motivate students to do homework is to make it an extension of exciting and engaging learning that begins in the classroom.
  • Students hate school. Students don't hate school, they hate what happens in the classrooms at school. In his book, Why Don't Students Like School, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains that the way students learn is not the way most teachers teach. He gives examples of how teachers expect drilled, isolated facts and figures to stick in the student's brain. Ask a student what he had for dinner last night, or even better, ask him the plot and the story line of the movie he watched in the theaters last week. Without rehearsal or repetition, he will be able to tell you. We simply need to align our teaching better to how students really learn and they will feel success and remember what we taught them. My favorite quote from his book? "Memory is the residue of thought."
    • Perhaps the biggest myth of all is: I believe every student can learn. You will find this noncommittal statement in nearly every school mission statement from Texas to Alaska, but it avoids the acceptance of responsibility. It should read, "I believe every student will learn in my class." The great challenge and fun of being a teacher is making that happen.

      Life in schools is hard enough but a great teacher can make all the difference. Thanks for being teachers and debunking all of those myths.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anne's picture
Anne
APLanguage and Honor's World Literature 11th and 12th grade

Great truths and practical advice.

Michael E. J. Mongelli's picture

I have found over 42 years in public education. That the best teacher with the most innovative lessons will still struggle to get a large portion of the students to do Homework or produce assignments which require thought and work. The better student will do these things but the low economic or poor performer does not want to be bothered. Parents of these students are not active in their student's learning

Cossondra George's picture

What a great article, Ben! I agree with your points across the board.

As a teacher, if I can't smile, every day, every class, I need to find a different job.

If I can't trust my students when I am not looking, then we have some huge issues. I always tell my students they don't need ME in the classroom, even. They KNOW what is expected of them, they know what they should be doing, whether or not I am there. The expectations don't change just because I step into the hall to talk with a student, have to answer the phone, or even come a moment late to class because of some issue. It really is all about building a classroom of trust, respect and responsibility for one's own actions.

As far as students completing teacher evaluations, I also agree. Students comments can be reassuring, as well as humbling. But the bottom line is they are our consumers, the person we are responsible for educating, and their opinions as to our effectiveness are the most important opinions.

And, noooooo!! Students do NOT hate school! If school is engaging, student appropriate, and safe, students will love school.

Thanks for a well thought out article!

bensjohnson's picture
bensjohnson
Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Cossondra:

I agree. I have to have fun with my students. I told corny jokes, acted, sang and even danced and had fun doing it. Learning is a celebration, hard work, but still a celebration.

Students do need you to learn, to engage them in a learning environment, but their part of the learning process, they have to do on their own- you can't help them.

Thanks for the comment and keep having a blast teaching and learning.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

bensjohnson's picture
bensjohnson
Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Michael:

When a student walks through the door to the classroom, that is when the teacher can have an influence. What happens at home with the parents is out of the teacher's control. Certainly some influence is felt residually, but the teacher must focus on what he/she can do in the classroom with the time allotted. I believe that even that little can make a huge difference and it is worth the struggle.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I have found over 42 years in public education. That the best teacher with the most innovative lessons will still struggle to get a large portion of the students to do Homework or produce assignments which require thought and work. The better student will do these things but the low economic or poor performer does not want to be bothered. Parents of these students are not active in their student's learning[/quote]

Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist
Blogger 2014

This article is spot on, Ben! Thanks for giving us a positive outlook for how we can help make a difference through the classroom. I also find that if teachers feel supported, like they are part of a team and not isolated, and that creativity in their lesson plans is expected and not squashed that the classroom becomes the engaging place that you describe. We need to spend more time focusing on teacher development and providing school cultures that are supportive of teacher growth and risk-taking!

Shawn Blankenship's picture

This is an outstanding article and I share your perspectives 100%. I especially like your thoughts on homework. "The best way to motivate students to do homework is to make it an extension of exciting and engaging learning that begins in the classroom." Excellent! Thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Adam's picture

I just wanted to say how great the article was. I have definitely experienced many of the thoughts discussed in the article. Students definitely respond and are more engaging when the teacher takes the time to get to know them on a more personal level. Also, I believe that students want to have as much fun as possible in the classroom and this doesn't mean that they can't. Teachers just need to find a way of making their lessons fun and/or engaging for the students. I believe that when this happens students seem to want to learn and they learn more on top of it. I was wondering, can a P.E. get to know their students the same way as the rest of the teachers are able to?

Shawn Blankenship's picture

I'm guessing you are an elementary physical education instructor. Yes, not only do I believe you can get to know your students as well as the classroom teacher, I believe you can get to know them better. Here's why. The regular classroom teacher has a student everyday for usually one year. A P.E. teacher has the prvilege of having every student from kindergarten through fifth grade. Make it a goal to see kids perform outside of the classroom. For instance, attend a little league baseball game or soccer, basketball, flag football, dance recital, gymnastic competition, violin recital.... you get the picture. Show students that you value what your students are doing outside the school day and you will grow strong relationships that can last a lifetime!

Luria Learning's picture

I personally frown on the first myth (Don't smile before Christmas). Way back during my practice teaching years, I partnered with one senior teacher who told me that she never smiled during the first week of school. She said it was to "keep her authority in the classroom". It was an easy route to keeping the class in order, but I noticed how her students seem to shirk from her whenever they need help or clarifications in the lessons.

Needless to say, I made it a point to never teach when I'm in a grouchy mood.

Sacha
http://luria-learning.blogspot.com

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