Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Classrooms for successful students and successful teachers


Most of our children and grandchildren spend most of their time during childhood and adolescence in classrooms. If you think of the class as a small (or large) community, you might wonder what characterizes the community and what effect does the community have on a child’s learning. A few years ago, my wife Kathleen and I, along with two colleagues, addressed that issue in a study on the college classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I think our results may be equally valid for the elementary and secondary levels.

Basically what we learned was that college students who had a strong sense of belonging to a community in the classroom enjoyed the course more than those students who didn’t have that sense of community. But the real icing on the cake was this: They also demonstrated greater improvement in their exam scores from early in the semester to the end. Bottom line: Students who have a strong sense of community in the classroom show greater improvement and enjoy their learning more than those who don’t.

We borrowed the measure of this “sense of community” from the studies done in Detroit on neighborhood communities and found that the same six descriptors that were used to define neighborhoods could also be used to define the classroom. In the weeks to come, I’ll share with you what those variables are, and give you some ideas about how they can be strengthened in the classroom. The real bonus, though, should come from readers’ sharing their own experiences of these characteristics and ways they’ve learned to create a sense of community. Just let me know if these issues are relevant in your own life.    

If you are a student, a teacher or former teacher, or if you have a child or grandchild in school (any level) would you please vote “yes” on the ballot at the right? And if none of those apply, just vote “no.” That way I’ll know how to tell “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say. Thanks. PS Also, leave comments below about this or any other topic.

Monday, October 21, 2013

More on Parent-Teacher Conferences

           From what I recall of the dissertation I mentioned last week about parent-teacher conferences, and from comments on last week’s post, and from discussions with several people since then, I’ve learned that some of the stress associated with parent-teacher conferences originates for parents from:

            1) A lack of privacy; for example when parents meet their child’s teacher in a gym where several other teachers are also set up to confer with parents.

            2) A lack of any parent-teacher communication prior to the p-t conference.

            3) A sense of embarrassment that their child isn’t living up to expectations.

            4) A feeling that they’re not being heard, that nobody at the school really cares about their child.

            5) A child who is not able to keep up is just one more thing on the plate of overworked parents – one parent mentioned “single parents especially.”


            For the teacher stress comes when:

            1) They have previous experience with hostile or demanding parents.

            2) They are not sure what to expect from parents – truer of newer teachers.

            3) They haven’t had prior communication with parents to let them know how the student is progressing.

            4) They don’t realize how much support they have from their principal or colleagues. (As far as I can tell, this is rare)
            5) One teacher commented that it is a "lot of people processing in a few days." A more introverted teacher may worry about what parents are expecting and about having to be "on stage." That can be energy depleting, the teacher mentioned, while for a more extroverted teacher it could be energy giving, "but either way, a source of stress."
                Many of these issues can be easily addressed. Prior communication, for example, doesn’t have to be face-to-face, but can be telephone contact or just a quick email. In states where farm homes or ranches are far from the school, communication and even the conference can occur over Skype. Since communication is a two-way street both partners can let the other know that contact is always welcome.

            I heard one story this week that seems to me to answer several of these concerns. A friend of mine has a son in the ninth grade—his first year in high school. As any parent, my friend was concerned with how her son might be handling the transition to the new setting, a new set of friends, new classes, etc. When she arrived at the classroom for her first high school parent-teacher conference, the teacher didn’t bring out the homework, the corrected papers or her grade book. The first thing she asked was, “How do you think Joey is handling the transition to high school?” My friend answered that she hoped he was doing well in that area, but was looking to the teacher from some guidance about that as well. The teacher reassured her by pointing to specific instances of his good social interactions and mentioned that the boy had made a new friend, also a bright ninth grader. She said that the two of them often finished their work early and were allowed to visit quietly at their table. “I like to hang around them,” the teacher commented, “because their conversations are exciting and enriching for both of them.”

            Wow, what a way to begin a parent-teacher conference. What have your experiences been like?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Parent-teacher conferences can be stressful

            Parent-teacher conferences can be valuable for parents and teachers alike, and often benefit students. It’s no surprise that children whose parents are involved in their education generally do better in the classroom. Teachers will tell you that communication with parents is crucial in helping their child succeed and solid research data support this observation. Anecdotally I have noticed that in those areas where participation in parent-teacher conferences is high, drop-out rate is low and vice versa. (Someone should test this observation more scientifically.)

            If we can agree that conferences are a good thing for the teacher, parent, and student, why are they often stressful for all three? A middle school teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, completed her doctoral dissertation at Michigan State on stress in the middle grades teacher. She calculated the daily consumption of coffee, alcohol, and tobacco over a given period of time in a sample of teachers, and also got a daily self report of life satisfaction, job satisfaction, etc. from her subjects. As a member of her committee, I wasn’t surprised by many of her findings: More seasoned teachers and those with good social support systems were less stressed, days just before holidays and before the summer recess were high stress days, etc. But one finding did surprise me, namely, that a very high stress level occurred on the days just prior to parent-teacher conferences: more booze, more cigarettes, more coffee, and often a feeling of dread, what psychologists call generalized anxiety.

            Why would that be? I’ll mention Ginny’s interpretations in my next blog as well as I can remember them. But first I’d like to hear from you, parents and teachers, and yes, students. I’m wondering if you have some ideas about why parent-teacher conferences sometimes cause stress. Comment below (anonymously, if you prefer). Thanks and thanks for visiting my blog.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Our Nation Honors Principals

            Welcome back to my lately dormant website. There is great October news that I want to share with you. And, going forward, I’ll try to keep up with a blog post at least once a week. 

            The US congress has passed resolutions designating October as National Principal’s Month, a time to honor the good work that school principals do day in and day out in the service of our children and their teachers. Our government takes this month seriously. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) introduced resolutions in both chambers of Congress recognizing October 2013 as National Principals Month.” In addition, “High-ranking officials at the US Department of Education will spend a day during the third week of October shadowing principals for a day to learn more about their work and how it contributes to achievement. Secretary Arne Duncan will then convene a meeting of all the participants to debrief and share observations about the principal’s role.”  

            I think principals’ month is an appropriate time to reactivate this somnolent blog and to focus primarily on teachers and education, especially at the high school level. It also gives me a great opportunity to launch my first novel, which deals with the struggles of a high school principal, Charlie Brannigan. To learn more about this book which I launched today (or to order a copy), visit my website: www.charliesangle.weebly.com. 

            So if you know and appreciate a principal, take a moment this month to let them know how much we value their service. They are clearly the sort of “servant leaders” that I wrote about in an earlier blog. Oh, yes, and if you’re looking for a gift for them, perhaps a book, I know just the thing. :)