Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Lesson for the Teacher

My first year teaching in the classroom I learned a very important lesson.  Experience does that for you.  

It was the “homeroom” period, in which I had the rowdy junior class, a group of about twenty sixteen to seventeen year olds.  I think all but three of the boys were on the football team (it was a small school), and all three of the girls were cheerleaders.  

The period consisted of about twenty minutes of nothing.  I was supposed to call roll, and then that was it.  Sometimes there were a few announcements, and a few of the students occasionally worked on homework, but usually it was just a social time.  We had those desks where the seat is attached to the flat upper writing part, and the students would sit on the back of the chair or desk and put their feet on the seat.  They did it every morning and I didn’t think anything of it.

Then one day during the middle of this wasted space of time, one of the other teachers walked in.  Without a word being said, every single one of those students quickly and quietly slid into their seats.  I was shocked.  They weren’t supposed to do that and they knew it, but I was letting them get away with it because I didn’t know that it wasn’t acceptable, so they did it. 

The lesson I learned that day was this:

Students will get away with whatever you allow them to.

Fast forward about twenty five years.  Here is what happened in my classroom last week.

I have third through sixth grades in one room, and I give them two spelling tests a week (one practice and one for real).  I call out one word for the 3rd graders, then one word for the 4th graders, then one word for the 5th graders, then one word for the 6th graders.  Then I say, “Okay, does everyone have number one?  Now, here is number two,”  etc. for eighteen words times four, plus at least one dictation sentence for each grade.  

Inevitably, at the end of the test the hands would go up.  “What was number four?”

Me:  “What was number four for the sixth grade?”  (I have just dictated over one hundred forty words, and to challenge them I mix them all up and never give them in any exact order, so I have no idea what the sixth graders had for word number four.)

Repeat the above scenario for about eight more hands, all with different grades and numbers.  Not only was this a little frustrating, but it was also a huge waste of time--especially for us teachers in two or three room schoolhouses.  As soon as they are through asking all their questions for me to repeat the words I already repeated at least three times, I’ve got four English lessons to teach.  It was driving me crazy.

So, my students know me pretty well, and they know I never spring anything on them.  But, I squinted my eyes last week and gave them my “I’m-serious-but-I-love-you” look and warned them that this was the last week I would repeat any words for them.  I told them that next week I would go through the list once, and if they weren’t paying attention, then they would get that one wrong.  (Now, my students love spelling, and they love getting one hundreds, and they love getting their little stickers on their leaf, bone, apple basket or whatever, and they love getting ten stickers on their before mentioned thingy, and they love being rewarded by getting it announced and being given their favorite candy bar and a bonus $1,000 in my fake money.  I’ve got some motivated students.)

So, the next Wednesday when we had our practice tests, I told them, “I’m going through the list one time.  If you miss one because you weren’t paying attention, then just put your own ‘X’ on it because I won’t repeat it.”  

I couldn’t believe what happened.  I think only one student missed one word.  I was shocked.  You mean I’ve been “babying” them by going through this whole time-wasting thing repeating all these words for nearly two years, when they could have been paying attention the whole time if I just expected it of them?  

Lesson learned.  Students can usually do much more than we think they can if we expect it of them and push them a little bit.  

By the way, all of them passed that spelling test with honor roll grades or above, and eighty per cent of them earned a grade of 100%.