“You’re Scary” – How Classroom Management Can Hinder Conversation

So the first few years of my teaching career were pretty rocky.  Classroom management became a big focus, and I worked hard to strengthen that area.  While addressing the whole group, I had to start giving kids clear and direct instructions about whatever task that they are doing, and cracked down hard on any side conversations or distractions.  It has never been total lockdown because I want to encourage talking about the material while they are working and I’m circulating, but that is a stark contrast to the few times when I’m up in the front.  Once kids start fooling around I have flashbacks of some of first years of difficult teaching and use all the tools in my bag (wait time, teacher stare, presence, etc.) to get everybody quiet and listening.

And then this happened…

So today I was explaining the next steps that everyone needed to take in order to use google sheets.  They were supposed to get their computers to go to this bit.ly link, then go to the file menu and make a copy, and rename it with their name and then if they get finished early, help their neighbor.  So I got the class quiet, I said the steps that they had to do, and I asked them if they had any questions. Everyone remained quiet.  So then after the silence they went about looking at their computer and getting busy.

I walked around to help people and ended up spending longer than I liked going desk-to-desk helping people.  The things that I was helping with were clearly things they might have had questions about that would have been good to asked to the whole group.  Some kids were wondering what bit.ly even was, or had trouble connecting their computer to the internet.  It took a little longer than I intended.

After we got everybody on the google doc I wanted to walk everybody through how to use the spreadsheet to make a chart.  I got the class quiet, talked through the information, and asked if there were questions.  Again, silence.

“Are you guys like scared of me? I am asking if you have questions and nobody is saying anything.  Am I intimidating or something?”

“Yeah!!”  a few students exclaimed as others nodded their head.

A quiet student in the back said “You’re Scary!”

We shared a nice moment of understanding where each other was coming from, and then we had a pretty open talk about what people needed to do with the computer for the rest of the class.

I realized that I need new practices to encourage student voice

The fact that students had trouble asking questions about some concrete computer tasks, these same students certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable asking about complex math concepts.  While part of me was proud that I had come so far from the first year teacher with bad classroom management, another part of me was really concerned that now I had to come back the other direction and create a more open and discussion-friendly classroom.  Before I thought that if students were in an environment free of the “funny business”, then students would be free to discuss, but now it seems that I need to do more to encourage students to feel comfortable asking questions when the don’t understand.  I guess that’s the profession, once you figure something out in your teaching, it’s only a matter of time before you have to start fixing it.


How do you encourage students to speak up when they might not know something?

This is why I’m hot, and this is why I’m not. Two approaches to deal with the “October Blahs”

October is the month where teaching starts to get real.  By now the school has sorted through all of the beginning of the year hiccups, and your kids have all gotten comfortable in the room.  This time of year, October, is where it starts to become about you. Right now if it might feel like you are having problems or your plans from the summer are falling apart, and it’s easy to get frustrated with yourself.  Don’t get too down on yourself at this point of the year.  Now is the time to take a positive look at yourself to remind yourself how silly it is to get down on yourself so early in the year.

This is why I’m hot

First thing you should do is look at all things that are ‘hot’.  On a sheet of paper, or in your evernote, or even on your blog list out all of the things going well.  Here are some prompts to think about:

  • What systems are functioning?

Looking at the goings on around your classroom, what things are working so well that you take them for granted.  Some days I think back to the first October of my teaching and I had to change my entire system for pretty much everything (how they entered the class, how they took notes, what should happen when they throw broken crayons across the room, etc.).  I persisted through the world falling apart around me only 10 years ago, yet now I act as though it’s bedlam when it takes more than a minute to transition to group work.  Give yourself some credit, and think through all of the things that are going well.  If you can’t think of anything, ask a colleague to come in and write down what they notice.

  • What students are responding?

In your room there might be 1 or 2, kids who are not getting it, and seeing them struggle can’t help but get to you.  You’ve pulled them aside, rearranged the seats, and even worked their names into a worksheet but you still can’t make any progress with them.  Well what about the kids who are responding?  What is working for them?  If you don’t have any idea what will work, maybe gather some information with exit tickets.  You’re better off improving the overall experience for all your students than targeting just the one or two trouble spots.  That’s like the guy who wants to cut down his gut, but instead of getting a better diet, doing all around cardio, and purusing a more active lifestyle, they strap on a slendertone ab flexing belt and curls up on the couch with a pillow and a pint of ice cream.

  • What extremes have you been able to navigate?

Teaching is a constant dance between extremes.  First you want a loud, energetic discussion, then you want a quiet, focused independent work time.  Maybe your students will be thinking through all the ways to challenge an idea, and next they’ll want to think of all the ways to support some other idea.  You probably begin most lessons wanting students to be in their comfort zone, only by the end of it, have them grappling with something completely new.  Swinging from one extreme to other, whether it be in content, or classroom layout, or interaction style, is a difficult and important task.  Before you worry about how far forward you wanted them to go, give yourself credit about how much lateral progress you were able to make along the way.

  • Other reasons you’re awesome

There are lots of things you have to write down.  You just aren’t doing it because you’re modest.  Come on, if you’re going to get down on yourself, you owe it to yourself to brag a little bit first.  Write down all the reasons you’re awesome and some of the positive things going on in your class.


This why I’m not

Next, after you’re done with the positive list, and hopefully shifted your perspective, list out all the things aren’t working well. As you write, you need to think about the next steps.  Don’t think that once your list of things are finished you can just curl up on the coach with the Triple-P (Pillow, Pajamas, Pint of Ben & Jerry’s) and feel sorry for your self.  You’ll have to get your growth mindset in gear, and make plans to have growth in those areas that aren’t working.  Make plans to address them so next time you can say: “Well this isn’t working, but I am on the way to fixing it.  Some general plans to getting things fixed could include:

  • Asking for help from colleagues, friends, or other people
  • Trying a new technique to see if it works
  • Reading more resources for teaching
  • Looking around the #MTBOS for ideas
  • Sitting down with people in your class and getting to the root of the issue
  • Sticking with what you’ve been doing, but with more preparation, more planning, and broken up into different chunks.

Hopefully this helps out, I’m only a little ways into teaching, but I’m going to explain why I’m hot, and why I’m not in a few weeks.

This Week: CLASSES!!!

In the first four weeks of the school I have been doing anything but teaching.  This cycle I am waiting for the final group of late admits to enroll in our school so I have not been teaching any regular classes, except for a class that has only 10 students which will soon be merged with the new admits.  Even my teaching hasn’t felt like real teaching.  It all comes to an end this Wednesday when I start my first regular day of classes here.  I’ve been feeling an itch to return back to the classroom since the beginning of the year, but it’s definitely gotten stronger in the last day or so.  I feel like the retired teachers coming back to visit in the fall who is way more excited to talk about what is going on with the kids than that new RV they bought.

What I’m teaching this week

So I have a hefty task for our this first week, let alone the next six.  Students need to learn about our portfolio based curriculum and get adjusted to approaching math in a different way than their old school.  Material needs to be crazy differentiated, as some students will transfer here expecting calculus, others were hoping to get through a 2nd run at geometry, and all of them are going to be in my class.  The biggest task to figure out for this week is how to explain to kids that they need to complete an appropriate portfolio project, based on their ability, by the end of the cycle.  New students who aren’t used to having a non-test based math class are going to go through some growing pains, and adjustment.  Let’s hope they get on board quickly (by ‘on board’ I mean viewing math as something that have ownership of, not merely a set of things to memorize before regurgitating it on an assessment later).  Let’s see how this goes…

What I’m blogging this week

I’ll probably blog about the diagnostic that I use with my new class and what I think the results of the diagnostic tell me about my plans for this cycle.  After my conversation with Michael Pershan, I want to look into reflective practices that can inform my blogging, and other people’s blogging as well, so I will see what I can find about that. Given the uptick in workload, that will probably be all I can have time to write

What I’m thinking this week

This week I’m wondering if someone will take the time to notice that I posted a full 6 days after it says I did.  Better late than never, right?

Response to the #MTBOS Challenge: Discover and describe (and validate!) some core ways to improve at teaching.

If teaching is improved, the improvement is the result of a teacher making changes in the classroom.  Perhaps policy, professional development, or standards inspired that change, but what matters is what happens in the classroom.  There are a number of levers that can be pulled to change what goes on in the classroom, and a quick list could include the following:

  • Content of printed or electronic teaching materials
  • Way the teaching materials are introduced and explored with students
  • Relationships the teacher has with students, and the students have between each other
  • The conversational norms  among students and the teacher about the material
  • The methods of formal and informal assessment
  • The messages students receive about assessment, learning and mathematics as a discipline

A teacher could come in to work and tweak any of those things tomorrow, and notice a difference with their students.  The next day the teacher can take the change they made yesterday, and how it differed from previous classes, and try another tweak.  Over a school year of tweaking their teaching, as well as noticing, and responding to the differences, the teacher could improve at teaching.  Teachers making adjustments in their class and learning from what changes is perhaps the only way changes in teaching practice.

Traditional ways of changing teacher practice

The traditional methods of changing teaching, such as PD,  attempt to create the catalyst that starts the teacher along a chain of reactions of tweaks that will lead to changed practice.  A one day PD gives teachers 3 examples of new lessons with the expectation that teachers will take those 3 lessons, use them, and question their current practices in positive ways.  The PD would then be a one-time catalyst of future growth.  Of course if the chain reaction dies out before the teachers leave the conference hall, then it will never have any intended effect, even if the teachers pantomime the 3 lessons and go back to business as usual next week.  This may not be the fault of the PD either, the teacher may be in the middle of working on some other part of their teaching, or have a different adult learning style.

In this traditional model, those in charge of improving teaching can only worry about the clarity and power of PD’s ability to inspire a change in the teacher, but cannot support the continual process of experimentation and noticing the difference.  What could be a new way to do it?

Supporting The Process

Blogging sounds like a perfect method towards supporting the process that teachers start in their own classroom. It provides a place to document the little changes they make  and also get feedback about those changes.  They can read about things that other people are doing in their classrooms they can learn new things to try in their room.  Thus, the blogosphere serves as a 24/7/365 set of ideas that can catalyze a chain reaction of teacher growth whenever the teacher needs it (as opposed to the 3 designated days on the district calendar).

There are certainly other ways to spark, support, and push the on-going teacher development process taking place inside their classrooms.  For people who aren’t interested in typing, there is a lot of value in talking about teaching with your peers.  A structured way to do this would be in a professional learning community and looking at different products of student learning through protocols.

Teachers reflections about their teaching are only as good as the information they have about it.  Having clear formal and informal assessment practices would allow them to have more information to base their next decisions on.  Other teachers have learned from having student surveys and feedback forms about their teaching.

Nothing is more important than doing something. There are also a number of specific technical things that can be done by teachers to improve a specific facet of their teaching.  I think part of what you’re asking in your tweet is how do we get people to improve their teaching when they might not want to otherwise.  We can package up a bundle of practices and air drop them into teachers lounges across the country, but it won’t make a difference unless teachers are actually trying them.  Actually trying means accepting the fact that constant change and growth in your practice is as much a part of a teacher’s life as having summers off.  (It’s not just teacher’s.  Surgeons, artists, scientists and many other professions have to hone their methods and explore new procedures


It all started when I was reading the Michigan State chapter of How To Build a Better Teacher on my way to work and I started getting all excited.  Since it was about my Alma Mater, and talked about the elementary school near my brother’s apartment, it was as if the fight song was playing in my head the whole time.  By the end of the Chapter, I was excited about really tearing into a problem with a class discussion.  Excited might not even be strong enough.  I was ready to run through a pedagogical wall.  When I was back at Michigan State we saw some of the footage of Magdalene Lampert and thought about how I always wanted to have a class discussion that could function like that, and assumed I’d have figure out in maybe my first 10 weeks of teaching.  The truth is, while I’m starting my 10th year, I still feel that I have a long way to go.

Why haven’t I got the class discussion figured out?  It’s rough having long deep conversations about math in my school, for the littany of reasons that one would expect (large classes, complex content, pacing concerns, classroom management, for starters), but in all honesty it’s probably me.  It’s probably that I just get satisfied too easily, and don’t try to push it.

But today’s class could be different for three reasons.

1)  I have small classes.  My class is only partially full because I’m holding spots for the kids who are going to be transfering from their school in a few weeks.  We always save spots for kids who report to their school in september and then decide to leave in october, and this year we are setting those students up with spaces in set aside classes.  Since I have a small group, and I have less pressure, it has led me to try more of this “Become a different teacher” Goal that Ihave for the year.

2) The content is perfect.  Today’s lesson was talking about representation, and connections, and how they should be represented in a math project.  In all honesty we could have done whatever I want because I don’t have to dig in to the course until October’s influx of new Students.  This lesson today was designed to get students comfortable with the NCTM process standards, so they can understand how they will get graded.

3)  I started slow, but I am going to finish fast.  I was as pumped about it as Apollos Hester, and the motivation was going to take me over the top.  Today is the day.  We are having the discussion.

We started the class talking about estimation as we always have, then we focused on two problems.

The first was a “5th test” problem, where there had been 4 test previously and what would need to be scored on the 5th in order to reach a certain average.  The 4 tests were 98, 96, 97, and 89, and they needed to find out what score the 5th one should be in order to get a 95.  What students got stuck on was the fact that the 4 tests actually averaged out to 95 on their own.  It was strange how much of the class was confused because the number 95 was the same number they were starting with, and the same number they needed.  All of a sudden, we were doing it, we were having a conversation about what this means, and it was pretty natural.  The students understood that if a test lower than 95 was scored, and a test higher than 95 was scored, it would lower and raise the average, so it followed that the number 95 would be the only one to maintain the average on the final test.  I guided them through this proof, and it wound up the students all writing my logic as the explanation for the problem.


The conversation about the first problem didn’t lead to the rich mathematical discussion that I wanted, but I still had the Skittle problem.  Roger has 2520 skittles, how many would he get if he had to divide them among 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or more people.  There was too much here to not have all the students get engaged, and we can have the students develop the function during the conversation.  We are DOING this!


The class worked silently at first, and I circulated to gather the students’ various responses.  The goal of this problem was to think about representation, and we had talked earlier about how graphs, tables and equations were all great representation, so I took note of these things as they popped up around the room.  One student tried graphing, so I had him make a neater graph on graph paper to show up under the document camera.  Another girl who said she hates math on the first day made a table out to 10, so I had her write it up on the board.  I was setting the stage for a pretty dope conversation.


We got started.  I asked kids “What are the ways they could represent this?” The table was already up there, everyone agreed with the numbers, the graph was an obvious choice, and I put the student’s graph on the document camera.  We had a diversion about the graph, where asked them about what they thought the graph would do, and I put a couple of extra points on Walters graph that we knew from Janice’s table.  Seemed like a good time to talk about asymptotic behavior.


Then I asked if anyone had represented it as an equation.  Shaking heads.  I asked everyone to think quietly about an equation and then we were going to construct the equation based on each others thinking.  I was amped.  After 5 minutes I wrote everyone’s equation on the board.  I asked Janice, she said “S = 2520 + P.”  This seemed like addition infatuation, when people think it should be addition just because.  We could totally break down why that operation isn’t important.  I didn’t say any of this, I just quietly moved on to the next student.  Roger, gave me “S/P = X.” This seems like we could quickly touch on which variables are important here, and what variables even mean.  Next, Clyde said he didn’t know, and Walter said “S = x.”


Is it weird that I was excited about having a bunch of “wrong” answers on the board?  I was about to launch into one of those conversations about math where the kids talk about what they were thinking, and defend their points against what other kids proposed, and develop conjectures when all of a sudden Clyde says:

“Is it s = 2520/p?”

And my response was:

“Oh, That’s right.”

WHY DID I SAY THAT!!?!?!?!!!?????  The blood left my face as the impact of that statement reverberated through the class.  My reflexive affirming of Clyde’s statement triggered a cascade of verbatim copying across the class.  Once they all had the “Answer,” I might as well have been teaching Charlie Brown, as the rest of the students begin focusing on packing their bags.  Before I had time to recover, Walter reminded that class had already ended, and filed out of class with rest of class past the board full of answers that I had accidentally confirmed as “wrong”.  Everyone filed past me as I lamented another opportunity lost.  Hopefully they still learned something.  I guess I still have a lot of learning to do, and a lot of bad habits to break.


Have you found ways to improve in this area?