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Working smarter, not harder (part III): for the past two Septembers, Sandy LaBelle has shared ideas with Techniques readers on ways to help make their school lives less stressful. As part of our back-to-school issue, she returns with more of her helpful hints for teachers.

Welcome back to school! If you have read the previous two articles, you know my goal is to provide specific hints to help teachers reduce their stress and fatigue while maintaining or improving the quality level of student work. I have combined methods used currently in the business world with my 31 years of teaching to create simple and easy-to-implement techniques that can be used to do our teacher work more efficiently. That way we can go home at night without a book bag full of papers to correct--and maybe with enough energy to enjoy our time at home.

For this article, I have chosen a few of the quick and easy tips contained in my book, Teaching Smarter. There are more than 50 hints in my book, so there is much more than what I can share with you in this article. In fact, some of the best ideas take more time to explain, but I will do the best job I can in the space that I have been given in Techniques.

Now, let's move on to the specific hints!


Hint One: Use a Ritual to Start and End Class--Every Day.

In my September 2000 article, I detailed how to start class on time. It is also important to end class on time. Just a little math here: if one minute per day is wasted, and the school year is 180 days long, that works out to three hours per year of lost learning for every MINUTE that is wasted in a day. If a teacher has five classes that start five minutes late and end five minutes early, that's 50 minutes a day lost--and that's 25 DAYS of lost learning per year. So, starting on time and ending on time is very important. Now that I've said that, how do we make it happen?

Since I've already covered the start-on-time suggestions in a previous article, let's focus on the ending-on-time part. I know that, if there is no set routine for class ending, the students start zipping book bags and "closing up shop" about five to 10 minutes before class ends. Here's my suggestion, and please feel free to amend it to fit your situation.

The first day, I share with the students that the bell is MY signal that class is over. In order to be dismissed, students need to show me they are ready to be dismissed. On the overhead, I write (and suggest that they take notes--it WILL be on our next test) the three quality standards for class dismissal. Notice the language here--"quality standard."

Students do not rebel against a quality standard, as they might if it was "what the teacher wants." The three quality standards are: students are seated at their assigned seats, the room is at least as clean as when they came in, and there is no talking, with eyes on me. I explain that, as their teacher, I need to make sure all the students who entered my room are still here, that the next class should not have to clean up refuse from this class, and that I need their attention in the last few seconds to make any last-minute reminders (such as, "test on Tuesday"). Then I explain that, until they hear, "See you next time," the class is not dismissed.

It is important to use the SAME dismissal phrase EVERY DAY. If students even think they have a hint to go, they're gone! So be consistent. You can use my phrase or one of your own, but use it every day. I have really found that, once the students understand the reason for the dismissal quality standard, they are quite cooperative.

Hint Two: Hosts/Hostesses For Guest Teachers

Like many districts, my district has a substitute crisis, especially on Mondays and Fridays. If we want the students to begin thinking differently about those times when we have another adult lead the class, we need to set the scene.

First, I recommend that we refer to the person taking our place during an absence as our "guest teacher." Draw an analogy to having a guest in our home. We do not expect a guest in our home to know where everything is, so why would we expect it in our classroom when a guest teacher comes to visit?

Now the critical part--if we have a ritual for the class beginning and ending and, as mentioned in a previous article, we have the class schedule on the overhead every day, it is a small step to make a huge paradigm change. I say to my students, "Why does the system think that a perfect stranger to this room can know the structure of this class better than the workers who have been here every day?" We use the "pick a number from one to 100" routine to choose two volunteers to be the guest hosts/hostesses for the classes from which I will be absent. This is what I call station WIIFM (What's In It For Me?) in surround sound. I benefit, the students benefit, and the guest teacher benefits.

I benefit because the class starts on time (the hosts/hostesses do the class start countdown), attendance is taken by people who know the students, all papers are collected and clipped together by class, and the guest teacher is assisted by trusted students who know where things are. Consequently, assignments are completed, graded and organized just the way I like them when I return.

The volunteers benefit by earning up to 25 points of extra credit. They also feel appreciated by the guest teacher--and by me. Students have also shared with me that, "It is way different being up front!" Now, THERE'S learning that's precious!

The rest of the class is aware that, if this system is to work, it is a team effort. The volunteers are NOT "in charge" but are assistants for our guest teacher. If the other students are going to have a chance at the 25 points of extra credit, they need to help the hosts/hostesses be successful.

The guest teacher benefits because the established class routine is followed, and there are two helpful students to refer to with confidence. The guest teacher still has power. He or she decides how many of the potential 25 points of extra credit are awarded. Substitute teachers love this system. It really is pretty easy duty for them and, I believe, a learning experience as well. I frequently get notes back saying, "Excellent class. Call me anytime!"

When I come back to my classroom, I find a much more organized room. Let's face it; we do not usually leave very complicated plans for our substitutes, so why shouldn't the students be able to handle it? This is also an excellent school-to-work skill. When my husband is absent, another boss does not come in for him. The "next in charge" takes over in his absence.

There is no system that makes it easy to leave our classrooms. I still have to do the lesson plans for when I'm gone and when I return. However, behavior problems are WAY down, and it's a chance for students to see "the other side" and really feel as though they are a vital part of the system.

Hints Three and Four: Pace Work Time + the "Teacher Prowl."

When I used to give class time to work on a paper or project, I was discouraged by the number of students who talked for the first half or more of the work time and then hurriedly tried to finish the work using what little time remained. I began to realize that many of our students do not understand how to pace their work time.

To overcome the rather negative nonverbal feedback I initially got from my students when I walked around the class to see how they were progressing, I initiated what I call the "teacher prowl." I explained that the purpose of the "teacher prowl" is not to check up on the student individually, but is simply my method of seeing how far along most people are on the assignment. After the "prowl," I promise to share with the class how far most people were on the assignment. The "teacher prowl" is now viewed more as a service for the class, not an "I'm checking up on you" time. Students began to appreciate hearing, "Most of the class has finished about one-half page of the essay by now," as information they could use to judge their own progress. It is important that we share the purpose with our students. Students will see that we are helping them finish on time with a quality product. We want them to get the best grades they can.

Also, use the overhead (or some other visual posting) to write the start and finish time for every work time. We are working with a visual population. Some truly do not remember what time we said work time was over. When a student asks, "How much more time do we have?" I simply smile (it's a friendly reminder) and point to the overhead. Very quickly, if we are consistent, students will know to look at the overhead before asking the question. It is so nice not to hear the same question over and over!

Hint Five: Rubber Band Class Sets of Paper "Hot-Dog Style."

I can't tell you how many times I have looked at my desk, covered in stacks of paperclipped or crosshatched papers, and felt too tired to start. Sometimes a simple change can make a big difference. Now I paperclip class sets of papers and then fold them the long way (otherwise known as "hot-dog style"). Then I rubber band the sets together and stand them up in a correction box I have on my desk. That way, I can easily see how many sets of papers I have from each prep. Always fold the papers so you can see the headings. In this way, I can keep track of several sets of papers at a glance. Some teachers have told me they keep a separate box for each prep. This is what I hope many people are doing--taking my ideas and making them fit their own teaching styles or situations.

Hint Six: Quality Standard Bonus

How many times have we seen work that was "just good enough to make the teacher go away--and no better?" I was frustrated! How could I get my students to see that quality work and accurate work were both important? Then I remembered my friend, station WIIFM. I also remembered one of the "mysteries of life" about extra credit. Why is it that the same student who fails to do a 40-point paper will slave for five points of extra credit? By putting both of these ideas together, I came up with the "quality bonus."

I model on the overhead (there's that visual thing again) exactly how the paper should be headed, with the subject, date and title of the assignment. I explain that, in order to receive the "quality bonus" points, their papers should look exactly the way I demonstrated, and the paper must be neat, COMPLETE and turned in by the end of the class.

The "quality bonus" is worth five points of extra credit. The difference in effort now put forth during work time is amazing! I am often surprised at the power of extra credit as a motivational tool, so use it to your advantage when appropriate (and remember, WIIFM in stereo). When the allocated time for the assignment is expended, all I do is quickly collect the papers and check for the "quality bonus," then put up to five points at the top of the paper. It takes me about two minutes, or less, to evaluate a class set of about 30. Then the paper is corrected in class, the bonus is added, and we are on our way. It is a difference of night and day how much easier it is to scan neat and complete papers!

Hint Seven: Use Lots of Points.

If a student earns 800 out of a possible 1,000 points or 80 out of a possible 100 points, it all works out to 80 percent. Whether I'm working with Advanced Placement students or students who are not usually academically successful, all the students work harder for more points! They really view it as more points equals more pay. So, be generous with the points--it all divides out the same. We get more papers if the work is worth 40 points than if it is worth four. Also, if you are using the "lots of points" system, five points of extra credit for a quality bonus is no big deal. The more class work a student does, the more learning is happening, and isn't that what we really want-more learning?

Key Words

Let's review the key words from all the articles:

* September 2000: music, countdown for class starting, daily agenda, consistent box for turn in (with teddy bear), WIIFM in stereo, bowl for attendance slips, help--but do not enable.

* September 2001: butcher-paper schedule, box for absent persons' papers (and handouts), build student dependence on overhead and peers, use overhead to write instructions, color code worksheets, use lots of small blocks of time, box for late work.

* September 2002: rituals for class ending, hosts/hostesses for guest teachers, pace work time + teacher prowl, rubber band hot-dog style, quality standard bonus, use lots of points.

We are coming to the end of our visit. As I say in my presentations, please consider these ideas as a "buffet" of suggestions. For some ideas you will say, "Wow, this is great! I can't wait to try it." For others you may say, "I could really like this idea if I just changed it a bit." For a few ideas you may say, "Umm, not for me." My hope is that at least a few of these ideas will help reduce teacher stress and fatigue while increasing student responsibility.

According to Newsweek (October 2, 2000), half of all teachers in classrooms today will be retired by the year 2010. NEA Today (May 2001) says one-third or more of our new teachers do not teach a fifth year. We, the profession, need to keep our teachers in classrooms. I hope I can help. We become teachers because we deeply believe in helping the next generation. If we lose a teacher, it should not be because of classroom or paper management difficulties.

Remember--the student is not the product of education. The learning is the product, and the teacher and the students should work together to produce the best quality product they can.

Sandy LaBelle lives in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. She has been teaching seminars nationwide for several years and has been a presenter at national ACTE conventions and a national principals' convention. In July of 2001, LaBelle was a keynote speaker at the national FCCLA conference. Her book, Teaching Smarter, was published in 1999, with a second edition in 2001. She can be reached on her Web site at (where you can find out more about Teaching Smarter, review the current speaking schedule or order a book) or by e-mail at Contact can also be made by calling 253-630-2907. LaBelle is available as a presenter at school and district in-services or as a keynote speaker at conventions.
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Author:LaBelle, Sandy
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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