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Avoiding First-Year Blunders: 5 Tips for Principals


effective principalWhat makes an effective principal? This question used to have a fairly standard answer: someone who serves as a mentor and inspiration to educational staff and students…someone who keeps the supply cabinets stocked and the busses running on schedule, and so on. While the above still holds true, there are also complex social dynamics that principals must also master. To help you navigate your way and avoid common first-year blunders, we’ve pulled a few pieces of advice from Marilyn L. Grady’s book, 20 Biggest Mistakes Principals Make and How to Avoid Them.

Avoiding First-Year Blunders: 5 Tips for Principals

Say Hello
It may be necessary to lock yourself in the office every now and again, but even then, make it part of your daily schedule to greet teachers, students and support staff.

There are innumerable ways to interact with students and teachers: try greeting students in the mornings as they step off the bus; attend sporting events and sit with a different group of students each time; visit classrooms; sit in on a ceramics class and spin some clay…whatever it takes to interact with students.

Teachers and students may grumble about your policies and take issue with some of your decisions, but ultimately they crave your support and attention. As Grady points out, “Although one may assume that teachers, as adult professionals should be able to experience their own self-actualization on the job, in fact teachers look to the principal for direction and support.”

Be Mindful That You are Not Playing Favorites
It’s a fact: You’re going to connect with some of your teachers and staff more than others. But as a principal, you must keep yourself in check and never play favorites.

Do you visit some classrooms more than others, or share inside jokes with a select group of teachers? Be careful about this.

While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that you should not befriend your colleagues, we do agree with Grady’s assertion that “Principals who build their friendship networks at school with students, faculty, and teachers often tie themselves to personal relationships that thwart their ability to make sound professional decisions. 

Make Yourself Visible
Principals are social creatures who have learned to tolerate social scrutiny. Make yourself visible: build relationships with the local media, attend as many after-school events as you can, and arrange community meetings and discussions. These opportunities must occur regularly so that the principal has current and accurate information about community issues and concerns.

One last note on visibility: Be well-rounded in your attendance. People notice if the principal attends basketball games, but does not attend school plays or band concerts.

Pay Attention to the Written Word
We all have unique talents, but if writing is not your specialty, for goodness sakes recruit someone to provide constructive feedback and proofread your work before you ship it off to parents, students, or the media. You could be the most brilliant person in the world, but if you are using incorrect spelling, syntax or grammar, you’re intellectual credibility is going to be placed under considerable scrutiny.

In addition to this, keep the following in mind:

  • Communicate regularly
  • Consider the audience and be careful not to condescend
  • Stay positive—never write when you are tired or on edge
  • Be direct
  • Be readable—the human eye is drawn to bold headings and bulleted information
  • Always make a copy and save it when documentation is needed for a continuing problem
  • Keep it brief
  • Don’t hide behind a letter. Nothing replaces face-to-face conversation

Accept that You Will Be Compared to Predecessors
Knowing ahead of time that everything you do will be measured against your predecessor will save you a lot of grief and restless nights. Comparisons are going happen. You are going to hear things like, “Principal X didn’t seem to have a problem with this,” or “Principal X would never have done this.” Ditch your gut reaction to react defensively and use these moments to ask questions and engage in an open discussion.

Photo credit: Gentleridevan / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Step By Step: A Goal-Setting Strategy for Principals


goal-setting strategy for principalsIt won’t be long before the school doors open and the hallways are buzzing with chatter and the bustle of life again. Before that happens, though, we’d like to talk a little bit about goal setting.  

Goal setting not only has the potential to enhance the learning experiences of students, it can also positively influence our school culture, and unite our staff in a shared sense of purpose.  To help principals establish a goal-setting sequence and put it into play, we’d like to share a step-by-step process from Abby Bergman, Judy Powers, and Michael Pullen’s book, The Survival Kit for the Elementary School Principal

Step By Step: A Goal-Setting Strategy for Principals

Step 1: As you form your committee, solicit the help of as many stakeholders as possible. You will always see more “buy-in” when you involve teachers, staff, and parents in decisions that impact the school.

Step 2: The best place to start is by reviewing the district goals with the committee.

Step 3: Next, review the needs of the students. Sometimes, a needs-assessment survey precedes the goal-setting process. In other instances, you may refer to a state or district benchmark that sets a specific target for student performance.

Step 4: Once student needs and data patterns have been identified, gather your committee together and begin to brainstorm initiatives (these can be very broad at this point). List everything. Nothing is unreasonable at this point!

Step 5: Now that you have your big list, it’s time to pare it down and look at it with a critical eye. Consider feasibility, resources required, and whether or not the idea actually addresses a need. Now may be a good time to refer to previously established district goals for comparison.

Step 6: Have each member of the committee think about how to achieve these potential goals. What are some specific activities that would support fulfillment of the goals? What resources would be needed? How will we know that we have achieved our goals?

Step 7: Set another meeting to refine these goals (Don’t be surprised if you find that some of these ideas no longer seem appropriate or feasible).  

Final Thoughts
As you craft your goal statement, keep in mind the SMART Goals plan (which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based) and ask yourself the following questions:  


  • Is the goal well defined?
  • Is the goal clear to anyone who has basic knowledge of the goal?


  • Can the goal be measured and by what means?
  • What evidence will indicate achievement of the goal?


  • Is the goal realistic in terms of its reach and time frame?
  • Does the goal represent a true stretch in achievement?


  • Does the goal address the need(s) identified?
  • Will it “make a difference?”


  • Does the goal have a clear time frame including a target date?
  • Are the assessment devices available prior to the target date?

Photo credit: twicepix / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: plnaugle / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)



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So You Want to Be an Administrator? 5 Tips for Aspiring Principals


aspiring principalYou’ve already spent years, maybe even decades, in the classroom as a teacher, you know how to lead and organize, and you certainly have the “in-the-trenches” perspective that every administrator worth his or her salt must have. Now what? What should you do to make the prospect of becoming a principal a reality? To help answer these questions, we’d like to share a few tips from Peter Hall’s book, The First-Year Principal.

So You Want to Be an Administrator? 5 Tips for Aspiring Principals

Skip the resume—for now
Your first inclination may be to dust off your resume and start looking for open positions, but as Hall wryly notes, the “application” process begins long before resumes, long before you had the crazy idea that “13-hour days with no lunch sounded appealing,” and long before you even had the slightest inkling that you wanted to become a principal.

Hall suggests that you start with “those people with whom you have worked, the contacts you have made, the folks from whom you have earned support and respect.” Do you need to “schmooze” these people? Not at all, but keep in mind that “relationships with credible professionals” are a form of currency—and that currency is priceless.

Stay in the moment
Regardless of their career aspirations, aspiring principals should always “stay in the moment.” For Hall, this means that you must continue to “focus on students in your care and your current school organization as a whole.” In addition to this, it means aligning your “work practice and decision-making with the established school goals.”

For Hall, there is “no reason to focus on anything but excelling in your current position.” This means going where no teacher has gone before: Set and exceed new standards of excellence and watch as your name becomes associated with positive results.

Involve yourself in projects beyond your current position
So you’re continuing to perfect your craft and excel at what you do? Good. Now it’s time for you to do a little more. Start by participating in district activities, committees, panels, focus groups, and other school or district groups and organizations. Just don’t take on so much that you begin to shirk your current job responsibilities or your students; doing so will only undermine the benefits you are hoping to gain from joining these organizations.

Be respectful to everyone you meet
You’re an educator, so you already know that the job doesn’t end when the bell rings. This is especially applicable to teachers who live in small, rural towns, but even those of us who live in the city will run into students, parents, and colleagues at the mall, the grocery store, or in restaurants. We may not even see these people, but you better believe they see us and they take note of what we say, do, and how we behave when we’re out in the community. Eyes are always on us. Keep this in mind not only when you are in the classroom, but outside of it as well.

Find an experienced mentor
There are plenty of books offering advice for aspiring and first-year principals, but few are as wise as someone who has been doing what you hope to do for the last five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Seek out a mentor and learn from him or her. Hopefully, this relationship will not only reaffirm your passion for the position, but also help you become better prepared for the road ahead.



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Word to the Wise: 10 Tips for First-Year Principals


first year principal

By the time they step into the position, most principals have already spent years—even decades—in the classroom as teachers. This experience certainly comes in handy, but rarely is it enough to keep first-year principals from being broadsided by new challenges. While experience is often the best teacher, we’d like to help new principals avoid common first-year blunders by sharing 10 tips from real principals. These tips have been adapted from Tena Green’s book, Your First Year as Principal: Everything You Need to Know That They Don't Teach You in School.

Word to the Wise: 10 Tips for First-Year Principals

  • Principals are forced to make decisions on a daily basis. Some of these decisions are run-of-the-mill, but others are high-stakes and have far-reaching consequences. When it comes to decisions, Veteran principal James Gasparino suggests that first year principals do two things: First, resist the urge to react impulsively. Second, learn to “differentiate what needs to be settled right away and what…require[s] reflection and input from others. First-year principals may want to do everything right away, and by themselves. It is difficult, if not impossible, to get buy-in from others if they did not have a voice in the decision-making process.”

  • First-year principals often fall into the trap of trying to do everything for everyone. According to veteran principal John Fielding, it is imperative that new administrators realize (and realize quickly) that they cannot—either physically, mentally, or emotionally—“be everything to everybody.” Keep in mind that “If you are too tired to move, you are no good to anybody else. You do not really have to know and do everything yourself. That said, you do need to know these things that require your attention and those you can let others handle.”

  • Echoing Fielding’s advice is principal Jory Westberry, who urges first-year principals to “Avoid thinking you should have all the answers” or that you “have to make all decisions quickly.”

  • Despite the fact that most principals have spent years in the classroom as teachers, many of them forget—or at least appear to forget—what it’s like to teach. Principal Barry Pichard reminds us that we must never forget what life is like in the classroom and remember that teaching is “one of the toughest jobs around.”

  • A first-year principal may have only the best intentions when s/he replaces that tattered and creaky sofa in the lounge or when s/he boxes up a wall of dusty trophies to make room for a student exhibit…but faculty and staff may see these seemingly innocent changes as a direct assault on the school culture. Principal Roy Miller suggests that first-year principals proceed with caution and “learn both the culture and the ‘hidden culture’ of the building” before making any changes.

  • What’s one of the biggest mistakes a first-year principal can make? According to principal Michael Miller, it is “coming on too strong and feel[ing] you have to show [faculty and staff] who is boss. If you have to ever remind them who the boss is, you have a problem.”

  • Since we’re talking about faculty and staff, we thought Oliver Phipps’s tip would go nicely here: “Make staffing a priority. More specifically, though, make sure your staff is complete with people who share your vision.”

  • When discussing the burdensome responsibilities of principals, Tammy Brown suggests handling them “one at a time. I try to do the paperwork and office tasks early in the morning or after dismissal so that I can be in classrooms, halls, and in the cafeteria interacting with teachers and students as much as possible. Something often comes up that must be dealt with immediately, but most often, things can be prioritized.”

  • John Redd reminds first-year principals that it “is better to take your time before reacting to a situation. It will give you a different perspective if you take the time to get all the facts before making a hasty decision.”

  • Here’s another solid piece of advice from principal John Fielding: “Pick your battles. I always use the measuring stick of ‘is this decision good for the kids?’ If it isn’t, it may not be worth fighting for. There will always be one more silly thing that somebody thinks is important, but does it really help kids in a significant way?”

Photo credit: Farid Fleifel / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)



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5 Ways Schools Can Improve Parent Engagement


parent partnershipResearch continues to underscore what common sense has always told us: Families have a major influence on our students’ personal and academic success. According to an annual report by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, students with engaged parents, regardless of their background or socioeconomic status are more likely to:

• Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs.

• Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits.

• Attend school regularly.

• Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school.

• Graduate and go on to postsecondary education.

So how do we better engage parents?

5 Ways Schools Can Improve Parent Engagement

Stop trying to involve; start trying to engage
Many of us have a habit of using “involvement” and “engagement” interchangeably, but I would argue that there is a clear distinction between engaging parents and involving them.

A school striving for family involvement talks; it makes a list of projects, needs, fundraisers and tells parents how they can help. But schools who engage rely on their ears; they view the school-parent relationship as a partnership, a reciprocal relationship where faculty not only leads, but also listens and allows itself to be led by parents.

Make the first encounter a positive one
Too often our first encounter with parents doesn’t happen until we either need something—volunteers, donations, and the like—or are calling them with foreboding news about their son or daughter’s behavioral or academic problems. This is a mistake.  

What if the first encounter was one in which we gave back to them, or one in which we simply called them to report good news about their child? No fundraising, no signup sheets, no membership recruitment or bad news…just a simple phone call where you call to introduce yourself and brag about something their child did at school.

Open new lines of communication
According to a 2013 survey by We Are Teachers, 64 percent of teachers still use hard copy flyers and notes to convey messages to parents, but it turns out that one third of parents prefer electronic communication. You may not be able to eliminate your ink, paper, and postage costs right away since not all families have access to home computers or smartphones, but you can open new lines of communication for free by simply starting a school blog or Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Follow up with parents
Have you ever given a gift, but never received acknowledgement or thanks from the recipient? That stings a little, doesn’t it? Imagine how parents feel when they volunteer at our schools, but only get a generic shout-out in the following month’s newsletter—or worse yet, get no acknowledgement at all. 

Always let parents know how much you appreciate them. You might consider sending them student-created thank you cards, hand-written notes from you, or even a short thank-you video that you post to your school’s social media pages.

Allow them to contribute more than their time
Partnerships, like relationships, thrive when both parties communicate openly. If you truly want parents to be a part of your team, allow them to contribute their ideas, not just their Saturday mornings or weekday evenings.

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Connect with Confidence: 5 Tips for Principals


While there are a variety of factors that contribute to our students’ personal and academic success, we’ve always believed that relationships, specifically relationships between principals and parents, is one that is most commonly overlooked and underestimated. Below you’ll find five tips to help you cultivate better relationsips with parents and connect with confidence.

Eliminate Barriers
This is a tip from Carol Judd’s book, Principal Practices: Addressing Human Needs for Successful School Administration. As Judd points out, many of us unknowingly set up barriers between parents and ourselves. The good news is that eliminating barriers is often simpler than we might think.

We can begin by asking parents to address us by our first names and do the same with them. This makes us more approachable and allows us to work with parents on more equal terms.

Another way to eliminate barriers is to keep an open-door policy and encourage parents to drop in anytime. Recruit your secretaries and encourage them to eliminate barriers as well. When parents stop in to see you, have your secretary skip the “screening” process where s/he asks parents their names, purpose, and any other questions that may be off-putting. Instead, have your secretary simply stop in and ask if you have a minute to talk to the parents.  

Ask more questions
We spend a lot of time with students, but parents have spent far longer with them—which means they know more about them than we ever will. When you meet with parents, use this as an opportunity to listen and learn. The following questions are great starters:

  • What is the student like at home?
  • How does she learn best?
  • Do the parents have specific hopes and dreams for her?
  • Does the student have aspirations that you might not know about?
  • What did the student like about her last teacher? What didn’t she like?
  • What learning strategies did this teacher use that worked well for the student?

Call parents—all of them
A personal invitation to major school events is a great way to connect with parents. While you can’t feasibly call every parent on your own, you can round up the student council, ask for teacher volunteers, and host an evening in which the group attempts to call every family and personally invite them to major school events. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right—but the payoff is well worth it.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Parents work hard for their families, but in spite of their busy schedules, many of them are still eager to volunteer at the school when they can. Assume that parents want to be involved. Reach out to them and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of parents who follow through.

Connect with parents using the tools they use

Not all parents have home computers or access to smartphones, but many of them do and prefer electronic communication over monthly newsletters sent through snail mail. Start by taking advantage of all the free technology at your fingertips: Facebook and Twitter are both excellent tools to help keep parents in the loop. 


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5 Reasons You Should Have an Online Teaching Portfolio


teaching portfolio

A teaching portfolio is—or should be—a dynamic, evolving record that not only showcases your best work and achievements, but also gives evidence of your ability, your self-reflectiveness, and your passion for your profession. Traditionally, teaching portfolios have lived in clunky three-ring binders that teachers lug from interview to interview.

Before we go any further, let me say this: I’m a romantic. I like going to the book store. I like reading print—as in books that have been printed on paper—and have no plans to purchase a Kindle or e-reader. But when it comes to teaching portfolios, I’ll choose the digital copy or the blog over the three-ring binder every single time.

Should teachers ditch the three-ring binders entirely? Not necessarily…but I would argue that every teacher should have a digital portfolio and here’s why.

Principals don’t have enough time to adequately review print portfolios
If you brought your teaching portfolio to the interview, you probably noticed how quickly the principal skimmed through it while you were sitting there. That’s always a little awkward for both parties—but even more important, it’s just not practical. Principals have limited time to meet with each candidate, making it impossible for them to give each portfolio the attention it deserves.

Think about how much more practical it would be if you maintained a blog or had a PDF version of your teaching portfolio. Before your interview, all you would have to do is send the principal a link or attachment and s/he could browse your work at his or her leisure.

Print portfolios are impractical
Following the interview, you may offer to leave your three-ring binder with the principal so s/he can spend more time with it. All the principal has to do is mail it back to you when s/he is done—or you could offer to pick it up, right?

Again, this is impractical. Mailing the portfolio back to you costs money—and what if you don’t get the job? You’re going to have to drive yourself back to the school, knock on the principal’s office door and sheepishly ask for your three-ring binder back. Awkward.

Print portfolios can be lost
I’m speaking generally here, but most teachers only update their print portfolios when they’re looking for a new job. So when you’re not looking for another teaching position, where does your portfolio live? If you’re “organized,” you at least know that it’s in a box down in the basement where it’s gathering dust or being nibbled on by moths and rodents. But what would you do if your basement flooded? What would you do if you lost your portfolio altogether?

Unless the Internet implodes on itself, your e-portfolio is always going to be right where you left it.

You’re more likely to care about a digital portfolio
We may disagree on this, but I would argue that a blog—where you’ve posted videos, photos and short reflections about all of the cool things you’re doing in the classroom—is a teaching portfolio. Blogs are public: Your colleagues, students, parents, and anyone else with an Internet connection can see your work. Considering this, I’d be willing to bet that you will take more pride in what you post, especially if you know that your future boss may see it.

Digital portfolios distinguish you from the pack
Competition is fierce, but you can distinguish yourself from many other teachers by maintaining an online portfolio. Invite others to read, comment and critique your work—and connect with other teachers by commenting on their blogs, too! Not only will you meet other educators, you may even land a new job.

Photo credit: momentimedia / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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6 Simple Ways to Strengthen Student Engagement


student engagement
Teaching entails many things, but at its core, teaching is about relationships. Relationships breathe life into a curriculum that would otherwise be static; relationships also create a safe space for open discourse, they encourage exploration, confidence and respect. Most of us believe this and while we do our best to nurture strong relationships with students, we often feel them getting lost in the hum of daily activity and the increasing demands of our profession. Thanks to Joan Young’s recently published book, Encouragement in the Classroom, we’ve got six simple ways you can strengthen your relationships with students.

6 Simple Ways to Strengthen Student Engagement                                                    

Take a mindful walk
Mindfulness exercises have roots in Eastern religion, but you certainly don’t have to get into the lotus position, say “OM,” or adopt—or give up—a belief system to be mindful. All you and your students need to have is a willingness to stop and take notice of where you are—and have a little fun while doing it.

You can be mindful simply by taking a walk. In Young’s fourth grade class, she often takes students outside for a mindful walk just before math class. Students walk silently and observe with their senses: How does it feel outside? What do they see in the school environment that they have never noticed before?

As a playful variation, you might try a game of “Over, Under, Around, and Through.” In this game, the teacher decides whether students go over, under, around, or through imaginary or real objects. Here’s an example:  Over a sea of sticky peanut butter, under a cherry tree, around an ice cream cone, or through a sea of Jell-O.

Why do this? Because it helps students prepare for tasks that require intense focus. It can also help them consolidate their learning after such tasks.

Teach the art of intention
Another way to strengthen student engagement is to begin every class with a “daily intention.” Intentions can be as simple as “Be curious” or “Breathe deeply.” Write these phrases on the board and model the skill; students can set an intention each day as well. Focus on process, not an end goal.

Young notes that even on days when she forgets to write an intention on the board, her students remind her. Why? Because they enjoy being a part of the process and seeing that their teacher shares their struggles to be patient, pay attention, or deal with stress.

Take a deep breath in the middle of a chaotic moment
We may spend hours planning. We may have prepared for every conceivable speed bump, but as all teachers know, learning can be a messy process.  During times when disruption requires your immediate attention, call on a predetermined student; s/he will lead the class in a simple deep breaking exercise. Teaching students to concentrate on the breath as a means of grounding or regrouping can be powerful, especially when it is done routinely.

Start the day with a warm greeting
Think of yourself as a pilot. It’s your job to help students reach their destination and keep them safe through the turbulence. But it’s also your job to make them feel appreciated. Greet your students every day—show them that you’re ready to and eager to explore a day of learning with them. Help them to feel that they are in a safe, fun environment.

For example, say “hello, how are you?” to every student. If someone was absent the day before, say, “Hi, Johnny. I’m glad to have you back. We missed having you yesterday. I like that tie, I like that new haircut…” It won’t take long for you to notice how this simple gesture impacts your relationship with students.

Use playful rituals
This is especially useful with younger students. In her book, Young explains that she has a stuffed animal named Mr. Monkey. Every day, she places him in a different position or place in the classroom. On the morning after Halloween or the Super Bowl, for example, Mr. Monkey might be hanging upside down from the rocking chair, suggesting that he got a bit overexcited and out of control over the weekend. Other times, Mr. Monkey will lead the class in a song and come around to give students hugs. These routines provide a predictable, positive start to the day as well as a bit of a novelty.

Legitimize misbehavior: Turn it into a learning game
Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But with a little creativity, we can often turn “misbehavior” into a lesson.

In her book, Young reflects on a problem she had with her math students who continually engaged in a fad of flipping their erasers on their individual dry-eraser boards. Although this was fun for them, it was incredibly distracting to her and other students.

To refocus students, she created an opportunity for them to flip their erasers to their hearts’ content: For a lesson on measurement and estimating distances, Young set up an activity that had students using dry erase boards to propel the erasers across the room, marking their landing spots with masking tape, and then estimating distances. Pretty cool, huh?

Photo credit: Gates Foundation / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



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Nurturing a Positive Classroom Environment: 5 Questions for Educators


positive classroom environmentLike most teachers, I spend a lot of time in my classroom during the summer. After almost an entire year in the same room, I am in dire need of a change! As I look at my own classroom environment—the way desks are arranged, the kinds of pictures and posters that cover the wall, the way my classroom library is arranged—I try to imagine it full of students and wonder, “Is this a safe space? Is it clean and inviting? What does this classroom say about me, my students, and my approach to teaching? These questions are even more at the forefront of my mind this summer since reading Patrick Allen’s book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop.

Although his text is especially useful for reading teachers, Allen devotes a nice little section of his book to exploring the physical environment of his own classroom. Below I have listed a few of Allen’s questions, along with his short self-reflections. These have really helped me look at my own classroom through a different lens, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you.

Nurturing a Positive Classroom Environment: 5 Questions for Teachers

If someone walked into our classroom, who would he or she say owned it?
I want my students to take ownership in our workspace, to know that it is our classroom—not just mine. I am careful to place my area in a distant corner of the room so that there is more room for students to move about and so that their desks and workspaces take prominence. Although I make logistical decisions about where furniture is placed, there is always opportunity to change. I want every visitor who comes into our classroom to sense that the room belongs to learners. If our students have a sense that the classroom belongs to everyone, it encourages community and adds depth to the types of responses that occur.

Have I added a personal touch?
My students know me well. Ask them now and they can tell you which book I’m currently reading, my current writing project, my plans for the weekend, my family stories…and they know because I believe it is imperative that I invite them to get a glimpse into my life. They see pictures of my four kids. They notice the colorful placemats under book baskets, the lamps, and the strings of lights above their work areas. All of this adds up to much more than objects. Personal touches set a milieu of comfort.

Is this a room that I would want my own children to be a part of?
Often when I am sitting with my students, gathered around the chart paper or the document camera projecting a piece of text we’re working on together, I wonder if my son Jens is being asked to gather around his teacher to contemplate a particular thinking strategy or to discuss the qualities of a wonderfully written piece of text. I also wonder if my daughter Lauryn is listening to a lovely book by Patricia MacLachlan and being asked to mull over a memory it sparks or a sensory image it creates. It is with the eyes, ears, and voice of the teacher I want my own children to have, that I interact with my students, especially as I work with them one-on-one.

Does the room look like a teacher supply catalog blew up?
Our room has blank space on the walls strategically placed throughout the room. Rarely will you find a poster supplied by our local teacher supply store. My funds are better spent purchasing books. Besides, I don’t think students really pay attention to posters that say, “How to Choose a Good Book,” or “Ten Things Readers Need.” Rather, I think that the language and the thinking that adorns our walls should be that of the children. This takes time, but I never feel the need to fill the walls with “stuff” until we’ve had the time to bring it together as a group of learners. The walls should be a public display of students’ ideas.

How low can you go? How are materials arranged?
I try to put things in the reach and view of children. I learned this lesson from my mother-in-law; she absolutely despises walking into someone’s home and seeing pictures hung so high on the wall that you have to crane your neck to see them. The same should be true of our classrooms. If it is meaningful information, students should be able to see it clearly. If students are encouraged to revisit previous learnings on charts you created together, they are more apt to reuse them while working independently if they are hung at their eye level.

Does the room reek of “cute” or reverberate thinking/learning?
Thinking is hard work. Cuteness isn’t. If someone walks into my classroom and says, “That is soooooo cute!” I immediately ask myself about thoughtfulness. If someone is observing me teach and says, “Your kids are so cute!” or “That lesson was such a cute idea!” I immediately ask myself about thoughtfulness of my activities. I don’t want my classroom to mirror strong evidence of “cuteness.” I want my classroom to reverberate with a sense of thinking.

Photo credit: dcJohn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A Teacher's Guide to Summer Travel

5 Ways to Help Students Motivate Themselves


Student Motivation“I just wish my students cared more.” Most teachers—first-year and veterans alike—have said or at least felt like this at some point. We work hard to motivate our students, but how do we help them motivate themselves? We’ve been reading Larry Ferlazzo’s book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges, and thought we’d share five tips to help your students develop their intrinsic motivation.

Encourage students to take risks
Most of us don’t particularly enjoy making mistakes—especially in a public setting. As a result, we often avoid taking on new challenges. So how do we encourage students to stretch themselves and take risks?

According to Ferlazzo, we can start by skipping general praise. Statements like “Jane, you’re so smart” seem innocuous, even helpful, but in reality, they focus our students’ attention on maintaining their image, not on pushing new boundaries. In lieu of general praise, praise specific actions. Saying things like, “You worked really hard today” or “Your topic sentence communicates the main idea of your paragraph very nicely” can, as Ferlazzo suggests, “make students feel that they are more in control of their success, and that their doing well is less dependent on their ‘natural intelligence.’"

Build Relationships
Research continues to find a link between positive teacher-student relationships and academic success. There are many ways we can nurture more meaningful relationships with students, but perhaps the best place to start is with ourselves. Ferlazzo suggests that we take a step back and consider how we think about and speak to our students. 

Using negative language to describe challenging behavior often distorts the way we see it. If we label students who seem unmotivated or disengaged as “stubborn” or “lazy,” then our reaction to these students will be, more often than not, negative. However, if we view that same student as “determined” or “persistent,” we will be more likely to convey respect.

Use Cooperative Learning
Lectures are, by their very nature, passive activities. Sure, students may jot down notes or pose occasional questions, but lectures do very little to develop our students’ intrinsic motivation. While Ferlazzo is not suggesting that we ditch lectures altogether, he would encourage us to keep them to a minimum. Instead of delivering lectures, find ways to incorporate cooperative learning into lessons. These can be as basic as "think-pair-share" or as ambitious as problem and project-based learning.

Set Specific Expectations
Very often what looks like student resistance is actually confusion about our vague requests. Consider the difference between the following:

  • “Will you try harder to pay attention in class?”
  • “During class, I want you to keep your head off the desk, keep your eyes open and on me, and have all of your materials out on the desk.”

You’ll notice how the former not only lacks specific instructions, but does not give the student a clear picture of what you expect from him or her. Always give your students concrete steps for making the investment. 

Creating Opportunities for Students to Help Make Decisions
Most of us are motivated when we feel we have control over our environment. Inviting students to have a voice in classroom decisions—where they sit, what day a test takes place, in what order units are studied, or even where a plant should be placed in the classroom—can help them develop that greater sense of control.

A Teacher's Guide to Summer Travel
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