The Value of Nervousness

Tonight is the first session of a new class I’m teaching. At this stage in my career, I’ve been in this situation over 100 times. Here’s a confession: I am still nervous.

 I’m not afraid anymore. I am confident things will go well enough. But I am nervous about making sure I do my job well, that the students find my class engaging and rigorous, and that I set the tone well for the rest of the semester. I want to learn all my students names as quickly as possible, and I want them to leave the class inspired to learn as much as they can and to perform in this course to the utmost of their ability. This is 

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Your nervousness is your superpower!

no easy feat, and the fact that I’ve been able to do it in the past doesn’t actually make it easier. Maybe I’ve lost it since then. Tonight could go very badly and make the rest of the semester difficult. Maybe I’m getting too complacent about all this. Maybe I’m out of energy. Maybe my patience is gone. Maybe I’m bored. Maybe the students won’t think I’m credible anymore.

But guess what? The fact that I’m still nervous about the first class is a good sign that I’m as engaged and energized as ever. Right now, my nervousness is my friend.

Making Nervousness Your Ally

I’m talking about positive nervousness: the kind that keeps you on your toes, keeps you caring. I’m not talking about anxiety, which can be paralyzing, defeating. That’s different, and needs a post of its own. But nervousness is an important tool for teachers. Learning to use nervousness–to channel the energy into improving your performance–is energizing.

Feel your nervousness. It gives you strength. It makes you powerful. (Yes, I’m paraphrasing the evil Emperor from Stars Wars.) As long as you embrace your nerves, rather than run from them, you’ll do well.

Here are some tips for making nervousness your friend:

Don’ts:

  • Don’t ignore or run from your nerves.
  • Don’t tamp nervousness down by retreating into your latest binge-watch.
  • Don’t use nervousness to eat more–or worse, drink more.
  • Don’t expend all of your nervousness by talking about it to other people.
  • Don’t simply complete other projects and jobs to distract yourself from your nervousness. (Many teachers’ houses are never cleaner than the day before a new class starts!)

Dos:

  • Do feel your nerves. Admit you’re nervous. You care. Accept it. It’s a good thing.
  • Write a list of the things you are most nervous about. Let your fantasies run wild. Be emotional. Are you scared of a whole-class mutiny? Yawning students? Looking disorganized? Let yourself feel that nervousness as you think about it.
  • Then let your logical side take over. Much of what you’ve written may be completely unlikely or out of your control. But, add to your list a second column in which you list the things you can do to prevent the realistic fears from becoming a reality.
  • Then use your energy to complete one, fairly simple thing on your second list. You’ll feel so good about accomplishing that, you’l begin to feel your nerves slowly change to enthusiasm.
  • Then work on more of the things on your second list. Accomplishing them will feel great and will reduce any true reason you have for being nervous.

Remember: You Have a Nervous System

There’s a reason why you should remember that you have a “nervous system.” It’s not going away. Nerves will always be a part of you and of your success. Without nerves–if we couldn’t feel pain–we’d all be long dead. So instead of pushing your nerves away, embrace them.

Good teachers all feel at least some nervousness. They expect it, like an old friend, and they use it to energize their teaching and to get their students excited about learning. When we stop feeling opening-day nerves, perhaps that’s the time to retire. Till then, rock on! 

 

 

 

 

When We Use Grammar

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Dear People of the World, I don’t mean to sound slutty, but please use me whenever you want. Sincerely, Grammar

Cherished colleagues of mine recently gave me the greeting card above.

I have too much to say about grammar in general to write in a single post, so I’ll just write a quick one here to make a point.

I LOVE this card. I think it’s funny, and I love that grammar is personified and is concerned about appearing to have loose morals. I have a sense of humor.

Taking the card seriously, however, it appears to be written to encourage people to use standardized English–what many believe is “correct English” and which is certainly in most places in the US the “language of power.”  But it’s clearly not written by a linguist. Because the card is misinformed about what grammar actually is.

Grammar is apparent in ANY discourse that makes sense. If you can understand it, it has a grammar. African American English, Working Class Vernacular English, Spanglish each use grammar.

Here’s a quick test. Which of the following statements doesn’t use grammar?

  1. The man’s coat is blue and costs $80.
  2. The man coat blue and cost $80.
  3. Guy’s coat’s blue and 80 bucks.
  4. Blue 80 coat’s $ man and the is.

Correct Answer: 4

So the card is funny, and I really like it. But if it was trying to demonstrate superiority regarding knowledge of grammar. It’s a big fail. Score one against the grammar snobs.

For a far more substantive post on Grammar, written by my colleague and collaborator Patricia A. Dunn, please see here. If you’d like to learn more about my views on teaching grammar, please see here (Chapter 1 is available free).

The Magic of Using Students’ Names

One of the most important things a teacher can do is use the names of his or her students. Using a student’s name evokes such power, it’s almost mystical. It’s an incantation, and enchantment. There’s a reason why some demons in ancient stories lose their power if you learn their names, or why if you say a creature’s name three times, s/he’ll show up. Our names are as intimate as our identities. They call us. We answer to them.

Using students’ names creates a relationship with students. Using a name indicates, “I know you. We have a connection. In my world, you exist, and you are worth knowing.” This is a powerful affirmation of a student’s life.

The First Day of School

When I taught high school, I would challenge myself to say goodbye, by name, to each student after the very first class session. Usually I was able to do it. Here’s how:

  1. I made sure I had a list of students’ names.
  2. I had the students introduce themselves briefly.
  3. I assigned a 5-10 minute in-class writing activity. While the students wrote, I used the list to memorize their names.
  4. We would spend the rest of class discussing what the students wrote, and I would use every student’s name when I called on him or her. I would use the list only if I had to.
  5. By the end of class, I could usually say goodbye to each student by name as he or she handed in the writing assignment on the way out of class.

Of course, I was a lot younger then.

With photo rosters, today learning names is easier than ever. Teachers can work from a list at first, but actually learning students’ names and using them regularly is when the magic happens.

The Teacher’s Name

In many schools today, particularly urban schools in my experience, the students will call all the male teachers “Mr.” and all the female teachers “Miss.” No last names.

I think at least in some ways, this is a power move on the students’ part. Not using the teacher’s name is a way to say, “You may know who I am, but you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. We do not have a relationship. We work together, but you are just another teacher.”

If I were teaching in this environment, I would try to avoid requiring students to use my name or getting angry at them if they didn’t. (Honestly, I probably would feel a little insulted.) Instead, I would try to get the students to choose to use my name. And when/if they did use it, I would consider that a dramatic success.

When I taught high school, I was known as “Mr. L.” Since then I have been “Dr. Lindblom,” “Professor Lindblom,” and very recently “Dean Lindblom.” Of these, the name that made me the happiest and the proudest was “Mr. L.”

Cheerful acknowledgement from adolescents is a rare achievement indeed!

 

Should Students’ Grades Be Lowered for Lateness?

Recently I read a Tweet about the topic in the titular question of this post. It engendered a spirited but short lived flurry of posts. I’d like to spend a few more minutes reflecting on the topic here.

Authentic Learning & Teaching

As an educator, I try to base my decisions on a principle of authenticity. In other words, I try to make my decisions more on real-world norms than traditional school norms. I try to ensure that I am preparing students for the world beyond school, not for school. As a result, I try to make sure that the ways in which I assess students’ work is similar to the ways in which they would be assessed in a professional situation.

There are times when a professional can absolutely not be late: grant applications, proposals for conferences/speaking, . . . I’m not sure I can come up with a third example to make a series.

But adults can be late with almost anything else: publication deadlines, job evaluations, doctor’s appointments, taxes–even most bills have a grace period.

So if we are going to treat students authentically, we have to decide: Is this assignment one those things that absolutely cannot be late, or is it like most things which can allow some lateness?

How Does This Work?

I generally do not lower grades for lateness. There is one exception I can think of: take-home tests. For them, medical documentation is required to allow lateness. For other substantial assignments, here are my rules:

  1. Students must turn an assignment on time or submit medical documentation demonstrating why they couldn’t complete the assignment on time.
  2. If students require additional time, they must contact me PRIOR to the deadline to request an extension. I almost always grant an extension, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me. Virtually any reason works for me: I have had too many nights at work; too much work in other classes; I’ve been sick; I’ve had writer’s block; I’m confused about the assignment; I want more time because I know I can do a better job on this. As long as a student hasn’t made a habit of asking for more time, no problem.
  3. I negotiate the extended deadline with the student. I say, “What is the soonest, reasonable day by which you can do a good job on this assignment?” Assuming that date seems reasonable to me, I accept it. Interestingly enough, I often have to encourage students to take a little more time than they originally suggest.
  4. Students may NOT miss the extended deadline. If they miss it, I do not accept the assignment at all (without medical documentation).

The above rules almost always work out well. Very few students ask for extensions, and those who do virtually always meet the extended deadline. I find this fairly reasonable, authentic approach to deadlines works out well.

Possible Negatives

There are some who may say my approach encourages laziness or lack of attention to deadlines, but I don’t think it does. It does require a certain amount of maturity on the students’ part, and I try to use my meetings with them to help them develop that maturity. This approach may not work with younger students. And, if a teacher is so busy and has so many students that s/he can’t be this flexible with deadlines, this approach may not work either. But that doesn’t mean grading students down for turning in late work is a better alternative. It may be a less positive approach that is an understandable requirement of an overworked teacher.

What do you think? Does allowing students to renegotiate deadlines improve education, or does it encourage bad habits? What other aspects of late grades am I leaving out? What other approaches have you found useful? Please feel free to contribute your responses with comments.

 

 

Should We Re-Structure Teacher Salaries?

In some areas of the country, teachers are not paid well enough to make as good a living as they should. They are not who I’m talking about here.

How Teacher Salaries Work Now

High school teachers and many middle school teachers are generally  paid to teach a 5-course load, meaning they teach 5 classes per day, 5 days per week. I’ve done that course load, and it’s exhausting. 18-36 students would enter my class every 42 minutes (minus 5-minute breaks to change classes) 5 times per day. Sometimes the classes seemed longer, but the days always went fast. I did all my planning and grading at home in the evenings and weekends. In my busiest year, I had 142 students in my classes. Some teachers have even more.

I have heard talk about keeping classes smaller, and I have heard ridiculous claims that larger class size doesn’t impact the quality of education students receive. But I have never heard about re-structuring teachers’ workload so they teach fewer courses.

There are school districts in which teachers are making well over $125K per year. Many of these teachers are excellent, and I am confident they are earning every cent of those salaries.

An Experiment in Salary Structure

Would it make sense to offer some teachers the option of receiving a lower salary and teaching fewer classes? Could a teacher making $125K to teach 5 classes instead choose to make $100K and teach only 4 classes? Would that provide a better education for students, and perhaps entice some teachers to stay longer in teaching?

One of the highest paying districts in the state of New York several years ago increased its teacher salaries by a considerable margin and added a 6th class to teachers’ schedules. The teachers union actually voted to approve that contract; in fact, I had heard the teachers were the ones who pushed for the change. Wouldn’t students receive a better education if teachers taught fewer rather than more classes? Aren’t there teachers out there who would be interested in making less money to do a better job for their students and, to get more times for their own lives?

A Proposal

I suggest local districts and state education departments create pilot programs in which teachers would be allowed to opt for a lower teaching load for a lower salary. It would be interesting to see:

  1. If any teachers would choose this option.
  2. If there were any changes on teachers’ or students’ perceptions of the quality of their teaching/learning.
  3. If there would be any measurable differences in students’ success. (Authentic measures, not just standardized test scores)
  4. If more new teachers would stay in the profession after 5 years if they chose this option.
  5. If a teacher who chose to teach fewer classes simply allowed the workload to swell to take as many hours as the previously higher course load took, so there would be no difference in the teachers’ personal life, except a lower salary.

I’m sure there would be other questions worth asking if this change were permitted. What do you think? Please add your comments and feedback.

The Luckiest First Year of Teaching!

 

I was very lucky as a new teacher in September of 1988 at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, NY (a suburb of Albany). NYSUT had recently negotiated money from the New York State Education Department for each school district to develop mentoring programs. East Greenbush, under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent Arnold Kaye (if memory serves) led the development of a robust, innovative, and supportive mentoring program that I have no doubt is a huge factor in the success and happiness I’ve enjoyed as an educator.

I describe the program here, because I think it’s a great model for other programs, and as a show of support for the value that can come from substantial investment in teacher development.

 

The Elements of the Mentoring Program

For my entire first year as a teacher, I was allowed to hire a substitute teacher who would essentially work for me every Tuesday, all day. The man I hired was Bob S. A newly-minted teacher, Bob spent each Tuesday either teaching my classes, so I could observe other teachers and spend time with my mentor; or, he taught other teacher’s classes, so they could observe me.

My mentor, a great guy named Bernie McCauley, was a reading teacher. Bernie was not in the English Department, and I did not report to him in any official capacity. Bernie was assigned to me, but if he and I didn’t get along well, I was free to ask for a new mentor. Honestly, I don’t know how well asking for another mentor would have gone, but it was never an issue. Bernie’s first instructions to me were that his mentoring was to be totally driven by my questions and that anything he and I spoke of was completely confidential. A devout Catholic, Bernie referenced the sanctity of the confessional, for which a priest is quickly defrocked for violating. He would never reveal any insecurity or concerns I expressed, nor would he report and stupid or troubling questions I asked.

 

The Effects of the Program

Thanks to this mentoring program, in one year I was observed at least once by 14 senior English teachers, each of whom could spend at least one period later that day talking to me about what they observed. I was also able to observe all 14 of those teachers and to take at least a period later that day to talk with them about what I observed. This was a tremendous education in many ways, including:

  • I learned about many, many different teaching techniques, classroom atmospheres, and perspectives on scenarios in education.
  • I saw teachers teachers teaching some of the same texts I was teaching at the same time.
  • I quickly became very comfortable being observed in my classroom.
  • I developed a sophisticated sense of the range of possibilities teaching and learning could take, because I witnessed so many of them while I was developing my own style.

At the same time, having a confidential mentor allowed me to express reservation, fear, and ignorance without worrying about sabotaging myself professionally.

I have no doubt that I grew tremendously thanks to the support of Bob (the substitute I was able to hire), my 14 colleagues in the English Department, and Bernie McCauley, my mentor.  That one year was a supercharged professional development program!

So good was my mentoring experience, at the end of the year I wrote and published my first article about it in The English Record, the publication of the New York State English Council. (If I can find a copy soon, maybe I’ll post it, as a walk down memory lane.)

 

Problems with the Program

I don’t mean the mentoring program to sound like it was perfect. There were some hiccups. Having a mentor assigned to me was not only initially off-putting to me, but my colleagues in the English Department expressed concern that my mentor wasn’t in English, like me.

There was also a highly-regarded substitute, Sue, who regularly taught for the English Department, and many thought I should have hired her, rather than Bob, whom I selected from a pool of external applicants. It was important that I be allowed to choose my sub, so I would trust him and not fear he was reporting my progress to my chair or principal. In my insecurity, I chose someone who had the same amount of experience I did: none. But, as luck would have it, again, he was excellent. And, after he got his own full-time position later that year (when I was feeling more secure), I was happy to hire Sue.

There were also differences in tone and expectations among my 14 colleagues, and it took a while before I realized I didn’t have to try to mirror or please them all. Some of them may have felt slighted, but again, I was lucky in that none of them ever held any of their feelings against me.

 

Mentoring Teachers Today

The experience I had was so rich, so thorough, and so costly, I can scarcely imagine such a program being approved today. In fact, the mentoring program I experienced was quickly phased out when funding was eliminated for it. A real shame.

I have been a teacher educator now for over a dozen years, and I’ve seen fewer and fewer state-supported efforts to truly mentor new teachers with depth. Many excellent veteran teachers volunteer their time to help their newest colleagues, but that’s not enough. We should seek out sustainable, well-funded mentoring programs, such as the one I was lucky enough to get.

What positive and negative experiences did you have as a new teacher? And what ideas do you have for advocating for strong support of new teachers today?

A Dirty, Little Secret in K-12 Education

Something that has troubled me for years in the field of education is the way in which new teachers are often treated. A loyal member of the profession, I don’t like pointing out issues with my colleagues; but this is something that has irked me for a long time and should stop.

Bluntly put: The teaching profession eats its young.

Teaching is probably the only profession that requires one to be fully capable on day one of earning a salary. For teachers, there is no paid training period. The day they hit the classroom, new teachers are expected to be as capable as a veteran. On day one, a teacher is given a full load of classes and a full load of students. They rarely, if ever, get any special attention or special assistance. The most veteran teacher in any school generally does no more than a teacher on the first day of the job. In what other profession is this expected?

That is not, however, the dirty, little secret I wish to raise here.  The requirement to be fully capable on day one is tough enough. The real problem is that in many schools, the newest teachers are given the hardest assignments. New teachers are commonly given the most challenging classes, the hardest schedules, and the most classrooms.

The Most Challenging Classes:  Often a school has particularly difficult classes to teach. These may be an especially tough group of students (as a result of classroom chemistry over a period of years), or a challenging set of issues (many students with special needs, English Language Learners, or transient students), or they may be the most reluctant learners. Veteran teachers–who have the skills and experience to address these issues–often choose to teach in less challenging contexts. As a result of seniority (and whatever else determines class assignments), the most challenging classes are often assigned to the least senior teachers: that is, the newest teachers. Even worse, new teachers are often given several different very challenging classes. Veteran teachers will often have 2 different classes (“2 preps”) in a day; new teachers usually have 3, 4, or even more preps!

The Hardest Schedules: Most teachers teach 5 classes within a 9-period day. There are often additional duties, such as homeroom, study hall, and/or lunchroom duty. The newest teachers often get the least attractive periods for lunch and planning. Wouldn’t it help if you could break up your day evenly with lunch and a planning period? Also, wouldn’t it be helpful if the newest teachers could be spared the most difficult additional duties until they get more experience? Generally, new teachers must accept the most difficult duties until they are senior enough to choose their preferences.

The Most Classrooms: Most new teachers must move from classroom to classroom for a number of years until they develop enough seniority to earn their own classroom. That generally means a new teacher doesn’t have the luxury of staying in one room all day; rather, they must move to a new room for each class. Just like a student, the new teacher must gather all their belongings, get themselves to a new class, re-organize themselves and be ready to start a new class once the bell rings. This would be challenging for a veteran teacher. But new teachers–dealing with all the trials of a new position in a new building with new colleagues, new students, new parents, and new curricula–get to deal with all this moving around, too.

I know there are exceptions. There are schools that provide excellent support for new teachers. In fact, I was lucky enough to be hired for my first teaching position at a school with a terrific mentoring program and I had a tremendously valuable first year at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, NY. I ascribe much of my happiness and success in the field to the launching pad I was fortunate enough to be provided. And, I will share details of that wonderful experience in a later post. If only such mentoring programs were common now.

Unfortunately, from what I have heard, the vast majority of schools and departments work on a seniority model and provide little extra support for new teachers during what is professionally called the “induction” period. As a profession, we educators must do a better job of supporting our newest members. Rather than clawing for every perk of seniority, we should create scaffolding spaces for new teachers, to help them develop the skills and experience necessary for a long career as a teacher.

In many ways, the teaching profession eats its young. Those who survive go on to be successful veteran teachers, many of whom feel entitled to the perks they were denied as new teachers. We must acknowledge the folly of this cycle and turn it around.

I invite my colleagues to correct any mistakes in this post, and–even better–to provide counter narratives of induction in contemporary schools. I would be delighted to have my post proven wrong.