Everybody loves Top 10 lists. In addition to being fun, they’re also a very good way to present important information in a concise, compact way. If you lined up 100 teachers and asked for their Top 10 worst things to do, you’d probably get 100 different lists. Here’s mine. If you want to burn yourself out, struggle in the classroom and have everybody mad at you, try some of these.
#10. Don’t give pop quizzes….
I firmly believe that unannounced pop quizzes are a bad evaluation tool and do more harm than good. It’s nothing more than a game of gotchya with the students. Math, in particular, causes a lot of anxiety in students. There’s no better way to redline the anxiety meter than to walk in and give an unannounced quiz. However, I did have a policy that anything we did in class or out was subject to being collected and graded, which I did at least once a week. This included homework, warm up exercises and class notes. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the students on their toes, but unannounced quizzes aren’t a good tool for that.
#9. Don’t use homework for punishment….
When I went to school many moons ago, this was very common and unbelievably it still goes on today. You can’t get any more clueless than this. If you’re having problems in the classroom, the last thing you want to do is assign a ton of homework. First, it doesn’t correct the basic problem, which is probably discipline or control related. It antagonizes families and sets up a power struggle with the students that you can’t win. What if they don’t do it? Then what? Suppose they do it? Now you’ve got hundreds of problems to grade, like you don’t have enough to do already.
#8.Don’t allow students to start slamming books and getting ready to leave until you say so….
This falls under the classroom control category but is so common and disruptive, I mention it separately. When books start slamming, it spreads through the room like a virus and everybody immediately shuts down. If you don’t address it, you surrender your classroom and lose valuable teaching time. I made it very clear to the students that I dismiss them, not the clock. Learning and practicing dismissal procedures should be part of the early year routine. I called mine the two minute drill. When finished, the classroom had to be clean, desks lined up and students sitting quietly with me sitting on the Cone of Silence. I’d offer a few quick comments to end the day on a positive note and off they would go. Make dismissal part of the learning process and not a free-for-all where the teacher is a bystander.
Who doesn’t love math teacher humor?
#7.Don’t allow calculators until the students have shown they can do basic math without them….
Calculators are great for teaching intermediate to advanced math concepts. Nobody wants to calculate powers or roots by hand. However, students in general are way too dependent on calculators for even simple arithmetic problems. Calculators can actually make math problems more difficult. It adds steps and every step is a chance to make a mistake. Your key punching has to be perfect. Since you can’t see a calculator’s work, you have to use estimation to evaluate the answer. If it doesn’t check, the only alternative is to do it over. Nevertheless, students, parents and even administrators think memorizing basic math facts and practicing with pencil and paper is unnecessary since we have calculators. I couldn’t disagree more and aggressively drilled basic
arithmetic all year in all my classes.
#6. Don’t put students in groups too soon….
I had a practicum student in my classroom for two weeks one time. After he had observed for several days, I gave him a chance to teach a class. I don’t remember what it was on and it doesn’t really matter because it was an unmitigated disaster. He put them in groups of four, handed out manipulatives the students had never seen before and tried to take them through an exercise for which they had no background or preparation. He did it because that’s what they teach education majors in college. I got the rigamarole too. Group work is the Holy Grail of teaching. It’s fun. It’s inclusive. It differentiates. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats. Well maybe, but there’s a catch. Effective group work requires a classroom dynamic that will support it. For starters, you have to know the name and temperament of all your students. The teacher has to have absolute control and well established routines. The students need to exercise self-control and recognize limits. It takes weeks to establish that environment and some classes never get there. One of my very savvy college instructors told me Don’t smile at them until Halloween. Then maybe by Thanksgiving, you can try putting them in pairs.
#5.Don’t waste any time….
The typical school year is 180 days. If you waste two minutes a day every day, that’s six hours of instruction lost over the course of the year in just that class. That’s over a week of class time gone. Now multiply that times the number of classes you teach. I’ve seen rooms where they are still trying to get rolling five or even ten minutes after the start of class. The lost time adds up quickly to a staggering number but because it happens in little chunks over time, nobody notices it much. Now granted you can’t be teaching math from bell to bell. There are transitions, administrative tasks and routine housekeeping that need to be done. The goal should be to fill every possible second with the teacher’s ideas, plans and activities. This has implications for classroom management and discipline. Keep the students too busy to conjure up anything.
#4. Don’t use others to correct your tests or other papers….
This is a real pet peeve of mine. Grading papers is a pain in the neck, but a very necessary one. One of the few times you have the undivided attention of all students is when you hand back their tests. Thorough grading and commenting gives you a picture of both individual students and the entire class. It also gives valuable feedback on your teaching. So why would you sacrifice one of your most powerful teaching moments by having someone else grade tests? Granted, it’s easier, but it robs us of the most important tool we have for evaluating student understanding and teaching effectiveness. I saw it all the time. Parent volunteers and para-professionals sitting in the hallway with answer keys robotically going down the list and grading papers. Do they know why the student missed the problem? Was it an arithmetic error at the end or an algorithm error from the start? How many others made the same mistake? Did the students follow your test instructions? Did they show their work? How about partial credit? The ghost graders don’t know. If you give it, you grade it. Let the volunteers clean the boards.
#3. Don’t give students the power to disrupt your class….
You’re trying to get things rolling and then it starts albeit innocently enough. Can I sharpen my pencil? Go to the bathroom? Can I go to my locker? Can you sign this ? What are we doing tomorrow? Or a student walks up to you right in the middle of class and tells you “Tomorrow’s my birthday”. We’re teachers. We love kids and have kids of our own. We want to be approachable. We want to help. We want to answer student questions. But by acquiescing to these simple requests, you are surrendering control of your classroom. Students figure out real quick that they can dictate the pace and agenda in the classroom by simply interrupting with something simple but completely unrelated to the task at hand. The answer is routines – explained, practiced, rehearsed and enforced. When I first started teaching, I had 6th grade math classes. Sixth grade was the first time they changed rooms and had different teachers for different subjects. The first habit I had to correct in them was this business of swarming around the teacher, which they had been doing for five years. My standard line was This is not a bee hive. There’s a way to ask questions and when you do it properly, I will be happy to help you. The first couple times I did that, kids started crying. They went home and said I was mean. Then the phone calls started, but within a week, we were settled in.
If you give it, you grade it. Let the volunteers clean the boards. And keep your sense of humor. Got it?
#2.Don’t lose your sense of humor….
I believe this is the most important quality for a successful teacher. Humor is a powerful tool for dealing with crisis and chaos. Used appropriately, it defuses bad situations with no hard feelings. It gives people confidence in you. That doesn’t mean you’re a stand up comedian or the life of the party. Telling jokes is a bad idea, especially these days. But poking fun at yourself makes you human and more approachable. Teaching is serious business and needs to be treated as such. But you have to be able to laugh at yourself and not dwell on the tribulations you face in the classroom. Every teacher is different and you should be yourself. Just don’t take yourself too seriously.
#1. Don’t take it personally…..
My favorite line in the movie The Godfather is “It’s nothing personal-it’s just business”. That line gave me perspective through some tough times. When students openly defy, curse or assault you…..When parents question your competence and integrity…..When administrators embrace another buzzword initiative like spiraling….There is a natural tendency to want to retaliate in kind. You have to be able to compartmentalize it. Never lose sight of the fact that’s it’s just part of the job and deal with it as a detached professional. If you personalize it, you start to get dumb and reckless. Frequently, that leads to saying and doing things you’ll regret later, like sending an email blast to a parent or calling a student an ass. Don’t ruin your day, your health and your career over slights real or imagined. Remember – It’s just business.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A teacher walks into a bar… Mister L