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How to fix your Underperforming School (pt. 2)

April 26, 2012
Deutsch: Graffiti an einer Buchhandlung in Men...

Deutsch: Graffiti an einer Buchhandlung in Menden im Sauerland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Continued from part 1)

Take some before and after pictures and ask a student to write a story about the experience.  Even better, make it a writing competition.  Ask a local newspaper to judge and make sure the winner gets some kind of prize and their story in the paper.  Newspapers love that stuff and so do students, and it’s good for the school too.  It always amazes me how well students write when there is no connection to their English class.

Now I want to address the faculty.  Please stop drafting that union grievance in your head while you should be working on the windows.  Even if your administration had given you that time for common planning they promised in the final faculty meeting last year, it wouldn’t really matter in the long run.  I mean, it’s not like you’re going to have any more in the future.  That awesome project idea you would have come up with integrating Edgar Allen Poe, evaluating negative exponents and Spanish would have just sat in your head getting you mad all year.  Isn’t it better to spend time on a project with real tangible and meaningful results?  Besides, you just missed a spot.

Oh, and don’t be that teacher who needs to prove that they care more than anyone else.  Every school has at least one and if you aren’t sure who it is, it’s probably you.  Everybody sees right through you and they’re all talking about you in the teacher’s lounge (that is, when you aren’t in there yourself telling everyone how much more you care than they do).

Be sure to work with students that aren’t yours.  Chat with them and avoid school talk.  It’s bad enough they are sweeping up 38 year old dust from under the bleachers, they don’t want to talk about that summer reading assignment they didn’t do*.  Be professional and appropriate, but let them see that you are a person, not just some teacher who doesn’t give a damn.  You are probably going to see that student in the halls sometime in the future.  When you do, that student isn’t going to see some teacher; they’re going to remember that time your principal lost his mind and actually made the whole school clean for the first two days of the year (what the hell was he thinking?).  You’re both going to smile and say hi, and be in a slightly better mood than you were before.  You will also get a much better response when you point out that the bell just rang and they need to get their ass to class.

* That gives me an idea – make sure every teacher assigns summer work.  That way when you announce that the first two days will be devoted to “school spirit” all the kids who didn’t do the summer work will be really excited that they have another two days to tell themselves they will do it later.

There are long term benefits as well.  There is nothing more stressful to students and teachers than the first days of the school year.  The students are sizing you up to see what they’re up against, and you are frantically going over that class list your Puerto Rican friend spelt out phonetically praying that you don’t screw anyone’s name up too badly.  When a student walks into your classroom and sees a familiar face, things will start on a much higher note.  I can’t emphasize strongly enough how valuable this is.   Students get a sense of pride when they knew a teacher before being in their class.  Mostly because they think it will help them manipulate you, but however you look at it – it motivates them.  That student tends to be more respectful, work harder, and they will tell their friends as well – “Lay off man, Wilsons cool”.

Don’t get discouraged or angry when the school is a mess again in a few weeks.  It is everyone’s job to maintain the condition of the school and it’s going to take time to break the habit of playing basketball with crumpled paper.  Charlie Sheen can’t do it all by himself.  If the entire staff is diligent about keeping things up, it will eventually rub off on the students.  Let them police each other.  When someone makes a mess, just calmly remind them that Amanda Bynes finished her community service hours last week so they’re going to need to clean that up themselves.

If it is possible, let students put a little of themselves into it.   It’s all in the delivery. “Students, I have decided that we are going to devote the first week of the year to school spirit.  The superintendent isn’t going to like this, and your teachers are going to be mad too.  But you deserve a school you can be proud of!” will yield much better student involvement than “You are all going to miss gym this week to scrub toilets.” Let them choose paint colors (happy colors, not black and obviously avoid gang colors – this might leave you with only a few shades of pink to choose from) and cover the walls with student artwork and projects.   Educational graffiti can be a great way to enhance the environment (I’m serious here, a group of students covered my classroom with math related graffiti – it may sound hokey but it was actually really awesome – I wish I had a picture of it).

Just don’t put up work with glaring mistakes.  I remember in one math class a teacher had her students make posters demonstrating rules for working with positive and negative numbers – in two of them the rules were completely wrong and in the third subtraction was spelt “substrastion”.  And perhaps even more tellingly, there were only 5 students in that class.  The teacher told me her students were special needs and she wanted to encourage them by displaying their work.  The student who misspelt subtraction was an English learner.  So much for actually teaching her how to spell, but its ok, at least she will feel pride in seeing her work proudly displayed – until the period ends, the next class comes in and she overhears some kids making fun of the idiot in the last class who can’t spell*.  Do I really need to explain this one?

The last part here is to thank everyone.  If this experience went as well as I hoped it would, you’re probably feeling pretty good and cautiously optimistic.  Don’t be all puppies and rainbows about it, but let the students know how much you appreciate them pitching in.  Especially the ones who didn’t actually pitch in.


*That last part did not happen of course, the situation was handled with much more sensitivity and respect.  You get the idea.

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