Ideas for Teachers

When we look back over the traditions from which our current school practices arose, we can see a system that practically guarantees failure for at least a portion of our students. Maybe it made some sense, when the majority of our students were heading to factory-era jobs, to stress the importance of uniformity as much as our schools did. And nowhere is this value more evident—still!—than in our obsession with standards and standardization.

Even without disputing the questionable importance of everything we believe all children should know or be able to do, the notion that we should be able to walk into any group of eighth graders, for example, and teach them all the same concept at the same time and expect uniform mastery is certainly not based in the reality of any group of human beings I’ve ever met. Throw in our attachment to the good old bell curve and we end up with a lot of kids left out of the loop.

One of the unfortunate places to which these traditions lead is the expectations that teachers’ evaluations reflect a normal distribution (that is, bell-shaped curve) of grades. As much as we may talk about wanting all children to succeed, you can be sure if you have too many successful kids in your class, somebody is going to be on your case for not doing your job. Still, even in a highly structured (or even repressive) system, there are things we can do to, yes, get away with success.

• Assess what your students already know. If they can already demonstrate mastery, you’ve got justification for moving them ahead. If they lack prerequisite skills, you have something to back up your decision to teach what they need.

• Document like there’s no tomorrow. Good documentation is more than a sign of professionalism and accountability. It also helps to protect your administration, whose support can be invaluable in actually matching your instruction to the needs of your students. Keep track of assessments, dates specific skills were mastered, work samples, progress.

• Move along the lines of district-mandated curriculum. If you have to back up the content you’re teaching or choose to include content that is not listed in the mandates for your grade level or subject area, working within what’s already established in the system can give you more leverage than arbitrarily choosing skills or content to teach.

• Maintain high levels of performance as your criteria for achievement. Continue raising hurdles as kids make progress. You can fend off charges of “lowering the bar” or grade inflation when you keep pushing and refuse to accept inferior or sub-standard work based on your assessment of what is possible for a particular class, group or individual to do.

• Back up decisions with research that will support your instructional choices—anything about how kids learn, or how they learn that particular content, can help.

• Build relationships and communication with your administration, department, support staff and grade-level colleagues.

• Build relationships with parents. I never had a parent insist on a placement that would guarantee failure for his or her child. And once they saw evidence of success, achievement, progress or even enthusiasm for my class, I found parental support to be one of the best weapons in the arsenal.

• Keep your intentions in mind. If you are there to ensure that your students gain knowledge and proficiency, you will choose very different behaviors than if you just want to barrel through the curriculum.

• Be willing to take a few hits. Bucking tradition can cost you some conflict or disapproval from colleagues.

This excerpt was taken from the manuscript for The Win-Win Classroom by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Related links from The Win-Win Classroom:

Guidelines for Offering Students Choices
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Behavior
Teacher Self-Assessment
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Handling Negative Student Behavior

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