Big Teaching Questions

Math is not a spectator sport…

… so why do I teach it like it is?

My classroom is mainly me standing in front, talking. A typical day goes like this:

Me: Check your home enjoyment answers with the answers on the board. Be sure to correct your work, and talk with your partner if you get something wrong but you don’t know why it’s wrong.

[Hand raised, and I walk over there: Hello child. What’s going on? Oh you want help? Did you ask your partner? No? Oh. Okay. Bye.]

Me: Okay, are there any questions?

[A couple minutes pass when we go over unresolved questions.]

Me: So today we’re going to build off of what we did yesterday…

Then I start teaching with a back and forth: me, student, me, student, me, student. Blarf. (I know, I know, I complain about this a lot, because it’s something I need to really work on. ) I usually introduce a new topic, ask a few questions, work through a sample problem with student input, and then have students work with their partners on a similar “check yo’self before you wreck yo’self” problem. Then we move on. [1]

I’m the authority in the classroom. The kids don’t see each other as authorities. Not really, not in any meaningful way. [2] That’s my fault. I don’t let them be authorities.

A couple weeks ago, in one of my Calculus classes and my only Algebra II class, I was ahead of schedule. So I introduced the material in the same sort of way, but then instead of me talking, us doing a problem, them doing a problem… me talking, us doing a problem, them doing a problem… I streamlined it. I talked and we did a few problems together, and then I let them at it. I give them their homework and let them start tearing through it.

I loved it. I mean, they were doing math. They were having trouble. But because they were in class, and not at home, they turned to their partners and talk. [3] I wasn’t the sole authority when they got stuck. They felt more comfortable talking with each other in this informal situation, instead of talking in The Big Scary Everyone Is Looking At Me back and forth we have when I introduce new material. And what I loved watching is that the kids themselves are seeing each other as authorities.

(They were simply happy that they get to actually spend time in class doing their homework.) (And I was happy they can have less on their plates for when they get home.)

Most of you out there are probably horrified that I’m just latching onto this idea now: give them time to work in class. Trust me. It’s not a new idea for me. I mean, obviously I always try to have my kids working independently in class. But I tell ya, it isn’t easy to do:

1) I suspect that most new teachers feel guilty letting kids work on homework or problems in class. They feel like they need to be “teaching” (which means: lecturing). I know when I first started teaching this was chronic. I would plan my 50 minutes to a T. (Whatever that means.) Even to this day I have remnants of that fear. A week ago, I gave my Calculus kids 20 minutes (out of 50) to work on their homework problems. Part of me still felt like I was doing something wrong. Like I was wasting valuable class time. Like I hadn’t prepared enough. Which wasn’t true. I had planned those 20 minutes. I have to catch myself.

2) More significantly, it’s hard to get through jam-packed curricula and have much class time to work on problems. I mean, let’s say you wanted to teach Absolute Value Inequalities in a single day. (Which, in some years, we have to do.) To get kids to the point they can work the problems, they either need:

a. 50 minutes talking through the concept and building their understanding so that they can conceptually understand the problems and the solutions, or
b. 25 minute lecture on the procedure to solve Absolute Value Inequality problems.

The first plan involves a lot of student thinking and discussion and a little doing. Mainly watching. Then the student will go home and practice problems with the knowledge they’ve gained from class. They’ll be alone at home struggling through if they run into problems. The second plan leads to a good amount of time for students to work out problems. But most wouldn’t know what’s going on — and they would memorize a bunch of rules. However they would get to work out problems in class, so that if they have trouble, they can find out what they’re doing wrong before they go home and struggle.

Clearly I tend to opt for the 1st. I could get through so much more if I dove straight for the method/procedure. But that’s not the way I roll.

I know this setup is a false dichotemy — plan a or plan b. There are probably lots of alternatives that I just haven’t yet seen.

My name is Sam and some days I feel I could be doing infinitely better at my job.

[1] Okay so this isn’t totally true. There are days where we deviate. But I’m illustrating a point here, so I’m going to gloss over nuances.

[2] Getting kids to see each other as authorities in the classroom was one of my goals this year. I feel like it has actually happened to some degree in calculus. My kids are helping the heck out of each other inside and outside of class. And I ask ’em to talk to each other before coming to talk to me.

[3] If they were at home, I’d hope that they use some of the strategies we talked about for when they get stuck. But I know that for many of them, it is wishful thinking. I’m trying to teach my students to be students. To learn how to learn well. But it’s hard and you can’t force it.

Coriolis Whaa?

So I’m a teacher that usually overprepares. I have my lesson set up beforehand. Very little is set up for “free form.” This is even true for my Multivariable Calculus class of 5 students.

To be fair, though, in that class we do generally take a 20 minute tangent here or there. Like today we were resolving the acceleration vector of a vector valued function into normal and tangental components — and we spent 15 minutes deriving them because I just decided we should. Spur of the moment thing. Or a few weeks ago, I gave my student 50 minutes to come up with how to convert between rectangular, cylindrical, and spherical coordinates, with no help. But generally, the lessons are carefully planned out. Here’s an example of my introduction to triple integrals (which we do way later in the year) so you can get a sense:

slideshare id=1597835&doc=mvcalculustripleintegrals-090617102556-phpapp01

A few days ago, we had gone over the homework and somehow got on the topic of us being on the earth. I honestly can’t remember what prompted it. But we started talking about the force of gravity, which we feel because the earth is so massive. Then I had an insight — a direction we could take the conversation.

We are also spinning: “Does that change anything?”

I stopped class. I paused for 15 seconds, told the students to hush while I considered whether to go down this route. I felt this pang of deviating from my preplanned lesson. We were going to be behind. Do I really want to possibly come to a dead end?

I almost pushed it off. I was going to “leave it as an exercise to the reader” — tell my students they could think about it independently. But just as I was about to brush it off, I thought: WTFrak. Tangents are more interesting and more memorable, when the kids are interested in them.

My kids seemed interested.

So I threw away the lesson I had planned completely, and we went off the cuff, without a known destination in sight.

So back to the spinning earth. I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about that kinda obvious fact before — we’re spinning, so that should have some consequences

We learned in our previous class that if something is spinning at a constant velocity in a circular motion, it must have an acceleration pointing inward to the center of the circle. So since we are spinning, once around our latitude every day, we must also feel a force pulling us to the center of the circle.

If we model the earth as a sphere, not tilted, and put us at an angle 45 degrees from the equator… we feel a force pulling us to the center of the earth (from gravity), and also a force pulling us directly inwards (centripetal – from rotating) :

But I don’t feel that centripetal force. I jump up, I come down. I don’t feel like I’m being pulled in any other direction.

So we decided to calculate the magnitude of the two forces, and figure out what’s going on.


I left giddy. We figured that the centripetal force was about 1/400 the force of gravity. Afterwards, I did a few more calculations, and realized that actually some of this centripetal force will be in the direction of gravity, so it will feel even less powerful.

I’m leaving for a wedding tomorrow, so I’m having my kids do a formal writeup of what they found. I can’t wait to see it. I am going to show it to their AP Physics teacher.

(As an aside,  I think I’ve found the physics term for what we discovered: the Coriolis force. If anyone knows anything about it, or any good resources on it, let me know!)

The past two weeks have been a roller coaster

I don’t know what is up or down anymore. My whole life is taken up by school. Yesterday I said “had a hard day, but hopefully things will get better. feeling like a bad teacher. why can’t i get my kids to learn?!?” I felt like such a failure. My anxiety and stress were through the roof. And today I had just a magical, scintillating, investigatory calculus class. It was on the function y=sin(1/x). (Remember I taught it last year? This year it was even more fun! Because I tied it into the “pretty/ugly” functions thing we did a few days earlier.)

So I keep pingponging from despair to elation. From day to day, yes, but even from hour to hour.

One thing that’s getting to me is how dang hard I’ve been working. And needing it to let up. SOON. So I don’t go crazy.

Recent Tweets from the past couple days:

  • today got home at around 8:30ish. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!
  • wow i hate this week already. its 9pm and im just leaving school.
  • Omg I’m home at 6:20pm. Someone pinch me!
  • Just got home. [8:30pm] Argh. This needs to stop.

I have no idea why I’m staying at school so late. I am doing stuff, but what is it I’ve been doing? I just don’t know. Seriously. What could be taking up all my time?!? Well, this blog is for me, and I need to sort through this. I’m going to type whatever I can recall doing in the past week or so and see how it adds up. (Besides planning classes. Obvi.)

1. Organized nominations for the Student-Faculty Judiciary Committee. Met nominees before school to talk about their speeches and what the SFJC is about. Kept in contact with Deans and nominees about this. Elections happen tomorrow.

2. Organized and ran my first SFJC case. Wrote response letter for the case.

3. Graded and recorded grades for calculus. Standards Based Grading. It is taking a surprisingly HUGE amount of time, this grading. GARGANTUAN. And I even started cutting down on my feedback.

4. Wrote reassessments for calculus. And graded reassessments. (So far, there haven’t been more than a half-dozen, but with two skills each reassessment…)

5. Graded an Algebra II assessment.

6. Wrote home to parents of calculus students who are currently struggling. And set up (and starting having) individual meetings (a lot of individual meetings) to talk with students about how they are feeling, what they are doing for the class, and having them come up with a concrete plan of action.

7. Met with three senior students to talk about their college essay drafts which I read and commented on.

8. Planned and facilitated a 90 minute meeting with 14 faculty members on the topic of “Academic Integrity.” (I have 3 or 4 more of these to plan and facilitate. Luckily I have two co-leaders to work with.)

9. Prepared for Parent Night (which is happening this Thursday).

10. Tutored.

On the very near horizon, I have to…

1. Grade the first batch of Multivariable Calculus problem sets.

2. Plan a 4 hour orientation for the elected Student-Faculty Judiciary Committee members (next weekend).

3. Prepare for the monthly meeting with the head of the upper school about the committee.

4. Email and set up times to meet with Algebra II students who are struggling, to come up with a plan of action.

5. Write one or two paragraph “interim comments” for all students in all my classes who are struggling (we do this halfway through each quarter).

6. Write a letter of recommendation.

I don’t know what the point of this post was. It turned into me rambling, and trying to find out where all my time is going. I now see. Everywhere except for lesson planning. Barf.

Academic Integrity as part of Personal Integrity

As you may know, I teach at an independent school in Brooklyn. It is a K-12 school, with about 80 kids per grade in the Upper School (grades 9-12). I love that even though there are around 320+ kids in the Upper School, there is a sense of community and belonging. For this to happen, a lot of stuff has to be going right. I have my gripes, believe you me, but when you take a step back and see all the good, well, I am proud.

At the same time, our kids are under a lot of pressure. Pressure they put on themselves, pressure we put on them, and pressure they get from their parents. They tend to overextend themselves — from sports and music and dance to SAT tutors to clubs to horseback riding to writing computer programs. And that’s on top of  the regular school work we assign — which can end up being a lot.

And in our school, students cheat. (That’s probably not special to my school.)

I know students cheat. I’ve been on the Student-Faculty Judiciary Committee (read: disciplinary committee) for the past two years. I’ve seen it all. The most common form of cheating? The one that is rampant? Homework copying.

Anyhoo–I’m helping lead a group of 15 teachers to investigate “integrity” in the Upper School. Where and how we teach it formally and informally? Where we fall short? How other schools teach/model integrity? So that we can find concrete and specific ways to improve our own practice.

It’s not a bunch of fluff. One of the most eye-opening things for me was a discussion that I had with my homeroom last year about cheating. We had a frank, honest, open conversation — where I posed some questions and hypothesticals and just listened to them talk. It was a judgment-free zone. What impressed me about the conversation was that students had passionate views about the subject, about the role teachers play (read: busywork versus meaningful assignments), and their ability to voice their views confidently. What surprised me about the conversation was that the word “integrity” (or “morality”) did not enter into the discussion until I mentioned it at the end. Mostly their views were: it’s okay to cheat on small things, like homework, because you’re just hurting yourself. [1] It doesn’t really matter.

Most the other homeroom teachers I talked to told me their kids said similar things.

We want our kids to behave with integrity. We can’t force them to buy into it. But I see two things that we can do to promote personal integrity.

1. Model personal integrity as a teacher. How? Easy. “If you say you’re going to do something, do it.” [1]

2. Talk explicitly about integrity, and not just once. If it isn’t just you as a teacher doing this, but a whole slew of teachers, well, at the very least, the words and the ideas will be floating around in the school zeitgeist. As our learning specialist said: Naming things has power. Don’t just be implicit. Be explicit.

I try to do (1) all the time. Hello, my motto: clear, consistent, and fair. This year, however, I’m talking about (2) explicitly.

Specifically, one of the things kids have trouble with at my school is with collaboration. Different teachers have different expectations regarding collaboration. And what’s okay in one class is not okay in another. It can be confusing. And you know what? It’s hard to decide where the line is — between acceptable and unacceptable collaboration. There are grey areas. And saying “you can work together but you have to write up your work separately” is a cop out. The ambiguity present in that phrase is ridic.

So what I did was write three skits to be performed with another teacher, and had kids think about the following four questions:

  1. Where in the collaboration does the learning taking place?
  2. What are the positive pieces to the collaboration?
  3. What are the negative pieces to the collaboration?
  4. If you were in this collaboration, what are ways you could make the collaboration more productive?

The skits are below. [2]

I had kids take notes during the skits, after seeing these four questions, and then we had an informal conversation. It was one of the best things I’ve done in the classroom. Everyone had something to say. They responded to each other. They were thoughtful and mature. And most importantly for me, in each skit, they really thought about who was learning and who wasn’t in each collaboration. What I’m hoping is that this translates — even for one or two of them — into thinking about the way they collaborate with others on their assignments, and if there is a better way to collaborate.

I am going to have my kids engage in groupwork this year, and I hope I remember to ask them at the end of a class with a lot of group work: what was positive about their groupwork, what was negative, who was learning and how do you know, and how they could have made their groupwork better?

The big conclusion that I shared with them — and it’s something I only stumbled upon this year when thinking about academic integrity and collaboration:

I’m also going to start putting honor statements on all my assessments.

Again, not because I think it will “force” kids to act with integrity. You can’t force that. But it puts the idea of integrity out there in the zeitgeist. And who knows, if they see and hear and talk about it enough, it might reframe what students think about when they think about cheating: cheating is bad because I can get in trouble vs. cheating is bad because it diminishes the trust that others can put in me.

[1] I had this idea a while ago, but it was echoed by a teacher at my school at a recent meeting.

[2] In case you were wondering, Skit 1 borders on being unacceptable collaboration. Skit 2 is unacceptable collaboration. I made a blanket rule, after talking about this with my kids, that no student is ever allowed to give their homework to someone else, under any circumstances. Skit 3 is ideal.

My advice for first year teachers

Jesse Johnson gchatted with me on August 17, asking me if I had any time management tools that would help first year teachers. Or any tools at all. Specifically:

what could first year teachers learn before they start teaching that would help them manage and organize and feel successful and love the job even as they are fumbling and learning

That’s huge. And new teachers are going to have different advice being chucked at them from all sides. If my experience as a new teacher is indicative, it’s like dodgeball but you’re taped to a flagpole. I think Jesse is onto something though: crowdsource teachers from all walks of life, and get a few concrete ideas from each about what they do to stay sane and happy in the midsts of a trial by fire.

Before my thoughts, here’s a recollection — not mine, but of @justagirl24 — of what it is like to be a first year (or student) teacher. It’s raw and honest, powerful in it’s evolution. Just so you remember what starting out is like. And while I’m on it, I remember the most powerful thing I learned my first year was learning how to separate the mountains from the molehills — something that takes time, learning the basics of your school, and asking a lot of advice.

Here we go.  Three super concrete things I would recommend to new teachers to stay sane and happy.

1. Take Saturdays off. If you’re a workaholic, like me, you’ll work hours everyday. I didn’t start doing this until last year (my third year), but I wish I started it earlier. I do not do work on Saturdays. It’s a rule.

To be totally fair, I broke that rule maybe a half dozen times, but I’m always hyper aware that I am breaking the rule, and it has to be for a good reason. A few times I had an all day (fun) thing to do on Sunday, so I did work on Saturday instead. I also allow myself a few hours of work on Saturdays when I have to write narrative comments on each of my students (twice a year). I make a treat out of it, though, and find someone to write comments with at a coffeeshop (followed by something fun), or I treat myself to heading into Manhattan to work at the (gorgeous) New York Public Library.

2. Find yourself a good crew of teacher friends at all different stages in teaching. Like, yeah, be super conscientious about this. Engineer friendships. Seriously, find people you like and are comfortable with in your school, and invite them out for coffee, or have a brunch at your place and invite them to it. Make sure you develop these friendships early on. You will soon find that if you have a teacher crew, you’re never going to be at a loss in terms of advice. You’ll have a bunch of go-to people to find out who to ask for what. You’ll be able to talk about specific students and get advice. You can explain things that aren’t going well and let others give you advice. And you can hear interesting things they do in their classrooms — and steal them.

Basically, you’ll have a bunch of math teacher blogger friends, but as real life friends. Meaning you can go to ye olde watering hole together. And


Okay, I think venting is one of the most important thing you can do as a new teacher. You’re going to be facing a lot of things and you’re going to get frustrated. With students, with administration, with other teachers. I mean, you have to keep it professional, but you should find a few trustworthy friends (preferably new-ish teachers) and complain your heart out.

Not conventional wisdom, I know. But one of the things that happens to first year teachers is that there are periods when you get dejected. You feel like you suck. Heck, you may even suck. (I feel that way all the time, and I totally crash and burn often enough.) And kids are getting to you. Maybe one in particular. And the pressure is building up. And your systems that you so carefully thought out aren’t working. The worst thing you can do is keep all this inside. It’ll start eating you up. You’ll start crashing and burning, and feeling trapped and alone.

The best thing you can do is VENT to some close friends. Because as soon as you say it aloud, it stops being your private shame. Think about it. When something bad happens, like you go to the mall and  you try on pants and realize, oh! that size doesn’t fit you anymore. You can either internalize it, be ashamed, and go about your business obsessing over it. Or you can make a joke about it and tell your friend who you’re shopping with. (As long as your friend isn’t a judgmental jerk.) It stops being this horrible thing, and it just starts being this thing. Okay, not a terribly good analogy. But trust me on this: venting is healthy. Keeping things to yourself, going it alone, being afraid to talk about problems, is the foundation for failure, methinks.

(Just a caveat: vent with those you trust who aren’t judgmental jerks, and be somewhat professional when you vent.)

That’s all.

Lost Faith

D.I.G. asked in the comments a few posts ago:

So, Sam, did anyone say what happens when you lose that faith?

People still tell me that they think I’m a good teacher, although I think it’s less and less true as time goes on. I no longer know why I do this job. I haven’t given up yet, as witnessed by the fact that I still have things like your blog in my feed reader.

I’ve been at this career for 20+ years. On some level, I still think I’m probably better in my position than some random person who might be hired to take my place if I left — I have no doubt that I’m basically competent, and not everyone is — but that doesn’t make it much easier to keep going. Did anyone address how to get back to feeling like what you do matters when you’ve lost the faith?

We hadn’t talked about this, and considering where I am in my career (read: early), I had no worthy advice to bestow. so I emailed Peg Cagle, the person at PCMI who talked about faith. She’s been teaching a while. Although she has been busy all summer, she took the time to jot down a few “non-linear musings.”

1.) Faith of any sort demands courage. Courage to believe in something for which there is little if any substantiating evidence let alone proof. Unfortunately, I have no particular insight into the creation of personal courage.
2.) Faith of any sort needs to be nourished. People with religious faith feed it by spending time with other like-minded people discussing and studying their beliefs. The same is true for faith in the work of teaching. Beyond the tools that I gain from attending conferences, talking with colleagues or reading independently, I also renew my belief that teaching is a worthy intellectual endeavor and that by engaging in the work of teaching, I make a difference.
3.) Faith of any sort can be strengthened through challenge. Don’t be afraid to profess your beliefs about public education. While you may not be supporting a popular viewpoint, standing up to a modicum of contrary perspective can re-affirm your own values.
4.) Faith allows for forgiveness. Everyone has weaknesses and doubts during a lifetime of beliefs and don’t beat up on yourself for sometimes thinking that you are delusional for believing that teaching makes a difference. At the same time that you need to remember that our work is an investment in the future, don’t expect to see the long term pay-offs. Focus on the small victories; they exist. And they can get you through another semester, another day or perhaps just another class period.

Thank you Peg, and I hope you find your lost faith, D.I.G.

Personally, I’m not at the place yet where I have started to develop that deep faith in what I do, but I’m sure it will be powerful when (if) it happens.

Not all of us have Soft Skills

This is my post for Riley Lark’s Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

Three. That’s how many different times I’ve started writing this blasted thing. I actually finished a two thousand word post that I almost published. It didn’t really go anywhere – but meandered with fake conversations and some overarching principles and then fizzled out right before you would expect an explosive, pee-releasing BANG.

Because – and you may find this hard to believe – I have nothing to say. Nada.

Even writing this introduction is a way to avoid saying what I have to say. Zilch.

So I’m starting over. On the date this post is due. Here’s the problem.

I have no grand philosophy. I don’t garner the respect of all my students. Some like me, some pretend to like me, some dislike me. I am not beloved. I am not universally hated. I am awkward. I am not a master of soft skills.

When I am in the hallways and I see a kid, I wave and smile and say hello. I actually do this obsessively, and from a distance. Sometimes I secretly think I resemble Miss America. On a float, hand raised high, fanning left and right, as I rumble by the crowds. Just far enough away to feel safe, just smiley enough to say “I care! From! Over! Here!” When I walk with a student, or sit down to have breakfast with a student in the Commons, or have smalltalk in homeroom, I tend to be… a little… well…

Mr. Shah: So, how’s math class going this year?
Stu: Pretty good.
Mr. Shah: I like to hear that.

(awkward silence)


(yes, one more second here)

Mr. Shah: Watch anything interesting on TV lately?

(Sometimes that last line might say “Read any good books lately?” or “How do you like the new Justin Bieber single?”)

So first off, I’d like to say to all of you out there reading the virtual conference on Soft Skills, feeling like (a) you are sucky, (b) you don’t make every kid feel like they are one-of-a-kind-and-special, and (c) doo doo…

You probably are…

…and I’m right there with you.

At the same time, I don’t think I have to be awkward forever. I bet these “soft skills” are learnable and I’ll get there.  I’ll get to the point where kids dump Gatorade on me at the end of the year [1].

To avoid having virtual tomatoes – or real tomatoes for that matter – pelted at me, I scrounged up one concrete thing I have done in the past that might fall under the “soft skills” rubric.

It was maybe my fifth or sixth day of teaching. Ever. The Smartboard was broken and I had to improvise my Algebra II class – holy crap holy crap holy crap holy crap. Trust me, this is not one of those “and then I learned I had it in me all along” stories. I SUCKED. Not a “I wish I had said this instead of that” sucked, but a “I left my kids confused, drooling, grunting meeee do not get. brain hurt. hit me over the head with that textbook and put me out of my misery” sucked.

That night, I called my sister upset. She said “take a mulligan.” After I asked her what the heck that was (FYI: me:sports::oil:vinegar), I replied, “better yet, I’ll ask them permission to take a mulligan.”

The next class, I got on my knees – and pleaded for a second chance.  I delivered a (practiced) passionate, funny, histrionic apologia . I followed it with a killer lesson.

The following year, I was teaching quadratics, and I was running out of time. (Aren’t we always?) At the last moment I was asked to teach applications of quadratics — some crazy word problems. I came up with a plan to have students work in groups and present solutions, and it was going to be short and sweet, and then they would get an open-note take home assessment. It was a plan. It wasn’t a well-thought-out plan. Which consequently means it wasn’t a well-executed plan. On the take home assessment, my students got Cs and Ds and Fs. Like all of my students. I don’t mind when I get a bimodal distribution. But this clearly wasn’t their fault. It was my fault. I did a terrible job.

Enter mulligan. I started the next class apologizing. I told them I had screwed up royally. I told them that I thought I had a good way to teach these quadratic word problems, and it clearly wasn’t. And so I failed at my job, and in this case, I failed them. I had a conversation about what went wrong in the way I planned the lessons. I also cancelled the assessment grades.

Honestly, it didn’t feel sheepish going in front of them, admitting weakness and failure. (I thought it would.) It felt good. Real good. And my kids appreciated and accepted my honesty.

Awww, Mr. Shah is a person.

Awww, Mr. Shah makes mistakes.

Awww, Mr. Shah makes up for his mistakes instead of blaming me.

Awww, Mr. Shah is trying to do right by us.

Awww, Mr. Shah respects us.

Awww, Mr. Shah is on my side.

Now, like in golf, you can’t pull this one out of the bag of tricks all the time. But there are moments when it is can really help. And not only your relationship with your kids, but also by giving you a breather – a second chance to right some wrong.

It goes hand in hand with something I put on my course expectations.

I feel like I have a contract with these kids. I expect a lot from them, so I want them to expect a lot from me. They are accountable to me, so I am accountable to them. Not to my school, not to my department, but to them. I also never want them to feel alone – backed into a corner where they have no one to turn to. I want them to know they can always turn to me, because we’re in this boat together.

I got this philosophy from my beloved English teacher in high school. We’d get our essays back with three different colored checks on the front page, and copious amounts of feedback. One day, well into the school year, I asked him what those colored checks meant. He replied, “I read each paper three times. The first time to get a sense of the argument. The second time to give you feedback. The third time to make sure I was fair grading and wasn’t affected by a bad mood. The checks help me keep things in order.” He then followed with the thing that stuck: “I know you guys put a lot of effort and time into these. I want to make sure I do the same.” By respecting our essays, he respected us.

Now, here’s where things get hairy. I write this, and it has that “awww, shucks” ring to it. I remind my kids that I’m always on their side. I show my kids I am human and can connect with them. But remember the beginning of this post, where I started. I don’t have soft skills. Miss America on a float here, remember. I have failed.

Reminding kids that I am always on your side in words and (more importantly) in actions doesn’t always work. Sometimes I can’t reach my kids through an encouraging email, or working with them individually.

Very occasionally a kid comes with (or develops) a chip on his or her shoulder, and when presented with my teaching style – all founded on being clear, consistent, and fair – they shut down or they act out. Most of the time, they haven’t dealt with a teacher with firm expectations and firm follow through. (I don’t have a lot of wiggle room in terms of my expectations.) They’re teenagers, and they resist [2] – and I refuse to lower or change my expectations for them. There inevitably comes a battle of wills.

It’s at this point that I realize that as these students dig their heels into the ground, and as I dig my heels into the ground, I have failed. Because the mantra I am always on your side doesn’t apply. We don’t have a common goal anymore. [3]

Consequence? Neither of us win – both of us lose.

I can count these students on one hand, but they can (and have) defined the atmosphere of a class. That sucks, because who wants to have a class which you like going to less than your other classes? I don’t have a bag of tricks for these kids yet. The unreachable kid – I don’t know how to reach ‘em.

This is where I am at in terms of soft skills.

So yeah. I didn’t want to end this on a “feel good” note. I want to say that soft skills are hard, and they don’t come naturally to everyone. The fact that this was so hard for me to write shows me that it taps into some serious insecurities I have as a teacher. But they are important, because they keep you and kids on the same side. You’re a team. When you’re not on the same side, you need to ask how is it that you can be on the same side again. But this isn’t a feel-good-I’m-great post. I can’t always say I’m successful.

So to all of you who are sick of reading how awesome everyone else is – me too. But let’s make a pact. Let’s consciously work on it to make things better.


Other things I do that might qualify as soft skills:

  1. I always keep candy on my desk, and if a student comes by (for almost any reason) I’ll offer ‘em some. I’ll often offer students I don’t teach candy too, when they come in the office and look a little down or worried or anxious.
  2. I write a single letter at the end of the year and distribute it to my seniors (but  I address each of the letters individually and print them out on school stationary and sign them and put them in school envelopes). The letters are sappy, chronicle our year, and give unsolicited advice.
  3. At the beginning of the year, I have students fill out a google form with some basic information about them, their calculator serial number, and with some questions they must answer from the course expectations. I also ask what they are most worried about. I then write, to the students who say things other than “nothing,” individual emails to these students addressing their concerns and reminding them they always can come to me if things get stressful.
  4. On the first few assessments, I’ll have a question where I have students write about what they’re feeling about the class, or about the material, or what they’re nervous about, or what they still don’t get. It’s all pretty open ended. I write short responses to each of these.


[1] I don’t remember who said that. But it’s an evocative image, no?

[2] Heck, I’m known for being resistant too. It’s not just teenagers.

[3] To be clear, it’s not like I just leave things be. I meet with these students individually a few times to see what’s going on in a non-confrontational way, I ask the student “what can I do to help things? I want us to be on the same side again.” I make our conversation a give-and-take, without lowering my expectations or giving the student things I am not willing to give every student. I bring the adviser or dean into the conversation. I engage the parents. Usually these things work to some degree. But there are those few kids where nothing I do works.