Another day in the life…

Today was an alright day. The lesson was on solving simple equations that only take one step. On the plus side, I taught a difficult concept with some success, and managed to remediate at least 2 people on yesterday’s lesson. Classroom management also went pretty well, and I managed to keep my struggling students in the game. On the minus side, mastery is still low, and only 5 of my 9 kids showed up. This means that any success I did have is pretty much wasted for the other half of my class that wasn’t here today, which really sucks because tomorrow is going to be another tough lesson.

Evidently, I need to work on holding the students more accountable for what they’re learning. I thought I was keeping the material pretty rigorous, but my summer mentor teacher (SMT) thinks I’m spoon feeding it to them. She says I need to get the students up to the board. Maybe she’s right, but from my perspective, it’s pretty close to impossible to remediate for the day before, teach a tough concept, and demand a large amount of independent thought on the students’ part in one 45 minute period.

That brings me to one of the toughest challenges of the classroom, which is squeezing the most amount of instruction out of my tiny amount of available time. It’s a continuous battle, but I’m getting better bit by bit. Every day is a 45 minute performance, usually half-improvised. This is as tough as it sounds, but it’s also surprising how hard it is to fit in everything that needs to be done.

I’m going to try to find a way to do what my SMT recommends, but due to the amount of extra time it takes to incorporate student participation, it’s in direct opposition to my need to expose the students as much material as possible. And exposure is particularly important. I have two fewer teaching days this summer than my most conservative estimate–school was canceled on Friday, due to a heat wave, and it was just announced yesterday that the final exam is a day earlier than the earliest I thought it might be. On the other hand, I desperately need to find a way to increase mastery, and more student participation might be the ticket.


On another note, back to my low attendance. The saddest thing is that you can never tell or assume why your students aren’t coming, because it’s easy to take it personally without knowing the back story. But we found out today from one of my student’s social worker that the reason she isn’t there is because her baby is ill and in the hospital. Keep in mind that this is a 4th grader. A week ago, another one of my students showed up without the rosy demeanor we’re used to seeing from her. We were perplexed, until we found out the reason she was feeling down was that a friend of hers had been killed the weekend before. And these are just the stories we know, in a class of 9. Who knows what goes one that we don’t know. Other stories I’ve heard from other teachers are far more mind-blowing. But, as much as you want to feel bad for these kids, you can’t pity them, because the world doesn’t pity them. At the end of the day, they’re expected to come out of situations like this and compete with everyone else.

I could write a lot more on that thought, but it’ll have to wait.

The Invisible Hand

The most surreal thing about the TFA Institute experience is the way the organization “models” the very techniques they’re teaching you to use. It’s like being a caged animal in a zoo, and at the same time having your own pets to train and take care of. Bizarre. So while they’re teaching you about investing students and classroom management, they’re using the exact same manipulations on you to keep you in line. And this is pretty much completely necessary, because morale gets pretty low when they’re asking you to sit in 90 minute workshops, 4 times a day, on 4 hours of sleep. The workshops themselves are modeled after lessons, which means for 90 minutes at a time, you get to fill out worksheets, write reflections, and be spoken to as if you were a 6th grader. This is exactly as irritating as it sounds, but the most remarkable things about it are 1) how well it works, and 2) how unaware most of the corps members here are of what’s going on. So while so many people are so resistant to what is commonly referred to as the “TFA Kool-Aid”, they don’t realize that the same strategies they don’t take seriously are what’s keeping us compliant with the ridiculous numbers of demands and deadlines the organization makes of us.

I don’t write this to bash TFA. The whole operation really is quite incredible. It’s just weird being on the inside of the machine. For such a large organization with such a complicated mission, it’s amazing how the whole thing works like clockwork. TFA tells you in December that you’re going to get your Pre-Institute reading package on March 3, and sure enough, it shows up that exact day. There’s an entire hierarchy of operations, programming, and management working nonstop to make sure that the only thing the teachers worry about is student achievement. It’s far from perfect, but two of the central tenets of TFA are data analysis and continuously increasing effectiveness, and the whole organization operates with these things in mind. As hard and frustrating as Institute can be at times, it’s amazing to hear how much it has been refined each year. And whoever runs operations and logistics does an incredible job. Information and signage appear and disappear on a daily basis, yet no one ever actually witnesses people doing any work. Corps members occasionally vanish without a trace (for just cause, I’m sure). All of the support staff we work directly with presumably work for other support staff, who work for a yet higher level of staff. And so the pyramid goes, all the way up to Wendy Kopp at the top, who most of us imagine as some sort of puppet master, surrounded by her cult of personality, controlling all the abstract details from a futuristic Minority Report-style computer console. It’s the Invisible Hand of TFA working relentlessly, with the single-minded goal of closing the achievement gap.

March of the Pissants

Today was a rough day. You come to expect to catch hell from the students from time to time–and I definitely did–but today, adults were the bigger problem. One in particular–my mentor teacher.

Let me frame this by saying that my summer mentor teacher (SMT) is old-school. She’s got like 30 years in “the system”, as she refers to it, so she’s got her own way of working that doesn’t necessarily align with the very new-school, touchy-feely TFA way. We’ve come to know her as very experienced and wise, but also quite brash and negative. Working with her has been helpful, but also extremely challenging. I try to deal with her the TFA way, with respect and humility, and in keeping with asset-based thinking, which is to say I try to focus on what she can do to help me reach my goal of reaching students, rather than the things about her that make her difficult to work with. But today…

I don’t want to get into the specifics of what happened. Suffice it to say that a certain aspect of the classroom, which she unilaterally set up, has been disrupting our classroom environment, and we acted to try and mitigate the disruption in a way that would also serve her purposes. We figured it wouldn’t be necessary to consult her, since the change we made would have no effect on her. And mind you, we had discussed the issue with her on Friday, and it had seemed to us to have been resolved. While we left the room to retrieve our students from where they arrive, she discovered our change. I wasn’t there to see this, but she apparently perceived this as a personal attack by us on her and launched into a public tirade in the hallway, in front of other teachers and even some students, which reportedly included berating our TFA advisor and referring to my co-teachers and I as “pissants”. Although, we wouldn’t know this until later.

Our first indication that something had gone awry was when our school director confronted us in the hallway, informed us of how upset our SMT was with us, lectured us on professional communication, told us that we’d need to apologize to her for what happened, and stated that there would be a big meeting after school between all of us to sort this out. We were dumbstruck, since we had no clue anything had been done that could possibly be such a big deal.

Fast forward to the meeting at the end of the day. Our school director allowed us to tell our sides of the story, and then proceeded to more or less throw us under the bus. The meeting ended with our SMT berating us for “trying to weasel out of responsibility for our actions”, on our lack of respect for her and one another, and our continuous lack of professionalism over the summer. We bit our tongues, despite the blaring irony. And that was that. Fortunately, I don’t think this ridiculous incident has ruined our working relationship entirely, and our SMT went on to give me feedback on how I could have handled my other situation of the day better (which I’ll also mention).

I didn’t take the whole thing personally, because at this point I feel like I know what to expect from my SMT, but two of my co-teachers were deeply affected. One was infuriated with how far such a silly situation had escalated and the way our school director hadn’t stood up for us. The other was extremely frustrated with the way our SMT has approached us so negatively all summer long. For my part, I understood why our school director did what he did; he’s got a school to run smoothly for one more week, so he did what was most expedient. I chalk the whole thing up to preparation for dealing with difficult adults in the fall.

So on to the other incident of the day. I had probably my worst day of classroom management all summer long. The students were grumpy after a day of testing, and the fact that it was a Monday, and they were in no mood for my review session. I had assumed that the fact we were taking the final exam tomorrow would be investment enough for them to participate. Wrong. Two of my more difficult students were cutting up from beginning to end and being a major distraction. I took them out into the hall so that everyone else could finish their practice finals. Yet they continued to be a problem as the review session went on.

I probably should have removed them from the class, but I wanted to avoid that, since they both needed the review. So I tried to contain them. It worked, tenuously, for a while, until I put one of them on the spot. I told him that we’d wait as a class until he was ready to participate. Naturally, the members of the class who were invested in the review session got exceedingly pissed off, and before I could restore order, the insults started to fly and a full scale verbal fight started between the one student and one of my more motivated students. Eventually I managed to get them out of class and sequestered, but too late for my lesson to not be derailed. Embarrassingly, this whole scene took place in front of my SMT, my advisor, and was loud enough to attract the attention of the entire hallway.

I know I could have handled the situation differently, but on the plus side, I didn’t get flustered. And for better or for worse, I no longer take constant failure so personally. Lesson learned: aggressively handling minor misbehavior can prevent many of the major incidents from occurring. I intend to do a great deal of reflection on how to set up my classroom culture before I get started for the fall.

Four more days…

The Day of Reckoning

Yesterday, the students took my math test, and the results were not pretty. At the beginning of the summer, each student took a diagnostic test that looks almost exactly like the final, except with slightly different numbers. A tracking tool provided to us by TFA generated individual growth goals in math for each student, based on their diagnostic scores. These scores were meant to represent a big goal that would drive each class to significant progress.

I did not drive a single one of my students to meet their individual goal. My highest performing student scored only a 58% on the test. This accounts for 71% of the progress he was supposed to make toward his individual goal. My average progress toward the goal was 19%. One of my students actually made -2% progress.

Grading the tests was probably the most depressing event of the summer. It was almost physically painful to mark each individual question wrong, because every wrong answer represents something I wasn’t able to teach to mastery. On one particular category of questions, the class average actually decreased from the pre-test. I’m really not sure how I’m going to break it to them, or even if. Most of my students worked hard this summer, and I don’t want them to think that it doesn’t pay off, because in the end, they learned a lot, even if they didn’t master it all.

In my defense, there was one factor outside of my control that I believe had a massive impact on my students’ performance on my test, and that factor was that the district decreed that the students would have to take yet another standardized math test the morning of my exam, and my SMT told them that it was the one that mattered for them to pass summer school. The kids were blindsided. I read their answers on the free-response section, and the kids were nowhere close to prepared for it. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must feel to fail a math exam and then be asked to take another one an hour later. Some of my kids just put their heads down in the middle of my test in frustration and refused to finish. I couldn’t convince all of them to finish it.

As hard as it is to take, I’m not as emotionally depressed as the facts above might lead someone to believe. The numbers are damning, that’s for sure, and I do take a large amount of personal responsibility for my role in how badly the test went. But what’s done is done, and the most important thing I can do is know exactly what I need to change about my actions to lead my students to much higher levels of achievement in the fall. And that list probably merits its own very long journal entry. I’ve got a lot of thinking and planning to do in August.

My last day to enjoy or my last day to suffer

It’s been a rough week, and I honestly found myself beginning to dread teaching my lessons, especially today’s and tomorrow’s, when there’s no test to motivate my kids. Behavioral problems have been awful this week, and just getting through my lessons has been taxing.

But then tonight, folks from the Baltimore office came up to speak to us. In timing that couldn’t possibly have been more appropriate for me, Jace Goodier, one of the corps members from ’07, spoke to us about his extremely rough first year of teaching. He told us about how the spiral took him down to verge of quitting before his professional development leader told him “Jace, you don’t look like your having fun anymore”. Eventually it dawned on him that he’s the one that decides whether it’s going to be fun or not. The quote that really stuck with me is that it’s your year to enjoy or your year to suffer. And it dawned on me that I have already fallen into the trap of defeatism and negativity, and I have been just counting off the minutes to the end of summer school. So I decided that for one last day this summer, I’m going to let it all go and try and have fun with these kids. It’s my last day to enjoy or my last day to suffer.

Turn the Page

It seems like a year ago that I meandered my way off of I-95 looking for Temple University for the first time, and yet sometimes it’s hard to remember where the last month of my life went. The whole experience is kind of a blur. When I was packing up my stuff yesterday, it was a bit hard to process the fact that Institute was really over.

The experience was at times surreal, extremely taxing, extremely hilarious, inspiring, communal, bitterly frustrating, monotonous, thought-provoking, and joyful. I’ve gone from being a bumbling, ineffective teacher to a more confident, yet still-ineffective teacher, but the good news is that I will leave Philly with a truckload of experience and ideas that will hopefully make me far more successful in the fall. Not everyone makes it through Institute, so I feel blessed that I was provided the strength to endure it. And I hope I managed to teach these kids at least a couple things while I was there.

I’m going to miss my students, as knuckle-headed as they can be at times. I’m not so far removed from their age to remember how hard it was to be 14. And many of my students deal with far more pressing issues than the fairly standard stuff I had to think about at that age. They’ve got a million forces, most of which I can’t see, pulling them in a million directions, and it’s a struggle to try and make my vision for them compelling. The last day of school, I gave my students surveys, and the results weren’t surprising. Most of my kids found me to be a reasonable teacher, but I scored pretty low on the categories pertaining to how much they perceived I really cared about them as people. The more poignant feeling I get when thinking about my students than nostalgia is the feeling that I let them down. As brutal as Institute was, my one impossible wish is that I could do the whole thing over again and get it right before I start the “real thing”. I’m absolutely determined not to feel the same way about my first year come June.

What I want more than anything now is a week off to decompress, settle in, and start game-planning everything big and little thing I’m going to do and change up for the fall, but I don’t have that luxury. Yesterday, I drove to Trenton to collect the remainder of my belongings and towed them in a U-Haul to Baltimore, of where I’m now officially a resident. Tomorrow, at 8am, I report to my school for the next two years, Friendship Academy of Science and Technology (FAST), to start orientation and to help run the Summer Bridge program. In the evenings, I’ll be attending Teach For America orientation sessions, and doing grad school coursework. Sometime in the spaces between, I get to steal off to do other very important things, like buying bedding, if I’m lucky.

This is the first year FAST will be open. From the experience of meeting the principal, Dr. Roberts, at the hiring fair, it seems like the place is going to be something really special. I still don’t know much about my school, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say soon. Tomorrow will be a big day.

Welcome to B-more Public Schools

Day 1 of orientation did not disappoint. I knew that teaching at a brand new school would have its challenges, but I suppose I didn’t expect it to play out so blatantly. Let me start with the good news. My placement school is Friendship Academy of Science and Technology (FAST), a charter school about a mile from my house. Today, I met the other faculty at the school, and I am very impressed. We have an extremely diverse staff, who all seem really focused. Our principal, Dr. Roberts, wants to create a school with a solid, positive culture. I know that in order to make my class run the way I want it to run, I’m going to have to be like a drill sergeant in enforcing my academic, behavioral and cultural expectations, and knowing that Dr. Roberts is holding the entire school to that standard will make my job much easier. I really think Friendship is going to be a special place to work.

That being said, today was nuts. I found out on Friday that I would be reporting directly to Friendship instead of the district orientation today. Unfortunately, the introductory professional development sessions held last week conflicted with the last week of Institute, so I didn’t have the chance to meet the rest of the staff ahead of time or find out what the next couple weeks would be all about, other than that the school would be holding a program called Summer Bridge. What I would learn upon arrival at 8am this morning was that I would actually be teaching the program. Starting in 15 minutes. I could have been pissed off about this, but I knew coming in that there would be surprises, and that the best thing I can do is try and take them in stride. When choosing to teach in some of the least fair schools in the country, one has to expect to take some low blows from time to time.

All in all, it went pretty well, despite the fact that the pretests I was supposed to administer never came, and I had to wing it for the last hour and a half. Hopefully things will get more orderly these next couple days, because unlike the veteran teachers, I don’t have lesson plans, activities and materials to fall back on in a pinch. On the bright side, I got a pretty nice complement from my principal’s mentor on the way I ran the class. Thank God I got the class I did, because the other class I could have gotten was about 3 times the size, and much more unruly. I won’t be so lucky for most of the summer, because although I get to keep my class for homeroom, I’ll teach both classes every day. The lovely news about the whole Summer Bridge situation is that when the full school reports in a few weeks, I will hopefully have established a culture and a routine that all the rest of the students can fall into.


One thing that was reinforced for me today about teaching is how important rhetoric is to teaching. I’ve always been a pretty taciturn person, especially when it comes to speaking off the cuff, but when working with students, teachable moments happen all the time and having the ability to ad lib a mini-lesson is an essential skill. For example, today, to get to know one another, we played two truths and a lie in one of my classes. One of my students, a black kid we’ll call Kevin, picked as his two truths that he was part Irish, and that he liked rock music. I can’t even remember what his lie was, but no one guessed it right. When I grilled one kid on why he thought the lie was that Kevin liked rock music, he said it was because he didn’t dress like a rocker. I asked him how he could tell, since all the kids were in uniform. He responded that Kevin wasn’t wearing a spiked belt, and that he didn’t walk or talk like a rocker. When I grilled another kid on why Kevin couldn’t be part Irish, he responded that it was because he didn’t have greasy hair and a moustache. Gambling on the fact that Kevin had picked his two truths cleverly, I let him reveal the lie and it proved the whole class wrong. I turned that into an opportunity to drop an impromptu speech on the dangers of stereotypes and prejudice. It’s moments like that where your rhetoric comes in handy, because those “ah-ha” moments are when what you say as a teacher sticks with the kids. I wish I could say I blew their minds with my speech, but it was probably just adequate. I guess the skill will come in time.

Reflections Galore

I’ve become a big fan of having students write reflections. The kids generally hate writing reflections, but the responses can be incredibly insightful. At the most basic level, I get to see what the student took away from the lesson, which is great feedback for me for how well my methods are working. I also get a feel for who is really thinking and who is going through the motions, which allows me to figure out how to better reach individual students. And every now and then, I get a response back that very thoughtfully written. My students can be very insightful and self-aware, and making the whole class write a reflection is well worth it if I can get one profound response back. My students have amazingly lucid goals for 9th graders. They can also be brutally honest about their insecurities, and sometimes it’s a little heartbreaking. But it’s also those moments that make me feel like I have a chance to step in and actually change a kid’s life. And deep down, that’s why I got into teaching: to try and be the teacher I so desperately wished I had back when I was that age.

Week One In Baltimore:The Scene Is Set

In many ways, this past week has been far more challenging than any of my weeks of Institute. While I have had the opportunity to sleep 7-8 hours a night, which is fantastic, my days have become much more intense. Because I didn’t know I was going to be teaching this week, I haven’t had the chance to do any daily planning, much less any of the critical reflection about how I was going to reinvent myself as a teacher based on lessons learned at Institute. I teach 3 1/2 hours each day, and the lion’s share of that time is completely improvised. On top of that, I’m trying vainly to settle in at my house, attending 4 1/2 hour TFA workshops some nights, and working on the coursework for on of my Johns Hopkins grad school classes for teaching. But the main challenges are at school. Did I mention, we don’t have AC?

Our school is completely chaotic at the moment. Our staff is working it’s butt off to iron out major details that must be in place by the time school starts: things as fundamental as the daily schedule, the curriculum, and the rulebook. As a result, I have to operate for the summer with none of these structures in place. I am tempted to think that all this should have been ironed out months ago, but honestly, I have no idea what it’s like to be an administrator of a brand new school (other than the fact that it looks unimaginable difficult), so I am in no position to blame anyone for anything. My job is to take lemons and make lemonade.

At FAST, we have an incredible opportunity to establish something special and an incredible responsibility. All charter schools are accountable to making significant progress, as compared to the traditional public schools, but Friendship has interesting challenges of its own. Our school opens with a considerable amount of controversy and scrutiny. We occupy the building that up until this year was Canton Middle School, a rough school right in the middle of one of Baltimore’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. Residents had long complained about the unruliness and outright violence of students from the school, and had almost succeeded in having the building closed down and destroyed. But when our current CEO of schools came on last year, he reversed those plans, deciding to locate our charter school in the building, to the outrage of many of the residents. But he stood his ground, refusing to destroy an old, but still-operable school building. The whole saga was city-wide news for a while. Needless to say, a lot of eyes are focused on how well this thing flies. My principal has told us not to be surprised to see the mayor or councilpeople drop in on our classes.

I will be under additional pressure permanently. The reputation of schools in this district is defined by test scores. Our school is composed only of 6th, 8th, and 9th grade classes. All of the 9th graders will be taking the state algebra test at the end of the year, which is the only test 9th graders take. So to a large extent, my school’s academic reputation hinges on how well I can get these kids to perform on this test.

The news isn’t all so dire. Although our staff is small, my impression of them so far is that they are extremely capable, dedicated and diverse. People have gone out of their way to look out for me, and it has really paid off for me this week. But the thing I’m most excited about is the school culture we are building. Our administration is adamant about making Friendship a school with a culture focused on achievement. I find that I have rethink my idea of how a high school operates. There’s a part of me that looks at our expectations and thinks, “things were much more free at Naperville North, and we achieved at extremely high levels.” But this definitely isn’t Naperville, and it’s going to require a completely different method to get the same results in Baltimore.

For most of the students, the behavioral and academic expectations we are working to institute will be way beyond what they have experienced. Right now, they are extremely resistant, but with time and pressure they will conform. Eventually, they will take pride in their school culture, once they realize that the structure allows them academic growth beyond what many of them have ever experienced. But put quite simply, right now, most of my students simply don’t know how to behave properly, and don’t view school as a formal setting. They are going to need a lot of structure, and a lot of aggressive intervention to fix that. I’m looking forward to the day when instead of cracking jokes and goofing off, my students are having intellectual conversations and conducting themselves like the young men and women I know they are capable of being–the day when their internal expectations match the ones we have for them. Only once we reach that point, we might be able to talk about running the place in a less authoritarian fashion.

I have spent this week winging it, and making impromptu speeches on behavior, expectations, and all sorts of cultural issues. For the most part, things haven’t been sinking in. The assistant principal delivered one of the most vicious tongue lashing I’ve ever witnessed, and pretty much promised to suspend a kid on the first day of school, and still they acted like children during my math class. But starting Monday, the hammer falls. I imagine it will take sending a couple kids to the office, or maybe even several, to catch major ass-whuppings from the administration, but they will learn that it’s time for business. And when they do learn, the kids I have now will be a nucleus for the culture we envision when real school starts in a couple weeks.


On a totally unrelated note, I’m really sad to hear about the death of Bernie Mac today. I had never laughed so hard that I cried until I saw his stuttering bus driver bit on Original Kings of Comedy. What a bummer.

Good times in Summer Bridge

It sucked being told, with less than a half hour’s worth of notice, that I’d be teaching Summer Bridge. And it still sucks now, even though the program is over, because I have a pile of work to do that most everyone else has had the chance to get started on 2 weeks ago. But all in all, it was a good learning experience.

Transitioning from working with 10 or less students at Institute for 45 minutes a day to running my own class of upwards of 25 for 4 hours a day presented many of the challenges I had anticipated, especially in terms of delivery and management. Moreover, I didn’t have any time to do any rigorous planning ahead of time, let alone draw up my glorious plans to achieve student investment.

On the other hand, I learned how to think on my feet, the hard way. Far and away the majority of the time I taught these last 2 weeks was totally improvised. I met about half of my students, and have learned a lot about their respective strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and aspirations. I can’t say my classroom management has been perfected, but I think I’ve found my style, learned what won’t work, and formed some good ideas for where to go next.

Not to mention, I had the chance to begin the process of forming this initial group of students into the nucleus of the culture we’re determined to build at Friendship. I believe I’ve earned outright respect from a few students. But at the very least, I think most of them know that I care about them as people, I won’t let anything slide, I stand up for my principles, and that I’m a lot tougher than my low-key demeanor might indicate.

For example, I learned an important lesson Friday in classroom management. Thursday was supposed to be the last day of class for my school’s Summer Bridge program, and Friday, we had the celebratory field trip to the roller-skating rink. Well, I get a call Thursday evening informing me that because of a miscommunication between the skating place and the school, we were actually going to be leaving for the trip 2 hours later than planned, and because the school’s auto-dialer isn’t in service yet, the students would be showing up at their normal time, and I’d better plan something for those 2 hours. I wasn’t exactly shocked—at this point, I’ve learned to be surprised if something like that doesn’t happen.

I talked with the co-teacher the night before, in half-freakout mode, and she assured me she’d come up with something. When I showed up the next day, she had some promising ideas. I had assumed that the language arts teacher, who had been running the other 9th grade class had also gotten the memo. Not so much. He showed up right around the time class was supposed to start, and when asked if he was going to help occupy the kids, he replied that he was not; he was going to work on curriculum. (You know who else would love a chance to even see his curriculum? THIS GUY!)

So, it fell to me and the co-teacher to handle the whole 9th grade. We decided we’d try the possibly foolhardy idea of cramming the all the 9th graders into one classroom. Needless to say, the students were confused and pissed off We thought they’d somewhat enjoy the opportunity to play some games. They wanted none of it. They were becoming increasingly irritable and disruptive. We tried hard to redirect them. We punished them for not participating in the game by making the write reflections for 15 minutes. Then offered them the choice of playing the game or sitting silently. They chose to sit “silently”, and were anything but silent. I started giving out warnings, and telling them we were now operating on a two-strike system. Two strikes, and you’re staying home. This flew for all of maybe a minute and a half before they started testing me. And as I’m sure they suspected, I was reluctant to toss people off the trip, and pretty soon we were back to square one.

But no way was I about to give in. I noticed that there were a handful of folks in the class who had been perfect or almost perfect all day, and who had managed to stay above the chaos, and it occurred to me that in addition to the fact that everything I was trying wasn’t working for most of the kids, I hadn’t spent enough time recognizing how well that other group was behaving. So, without talking, I walked over to the board, and next to my Warnings section (which was 2 full columns by now) I made a new section called Commendations and wrote down the 4 or so names of kids who had been more or less perfect. Then I put a big X through the entire warning section of the board. Pretty quickly, the room got silent, as the kids got curious about what was happening. One of my ring-leaders spoke up, “are those the people who are going on the trip?” I replied that she was exactly right. The warning system was dead, and the new commendation system was in force. Through good behavior, the people not on the Commendations list could be put on it, but by the time the buses left, anyone not on that list would not be boarding a bus.

The results were immediate. There was about a half an hour of nearly perfect silence. Even my stubborn students were angels. To further make a point, after the assistant principal announced that the buses had arrived, about a third of the class still hadn’t paid enough penance to have made the Commendations list, and I let them sweat it out, adding them to the list one-by-one to release them to the buses.

The trip itself was fun. The kids were pretty shocked to see that Mr. Johnson knows how to skate and bowl, and is also pretty dominant at Tekken Tag.

So what did I learn from this? First of all, incentivizing works way better than punishment. The stakes were exactly the same in the Warnings and Commendations systems, but the results couldn’t have been more different. Secondly, don’t threaten punishments you are not willing to follow through on. I was reluctant to kick a kid off the trip simply for making a side comment to a friend, even if it was a repeated offence. Once that message was sent, most of the class ran with it. I also learned that behavior expectations need to be explicitly stated and that it needs to be extremely clear that the teacher has the final word. If allowed, kids will complain, debate, and try their hardest to manipulate. I was steadfast about not giving in to any verbal debate, but through their actions they manipulated the situation into getting away with a lot. The key response to any attempt at argument is “this is not the time to discuss that. Save your questions and comments for after the activity, and we can talk about it then.” The questions rarely come up again.

All in all, my 9th graders are pretty good kids. A handful of them are going to be pretty challenging, but I feel like they’ll all eventually fall in line. One of the biggest problems I face is that although most of my kids have fantastic goals for themselves, right now, most of them don’t make the connection between their goals and the level of effort and engagement it will take to reach them. As one of my coworkers put it, by telling these kids they can be anything they want, we’ve almost done them a disservice, because they haven’t been given the skills it’s going to take to get them there. So this year is going to be a jarring experience for many of them as we slam them into a much higher gear right off the bat.

Keep checking back, because it’s going to be an interesting year.