Do Simple Better

All summer, I had an article in mind for a sort of “return to work” thing. In my head, I had the word, reinvent, floating around. The basic premise was that a teacher should do something different each year in order to keep things fresh and to stay current. Last night, I was even about 1,000 words in on a draft when I decided to stop. That’s not a usual occurrence when I am writing. I usually sit and write until it’s done. But, I wasn’t feeling it and couldn’t figure out why since this idea has been in my head for more than two months.

While I definitely believe that every teacher should reinvent every year—more on that later—the article and thought process was becoming too complicated. It wasn’t hitting the heart of what I wanted to say. There wasn’t a focus. So, I closed up for the night and continued to re-watch The Office for the millionth time. 

Today, I had lunch with a colleague who also happens to be a friend. He is someone who can be described as brilliant in a classroom. He is the type of teacher who you want your child to have. Not only is he a brilliant English Teacher and can break down any piece of literature so that any person can understand, he is someone who is constantly there for kids, whether it is offering extra help to kids who aren’t even in his class or throwing his classes parties right before they head into a big AP test, even when the Assistant Principal forbids it.

He’s also someone who challenges me in terms of philosophy. We don’t agree on everything and actually have some pretty big philosophical differences when it comes to education. If you ever want to hear a spirited conversation, just say the word, homework. But, we agree that the field can do better and that it is up to teachers to navigate through the minutia and red tape of the system and do what’s best for kids. When you have that as the base of your professional relationship, you do can great things. 

So, as we were talking, we got on the topic about how our department really has so much good going on. We have a group of great teachers who year in and year out do great things. And, as I am finding out when attending conferences, we are doing things that few other places are doing. We had one question: how can we make us better?

As I went back to my office to prepare for our opening day department meeting, I scrapped my presentation, much like I scrapped my article. It was for the same reason. It was overly complicated and it didn’t resonate with me. I know that it wouldn’t resonate with the department either. That lunch conversation was sticking with me because we talked about how skills learned in an English class can be taught with any text. That we should encourage this thought process. Looking at my presentation, that was my theme, but talking about reinventing wasn’t the way to focus our group.

How do we improve?

It’s actually simple. It’s something I teach kids when it comes to writing. And, it’s something that perhaps I lost sight of lately in an effort to grow. I forgot my “Maddonism”.

Joe Maddon is the manager for the Chicago Cubs (a Major League Baseball team for the sports challenged readers). Two years ago, he led the Cubs to a World Series title. That sentence doesn’t sound like a big deal, but consider that the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908 and it suddenly becomes a big deal. He took a club that had a long history of losing, a culture of failure–even when they were close to attaining their goal–and a team that wasn’t supposed to win for a couple of more years and ended the longest running championship drought in sports history. Before coming to the Cubs, Maddon was the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, a club that traditionally has a total team payroll equivalent to that of two of the New York Yankees best players. Yet, the Rays competed every year despite the severe economic disadvantage, making the playoffs four times during his nine years. His guiding principle?

Do Simple Better

Joe Maddon

Those three words helped two franchises clear through the noise and focus on the important aspects that lead to success. Those three words have been my guiding principle in education for the past six years. When we focus on the skills we want to teach kids and the qualities we want to develop in kids, the rest of the noise is silenced. It doesn’t matter if there are not enough copies of texts or if a classroom has to be shared. The only thing that matters is that 45 minutes with a group of kids and your focus on the skills. 

Yes, a teacher should reinvent part of the process every year. That’s important; the days of pulling out old lesson plan books or reaching into the filing cabinet for the mimeograph copy are long over. Fortunately, I see that less and less as veteran teachers are increasingly changing to meet the challenges of today’s world. To reinvent part of your process is sound. What worked last year may not work with your new group of kids. And, if you do happen to roll out the same thing again, you become stagnant, disenfranchised, and more apt to complain about how “these kids” don’t get it. 

But, reinvention is only effective if the process and perspective is focused on skills and qualities. If those are not the focus, you are making things far too complicated. Do the simple things better. 

How do you do that? First, you have to decide what you want your students to learn. If your answer is that you want them to read certain titles or memorize certain facts, your focus is misplaced. Teaching is about skill development. What skills do you want your kids to have when they leave your class?

For me, I want kids to leave my class with the skills of being able to write effective, engaging arguments. I want them to question what they read. I want them to be able to dissect how a writer puts together an argument or angle and how to determine if an argument is valid. Those are four big skills. Embedded in those four skills are so many things such as writing process, debate and public speaking skills, research, and so much more. But, I have my four main skills. Those are the four things I will focus on. I will teach them better because I know those are my goals. Once I get to know my group, I can select different texts and activities to guide them through a process in which they can write about something they are passionate about. Four skills. Simple. Teach them. Teach them better because that’s my focus. Everything else is noise. Each day, a lesson will develop one of those four skills. It’s simple. 

I also want my students to develop qualities such as functioning as a member of a community, being able to listen to viewpoints that you may disagree with, acceptance of differences, and able to learn from failure and keep moving forward. Like the skills, these qualities have a bunch of embedded qualities, but these are my four. Each day, we will develop one of those four skills. 

How do we “Do Simple Better” with curricular demands, state assessments, and evaluations? Understandably, many are concerned about these issues. Every department has a curriculum. I often get that it is easier for English Teachers because we have more freedom. Yes, it is true. English classes are more skills based so the texts should not matter. But, another colleague of mine—another incredible teacher and teacher-leader—said it simply.

He was presenting to a group of new teachers. I hung around to hear his presentation because he was chosen to speak about accessing curriculum. He is the Social Studies coordinator so I was interested to see his view considering Social Studies is about dates, events, etc. But, he started off his presentation asking the new teachers what skills and/or qualities did they want to develop in kids. After a share session, he said something profound.

The curriculum is merely a vessel to teach skills.

William Campione, Social Studies Coordinator, NRCSD

And, that is what teaching boils down to. What skills do we need to arm kids with so they can go out and take on the world? Once you identify those skills, you use the curriculum to develop those skills. Sure, kids will still need to memorize and learn content, but if the focus is on skills, everything covered in any class—math, science, whatever—is about that development, not about knowing every single fact of the Roman Empire or completing a specific lab exercise. We use the curriculum so kids can learn and develop those skills and qualities; the curriculum memorization is not the end point. 

There are some very simple ways a teacher can strip away the distractions and focus on the process of learning those skills. While the beginning of the school year often focuses on laying down the law, establishing routines, and all of that, the real focus should be on creating an environment where skills and character traits are the focus.

Do Simple Better: Establish Culture

At the secondary level, establishing culture is far too ignored. But, without a solid culture, those traits we want kids to develop will be lost in a whirlwind of rules, curriculum, and discipline.

Simple: Meet Them At The Door

One of my focuses this year is to recommit to meeting kids at the door. It does a few things. First, it gives you a read on the mood of kids coming in. It’s sort of a first check of the temperature. Someone having an off day? You might be able to turn it around with a hello at the door and showing them that you are actually happy to have them in class.

And, that is the more important benefit. Kids of all ages—not just elementary students—want to know that their teacher actually wants to be there. Greeting them at the door is the perfect way. A colleague in my department does this every day. He literally shakes every student’s hand as they enter the room. There’s a sense of community in his room. They are all in it together. They are a team and everyone is valued enough to have a handshake with their teacher. 

I know there are challenges for teachers. Like me, many teachers travel from room to room for their next class. It is hard to balance getting set up for the class. And, sometimes you may just want to talk to a colleague. But, all of that can be minimized. You can get to the class and stand by the door to greet them. You can establish a routine where kids are working while you setup once the bell rings. Meet them at the door, connect with them, and show them that you are glad that they are there. 

Simple: Welcome Them

For the first time in my career, I am going to send my incoming students a welcome email. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never thought of that. It’s going to be a simple message about how I am happy that they are in my class and that we are going to have a fun year. At the secondary level, we tend to forget that kids actually get nervous about school We forget that all kids want to have a positive relationship. This won’t be a magic email that will make a relationship with each kid, but they will know that I am excited to meet them and that I am glad that they are “one of mine.” There is no down side of doing this. 

Simple: Get To Know

Secondary teachers could learn many things from elementary teachers. My daughter has consistently come home from her early days of school each year with stories of activities, about the teacher, about facts she learned about kids in class. At the secondary level, this gets lost. It shouldn’t. Curriculum should not be started during the first few days of class. The focus should be on learning about your students and creating an open environment where they can feel comfortable enough to speak and question. 

I often take a week to do various group activities to encourage teamwork and sharing. One of my favorites is the tower activity where groups are given three pieces of paper and three pieces of tape. Their instructions are to build the highest, sturdiest, most beautiful tower with their group in three minutes. The only catch is that they can’t talk. Watching them interact and problem solve gives me some good information about each kid. The activity inevitably leads to a discussion about thinking differently, not trying to just give what you think the teacher is looking for, and a whole lot more. All of those activities lead to conversations and are a building block so kids feel comfortable enough in your room and actually want to learn from you. 

And, simply, how are you going to effectively teach your students if you don’t know them?

Do Simple Better: Skills Focus

The curriculum is the vessel. If we place the focus on skills development, our classrooms will have engaging lessons and kids will be the driving forces behind the learning.

Simple: Choice

All levels can stand to open it up for more choice. It is not about what we like to teach. My favorite book was To Kill A Mockingbird. I taught it for years and loved teaching it. I had some really fun, engaging plans. But, it no longer resonates with kids and, truthfully, it no longer represents anything remotely close to what’s happening in the world. Now, I could force this book on a kid and teach the skills about constructing argument. But, why do that? Why would I be beholden to that book when I can use something that is more engaging to a kid so that they actually are interested? Why can’t a kid choose a book? 

This year, I am going to give my ninth grade class a choice in just about everything they read. If I find something that I know they will like, of course I will use it. But, they will select the vessel. I will develop the skills. Yes, I am ignoring the suggested book list on the curriculum—although kids can choose from that too—but I am not ignoring the skills in the standards. 

Simple: Chances

It makes absolutely no sense for a student to get one shot at things. If we want kids to master a skill, why do we assess and simply move on no matter what? And, more importantly, if we want to develop the very important life skill of dealing with failure and coming back from it, why are just giving one opportunity? We must offer kids more opportunities to show that they learned from their mistakes. We must focus on the process of learning and not have “gotcha” moments. We must not penalize them because they took longer to learn the skill. We have to show that in life, we all don’t succeed the first time. Successful people keep at it until they achieve the goal. 

Simple: Communicate

It seems so basic, right? Teachers must talk to students about where they are in the process. Instruction must be more one on one rather than the standard chalk and talk. English teachers who have writing conferences get far better results because kids can talk out their writing, learn from the conversation and apply what they learned. Teachers who merely collect the essays and grade them, even with a lot of feedback, won’t see such growth. All subject areas can have this setup. Science labs can be discussed as students go through the process. Math problem solving can be broken down step by step. If a teacher guides throughout the process rather than just grade at the end, skill development and mastery are far better. 

Final Thought

It easy to get lost in all that is the education world. From the outside pressures of the government, the inequity of many state assessments to a lack of funding, curriculum demands, observations, and every other stress, even the most well intentioned teachers can over complicate things. If we “Do Simple Better”, we focus on teaching what we know is important and essential. By pushing out every bit of outside noise and focusing on the process we can do great things for kids. When we can focus on those skills and qualities, teaching becomes “simple” in that we know our purpose and nothing will get in the way of that purpose.