Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Throwing Out Systems: The Best Thing My 4th Year of Teaching Taught Me

I know I promised a different post as my next, and it is in the works...but something monumental happened and I can't help but write about it. It is bursting inside of me, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it.

If you have been a reader here, a dear friend, a compassionate family member, a concerned colleague, a loyal mentor, a supportive parent-- then you know about my 4th year of teaching. My 4th year of teaching from 2013-2014 was my hardest year of teaching to date. It stretched me in ways I never could've imagined. It broke me into a million pieces. It pushed me to my farthest limits. It brought emotions out of me that I didn't know I had.

Yes, if you know me at all, you know about this year. But lately, I have reflected a lot on this 4th year of teaching...and realized an amazing, amazing thing that it taught me.

Yesterday, I found myself scrolling through my iPhone photos and deleting many to free up space for a new update and one caught my attention more than any of the others. It was a picture of me and my class from that year on the 100th day of school. I looked at the picture of 22 students holding up little yellow paper lightbulbs that exclaimed they were 100 days brighter! I could've just scrolled right past the picture, but I stopped. I soaked it in. I zoomed in on each individual face. I cried tears over these children. I loved them so much it hurt. I reminisced about each of their little personalities. I wished I could've been more for them. But I saw something yesterday that I hadn't really, truly, honestly seen in this group of 22 children.

I saw HOPE. I saw a group of children whose smiles weren't manufactured. I saw love, and joy. I saw children leaning in close to one another, children full of excitement, children who were happy to be there, together, with me. Despite the odds...despite the trials, the struggles, the hardships...

I have always looked back on that year and seen it as a failure of mine, that there were so many things I didn't do right and ways that I let my students down. And good gosh, maybe it was a failure. But this time, I saw hope! Hope because failure serves to teach us, to show us where we could do better next time-- it helps us to learn, grow, be molded and shaped.

If it weren't for this class of 22 incredible, loving, beautiful children, I think there was a lot of joy I would've missed out on, and I think there were a lot of really, really good things I wouldn't have learned. I'm ready to see my 4th year of teaching as one of hope and redemption, as one full of grace.

The following is the best thing that this group of children taught me through being exactly the children they are.

Kids are who they are-- so meet them where they are, love them for who they are, and help them grow.

#realtalk There will be a lot of honesty in the writing below...and some of it isn't pretty. I never claim to be a perfect educator, and hopefully sharing what I've gone through and learned from mistakes will be helpful to others.

As educators we want to help children, to make them better human beings, to aide them as they grow in character-- but sometimes our good desires go too far. We forget that each child can't be a carbon copy of another, and that they aren't all going to be able to reach the same expectations as one another-- but instead, they should set expectations and goals for themselves to individually reach, as well as set expectations and goals as a class that they can reach together.

I used to have the most ridiculous behavior expectations, reward systems, punishment systems, and rules in place-- all created by me, imposed on them, and demanded to be followed at all times. If there was even the slightest infraction, a student would move their clip down the behavior chart, with associated punishments at each level. They had to know I was serious-- they had to know that I was the boss, that I was the sun in my little classroom solar system, that I had the magical keys to the classroom's success-- and this was how I was going to do it. Ha!

My 4th year taught me in a very upfront way that not every child is the same, and therefore, they aren't all beginning their journey at the same starting line. They are all growing at their own paces-- and this includes behaviorally. I expected all of my students to be behaving at the level of expectations I had set, when it was completely unattainable for some of them at that present time. It caused them to repeatedly experience failure and setback on a day to day basis, instead of growth and improvement. It caused them to think daily that they weren't enough, and that they were "bad kids," because they couldn't stop making the choices they were making or moving their clips down on the behavior chart. It made things far worse than better! But the thing was, my systems and rules and expectations were causing them to swim in the opposite direction of success. Instead of meeting them where they were and working up from there, setting small goals and reaching them together, they either met my expectation- or they didn't. How heartbreaking.

I have learned that this way of thinking and operating as a teacher of children,  just plain. doesn't. WORK. Children aren't to be horrendously over-managed, they are to be LOVED and NURTURED and TALKED TO. They need explanations for why things are the way they are, or why things should be certain ways. They need to be included in setting the goals and expectations for a classroom environment. THEY need to be the sun of our little classroom solar system, and I need to get out of the way.

They need to be respected enough to be given a chance to learn from a mistake and grow from it, instead of immediately being told to pull their color or move their clip. With no follow up or chance for growth. With no conversation and possibly very little understanding on the student's part of why they got in trouble in the first place. I learned this the hard way, with those kids who seriously could've moved their clips 10+ times in one day (when my clip chart only had 4 levels!). The system was failing us all. There is no one-size-fits-all system or approach that reaches all children, because kids are who they are, and some need more opportunities to learn from their mistakes instead of being constantly punished for them and forced into behaving the way I want them to behave.

You may have heard a lot about Carol Dweck's "Growth Mindset" research. While there are a lot of blogs and articles out there critiquing and commenting on her study, what I personally love about growth mindset is that it gives you the freedom to grow. Learn from failures, learn from mistakes, grow and get better from there. I felt that in the past I had such a fixed mindset. You either reached the bar or didn't. You obeyed or didn't. You listened or you didn't. Now I know it's a lot bigger than that, it's not so black and white, it's not that simple. And children need a lot of chances to make mistakes and then talk about what to do better next time. They need room to grow. You can't put a size 5 shoe on a child who wears a size 2! They need time to grow into that shoe. Same goes with behavior.

For example, I learned that some children just can't sit still during a lesson, and no matter how many times you offer a reward or punishment, they just won't yet-- they aren't ready. So you learn to let. that. GO. You adapt and allow them to learn while pacing back and forth behind the class or sitting on a bouncy seat until they can master the behavior. You learn to not demand your children sit criss-cross-applesauce every blessed second of carpet time, because they are children and they need to move and be active and they can still perfectly learn while sitting in a Z-sit or having their legs straight out in front of them, or propped up on their elbows. You learn that it just isn't that important, because children are children. They are who they are, and I need to celebrate their learning and stop worrying about how they are sitting on the carpet if they are still learning in that position! No more pulling colors or moving clips for this. No more interrupting learning time to discuss and practice carpet sitting positions. Letting this go as well as many other small behaviors during my 5th year of teaching saved us so much time and energy. It allowed us to learn, and it allowed my students to thrive. The focus has changed from my petty behavior expectations to a focus on students and learning.

Another example of what I've learned is that some children just need a lot more time to walk in the hall with the rest of the class, and that demanding them to be perfectly straight and still and quiet right off the bat doesn't allow them any wiggle room to grow into the behavior. I've learned that I actually don't like hallway behavior rules at all and I wish we could just dance down the hallway silently because we are just so excited to be at school or walk in a clump talking excitedly about the learning we just did in our classroom-- but I had conversations with my class anyway this past year about the "why" behind straight, quiet lines in an elementary school hallway. I've learned to celebrate growth and change as I see it, instead of demanding it from the very beginning. Imagine walking into the teaching profession (or any profession for that matter!) and on day 1 being told to be a perfect, 5-star example of what the profession should look like, because you will be rated on PDAS for your effectiveness the first day on the job. Yikes! That's what we demand of our students when we demand perfection and 100% obedience from the start.

I've learned that children don't really understand a lot of the rules we have in school because they honestly aren't very fun, so they need to be a part of the process, they need explanations, they need reasoning to help them understand why rules are necessary. They must be included in creating said rules instead of walking in on day 1 to a classroom where I am the center of my classroom universe, where I have my rules poster typed out and posted on the wall with appropriate rewards and punishments for following them, and they have no say in the whole ordeal. They are merely blind followers at that point and I am a hopeful adult who is praying inside that they will think I'm cool or nice enough to follow the rules for. But the reality is, that just isn't reality! Some students just can't follow rules set for them no matter how much they love you or try, because they either aren't ready to follow them yet OR because they have no ownership over the rules OR because they don't understand a purpose for them, don't like them, and they've never had a chance to figure out why. Include children in this process. Help them own it. Help them set expectations for the classroom they dream of being in. Help them be in a classroom they love and want to come to each day, because they contributed in making it that way.

So guess what I did this past year because of my 4th year of teaching, and also because of a brave educator named Pernille Ripp (<-- click for link to her site) whose books and blogs gave me the courage to do the unthinkable? I threw out the systems. I packed away the clip chart and the rules board. I had my students come up with rules and expectations, what they wanted our classroom to be like. They moved the furniture around, they sat where they wanted and how they wanted, they used the paper they wanted, they got the teacher's tape and stapler when they needed it without asking, they got books in and out of our classroom library without a checkout system, they could sharpen pencils when they wanted and go to the bathroom when they wanted, they helped make decisions on how to set things up or learn something, they were creators and builders and contributors to an amazing classroom environment full of trust and respect. There wasn't a little sign or poster for every single rule. There wasn't a system in place to punish you if you didn't follow said rules. Nothing got lost or stolen or broken, nobody got trampled to death, chaos did not ensue! It was unlike anything I've experienced as an educator. A room where students can reach their full potential in a learning environment they helped create from day one. Boy, am I glad I threw out those systems. It wasn't easy. It took a lot of conversations together, a lot of talking with students, a lot of reviewing the expectations we had set together, a lot of reminding about growing from our mistakes, a lot of goal setting, a lot of helping one another remember and abide by our classroom expectations-- a total group effort. If there was ever a notable incident, parents were contacted, either by their take home binder, phone, or email-- but that was it.

It was really scary throwing out my systems. I even went back on my word and started giving out negative points for undesirable behaviors for a short period in the spring when we were losing steam. But then I stopped. Going back to my old ways sure taught me something! I knew it just wasn't right for our class. I had to stay strong and remember why I was doing this. The goal isn't to pull colors or move clips or give negative points in order to make students behave, the goal is a community of mutual respect where students feel empowered to make the right choices. It's really hard letting go of control, because you think everything will spiral out of control. But it didn't. And we made it through the year, a beautiful year at that!

Next year, I am going to try something new. I kept positive reward systems this past year, such as ClassDojo or our schoolwide "Gator Buck" system, to reward positive behavior. But one day after Christmas break I decided to make our class treasure box disappear, and not one student asked me where it went. They were still behaving and making good choices, because to them, it was the right thing to do and it helped our classroom be the environment they wanted it to be. I couldn't believe it! I started to imagine a classroom without positive reward systems. I had thrown out the punishment systems, but hadn't been brave enough to kick out the happy ones! "Don't kids like rewards and tangible examples of their good choices?" I kept telling myself. However, this line of thinking is something that has been widely challenged. I am going to read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards" this summer and am determined to take the step next year. What I do want to continue to do with my students is to reflect on positive behaviors each day and what went well, plus what honorable character traits that child showed through their words and actions that day. I still want to help point out the positive and good choices, and help children see the things they are doing well and internalize that within. I want to cultivate a culture of reflection (so important!) with them, but not hand out points or prizes or stickers for positive behavior. We shall see how it goes...but I will definitely need a lot of support.

You see, my 4th year of teaching might not have been full of my proudest or best moments as an educator, but it sure taught me a lot. I have my students to thank for that! It goes to show you that there is always sunshine after the rain, that brokenness will always be redeemed in the end. There is a lot of hope in that for us, the ones who are continuing to work for and believe in and pull for public schools. We come back each year not knowing what it will be like at all, what our group of students have in store for us, yet we leave each year changed by the students who helped mold and shape our lives as much as we did theirs.

One thing that I always try to champion when I share an opinion or things I have learned in my educational journey is that as an educator, you have to do what is best for your students and your classroom community. Period. You have to find what works, and you have to know your students well enough to know what they need. I do believe in establishing a culture of mutual respect and trust, and when that happens, students feel empowered, they love learning and feel in charge of their learning, and the teacher feels respected and like a valuable facilitator and asset in the classroom. By no means does this approach negate the importance of respect and obedience, but it encourages it by allowing students to have a say, have a voice, and be heard-- as well as treating them not like cattle to be herded and managed, but as children with thoughts and feelings that reach far beyond what we can imagine.

A big thank you to Pernille Ripp and her writings that have changed my life as an educator. Your work helped the thoughts and beliefs that were at war within me as an educator to finally make sense. The way I dreamed a classroom to be, the beliefs I had about systems and how kids learn and grow, they weren't crazy! Thank you for being a pioneer for student voice and giving the classroom back to our students. I couldn't have taken such a bold step without you.

And, as my final thoughts on this long post, I would like to thank my classroom of 22 students from my 4th year of teaching for showing me a lot of love, giving me grace when it was undeserved, and helping me understand how to love and meet children exactly where they are-- and how to grow together as one.


  1. What a though provoking reflection! You have given me plenty to think about. I too had a "clip system" which seemingly worked for some, but not for others. I abandoned it mid-year and went to the dollar system/reward drawer which I was not totally happy with either although it did reinforce math skills. We did create a chart together based on what my students said they wanted as guidelines for how our class would work. We will continue to do this in the coming year. We did some individual goal setting and class goal setting. The individual goal setting is still something I believe worked well and we will be doing it again. The class goal setting was set up with a class reward. I am rethinking this one.
    I often think about rules/guidelines in the context of how I do things as an adult. For example, when I am in a class and we dismiss, do I walk down the hallway in a straight line directly behind another person?
    I think as a class we need to have conversations about how things will work for our class community and other classes to experience the best learning environment.
    My biggest problem with systems and rewards is keeping up with it and my goal is for my kiddos is to make good choices. I do believe there are consequences in life , many of which are natural ones. I do believe that there should be order and boundaries in life and that the choices you make do effect others. What I do want to to do with my students is to help them recognize that their choices do effect others and how to have positive relationships with others. I want to have time to reflect on positive behaviors , talk about what went well and how to improve things that didn't go well. I like to begin each day with a fresh start!
    So I will be reflecting on how we can interact with each other in the coming school year. I hope to continue conversations about this in the future. Thanks for challenging my thinking.

    1. Mrs. Baum, thank you for your insightful comment and joining the conversation! One thing I wanted to comment on that I should've added in my post is how our class approaches consequences. You hit the nail on the head with the fact that it is important to talk about with our students how our choices always affect others and always have a consequence. We can't be anti-consequences, rather we need to discuss that every choice has a consequence-- it can be positive, or negative. This past year I tried to, as often as possible, make the consequence fit the behavior. For example, if a student shouts out in the classroom, I'm not going to make them sit out at recess. Those have nothing to do with one another...not to mention, I hate and despise taking away recess unless it is the absolute consequence that fits the crime at hand (a student punching others cannot be trusted to play around others, for example).

      Examples: When a student poked holes in our new classroom furniture, they wrote a letter to apologize to our principal for destroying school property. They also were not allowed to sit on these special chairs for the rest of the year.
      -If a student continually was playing off-task during work time, they worked during play time. (This was not frequent in my classroom due to our self-pacing environment, but when a student was seriously not on task for an extended period of time and consistently playing or messing around, we would have a discussion and decide together what the consequence should be. The student often would decide to work during recess time, without even my prompting. That is because they see them as naturally going together...)
      -If a student was continually pushing others out of line to be first, they would need to go to the end of the line for not showing selflessness (which kids don't like at all).

      No matter the offense, I always have them apologize using words-- which, I never let them just say "Sorry" but make them recognize what choice they made and what they will change next time: "I'm sorry that I did _______. Next time I will ________. How can I make it better?" Also, anytime a consequence happened, I wanted it to never be something I angrily lashed out at them or surprised them with. From the beginning we discussed natural consequences for various choices and did role play, so the students knew what certain choices could result in.

      I really am thankful that you posted, and I hope to continue the conversation as well! What I also am trying to figure out for next year is how we will positively reflect each day on what went well and how to grow from things that didn't go well. I am thinking of possibly having a time at the very end of the day where students reflect on a list of honorable character traits (things like respect, obedience, diligence, kindness, self-control, orderliness, service, attentiveness, cooperation, honesty, courage/bravery, responsibility-- these are part of a system created called Honorable Character, one I didn't create but have used in the past) and pick one or two that they think they encompassed on that particular day. I could also pick one or two for each child that I saw in them and record these traits using a number code (1 = Respect, 2 = Obedience, and so forth) on that day in their take-home binders. In the past I have done versions of this, where students would record down traits on a class-wide poster as I noticed them throughout the day and I would just transfer those to their binders at the end of the day, but I like the idea of having students reflect on themselves-- what do they think they showed?, instead of only what did the teacher notice in me. Students could also have individual behavior goals and discuss if they improved in growing towards those goals that day or what could be done better the next day. Maybe they pick one trait they need to focus or work on and we discuss specifics of how they can grow in that trait? And then we track it? I am still thinking over all of this and would love any ideas.