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!

Making Everyone More Bland

Christmas tree with decorationsYesterday a friend was telling me about how her son’s elementary school essentially banned holidays and birthday parties. It was done in the name of not being offensive and making sure that no one felt left out. I don’t know if they caught the irony of offending hundreds of families and leaving out hundreds of children by canceling Christmas, Halloween, and birthdays.

Sadly, this seems to be the trend among some educators. I can’t say the exact reasons, but I’ll list three of my guess why below.

Political Correctness

Many teachers have been educated in college programs that emphasized political correctness. As a result, they think their classrooms must be as non-offensive as possible to minorities. Rather than respecting and honoring minority traditions, they neuter the majority in the mistaken belief that this is somehow inclusive.

Bland Is Easy

It’s much easier to be bland rather than actually take the effort to manage individual students. For example, banning Christmas for all requires the stroke of a pen. Dealing with a few families who don’t like a particular holiday can be time consuming and a headache, especially if they’re vocal. Canceling on the silent majority is a lot easier.

The Weakness of the Current Model

The current model of education is a big reason why blandness reigns. We are still stuck in a one size fits all system. With the digital and internet age, there’s no reason why we have to cram a bunch of kids in one space and expect them all to conform. But, we do. Combine that with a diverse student body and trouble starts. Respecting diversity and insisting on conformity leads to the current trend of blandness.

I hope this blandness in education can be stopped. As a child, I loved the holiday activities and still recall them fondly. We had Jehovah’s Witness students who didn’t celebrate them. But, they managed. It’s a shame that some schools and their leaders can’t.

Five Ways To Experience The Benefits of Gratitude

A view of fall trees through a gate

The autumn – Something I am thankful for

In my last post I focused on the benefits of gratitude: a more positive worldview and a happier life. In this post, I want to explain some ways to get these benefits.

Keep A Gratitude Journal/Record

Studies show that listing a few people and things you are grateful for each day improves mood. One way to do this is to keep some type of gratitude journal, although as you will see below, it doesn’t have to be that fancy.

You can make it fancy by going out and buying a journal (or making one), and writing down everything you are grateful for. However, it doesn’t have to be this involved. I created a Google Doc file that I update with five new things every day. It looks like this:

11/1/2012





F – (I’ll explain this later)

See, it’s very simple. Because I want to update it whenever I want, and I have Google Docs on my phone and laptop. Even what I do may be too involved for some people. Your gratitude “journal” could simply be listing a few things you are grateful for to yourself on the way home from work, or when you get up in the morning.

List Your Gratitude for the Difficult Cases

It is easy to be grateful for people and things that make us immediately happy. However, if we really want to shift our perspective, we have to look at people and things we don’t like very much in a fresh way. One great way to do this is to list something you are thankful for about each and every difficult person, organization, or situation. As a teacher there is no better place to start than listing something you are thankful for about every student. It may be hard at first, but eventually you will find that the disruptive student becomes “energetic” or the non-participator becomes “reflective.” I was at an extra-school event recently, and a table of boys was driving me nuts. I shifted into gratitude mode, because I was getting frustrated. I was grateful that these students were extroverted and even funny, and they were interacting with the speaker in their own way. It definitely put the situation into perspective.

I tried this exercise with students, and they invariably mentioned certain teachers and administrators. Initially they used it as a bitch-fest about them. I reminded them they had to come up with something they were grateful for about these individuals, not just tell me why they were on their “don’t like” list! I saw a shift after a few minutes. Suddenly, the students saw the principal and teachers in a new light. “Umm, yeah they really do care about us” came out of one particularly rebellious, I mean, “independent-minded” student.

Say Your Gratitude When You Get Upset

When something happens that rattles you, one great tip is to say five things you are grateful for right away. Mouthy student? Denied a raise? Your kids driving you nuts? Immediately list five things you are grateful for. This is a great way to immediately change your perspective in a positive way and prevent a spiral into anger, sadness, or depression. If you need a little more positive “boost,” then name five more things.

List Your Future Gratitude

One of my favorite books is Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Joe Dispenza. While he gets into some speculative science that I am not really going to critique or defend here, I will say the book got me thinking about expressing my gratitude for events that haven’t happened yet (or may not happen).

One way to shift our perspective is to express our gratitude for events that haven’t happened yet. While Dispenza argues belief like this shifts realty at the quantum level, you don’t have to believe this to see its benefits. Being grateful for something that you want to happen is a great way to set your brain up to make it happen.

For example, on my Google document, I add an extra line with an “f” on it. You may have wondered why it was there earlier. This is where I list some type of future gratitude. For example, I may list “that the school day goes great” or “for getting a raise.” It is an interesting exercise and it has the effect of “priming” my brain to have a good day and make a little extra effort to get that raise.

Learn How to Express Your Gratitude

Feeling gratitude is the first step, and likely what makes you feel happier. However, expressing gratitude is important. Borrowing from non-violent communication principles, I suggest expressing your gratitude in the following manner. Express that you are grateful (you can use words like “appreciative,” “thankful,” etc) and be sure to add what the person did that you are thankful for. Even if you think the person “knows already,” express it anyway. For example, let’s say you are thanking a sub. Instead of saying “thanks for coming in for me” you could instead say “thanks for covering my class! You always do a great job explaining my lesson plans.” Most substitutes already feel like “less-than-teachers” and pointing out how great they are at teaching will make them feel great.

Gratitude is truly life-changing. Cultivating gratitude can change the way you view reality. Start today, and remember we are grateful that you are reading this article!

Make the Most of Election Day

I voted OhioWe’ve already discussed the importance of being non-partisan in the classroom. Today, we want to talk a little more about the importance of voting and how to impart that to your students.

It’s Not Just A Social Studies Thing

If one of your students started bleeding in your math class, you wouldn’t send him to the health teacher. No, you’d deal with it. Well, the same is true of teaching the value of voting. It doesn’t matter what the class you teach: you are a citizen or resident of your country and should want to teach those values to your students. How can you do it? For starters…

Integrate It Into Your Curriculum

No matter the class, there is a way to bring the value of voting into your lesson plans. You may have to be creative, but that’s what you get paid for!

For example, a health class can talk about the healthcare crisis and how voting can impact that. A math class can discuss the accuracy of polls and the statistics. Make sure that the students understand that they, as a group, can impact the future.

Show, Don’t Tell

Don’t just talk about voting; actually do it. Let your students know about your voting process. Although I don’t recommend promoting one candidate over the other, it’s good for your students to know that you participated in the process. Even if you’re cynical about the government, at least let your students think they can make a difference.

Remember to cast your vote. The political process isn’t perfect, but it is a system that has served the United States well for over two hundred years.