One of my friends is a highly creative type with many big ideas. The other night he was talking about website design, and wondering aloud if he created a business card that read, “I’ll START your website” if consumers would bite. Another imaginarian spoke up, “And I could be the closer. I’m great at coming in for short periods of time and rescuing things that get messed up.”
“Who,” I asked, “will do the work of maintaining?”
They were thoughtful for a moment and then said, “That’s really overrated.” We laughed.
It’s true that coming up with an idea is engaging, and many of us are full of energy when we plan new projects. It’s a time for dreaming and scheming. However, the day-to-day work of maintaining a system requires heads-down dedication and fortitude. In other words, consistency is the key to any working system.
Mara Mason (pseudonym) was a first-year teacher that had been assigned a wonderful mentor, Nancy, the teacher next door. In the beginning, all was well with Mara. She had a pretty bulletin board for her self-created rules, and she rarely had to refer to it. I heard from Nancy first in October. She shared that she liked Mara a lot, but there seemed to be more classroom chaos than seemed healthy, and she wasn’t sure how to help anymore other than listen. Because Nancy couldn’t be there during instruction time, she wondered if I might work with Mara in my role as a literacy coach.
The question was: Did Mara want to work with me?
I suggested to Nancy that I might start working with the grade level and see if Mara sought to work with me independently. After one after-school planning session working on writing, Mara invited me back to her room and talked about how much harder this job was than she had expected.
She took a deep breath, swallowed, and asked, “My principal mentioned maybe I could work on my management. Do you do that with teachers?”
“Constantly,” I replied.
The next week I arranged an observation to get a feel for Mara as a teacher. During a short writing lesson, the noise level rose gradually. Within twenty minutes her voice matched the noise level, growing louder and louder. Then names started to go up on the board, and then checkmarks next to them. Students were shushing and yelling at each other. The students with names on the board talked back. “What?! Why?” and of course, “That’s not fair!”
When we debriefed I said, “Each teacher has a different comfort level with noise and activity. Where did this lesson rate for you?”
She shrugged. “It’s pretty much how it is all the time. I’ve gotten used to it.”
“I noticed Char, Kelly, James, Zeke, Josiah, and Quinton have their names on the board, and some with checks. What does that mean?”
“They miss five minutes of recess if their name is listed, and the whole recess if there is a check next to their name.”
“Which rules were they breaking when they got those consequences?”
She sighed, “I don’t even remember – there were too many of them.”
I hesitated, then began tentatively. “Does it seem to make a difference? When they get the consequence, do they stop the behavior?”
“They stop right then, but if you are asking if they make enduring changes, no. Those same names are up almost every day.”
As we continued to talk, Mara admitted that she was missing bathroom breaks, or even any breaks at all, because she had to stay in the classroom to monitor the kids during recess.
“Are you open to considering doing something different with your rules and consequences as part of our work together?” I asked.
“If you think it might help,” she said.
One Step at a Time
Management is a tricky thing for me to coach. I have to constantly check in with myself that I’m not letting my biases lead. While there are fewer and fewer classrooms using “names on the board” systems, the classrooms I visit where kids quickly point out their “bad” peers often refer to the board. Private, not public, redirection of behavior fits my philosophy. In addition, it seems like many of the kids who struggle to fit the expectations of the classroom are kinesthetic learners: they like to move and touch and express themselves through their bodies. Yet these are the kids for whom we take away recess time?
I’ve spent years thinking about my teaching philosophy and honing my management style. I may be a bit of a management junkie; what works and what doesn’t and why, fascinates me. I’ve read Discipline with Dignity by Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler, The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher by Harry and Rosemary Wong, Fred Jones Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation by Fred Jones and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg not to mention a stack of parenting books. My job was NOT to make Mara into Heather. My job was to ask questions and create an environment for Mara to explore the causes and effects of her management choices.
Below was the work we accomplished in our first three weeks together:
Observation and debrief; Establish and reinforce a quiet signal
Write a social contract with the class
Take the class through a rule a day:
- What does it look like?
- What does it sound like?
- Model and reinforce.
At one point I asked Mara, “Does writing kids’ names on the board fit with your philosophy?”
“It’s what my mentor teacher used,” she said.
“Sure. So, of course, you would feel comfortable with the procedure. Does writing kids’ names on the board feel like the right thing for you?”
She looked down, “I’m sorry how this might sound, but how else does a teacher keep track of who loses recess time?”
Through our conversation, Mara realized that she’d never questioned that losing recess time was negotiable. It’s what she remembered from her experiences in school, and it’s the procedure her mentor teacher had used. We discussed other consequences that would hold kids accountable for not following rules, but wouldn’t keep her from having a break each day and those kids from some necessary recess time.
As part of writing the social contract, we came up with this continuum of consequences. Mara was teaching alliteration, so she played with getting all the consequences to start with R:
Reminder — Everyone gets a chance to be quietly redirected.
Removal or Natural Consequences — Mara created a place in the room for kids to remove themselves from the group if they were being distracting. Other consequences would fit the broken rule.
Record — Mara had a form for students to write which rule/s they were choosing not to follow.
Removal from Room — Mara set up a deal with Nancy that she could send kids over to Nancy’s for ten minutes as a cross grade.
Referral — This would be a call home and/or a trip to the office for repeated issues or serious infractions.
Over the next three weeks, Mara was tempted many times to revert back to the old system. This new system felt awkward; she had to remember to use proximity with a child and whisper to remind them, “Please keep your hands to yourself — this is your reminder.” She also had to periodically send a student over to Nancy, her teaching colleague next door. It felt like she was admitting failure when they were cross-graded. In the short term, yelling and missing her breaks seemed more comfortable because it was what she knew.
When she made her first call home to let a parent know about her child’s behavior choices during the day, she felt sick to her stomach.
“Do I have to do this?”
“If you want to be consistent with what you set up,” I said.
“I hate conflict!” she wailed.
What surprised her was that the parent was disappointed, but thanked her for caring enough to call. The parent said, “Sometimes I don’t know about problems until I come in for conferences. At least now I can take Quinton’s computer time away for today.”
When Quinton came in the next day there was an apology letter for Ms. Mason. His behavior improved and he told other kids, “Ms. Mason will call your mom if you don’t listen up.” Quinton was fantastic advertising that the new Ms. Mason was following through on her promises.
Mara’s classroom management didn’t turn around overnight, but it did improve. During one of his training videos, Harry Wong reminds us that yelling and screaming are unbecoming to our profession. I agree. Mara also found that when her challenging students were getting their recess time, they seemed more able to focus on the afternoon math lesson. The whiteboard returned to being a place for recording learning, instead of a chart of recess-losers.
Through my work with Mara, I got to see firsthand how hard it is to change. I experienced again the excitement of beginning a new system and how it fit her budding philosophy. Then I saw the work of maintaining it each school day, every hour, every minute. There were several steps back along the way. Management is crucial to student success. Coaching for management is a balance between sharing your own beliefs and walking with a teacher as they establish his/her own system and then stick to it.