Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Commander's Intent" in the classroom

When I was a new teacher, the first few years of my career, I remember struggling with the tone of my classroom discipline. I started out with the intention of being like those favorite teachers I remembered from my own childhood – so likeable and strong of character that we students would do anything to please them. But without much idea of how to make that happen, I found myself gradually reverting to a list of rules for kids to follow: keep your hands and feet to yourself, clean up your own mess, walk in the hall, raise your hand when you want to speak, etc. I had an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to enforce these rules, and it worked. My kids were well-behaved. But I was exhausted. And my bank account was dwindling as I spent more and more on prizes to entice the kids to follow the rules.

I began to value the good behavior of the kids more than the evidence of their learning, and became annoyed by eager interruptions and messy activities. Around my second or third year of teaching this newfound power to control behavior began to seriously conflict with my beliefs about active learning for kids. I had to make a decision about which I valued more.

Fortunately, I moved to a new school with an experienced principal who helped me realize that I didn’t need to spend quite so much energy on discipline if my instruction was strong in the first place. Kids who are engaged and challenged are rarely off task.

The number of rules, rewards, and punishments does not determine the quality of classroom management, she taught me. Rather, rely on something the army calls “Commander’s Intent”. The army famously believes that “a plan never survives its first contact with the enemy”. Therefore, a group of soldiers is advised of their commander’s intent for a specific battle: “defend the south side of the village” or “take control of that hilltop”. When the inevitable manure hits the metaphorical fan, every soldier in the group is able to adjust and make decisions on the fly because they know their commander’s intent – the ultimate goal of this battle.

The same applies to a classroom. If the teacher’s intent is made clear in simple terms – “be kind to others” or “we’re all here to learn” – then when troubles arise, students can be taught to make all decisions around that one principle. If Billy is interrupting classroom discussions by sharpening his pencil or calling out, he’s interfering with others’ learning. The same applies for bullying, running in the hall, stealing, not completing work, etc. One simple rule can summarize the intent of an entire discipline plan, and all decisions thereafter revolve around it. It’s simple for kids and for the teacher, and it gets at the heart of why we’re at school.

Think about the message you send to your students each day in your classroom. What do you think they believe your commander’s intent to be? Is it the message you want to send?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

First Week

It's Saturday after the first full week of school, and I have spent the day in recovery - mostly napping and rubbing my feet, trying to recharge the batteries. I always seem to forget how tough beginning the year is once the adrenaline and excitement wear off.

It's different as a coach, of course, and this time of year is when I miss having my own class the most. As coaches, we end up supporting classroom teachers as they set up rules and routines during these first weeks, and it's still exhausting work.

Yesterday evening, as I finally left the building, I thought back over my week of duties which had frankly felt more like putting out forest fires than anything truly constructive, and I felt disappointed by the lack of true coaching duties I felt I'd performed.

But as I reflected on it more, I think it may be a natural phase every year, perhaps at every school, that we focus more on operational procedures during those first days, and less on refining our instructional practices. It's a necessary thing to have all hands on deck to make sure classes proceed through the lunchroom on time, kids make it out of the building safely for the first fire drill, classes are balanced as new kids arrive, and kindergarteners find their classrooms. I may not be able to look back over the first days and feel like an effective coach, but it's very similar to what we tell teachers: spend those first weeks working on rules and routines so that you can be more effective in your instruction later on. Our time spent making sure teachers have enough textbooks and passing out "Welcome back to school" treats will pay dividends later on when we ask them to trust our opinions and as we coach through tough classroom situations.

However, it's critical that we don't get stuck in these operational tasks. We have to be able to step back after a week or so, find our true purpose, and pass many of these duties on to assistant principals or others whose job it truly is, or otherwise we'll find ourselves halfway through the year with nothing to show from our job as coach. I'd much rather end the year as exhausted as I began it, but from having coached my heart out in the months between.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Underlying Messages

A couple of days ago I was given the name of a struggling student I’ll be providing with reading interventions during the coming year. I haven’t met the boy yet, but I know he’s a fifth grader and so I anticipate that along with his difficulties in reading will come a great deal of other emotional baggage that has accumulated over the years. I expect that he’ll be dreading the beginning of school (though he has no idea that his homeroom teacher this year is one of the best in the business). He’s probably expecting to be pretty quickly discovered as a failure and is perhaps already making plans on how to avoid the difficult work headed his way by either clowning around with his peers, claiming sickness or excessive bathroom breaks, or simply melting into the background and becoming invisible.

Working with older students who have struggled with reading is always more difficult than the younger ones because they come as damaged goods. Their self-concept has been torn down and unevenly grown over with scar tissue. They still want desperately to do well, but they no longer believe they can.

I’m reminded of something I learned about working with this type of student from a wonderful friend of mine, Sherry Boone. After I relayed to her a story about a successful tutoring session with an older struggling student and my effusive praise for him on his progress, she gently chided me for my overt enthusiasm. She explained that it’s not just what we say, but how we say it that matters more. When I was excitedly saying, “You did it! You figured out that big long word!” my underlying message was conveying not just excitement, but also surprise. He was hearing, “You did it! And I didn’t think you could! I’m so excited because you surprised me with your progress.”

Instead, if we praise a student calmly, the message we send is more reassuring: “You did exactly what I knew you could do all along! I’m not at all surprised that you made progress because I’ve been expecting it.” In our work with older students, we have to work twice as hard on their attribution theory or, in other words, to whom these students attribute their success. Too many times, kids who struggle with reading see themselves as helpless regarding school. They can’t seem to do anything successfully, and if they do they tend to attribute it to luck. “Oh, I just guessed at that word. I didn’t do anything intelligent or strategic or intentional. It was a lucky guess.”

Our job as teachers is to combat this attitude and give the struggling reader control over reading so that he can begin seeing himself as the type of person who knows what to do once a difficult reading situation is encountered. And once empowered, they will no longer feel the need to be invisible in our classrooms.