The Most Mortifying Moment Of My Teaching Career — And What I Learned From It

The most mortifying moment of my teaching career, and what I learned from it.

Someone who’s taught for 11 years should have everything down to a science, right?

Nope.

My 11th year of teaching might have been my worst.

I had an excellent group of 5th graders.  I had a supportive team of teachers.  I had zero excuses every time I looked at my class data and saw meager (at best) learning gains.  In January, a veteran teacher walked into my room to pick up a student.  She was in my room about 30 seconds before she said:

“These kids aren’t working for you.”

It was the most mortifying moment of my teaching career.

Teachers get lots of negative feedback.  During my previous 11 years, several administrators lectured me about incorrect common boards, teaching one subject when my schedule said I should be teaching another, and not teaching the exact same thing as my teammates.  I’m pretty good about letting pointless criticism roll off me.

This was different.

“These kids aren’t working for you.”

I could not let that roll off me because I knew it was 100% true.

I can’t describe how much those words stung.  I felt embarrassed that another teacher saw how ineffective I was.  I felt angry at her for saying this.  Then I felt angry at myself for letting my students down.  Finally, I felt overwhelmed because it’s not something I could fix in one day.

After my emotions settled, I realized had never thoroughly reflected on how to be a better teacher.  That needed to change.

Here’s what I did.

First, I had to accept responsibility for this.  I couldn’t make excuses about my students, their parents, my administrators, testing, or anything else.

Next, I had to figure out a time to think about solutions.  So instead of listening to ESPN radio during my 45-minute drive home, I thought about everything that happened in my classroom that day.  I’d replay the day in my mind until I could remember two things that went well and one thing that didn’t.  I analyzed the good things until I thought of how it could help in the future.  I also analyzed the bad so I could prevent it from happening again.

Thankfully, I had an awesome team of teachers and administrative coaches that year.  I asked them for advice about how they motivate their students.  There are tons of awesome Facebook groups where you can get excellent advice, but I still recommend talking to other teachers at your school.

I also wanted to observe other teachers, but there was no time for that.  The best way struggling teachers can learn is by watching awesome teachers in action.  I wish districts allowed more time for this to happen, but that’s impossible when every day of planning time is full of meetings.

So after a lot of reflection, I realized:

I was drowning in all the fifth-grade standards.

There were several times that year when students corrected me during math class.  These students were not being rude.  They were respectful, bright young kids who wanted me to know that I was working a problem incorrectly.  I’m sure this caused students to lose confidence in me.  I realized I needed to take staff-development courses in math during the summer or persuade my principal to let us departmentalize.  Thankfully, my principal allowed us to departmentalize the next year!  I got to teach science, so I spent the summer researching science standards, labs to teach those standards, and how students would be assessed on them.  It took a ton of communication with my team during the summer to organize our first year of departmentalization, but it was worth it.  I finally felt like I could breathe again since I could focus on one subject.

If you’re an upper-elementary teacher who feels like you’re drowning in all the standards, I highly recommend departmentalizing.  You can check out my blog post here to learn why this revitalized my desire to teach.

It’s not about me.

I also realized I was too controlling.  I hate when administrators micromanage me, but I realized I was doing the same to my students.  I sapped all the joy out of reading class by requiring my students to use 1,352 strategies on every reading passage.  If they only used 1,349 of those strategies, I’d make them do the assignment over again.

I also spent way too much time telling my students how to do everything instead of letting them discover new concepts on their own.  I allowed them little time to learn from each other.

So I spent the first week of my 12th year showing my students how to work in groups.  I also covered classroom rules and procedures, but I focused on teamwork.  I told my students they were going to learn a lot from each other.  I looked for activities where kids worked together to deepen their knowledge about a topic.  I spoke to the whole class much less often.

The more I got out of the way, the more my students learned.

Allow students to learn from their mistakes.

I realized I was way too critical of small mistakes.  I’m not talking about the times a student willingly disobeyed me, I’m talking about conversations like this:

ME:  HOW could you confuse area and perimeter?!  I told you three times during class today that area is L x W while perimeter is the sum of all the sides.  THREE TIMES?!  How could you get this wrong?  Are you even listening?

Student:  Yeah, I just forgot.

Me:  Do 10 extra problems for homework and you’d better start listening in class!

Surprise…conversations like that didn’t exactly motivate my students.

Yes, it’s frustrating when students make the same mistake over and over again.  However, I realized I needed to change the tone of my conversation to something like this:

Me:  You keep confusing area and perimeter.  Why do you think that happens?

Student:  It’s hard.  I can’t remember it.

Me:  True, but you are responsible for remembering it.  What could you do to help you remember this?

Student:  I dunno.

Me:  Apparently you need to spend a few more minutes thinking of a solution.  Go back to your seat.  I will be back in five minutes and I will listen to your plan of how you will remember the difference between area and perimeter in the future.

My students responded way better when I changed my tone during these conversations to let them know I want to help them improve, not punish them for making mistakes.

Take time to laugh.

I realized I was so focused on keeping up with the pacing guide that I rarely took time to have fun during the day.  No one can be expected to work for seven straight hours.  So I started making corny jokes way more often.  I’d show a dumb 40-second YouTube video in the middle of class.  I’d allow the kids five minutes of free time at the end of class when they worked hard.  Sometimes I dumped candy on each kid’s desk while they were in the middle working on a difficult project.  Other days I’d surprise the kids with a fun STEM or team-building activity when we needed a break from the standard we had been working on for the last five days.  I needed these breaks as much as the students.

My 12th year of teaching was far from perfect, but it was much better than the year before.  My students made awesome learning gains.  I had a much better attitude about teaching every day.  There was even a teacher who observed my class and said,

“Wow, your students are really engaged.”

I knew it was 100% true.

 

 

My Non-Instagramable, Non-Themed Classroom…Where My Students Still Succeeded

I have always been insanely jealous of teachers whose classrooms look like a movie set.  Or teachers who can make their classroom look like a master suite in a $2.5 million home with perfect curtains, perfectly-matched color patterns, and plush furniture.  I’m also jealous of teachers who can pull off a classroom theme and work it into absolutely everything they do all year.  There were many times when my students’ jaws hit the floor when they saw other teachers’ classrooms.  Then they asked, “Mr. Geswein, why don’t you ever make our room look fancy like that!?”

When we returned to class, I explained to my students that everyone has different talents…and my talent is DEFINITELY not designing classrooms!!

If you’re like me, I’d like this blog post to offer some encouragement and ideas because I feel like teachers (especially in elementary grades) put way too much pressure on themselves to have a classroom that looks perfect.

Every year at back-to-school time, I see SO MANY AMAZING CLASSROOMS on social media!  On the flip side, even though they aren’t posting, I know there are teachers who feel insane amounts of pressure to design a classroom that can compete with all the ones they see on Instagram and Facebook.

In any of the 14 years I taught, my classroom would have finished last in ANY classroom design contest.  If you threw a photo of my finished classroom decor in with 50 other classroom photos, there’s absolutely no way I wouldn’t have been in last place.

Here’s are photos of my fifth-grade classroom one year.  It was about 95% ready for the first day (I did eventually put paper over that bulletin board!)

For my first 10 years of teaching, I felt really bad about this.  I felt like I was letting my students down.  Before my 4th year of teaching, I was determined to have the best bulletin board of anyone in the school.  The Dallas Mavericks had just been to the NBA Finals (this is when I taught near Dallas) so I put each of my students’ faces on an image of a Mavericks player dunking a basketball.  Then I had a phrase like “We are going to slam-dunk third grade” above it.  I spent HOURS AND HOURS before the first day of school getting this to look perfect.  Then when it was done, I looked at it and thought “meh.”  On the first day of school, I think 2 or 3 kids said “cool.”  That was it.

About five years later I was reflecting on this.  I realized this ridiculously horrible bulletin board, which I spent a long time beating myself about, had absolutely zero impact on student learning.  I had an amazing year with that group of students.  Several kids made incredible gains in reading and math.  I even managed to get press credentials to take one student to a Dallas Mavericks game as a reporter.  He got to sit in the press box, stand on the court, attend the post-game press conference, get all the in-game stats, and write a story about the game just like a real reporter.  (The Mavs get a BIG shout-out on that one!)  It was an amazing year.

During my final few years, I finally accepted the fact that a photo of my classroom is never going to get many likes on Instagram.  No one would care if I counted down to my classroom reveal and that’s fine because that’s not where my talents are.  So instead, here are the things I focused on preparing before the first day of school to help my students have a successful first week:

Desk Arrangement

Absolutely the first thing I did each year.  I probably arranged my desks 10-15 times until I finally found an arrangement that was best.  I wanted ample room for people to move around EVEN with the chairs pushed out.  All desks needed to be angled to where kids can see the front of the room.  I also needed space for some individual desks when kids need to be isolated.  Then I put tape on the tile floor to mark where each desk should be.  This meant the kids could push them back to exactly where they needed to be at the end of each day.

Classroom Library

It’s extremely important that kids had lots of books to read in my classroom.  After I arranged the desks, I set up my classroom library in a place that was open and accessible.  I arranged my books according to AR level.  I printed stickers with my name and stuck it on the spine of each book.  Then I wrote the AR level and put a sticker on it.  The color of the sticker indicated the range of AR level for that book.  Here’s a photo of a few of those books to show you what the sticker looked like.

Every day at dismissal, I had a few students organize the books in my classroom library.

Prepare and label areas where student supplies would be stored

It was important to me that students had supplies in locations that were consistent and accessible.

Place inspirational posters all around the room

I loved finding inspirational posters online.  That’s one way I added some color to the room, even though it required me to print on my color printer at home.  But I loved referring back to inspirational posters throughout the year.

Tape pictures from National Geographic Magazines on/near my door

I used around 50-70 photos of animals and scenery.  This gives kids something to look at while they’re lined up waiting to leave my room.

Overplan for the first week and prepare all materials!

I can’t imagine something more exhausting than the first week of school.  So instead of spending hours decorating my room, which is not where my talents lie, I spent that time preparing and planning an abundance of activities for the first week of school.  I also knew how exhausted I was going to be during that week and wanted to minimize the amount of prep work after school each day.

I wrote each day’s schedule out to the minute, which is something I didn’t normally do during the rest of the year.  I spent a lot of time thinking which routines and procedures I needed to teach, which order I wanted to teach them in, and how I was going to do so.  My classroom was not going to be the prettiest, but it definitely ranked highly in student engagement and organization.  I had high expectations of myself to establish that during the first week of school.

Get enough butcher paper so STUDENTS can design posters to put on the walls

I think it is important to have a colorful classroom.  I am not suggesting that teachers leave their walls and bulletin boards bare.  No student wants to learn in a room like that.  That’s why I had my students make posters for our walls.

The first few days of school, we brainstormed what it looks like to treat people with respect.  Then my students illustrated those ideas on large sheets of butcher paper, which were then hung on the walls.  Students also made posters to illustrate a few other classroom expectations.  By the end of the week, a good portion of my wall space was covered with student artwork…and it was WAY better than anything I could have come up with.  Plus, it gave my fifth graders a sense of ownership of their classroom.  You’ll notice the walls in my classroom photos are mostly uncovered.  That’s not the case after the first week of school!

Again, I have all the respect in the world for teachers who can design a classroom to look just like Hogwarts.  But I know there are lots of teachers like me whose talents are not in decoration.  I feel bad for teachers in July and August who feel overwhelmed at seeing all these photos of beautiful classrooms because there’s no way they could ever compete with those.  If you have little ability and motivation to decorate like me, I’d encourage you to focus on your strengths.  Not everyone can be an amazing interior decorator!

For example, I realized that my strengths involved organization, designing engaging lessons, utilizing technology, finding quality literature to teach reading standards, and saying corny “jokes” (a big plus for a fifth-grade teacher).  Instead of beating myself up for not designing a beautiful classroom, I eventually realized that my students can learn a lot from me because of the unique talents I bring into the classroom every day.  That, by the way, is the exact same message I told my students — that our classroom is a better place because of the unique talents each of them brings every day.

I’ll leave you with this reminder, which I realized while looking at my classroom before the first day of school one year. (Yes, that’s my classroom in the photo.)

 

4 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary and How to Prepare for Them

4 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary

This is Part Two of my blog post about departmentalizing in upper elementary.  Click here to read Part One, which describes five reasons why departmentalizing benefits teachers and students in upper-elementary grades.

I hope you’ve read Part One of this blog post to learn five huge benefits of departmentalization in upper-elementary school.  My team was departmentalized for two years and I saw many ways it helped students and teachers.  It rejuvenated my desire to teach.  It helped me get to know more kids.  I finally felt knowledgeable about the content I was teaching.

However, if you are considering departmentalizing for your grade level, there are some challenges that you’ll need to be prepared for.

Challenge:  Being the reading teacher

At my school, reading was the subject that administrators scrutinized more closely than any other subject…and it wasn’t even close!  It seemed like several academic coaches on our campus dealt with reading, while one coach was there to support math AND science.  When district officials did walk-throughs, they spent most of their time observing the reading teachers, then sucking them into meetings to provide tons of “constructive feedback.”

One thing you can do about it:  If you are considering departmentalizing in your grade, be sure the teachers who teach reading really love that subject because they are going to bear the brunt of the pressure from administrators.

Before we departmentalized, we had an honest conversation about each teacher’s strengths and weaknesses.   If you are considering departmentalizing, be sure your team discusses which subject area each teacher feels confident in.  Be sure the reading teachers understand they are probably going to feel more pressure from administrators than the people who teach the other subjects.  It’s an extremely important conversation to have.

If teachers are hesitant to teach reading, see if there are things the rest of the team can do to help lighten their load.  I regret not doing more for the reading teachers during the time we departmentalized.  I should have been looking for little things to take off their plate because they got sucked into way more meetings than I did.  (I taught science.)  I could have taken their dismissal duty a few times.  I could have brought their kids back from lunch a few times a week.  I could have brought them coffee once a week.  Anything to let them know that I understand that they, as a reading teacher, were under more pressure than me as the science teacher.

Challenge:  Scheduling

When we departmentalized, each fifth grader rotated among three teachers each day for ELA/SS, Math, and Science.  Each class period was 90 minutes.  I adore making schedules, so I volunteered to create the schedule each year.  Here was our master schedule looked like:

5 Reasons to Departmentalize in Upper Elementary

(Note:  We used the nicknames of the three closest major colleges as names for each group of students.  We also had early-release on Wednesday, which is why you see different times for that day.)

It was important that each student had an equal amount of time in each class every day.  There were a couple of days when I saw two classes for the full 90 minutes, but one class for 45 minutes due to an unexpected special event that came up at the last second.  All the fifth-grade teachers hated that because it wasn’t fair to that last class that their instruction got cut short.  They had to play catch-up for several days to make up for that lost time.

One thing you can do about it:  It’s important that you have someone who can adapt the schedule and communicate those changes to the team, even if it’s at the last second.  Then when a special event is announced, everyone knows this person will handle creating a new rotation schedule for that day.

While we certainly discussed the schedule as a team, your team needs a go-to person who can quickly change the schedule on those days when an assembly is announced five minutes before the kids arrive.  This person must also be able to clearly communicate these changes with the team.  Your principal is NOT the person for this job!  It should be a member of your team who knows the schedule and how changes are going to impact things for each class.

It’s also important that the other team members respect these changes and go with the flow because there’s not always time to discuss scheduling changes.

Challenge:  Ending class on time

It is imperative that each teacher ends class on time so students can have the full amount of time with their next teacher.  There were a few instances when other teachers had to chat with me because I ended my science class five minutes late.  I explained that we really got into an experiment or cleanup took way longer than I thought.  Guess what?  They didn’t care.  All they cared about was losing five minutes of instruction time with the kids that I kept late.  Plus, this teacher had to stand in the hallway and monitor the kids who were scheduled to be in my room.

I soon realized that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO BE DONE WITH MY LESSON 2-3 MINUTES BEFORE THE CLASS TIME WAS SCHEDULED TO END!  So I set a ton of alarms on my phone to help me stay on schedule.

5 Challenges of Departmentalizing in Upper Elementary

One thing you can do about it:  I set an alarm seven minutes before each class was scheduled to end, which gave me time to wrap up my lesson.  Then I had another alarm on my phone go off two minutes before class was scheduled to end so I could have all the kids lined up and ready to get to their next class on time.  You could also have a student who is good with keeping track of time tell you when class is about to end.  Do whatever it takes to get your students to their next class on time because it’s not like middle school where you can ring a bell in the hallway.   Ending your class on time shows you respect the time of the other teachers on your team.

Challenge:  Hallway transitions

NOTHING will shut down a team’s effort to departmentalize faster than students being loud in the hallway while they are switching classes!  Other teachers will quickly grow tired of telling your students to be quiet while they’re trying to teach.  They will not hesitate to go to the principal with these concerns.  Administrators could tell you to stop departmentalizing if they are constantly dealing with kids being sent to the office for fighting or yelling while they are switching classes.

It is extremely important that your students remain quiet while switching classes.  Next year in middle school, they can talk while they change classes.  But not in elementary school.  We told our students there was absolutely no talking while they change classes, even if they have to wait.  They had to wait quietly in a line outside their next teacher’s door until that teacher allows them into their class.

It’s also important for teachers to stand in the hallway during transition times.  Yes, there are a million things you could be doing to prepare for your next class, but we all know that fifth graders are going to try to get away with stuff if they are left unsupervised.  So it’s important to respect the other teachers in your building by keeping your students quiet during transitions.  I have heard of a school where the fifth grade departmentalized at the beginning of the year, but the principal made them stop because there were too many behavior problems when the kids switched classes.

These are just a few of the challenges that you’ll need to prepare for if you plan to departmentalize in elementary school.  There are more that will arise.  It takes a willingness to adapt and be flexible, but I feel like departmentalizing has so many more pros than cons for teachers and students.  If you have questions or would like to share your story about departmentalizing in your school (good or bad), feel free to email me at kgeswein@gmail.com.

Regardless of whether or not departmentalizing would work at your school, I’d like to thank you for all that you do for your students every day!