Happy Spring Break 2019!

Enjoy your week of rest and recreation over Spring Break!

Today is the first day of spring, which means a week of time off from school for students and teachers. For most of you, this is coming up in a week or so. Easter Sunday is April 21 this year, and then you have one more stretch before the end of the academic year. Catch up on rest and assignments over your break so you can finish the semester successfully and enjoy your summer vacation. Spring has sprung!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Bilingual Education

Over the course of my twenty years as a classroom teacher in California schools, I was surprised to discover how few of my colleagues could speak Spanish, despite the fact that over half of our students came from Spanish-speaking households. I had taken many Spanish language courses in high school and college and worked as a bilingual operator for Sprint for many years before entering the teaching profession. While my teaching credential program included courses on language acquisition and English language development curriculum, there was no requirement for Spanish language fluency in subjects other than Spanish itself. The same holds true today.

Much of this has its roots in California history. The United States acquired the Southwest in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo from Mexico and immediately imposed an English language infrastructure in education, government, and law. Spanish-speaking Californio landowners were systematically deprived of their holdings and their children excluded from the best schools and careers. Anglos soon dominated the business world and education as well as public office. Mexican-Americans were pushed aside by the tens of thousands of newcomers who flooded into California during the Gold Rush. When California was admitted to the Union in 1850, Latinos were largely excluded from the new state government.

The parochial schools established by the Spanish-speaking Franciscan friars in their network of colonial missions were replaced by a public school system that required attendance of all children between 8 and 14 years of age beginning in 1874. The de facto segregation of these schools did not end, however, until the landmark Mendez v. Westminster decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1947. Those six decades were characterized by a lack of quality education for minority children. In many cases, Asian-American and Latino students suffered under the same conditions as African American schoolchildren in the Jim Crow South. Many Native American children were not allowed to attend school at all.

In 1960, the government of California restricted the use of Spanish in public school instruction, and in 1998 Proposition 227 was passed by more than 60% of California voters, requiring that students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) be taught exclusively in English. Proposition 58 finally lifted these restrictions on bilingual education in 2016. In the meantime, thousands of students struggled to succeed in a school environment where the language of instruction was different from that spoken in their homes. This was, and remains, true for many Latino students as well as for their classmates from other non-European cultures.

Before the drastic budget cuts of the Great Recession, many schools had specialized instruction in English Language Development (ELD) courses as well as on-campus ELD program administrators who supported the efforts of teachers of all subjects to effectively reach their LEP pupils. I always appreciated the support offered by those staff members in the schools where I taught. Over the course of my last decade in the classroom, however, I saw those special programs steadily disappear. ELD instruction remained, but its effectiveness varied according to the socio-economic background of the students. Many of those who came from underprivileged families fell behind both in attendance and academic achievement.

There is no universally accepted solution to this problem. Funding for mainstream public schools has continued to fall, and many parents with the means to do so have chosen to place their children in private or charter schools. Some of those charter schools have made a concentrated effort to promote bilingual instruction. Those regular public schools with extra resources of their own have continued to offer multi-level instruction in Spanish and other foreign languages. But for many Spanish-speaking students from economically disadvantaged families, the opportunity for academic success has decreased.

California and other southwestern states have growing Latino populations that have become the majority in many counties. Spanish-speaking families will continue to send their children to public schools to learn English and other required subjects. But in my opinion, Spanish should be a required subject for public school teachers. I found my bilingual skills to be extremely valuable over the years, both in the classroom and in conferences with Spanish-speaking parents. Communicating directly with parents in their own language enabled those students who were struggling in class to reach a much higher level of success than they were otherwise achieving.

Of course, not all my LEP students came from Spanish-speaking families. I had students whose native languages included Korean, Tagalog, Arabic, Thai, Vietnamese, Russian, Mandarin, and many others. But the vast majority of my students who came from non-English-speaking families were Spanish-speakers. I felt it would be irresponsible of me as their teacher to be unable to communicate effectively with their parents. Despite my reasonable fluency in Spanish, I still had to increase my relevant vocabulary, something I undertook on my own accord rather than being required to do so by my administrators. My efforts to do so were met with universal appreciation from Spanish-speaking families.

The exigencies and vicissitudes of political and economic debate will continue to fluctuate with regard to the issue of bilingual education. In the meantime, I advise you to learn Spanish. Even if you are a native speaker or come from a Spanish-speaking family, enrolling in an introductory course at your local community college will help you hone your skills for the classroom. The school environment has its own vocabulary which is particular to your campus and the subject(s) you teach. As a social science teacher in particular, I found my knowledge of Spanish very helpful in presenting my material. But regardless of what you teach, being able to do so in more than one language is always a good thing.

Our student population will continue to grow in size and diversity into the 21st century. Mexican-Americans are finally beginning to return to positions of political and economic power and prestige in California and the other states where their ancestors once held great influence. Other Latino populations and non-English speaking immigrant communities are growing at a rapid rate. Many states have long allowed for multi-lingual ballots on election day. But language in school remains an issue of debate. While Puerto Rico is the sole place within U.S. jurisdiction where Spanish is an official language, nearly one in five Americans is a native Spanish speaker.

English has yet to be declared the legal official language of the United States. Proficiency in its use is not a legal requirement for citizenship. Although Proposition 63 made English the official language of California in 1986, the law remains largely unenforced and faces broad present-day opposition. In the end, our work as teachers is to help our students succeed. Clearly, English remains the dominant language in America and must be mastered in school. An ever increasing fluency in English is essential for our students to do well in class and beyond graduation. But for many who speak something else at home, a bilingual teacher in any of their subjects will certainly be a big help on their road to success.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

After School Programs

Those of you new to the classroom may find opportunities to participate in after school activities at your school. Many schools have a need for such programs, especially in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, where a majority of the families do not have the means to join private athletic clubs or expensive philanthropic organizations. As you learn to hone your craft in the classroom, extra-curricular possibilities often present themselves. Getting involved beyond the classroom can help you connect on a deeper level with your students and their families and enrich the overall profile of your school.

Your school might require you to participate in a certain number of co-curricular roles, such as a monitor at recess, ticket taker at a football game, or chaperone at a school dance. But there may be other opportunities to offer your particular skills and interests to the school in an area that is still waiting for development. If you already have many outside responsibilities at home or in your regular work schedule, taking on an additional activity might not be the best use of your time. But if you do have the time and energy, getting involved in something extra or starting something new can raise your profile with your colleagues and provide a more meaningful learning experience for many of your students.

In my case, I started an after school drama club for middle school kids. It was my first year teaching public school and my only year teaching 6th grade. I was having trouble making the adjustment from a private high school to a public middle school, especially in the area of discipline. I went from a school where many of the students drove their own luxury cars to one where 98% of the student body were in the free and reduced cost lunch program. Many of my students did not see school as meaningful, and I began to question my effectiveness as an educator. I felt disheartened and discouraged. Then someone suggested that I organize a drama troupe, since my school had an excellent auditorium but no theater class.

I began making inquiries and gathering materials. Drama teachers in nearby schools gave me helpful suggestions and loaned me costumes and sets. The first year I organized a small cast to participate in a local Shakespeare festival. Most of the kids had never taken part in a stage production of any kind before. They did have talent and motivation, however, and even though we did not win any prizes at the contest, several of the other directors and ensembles praised our effort. I had the kids perform their scene at school and received a welcome reception from parents and students.

The next year I began to attract more kids to the program. I moved on to teaching 7th grade and soon recruited students from 8th as well. We met twice a week after school for an hour to rehearse and perform staged readings. Some of the parents volunteered to help. My principal backed the program wholeheartedly, and my overall performance in the classroom began to improve. Our little drama club began attracting the attention of the district administrators and the local press. The student body began looking forward to the snippets we offered during school assemblies. Their parents began showing up in force to our performances.

Over the next four years, we staged comedic productions of the Aladdin, Pinocchio, and Three Little Pigs stories, as well as spoofs of the murder mystery and western genres. By the time I finished my fifth and final year at the school, we had a club of several actors and technicians, including many three-year veterans, and a small budget to fund our annual productions. Parents and students who had never participated in theater before became avid fans. I worked with a team of several other teachers in supervising rehearsals and performances. The Drama Club was, for its size and scale, a smashing success.

All of this was made possible by the dedication of my students, parents, and colleagues, most of whom were new to the stage. Several of them went on to participate in larger scale programs in high school and college. A few even came back after graduation to help me as assistant directors. The seeds I planted eventually bore fruit, but I never would have known if I hadn’t made the effort to start something new. I had to take the risk to see the results.

Talk to your administrators. See what your school is doing and how you can add to that. If you have skills in supply that meet a current demand, ask yourself if you would be willing to take on that challenge. There is always room for more tutoring or another after school enrichment program. Perhaps you were brought to that school to start it. The long term benefits to yourself and your students are worth the effort.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Happy International Women’s Day 2019!

My mom and I on my first day of college at UC Santa Cruz, September 1979. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. Names like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothea Dix, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill, Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Alice Paul come to mind when I think of all the great women who have shaped the course of our history.

Today I also think of the first influential woman in my own life, my mother. She passed away recently at the age of 82 and will be greatly missed. She was an accomplished nurse who overcame much adversity to raise a large family and inspire friends and colleagues with her courage, humor, and dedication. I will always be grateful for the large part she played in my own academic success, artistic development, and personal growth.

As the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment approaches, let us all think of those women who have inspired us to thrive and succeed. Women are entering careers and public service in ever greater numbers and will continue to improve the quality of life here in America and across the world. May we all work together with them to stand up for equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Technology in the Classroom

When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, audio-visual equipment consisted of reel to reel film projectors and overhead transparencies. Music was played on turntables or cassette tape recorders. Telephones had cords that plugged into wall jacks. When students wanted to communicate with each other from a distance, they had to wait until they got home to use their parents’ phone. Or they used a public coin-operated telephone booth. Surreptitious interaction in class took the form of passed handwritten notes. Schools and households did not have personal computers. Teachers wrote on blackboards with chalk and kept paper gradebooks. Student assignments were handwritten or typed on a typewriter.

By the time I first entered the classroom as a teacher at the end of the 1990s, much of that had changed. VCRs hooked up to mounted box televisions had replaced the reel to reel projectors. Compact discs had replaced LPs and cassettes. Cellular phones were now in their second decade and looked like walkie talkies. Most of my students didn’t have their own yet. Handwritten notes were still passed in class, but cable television and the internet had begun to transform popular culture and education. Schools now had personal computers, fax machines, scanners, and internet grading programs. Assignments could be written in Microsoft Word and emailed to the teacher.

Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, the changes were even more dramatic. Videos were streamed through internet sites or played directly through computer media programs, making televisions and VCRs obsolete. PowerPoint slideshows had relegated overhead transparencies to the dust bin of history. Dry erase boards had completely replaced chalkboards. Music could be streamed from iTunes or YouTube. Students were issued personal Chromebook laptop computers that could be individually recharged with portable cords. Most assignments could be posted to digital classrooms, eliminating the need for paper. Smartphones had irrevocably changed the way we live and learn.

I remember when cell phone usage became a behavioral problem in class. It was around the middle of the 2000s. Hand held flip phones had proliferated and allowed students to send text messages to each other, albeit with a small, clumsy keyboard that was hard to see. I immediately began telling them to put the phones away and soon was confiscating the devices until the end of the period. It was easy to catch a kid phoning, because their intense concentration on the area of their lap or bag was atypical. Some would hold the phone underneath a hoodie and try to deceive me, but I grew skilled at spotting their tricks. The worst offenders I called “phonaholics.” I reminded them that their cell phone was not a body part. The best place for the phone in class was secured away in their backpacks or purses.

The advent of smartphones allowed for greater access to information and more applications to perform practical tasks. This proved useful at times in some lesson plans, but more often than not it increased the unauthorized phoning issue. When my students were issued Chromebooks by the school district, I advised them that every assignment that involved the internet could be completed with the Chromebooks alone. The laptop could do everything the phone could do except texting and posting pictures on social media. This distinction made discipline more manageable for me as the teacher. The district had blocked all social media sites on the Chromebooks and allowed the students to connect to my digital classroom.

Technology has certainly opened a multitude of new possibilities for learning and lesson planning. But depending entirely on machines in class can also be a problem. When my overhead projector bulb burned out (as it did several times over my years in the classroom), I needed to have a backup plan for that day. Sometimes my printer broke or I had software trouble, and the campus technician was not always available. Copy machines jammed or broke down. Sometimes I ran out of paper (I rarely ran out of colored markers, as my students will tell you). It was always important to have a class set of textbooks to use in an emergency. When all else fails, read and write or hold a group discussion.

Now there are innumerable educational software application programs that help teachers present material and interact with students in creative ways. I applaud them all. PowerPoint presentations are still a good “go to” for both teachers delivering lectures and students sharing projects, as long as fair use copyright laws are respected in the type of material included. The same goes for films and video clips. Not all movies can be used in class (see my blog entry on “History vs. Hollywood”), and district and department guidelines must be followed. Most campuses have both computer hardware and software technicians and advisors to help teachers in their use of technology in class. Establish good relationships with these people on your campus and take advantage of their expertise.

In spite of all the advances in educational technology over the last four decades since I graduated from high school, I still believe that reading is the key to succeeding. If technology can be used to encourage and enhance literacy, then I am all for it. But in and of itself, technology cannot create moral and intellectual development. As educators, we are responsible for helping our students think for themselves in an increasingly digital and globalized economy. Technology can help in this process, but it cannot do the job for us.

The famous radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) once said, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” He was responding to the rising dependency of the public on television news and entertainment during the paranoid era of the Cold War. His words are prescient in today’s world of increasing scarcity of natural resources, exploitation of labor and the environment, and rampant cyber crime. As social science teachers, we can help our students find their place in this complex global marketplace. Using the latest gadgetry and digital programs to promote engagement with historic events and ideas is both our challenge and our opportunity to help transform students into active and productive citizens.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Substitute Teaching

Substitute teaching is one of the most difficult jobs around. The work environment is unfamiliar, the pay low, and the students often uncooperative. I often felt frustrated when in charge of someone else’s class, even when I was filling in for a colleague on my own campus. A lot of substitutes are right out of college or their credential programs and have little to no experience. Others are retirees with limited energy or enthusiasm. Many substitutes are committed and effective classroom leaders, but even those have a hard time if they are not given proper parameters.

It is the responsibility of the regular teacher to leave clear and visible instructions regarding those parameters and the work the students are expected to do. I was not absent very often, but when I was, I always left a printout of instructions on my desk with all the materials the substitute would need. This included detailed descriptions of how to operate classroom audio-visual equipment and telephone numbers of office staff to call for help. I also emphasized the need to keep the students in their assigned seats and make notes of which students refused to follow directions.

Fortunately for my substitutes, those numbers were usually very low. I enforced my classroom rules strictly and made it clear to my students that they were just as accountable for their behavior when I was gone as they were when I was present. Treat the sub like you would treat me, I told them. The more consistent I was in implementing my own classroom procedures, the more successful the substitute would be in doing so in my absence.

Naturally, much of that success depended on the extent to which the sub followed my instructions. For the most part, they did. Those who did not were not asked back to my room. I kept track of the substitutes I liked and tried to ask for them if I knew in advance that I would be out of the classroom. For last minute absences due to illness or emergencies, I made a habit of leaving some handout or video material unlocked at all times so that subs could use it if necessary.

The advent of online or voicemail substitute management systems made this easier, for I could leave instructions from home in real time. I was also able to follow up with some subs afterwards if they were regulars at my school and returned to campus to fill in for other teachers. When my colleagues filled in for me or I did so for them, I could always confer with them ahead of time or after the fact (see my blog entry on “Working With Colleagues”).

If you are substituting yourself, the most important thing to remember is that you do have authority as a teacher in someone else’s room. The district or school that has hired you to substitute teach has already expressed their confidence in your ability to do the job. The students are expected to treat you with the same respect they would show to their regular teacher. If this does not happen, the consequences are ultimately on them. Do not hesitate to refer students to the office for disrespectful or disruptive behavior. They are there to learn, not to entertain their classmates through grandstanding.

Bring your own materials with you just in case. None of my substitutes had to resort to this, but I have heard many stories of those who did. Make sure the materials are relevant to the subject you are teaching and that they are district approved. Written activities are always a good “go to” activity for many classes, particularly in the literacy-oriented world of Common Core Standards. When in doubt, have them write. If they have district-issued Chromebooks, have them open them up and do research activities.

Reading aloud is also a great activity from which students can always benefit. It is a shame that books have become anachronistic in our digital world. Opening a book and reading aloud from its pages is a great activity for students. Turn to primary sources in the social sciences for pertinent material. In history and government, for example, you can never go wrong with the U.S. Constitution or Presidential inauguration addresses. Maps are an excellent resource for history and geography. In economics, have them look at the day’s activity on the New York Stock Exchange. Most classrooms have a computer with a screen and projector. Use it.

If you are new to a school or district, substitute teaching is a good way to get to know teachers and administrators and the dynamic of those campus environments. Sub at as many campuses as you can to get a good sense of how that district operates. Use your connections to move into a more permanent position if you can. Many schools hire their full-time staff from their pool of regular substitutes. If you like a school or district, give them your all and stick around. Good things come to those who wait.

If you are the regular teacher returning from an absence, help your students get back on track quickly. Even one day away can derail the course of an instructional unit. Grade the work you had them do with the sub right away and move on to the next lesson you had planned. Leave some room in your curriculum calendar for catching up on unit content. If you are gone for an extended time due to illness, sabbatical, continuing education, jury duty, parenting leave, or emergency, be sure to leave everything your long-term sub will need during your absence. Appoint student aides to help the sub get through that period. Explain to your classes what is expected of them until you return.

Many schools are moving to block scheduling and team teaching to compensate for budget cuts and declining enrollment. This pattern can create new opportunities for substitutes to play a larger role in the classroom. Substitutes can also serve as tutors and teaching aides in some contexts. Whatever the circumstances, the job of substitute teaching can be an important part of interdisciplinary and cooperative learning. Whether you are the substitute or the regular teacher calling one in, pace yourself (see my blog entry on “Pacing Yourself”) and keep on track. An organized and deliberate approach will help your students learn most effectively.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Progressive Discipline

Posted on the front board of my classroom, 2005-2018.

Here are some of the rules for classroom behavior I posted on my front dry erase board during the thirteen years I taught in a public high school. They are similar to those I posted during my two years teaching in a private high school and my five in a public middle school. Regardless of the setting or grades you teach, establishing clear rules for behavior is the very first thing you need to do at the beginning of each new school year. The clarity of those rules and the degree to which you intend to enforce them will determine the success both you and your students achieve in meeting your academic objectives.

During my first few years as a teacher, all the mentors and master teachers I had gave me the same advice: choose your classroom rules carefully. Keep the list short and simple. Post only those rules you are willing to enforce. The kids will figure out quickly whether or not they will be able to challenge or ignore those rules without consequences. Your students need rules and guidelines for learning, and it is your job to create and maintain them. Tailor the established campus and district guidelines to the particularities of your classroom. Your word must be law there.

As mentioned in previous blog entries, setting up assigned seating is the first step in putting together classroom infrastructure. Posting classroom rules is the next. I spent the first week of school every year going over these rules and why I expected the students to follow them. I also detailed the progression of consequences that would follow an infraction of those rules. I generally followed a “three strike” policy: first a warning, followed by parent contact, and culminating with a referral to the office. My goal was to correct behavior after the warning so that the next two steps would be unnecessary.

The process of creating assigned seating will help you get to know your students. You will learn their names more quickly and see who is more social, who is quiet, who knows each other, and who pays attention. Memorize your students’ names as soon as you can and refer to them by name. This shows them that you are interested in them as people. Treating them with respect sets a positive tone for the year. As you go over your classroom rules, be clear and courteous, but not over friendly. School is serious business. Impress this fact upon them in the way that works for you.

Your administrators or school counselors will probably visit the classroom to explain the campus rules for behavior in the first few weeks of the school year. Build on their presentation in reinforcing your own rules. Show the kids that all the adults at their school and at home are on the same team, and that this team will work together to help them succeed. Demonstrate that the tactic to “divide and conquer” by playing those adults against each other will not work. The students are there to learn, not to waste their time or yours.

Most of the kids enter your class wanting to succeed. They want to please their parents and you. They want to do well in high school and move on to their college of choice. Only a handful of them enter with a poor attitude. The trick is to identify that handful early so they cannot distract or derail the others. And even that handful can be turned with the right kind of intervention early in the term. Try not to take it personally when a student disrupts class or ignores your classroom rules. Such behavior is not a personal attack. You are a stranger to most of your students at the beginning of the year. The way you handle discipline challenges helps them get to know you.

I solved a lot of problems proactively by moving students to new seats and calling home early in the year. Sometimes disruptive students were transferred to another class before I had to intervene. Other students who had a history of discipline problems decided they liked my class and straightened themselves out. For those who remained and retained their negative attitude, I continued to encourage them to succeed. Sometimes I paired them with more positive or successful teammates. I always made a point of praising what they already did well. I tried to find common ground with them and build on any positive effort they made.

Some behavioral challenges had nothing to do with a poor learning attitude. Many of my students had special needs due to learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, or limited proficiency in English. Your administration is responsible for advising you of which students require special accommodation, but you also need to follow up on this information yourself if you have questions or concerns. Work with the parents and administrators closely on meeting the particular needs of these students.

Sending a student to the office for disciplinary reasons can feel like a personal failure. It is easy to feel inadequate as a teacher if you were unable to persuade the student to improve his or her behavior enough to remain in your room. Keeping careful documentation on the progression of behavior helps you and the administration deal effectively with consequences. Most online grading programs and digital classrooms have options for recording behavior notes. Use them liberally.

Keeping the parents informed early is also helpful. Communication is key. Act early before you get too frustrated. Remember that the student’s behavior is his or her choice. It is not your fault that they misbehaved. You cannot control how they act. All you (and their parents) can do is be clear about your rules and consistent on how you enforce them. High school students can already work and drive at age 16. They are young adults and have been in school for many years. They know how they are supposed to behave in class.

Stick by your decisions, even if you feel you need to adjust your policies later. Apologizing for your disciplinary procedures erodes your authority. If you feel you have been too harsh with a student, discuss it with a colleague or administrator. Work with the parent. Kids need consistency and firmness. Sometimes when I returned from an absence, a student would tell me, “Mr. Finney, that substitute was mean!” I would ask the student why. If the answer was something like, “She made us do all our work,” I would remind the student that this sounds like strictness, not cruelty.

Be strict, not mean. Avoid sarcasm, scapegoating, or shaming. Personality conflicts in the classroom are inevitable. It is easy to want to retaliate if a student pushes one of your buttons. I certainly made some sarcastic comments over the years and raised my voice beyond a reasonable level on a few occasions. Teachers are human, too. But remember the kids are looking to you to lead by example. You are a role model for how to deal with stress and conflict. Try to be a positive leader. The more effectively you manage yourself, the more successfully you can manage them.

The students are in your class to learn. Keep them busy. Challenge them. Allow them to work together and express their opinions on the material, within the boundaries you have set. Listen to them, and make it clear they must listen to you. Mutual respect is the key to a successful year. Don’t take it personally if you can’t seem to get anywhere with a particular student. Perhaps the administration will agree to transfer that kid to another teacher. If not, do your best with what you have.

You never know what positive impact you might have, even with a difficult student. Trust that your contribution is making a difference, and move on. Each semester is finite. Set your rules at the beginning and enforce them to the end. Afterwards, you can look critically at your structure and make improvements. Discard what didn’t work and bolster what did. Keep notes on your progress as a disciplinarian. Adjust your seating charts and classroom rules accordingly. Remember that teaching is an art as well as a science. Experiment with what you have. If you are determined to grow in your craft, you will.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Parent Contact

Parents are key partners in successful teaching. An administrator made this point when he interviewed me for my first teaching job more than twenty years ago, and he was right. Many parents are directly involved in the formal education of their children through home school programs, and countless others spend a lot of time helping their kids keep up on the assignments they get from teachers. Parents are important supporters of PTSA, athletics, and many other extracurricular programs. Drawing on their support is vital to a fulfilling school year.

I remember feeling nervous about contacting parents, especially in my first few years of teaching. I was afraid of being perceived as ineffective or incompetent if I couldn’t “handle things on my own.” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most parents didn’t respond to me this way at all. They were grateful I kept them informed and pledged to help their student succeed in my class.

This was true for all kinds of parents, from those with honors students struggling to keep up to others who had kids with special needs. As a bilingual teacher, I also worked with many Spanish-speaking parents over the course of my career. All were appreciative of my efforts and expressed their willingness to work with me. To be sure, I had a few who questioned my methods, but even those came to some sort of compromise with me. Many parents over the years shared family memorabilia that related to what we were studying in history class. Others attended class to observe or participate.

When I organized an after school theater program during my five years as a middle school teacher, the parents showed up for rehearsal and performances. Many had never attended any school activity before. I walked the neighborhood to get some of them to come or to discuss their student’s academic progress in my history class. I made phone calls home in both English and Spanish. I encouraged them all to attend Back to School Night and the annual Open House and offered my students incentives to bring their families.

Keeping parents informed early is important in setting the pace for the entire year. Several of the schools where I worked had software programs that would call home with grade progress reports or other messages. All I had to do was enter the code or message and press “send.” I made sure I contacted parents if their student won my Student of the Month award (the student would receive a handwritten certificate and a week of extra credit homework points) or if their grade fell below a C-. If a parent wanted to meet with me, I would schedule a conference during my prep period or after school. I tried to accommodate the parent’s schedule and make sure the student could attend.

Discipline problems were diminished if I included the parent from the beginning (see also my blog entry on “Progressive Discipline”). I would usually call or email the parent right away if their student was having trouble listening to me or refusing to follow directions in class. This was particularly true at the beginning of the year. I remember calling one father at the end of the first day of school to tell him his son had to be moved to the back of the room because of disruptive behavior. His response was “Already?” but then he thanked me for letting him know right away. He told me some of his son’s former teachers had waited too long to let him know what was going on.

Remember that your students choose how to behave in your class. By the time they get to high school, they are already young adults and have been students for many years. They know what is expected of them, and if they are discourteous, they are making a choice. The way they treat you is probably not that different from the way they treat their parents. One mom said in exasperation, “I don’t know what to do with him!” when I called about her son’s behavior. She was at a loss. We ended up coming up with a joint discipline solution that worked for everyone involved. Her son decided to change his behavior, I didn’t have to send him to the office, and he finished the semester with a passing grade.

Don’t wait to call the parent or guardian. They want to hear from you, whether it is good or bad news. Some of my parents were afraid to contact me because they thought I would be angry at them for their child’s behavior. I had to reassure them that I give every student another chance to improve, and that I always distinguish between the person and the act. I designed a Parent Acknowledgment Form to accompany the course syllabus at the outset of every school year for parents and students to sign, which specifically stated that I looked forward to working with all of them to ensure the student’s success.

I worked with some difficult parents, to be sure. With some of them I had to compromise on my discipline choices. I had to say no to a few who wanted their students to be excused from certain course requirements because of family vacations. Others wanted alternative assessments or objected to state content standards. I tried to accommodate every family’s needs as best I could. It is important to do so, but not at the cost of your integrity as an educator. Stick to what you feel is right. If you are conforming to state standards and your school’s administrative procedures, you are doing your job correctly. Believe in yourself.

I always enjoyed the support I received from parents as a teacher. It made the job worthwhile. Being a part of their child’s education was a privilege. For many of your students, you may be the most dependable or educated adult they know. Teachers are important authority figures in the life of a child and can have as great an impact on their development as their own relatives. Develop effective teamwork with parents as you go. Your students will do better knowing that all the adults in their life are working together to help them succeed.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Working With Colleagues

Teaching is most effective when it is a team effort. Over my twenty years in the classroom, I found that it was easy to isolate from my colleagues, but the results were always better when I collaborated with them. The traditional secondary school schedule of six classes with six different instructors is hard on both students and teachers. Learning seems to improve with smaller classes arranged in block schedules with a team of instructors. If school budgets cannot yet make this possible, the best strategy for teachers is to make the deliberate effort to work together when they can.

I was privileged to be part of two outstanding team teaching efforts over the course of my career. The first was at a middle school, where the students were grouped into teams by grade level. Each team grouping of students attended history, English, reading, science, and mathematics classes together. Those five teachers were given a common prep period to plan curriculum together and review discipline concerns. This was great because we all had the same kids and could work together to manage them. We linked up lessons across the disciplines and met with parents as a team. I served for four years on a 7th grade team and learned a great deal.

My second opportunity came at the high school level, where I was the social science teacher with colleagues in English and technology in an interdisciplinary Digital Arts and Humanities program for eight years. As in the middle school team, we met during a common prep and planned projects together. We also discussed discipline strategies and how to best serve our common students. I taught the world and U.S. history portions of the program as well as economics, in conjunction with what they were learning in English and Digital Arts.

The students in this program signed up for a three year commitment beginning with their sophomore year. Many of them went all the way to graduation, which meant we had the same group of 20-40 students for three consecutive years. I was able to see the quality of my students’ work improve dramatically over that time, largely because my two colleagues and I worked together. The projects they created were remarkable. We also collaborated in planning a field trip to downtown museums in conjunction with our common units.

These two experiences were examples of what the education community called “Small Learning Communities” or SLCs. During the period of the federal No Child Left Behind program (2001-2014), there was plenty of support and funding for SLCs and other special programs. These years coincided with most of my time as a teacher in public schools. When that financial support began to dry up in the wake of the Great Recession, those of us interested in team teaching had to get more creative.

Many school districts sought to strengthen PLCs, or Professional Learning Communities, in which teachers in the same subject met more frequently to share lessons and assessments. My school participated actively in this program. I benefited from some of the suggestions from my fellow social science teachers, but I still missed the interdisciplinary cooperation of the SLCs. A new SLC-type program was organized at my school, but it focused on science and technology and did not include history.

I found another opportunity to work with other teachers in summer school. I taught summer school every year over the course of my career, for six years at a community college and fourteen at the high school level. A colleague and I worked together to design and teach an Honors Economics course over the course of seven summer sessions, an experience I found rewarding. I was often assigned to teach summer classes in other teachers’ classrooms, including colleagues in the English, Science, Mathematics, and Foreign Language departments. I worked closely with these teachers and others across the disciplines.

Get to know the other teachers at your school. Make friends in other departments. Maintain good relations with your department head, administrators, and fellow teachers. I always made a special effort with secretaries and custodians at all the schools where I taught. They are the backbone of daily operations and can make your life on campus a lot easier. Listening to the ideas of others will enrich your own teaching. Be open minded. Incorporate new ideas into your lesson plans. Make them your own.

In the ideal school environment, everyone treats one another with respect and works together as a team. I can truly say this was true over the course of most of my career. But remember, people are people, and not everyone gets along easily. You will have to interact with a wide variety of personalities and styles, not all of which will be naturally compatible with yours. Focus on the people with whom you do get along. Nurture those alliances. Try your best with everyone else.

Maintain your integrity and do your job to the best of your ability. Avoid participation in gossip and intrigue. Schools are political environments just as much as any workplace in the business world. Whether or not you get involved in those politics is up to you, but don’t lose sight of why you are there. You are an educator. Whatever you do at work should be oriented toward providing the best education possible for yourself and your students.

Take advantage of any opportunity to benefit from the experience and ability of your fellow teachers. Working together can be an immensely rewarding experience. Everyone benefits from team effort. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt and listen to them. Continue to believe in your own unique contribution to the team as well. As long as you are in the classroom, you are a valuable asset to that school. Work with others to maximize that asset and provide your students with the best possible education.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars are a great way to involve your students in critical engagement with primary and secondary source material. I held a seminar each quarter for both my U.S. History and Economics classes, in which students would divide into pairs and use online databases to prepare a researched response to an assigned prompt. U.S. History topics included foreign policy, immigration, government social programs, and the Millennial generation. In Economics, my seminars focused on outsourcing and the 2008-2009 banking crisis.

Contrary to my usual practice, I allowed students to choose their own partners for this activity. They seemed to enjoy pairing up with their friends for a classroom assignment. Normally I selected teams myself because of classroom discipline concerns, but in the case of Socratic Seminars, I arranged the desks in two concentric circles rather than rows, with one partner in front and one behind. Students in the front row shared their insights and research on the prompt while students behind took notes. Partners were thus divided during the seminar itself and had to focus on participation rather than each other.

I handed out a packet at the beginning of the assignment that included instructions on how to access the databases (maintained by our school library at the time) and compose the reflection essay due the week after the seminar was given. An evaluation form was also included as well as a place to include all notes taken before and during the seminar. I gave my classes a few class periods to work on this and, prior to the issuing of Chromebooks by our district, took them to the library to conduct research.

The prompts were always open-ended and allowed for a variety of positions. I advised the students that their grade would be based not on their opinion, but on the cogency of their argument and the quality and quantity of the data upon which that argument was based. Each student was given an individual grade for the assignment. Although they were allowed to submit team notes, they had to complete their own essay and evaluation form and were expected to make at least three contributions to the group discussion.

On the day of the seminar, the students filed into the room and seated themselves in the two concentric circles of desks. I stood in the center and went over the seminar rules with them. Comments were to be constructive and based on research. Students could disagree respectfully with one another but were not allowed to interrupt whoever was speaking. Hands had to be raised to be called upon to speak. Questions could be asked of each other as long as the questions were open-ended and encouraged more than single word answers. Only the students in the front row were allowed to speak; the back row had to wait until I rang a bell halfway through the period for them to have their turn.

I stood off to the side by my podium and tried to intervene as little as possible. If the conversation died down or was being dominated by a few voices, I would call on the quieter students and give them a chance to speak. I also prepared a series of additional questions to stimulate discussion if necessary. I kept a tally of how many comments each student made and tried to give each of them an opportunity to make a full contribution. I also had to keep them on topic at times and diffuse heated debate.

I reminded them that they “are all on the same team,” that a Socratic Seminar is a group discussion rather than a formal debate. Their reflective essays were to incorporate their own research and position as well as what they heard in class. I made the packet and paper due a week after the seminar to give them time to compile and organize their source material and write their essays. Most students who turned in their complete materials did well in their overall grade. I allowed others to turn in materials late for partial credit.

Socratic Seminars are an effective teaching method for any subject. Many of my students had participated in seminars in their English class but not in any of their other courses. The advent of Common Core Standards in 2010 encouraged critical thinking and academic writing in all the subjects. Social science teachers (as well as those in math and science and elective topics) are expected to help with the development of these skills as much as the English teachers. The Socratic Seminar includes all of these as well as an opportunity to grow in teamwork skills.

I was surprised to hear some students who were normally quiet in class suddenly articulate well-formulated positions within the context of the seminar. Others who were normally talkative in small groups had to be encouraged to address the entire class. The seminar experience allowed me an opportunity to get to know my students better and give each of them a chance to excel. It was fascinating to hear their take on things, particularly during the seminar on the Millennial generation, to which all of them belonged. Their perspectives influenced my own and helped me grow as an educator.

There are many digital templates and databases you can use in putting together a Socratic Seminar. I also encourage you to work with your colleagues in other subjects. During the eight years I served as the social science teacher in a high school Digital Arts and Humanities program, I worked closely with the English and technology teachers to construct and assess Socratic Seminars in conjunction with our team projects. The interdisciplinary connections were rewarding both for me and my students.

Experiment with different ways of presenting your content. Consult your colleagues on what has worked for them. Allow the students to participate directly in discussion and research. Take advantage of your school’s resources. The more variety of learning styles you include, the more engaged and successful your students will be. Creativity makes class something to look forward to, for you and for them. The Socratic Seminar is a time-tested method that promotes this kind of creativity and engagement.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.