Engaging the Disengaged: Letter to a New Teacher (And a Short Reminder to a Seasoned Veteran, Part 1)

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Early one winter morning during my last year of teaching middle school, shortly after completing my mini-lesson and setting the purpose for independent reading, I directed my eighth-graders with my usual, “Got it everybody? Great. Move it! Get to your reading spots and be reading within the next 30 seconds.” Immediately after giving this command, I felt a large presence looming behind me; I jerked around to peer into the chest of a sharply dressed man. My eyes traveled up to gaze into two kind eyes well crinkled around the corners from a lifetime of smiling down at children and teachers. Teaching in a community of 200 souls 45 miles from the nearest town with a grocery store, one did not often encounter six-foot-four businessmen in classy suits in or out of the classroom.

The many questions forming rapidly in my mind were answered as he reached out his hand and said in a voice as warm as his eyes, “It is so nice to meet you Mrs. Dickman. I am Dwight Jones, the Colorado Commissioner of Education and I have come to Moffat to congratulate you and your students on your test scores.” My heart swelled with pride as he continued, “And if you told me to be reading in the next 30 seconds, I would do it! No wonder your students are doing so well.”

In that moment I wanted to explain so much about how I ran my classroom; I especially wanted to explain that along with expecting my students to “move it” on command, I spent much time honoring and loving each of the humans in my charge. But Mr. Jones walked out of my classroom as quickly as he had walked into it. I was left staring into the empty space he had vacated. “Did that just happen?” I asked myself.

In writing this letter to new teachers or reminder for veterans, I would like to help all those out there who are struggling to create the type of classroom they have dreamed about. A place where the teacher is happy to arrive each and every day. A place children will think back on with positive memories for the rest of their lives knowing with sureness that the time spent here mattered in who they became as successful adults.

With that said, I would like to quickly list the attributes that I feel are important in running an effective classroom-attributes that are each expanded upon in in my blog series, Engaging the Disengaged. If you want to learn more about any item on the list, read the full blog post on that topic.

Establish and maintain positive relationships between teacher and student, student and student, and teacher and teacher. Understand the power of explaining WHY we are asking students to do certain work in our classrooms.

  • Encourage students to read, write and work within their zone of proximal development.
  • Plan and implement lessons that allow us to teach to student’s strengths.
  • Employ many cooperative and engaging strategies so that the student are doing the talking, thinking, and moving in the classroom.
  • Use a consistent signal to call for attention after any discussion or break such as holding your hand up and softly counting down from five, ringing chimes, snapping or clapping a certain rhythm or pattern, or playing or singing a short melody from a song, etc.
  • Allow students to make many choices about their learning. For instance, choosing books to read, topics to write about, and projects to complete.
  • Engage students in authentic activities as much as possible rather than using worksheets and meaningless activities that have little to do with the world outside of school.
  • Guide students in ways that discipline the behavior of a child while keeping the person intact.
  • Truly listen to student’s thoughts and ideas.
  • Allow student self-reflection about behavior, classroom community, partner work, and responsibility to run the classroom.
  • Truly listen to students’ thoughts and ideas.
  • Allow student self-reflection about behavior, classroom community, partner work, and responsibility to run the classroom.

Two additional noteworthy attributes are checking behavior with silence and proximity. Just yesterday I watched a teacher move close to students who were not attending to the lesson. This act, is often enough to stifle disengaged behavior. I have even been known to gently place my hand on the head of a child to bring him to attention.  Another simple but powerful move is silence.  As the previous teacher was explaining her lesson, two fifth-grade boys began to giggle and discuss something other than the lesson at hand. This teacher cleared her throat, firmly said, “Gentlemen,” and then proceeded to wait until they silenced themselves. This did not take more than ten seconds, but it was clear to all in the room, including myself watching silently in the corner, that the teacher would wait until she had the rapt attention of everyone before proceeding. These boys joined in the lesson and did not interrupt again; neither did the rest of us.

To be continued . . .