People, Not Programs
Outstanding educators know that if a school has great teachers, it is a great school. Teachers are a school’s keystone of greatness. More importantly, all of their audiences take the same view. If my third-grade daughter has a great teacher, I think highly of her school. Otherwise, I see her school as less-than-stellar no matter how many awards she wins, no matter how many students earn top test scores, and no matter how many plaques adorn the main office. Students share this perspective. If a high school sophomore has four great teachers (out of four!) each day, then believe me, that sophomore will think the school is great. As the quality of teachers drops, so does a student’s opinion of the school. All the way from kindergarten through college, the quality of the teachers determines our perceptions of the quality of the school.
The Power of Expectations
Every teacher has a classroom to manage. One may guide a class of five girls studying advanced Latin around a well-lit seminar table while another may teach sixteen biology students in a laboratory with sparse or obsolete equipment. A third may greet twenty bouncy kindergartners every morning. I’m convinced that these three teachers—and indeed, all teachers—do the best they can when it comes to classroom management. After all, a teacher’s classroom management sets the stage for student learning. We all want our students to behave well in class. If we could do anything to improve student behavior, surely we would.
How do the best teachers approach classroom management? What do they do differently? Here’s the answer in a nutshell: Great teachers focus on expectations. Other teachers focus on rules. The least effective teachers focus on the consequences of breaking the rules.
Smile When You Say That
Of course, setting clear expectations and following through does not require a stern demeanor or a harsh tone. The old adage, “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving” is misguided. We do want to establish a businesslike and professional tone from the first day of class, but if we don’t smile until Thanksgiving, there’s a chance our students never will.
When a Student Misbehaves
When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge. Effective teachers want to prevent misbehavior, whereas ineffective teachers focus on punishing a student after he or she misbehaves. If a child does not bring a pencil to class, they want that child to feel bad about it and choose to behave better as a result. They focus on the penalty, the punishment, the past.
Are High Expectations Important?
Many people believe, and I agree, that great teachers have high expectations for students. However, let’s focus on the question: What is the variable? True, the best teachers have high expectations for students. But is this a difference that separates great teachers from the rest?
Even the worst teachers have high expectations for students. They expect students to be engaged no matter how irrelevant the material is. They expect students to pay attention no matter how boring and repetitious their classes are. They expect students to be well behaved no matter how the teacher treats them. Now, those are high expectations.
The variable is not what teachers expect of students. Many teachers of all skill levels have high expectations for students. The variable—and what really matters—is what teachers expect of themselves. Great teachers have high expectations for students but even higher expectations for themselves. Poor teachers have high expectations for students but much lower expectations for themselves. Not only that, they have unrealistically high expectations for everyone else as well. They expect the principal to be perfect, every parent to be flawless, and every one of their peers to hold them in incredibly high regard.
Who Is the Variable?
What really makes the difference between two schools? What matters most in the classroom? Effective educators understand the answer to these questions. Indeed, they know that the real question is not what the variable is, but who. Great teachers know who the variable is in the classroom: They are.
Focus on Students First
At first glance, this guideline seems obvious. Every teacher willingly puts students first. Isn’t that why we all chose education as a profession? Unfortunately, in practice the situation is not always so clear. It’s easy to say, “Put kids first,” and, “Make every decision based on what is best for students,” but not all teachers manage to do so.
Ten Days Out of Ten
One of the hallmarks of effective teachers is that they create a positive atmosphere in their classrooms and schools. So many things can bring teachers down: an upset parent, a troubled student, limited resources. These are facts of the job (and of life). As educators, our role is to take a positive approach—ten days out of ten.
Effective teachers treat everyone with respect, every day. Even the best teachers may not like all of their students, but they act as if they do. And great teachers understand the power of praise.
Be the Filter
Teachers are the filters for the day-to-day reality of school. Whether we are aware of it or not, our behavior sets the tone. If students overhear us whining or complaining about something, it may be the talk of the school for days even if it was something minor. By the same token, if we always approach things in a positive manner, then this is what the students reflect. The most effective educators understand this and choose their filters carefully.
Don’t Need to Repair—Always Do Repair
When we, as educators, lapse into such behaviors, we may never know the damage we have caused. If we become impatient and unprofessional, we are much more likely to throw darts. Though we may get over it, our targets may not. Sure, the students may still act polite toward us. After all, what choice do they have? This is especially true if they fear receiving such treatment again. However, the relationship may never be the same. Effective teachers understand this, so they try to treat people respectfully every day. They know that a relationship, once damaged, may never be the same. That is one reason that effective educators—both principals and teachers—are so sensitive to every single statement they make or action they take. They work to avoid actions that cause hurt feelings. The most effective among us go beyond that.
The Ability to Ignore
Great teachers have an incredible ability to ignore. This doesn’t mean they are oblivious—great teachers are aware of almost everything that happens in their classrooms. Nor does it mean that they have vast reserves of patience (although that helps). Rather, it reflects their mastery of the situations that arise daily in the life of schools. They know how easily one or two students can disrupt the flow of learning, but they also know when to go with the flow, when to take a stand, and how to quell minor disturbances without further distracting others.
Random or Plandom?
One hallmark of great teachers is that in their classrooms, very little happens at random. Great teachers have a plan and purpose for everything they do. If things don’t work out the way they had envisioned, they reflect on what they could have done differently and adjust their plans accordingly.
In contrast, their less effective colleagues seem to move through their days by the roll of the dice. In some ways, it almost seems as if they don’t want to have a plan or that they don’t want to take responsibility for what happens. If things don’t work out as well as they had hoped, they look for something or someone else to blame.
Base Every Decision on the Best People
We may have been taught to “teach to the middle,” where the majority of the students cluster. However, as long as we teach to the middle, that is where the majority of our students will remain. Great teachers take a different approach. Great teachers aim high. Great teachers make decisions following three simple guidelines:
- What is the purpose?
- Will this actually accomplish the purpose?
- What will the best people think?
In Every Situation, Ask Who Is Most Comfortable and Who Is Least Comfortable
All educators face the challenge of balancing rules and guidelines with those times when we need to make exceptions. This is especially true when it comes to behavior expectations for students. We can be concise, be clear, and communicate, but situations still arise when tough decisions are much more in shades of gray than we wish.
Likewise, all teachers establish internal ground rules that reflect their core belief systems, even though it seems that at least some of the time other influences tread on them.
Put Yourself in Their Position
In one way or another, every classroom is heterogeneous. Students may come from wealthy families, middle-class families, or poor families (one in five children in America live in poverty). Family makeup differs. We have students who are only children, students with brothers and sisters, students with step-siblings, students who have cousins and non-relatives living in their homes. Some children live in mansions, some live in high-rise apartment buildings, some live on farms, some live in the back seat of an abandoned car. Sometimes the diversity is obvious, sometimes superficial. Our students are males and females, tall and short, thin and chunky. Even when a group looks pretty much the same, every student has strengths and weaknesses, ideas and emotions, troubles and joys that make up a unique personality. Every teacher works with a wide range of students, and the mix changes every year. What is it that enables some teachers to connect and work effectively with every student, while others struggle with a handful or more in every group? The difference lies in their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Without Success, Tests Become the School
First of all, we must move away from debating the merits of standardized testing. Strongly held personal beliefs tend to dominate that debate. We must shift our focus away from beliefs and center on behaviors. If we can agree on behaviors, we can move forward in harmony regardless of our personal feelings. Like two parents with differing beliefs on discipline, we can work toward consensus on the consistent behaviors that are essential for success
Even the teacher who least believes in standardized testing now has an incentive to work toward student success in this area. We can now center on the same behaviors, working toward the same goal regardless of our beliefs. We can maintain our personal beliefs about the merits of testing while we move our school toward success.
Having a “Cool” Classroom
Getting people to follow the current educational trends is fine. Getting people to do the right thing is essential.
The best teachers are able to achieve this in their classrooms. The students care, and they care deeply. They care about learning, they care about the teacher, and they care about each other. Once it is cool to care, anything becomes possible. All the behaviors we have described in this book lead to this: treating everyone with respect and dignity; always taking a positive approach; always modeling how to treat others; understanding that what matters is people, not programs; making every decision based on the best people. Each of these behaviors helps create an environment where it is cool to care. If two people both make every decision on what is best for students, even if they don’t agree, they will both be right.
Clarify Your Core
Every teacher’s experience is unique, and every classroom is different. But great teachers—no matter where or whom or what they teach—have much in common. This book has highlighted seventeen hallmarks of great teachers, their attitudes, goals, decisions, and practices. In the end, the difference lies in the core of beliefs that guide their work.
Being a teacher is an amazing profession. It is challenging, dynamic, energizing, and draining. But most of all, it is rewarding. Our impact extends far beyond anything we can imagine. We know that our students talk about us; so do our colleagues, and so do people throughout our community. We can decide what we want those conversations to be like.