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Student Success Strategy

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to participate in a virtual staff training. Here we were, a staff of mostly white, mostly female educators trying to improve our practice. We worked with a trainer who has spent her career researching and applying methods to bring EVERYONE to the table in terms of education. From early childhood to graduate studies there are obstacles that many of our learners and their families face that take them further and further away from receiving the quality education they deserve.

There was a lot to learn, think about, and digest, but for me there was one nugget that stood out. Here it is: Every Decision Made Must Be For The Benefit Of The Students. It seems both obvious and simple, but when I think about day to day practice in schools (not just my own), there’s plenty of work to be done. Think about it. Every decision. Wow. Let me just throw out a few, some from the workshop, and some from my reflection.

  • curriculum (yes, that’s HUGE)
  • class size
  • class make-up
  • teacher hiring
  • teacher preparation
  • lesson plans
  • assessment
  • discipline plans
  • schedules
  • school assemblies
  • morning announcements
  • visitor policies
  • teacher evaluation process
  • building conditions
  • athletics
  • cafeteria set up
  • instructional team decisions
  • furniture placement
  • performances
  • family communication plans
  • rewards and incentives
  • technology use
  • competitions
  • lighting
  • heating/air conditioning
  • wall/hallway displays
  • playground design
  • supervision of unstructured times

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Within each of those individual bullet points there are dozens of factors to take into consideration, but the most important one must always be the best outcome for the student.

The reality is that we know there are things that could and should be better if only we had bigger budgets. Smaller class sizes, more access to high quality instructional materials and equipment, the ability to bring in experts to share their knowledge and love of their field to spark kids’ interests; all of these would be wonderful. However, we must work with what we have and find ways to make it better.

There are dozens of times a day during teaching when I make decisions on the fly. If the class seems to be drifting off, we switch gears or take a break. If the work turned in is poor, I analyze the weakness in my instruction, and have another go at it taking a different approach. If part of a lesson has taken longer than expected, I modify the assignment to reflect the shorter amount of time for students to work on it. These are things that teachers do all the time, and the more experienced they are the better they get at it. But experience can also bring an attitude of “this way works for me, so I’m going with it.” This is where the Benefit Of The Students can come crashing down.

Here’s what I mean. In my teaching I have always read aloud to my students. I have taught kids from preschool to grade six, and I have read to them all. Over time I’ve found many books that I love, and in my heart I would like everyone else to love them as well, but I know better. My reality as a white woman born in the suburbs more than 50 years ago is quite different from that of ANY child born in the last ten years. Now add in family structure, race, gender identity, home language, disability, living conditions, access to adequate food, housing, and healthcare, economic situation, issues of safety in the home, and more, and you see that my reality and my students’ realities may be worlds apart.

What speaks to me, inspires me, motivates me, and enthralls me may do none of those things for my students. If I were to share some of my old favorites, it would become a lesson in drudgery for many of my kids: just a boring old lady reading a boring old book. That is NOT how you share a love of literature. Thank goodness for Jason Reynolds, Meg Medina, Kwame Alexander, Kate DiCamillo, Varian Johnson, Pam Munoz Ryan, Linda Sue Park, Tedd Arnold, Jason Chin, Dusti Bowling, Erin Entrada Kelly, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, Katherine Applegate, Dan Santat, and so many others for giving voice to the children of today. Of course many old favorites have stood the test of time, too.

A mixture of older and newer titles.

While I’m feeling pretty good about the literature I share with me students, I do sometimes make decisions that I know aren’t necessarily in the best interests of the students. Is every lesson as engaging as it could be? No. Time constraints are a big factor on this one. Planning, executing, and assessing these top tier learning opportunities take a good deal of time and effort. Every teacher I know has limited time, and most of us are knocking ourselves out in the effort department, just trying to keep our heads above water.

Here’s the thing: when you know better you can do better. Can I completely reinvent what I teach and the way I teach it? Not completely, no. But can I make adjustments that benefit kids? Absolutely. After all, doing what’s best for kids is why I became a teacher in the first place.


The Gift of Time

gift_of_timeToday was an incredibly productive day at work. I’m an elementary school teacher, so I rarely get to make that statement. I can say it was a good day, or a great day, or a day full of successes, but productive? Not usually. At least not for me. So today, a day spent on planning as a team, was a real treat.

My work isn’t about being productive anyway. It’s about helping my students to be as successful as they possibly can be, whether it’s helping them understand the ins and outs of division, or challenging them to imagine themselves as early pioneers. My days aren’t filled with clients and reports, they’re filled with children and challenges. When a student shows that she understands causes of hurricanes, or when a student demonstrates compassion for another, these are successes. They are not, however, particularly productive in terms of my work.

For me, being productive generally happens outside of regular school hours. Unfortunately, those are also the hours that are devoted to my family, my health, running my household, and maintaining my general well-being. I can’t, and won’t, spend them all doing schoolwork.

You may wonder why I just don’t do everything I need to do more efficiently, during my paid hours. It’s a good question, and a valid one. Let’s see, I arrive at school between 7:15 and 7:30 am most days. During that time I pass back papers, write the day’s schedule on the board, make sure I have my materials for the day, send and receive lessons to and from my colleagues, read and reply to emails, listen to phone messages, and, on some mornings, go outside for playground supervision.

At 7:55 my day really starts. I take attendance, lunch count, and collect any notes that kids may have for me. I also deal with any little emergencies that children may come in with. Then, after an overview of the day, morning announcements, and the pledge to the flag, it’s math time. During math I teach the whole time. First the whole group, then I circulate as kids practice skills, and sometimes I pull small groups to work on material.

After that I have a thirty minute prep time three days a week. The other two days I either have a grade level meeting or I teach the children in the computer lab. That thirty minutes goes quickly, believe me. I make copies during that time, or put grades into the gradebook, or answer phone calls or emails, or talk to colleagues about various students. Before you know it, the time is up. Then I teach writing, and by teach, I mean teach. I don’t sit at my desk and file my nails while my students work silently.

This continues until lunch time, which, in theory, is thirty minutes. In reality it’s significantly less, since the lunch line moves very slowly, and we don’t just drop off kids, we actually supervise them as they wait in the line. Then I rush off to heat up and gulp down my food, with barely time to use the restroom.

Blink your eyes, and lunch time is over. I pick up kids, read aloud to them (we all love this), then teach a whole group reading lesson, followed by 4 small reading groups. What do the other kids do when they’re not in reading groups? Work that has been created just for them to help them practice their reading skills and to improve their comprehension. Some of it is in the form of worksheets (prepared and copied by someone on our team) or on the computer (also prepared by someone on our team).

After that, we have a science or social studies lesson, which I also teach. Then, finally, the day winds down and the kids pack up and head out. I stay at the parent pick-up area for nearly 20 minutes each day with one or another of my students because his or her parent isn’t on time. Yes, that’s an hour a week. Yes, it’s too much time.

Some days after school I teach a club, where I work with kids on particular skills that need reenforcement. Other days I have meetings to attend, either staff meetings, trainings, or meetings regarding issues with specific kids. Then there are the planning meetings, where we, as a team, decide what we’ll be teaching next. We stay on the same page as each other and we divide up the work and share the lessons between us.

What lessons? The ones we teach our students. We use Smartboards to help our students better understand new material, and it takes time to create those lessons. We look to the standards to guide our lesson planning, then create lessons that engage our students and teach the appropriate skills and concepts.

Sometimes we find the perfect lesson in the textbook (hey, it can happen), other times there’s very little available so it has to be found, modified, or created. Thank you Teachers Pay Teachers website, and all the teachers who not only figure out what we need, but put it together for us.We scour the internet for appropriate websites for our students, and we spend hours putting together written assignments and  assessments.

I have 32 students for which I’m responsible. I have to stay on top of their oral reading scores among other things, which means I have to assess this skill regularly to all of them. I am behind on this, due to a lack of time.

So when do I create new assignments? When do I put together my Smartboard lessons? When do I correct papers, or enter grades, or pass them back? When do I read the upcoming text, pull out the materials I’ll need for small groups, or even sharpen pencils? Never mind about the niceties of creating bulletin boards and wiping down desks with disinfectant wipes.

No, I’m not inefficient. I simply don’t have enough time to do all the things that need to be done in order to properly run a fourth grade classroom. I’m not complaining, I’m simply sharing my reality with you. The old days of kids sitting quietly in rows doing long division while the teacher corrects papers at her desk are long gone.

That’s why today was such a gift. Today I was able to spend the entire day with my two fourth-grade colleagues planning. We had subs in our classrooms, and we were able to go over test data, adjust some reading groups, and plan, plan, plan! It was wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off each other and to have lessons for the next several lessons ready to go. I wish we could do this more often, but of course we’re needed in the classrooms. This kind of planning, however, makes for stronger, more focused lessons, and in turn, better teaching and learning. It was a day well spent, and for that, I’m thankful.