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Setting My Students Up For Success: Rethinking Proactive Teaching «

Setting My Students Up For Success: Rethinking Proactive Teaching

Introduction – A Teacher and Grocery Store Owner Walk Into A Bar…

What do a successful teacher and a wealthy grocery store owner have in common? This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but the answer is simple. Successful teachers and successful grocers utilize and apply the dual premises of “technical success” and “technical failures” in their respective careers. Although these two key principles can be utilized in a variety of scenarios, the focus of this article is on education, so I will specifically demonstrate how these concepts apply towards the classroom.

Returning to the example of the grocery store, grocers generally measure success through the store’s revenue stream. Our grocer would be smart to put the staples, such as milk, eggs, and bread, at the back of the store, as his customers may purchase a few other non-essential items when they traverse the aisles looking for the staples. From the perspective of the grocer, placing the staples at the front of the store constitutes a “technical failure,” while placing them at the back is a “technical success.”

Likewise, grocery products that are not placed at eye level can become “technical failures.” The elderly or physically handicapped may have difficulty bending to retrieve a product off of a lower shelf. Shorter individuals will have trouble reaching a product on a higher shelf. These products create “technical failures,” as they are less likely to be purchased due to their location. A product placed at eye level, which is therefore easily reached, is in a location that makes it a “technical success” — even if it is more expensive or less desirable than products stored above or below.

The grocery store example demonstrates the power of “technical success” and “technical failure” outside of the classroom. Grocery stores are specifically designed to maximize income. Customers face all of the options without guidance, and hopefully are swayed by the mere design of the store, which would result in a technical success. As will be later demonstrated, this principle works the same way in the classroom – for example, students can be placed at locations in the classroom to maximize their success or potential.

In the educational context, I suggest starting from scratch. Figure out how to set your students up for success and not failure. Simply put, a “technical success” arises when you prepare a student to succeed in the classroom (or elsewhere), and a “technical failure” exists when you set him up to fail. While it is as simple as that, these are not one-time strategies that you can adopt and hope for the best. I do not advocate or utilize Ron Popeil’s strategy of “set it, and forget it!” “Technical successes” and “technical failures” are a cumulative mindset that develops over time, whereby teachers endeavor to work closely with their students instead of against them.

Teachers often spend exorbitant amounts of time, money, and resources planning lessons, and evaluating student progress, often to little avail. Students who are not motivated or challenged in the classroom will end up without the important academic principles they need to succeed later in life. The educational successes and failures that drive students to succeed or to fail can take many forms. For example, the rapport established on the first day of school, the consistency with which the teacher issues consequences and delivers on his or her word, and the physical set up of the classroom, all lend to technical success or failure in the classroom.

Now, for a moment, I challenge you to leave behind your newfound knowledge of the newest educational iPad app, the hottest SMART Board program, and the latest and greatest Web 2.0 tool. Let’s back up, shall we? Students need a strong foundation on which to learn, and an environment that encourages “technical success,” but how do you do that successfully? My first step in achieving this result was to ask myself some important questions. Upon reflecting on what attitudes and behaviors I wanted my students to achieve, I decided that cooperation, independence and the ability to focus were key. Similarly, the attitudes and behaviors that I did NOT want my students to portray were disruption, rudeness, and lack of focus. I also explored how the physical layout of my classroom, our academic schedule, and my behavior in class as their teacher affected my students’ ability to strive for the aforementioned positive characteristics, yet avoid the negative ones.

My goal was to provide my students with the path of least resistance to success. I wanted to see them achieve. I therefore set up our classroom in a manner that encouraged my students’ most probable choice, i.e., to be successful (“technical successes”) as opposed to their least probable choice leading to failure (“technical failures”).

The Power of the Classroom’s Physical Set-Up

Just as a store owner must structure the layout of his store for optimal success, it is paramount for a teacher to plan and set up her classroom in a way that will maximize an effective learning environment. The structure may vary depending on the teacher’s style of teaching and depending on her students’ needs.

A class conducted in a manner where the teacher typically introduces a lesson and then instructs the students to work individually on a related assignment might require desks arranged in a “U” shape. This allows the teacher to present a topic with minimal distractions and then enables her to easily monitor the students while they work independently. Students with diverse academic abilities might be structured using “clustered” seating instead. Grouping these students in a heterogeneous manner maximizes the learning environment. In mixed-ability groups, the weaker students benefit by seeing how stronger students study and approach problems, and the stronger students gain a deeper understanding of the subject by teaching it to others, thus creating a “technical success!”

How could the physical layout of the classroom instead result in a “technical failure?” A teacher with little to no knowledge of her students’ personalities, needs, and academic abilities creates a technical failure when she allows students to pick their own seats. What if some students are being bullied? What if some students can’t see the chalk board? What if the class clowns sit together? The dynamics of this classroom will greatly suffer if such important choices are left to the students.

It is important not only to think inside the box, but also outside the box. So too, it is important not only to think about where the students’ desks are located, but also what’s on top of them. Do you have a student who has organizational issues? You can turn this situation into a “technical success” or a “technical failure.” Set him up for success by spending five minutes with him once a week showing him how to organize his belongings instead of yelling at him to clean up his desk, or worse – ignoring him. Perhaps a daily checklist will help him come to class prepared. Do you have another student who always colors on his desk? If asking him to stop the first time doesn’t work, chances are that asking him repeatedly will result in frustration on your part (“technical failure”). Maybe this student focuses better while doodling, so help him out by covering his desk with an oversized paper, and replacing it when necessary. Who knows, maybe he will grow up to be a famous illustrator. If his conduct does not disturb other students, turn this potentially frustrating situation into a “technical success” for both you and him.

The Power of the Calm-Down Corner

One 2nd grade classroom in my school has a special rocking chair, a shelf with books and coloring sheets, blank journals, an ipod with headphones, and a small timer, all in a corner of the room. Meet the “calm-down corner,” a perfect example of a technical success in the classroom. After witnessing a student’s emotional meltdown over a “borrowed” eraser, the teacher, Chavi Abramson, realized she needed a place within her classroom where her students could remove themselves from a stressful situation, compose themselves, and rejoin the class activity – all while remaining in a safe, supervised environment without interrupting the learning taking place in the classroom. The “calm-down corner” is a wonderful outlet for any student who needs a constructive time-out. As the students became more comfortable with the use of this corner, they became more in tune with their own need for it and would often ask for a self-imposed “calm down time.”

As I think about Mrs. Abramson’s fortunate 2nd graders, I can’t help but think about the 5th graders across the hall. Their teacher believes in tough love and doesn’t provide a “calm-down corner.” He doesn’t believe that a student at the ripe old age of ten should feel the need to physically remove himself from a stressful situation. In fact, students who do, get in trouble! Minor frustrations involving one or two students often affect the rest of the class. It is not long before the entire class is expressing their anger and frustration about someone breathing too loudly during a math test all because little Johnny was expected to bottle up his emotions. Talk about a “technical failure!”

The Power of Expectations, both Great and Small

The physical set up of the classroom isn’t the only methodology a teacher can utilize to set her students up for success. I demonstrate that I have high expectations of my students by not accepting any less than their best work. I make this very clear to my students and their parents on the first day of school and reinforce this throughout the year. This positive attitude creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of “technical success,” as most of my students develop high expectations for themselves throughout the year.

When teachers consistently use positive actions and language to reinforce what they themselves believe to be the outer limits of a student’s potential a student, then that student will exceed the teacher’s expectations. . But, what if the teachers’ messages are that of mediocrity and minimalism? The result would be a “technical failure” as the students would have little to no motivation to submit their best work.

The Power of Dialogue

Dialogue is another tool that I use to create technical successes for my students by demonstrating that I care about them. I set my students up for success by personally communicating with each one of them on a daily basis. When each student enters my classroom, I hold a 30 second conversation with them.

At the start of the school year, my students learned that I expected them to initiate this conversation by saying “hello,” asking how I was doing, and engaging in a handshake, if appropriate. I expect proper eye contact to be maintained throughout our exchange, and I often ask them questions about the pool party or family cookout that took place over the weekend, or the baseball game won the night before. If something is bothering the student, I can usually tell by his body language during this short conversation, and we can discuss it during this chat or at a later time.

By spending a mere 30 seconds with each student, I set my students up for success during the school day and beyond. I create an environment where, no matter what the dialogue, my students begin their day feeling important and heard, and I begin my day with a backstage pass into what might be exciting or bothering my students. My students get the added bonus of being exposed to, gaining practice in, and developing a tendency towards common courtesy.

What about the teacher who only performs her job teaching math, science, social studies, and language arts without the extra effort required? She doesn’t feel the need to ask her students how they are doing. This teacher may actually find it harder to do her job. Students who feel that the teacher cares about them become personally invested in pleasing the teacher. Students who don’t have a relationship with their teacher may not care about their academic performance, which can have negative long lasting effects. It is the teacher’s job to create a friendly and caring atmosphere, for if she doesn’t, she may find that her students don’t perform well academically…or may not show up to class;, the ultimate “technical failure.”

The Power of ASL for Hearing Students

Imagine that as you review last night’s homework assignment, you ask “who has the answer to problem number two?” Several hands go up. Do you want what’s behind door #1, #2, or #3? You have no clue what the student is about to say, but you call on one student, hoping that he will have some insight to share about the homework problem you just presented. Instead, he asks to go to the bathroom. This was an innocent request, yet totally ruins your focus and momentum in the classroom.

Another problematic scenario that you might recognize arises when you call on one student to answer a question, but other students –who also raised their hands– shout out “He stole my answer!” or perhaps “I was going to say that! Not fair!” These students are left feeling angry and frustrated – and rightfully so! They may be so preoccupied with their emotions that they find it difficult to focus on the lesson at hand for the next 20 minutes. These student-initiated distractions are common “technical failures” in the classroom

To achieve technical success, at the beginning of the year, I teach my students a few basic signs in American Sign Language (ASL). If my students want to ask for permission to go to the bathroom, they merely have to show me the sign for bathroom, and I silently respond (in sign language) with a simple “yes” or “no” — all the while continuing our review of last night’s homework assignment. Likewise, my students sign “me too” when they weren’t called on to answer a question, but want to demonstrate that they had the same answer prepared. When I see their “signs,” I acknowledge them verbally or with a thumbs-up. As a result, these students feel good, even though they were not called on, and are also able to focus for the 20 minutes that follow. These simple ASL techniques effectively eliminate student-initiated distractions, making the teaching and utilization of ASL in the classroom a “technical success!”

The Power of Purposeful Pedagogy (say that ten times fast)

Consider the all too common technical failures in the classroom, such as asking students to “think hard” right after lunch or recess, to listen quietly when they are hyper, or to “occupy themselves” when they finish an assignment.

A teacher faced with these challenges could turn them into “technical successes” by allowing the students to read independently or write in a journal immediately after lunch. If the teacher notices that her students are particularly hyper, she could channel their energy instead of fighting it. She could create an energetic educational game that the students can get excited about. If the weather is nice, she could even take them outside.

Lastly, before instructing students to begin independent or group work, a teacher concerned about work for early finishers (which should be every teacher) could create a “must do / may do” chart. This chart can be student-specific or more generalized for the rest of the class, but the idea is for the student to complete everything in the “must do” column before beginning the activities in the “may do” column. This chart allows students to take responsibility for their own learning and encourages them to take control over their time-management. Most importantly however, it prevents the technical failure of students who complete their work immediately and complain to the teacher that he is bored, or worse, distracts other students still engaged in the classroom activity.

Conclusion – Set Up Your Own Technical Success

I challenge you to think of examples of “technical successes” and “technical failures” in your own classroom. While you do so, consider the same questions I recently asked myself. What attitudes and behaviors do you want students to achieve? How will you set up your classroom to encourage your students to achieve their potential? What attitudes and behaviors do you NOT want your students to demonstrate? How will you establish a running classroom schedule to prevent such behaviors?

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