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.