Make it easy

One of the things I do outside of teaching is roller derby. I used to skate for the No Coast Derby Girls, but I decollarbonexraycided last season was going to be my last season as a full-time skater. Somewhat ironically, I ended up breaking my collarbone in an away game, right before the last home game of the season. Yep, I’m that hardcore. I love roller derby, but No Coast is an internationally competitive league. Even the B team requires a ton of work – practicing 3 times a week, hitting the gym at least once a week, promotion, special events, and so on. And being a contact sport, it hurts. A lot. I decided I wanted to step back from derby to focus on my career, but I still wanted to be involved. So I chose to remain as a coach for our junior derby league and as a non-skating official (NSO) who does stuff like keep score, run the penalty box, etc.

But after two sessions of coaching the juniors in 2015, I’ve decided that I will simply be an NSO next year. It’s not that I don’t love working with our junior skaters – I really do – but trying to volunteer is a hassle. I’m not kept in the loop. I don’t know what my job is going to be on any particular day. I don’t know if they need me at games to coach, to NSO, or not at all. If I don’t initiate contact, I have no idea what’s going on. It makes volunteering feel like a chore, not something I am choosing to do to enrich the lives of young skaters in Lincoln. After hosting a home game this weekend where communication broke down on multiple levels and led to an event that should’ve been 3 hours took over 5, I’m a bit fed up.

So what does this have to do with a teaching blog? With the new school year, a lot of people are posting about rules, routines, and expectations. I agree with every single post that says that it’s worth the few days at the beginning of the year to establish what you want your students to do at any given moment. You have to make it easy. Especially for those of us who teach high school, you have to make participating seem like the path of least resistance for your students. Are we still going to have students who refuse to participate? Absolutely. And I am, in no way, arguing that you should make your content easier. But most students will go along with your wacky schemes if participating at a basic level will make you otherwise leave them alone. (And remember, the trick is to make participating at the most basic level still require a lot of participation, but easy participation – watching, listening, responding when appropriate. We want the content to be enriching, but the tasks cognitively simple, so they can focus on the meaning, not the form.) By establishing specific routines, students will know what you want from them and most of them are happy to comply. I truly believe that children, for the most part, really want to please the adults in their life and earn validation. All we have to do is let them know how.

This also applies to giving instructions. One criticism I have of the AP Spanish workshop I attended this summer was when we would do the ‘student version’ of things (usually completing a graphic organizer of some sort based on a source of input). We were working with a master teacher, but many times his verbal instructions were unclear and written instructions didn’t exist – maybe he assumed we knew what we should do, since we’re all teachers ourselves? But we didn’t know what we were supposed to do with this sheet full of pictures. Were we supposed to match vocabulary words, describe the pictures verbally, describe them in writing, what? We were happy to do what he asked – once we knew what the task was. I think that consistently giving clear instructions is one of those tweaks that makes a good teacher into a great teacher.

Some teachers prefer to take a few days at the beginning of the year to outline all their routines at once. I, personally, prefer to get the basics out of the way on the first day (which is even easier now since we are adopting a school-wide motto/ruleset of safe-respectful-responsible) and then teach routines as they come up during the first few weeks of school. No matter how you do it, it’s an extremely important step in setting the tone for the year, whether you teach Spanish or PE, elementary or high school, fresh out of college or 30 years experience. How will you establish your classroom routines this year?

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