The beginning of the school year is super exhausting because our days are filled with teaching students our expectations for every. single. thing. We have to teach them how we want them to head their papers, line up, keep their desks organized, solve conflicts with their peers, and so on. It’s a lot. In fact, the ninety-seventh time you’ve reminded kids PUT YOUR NAME ON YOUR PAPER, you might feel like you’re about to lose your mind.
Chances are good that your frustration is stemming from one (or more) of the following 7 mental traps. Once you identify and root out these unhealthy, unproductive thoughts, you’ll find the process of teaching routines less frustrating.
1) This is not my job.
Repeating yourself over and over again can be frustrating, but remind yourself: this is a normal part of teaching kids. Your college courses and curriculum guides might lead you to believe that your job is just to teach reading or math or history. They might also insinuate that if you teach something well, kids will remember it and internalize it the first time.
That’s not really true. Repeating yourself over and over again IS part of the job of being a teacher, or a parent, or anyone else who works with young children. So don’t stress yourself out by worrying that you’re wasting class time teaching kids how to keep track of their belongings and organize their homework. These are valuable skills that are essential to student success, and it’s part of your job to teach how you want students to do these things in your classroom.
2) The kids should get this stuff right away.
A lot expectations we have for kids in the classroom are not expectations that they’ve heard before. We don’t do things the same way kids do them at home, and we don’t do things the way their previous year’s teacher did them. It really does take a lot of repetition and practice for kids to internalize our expectations.
So, avoid the trap of thinking that “students should ‘get this’ by now.” Those shoulds and supposed to’s are the thoughts that kill our joy in the classroom and create frustration in situations that are actually very normal and to be expected.
3) What I’m asking of them is so easy.
When you feel those shoulds rising up in you, remind yourself: No, students SHOULDN’T walk quietly in a straight line without any reminders every single day just because you practiced it the first week of school.
They’re children. They’re children who have been sitting still a lot and concentrating on really hard skills. They’re children whose favorite thing about school is the chance to talk to their friends. And now here they are, leaving the classroom that they just sat in for two hours and wore themselves out mentally trying to stay focused, on-task, processing new things, and struggling not to be disengaged for even three seconds because then they’ll get fussed at for daydreaming, and they’re two inches away from their very favorite person in the whole world, that friend they didn’t get to talk to all morning, and they do the most natural thing in the world to do when walking with someone, which is to talk to them, and we explode, “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU??? No talking the hallway!”
4) Students should follow procedures correctly every time.
I expect some degree of quiet in the hallway. I don’t tolerate a chaotic line or students disturbing kids in classes that are trying to work. But I do try to remember: what I’m asking students to do is a simple thing, but it is HARD.
What’s the first thing we do as teachers when we’re all together in a meeting? Talk! Have off-topic conversations! Check our phones! Tune out and daydream about things that are more important to us! It’s very difficult to exercise the self-discipline needed to sit through a lecture or lesson and really learn.
So while I don’t believe in giving kids a free pass and letting them run wild, I do try to remind myself of these things when I’m tempted to get frustrated or I believe the lie that students “should be” on task and following directions 100% of the time.
No one is on task and following directions 100% of the time. So I can choose to get mad that my students aren’t superhuman and in possession of willpower and self-discipline that even I myself can’t consistently demonstrate, or I can take a deep breath, get a little perspective, and respond calmly and constructively.
5) Kids who aren’t following my procedures are being disrespectful.
When kids don’t follow the routine or expectation the way you’ve taught them to, try to practice procedures, not punishment. Most kids, most of the time, are not being willfully disobedient. They either don’t have the procedure practiced so well and so firmly embedded in their minds that they do it automatically–like brushing your teeth when you first wake up–or they don’t have the self-discipline to force themselves to do something that comes so unnatural and that’s so difficult to put in place for seven hours a day.
Always default to procedure practice first. Set kids up to be successful, not to fail and be caught and punished. Most kids will choose to be successful when given the support to do so.
6) It’s so obvious what they’re supposed to do.
Also avoid the trap of thinking that kids who have been in school for a few years should automatically know your basic procedures. You know how this goes: “You’re second graders. You should know not to call out. You’re fifth graders. You should know how to keep your desk clean.”
Here’s the thing we forget: a lot of the expectations we have for kids in the classroom are not expectations that they’ve heard before. What we expect in school is not the same things kids are expected to do at home. Some kids aren’t required to keep their rooms clean or pick up after themselves, so they haven’t been trained to do that, especially if they have parents who are disorganized. So how would a naturally disorganized child know how to organize a desk, if they’ve never been taught how to do it or why it’s important?
And you can’t assume the previous years’ teachers taught that skill. Some teachers don’t require kids to keep their desks clean (or more importantly, they don’t show them exactly what they mean by a clean desk.) They don’t train their students to get quiet when the intercom comes on so that no one misses an important announcement, or they just yell “Stop talking!” and don’t ever teach, practice, and reinforce the procedure.
The first time you teach your students how to wait quietly and patiently for their turn to use the water fountain might literally be the first time they’ve ever been explicitly taught that skill. And it’s certainly going to be the first time they’ve ever been taught to do that skill they way YOU want it done.
7) I don’t need to teach procedures after the first month.
Be patient. Be persistent. Be explicit in what you want from kids. Give gentle reminders and lots of opportunities for do-overs so that the expectation becomes ingrained in their minds and they can do little things like passing in papers without having to expend any mental energy remembering what you want.
Mentally prepare yourself to keep up this process all throughout the school year. That’s called ongoing distributed practice. Just like you wouldn’t only teach subtraction in September and then never revisit it throughout the year, you’re going to plan to distribute your procedure practice throughout the year. That sets kids up to be successful, ensures they don’t forget, and helps them apply the skill to new contexts until it becomes automatic.
It’s really simple to teach your expectations and help students be successful in meeting those expectations once you understand the seven steps for doing so. Download my free 7 Steps to Teaching ANY Procedure or Routine. I’ll teach you how to:
- Form precise expectations and figure out exactly what you want
- Use a variety of signals to facilitate routines
- Replace nagging and criticism with performance feedback
- Utilize “Go back and try it again” (and get kids to do it without attitude!)
- Avoid a slow descent into laziness and sloppily-done procedures
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
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