How Important is Relationship Building in the Classroom?

relationship2Think about the people in your life you are closest to. If they asked you to do something for them, even something absurd, would you do it? Why?

How about someone you know but you do not particularly like or who does not seem to care much for you. If he/she asked you for a favor, would you do it? Would you want to?

I believe the same rule applies in the classroom. There are many students who have been brought up to respect authority and follow directions simply because a teacher tells them to, and we are very thankful for these students. These sweet, well-behaved kids deserve all of the love and attention we can give them. However, there are also those few who seem to want to do the opposite of what we ask and may not always be interested in our consequences. This is where relationships come in.

I still remember my education professor at Hope College imparting her wisdom: “Some kids won’t do anything for you… until you build a relationship. Then they’ll do ANYTHING for you!” I have taught in elementary, middle, and high schools, and I believe these words to be true at every level.

Check out the words of one of our most struggling and sometimes verbally inappropriate high school students about a teacher who has taken time and energy to build a relationship with him:

“She makes sure I have my work done or at least am attempting at it. If it was another teacher trying to nag at me about doing something, I would of simply told them off. For some people, it’s really hard to get someone to do something. At least for me, I’m probably the most stubborn and hard-headed in the class so that’s pretty impressive. I’ve been kicked out and suspended from the class before (more than once) but she still was there to help. I’ve improved myself I think because of her. She also happened to be there when I was struggling in life. She asks about why I wasn’t at school and how to help. I’ve also more understood that not all people are bad or wish the worst on you to do bad. Most teachers couldn’t care less about you… she could of chose to be like that, but she didn’t. I appreciate that the most. For her to take extra time from her job and put it elsewhere is a great thing. She could hate me and just say I’ll become the next dropout or screw up my own life but does she? No. If more teachers were as helpful as her, some kids would be able to look forward to going to school.”

Building relationships does not:

  • mean you do not give consequences
  • happen overnight
  • involve being on a “friend level” with students, or that they don’t respect you as authority
  • ever become wasted time

Some specific tips I’ve developed over the years:

  • I try to keep this thought in mind: The 55 minutes in your classroom might be the most attention that student receives all day.
  • Kids like to know we’re human beings. Telling stories or even apologizing for something we did wrong helps build a relationship with them.
  • All students, but especially older or “at risk” students, will want a rationale about why they need to do an assigned task. The more we can honestly explain the necessity of a direction we’ve given, the more the relationship is built and the happier the student will be to complete it.
  • If you’re about ready to give up on a student, realize that probably every other teacher (and maybe even the student’s family) is too. That’s exactly when they need you in their corner the most: not letting them get away with anything, but also not disregarding them as “not worth the time.”
  • Some kids enjoy compliments, but to build relationships with those who don’t, I simply make observations. “Oh wow, you got a haircut!” “You really know these quadratic equations.” “Looks like you got new shoes!” These things still show them you’re noticing them.

In the wise words of my mother in law, “Everyone’s carrying their own cross.” When I’m burdened and stressed, I become less pleasant. What I need in that time is not only for someone to reprimand my behavior but more importantly for them to care about me, listen to me, and ask me if I’m okay. (See next tip)

  • Certain students are best disciplined in private. I have learned to switch my conversation from “Stop acting this way!” to “Are you okay?” Once I listen to the student about anything going on in his or her life that may be affecting their behavior, then we can handle consequences.

By building a relationship with your students, they will love you, be happy about coming to your class, and work for you, even when they don’t feel like it, because they know how much you care!

Some kids won’t do anything for you. Until you build a relationship; Then they’ll do ANYTHING for you.

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Review, Don’t Cram!

cram We will be having a test over the Cell Cycle on Monday. Here is your study guide. Make sure to study!

The words, “We will have a test” and “Make sure to study!” can bring anxiety to even the most academically strong student. But for the struggling learner, they can be so overwhelming that the first response is just not to study. Or the student will study to the best of their knowledge and still be unsuccessful. Testing will most likely never end, but how we prepare students for classroom testing can. And how and when students start preparing needs to be well before the night before the test.

After our daily lesson, students are given time to ask questions on their homework, have a concept reviewed or preview an upcoming topic from one of their classes.To avoid the ever common slogan in previous years of, “I have no homework,” we implemented this past year #teamAC review activities.

These activities allow students to take information they have learned from one if their classes and review the material in various ways to help learn and retain what they have been taught. The activities are designed around lessons we have covered in class such as how to make flashcards or quizlet.com,  acronyms, creating  practice problems for themselves, using chapter reviews, rhyming and many more.  When students come to class and don’t have any homework questions, they take out their review sheets and pick an activity. For an incentive, each review part is assigned a point value. Once students reach 50 points, they can chose a reward such as a free iPod time or a treat as well as we provide them with a review activity certificate.
These straightforward review lessons have given students more ways to work with information. And the great part is they experience many different ways to manipulate the material, allowing them to learn for themselves how they best study. And all of the review Activities can be done at home too. Once students become stronger with the material, we move them to studying together with a partner as well as small group review sessions.

Consider the next time you tell your students, “Don’t forget to study!” that many students might not even know how to do that. Instead, consider ways to  integrate review tasks into your class to teach these skills.

Can Your Hear Me Now?

CommunicationOne  important skill we can teach students is how to communicate with others . In talking with general education teachers, one of their biggest concerns for students, especially students with special needs, is the importance of  them learning to communicate and connect in the classroom . Once students get to high school, the expectation becomes stronger for students to use communication to help them succeed. As a result, communication skills are a curriculum target area with the students in our Academic Center.

Teacher Connect  Students need to know how to get in touch with  their teachers outside of the classroom. To begin with, we have students learn how to connect with their teachers. Does the teacher use a website? Do they use Moodle? Do they have set times to help students before or after school? What is their grading policy? Students review theses areas for all of their classes.

Communication with Teachers Throughout the semester, we work with students that may be having issues with a specific class. Some ways in which we help students with the communication process is by accompanying the student when they meet with a teacher. Often being there as a support person, can do wonders for student’s confidence. The student does most of the talking and we only speak up if the student needs the support. The progresses to future student/teacher meetings where we are no longer needed to accompany the student. If students need to contact teachers, we have them send an email to the teacher explaining their concern. Often teachers are able to clarify any questions with the student via email. While we work for students to speak with their teachers in person with concerns, we like the email contact for students who may otherwise forget to speak with their teachers, or who may have initial anxiety about face to face contact.

Communicating with Parents  Every Monday in our classroom, students check grades for their core classes. They identify any missing assignments they may have as well as what their current grades. Students, not the teachers, call their parents if they have any Ds or Es in their classes. For the first calls, we review what type of information they need to provide their parents about their grades, and why they are calling home. They also state what their plan is to improve their grades. If needed, students can fill out a flowchart script to assist them with this conversation. For some students who struggle with communication and/or remembering information, this is vital. As students become more fluent in the calls, they move away from the script.Team-Building-real-estate-agents-qualities

Communicating with Other Students As a blended program, our students come from a variety of learning and personal experiences. Some our students share many classes together. As a result, we integrate many team building activities into our classroom routines. From the Marshmallow Challenge to the Paper Tower Challenge to silent team building activities, we work with our students to learn to use a variety of communication skills to work successfully with others.

Communication is a skill that will be a driving force behind the success of students, and deserves  a place in every classroom. What do you do to integrate teaching communication skills into your classroom?

Prevention Trumps Reaction in the Classroom

prevention Prevention. We hear it often.  There is a  Prevention magazine. In medicine, preventative care keeps people from getting certain diseases, or at least knowing about them often sooner than they otherwise would so they can be treated. Smokey the Bear teaches people about how they can prevent wildfires. At last count, there were 210,000,000 results for the word prevention on Google. Prevention is everywhere. And it can be quite beneficial in the classroom.

A great tradition at our school is Senior Walk. On the last day of school for seniors, there is a senior breakfast. This is a time for the class to come together one final time before saying farewell to their high school careers. Following the breakfast, the seniors dress in their caps and gowns, and parade one lap through the school to say their goodbyes to other students and staff. All of the 9-11th graders and teachers line the halls and applaud and cheer them as they pass by. It is both an exciting and emotional time.

This year, the walk occurred during a freshman majority class period. As a result, almost all students in this  class had never experienced this event. I wanted all of the students in the class to get to experience this tradition and not have to return to the classroom due to undesirable behaviors. So, I took the route of prevention. On the Smartboard, I created a T-Chart. One side was labeled “Positive Behaviors During Senior Walk” and the other “Negative Behaviors During Senior Walk.”  I gave an example for each category that were pretty outrageous, but it was a hook for the students. And I got a lot of laughs out the examples. Soon, ideas started flowing. Kids were contributing their own. Questions came out of the discussion. A couple of students raised their hands to ask if a certain behavior would be allowed. I didn’t even have to answer. Their classmates answered for them! And it only took five minutes. Once we finished, I reminded students that if there were any issues, they would have to return to the class, and would miss out on the walk.

A few minutes passed and the P.A. announcement came on. We all headed out to the hallways. I am happy to report that all students got to experience this tradition, and none had to return to the classroom. It was a great farewell to our seniors.

Often as high school teachers, we make assumptions about certain behaviors. We think, “They know how to behave, we don’t need to review that.” While this can be the case for many students, not all students have been taught the same expectations, for no fault of their own. Had I not taken a few minutes to use prevention and review my expectations, I can almost guarantee that I would have had to react, and one or more students and I would have returned to the classroom and missed out on the opportunity to experience this senior tradition. Consider in the future, when you introduce a new concept or experience to your students, that could trigger undesirable behavior,  take just a few minutes to review what your expectations are, and let classmates help each other. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ~Benjamin Franklin

Resources for behavior management that we have integrated into our program:

CHAMPs and Discipline in the Secondary Classroom

Structure = Success

jengaClassroom structure is one of the most important foundations for a smoothly running classroom.  Not only does it tell students what your expectations are for them, but also what they can expect from other classmates and from you as the teacher.

For our Academic Center, we identified five elements that we wanted our program to stem from. We agreed these areas would be focused on student accountability, routine, organization of physical space, key working agreements and staff teamwork. We started by identifying some key questions for each of these areas to identify how each would be addressed.

  1. Student Accountability. How would students be graded in the class? How would they know daily or weekly of how they are doing?
  2. Routine. How would the average class period run? What does the beginning of the hour look like? What do they do when they first enter the classroom? How does the end of class end? If we were absent, would they know what to do with a substitute?
  3. Organization of Physical Space. Are materials readily available to students? Do they know where to find them and access them on their own?
  4. Key Working Agreements. What are the expectations of the class?
  5. Staff Teamwork. Are all adults on the same page? If a student asks one adult a question, would they get the same answer from all of us? How will we (the adults)support each other and work together to make the classroom most successful?

We came up with the following plan based on these questions.

  • Student Accountability. Our class is an elective credit, and our students must achieve an 80% (B-) in order to receive credit, called a G on a pass/fail system. Each day, students are graded on a 10 point scale. This grade is calculated on the daily lesson, use of a planner,  on task work and overall behavior during class. This grade sheet is accessible to them all hour, and is a great reminder of the expectations of the class.
  • Routine. Each day, our students check our Smartboard when they come in. See an example of the board here. Every Monday, students know to bring all of their folders/binders/notebooks to class to use for organization. They also know that they will be checking grades on these days. The remainder of the week begins each class period with a 15-20 minute learning strategy lesson followed by support time for their other classes through re teaching and pre teaching. By keep this routine, we have eliminated the class turning into a study hall.
  • Organization of Physical Space. Students are grouped into pods where they work at tables with other students and a team leader. All stations are equipped with supplies that students may need as well as computers for completing work. Any out of the ordinary supplies are available, as requested, by students.
  • Key Working Agreements. We base our program communication and life skills along with academics. Our students know that we are there to help them stay on track to graduate and help them learn skills that they will not only use in high school, but also when they leave our doors and venture out into the real world. To do this, we work hard to build a community of respect and trust between all students and adults in our program. Our classroom expectations are simple:

Actively participate in class lessons and discussions
Come prepared with materials and a planner
Respect yourself and others in the classroom
Take ownership of your success.

  • Staff Teamwork. Many teachers work by themselves in their classrooms during the day. Our program however, operates each class period with two lead teachers, our learning consultant, and two paraprofessionals. This is great for our program and our students because we are all on the same page of our vision for the program. And most importantly, our students have access to teachers with strengths in varying expertise of subjects. But all of this would not matter if we tried to run five different classrooms in one by five different adults. Teamwork is key, and communication among our staff is one of our top strengths.

Our program has been successful because of great planning based on the idea of  classroom structure as a key for  success. How do you use classroom structure to help you and your students?

A Day in the Life of One Resource Teacher

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After my first blog post, entitled, High School Support: Before the Blend I received a great response from an amazing fellow educator and family friend, Don Pata. He wrote,”  I feel that one of the every-day problems that I encounter with special education – regardless of the structure – is that we as classroom teachers don’t really know what happens in the special education classrooms!

Immediately I realized, that this is an ongoing problem in education. We, as educators, often have limited knowledge of what is going on outside of our classroom or department unless we are collaborating on an assignment or project. I don’t think this is anyone’s fault, but is a concern that I have had myself. Obviously, if you teach a content area, one would have an idea of what was going on in my classroom. But, with special education, many people only think of one or two ways in which a teacher in this field works. So, thanks to Don’s comment, I decided I would share about a “typical” day as a high school resource teacher…..although all educators know that “typical” rarely exists!

As I teach in a blended program, I am very blessed to work daily with two other amazing educators; Julie, a fellow resource teacher and Aubrey, a general education learning consultant with experience as a general and special education classroom teacher. We are a great team and we are so lucky to be supported by amazing paraprofessionals as well during the day.

A “typical “Monday class period begins with the “Weekend Update.” We found this to be an important time to connect with the students to hear about what they did over the weekend. Even at the high school level, students want to talk about what they did over the weekend, even if it was simply relaxing or going to the movies. We as the teachers also share out about what we did, and the kids then get to see that we are actually real people as well! After that, we check grades. Every Monday. This time gives students a chance to see how they are doing in all of their classes, and allows us to have one-on-one conversations with students that may be struggling to create a plan to get in missing work, connect with their classroom teachers and access teacher Moodle sites or websites. If students have Ds or Es, this is a time for them to call home to their parents and inform them of their grades. This in itself has been skill building.  Students learn how to have productive conversations with their parents and explain the plans in which they have created to improve their grades. We also have taught some kids how to leave a voice mail. Hey, spontaneous life lessons can be just as effective as planned ones! After the grading process students return to their pods in the classroom, and work with their team leader (a teacher or paraprofessional) to get support through pre-teaching and re-teaching of content from their other classes for the remainder of the hour.

Tuesdays through Fridays run a bit differently. On these days, class begins with a 15-20 minute learning strategy lesson. The most emphasis for these lessons is on organization, test taking strategies, advocating for oneself and personal drive. We ran a BYOD classroom this year, and integrated many types of technology into these lessons. Following the lessons, students  work with their team leaders through pre-teaching and re-teaching of content from their other classes for the remainder of the hour.

Just like general education teachers, I have a planning period or prep hour. During this time,  I work on IEPs, run IEP meetings, meet with ancillary staff (speech pathologists and social workers), check in with my caseload students and/or communicate with parents.  Other days I work with a student from our program studying for upcoming tests or editing a paper. Most of my lesson planning is done with my collaborating teacher outside of the school day.

As a special education teacher, I wear many hats. Some days I feel like a social worker, listening to the struggles students are having inside and out of school. I am cheerleader; helping my students learn that they can be successful; beaming when a student comes into the classroom with a smile on his/her face that they did well on a test we studied for together. Other days, I feel like a mom. Giving advice on life. Being a sounding board. And some days, I wear all of these hats more than once during the day.

I went into the field of special education  because I love working with struggling learners and want to make a difference in their lives while in school as well as beyond.

A Curriculum Conundrum

Wordle ACWhen the idea of revamping our program came to fruition, we started searching high and low for a curriculum and resources to teach our students. The internet had many ideas, and there were a  number of “study skills” books on the market. But they had several problems. First and foremost was that we were looking for engaging lessons and topics that would interest high school students, and provide skills that they were often lacking in their skill set. What we found were often worksheet based, strictly teacher led lessons. Or worse, video tutorials on study skills. And to top it off, many curriculum options out there focused on all paper and pencil skills. Our kids don’t learn that way. And, our goal was to introduce them to skills that could integrate technology. So after searching for the majority of summer, we decided that in order to run the program on our vision, we would create a program from scratch.

We decided that there was so much we wanted to cover with our students, but the most emphasis would focus on organization, test taking strategies, advocating for oneself and personal drive.