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Uncategorized   |   Nov 19, 2012

Ask Angela Anything: November Edition

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Ask Angela Anything: November Edition

By Angela Watson


Welcome to November’s edition of the monthly post series in which I answer readers’ frequently-asked questions. Although I do respond personally to every email, with this series, you can submit any teaching-related question anonymously to maintain your privacy and student confidentiality. I’ve called the series “Ask Angela Anything” because I share what has worked for me in my own classroom and in the rooms of the teachers I coach. My personal philosophy is that there’s no one “right” solution that works for every child in every classroom: I encourage you to adapt the ideas I share for your own situation.

I am a library teacher in a low socio-economic area. I teach grades 1-6, 50 min each 1x weekly. For the most part the kids come in and listen to their lesson fairly well. My concern is several of the classes are very loud and do not stay on task during seat work time. I have 1/2 the class checking out books while the other 1/2 works then rotate. What can I do to get kids to work more quietly and stay on task? I have tried points for tables with reward at end of class, calling home, keeping class after school. Any suggestions? 

Hi, Teresa! It sounds like the kids who are doing seat work know that you’re focused on those who are checking out books, so they feel like they can get away with off-task behaviors. That’s pretty normal kid stuff, so don’t feel bad about it! Can you have the seat work group work collaboratively so that they don’t have to be quiet and they have a partner to help keep them on task? Another thought is to have three groups, and the third can work on computers with headphones–the headphones will discourage that group from talking, and your other two groups will be smaller and therefore easier to manage (and you’ll have more options for splitting up the kids who tend to get in trouble.)

I think that making the seat work tasks as meaningful and engaging as possible should be your primary focus–kids who are really into what they’re learning get off-task less often. However, I’m guessing that your students see their library time (along with PE, art, music, etc.) as a break from “real” learning–it’s not true, of course, but that’s probably how they see it. Chances are, they’ve been sitting and working quietly for a very long time in their classrooms, and when they get to your room, they are dying to move around, talk, and decompress a little bit. The more you can accomodate that reality, the less time you’ll have to spend redirecting off-task behavior.

Teachers in my district are randomly being observed 2-3 times a week by curriculum and instruction, our literacy coaches, our principals and other teachers. I guess I don’t mind but as a human being, it always makes me nervous. They also leave a note saying one thing they notice and one thing they have a question about. Is it just my school district or is this happening all over the country?

We’re definitely in the age of accountability and assessment, and I do think there is an increase in teacher observations in most school districts. A lot of schools are using the instructional rounds method where teachers are observing one another’s practices, as well. That’s a good thing, in my opinion, but it can be nerve-wracking since you never know what your students are going to do, and it’s especially tough if you don’t know exactly what your principal is hoping to see. I’m getting a lot of questions these days from teachers who are nervous about observations–see my new Surviving Teacher Observations & Evaluations page for tips and advice.

How do I keep my students attentive in Social Studies when I constantly have to keep telling them to be quiet? School administration and writeups have little or no effect, nor do parents response to phone calls in this neighborhood. I’m in an inner city school.
–Mikey G.

Hi, Mikey! Since you teach city kids, I’m going to make an assumption that loud environments and rowdiness are part of many of your students’ home cultures and normal environment outside of school. I know many city kids who are kinda freaked out by silence and feel compelled to fill the void with their own noise. Your students are not going to walk silently into your classroom, sit with their hands folded, and quietly take notes while you lecture for twenty minutes, especially not at the secondary school level. That’s just not the way they operate, and if you expect them to be that way, it’s going to lead to frustration for everyone involved.

I think you’re going to have to be willing to bend a little bit in terms of what the norms are in your classroom. Teach your students that there are certain times when off-task behaviors absolutely cannot happen (during an important district observation or standardized tests, for example.) But during your regular class time, make a determination to spend the majority of your energy on teaching engaging, meaningful lessons–even if those lessons don’t go as smoothly as you’d like.

Focus on making sure the students are engaged in learning: that might mean that some of them are standing up, some of them are tapping on their desks or singing/rapping/talking under their breath, etc. There will probably be a lot of side conversations, laughter, and loud outbursts throughout the day. But if the kids are learning–if the majority of them are basically focused on the task at hand–don’t let the little stuff bug you, and don’t stop your lesson every time it happens. Speak with your most disruptive students individually and privately, but don’t allow yourself to get angry and derail your lessons to go head-to-head with those students. It just won’t work. You have to keep the momentum of your lessons going or you’ll lose the kids who are focused, so make that priority one.

Hi, I am a new substitute teacher in a high school and I need some tips on how to deal with the students. I am 27 but still look like I am a teenager, so it is hard to be taken seriously by the students. Since I usually don’t teach subjects, mostly babysit teenagers, it is hard to make them do their work. Thank you for your help!

Hi, Marie! It sounds like you are dealing two issues here: your age and the fact that you’re a substitute. I’m assuming you’re dressing very professionally, but make sure you’re erring on the side of too formal/conservative. Wear things that make you feel confident, as students will respond to the energy you project. Everything about the way you carry yourself–including your body language, voice level, and tone–all have to communicate that you know you’re in charge. The more you’re in the classroom, the easier that will be.

As far as getting respect as a sub: I would level with the students. They know you are essentially babysitting and so do you. Tell them the assignment and your basic ground rules, and let them know if they can follow those, you’ll be pretty relaxed about the other stuff. Offer an incentive as needed–I’ve heard that many subs offer to make the last 5-15 minutes of class “free time” if students get all their work done.

Make sure you’ve moving around the room a lot and interacting with the kids: if they think you’re just sitting at your desk ignoring them, they’ll get louder and crazier. Talk with them and build a rapport so the next time you’re in that classroom, your job will be easier. It’s also a good idea to have a couple of generic high-interest lessons you can use in any class–maybe something based on current events, an issue the kids can debate, etc. Many times, kids will behave better for the sub if they feel like the sub isn’t just babysitting and there’s something relevant for them to get involved in.

Do you have advice for any of the teachers above? Please share your experiences in the comments!

And if you have a topic you’d like to see addressed in a future “Ask Angela Anything” post, submit your question here! Your entries are completely anonymous, so ask ANYTHING you’ve ever wanted to know about teaching but were afraid to ask.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Observations- We have “classroom walkthroughs” at random times, too. It’s not just you! If you’re concerned, see if you can meet with the administrator sometime and talk through what kinds of things they’re looking for. For me, it made me feel better to know what they’re expecting to see, and at my school, she’s not expecting me to show every best practice every time. Instead, the walkthroughs are supposed to give her more chances to catch good things I do, and just make sure that I’m not only trying on the days where an observation is scheduled.

    Mikey, Another tip might be to try some positive notes or calls. I found that for some of my tough low-income kids, positive phone calls (even if they went to voicemail) surprised some of the parents. Some of those parents hadn’t had one in a long time, and it helped the rapport and the compliment was usually passed on to the kid as a motivator. And maybe they’d respond well to some kind of start activity that either requires working in groups or discussing a question or current event with friends, and then give them a chance to share it with the class. Sometimes a tie-in that they can relate to and feel a part of really helps my kids pay attention to the ‘boring’ stuff. It definitely is tough, though. Good luck!

  2. Hi! I have some advice to add on and reinforce what you are saying to Mikey and Marie.

    Mikey-I had a class a few years ago with 4-6 very loud students who made me feel like they were the only ones in the class sometimes. If you can, spend time with those who are paying attention and learning to kind of refresh yourself and remind yourself some of them ARE listening. Also, as best you can, develop a relationship with those students. Some students will follow the rules because they are supposed to, but students like you are describing will follow the rules because you have invested in them. I know this is sort of elementary so it might not work for you, but you could do reward for those students who need extra incentive by allowing them to eat in your class during lunch with one friend of their choice. Another idea if your kids can drive is to ask for a couple volunteers to stay after school one day and help you with a project (doesn’t really matter what it is). In a small group they could behave quite differently and give you a chance to talk to them one on one about their life, friends, family, etc. that you don’t have a chance to do in class time.

    Marie-I am a former teacher who is currently a substitute teacher. To reinforce what Angela said-DRESS UP. Wear heels (even if you bring flats in your bag to change into later in the day) you should dress like you work there. When the students come in I greet them but I’m not overly smiley if that makes sense. When students are filtering in kind of meander around and talk to students, ask simple questions about their teacher or what class they just came from, whatever. Many times students who walk in and know there is a sub will act up from minute one. Once I had a student come in and see there was a sub and start loudly singing a song about sex. I simply walked over to him and said, “Hi, you have a great voice but I don’t want to hear you sing about sex, ok? Thank you.” and I didn’t have another problem. If you can greet that student and say something on the positive side before they can even get into trouble it sets a good tone.

    When class starts, speak in an authoritative tone (NOT yelling over them), push your shoulders back, and don’t be rifling through papers like you don’t know what to do. Like Angela said, give them your three basic rules (mine are: respect the teacher and I’ll respect you, follow directions, and do your work), and begin with roll or whatever is next. While you don’t want to fake confidence, you can’t let them see your true feelings either sometimes. Practice walking into a room confidently in front of a mirror. See what you look like. Are your shoulders slumped? Stuff like that.

    Sorry this was so long! Hope this advice helps!

  3. Angela, although I’ve taught in many classrooms as a substitute teacher and even a Kaplan SES teacher preparing students for state exams, I am presently seeking a full-time ELA teaching position and do not know what to expect in terms of EVERYDAY, Can you give me an idea of what to do or where I can find a book or some sort of resources on what to do and/or expect as a first time FULL-TIME ELA teacher (middle school preferably)? I.e. room appearance (posters, borders, centers???…), seating arrangements, classroom flow, admin. requirements in between, etc. Thank you.

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