Letter Grades…Time For a Change?

A serif font of the letter AThe other day I was thinking about the drive students have for a letter grade. Students will lie, cheat, steal, complain, whine, cajole, charm, and hack their way to a better letter grade. Yet, rarely will these same students put that level of effort to actually learn something in the same subject. Actually, they would if we expected it, and do, if they are interested in something. But when our expectation is a letter on a piece of paper, then that becomes their all-out goal.

My point is that maybe it is time for letter grades to go. Or at least maybe we should stop caring about them so much. A letter means nothing, except what people give it. A student that received a 4.0 from Harvard through grade inflation and cheating may know a lot less than someone who earned a 3.0 from a state school. As I look back to my classes in college, I always coveted that “A,” yet rarely did my grade reflect what I actually learned. In one Psychology class, I worked my butt off and got a B+. I learned a lot. In other classes, I learned little but still got that “A.” Years later, I don’t care about the letter grades, unless it is when I send my transcripts somewhere, or someone needs to know my GPA. Sure, it was very high, but what have given me success in nearly every environment are things that I didn’t learn in school, and that couldn’t be reasonably graded anyway.

As a teacher, I would rather have a student who is a hard-worker who learns something, than a lazy person, who learns nothing, but cheats his way to an “A.” I would rather a “B” student that gets some life-changing insight from my class than someone who gets an “A” just by memorizing facts. Such is the nature of “learning.” It is really hard to measure actual learning, and even if we were to measure learning, it is even harder to measure any kind of future success based on learning in a classroom.

Maybe I am being unhelpful here, because I am not offering a replacement for letter grades…yet, but I think student learning is much more complex than a letter grade, and the race to get that “A” no matter what is simply crazy.

What Is Model-Netics and Why You Should Take It – A Review

Gold FairwayIn late 2010, I was on a local golf course, when a representative from Main Event Management returned my call to discuss the possibility of taking Model-Netics, since a friend suggested I take it. My golf game is almost always bad (but fun), so it wasn’t like I was in any sort of groove. Fortunately, nobody was behind me, because I sat on hole 17 chatting with Randy for about twenty minutes about this great class.

Model-Netics is a management course consisting of 151 “models,” which are grouped into a variety of areas, including change, evaluation, and delegation.

These models explain a reality or issue in management, and provide a way to understand each issue, as well as providing solutions to problems involved. This way of “modeling” problems and solutions, is reminiscent of NLP, “neurolinguistic programming. Each model contains an image that goes along with it, to serve as a visual reminder, to learn it easier, and to recall it later. Thus, there “triangles,” “diamonds” and even a “pentagon” if a particular model has three, four, and five aspects to it, respectively.

One of my favorite models is “slot machine management,” because I see it happen so often in work settings. This model speaks to the trend among some managers to constantly change things when an idea doesn’t immediately work. It creates an inconsistent and ineffective environment.

The Model-Netics course reminds us (referring back to another model, “The Change Curve”) that often it takes time to see results from changes, and sometimes productivity goes down before going up after a change. So, managers that keep changing things up aren’t ever going to see results from their constant changes. “Slot machine” managers keep pulling the lever and nothing seems to work, rendering employees ineffective in the process.

I was one of the first people to take the course online. I took it on Friday afternoons, during my free period and lunchtime at school. As part of the course, I received a binder, a memory jogger (which summarizes the models, with images), and a headset with microphone. Every week, we would meet online, via Cisco’s webex.

The class was archived for later access, to go over the material or make up a missed class. The style was relaxed and engaging, and allowed for interactive discussion even though we were from all over the country. At the end of a few weeks, we would be given an online test. The only drawback was that the microphone headset they sent was pretty cheap. I ended up using my more expensive one.

Some critics have suggested that Model-netics is a way for managers to speak in “code,” and to form a kind of cult that uses language that employees can’t understand. This is not even close to being true.

Model-netics is ultimately about improving communication from “A” (manager) to “B” (employee), and helping each meet the other’s needs. Even though I expected to find some “anti-employee” attitude based on online posts, I didn’t find it at all. One of the principles of this blog (and our others, including The Popular Man) is to be cool to others. I would not be recommending this course if it somehow was uncool to employees (and students).

So why would I, a teacher, need to take this course? What, if anything, is a teacher? We are managers! We are managers of hundreds of clients, many which are not motivated to even be in our classes. We are genuine managers, yet we aren’t trained to manage people the way business majors are.

Model-Netics taught me a lot about how to manage my classroom, and manage the people I deal with. One model that is particularly helpful regarding students is “Define To Delegate.” This means that you must clearly state what you need someone to do when you delegate a task. Often, we tell students to “just do” something, but that student may not be clear on what we actually expect. It opened my eyes to how I assumed most kids just knew what I expected when I was less-than-clear (at least from their perspective).

The course ran a little over $800 in 2010, but I am not sure of the current price (order it here), but I really enjoyed it and benefited from it. This is not a “paid” recommendation in any way. I genuinely benefited from this course and wanted to provide a good review, because information about Model-Netics is sparse online. I am often a critic of continuing education in the field of education. I think a lot of it is too theoretical and glosses over real skills that help teachers and students.

I can safely say that what I learned in Model-Netics was more practically applicable than 80% of what I learned in college and graduate school. Overall, Model-Netics is a great course that has helped me both as a teacher and small business owner.

Four Ways Every Single Day Can Be Like Christmas

When I was in school as a child, the holidays were magical. I think I still learned things during that time of the year, but I was definitely in the holiday spirit. I remember looking forward to the annual “Santa breakfast,” which included a local Santa and elf, usually played by a bored high school student. Somewhere near the beginning of December teachers would break out their Christmas decorations, and we would be carted to the “Santa Shop” to buy cheap gifts for our relatives. I am sure my dad cherished that “world’s greatest dad” bookmark!

Looking back, for many kids the holiday time was probably one of the few bright spots, since for many students, school was hardly pleasant.

As a teacher, Christmas still has magic. Something changes this time a year. People seem a little more decent and hopeful. I often wonder why we can’t take that “Christmas feeling” (and the actions that follow), and use it for the benefit of ourselves and our students all year long. Below are some traits that we allow ourselves to have at Christmas, but sometimes forget the rest of the year.

Generosity

Most people become a little more generous at Christmas. I remember teachers giving a few extra points at Christmas, or even allowing students to plan a little Christmas party in class. Some even took a break from the all-knowing, divine, curriculum and showed movies that taught us values. Sure, we students liked these parties and movies so we could “get out of class,” but I guarantee students across the world probably remember the parties and movies more than what you taught them yesterday.

I also remember teachers genuinely helping students with their material needs. For one month a year the needs of less fortunate students were fully considered.

Of course, we can be generous to our students and peers all year long. Students, teachers, and administrators are under a lot of pressure. A little extra credit in March won’t hurt anything, nor will being extra generous when giving to the coffee fund. Students that are less fortunate in December probably won’t get more steady income just because January rolls around. I believe in abundance. If you give, you will get back. Being stingy is never a good idea. Be generous all year long!

View Others in the Best Light

At Christmas, I tend to see people as a little more human. When I think of that student that won’t shut up, I recall his rough home life, or maybe that he is trying desperately hard to impress his girlfriend. Or that kid that constantly flunks my tests; I know she tries as hard as possible. The days when some of my peers drive me nuts? Well, they are under pressure too. Basically, at Christmas we naturally have permission to increase our empathy. How many times have I heard “it’s Christmas, so I’ll (fill in the blank with some sort of act of mercy).” If it’s good enough for Christmas time, it’s good enough for all year. I am not saying we go “easy” on people if it means making them less excellent. However, I am saying that sometimes people just need to be viewed not as monsters, idiots, or troublemakers, but as human beings just trying to get by in the (largely unhelpful) way they know how.

Seeing Friends and Family

One way to relieve stress and simply have a great life is to have friends and see them often. Many times we get into the daily grind, eking out a basic existence, and we forget that what really matters in life is the time we spend with those we love.

At Christmas, this seems to change, as we make time to see others. We host parties, and so do our friends. I have always found it depressing that during December we are super-social, to the extent that many of us can’t even attend all the parties we are invited to, and then January comes…and nothing is happening! One year a good friend of mine scheduled a party on January 31st because his roommate was out of town. I looked forward to that party all month. It was because everybody else was “done” with socializing until summer, but I had something social to look forward to. There is nothing, except self-imposed limitations, that prevent us from getting together with friends all year long.

Lights and Decorations

Christmas lights, with gingerbread and othersI have a forty minute drive to work right now, until I close on my new house. I will say that the morning darkness can be depressing, but fortunately the many lights and decorations on the way to work keep me cheery. I look forward to seeing the multitude of dazzling colors and Christmas inflatables. I typically decorate my classroom for Christmas. My lights and decorations are buried in a storage unit at the moment, so I can’t this year, but normally I do. As the students walk in, they are taken aback by the soft glow of colors. They constantly request to turn the overhead lights down so they can just enjoy the ambiance of the holiday lights.

I am not saying I should keep lights up all year, but then again, maybe I should. Many teachers make their rooms cheery and more inviting at Christmas, which relaxes everyone. Before I moved, my wife and I kept our Christmas tree up until March. We dutifully switched the lights and bulbs out based on the month’s theme. January was white and blue (winter), February was pink and red (Valentine’s) and March was green and white (St. Patrick’s). We didn’t do April, but we easily could have done pastel green, pink, and yellow for the spring. I didn’t ask people, but I can imagine that as people saw our tree on their way to work, it made them happy and brought back thoughts of the holidays If you can make your room more fun and inviting at Christmas, why not all year round?

In conclusion, we allow ourselves to be excellent at Christmas. We do the things that we know are good and right. There is no reason we can ‘t do these things year round, save our own mental limitations. I challenge everyone reading this to take that Christmas feeling, and the actions that follow from it, and remember it in January, and February, and March…and all the way until next Christmas.

Five Ways To Get Students To Like You Without Lowering Standards

Girl giving a thumb's up

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.Net and “imagerymajestic”

Recently our school handed out surveys to various stakeholders in the school. One group that received it was students. Many of us questioned the usefulness of asking students their views of the school. Obviously, a student will have a different perspective of what constitutes a good school. I remember when I was in high school, I had different goals and needs from my school experience than the teachers did. While I did care about learning, they never asked me “is this school a great environment to get a date?” Now that was feedback I cared about.

Nonetheless, I think it is important to care about student satisfaction. Education is supposed to be about the students. While we are certainly guiding them, which means there will be moments when we have to do things in their best interest that they may not appreciate until later, we nonetheless have to consider student satisfaction. I find that it is pretty easy to keep students satisfied, even when you challenge them, if you keep a few key points in mind. Sure there will be students that will never want to learn and will resist any goodwill efforts on your part, but for the most part, you can win over students by using the following tips:

Establish a Relationship (Appropriate) With Students.

Students are humans. They want to have meaningful interactions with people around them. Some teachers purposefully set themselves up as distant authority figures. I believe you will find the most success if you are an authority figure, but one that they like. Students are more likely to accept your criticism and discipline if they like you. Don’t be inappropriate (you aren’t their buddy), but nonetheless you have to be likable.

When I first started teaching, I believed I had to be a hard-ass, which is to say “no smiling to Christmas.” It backfired horribly. I lost pretty much an entire grade of students because I acted hard first, and and then tried (and failed) to build rapport later.

Show Them You Want Them to Succeed

In college, I had a professor that tore my papers to shreds (not literally; figuratively. See, he taught me that!). It made me the writer I am today. I appreciated every single blot of red ink he put on my papers. Why? I knew he wanted me to succeed. His style, words, and actions told me he was caring, friendly, and knew what he was talking about. Even though he was difficult, he worked with students in class and outside of it to help students understand more clearly. I managed an “A” for that quarter, and I am still thankful for his constructive criticism. Had he been an uncaring, distant jerk, I likely would have resented any positive criticism, and I would still be talking about how that red ink scarred me for life.

Be Fair and Don’t “Trick Them”

One of my high school teachers (we’ll call her Mrs. Q.) was a great instructor in terms of content knowledge, but her personal style caused many students to resent her. I tried to like Mrs. Q., but it would be a stretch to say I did. Even now, I respect certain aspects of her teaching, but haven’t “come to appreciate” other ones. One time we got out of an assembly with literally one minute to go in 6th period. A few of my friends went ahead to 7th period class. The 7th period teachers in question had no problem with it, but Mrs. Q. did, and gave the students that went to 7th period, “skipping” her class for less than 60 seconds, a detention. In another instance, Mrs. Q. was subbing for a study hall, and a lot of us were talking, and apparently we weren’t supposed to. Instead of saying “hey guys, please be quiet,” we saw Mrs. Q. sneakily taking down names, as if to say “gotcha!” Maybe she relaxed with age, since she was a young teacher. I sure hope she did!

Also, I highly suggest you avoid tricking your students on assignments. Avoid “gotcha” moments that penalize students. If you want them to discover something above and beyond what is expected, make sure they aren’t being penalized for such enquiry. Instead of a moment of discovery it becomes a moment of resentment.

Move On Quickly From Discipline and Incidents

I have a friend who dated a girl that he later regretted dating. During the peak of the relationship, he and this girlfriend posed for a photo together, wearing matching flannel shirts. It was definitely worthy of Epic Fail. One time when I ran into him, I said “hey man, do you remember when you and Jennifer took that photo together?” He replied “how can I forget when you keep reminding me every time we meet??” He was joking, as was I, but it brings up a real point, which is that after you get punished, you don’t want to wallow in it.

Most students are embarrassed from punishment and negative incidents, and just want to move on. They want to see that you have moved on as well. Unfortunately, many teachers view punishment as punitive as opposed to rehabilitative, so emotionally “freezing out” a student for a week could be part of the “punishment” for a student talking out of turn. In other words, many teachers hold grudges and never move on. Instead of this, I prefer to assertively communicate my displeasure with student actions, and if that doesn’t work, I provide discipline, and then I move on. Embarrassment, guilt, and emotional games don’t help students learn and they certainly aren’t going to make students want to learn from you.

Give Students Choice (or at Least Perceived Choice)

One of the best ways to increase satisfaction with anything is to increase decision latitude. Decision latitude is your ability to be in control of choices that affect your life (or, a lack of ability). Teachers have a lot of latitude. We get paid to come to school. We can drink coffee at our desks, leave the room to use the restroom if we have to go, glance at an incoming text message from our buddies, and even arrive to class late occasionally, without penalty. If we are feeling tired or loaded with work, we pass out worksheets and catch up on work. This means we have a lot of decision latitude.

Now, let’s switch it. Students can’t drink coffee or pop if they are dragging that morning. They may, with embarrassment, have to explain in front of the class why their request to go to the bathroom really is “an emergency.” If they arrive late to class, they get punished. If they are loaded with work and have a huge test coming up, they still may have to work from bell-to-bell in the class before their big test. They can’t check their phone to get that emotional boost from their friends. In a word, they lack decision latitude.

I am not saying kids should have as much control as teachers. What I am saying is that they deserve some control. An easy way to give them some decision latitude even as you are struggling to cover every single new standard the state is throwing at you is to give them perceived choice. For example, you could say “do you want to read this passage together aloud, or quietly at your desks?” Notice they have no choice as to the day’s task (reading) or the content, but you are offering them some choice in the matter. Believe me, even little choices matter.

Sure, not every student will be satisfied no matter what you do, but there are ways to improve student satisfaction and keep high standards.

Nine (Unconventional) Truths I Have Learned About Teaching

Front of school building with flagpole and American flag

I have almost 10 years of teaching experience. I started as a sub for three years, and now I am on my 7th year of full-time teaching. I have learned a few things along the way, a lot of it considered unconventional and unorthodox by many.

Ignore Some Things

Sometimes it is just better to “unsee” and “unhear” things students do and say. My job is to be a teacher, not a human surveillance system. Most of us never would have left the detention room in school had our teachers busted us for everything we did. I always thought my teachers were too old and just missed all of my nonsense. Now I realize they were just smart.

Give Kids Breaks

One day I forgot my work keys. Another teacher opened the door for me. I didn’t get detention. Another day I was slow to turn in a report because I was freaking busy. I didn’t get yelled at; I was just asked to turn it in a few days later. We all need some slack sometimes, so why not apply this to our students too? You’re not weak if you give kids breaks.

Give Your Peers a Break

Your principal? Yeh, she’s under some stress too. That fellow teacher that drives you crazy? He could be under the same stresses you are. If you are sick of people always assuming the worst about your motivations, then stop assuming the worst about other people’s.

It’s All Small Stuff

Most of the day-to-day “hassles” are minor compared to the real tragedies in life. A former student of mine was shot and killed by her husband a few weeks ago. That is important. Most of my “stresses” aren’t. In the long run, who cares if Blake talks too much or Ashley is chewing gum. I am not saying discipline isn’t sometimes called for; I am just reminding us that these are small things indeed.

Don’t Wait To Laugh It Off

NLP co-founder Richard Bandler reminds us that if you say “someday we’ll look back on this and laugh,” why not start laughing about it immediately? There is no need to look at something in the worst possible light now, only to put it into its proper perspective later. Put it in its proper perspective right now. Laugh. It feels good.

Stop Bitching

Our perspective determines our outlook. If we see past the 20 good things in front of us to focus on the one bad thing out there, that primes us to have bad days (and a bad life).

It’s Okay To End Class a Little Early

We teachers always shout for joy when our boring meetings and training end early. Well…to most of our students, our classes are “boring training” and ending a few minutes early gives them a little break to mentally gear up for the next classes.

Students Learn More From Me Than From My Content

When I think back to what I learned in high school (I promise you these words are not the opening lyrics to “Kodachrome”), I remember teachers and their personalities far more than content. Yeah, I remember content, but a curriculum never changed my life; people did. If you want to impact your students, change you for the better, and bring the content along with it.

Sports Aren’t Everything – But They Matter

People can get way too obsessed with sports, and since most students aren’t going to play in the NFL or NBA, every student needs to take academics seriously. However, sports provide students with important values too: learning how to stay in shape, discipline, teamwork, etc. We shouldn’t place physical activity over against academic learning. The ancient Greeks knew the importance of both.

Being A Student For A Period – Seeing It From Their Side

A classroom in a schoolI have some student teachers from a local school coming in to observe and teach once a week. One day, so I could see the student-teachers a little better, I decided to move from my desk (in the front left side of the room) to an empty student desk.

Not only was I surrounded by my students (which they found amusing), but I was literally one of them, since I was sitting there taking in a lecture by a teacher. The student-teachers were interesting and dynamic guys, so I was looking forward to the lesson.

First, I became tired. Even though I was interested in the topic at hand (I teach it!), I still found myself zoning out. I was tired, experiencing some post-lunch low, and needed coffee. I “woke up” and suddenly realized I hadn’t paid attention to the last five minutes of lecture. Then, as the teacher was calling on students, I thought “man, I hope he doesn’t call on me!”

It really allowed me to empathize with students. Here I am, a smart and functional adult, who knows and likes the subject being taught, and I still couldn’t pay attention. We sometimes hold crazy standards for our students. We expect them to pay attention for eight 40-minute periods, and we believe it is important to squeeze more and more learning into an average day. Even when teacher such as myself protest, bureaucracies like the state insist this is the best way to go. Yet, how many of us would ever want to go back to learning like that? How many state bureaucrats would spend their days like this?

I didn’t post this just to suggest we need to rethink how we promote learning. This reminded me of why we need to show our students a little empathy and give them some slack. When I became one for about 30 minutes, I have to tell you…I was very thankful I was in charge of the class and not back there as a student!

Sports: A Simple Way To Bond With Your Students

Men playing college footballTeens love sports. OK, not all of them. But, when you take the number of teens who play some type of sport  at school or otherwise, combined with those who love a particular sports team, then you have an overwhelmingly clear majority.

Yet, I know many teachers who absolutely hate sports. They bash them around students and complain about their negative impact on the life of the school.

I think some teachers dislike sports for a few reasons. They:

  • Are “intellectuals” and feel that mindset is incompatible with sports
  • Think that athletics take precedence over academics
  • Have no personal interest in sports
  • Feel that sports are violent or a waste of time

Let me answer these particular objections briefly.

  • I have a Masters degree from a top university, studied Greek and Latin, and can tell you all you want to know about philosophy from Plato to Heidegger. I also never miss a chance to watch the Cleveland Browns or talk about them. Being intellectual and loving sports aren’t contradictory.
  • Athletics do take precedence over academics sometimes. It’s a sad fact. However, a kid’s interest in sports can actually be an asset, especially if they come from a family that lacks structure and accomplishments. Rather than being at war with sports, teachers should help students build on their sports successes to also find success in their schoolwork.
  • While everyone is allowed his or her own opinion, there are many different types of sports out there. The odds of having no interest in all of them is pretty slim.
  • Athletic contests can be violent and, for some kids, they are escapes. But, this doesn’t make all athletic activity bad or a waste of time. Sports mean a lot for many teens. It doesn’t matter what we think. It’s a reality.

I always enjoyed talking about sports with my students because it was a theme about which many of them had real passion. They were impressed that I knew a lot about the topic and cared about it. Also, by talking about it with them, it showed I cared, not just about the game, but about them!

Even if you don’t like sports, taking an interest is an easy way to bond with your students. If you enjoy sports, but don’t share that with the students, then maybe now is the time to bring up the topic. It’s an easy and effective way to build rapport with even the most troubled and “difficult” kids.