Things NOT Taught in Teaching College

What College Should Teach You About Teaching

As a salty veteran teacher it is almost sweet seeing the hopeful expectation in the eyes of new teachers.  They've just graduated college and they are ready to fix education.  Thing is, there is much to learn that's not covered in college.  I'd like to share some of those things with you.  Whether you're a salty veteran or wet-behind-the-ears, I think there's something here for you.

Number 1:  The Most Important Skill for Teachers

There is no better skill for a teacher than the ability to get along with others.  This is especially true for those teaching high school.  In high school you'll be navigating around 150 students a day, all with blossoming personalities, body odor, love-interests, extravagant behavior and mood-swings.  If you can't find it in yourself to be gracious for the outrageous behaviors, you'll be in for an unpleasant career.

The thing I always try to remember is that I would NOT want to be judged today for the person I was when I was 15 years old.

Number 2:  Say NO to Your Boss

This is probably the most powerful for new teachers, but all can be victims of being over-worked.  It's true, there's a great need for man-power at a high school.  Class sponsors, club sponsors, coaches, curriculum projects, prom, after school activities and so on are all roles that need to be filled.  The eager, the new, the young and energetic ... well, they're the group most likely to say yes when asked to take on these tasks, so they'll likely be asked first.

But new teachers are the last who should be taking on these additional duties.

You have a limited bandwidth and the more you try to do with that bandwidth, the lower the quality.  Plus, there's a STEEP learning curve to teaching.  The first year should be spent doing nothing but learning how to teach, refining your procedures and practices.  Seriously, spend a lot of energy focusing on how to be efficient and effective.

Saying No to your boss isn't easy, but you can manage.  You won't get fired, they need you.  Just explain that you don't want to take on more than you can handle.  Once you've got a strong grip on the teaching side of things you'll explore taking on other duties.

Number 3:  Don't Grade Everything

Just because students did it doesn't mean you have to grade it.  Sometimes participation or completion is all that needs to be noted.  Think of it this way...the purpose of them working is to promote their learning.  If grading doesn't inform students about their progress (are they even going to consider why they were marked wrong?), and if it doesn't provide meaningful insight for you regarding their progress, then why grade?

And often reviewing the materials completed by students as a class is far more informative to both you and the students than sitting at a desk looking through each problem, making notes for the students and recording all of the scores.

Number 4:  Don't Try and Pacify Parents

If a parent is upset, let them be upset.  If you have a good structure for how their child earns their grade, stick with it.  "Johnny is failing because Johnny hasn't done homework.  Because he hasn't done homework he hasn't learned and he fails the quizzes.  Johnny fails to take advantage of the remediation offered for his quizzes and then fails the tests.  At the end of each class I can get Johnny to understand what he needs to understand.  But then he is responsible for performing the assignments to make his learning permanent."

Again, if parents are upset about grades, stick to your guns.  Whatever your late policy is, stick with it.  I personally do NOT allow late homework past the Friday of the week it was assigned.  End of story, not open for discussion.

Use this line:  "We can't fix the past, can only use the lessons learned from those mistakes to inform our future actions."

Number 5:  You Only Need 2 Pairs of Pants (men)

Monday wear pair 1.  Tuesday wear pair 2.  Wednesday wear pair 1.  Thursday wear pair 2.  Friday is usually casual day, wear jeans.  DONE!


Positive Peer Pressure

Teens are highly social creatures.” – Captain Obvious

One of the most powerful tools a teacher can wield is positive peer pressure.  It can be used to get students to show up to class on time, curb distracting behavior, to promote higher rates of homework completion, and even to get students to study at home on their own.  I’d like to share with you a few ways that I use positive peer pressure to achieve these things.

First, to establish positive peer pressure you must create the perception that the majority of students do the thing you wish them to do.  How you frame statements can go a long way to serving this end.  Consider these examples from outside of the classroom.  (An excellent source of inspiration can be found in this episode of the Freakonomics podcast.)

During the drought crisis in California, a water company added a simple graphic to their billing statements and it drastically reduced water consumption.  The graphic showed something along the lines of, “The average water use in your neighborhood is _________ gallons per month.  This month you used ___________ gallons.”  Electric companies have done similar things and both realized reductions in usage by their customers.  In England, something like, “99% of British citizens pay their tax bill on time,” was added to tax bills and an increase in people paying their taxes on time was realized.  As I mentioned in 6 Ways to Get Students to Class on Time, Stanford University created a video starring upperclassmen who falsely claimed the steps they took as freshmen to promote academic success.  Freshmen were shown the video and academic improvement was realized.

We are far more like herd animals than we realize.  While we do have autonomy, our desire to conform is powerful.  This can be used to improve student behavior and performance in your classroom.  You need to decide what you want your classes to “look” like, then work to create the impression that is how things are.

How Do I Create This Perception?

  1.  When discussing your expectations of students, frame the expectations properly.  Let’s look at homework expectations.  You could say, You have to do your homework, which is often followed by, If you don’t do your homework, this is the consequence.  Not only is this is not framing your expectation as though it’s a common behavior, the statement really says you expect them NOT to do their homework.  Instead say, Students in my class do their homework, that’s why we are successful here. 
  2. When students start to stray you have a great opportunity to lay out the path for them.  Suppose kids are failing because they’re not really paying attention in class.  You could say, “Pay attention!”  You could warn and admonish their behavior.  Or, you could say, This is pretty typical of what happens with Freshmen (or whatever age/class it is).  Every year, about this time, students forget what habits led to their success and suffer some bad grades because of it.  But they always realize this and begin paying attention and participating in class because of it. 
  3. When discussing behaviors, outcomes and habits with your class, frame the bad behaviors in a negative ratio.  An example would be, Out of the 35 students in this class, all but 3 are passing!  That means 32 of the 35 here are passing. To make that even more powerful, before sharing the numbers of students passing or failing, you could ask the students to imagine being in a class where everybody was passing … except “you.”

This is Much More Than Positive Behavior Enforcement

The idea here is to make the desired behaviors the perceived norm.  This is far more than just focusing on good behavior and using positive reinforcement of those behaviors.  You want to be constantly telling a story where the students that exist in your class behave certain desirable ways. The goal is to get the students to look for how common-place and normal the desired behaviors (that you outline) really are.  They will begin policing each other and conforming their own behaviors to fit this story you’ve created.


I hope this has been informative and provided some insight and inspiration for you.  Whether you focus on the positive or negative behavior of your students internally, always vocalize and frame, for the students, that the majority are doing what’s desired from you.  It helps create the norm of behavior and will apply this proxy of peer pressure upon them to do the right thing.

Thank you for reading.

How to Limit Tardiness Without Losing Your Mind

How to Limit Tardies Without Losing Your Mind

Mr. Goodie-Two-Shoes here...sorry...but I might have just a handful of tardies a month.  I teach 4 honors classes now, but switching from the "regular" classes to honors classes didn't impact the number of tardy students I have. I'd like to share with you a few things that I do that I believe contribute to students being on time.

  1.  Fake It 'til You Make It

A few years ago, or so I heard on an episode of Freakonomics (awesome podcast), Stanford University made a video featuring upperclassmen sharing what they did as freshmen when they started to struggle academically.  They said they studied, made friends with good students in their classes, went to tutoring and office hours, went to bed instead of going to parties and so on.  The video was shown to incoming freshmen and there was a significant academic improvement.  The thing is...the video was fake, the students lied.

You just have to tell the lie once, if you follow through with the rest of it.  Just say, "Students are on time to my class!  We start class on time here, that's how we roll."

Now you may be wondering if I'm telling the truth about the low number of tardies in my room, and I am.  However, I have used this Fake It 'til You Make It method for other things, like improving homework completion, but that's another story.

Part of the lore I establish in the students minds is done by planting the seed in their head that being the last person to class is embarrassing.  I tell them to notice that it is generally the case that the kids who show up last have the lowest grades and are the lowest achieving.  (Not always the case depending on the location of the previous class, I explain.  However, it is particularly true for first period and just after lunch.)  The reason this is, I explain, is because their heads aren't in the game.  They're preoccupied with the silly teen-drama that transpires in the hall.

"It's embarrassing to be last."

2. Establish the Expectation

With clarity and direct communication, make sure the students know what is expected of them, and do so with both the positive and negative statements (Be on time, don't be late).  This should be an early-year focus, when you establish your procedures and expectations.

Being specific here is incredibly important.  I spend quite a bit of time explaining that to be on time the students needs to be seated and ready when the bell rings.  On the board, before every class, I have instructions regarding what they need to have ready for the day.  On occasion I ask them to do "bell work," but that is not my routine. Running in the door, standing around the room, or anything else short of being ready when the bell rings is a failure to meet the expectation and they're tardy.

Signs on the wall about tardy policy, marking students tardy and even complaining to and yelling at them will not help.  In fact, if a student is always late and you fail to address them directly and clearly, they have successfully lowered your expectation of their behavior.  Further, they're now in control of establishing classroom norms!  But the classroom norms and group behavior are another topic, and a huge one at that.  More on that in the future.

3.  Start Class on Time

If you're talking with your neighbor teacher, checking email, or watching reading this on the internet when the tardy bell rings you are failing to fulfill your own expectation!

While it irks me when people say, "Teachers are just as bad as students," the sentiment is applicable here.  You are the leader of the classroom.  As leader of the classroom, you set the expectations through example!

So, to help with this be visible before class starts, have clear expectations for what is expected for the day on the board (if it is something that varies from the norm), and welcome them to class.  When the tardy bell rings, don't sit down immediately and take attendance.  Instead, start class by introducing the schedule for the day, reviewing homework, or with a welcoming conversation.  You'll find a moment of time when you can record attendance early in class, and I often ask the students to help me identify who is absent when that moment comes. (Sometimes I have the students practice something brief, retry a homework problem, check an answer with someone, or something along those lines and take attendance then.)

4.  Incentives for Punctuality

I don't believe students should be given candy for doing a basic thing that they should do anyway.  However, a show of gratitude can go a long way!  Just thanking a student who is always ready on time is a positive reinforcement that really helps kids be on time.  Or, perhaps mid-year, try explaining to students that it is important to you that class begins on time and thanking them for being punctual reinforces that the expectation is to be on time.

If you have a class that is made up of students that love to be late, use some positive peer pressure.  Offer to add 5% to the week's quiz if all students can be on time for a certain number of days.  Write it on the board before class, make it a production.  If the extra credit thing doesn't work for you offer something else, (I believe it is a scourge in education because it is used to help students get grades in place of learning).  The idea is, do not take their good behavior for granted.  If they're playing ball with you, acknowledge that.

5.  Consistent Reprimand

A friend of mine has students write a one page tardy essay every time they are tardy.  Another used to make students stand at the back of the classroom for the entire period if they were late.  Another still assigns lunch detention. They're all good if they're done consistently.  However, I prefer to use peer pressure and a bit of embarrassment.

First off, if a student is late they do not get to walk into the classroom as though it is the passing period.  I stop them at the door.  Now, this is a bit difficult to articulate in writing, but it is important you consider the nature of the student.  It matters not to me why they're late, they need to be on time, but sometimes they have a reasonable excuse.  After hearing the reason for tardiness from a student that is usually punctual I will reiterate the expectation and importance of punctuality.

Sometimes, if it is a kid who has a boyfriend or girlfriend that causes them to be late, I won't ask for a reason but will tell them they need a new boy/girl friend, one that cares about their future, "...not one who is selfish and only interested in their own entertainment at your expense.  What are you, a play thing?  What happens when they're tired of you and then you're lonely and uneducated?"  And again, this is said for all to hear.

Yet, a little grace upon occasion can go a long way to promoting your desired end result, students being on time.  Sometimes a student is obviously having a BAD day ... and you don't want to start a fight, you want to teach class and have them be on time so you can better do that.  So, sometimes a gentler approach is better.  After hearing why a student is late (which is done with the full class as audience), I often ask them if they can do me a favor and show up on time tomorrow.

I hope you found this helpful.  Thank you for reading.  If you have questions or comments, please leave them below.  And subscribe for updates on the blog.

For a PDF of this post, click here:  How to Limit Tardies Without Losing Your Mind.

Math Can Not Be Taught, Only Learned

Math is something that cannot be taught, but can be learned.  Yet, math is taught in a top-down style, as if access to information will make a student successful, and remediation is rehearsal of that same information.  Earnest students copy down everything, exactly like the teacher has written on the board, but often still struggle and fail to comprehend what is happening.  I argue that if copying things down was a worthy exercise, why not just copy the textbook, cover to cover.  Of course such an activity would yield little benefit at all because math is a thing you do more than it is a thing you know.  Math is only partly knowledge based and the facts are rarely the issue that causes trouble for students.  I’d like to propose that you, either parent, student, administrator or teacher, considers math in a different light and perhaps with some adjustment the subject that caused such frustration will be a source of celebration.

There are many things that cannot be taught but can be learned.  A few examples are riding a bike, playing an instrument, creative writing and teaching.  Without question knowledge is a key component to all of these things, but it is rarely the limiting factor to success or performance.  Instead, the skill involved is usually the greatest limiting factor.  I argue that to learn these things a series of mistakes, incrementally increasing in complexity, must be made in order to learn.  Let’s see if this will make more sense with a pair of analogies.

First, watching someone perform something that is largely skill-based is of little use.  Consider driving a car.  A fifteen year old child has spent their entire life observing other people drive.  And yet, when they get behind the wheel for the first time, they’re hopelessly dangerous to themselves and all others on, or just near, the roads!

Second considering learning to ride a bike.  Sure, the parts of the bike are explained to the child, but they have to get on and try on their own.  The actually learning doesn’t really occur until the parent lets go (letting go is huge!) and the child rolls along for a few feet until they fall over.  Eventually they get the hang of the balance but then crash because they don’t know how to stop.  After they master braking they crash because they don’t know how to turn.  And then speed, terrain, and other obstacles get thrown in the mix.  Each skill must be mastered in order.  Preemptively explaining the skills, or practicing them out of context does not help the child learn to ride a bike.  They must make the mistakes, reflect, adjust and try again.

What a math teacher can provide is the information required, but more importantly feedback, direction and encouragement.  If a student understands that making mistakes isn’t just part of learning, but that a mistake is the opportunity to learn (and without it only imitation has occurred), and a teacher helps provide guidance, encouragement and feedback, then both parties will experience far greater success.  When a math teacher completes a problem for a student it is similar to an adult taking the bicycle away from the child and riding it for them.  When a student gives up on a problem, it’s as if they stopped the car and got out, allowing the adult to drive them home.

The job of math teacher is perhaps a bad arrangement of words.  Coach, mentor or sponsor is perhaps more appropriate.  There is no magic series of words, chanted under any circumstance, that will enlighten a struggling student.  The frustration making mistakes should be cast in a different light, a positive light.  The responsibility of learning is entirely on the student.  They cannot look to teachers, friends or tutors for much beyond explanation of facts.

In a future post I will explain how too much direction and top-down teaching of math promotes failure of retention and inability to apply skills in new applications.  But for now, please consider that math cannot be taught.  A teacher cannot teach it, but can help a student to learn.
Thank you for reading,

The Bearded Math Man