Posts Tagged ‘behavior’

I recently led a seminar on teacher retention. It was short and to the point. It was based on conversations, quick surveys, research, and experience. It was prompted by something I had learned at a previous seminar. Two years earlier, I was at this same conference and was shocked to learn from another presenter that nearly half (45%) of new teachers quit during their first five years.

How, I questioned, can something we have looked forward to, studied for, interviewed for, and sacrificed for, be such a monumental disappointment as to cause half of us to just walk away and not look back? I don’t mean change schools, I mean just quit education forever.

After talking to colleagues, I did what any good researcher would do–I Googled it. One of the first articles I ran across was from a math teacher whose complaint was that he was barred from teaching the traditional math he was taught in school. His advisors up the food chain wanted a more intuitive approach where discovery and feeling were paramount. His argument was simple: 2+2 still equals 4, and any human with a working memory needs to know their multiplication tables. His leaders wanted him, rather, to allow students to “discover the concept” of two numbers being equivalent to a third. I loved his response. He wrote, and I’m not quoting, that the likelihood of undisciplined, ill-mannered, disinterested students discovering a concept that a studied, intellectually invested mathematician took years to develop was zero. And yet we play the game.

In my conversations with teachers, another big problem is discipline. There is none. Corporal punishment is considered ancient and barbaric. Intimidation and embarrassment are considered cruel. Reasoning is useless in all but a precious few circumstances with reasonable students. Administrators’ hands are tied by local and state rules. The inmates have taken over the asylum.

Another concern is the amount of “hoop-jumping” cited by both teachers and administrators. Ask any teacher, any teacher, and you can get a feel for what I’m talking about no matter where you live. Much of it is what used to be called “paper work” but which is now done mostly online. Some of it is to make areas more competitive for federal funds, some of it is what is humorously and quietly called CYA work. But the amount of it has increased over the years and even though it yields little immediate reward for the classroom teacher, much of its completion falls to these folks. Frustration mounts, and teachers just give up.

If you want to know how teacher feel about their working conditions, just Google “Teacher working conditions survey” and click around. Not all states have their own survey, but many do. You may have to read between the lines, but if your antennae are up, you’ll get the message.

Finally, if you want to get an earful (or eyeful) go to the link below and read about the frustrations of one teacher who says so much that so many would like to say.



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I’ve often said that I cannot fix in a few short semesters what the world has done to damage a student. As a principal of mine once said “The parents didn’t keep the good kids at home today, they sent you all they had!” It’s that home that sometimes worries me.

At a recent teacher conference, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Henry L. Johnson talk about the myriad influences on a child’s education. He mentioned the usual things like economics, neighborhood, civic and religious affiliations, etc. Then he said something that really caught my attention. He said that a family’s conversations had a profound impact on a student’s success.

One family’s conversation might be “How was school? Do you have any homework? Is everything going alright?” Another’s conversation, on the other hand might be more like “Clean up the kitchen! Get off that phone! Shut up!” And all peppered with curses and threatenings.

Negative conversations at home affect learning at school. –Dr. Henry Johnson

Everything a child comes to school to learn is filtered through everything he already knows from home. Children bring their own culture with them, and the fireworks begin when they try to impose that value set on the outside world–that is, your classroom.

This problem is too vast to try to give you some simple answer (even if I had one–and I don’t) but my hope is that when you spot “that student,” (and you’ll recognize them,) you’ll stop to think about what kinds of conversations created that behavior.

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Follow this train of thought briefly: The other evening I was with several other teachers. Eventually I grew tired of the subject at hand and my ADD kicked in. In a few seconds I found myself piddling with something on a shelf and realized I had simply wandered off in the middle of the conversation. Realizing this, I slowly returned to the group. This caused me to think about my own ADD students. Once one of them said to me “I can take my pill and I’m like another person, all focused and smart!”  Wouldn’t that be great? I thought. Just take a pill and become another person–maybe the person you want to be?

Then BAM! (apologies to Emeril…) I caught myself in the thought: What kind of person would I want to be? If I could do it that easily, what changes would other people see in me? Complete this sentence: “Oh I would be _____________ !” Now don’t misunderstand. I didn’t ask what kinds of things would you have/possess. I asked what kind of person you would be. There is a difference.

Something about asking the pill question gets right to the point. Some students have no idea how to answer the question, while others will give you a knee-jerk response (some of which are quite insightful, I might add!) But the question remains, What kind of person would you become? When you can honestly answer that question, make becoming that person a goal. Do something everyday that brings you one step (even a baby step) closer to it. Keep the image of that person in your mind and imagine yourself already there. Don’t worry about your progress–just be.

Then model that behavior for your students.

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I sat in the meeting with the old man. He was in his 70’s at the time and was one of those old guys who had been disillusioned in his more idealistic youthful days. He tried hard to be tolerant, and for the most part was, but just underneath you could tell he was a person who was just plain fed up with being surrounded by incompetence.

I recall the words of George Carlin:

Scratch any cynic, and (underneath) you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

The old man told me that he had a very personal view of “the useless” in life. When he was six years old, his mother asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told here there was an American Indian costume in the Sears catalog he really liked. The order was placed, and after weeks of waiting the box arrived. He described the delivery of the brown paper-wrapped box and how his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as he and his mother unwrapped the small brown-clothed costume.

Presently, his father arrived home from work and asked what all the excitement was about. The happy boy and smiling mother showed the tired father the birthday gift. “What?” the father snapped. “This is how you two waste my hard-earned money?” And with that he picked up the costume with one hand, and opened the door to the coal stove with the other. He stuffed the little Indian costume into the fire, beat it down with the poker,  slammed the door, and left the room with a huff and grumble.

Nearly seventy years had passed since that day, but he related the story to me as if the pain was as fresh as that morning’s shaving nick. I have never forgotten the tone of his voice, nor the look on his face as he told me the tale of how that day shattered his feelings so. Incalculable are the opportunities, the happy experiences, the expressions of love and acceptance that both he and his father missed because of the events of that day.

And you better believe that teachers can create the same injuries as well.

Don’t you dare be one of them.

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One of the things I notice about more successful teachers is that they have some sort of reward system that has nothing to do with the subject. For instance, the reward for a correct response in science would be a piece of candy, not an extra point on their grade. I was educated in the day when my reward was making an A on my paper or test. Without trying to sound too “back-in-the-day,” knowledge was its own reward. The excitement of “knowing stuff” kept me at that expectant and receptive level.

Knowledge in this day and age, however, is considered a cheap commodity. Anything a student needs to know they can find on the internet so the concept of memorizing=learning is no longer valid in their minds. The challenge, then, is not simply to state the knowledge and have them memorize it, but to coerce them into paying attention long enough to memorize it. Enter the candy. Recognizing the true value of the new knowledge must come later.

I felt sure there had to be a more emotional/spiritual/intellectual—some other—way to reward students that was nevertheless fun and effective. One day after lunch, I washed and dried my soup spoon and stuck it in my pocket like a pencil. I quickly forgot about it and began class with a spoon sticking up out of my pocket. During the lesson, student responses were quite good and I really wanted to reward them somehow. In an instant, almost as a reflex, I had pulled the spoon out of my pocket and began to flick it at them and say “Blessings! Blessings on you!”  The effect was immediate. “Wow! What’s that?” they asked. “It’s my spoon of blessing!” I responded cheerfully. It became a fixture of the class after that.

Why does it work? It makes them feel good. That’s all. It gets them to that level we try to get to ourselves when we want to stay positive. It imparts no knowledge beyond my recognition that they took the risk of putting their hearts into something and were successful.

And sometimes that’s all it takes.

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Ok, so it’s not what Descartes had in mind, but it’s still a  fun notion to jostle around. Most minds that are drawn to this kind of writing at least entertain the possibility that our thoughts create our reality, and at the very least create who we are within that reality. Centuries before Descartes, Solomon had stated “As a man thinks within (in his heart), so is he.”  In 1902, James Allen published his famous As a Man Thinketh and in one statement revealed the entire premise: 

The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors, that which it loves, and also that which it fears. It reaches the height of its cherished aspirations. It falls to the level of its unchastened desires – and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own.

I once read a play by Argentine playwright Osvaldo Dragun called The Man Who Turned Into a Dog.  It is about a man who, after unsuccessful attempts to find a job and in much desperation, takes the job of the night watchman’s recently deceased dog. He sleeps in the doghouse and, by the night watchman’s own instructions, must bark when spoken to. He eventually becomes so accustomed to this new life he even loses his ability to walk upright. He loses everything, his home, his wife. All because he believed he was a dog.

I once heard of a primitive tribe of people living deep in the jungle, far away from Western influences. One tradition which had endured for generations was the curse of the deathbone. If someone did something to shame the village, the shaman would point the deathbone at that person and they would be considered dead to the entire tribe. No one could speak to them, trade with them, eat with them, no interaction at all. They would eventually crawl into their tent and die from neglect. Make no mistake, there was really nothing wrong with them, but everyone agreed and believed that there was.

What you know is simply what you have grown accustomed to. Many times truth is just something that you have told yourself over and over until you believe it. So you are a product of all you have thought in the past. It crept up on you. It has been building up for years. You are not going to change it overnight.

But that’s no reason not to begin…

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No matter how I try to build myself up and improve my thinking habits, I still sometimes forget and resort to my former dark and pessimistic ways. Most irritating of all are those who glibly advise “Just look on the bright side!” That tells me either 1) they’ve never really looked at the true spiritual side of things and are just giving lip service to positive thinking, or 2) they’re on some plane so high above where I am that it really is that simple for them.

One of the most aggravated moments in my journey was when I read a book on happiness by the Dalai Lama. It said that if I wanted to have what I desire then I should desire what I have. O.k.–now I feel tricked! Similarly: If you want to do what you love, just love what you do. I bought a book only to receive useless advice like that!? As my students say “That’s messed up!”

Later, I realized how it works. What you hold in your mind you hold in your hands. If you are all about worry and need, you attract more need and stuff to worry about. If you’re positive (honestly positive) and yielding to the universe, you attract the positive and hopeful. That positive shift in worldview is what moves you into a frame of mind to attract and receive the good in life.

If I truly desire a better life, then I show and talk gratitude for the life I have now. I stop focusing on all the reasons my life is unsatisfactory, and pick out those I can put a positive spin on and think about them. That positive outlook is what allows  me to begin to move from attracting more need and dissatisfaction to attracting supply and content. It doesn’t mean that I’m giving up and settling; it means that I am intentionally becoming a magnet for the good.

I like attracting the good.

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