Helping Students Become Independent

Teachers often say they want to help their students become independent learners. But a lot of the techniques you learn during teacher training or on the job, encourage dependence on the teacher. Students do not always come to class with study skills and increasingly, social skills either. The bleak choice is to do the heavy lifting for them to avoid problems in lessons or risk wasting time on non-subject specific skills.

I think it’s worth a shot to try to get them to leave the nest! Here are some skills that I like explicitly teaching at the start of a new term.

  • Using search engines

We call them ‘digital natives’ but they still try to write out full questions into Google. Show them how to get the most from their searches.

  • Looking things up in books

Instead of telling them what page you want them to turn to, tell them the topic of the lesson and give them 30 seconds to find the page and hold it up. (You might need to teach them how to use the table of contents and an index)

  • Communicating

Give students tasks where they need to describe diagrams to a partner and then the partner needs to copy them without seeing the book. Or they have to mime out ideas.

  • Time Management

Give them projects where they need to organise their own time. I find that the first couple of these end up in disaster (and involve deadline extensions) but after a few failed attempts, they get much better.

  • Being responsible

Give them a checklist at the start of every topic with the things you want them to learn. Give them five minutes every week to go through the checklist and mark when they learned something new. This pushes the responsibility onto the right person. If there are things that they need to work on, you can support them. However, you need to know what the problems are to be able to do that! You’re not psychic and tests only tell you so much.

Sometimes you get a bit of push back as students who are confused often want hand holding, but as long as you are being clear about your objectives and providing activities that help students attain them, be firm. You already got your certificates, your students need to do the work for theirs.

(Published first on ClassDojo’s Thought Partners blog)

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Learned Helplessness in Teachers

Learned helplessness is when you figure out that no matter what you do you will never succeed, and so you stop trying.

In a classroom situation, the archetype is the student who comes over to the teacher every new step in their task, to check if they are doing it right. Or the student who just will not get started on an activity because they have learned there is no use in trying. There are plenty of articles about learned helplessness in classrooms from the students’ side. Learned helplessness also occurs from the teachers’ side but I have not seen much written about that. I have worked in a lot of schools where this was true, so I thought that was a bit surprising.

Learned Helplessness about Teaching

In one school, it was only the science department that had the problem. The air of defeat was around in every breaktime.

I finished a lesson on genetic disorders with my disaffected Y10s and they had listened and they had done all the activities and I thought ‘hell yeah! a breakthrough!” and I went upstairs and told a colleague “I think they’re starting to work for me… I think I finally have their attention!” and he said “No they aren’t. No you don’t” and laughed at me. He left teaching that year but I had to teach that class for another two years. He was ‘right’, it seems it was a fluke lesson.

Of course it was after that ‘pep talk’. How are you supposed to carry that enthusiastic energy through after something like that?

Learned Helplessness about workload

In another school, the science department was fine and the support for behavioural problems was a lot better, so the learned helplessness of the teachers was not about teaching and learning. We felt like we could solve the problems we had in the classroom but the staff room talk about management decisions was bleak and broken. Every lunch time we would discuss how ‘ridiculous’ some new decision or initiative was. Our workload was uncontrollable. The demands on us just kept increasing. No matter how much of ourselves we poured into our work, it was never enough. Burnout was inevitable and staff turnover was in turn ‘ridiculous’.

Learned Helplessness about Resources

My first ever school was interesting. It had been put in ‘special measures’ (one or two steps away from being closed completely for being terrible) and was re-building itself from the ground up. The head was inspirational and was trying to teach the teachers to trust themselves and feel they had agency. In that sticky transition, it was interesting to see which teachers could pull themselves through from feeling helpless to feeling professional.

One thing she said to me on my first day (it might have even been my interview), that has always stuck with me was “Schools with poor leadership usually have problems with their bank accounts. Those things often go together. When I got here, the finances were a complete mess.” when she was explaining why she had hired completely new people in clerical roles.

The teachers there had been good teachers but because the previous leaders had no oversight, the school had become a runaway train with no control. You can’t feel anything but helpless when do not have the resources to do a good job.

Vicious circle

Another school I worked out was in state of crisis for an extended period of time. Constant new waves of demands were put on teachers with no warning and no discussion. The teachers were expected to deliver a high quality curriculum with little to no resources, and very little pay. Work/life balance was disrespected. No one knew who was responsible for what and if they asked the wrong person for help, they sometimes were shouted at.

The teachers gave up outside of the classroom. They said they wanted to ‘just teach’. It became a refrain. “I just want to teach.”

People left all the time but some people were stuck. When new people came in, they would learn from the stuck ones that it was a waste of time trying to make things better. Every mistake or problem in that school was like a natural disaster and never something anyone could learn from.

Even though some people at that school worked hard to turn things around, the rest of the teachers could not transition from feeling exploited. They could not switch over to feeling like their efforts were worth it because they had no experience of that being true. Any tools made to help them were ignored. Staff room talk was all about unreasonable workload or demands but never about the steps they could take themselves to resolve the issues.

Steps for Management

  • Show appreciation
  • Aligning demands with resources
  • Modelling problem solving so that teachers can help themselves
  • Giving teachers input on decisions that affect them
  • Prioritise changes by what is most important, not what is easiest or cheapest
  • Signal things are different now by pointing to the positive changes you have brought about

Steps for Teachers

  • Realise what has happened to your mindset
  • Reassess every few months. Is it still as bad as it was? Has anything got better? Can you leave ‘survival mode’ yet?
  • Be careful what you say to new colleagues. Give them a chance to realise that there is no use trying, by themselves!
  • Figure out workarounds and share them with colleagues
  • Show your appreciation for a job well done by a colleague

Epic Gamification for Noobs

What is Gamification?

Gamification is turning something into a game, making it more game like.

Isn’t that just house points like in Harry Potter?

Reward systems are nothing new in schools but gamification is a refinement of the idea. I don’t know about you but I find certain video games very diverting. t’s not just the points, it’s not just the high score. I like games that recognise that I tackled a level in an unusual way or reward me for being thorough with trophies and achievements.

Gamifying the classroom could mean giving out badges (real and virtual), for completing certain tasks.

Why gamify the classroom?

I am just at the beginning of adding gamification to my classroom. I want to try it out because video games and social networking are compelling for a reason. If I could have a fraction of the engagement in my lesson that is generated by Minecraft, I’d be a happy educator.

How to get started?

An easy way is to reward behaviours you want to encourage. Maybe you want to focus on work completion, participation, creative ideas. One thing that gives (forgetful) me comfort is that rewards are more interesting to people when they are a little bit unpredictable. Everyone loves consistency in the classroom but being a bit forgetful with the rewards is actually not a bad thing in this case.

We already have a reward policy already at my school and I can’t interfere with it

Another great way to ‘gamify’ is to turn assignments into ‘quests’. Even better if you can think of multiple ways students could tackle the task and have a variety of badges/trophies available.

Become a quiz master

Have students set their own questions in the style of a tv quiz show (for example Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire etc) and run a quiz show. Not only does it give their brains an incentive for memorising facts, it also means that they have to understand the topic to be able to ask questions.

Not every student will take to this approach but I have often found that groups of hardcore  work-avoiders are inspired by the idea of points and trophies, even if they are only virtual.

The Legacy of Minecraft

When I first started teaching 11 or so years ago, I would sometimes ask my class to draw boxes in their exercise books for a game of bingo or to make a cartoon strip.

Then I would spend five or ten minutes supporting a significant minority with sectioning off equal areas. In the end, I gave up and made templates that I could hand out to students just to get past that one problem.

The other day, I gave my class the task of making a comic strip about what we were learning. And then two minutes later, they had divided their A3 paper into halves lengthwise, and then thirds or fourths or fifths or sixths widthwise. They did this without any issues. Some did it by eye, some measured it off with a ruler. All of them did it without asking for help, complaining it was hard or physically folding the paper (my go-to strategy at that age). I don’t have a class of spatial awareness geniuses by the way, they’re regular 11 year old kids.

Except, they also spend hours of their free time dividing things into thirds or fourths or fifths or sixths. They take time to measuring things out. It’s all coming from Minecraft.

If you want to build something that looks nice: you need to have this ability and if you don’t already have it, you practice until you do. And they have and now they can all do it without worries. I was so pleased, the very next lesson the main activity was making a model of an animal cell in Minecraft and showing the class.

Now I really want to set up my own server.

Five Factors that Increase Teacher Burnout (and what to do)

Teaching is emotionally intense. Along with the pressure of working with adolescents and children, there are short deadlines and an expectation to go ‘above and beyond’ every day.

Here are five factors that make burnout more likely.

  1. Unclear expectations: teachers are only told what the expectations were after they fail to meet them.
  2. No control: teachers have no control over their workload. This is especially stressful when the work they are doing is just for a filing cabinet and not for their students.
  3. No recognition: extra effort is ignored, along with everything else the teacher does.
  4. No support: teachers are left to figure out things for themselves with no help or encouragement.
  5. A climate of bullying: when teachers psychologically abuse each other or management attack teachers.

These factors are mostly out of the control of the teacher, all they can control is their response to it. Here are five ways to reduce the effects of a poor working climate.

  1. Get everything in writing. Even ‘passing’ conversations, jot off a quick email to confirm what was said. I had a manager once who made up rules on the fly. Every few days. I was never exactly sure if they just had a terrible memory or had genuinely believed they had communicated clearly to me. Getting it all in writing helped, in either case.
  2. Know when to stop. Have a deadline in the evening when you switch off. You’re no good to your students as a burned out zombie. Once, I was heading for burnout and took a teaching English as an Additional Language course during a weekend. Even though it was hard work, I felt refreshed on Monday because I had stopped thinking about my job for 48 hours.
  3. Get Zen about it. What you are doing is important to your students and your community. Praise is just for your ego.
  4. Support your colleagues! Go help out another teacher, arrange evenings out, invite them to your home. I had one manager who just said “Have you tried ringing home?” every time I asked for help in one of my first years as a teacher. It was the teacher in the room next to me who made the difference by having a couple of informal team-teaching lessons in each other’s classrooms. He put it like “Let’s do a couple of lessons in the next unit together!”
  5. Usually, calling it as you see it stops bullying. But not always. So, document everything. If you are a bystander to bullying, make sure you do not become a participant by joining in or gossiping about the victim later. In one school, we had a boss who would scream and swear at members of staff. Every few months, a new victim would be singled out and made to leave the school. Instead of unifying, the teachers would gang up on who he was targeting and say it was all their fault for how they were behaving. In another school, with a similar manager, the teachers refused to be bystanders and much of the bully’s power was defused.