Welcome to the September edition of the monthly post series in which I answer readers’ frequently-asked questions. Although I do respond personally to every email, with this series you can submit any teaching-related question anonymously to maintain your privacy and student confidentiality. In my answers, I share what has worked for me in my own classroom and in the rooms of the teachers I coach. My personal philosophy is that there’s no one “right” solution that works for every child in every classroom: I encourage you to adapt the ideas I share for your own situation.

Though the content of the post is completely mine, the series is sponsored by companies and organizations that are committed to providing high-quality resources for educators. This month’s post is brought to you by Marygrove College’s Master in the Art of Teaching, an online degree program designed to empower teachers by focusing on the knowledge and skills required to deliver effective instruction to diverse learners from preschool through high school, including those with special needs.

I have your book, but did not see anything on teacher evaluations. Do you have any input on how to make these successful (especially the unannounced ones)? It seems they are looking for a horse and pony show, even though they say they are not.  Thank you!

Hi, Becky! For my planned evaluations, I usually chose a favorite lesson: something I had taught before with a previous class and was comfortable with. Generally I tried to make sure it included technology, collaborative learning, hands-on materials, and mostly higher-order thinking activities. I tried to pick an activity that was different than what we’d already done in class (so the kids would be highly engaged) but still similar in format (so they’d be able to follow our normal routines and procedures without getting hung up on the practicalities.) If you can choose the subject you’re observed teaching, pick the one that you feel is your strongest and that is easiest for you to integrate innovate teaching methods. I usually chose math and had the kids work with manipulatives and individual dry erase boards (which got all students actively involved.)

It’s also helpful to have a few really great lessons you can use anytime for skills you’ve already introduced but the kids still need lots of practice with, such as main idea or multiplication. These work well for planned evaluations because if your evaluation is postponed (and that happened to me alllll the time when the principal got pulled away for emergencies), you can keep the same lesson you originally planned and not have to re-think everything during each postponement. These lessons can also work well for unplanned observations if the principal walks in right as you’re changing subjects or activities: just transition right into one of the “backup” lessons you have that really show off your range of teaching skills.

Since you want the kids to be calm and attentive during an observation, talk with your students about how to behave when visitors are in the room. Let the kids know how important it is that they show how much they know and how smart they are. After a visitor leaves your classroom, thank your students for being so on-task and attentive–let them know they made you and themselves look good!  Then if you’re right in the middle of a lesson and the principal does a walk-through, don’t panic. Be relaxed and natural and focus on getting into your “flow.”  If you’re concerned the activity is boring (you’re giving a test, for example, or the kids are copying their homework assignments), circulate around the room, encouraging your students and asking higher-level thinking questions if they’re stuck. Respond firmly but calmly to any misbehavior and project an energy that you’re not phased by the behavior or embarrassed because of it. You’re in a real classroom with real students, and real problems will sometimes arise! That’s fine. Be confident in your teaching: let your natural skills and rapport with students shine through. Even if the observation scenario isn’t ideal, remember that you’ll get lots of other chances to show what you can do.

I teach at a low income school and we struggle with a lot of behaviors, so much so that our teachers feel overwhelmed and very burnt out. There is at least ONE extreme behavior in every classroom if not more. We have awesome teachers …. and most are highly engaging. The problem is that with these extreme behaviors …. we end up managing behaviors the whole time and not teaching. Therefore, the rest of the class starts to fall off track as well. The way it stands now, we call our principal, he takes them out but shortly after they are back in our classroom on the same track unless it was something physical, then they are suspended and sent home. However, we aren’t gaining any ground.  We try to use PBS as a system, but nothing we are using is really working.

This is a tough but unfortunately common situation–I’ve taught in several schools like that and know that burned out feeling well. The long-term goal, of course, is to figure out and address the underlying problems. This should happen on an individual level (What’s causing my challenging students to act out?) and on a whole school level (The way our school expects kids to learn is not effective for many of our students–what is the disconnect and how can we meet our students where they’re at?). Answering those questions isn’t about blame and figuring out what you’re doing “wrong” as much as it’s about tapping into the unique needs of your students and figuring how how to meet those needs.

In terms of what you can do right away in your classroom, consider setting up systems with other teachers to support one another in dealing with your most challenging students. Create an individual behavior plan for each of your most challenging students where the consequences and rewards involve interaction with another teacher whom the student really likes and respects. The child can report to that teacher in the morning before school starts for a pep talk and to discuss anything that may be bothering them that day, and then report back at the end of the day with the completed behavior report to talk about how his or her day went. When the teacher sees the child in the hallway or lunchroom, s/he can check in briefly, give an encouraging thumbs up and a smile, etc.

Many disruptive students feel like everyone is against them and that adults are just waiting to catch them doing something wrong, so this extra level of accountability and attention really helps address their need to feel like someone cares about them, besides just their classroom teacher. Though it does require additional time and energy of the part of the teachers, if you “trade” students, it’s not a big deal, and realistically speaking, it’s easier to show that extra patience and empathy toward a child you’re not in the same room with for six hours a day. Also, when the challenging student acts out, you’ll have the option of allowing the child to go see the cooperating teacher instead of the principal so that both you and the student have a chance to calm down and regroup without escalating the situation. I have used this method with my most violent and disruptive students and have always found it helped both me and the kids: it sends the message that our school is a community, we are all in this together, and we will not stop until everyone succeeds.

I have a new student to our school who tunes out every direction I give and proceeds to do the work incorrectly. How do I get him to listen and follow directions? I’ve already tried have him verbalize back the directions and he just says “I don’t know” then I have another student repeat and go back to him and he says, “I don’t know” I stopped at this because I didn’t want it to be embarass him. I’ve tried to partner him and he basically gets the other student to do the work for him. I’ve tried when possible to provide an example that is visually displayed etc. I feel like I am dealing more with attitude than anything else because all tests and documents have come back fine. Suggestions?

It’s great that you’ve had the child evaluated to make sure there’s not a hearing or learning issue–that’s a really important initial step. I would also talk to the parents and see if this is something they notice at home. You might be able to figure out the root problems together and come up with some ways to address them. From just the little bit I know about the situation, it sounds like you’re correct in that this is an issue with the child’s attitude…toward you, toward school, toward authority in general…or maybe all three. This may be a student who does not like to follow rules and wants to do things his own way. It could also be that this new school environment is very different than what he’s used to and he finds it easier to shut down than to to try to be successful.

I’d recommend that you do everything in your power to reinforce character traits such as effort, persistence, and hard work. When the student completes an assignment correctly, pull him aside and say, “I noticed how hard you worked during that activity. I bet it feels really good to know that you completed all your work and it’s done right. I’m really proud of the effort you put in, and you should be proud of yourself.” Build capacity slowly with this student, and provide a lot of positive reinforcement when he completes his work accurately. Make sure he’s working with students he really likes. He will eventually learn that in order to have friends at his new school, he needs to be a contributing member to the classroom (no one wants to work with someone who doesn’t pull their own weight) and that will serve as a motivator for him to fall in step with the other kids. I’m betting that with patience and lots of encouragement on your part, this student will grow more comfortable in the classroom and enjoy the feeling of success and accomplishment enough to put forth the effort to make it happen.

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