Friday, January 13, 2017

Parallels among Dictators, Parents, and Teachers

“Sometimes, it’s okay to be a dictator” – those are words of advice given to me by my husband as he saw me struggle with our one-and-a-half-year-old twins fourteen years ago. He didn’t want me to turn into a Stalin or Mussolini, but he saw my frustration and called on my leadership skills. Being a natural consensus builder, I was frustrated as a parent when one twin wanted to go to the pool and the other to the playground, or one pointed to Good Night Moon and the other to The Itsy Bitsy Spider for the bedtime story. I wanted them both to be happy and come to agreement on an activity or book. But you don’t build consensus with toddlers! I had to learn to accept that I was in charge and sometimes needed to be the “dictator” – or at least a unifying and determined leader.
At this point you may be wondering what raising twins and being a dictator has to do with teaching. I think teaching is a lot like parenting. Both involve unfolding malleable minds to infuse common sense, wisdom, skills, interests, passion, and more. As educators, we are often passionate about our subject areas and willing to share our knowledge with our students endlessly. But how informed are we about the skills of teaching, of transferring information and generating knowledge in the classroom? How prepared are we to transform our classrooms into well-managed and bustling hubs of learning? Just like I had very little formal education in parenting before I had children, I never took a course in pedagogy or classroom management prior to teaching. I learned most of what I know about teaching from my mother, who was a school teacher for over 50 years. I also learned from my colleagues, from being a student myself, from parenting, participating in workshops, and from experiences in the classroom. Classroom management is not an easy task and it is not something that just happens without effort. However, with some directed energy into classroom management, you can achieve teaching and learning experiences that are rewarding for both yourself and your students.
Here are my seven tips for classroom management:
1.     Model behavior: This is the most important aspect of both parenting and teaching: they will copy what you do.  If you want your students to be on time, you need to be on time and ready to start the class when the bell rings. When you give the students respect, they will respect you in return – well, at least mostly. If you are organized and have a well-thought-out lesson plan, students will take the classroom experience seriously and organize their notes, learning and participation accordingly. If you have a no-cellphone policy, that means that you also need to put away your cell phone and not answer texts or calls during class time – or even use the phone to check the time. If you expect students to turn in assignments on time, you need to return assignments, exams and quizzes on time.
2.     Set clear expectations: Many experts of classroom management will tell you that it starts with the syllabus. If your syllabus spells out clear expectations and you follow it, the students know what to expect in your class. Taking attendance is always a great idea – it helps you learn the students’ names and it signals to the students that you expect them to be in the classroom. Take attendance at the beginning of class and mark latecomers tardy if you expect students to be on time.
3.     Be consistent and fair: Treat everybody the same, give everybody a chance to participate, don’t change policies midstream; if an assignment is due at midnight on Monday that is when it is due – not the next morning, not the next day and not at a different time for a privileged few.
4.     Don’t take it personally: Students that act up in class are usually not reacting (only) to something that you did or didn’t do; they are likely bringing in baggage from their life to the classroom. We all have good and bad days. Students that are stressed because their relative is in the hospital, their partner is cheating on them, or their car broke down may not be the best student that day, or even that week or month. None of this is your fault or something that you have control over. You only have control over the classroom and yourself. By letting go of resentment you can focusing on how your behavior may help the student manage him or herself better in your classroom.
5.     Be flexible: The students at Lincoln today are very different from the students ten years ago. Society changes and our students change with it. Take the example of fake news on social media. Social media was just starting ten years ago and while fake news has always been around, it was never as contagious or damaging as it has proven to be in the last several months. This means that you have to change your teaching to keep up with the times. For example, today students need to learn how to distinguish an ever-increasing onslaught of inaccurate information from accurate information. How have you adapted your teaching accordingly?
6.     Redirect behavior: Let’s say you have a student or two that always seem distracted by their cell phones – they just don’t seem to be able to let go of their attachment to these devices. Rather than yelling at them, calmly call the student out (thereby letting them know that you are watching and that you care) by asking him or her to use the cellphone to look up information for the class.
7.     Don’t be afraid to lead (because sometimes it's okay to be a dictator): The students are looking to you for direction, recognition and approval. It takes both courage and trust to stand in front of the class and direct a positive learning experience. Be brave and try new ideas in the classroom – more likely than not, your students will like it. If something doesn’t work, be honest with yourself and your students; admit that we are all fallible and tweak your next lesson plan for the better. A good leader is not afraid to fail.
What tips for classroom management do you have and where did you learn the skills of being a teacher?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Name Your Resolution

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Maybe that is just because I have never been very good at keeping them, or maybe it is because I think we are capable of change at any time of the year. In that vein, I’m a big fan of “Beginning of the Semester Resolutions”; at the beginning of most semesters, I have resolved to try something new in one or more of my classes. Sometimes it’s been big undertakings like flipping the classroom for all my classes or revising the entire content of a course. But more often, I try to incorporate one new pedagogy or strategy into my teaching. Last semester, I used the “Jigsaw Puzzle” approach to active learning when I introduced the syllabus on the first day of class. I don’t know about you, but I usually dread going over the syllabus as it can be one of the most boring parts of the entire semester – and why start on such a mind-numbing note instead of setting the tone that your class is all about active learning and sharing information and skills? Basically, after distributing the syllabus, I divided the class into five or six groups and assigned one part of the syllabus to each group. The groups were asked to summarize their part of the syllabus, select one or two of the most important pieces of information in that part, and come up with one question. Each group then reported back to the class. It was a hit; nobody was distracted by their phones, everybody participated, the students had to talk to each other and get up in front of the class, where they also had the chance to introduce themselves. Best of all, I didn’t have to listen to myself drone on while watching the students nod off in their seats. I’m doing it again this semester.

This break I have been thinking about names. I agree with Nichole Igwe in her blog post titled “Getting Names Right; It’s Personal” ( where she talks about all the reasons why the classroom and college experience is enhanced if faculty members take the time to learn their students’ names. It can be a struggle, but I make it a point to learn all my students’ names and with some effort I usually have it down by the second or third week of class. I definitely learn better if there is an action associate with the learning – like the simple act of handing back student papers with their names on it. As I take roll the first few times, the whole class seems to have fun as I try to pronounce names whose phonetics I would never have guessed from the spelling. Some students don’t believe that I will ever remember their names, or stop confusing their's with their best friend's. Often, I keep messing up, but students seem to forgive me and appreciate the effort. But here is where I struggle: I am horrible at remembering last names. My brain only seems to have capacity for 50+ new first names each semester. The last names remain a blur and I’m ever so grateful that the association between first and last names are held by my class roster and not my brain. My lack of capacity for last names may stem from my upbringing in a country where everybody, teachers, friend’s parents, doctors, and professors where always addressed by first name. Sweden formally decided to eliminate class differences by agreeing to call everybody by their first name long before I was born. But I have lived and worked in this country for more than 20 years! Maybe it is time that I let go of excuses and start using both first and last names. Or maybe only the last name? I am curious to learn what other faculty members at Lincoln do: Do you learn your students’ names? Whether you memorize names or not, do you call students by their first or last name? Or maybe both?

For now, I think my “Beginning of the Semester Resolution” will be to try to learn the students' first and last names and ask them what they prefer to be called. How about you? Do you have a resolution for the fresh start?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Students These Days

A long time ago, half-way into my first semester as a faculty member in the Biology Department at Lincoln, I realized that to be an effective teacher, I have to meet the students where they are. In other words, I cannot expect our students to be anything other than who they are or know anything more than they do. To fail at this basic tenet is to set our students up for failure.
I was reminded of this thought as I read a blog-post titled “Ugly Consequences of Complaining about ‘Students These Days’” by Maryellen Weimer. The link to the blog can be found below. Here is an excerpt:
Sometimes we do need to vent. It isn’t easy teaching students who don’t come to class prepared, seem to always want the easiest way, are prepared to cheat if necessary, don’t have good study skills, and aren’t interested in learning what we love to teach. Venting, especially to a trusted colleague, helps us put things in perspective. At some point, though, venting morphs into complaining, and what we say about students becomes what we think about them. And that’s when it starts getting dangerous, because it affects how we teach.
By meeting the students where they are, we may stop complaining and instead put energy into designing effective and engaging learning experiences for our students. If we keep expecting students to have background knowledge or skills that they simply never acquired, we are helping them fail.
You can probably imagine what this approach has meant for my teaching; I constantly assess my students’ prior knowledge to make sure that they have the background knowledge or skills that I expect; more often than not they don’t. Often, our students are unable to transfer skills from one class to another. Other times they simply have never learned a concept. Either way, I try to find ways to help them gain the knowledge so that they can succeed in my class. It doesn’t take more than a quick reminder sometimes, maybe a worksheet or two, or an online reading quiz that requires students to review previously learned concepts.
You may call this coddling, or hand-holding, maybe even enabling – and I admit that it would be if I never raised the bar but kept expecting them not to acquire knowledge. However, I have found that teaching my students how to swim before I throw them in the water helps them succeed. I am doing my best to meet them where they are – and then moving on to new experiences so that they can become lifelong learners.
Do you find yourself complaining about students? How do you think it effects your teaching? How do you meet your students where they are? 
Link to the full blog-post: