Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Back to School From the Parent Side

Last night I attended my daughter's Pre-K Back to School night.  She attends a Christian nursery school a few miles from our house that also houses a K-8 school.  After blogging recently about Back to School Night, I couldn't help but critique the presentations and see if I could walk away with any new knowledge of what to and not do at my own B2SN (Yes, I over analyze EVERYTHING!)

Whole School Presentation by the Principal:

Obviously a veteran of B2SN.  She used a PowerPoint presentation effectively.  It wasn't fancy with tons of images and designs, but what was very good was that she didn't include much verbiage (I hate when everything a speaker is telling you is on a handout or PowerPoint and then they say what you can read word for word).  She bulleted the important points on the screen and added depth with her oral presentation.

She spoke calmly and with an affectionate authority about the kids and what happens at the school.

The only problem came late in the presentation when as she took in a breath a parent felt it was her opportunity to  ASK A QUESTION (I did not mention this in my original blog about B2SN, but it has happened to me also, the brief pause gives someone, probably an A-type personality, to force a question into the presentation).  The question in itself was for a point of clarification and would more than likely have been asked at the end of the presentation.  The next question wasn't.

Since it was now open season for questions, another woman complained that her child did not get the snack with her school ordered lunch one day.  If it was an ongoing problem, I could see asking it in front of the whole group to see if other parents had the same problem.  All this question does is gets other parents worried about something that they shouldnt be worried about.  If this was a major issue, a phone call to the school should have happened the next day after the incident.

The principal's response was basically (paraphrase here) "Mistakes happen".  She said it pleasantly yet strongly in a a manner that one could not take offense.  I was VERY impressed by the principal.

The PreK Classroom

First, I followed my own rules, I DID NOT ask a question or have a parent teacher conference with the teacher on B2SN.

We then went to the classrooms.  All the parents had to sit on seats a foot from the floor.  (Yes, my knees ache today)

My daughter's teacher mostly stuck to a "Specifics of the Class" presentation with some "Big Picture" talk about what the students will be learning for the whole year.  She didn't present much about herself (years experience, family, education background, etc.) but I guess she sent home a welcome letter (Alisa saw it) with that info.  I realized for me, I do want to hear a little about my child's teacher's road to the classroom since she will be spending so much time with my kid over the next year.  It would be nice to know about her, the person.

The teacher had a nervous laughter when she presented.  It wasn't distracting but actually added to what she was saying, because being nervous shows she cares that she doesn't mess up presenting herself to the parents of those valuable possessions we are entrusting to her on a daily basis.

I also appreciated that she not only told us what she did, but WHY she does it.  A good teacher has a lot of activity for their kids, a great teacher knows and can easily explain why she does it.

At the end of her presentation she said how she missed each one of our kids when she was out sick the day before and prayed for each one of them throughout the day.  It was the only thing she said without looking at the notes in her hand which added to the authenticity of the statement; it wasn't just said because you say those things at back to school night, she said it because she meant it.

When we left, she had us go in the hallway and there were hanging pictures by our children and we had to guess which one was ours, names were on the back.  It was a nice activity to end the night and allowed us to mix and laugh with the other parents as we all guessed wrong.

A teacher who loves what she does, loves the kids she works with, and plans way to make them grow in grace and knowledge is a great teacher in my book.

Way to go Mrs. Rodriguez!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Wave of Energy

The biggest difference between teaching in High School and Middle School is this:

High School kids can think more in the abstract, you can play devil's advocate, say outlandish things, and eventually you'll provoke thought and response to your statement that can last a whole class period.

Middle School kids are full of a never ending amount of energy.

I was reminded of this yesterday when leaving the faculty lunchroom.  Our door opens up on to the same hallway the kids use to come inside from recess.

I refer to them coming back in as THE WAVE.

If you exit the lunchroom just as the kids are beginning to come in, it will feel like you are surfing on the crest of a wave and the energy from behind of 100+ kids are pushing you through the hallways to your classroom.

If you exit the lunchroom at the end of THE WAVE you will see the energy and force up ahead as it pounds the shores the 7th grade hallway.

If you happen to exit in the MIDDLE of THE WAVE...BEWARE!  The full force of their energy will reverberate in your ears or push you from side to side as they bump you in the tight hallway.

You will turn the corner to your classroom, and kids will be at their locker and their friends huddled around them creating a RIPTIDE feeling.  You see the door of your classroom only 50 feet away but it will take a lot of work if you want to walk straight to it.  Walking side to side is the only safe way.

Bodysufring, teaching, yea, not much difference.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back to School Night Part 2

I received a good amount of responses to my blog about Back to School Night (B2SN).  Now as I prepare for my own B2SN, I would love to hear feedback on what you believe should be my approach.

There is a poll on the right side of my blog where you can vote and tell me where I should spend a majority of my time during the 10 minute presentation.  Also, feel free to leave a comment on the blog or my Facebook page (if that is how you wound up here) explaining your answer if you wish.

Here is how I see B2SN:

There are three elements to every B2SN presentation

1. Specifics of the Class- the nuts and bolts of your class.  How do you grade?  How much homework?    What supplies are need for your class? What do you do when your child misses class?  How do you contact me?  What major projects are there in your class?  etc.

2. Big Picture Overview- What do you teach?  Why is your subject important?  What methods and strategies do I use to reach your child?  What do I want your child getting out of my class?

3. Personal Resume- Who is this guy who will be spending time with my child over the next year?  What are your qualifications to teach?   What experiences have you had that will make you a good teacher for my child?

I do touch on each of these three in the few minutes I have.  Which one should I focus on in the presentation and which ones should I leave to the handout I give each parent?

(I try not to just read off of the handout, I dread when a presenter does that to me. It is ok to add flavor or explanation to your handout, but I can read off of it just as well as the presenter)

Thanks for your help.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dear Katie, (Volume 1 No. 2) The Honeymoon Period

From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

This morning I went next door to my neighbors at the General Store to get some coffee.  They asked me how my students were this year, and I told them it was hard to tell.  I have only had them for about a week and they are still in the honeymoon period.  They are sizing up who you are, how much they can get away with, if they are going to enjoy or ignore your class, etc.

After better have a strong idea of what you want your classroom to be or it will be what THEY want it to be.

(I wish I understood that 20 years ago, my first few years would have went smoother)

Since I am a middle school teacher, I do not hand out a laundry list of my rules and expectations.  I establish just two rules with my class:

Do What is Expected of You
Respect Others and their Property

I ask for examples of both ideas in the classroom and appeal to their "maturity" by saying I should not need to have a laundry list; that they're too old for that.  If they were just to ask themselves if they are following these two rules, they would NEVER get in trouble.

From day one, build relationships and get to know your students.  Teaching is not all about the subject you teach, but the students you will get to know.  Who is that kid in your classroom?  What motivates her?  What struggles does he have?  The more they know you want to know them, the more they will want to know what you know.

When you do have to discipline a student be measured in your response.  DO NOT OVERREACT on a small infraction.  

One thing I wish I knew early on, do not raise your voice unless it is absolutely necessary.  A disapproving look can work just as well.

Sending a kid to the office should be your NUCLEAR OPTION, do it when there is no other recourse of action or a major infraction.  It will have a greater impact when you need to do it.  I had an assistant principal once tell a kid I sent to the office, "I know this has to be bad, Mr. Cullen NEVER sends anyone to the office."

However, if you are first starting in student teaching or your first year, you should have a itchy finger in using it.  For example, one day we were talking with friends and the wife was going to begin subbing the next day so she asked me how I handle classroom management, so I shared with her the above ideas.

"So Kevin, you're saying I shouldn't send any kids to the office", she said.

My response,

"Oh no, send the first kid who disrespects you to the office. I can hold off because I have built a rapport with my students over the year, but if I were you as a sub, and your first day at that, send the first problem to the principal and the second kid will wonder if its worth it to act up."

So your first day in the classroom you may have every kid hanging on your every word because your new.  Don't let that fool you, its only the honeymoon.  When the "marriage" passes out of that period and reality sets in, hopefully you have set up structures in your class to get you through your first major "test".

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to School Night...Don't Be That Parent

Last year I attended my first Back to School Night (B2SN) from the other side of the desk.  It was for my daughter's pre-school and I hate to admit it, I became one of those parents who talked during the presentation.  (Full disclosure, I was talking out in the hallway, all the parents couldn't fit in the classroom).

For my friends who have children in middle school and above (or at least in a grade where they are no longer in a self-contained classroom and rotate through several academic teachers each day).  For the inside scoop of B2SN for elementary school, you would need to ask an elementary school teacher.

Here are the ins and outs of B2SN from a middle school teacher's perspective:

1) Teachers will filibuster the whole time frame.

Typical presentations are about 10 minutes long, and most teachers will talk the whole time.  We don't want questions.  Although most questions are innocuous and for clarification or information (What projects are you planning this year?  How much homework do you give?  etc.)  every so often though you have a parent that has a bone to pick, and sometimes its not necessarily something you can answer either because you don't have access to the information or it's confidential.  However, and its is thankfully VERY rare, some parents are out to make the teacher look bad.  You probably will not have time for questions.  If you have a legitimate question, just email the teacher.

2) B2SN is not Parent/Teacher Conferences

After my presentation, some parents will line up just to introduce themselves to me.  There is no problem with doing that and it is a nice gesture.  Just remember that I will probably shake the hands of over 100 parents that night so don't be upset if I run into you in the office a week later and don't remember who you are.

Don't ask me "Guess whose parent I am, my child looks just like me?"  I probably will fail that, I don't notice small details (my wife can confirm this as true).

But the big thing NEVER to do is use B2SN to have a conference about your kid.  First, with teaching over 150 students I am just finishing getting to know your child's name after 2 weeks, let alone their strengths and weaknesses.  Also, it is a little awkward to talk openly about your child with other parents all around and if I discuss your child, well, it will cause an avalanche effect as the next few parents will want to talk about their child as well.

My school announces over the intercom that B2SN over so parents get the hint and stop any spontaneous conferences.  My principal has even had to go rescue fellow teachers b/c of parents that won't leave.  DON'T BE THAT PARENT!  You will become fodder for discussions in the faculty lunch room.  Again, if you have a concern, email me.

3) It's the Social Event of the Month

Yes, you will see people you have not seen since the end of the Little League season.  Just do the teacher a favor, at least be seated by the bell, and keep your talking low.  I always wanted to address the parents talking during my presentation.  I should wait until its a parent I already have a good relationship with.  Giving them a "detention" could be fun.

4) What I will discuss.

I'm never quite sure what parents need to know, so I stick to what someone in my church who had kids in my school told me.  He said, "I just want to know who will be teaching my kids."

First, I will pass out an information sheet with all the minutia of the class (contact information, grading system, etc.)  Then I tell you a little history of who I am, why I'm a teacher, how long I have been teaching, my family etc.  I try to make the presentation enjoyable.  I have played the Theme to Welcome Back Kotter and The Who's "Who are You" in the background as I talked, I have had a student present to the parents who I am and how I teach (thank you Megan), and one year created a slide presentation in the old MTV "Pop Up Video" format (my students wouldn't get it, but I'm sure some of their parents did) After that I will tell you a little about the course, what we will be learning, and how I will go about educating your child.

I conclude with telling them they can reach me at the following phone number 24 hours a day, 867-5309, but they should ask for Jenny.

And I won't leave time for questions : )

Saturday, September 8, 2012

New Years Day is in September

To any of my former students who may read this:

"Thanks for the respect you displayed in my classroom and the overflowing bag of memories you have given me that I can continually open and enjoy the rest of my life."

As a student and as a teacher, I love the first days of school.

As a student, it was opening up the new binder and writing the first words of notes on to the blank sheet.  Remembering how I believed I came of age as I chose not to buy the Trapper Keeper with the pictures of baseball players on it (and it was before the days of the extensive use of sports licensing, so these pictures were just drawings of generic baseball players) and I chose to get the old blue canvas binder.  You got to see your classmates that you didn't spend time with over the summer and it seemed like one big awesome happening.  And as I got to college, that feeling only intensified.

And then the hard work of school work swept away all the euphoria.

The nice thing is you began every September with a blank page like the sheets of loose leaf paper in your notebook.  Every year I declared this was the year I was going to give it my all to receive an A in all my classes.  I rarely was able to achieve that goal and mostly it was because I allowed the social aspects and fun and games to distract me.

But, hey, there was always next year.

It is much the same way as a teacher.  I come in the classroom and rip open the boxes of supplies I ordered from the previous year.  It feels a bit like Christmas.  I know I may sound like a geek here, but I really enjoy the new electric pencil sharpener I got this year (sadly, students today do not seem to know how to operate my hand crank one).

The first day of teacher workshops you get to see people who over the years have become friends rather than just co-workers.  The best way to explain the atmosphere is like it is when you enter the cafeteria at college on the first day back from summer break.

And then the kids come in.  A new adventure begins as each class you teach has a individual student helps to create a class personality.  Figuring out how to reach each one of them is part of the fun of being a teacher.

If the class is awful, you only have to deal with it for one year.

More often than not, it is the opposite.  As you work with these kids, and you enjoy their contributions in class, and you laugh with them and get excited for them as you watch them succeed, you realize that too will come to an end.

I was reminded of this the other day when a girl from the Christian Heritage Class of 1999 that I taught posted a picture of her class from their junior year.  And then the onslaught of comments from those kids were listed underneath.  The good natured ribbing reminded me of how their class always seemed to make me laugh and to this day I still say that their class more than any other took full advantage of my teaching style, and the ideas and conclusions they shared in class and the creativity they displayed in their video projects are still some of the most cherished memories of my teaching career.

Since it was a private school, I had the privilege of working with these kids for 5 years.  Although sad that I may never see almost all of them again, I'm happy that I had the honor to have taught them.

And in my 21 years of teaching, I do reflect on the kids who impressed me with their thinking, astounded me with their work ethic, surprised me with their ability to overcome obstacles, or just made me laugh out loud (and some of my students will tell you that is not easy to do).

And one of the reason I love Facebook is that it allows me to see where some of those kids I taught either at CHS or BRMS are today.  And it is awesome when I see they have become all-state, or passed the bar exam, or got married, or their kid lost their first tooth.  I am so proud of all of them.

So even though it is with great sadness I say goodbye to all of my former students, the great thing about being a teacher is that I get a whole new crop that will create all new memories every year.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Were These People Ever Classroom Teachers?

(Most of this I reworked from an old Facebook note from 3 years ago, but sadly most of it still pertains)

My summer vacation ends at 7:30 on Tuesday morning.  It is the day I have to report to a day of teacher inservice for my district.  It is a day I DREAD!  Not necessarily because it is the end of my summer vacation (yea, I know, I just had 2 months off, just because I want to spend more time with my family doesn't make me a bad teacher but an honest person), but because the day itself is turns into a big waste of time.

In fact, last week I told my principal flat out...

"The first day of inservice SUCKS!"

Let me describe the scene for those of you who aren't teachers...

For me, the teacher inservice is like when I returned to campus at college after summer break.

I enjoy the people I work with on a daily basis, you haven't seen them all summer and it is typically a festive reunion.  Laughter and smiles abound.  

And then...its time to begin, and all the smiles disappear and boredom begins to permeate the room as the speaker the school paid to enhance your educational practice begins to speak.

And as the speaker drones, on you wonder how they can possibly be an expert in the field of education when instead of teaching you anything, they are putting you to sleep.

Specific reasons why I hate this day...

-My first day at BRMS I knew no one. When I arrived no one was there (they were in the middle of a fierce contract negotiation and purposely showed up 15 min late as a protest). They placed me in a meeting with science and math teachers, that was about math. I learned nothing I could use in the classroom (I was a computer teacher). I sat in a group with 3 other teachers, no one said hello.  I bought Wendy's and ate by myself at Hacklebarney State Park. Not a good start to my BRMS career.

-Most opening days at my first teaching position at CHS. It was as if the teachers were the troops receiving the general's directions. We NEVER got done with everything on the list in one day although we were supposed to have one day of lectures and one day to get our classrooms ready. There was one year we took two days listening to administrative directives. I would choose to have root canals on all my teeth than have to ever do that again.

-The worst speaker I ever had to deal with was a guy from a counseling center. Instead of building us up and saying, you have the opportunity to change a kid's life for the better, we got a "I hear kids tell me all the time how you teachers screw up their lives" (ok that's a paraphrase). That's was a great motivator to start a new school year.

How it could be better

-Stop the horse and pony show by bringing all the teachers of the district together. Allow each school more time to meet with their staffs to discuss specific issues for each school. Have the superintendent plan to meet with every school to give a brief message.

-Don't waste time or money on a speaker. Instead actually give teachers the time to meet with each other and brainstorm and plan for the school year.  The key word of the 21st century is...collaboration, isnt it?

-One of the best opening day speakers I ever had was Neil Cavuto of Fox Business.  He spent about 40 minutes discussing teachers and how they effected his life, his own children's' lives, and the impact that we have.   Witty and motivational.  Not bad.

OK, I have to get ready in order to have my time wasted.