September 28, 2008

Theory Y: Student Empowerment

Which one of these statements do you believe to be most true?

  1. Students will naturally find the path of least resistance. Students need to be closely supervised, and the teacher's job is to constantly make sure they are on task and doing things the way the teacher wants them done. When behaviorist approaches such as operant conditioning are used, the student's behavior will most closely align with the teacher's goals.

  2. When students are given relevant goals and the opportunity to make decisions on their own without overdue teacher meddling, students tend to be ambitious and self-directed. They gladly accept greater responsibility and get a greater sense of accomplishment and ownership from their work. A teacher's job is to hold students accountable for goals, but not to constantly micromanage the student's work.

If you agree with the first one, you follow Douglas McGregor's Theory X. If you agree with the second one, you follow Theory Y. McGregor's theory posits that both management techniques can be used in different situations. I've had much better results following Theory Y.

Theory Y in Action
I'm the DECA advisor at my school, and I had a huge recruiting challenge. Last year, there were 22 students in the organizations. This fall, the only ones who remained were 13 seniors. When these seniors graduate this year, that would leave no one. Advising DECA is part of my contract, so this was a big deal to me. I have a big stake in making sure this organization continues to be successful; if it doesn't, I don't get paid.

So I had to do a whole bunch of recruiting. With the stakes this high, is this something I could trust the students to do on their own? Should I let them organize a recruiting drive, risking that they'll screw up, or if I want it done right, should I do it myself? Remember, the consequence of failure was losing my job, or at least part of it.

The decision was easy for me. Based my experience in several organizations I've been involved with, most notably Civil Air Patrol, leaders get better results when they use Theory Y to empower their subordinates. I knew that the 13 students would do a better job at organizing a recruiting drive than I could myself. After meeting these students the first week of school and seeing how smart, motivated, and self-directed they were, my decision was solidified.

We started by setting goals for the recruiting drive, delegating each goal to a different person, and setting deadlines for the goals. I provided some guidance in the goal setting, but after that, I essentially checked out and left the students to their own devices.

Management Style
A few deadlines slipped and I helped the students come up with plans for corrective action. I held students accountable for their goals, but I didn't constantly look over their shoulders. They had complete creative license to do this recruiting drive the way they wanted to.

The Results

We held our informational meeting for new members this week. The students kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming! In all, we increased our membership by 400% from last year! The group's morale is in great shape, and the excitement level of the students is stratospheric. I'm really looking forward to working with this group.

DECA is a student-run organization. The students are the leaders. It's their organization, and they deserve a sense of ownership in it. I have some specific goals for the group and some new ideas; I'll be providing some guidance and oversight, but it's basically their ship to run. With the student president and other officers we have this year, the group is under some very capable leadership.

Is It Really That Easy?
Theory Y is clearly the superior approach to leading an organization, but you can't just let go of the reins completely. You need to keep in mind some basic leadership principles which are completely beyond the scope of what I can write today.

P.S. Don't Stop Now
I'm slightly afraid of the "resting on our laurels" syndrome. Recruiting is not enough; retention is equally important. We need to make this an organization that the members want to stay in and keep coming back to. We'll be putting a lot of work into that in the upcoming weeks and months. Theory Y and student empowerment will be our methods. Stay tuned.

September 21, 2008

Letting Students Experience Failure

One of the things that impressed me the most about my flight instructor was his ability to let his students make mistakes. Flying an airplane requires very precise motor control and close coordination. Your feet are on the rudder pedals, your left hand controls the ailerons and elevator, and your right hand controls the throttle, trim, and mixture. In addition to these coordinated motor controls, flight students need to learn how to make good judgments. You need to be able to estimate how high you should be at any moment during an approach to a landing. You need to predict and judge how much the wind will blow you off course. These are just some examples.

It doesn’t work for the instructor to do all of this for the student. The only way the student is able to learn these motor skills and judgments is by making mistakes for him or herself. The thing is, mistakes can be very unforgiving in an airplane. Instructors have the difficult task of letting students make enough mistakes to learn, but not letting students make catastrophic mistakes. Sometimes this can be a very fine line, especially when the student is learning how to land.

Good classroom teachers need to let students make mistakes as well. Just as in an airplane, teachers need to provide guidance. Teachers are sort of like bowling lane bumpers. They should give students plenty of leeway, but steer them back on course when it’s obvious that the student has veered too far off track. Knowing how much leeway to give is a big decision. For flight instructors, this could be a life-or-death decision. The decision isn’t quite as critical for classroom teachers, but it’s still important.

We started our formal debate in Law this week. The resolution is, “marijuana should be legalized in the US”. Tuesday and Wednesday were research days, and the debate started on Thursday. The first speaker for the pro side gave her presentation, during which everyone was very attentive. The cross examination followed, and that’s when all order in the room disappeared.

Instead of asking questions one at a time and actively listening to responses, as they were instructed to do, it was complete chaos. One half of the class was shouting at the other half of the class, and the poor student whose turn it was to present was desperately trying to make sense of it all and respond to at least some of the questions. Of course, no one heard or cared about her responses, because they were all deeply engaged in their shouting matches.

I was deliberately quiet and observant during this whole ordeal. After about two minutes of this, one of the students looked over at me and asked, “aren’t you going to stop this?” My nonchalant reply was, “nope!” After three minutes, the previously agreed-upon time limit for cross exams, I finally broke it up. I debriefed the cross-exam session. The class talked about why it was important to follow the agreed upon rules. We talked about “attack the idea; respect the person” and what that phrase meant. The debriefing was very effective and the subsequent cross-exams went very smoothly.

The students failed miserably at the first cross exam. This failure gave them first-hand knowledge of what happens when we don’t follow the procedures. The students knew what the failure looked like and why it didn’t work. They knew what they had to do to improve next time.

Had I intervened early, as the student suggested, they would not have experienced this failure. Their attitude would have been, “the teacher will intervene if we don’t follow the rules”. This is not what I wanted them to learn. By allowing the students to fail, their attitude became “that certainly didn’t work – now I know what to do next time”.

“Let the students experience failure” is a very powerful heuristic that teachers can use. Just like flight instructors, teachers need to use it carefully and strategically. Many times, though, it’s the most effective way to teach.

September 17, 2008

Yearbook Yearbook One Two

Each morning at the middle school, I spend an hour preparing lessons and grading papers before the students arrive. Right after homeroom (brilliantly called "Star" in this school – pun intended), two seventh grade girls come on the intercom and read the announcements. They are read in a predictably juvenile manner (overacting, too much energy, etc). The announcements are going right along, and all of the sudden, I hear two squirrelly preadolescent girls sing in unison as loud and enthusiastically as they can, "YEARBOOK, YEARBOOK, ONE TWO!! YEARBOOK, YEARBOOK, ONE TWO!!" to the tune of Queen's We Will, We Will Rock You. This has been going on for an entire week. They're trying to get students to join yearbook.

When the first hour students come into my classroom, I joke about this a little. The next day, I tell them that I came up with a new assignment called the "Yearbook Yearbook One Two" paper. The requirements are to write "yearbook yearbook one two" over and over again until it fills up a whole page. They laugh. It's funny.

September 14, 2008


Teaching requires a tremendous amount of energy. You are always on. You must be completely in the moment every minute of every day, except for the one hour break you get for prep time. You're constantly multi-tasking. These were all of the things going through my head during just the first couple minutes of my Investments class today:

  • Greet students as they come into the classroom

  • Decide whether or not to give students hallway passes (these were requested by 2 students at the top of the hour, and I quickly decided not to because of the imminent lockdown drill. Of course, I couldn't tell the students my reason for denying the pass to them).

  • Get the lesson plans out from my briefcase. Also get out the test, which I wrote and ordered copies of the day before, and yesterday's assignment, which I graded earlier in the day.

  • The bell rings. I'm still waiting for the computer to boot and organizing my papers. Welcome students to class, tell them the plan for the day (sans lockdown drill), and tell them to quietly spend five minutes studying for the test, please.

  • Computer boots. Bring up my class website that I'll need later in the period, which I already prepared.

  • Dan asks what he missed when he was gone yesterday. Politely tell him that I will prepare the materials and give them to him later in the hour.

  • Lockdown alarm sounds. Lock the doors, cover the windows, inform students of the procedure, turn on the closed circuit TV to await further instructions (everything up to this point has occurred within the first three minutes of class).

  • Take attendance. Log on to my email system and email the office which students are absent from my class, as per the lockdown procedures.

  • Lockdown drill ends. Unlock the doors and uncover the windows. Inform students that we will be beginning the quiz.

  • Announce that students who needed passes earlier may come to my desk so I can sign them out.

  • Hand out the tests to students. As I do this, make sure that notes are put away and computer monitors are off.

  • Ask one student to remove his hat. Wearing headgear is against school policy.

  • One the quizzes are out, look up the schedule of a student from my last class, who still has one of my keys for the school store. Call that teacher. Teacher does not answer the phone. Call the main office to track the student down.

  • Get the missing assignments ready for Dan and hand them to him after he completes his test.

  • The two students with hallway passes take longer than normal to return. Judgment call: should I ask them about this? They volunteer that the closest bathroom was still locked from the drill. They return to their seats.

  • What are we doing after the test again? Oh yeah. We'll be reading an online article and answering some discussion questions, which I already prepared.

  • Mentally prepare for the pre-reading mini-lecture I'll use to introduce the article to the class.

  • Hand back the graded assignments from yesterday.

  • The student with the missing key walks in and I eventually get the key.

  • Walk up and down the classroom to monitor students as they take the test. A few students are taking a long time. Make a judgment call: give them a cutoff time of two more minutes.

  • Introduce the reading assignment to the class, using proper questioning techniques to ensure students stay engaged.

  • After the introduction, stop by Dan's desk and tell them he can work on his makeup assignments instead of reading today's article.

And this was just the first third of the class. Multiply this by seven hours of student contact time per day, and you can see how the job takes energy. Admittedly, the lockdown drill was unusual, but teachers face all kinds of unexpected things throughout the day, all of which must be handled gracefully. A cool head is definitely a requirement for this job.

September 12, 2008

187 Things I Love About Teaching

The title pretty much says it all. Gratitude is one of the best tools we have. When you think about it, this job is pretty great. This list is completely stream of consciousness, so there might be some repetition and/or nonsense in it. Enjoy!

1. Building rapport with students
2. Relating to students
3. Providing a safe, comfortable, and encouraging place for "outcast" students to go
4. Public speaking
5. Being "in the moment"
6. Being constantly alert
7. Having situational awareness
8. Extremely high level of autonomy
9. Making important decisions
10. Being supported 100% by peers and administrators
11. Extremely high level of responsibility
12. Getting off at 3:45 in the afternoon
13. Making a difference in a kid's life
14. Putting a smile on a kid's face
15. Making a kid's day a little bit brighter
16. Being someone a student can turn to
17. Challenging people
18. Forcing people outside of their comfort zones
19. Shedding a light on new topics for people
20. Helping people reason logically
21. Continual learning about my content area and pedagogy
22. Being highly respected in the community
23. Working with friendly coworkers
24. Other people put a great deal of trust in me
25. Organizing activities like Business Professionals of America
26. Controlling the direction of my own career
27. Having a voice in school policies
28. Volunteering at student events like athletics and theatre
29. Watching kids succeed at things they love doing
30. Helping kids with their futures
31. Primarily focusing on others instead of myself
32. Being, not doing
33. Shedding all self-consciousness
34. Being a role model
35. Planning lessons
36. Treating students like adults
37. Treating students with respect and courtesy
38. Summers off
39. Lots of vacation time
40. Having a job that I truly enjoy
41. Being a highly educated professional
42. Being an intellectual
43. Being a scholar
44. Keeping abreast of the latest in the world of education
45. Encouraging diversity
46. Encouraging students to challenge social norms
47. Keeping current in technological knowledge
48. Being the resident computer expert
49. Experiencing flow
50. Making many, many quick decisions
51. Being someone people can look up to
52. Preparing students for college
53. Building a positive rapport in the classroom
54. Meeting students in the hall
55. Seeing students do well in athletics
56. Seeing students do well in theatre
57. Exchanging pleasantries
58. Seeing lots of smiles every day (kids smile a lot)
59. Joking around
60. Watching people throw French Silk pies in each others faces
61. Telling jokes
62. Listening to jokes
63. Writing a curriculum
64. Having control over your own program
65. Deciding what you'd like students to learn
66. Seeing that students have actually learned it
67. Journaling and reflecting on teaching
68. Keeping in touch with old friends and colleagues from college
69. Living in and learning about a new community
70. Anticipating the start of a new day
71. Anticipating the start of a new class
72. Being welcoming
73. Perfect mixture of extraversion and introversion required
74. Working with smart coworkers who value lifetime learning
75. Coworkers who see the value of education
76. Students who take the class because they're interested in it and want to learn, not just for a grade
77. Meeting with parents
78. Talking with parents about how their students are doing in class
79. Writing letters to parents
80. Students who want you to show them more advanced things than what we are learning in class
81. Students who stay after class to discuss the days' topic with you
82. Learning about students' lives outside of school
83. Teaching subjects that I'm highly interested in
84. Researching subjects that I'm highly interested in to prepare for lessons
85. Modifying a lesson after trying it once
86. Learning from my mistakes
87. Thinking about how to improve next time
88. Teaching students real, tangible skills
89. Leaving a mark on the universe that extends beyond my own lifetime
90. Being a change agent in the universe
91. Being more than just a consuming rational maximizer of self interest
92. Improving my public speaking skills
93. Laughing with people
94. Meeting new people
95. Being self-confident because the job requires it
96. Working in solitude
97. Maintaining computer hardware and software
98. Creating a large body of work which can be reused
99. Maintaining a comprehensive class website
100. Being part of a learning community with many varied opportunities, including sports, music, business, leadership, scholarship, civic engagement, etc.
101. Making financial contributions to the community
102. Meeting professional educators from other school systems
103. Teaching college level courses in a high school
104. Being part of professional organizations
105. Being a member of Delta Pi Epsilon
106. Being part of and continuing a strong Business Education tradition in this state
107. Planning professional conferences
108. Drawing on the whiteboard
109. Student participation in lessons
110. Guiding a thoughtful student discussion about an interesting topic
111. Sympathizing with students
112. Developing new lessons and assignments
113. Using all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy
114. My talents are being fully utilized (this job is not boring!)
115. Brainstorming ideas for class
116. Doing things that the students are interested in
117. Remembering what it was like to be a teenager
118. Being glad that I'm no longer a teenager
119. Working closely with the IT support people
120. Taking Continuing Education Credits
121. Being supported by other teachers
122. Constantly growing my knowledge and skills
123. Having non-school related conversations with students
124. Being with energetic people
125. Being with funny people
126. Being with happy people
127. Standing in the front of the room
128. Drawing gremlins on the chalkboard
129. Counting the days of school
130. Fully expressing my geekiness
131. Speaking clearly and intelligently
132. Being in a place where intelligence is rewarded
133. Wishing people a happy Wright Brothers Day
134. Telling people about the Wright Brothers
135. Learning for its own sake
136. Sharing knowledge
137. Fully utilizing my skills and abilities
138. Doing something that I have prepared for my whole life
139. Using prior, not directly related experiences, as a strength (anecdotes from other experiences and areas)
140. Having hope for the future
141. Seeing people as PEOPLE, not just strangers, numbers, or faces in a crowd
142. Getting to know people individually
143. Seeing past the stereotypes
144. Working with people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities
145. Working with people with disabilities
146. Accepting all people exactly how they are
147. Respecting all people
148. Being in a place where a tolerant, accepting, respecting, courteous attitude is the norm
149. Providing a structured learning environment
150. Having high expectations and holding students to them
151. Inspecting what you expect
152. Working at home on my laptop
153. Working in public on my laptop
154. Having personal and professional goals for myself and my students
155. Being a permanent and important part of a person's memory
156. Working in a positive and optimistic environment
157. Being the source of optimism
158. Always staying positive
159. Making fun of myself
160. Following up on things I say I will do
161. Working with integrity
162. Expecting integrity of others
163. Being tactful
164. Being diplomatic
165. Socializing with students
166. Seeing student work
167. Seeing how creative some of the students are
168. Working with students who are smarter than I am
169. Working with ambitious students
170. Working with a wide variety of personality styles
171. I enjoy working with students who are similar to me – and -
172. I highly enjoy working with students who are much different than me
173. Being able to have a positive, productive rapport with students whose personality is very different than mine is extremely rewarding.
174. People can get along even though they're very different.
175. Breaking the ice
176. Getting to know the PERSON
177. Connecting with people
178. Being intellectually challenged
179. Creating environments in which diverse people who might normally be uncomfortable with each other can get along
180. Staying proficient with technology
181. Being part of a community
182. There are lots of smiles
183. Not taking things so seriously
184. Providing a rigorous curriculum
185. Setting boundaries
186. Enforcing boundaries
187. Maintaining and communicating high expectations for each student

September 4, 2008


This year, I'll have a new challenge which I didn't face last year: I'll be floating around to different classrooms throughout the day. In fact, there are SIX separate locations from which I will need to work: the computer lab at the middle school; at the high school: a computer lab, a classroom, the school store, and the staff office; and I'll need to work from home. This has caused some pain already. "Where did I leave that DECA book again? Is it at home or in the school store? And I remember that the Sales syllabus is up in the classroom."

When I'm working, I need access to ALL of my materials. Worse, there are FOUR separate computer systems I need to use: my home computer (laptop; at least it's portable), the middle school Mac network, the high school Mac network, and the high school PC network. None of these systems are connected to each other. If I save a file onto the PC network, I can't open it on the Mac just down the hall. Last year, I had two computer systems that had to be synchronized. They were both PCs, and even that was quite challenging. Now, I have four separate systems, combining Macs and PC. This will be a huge challenge. It already is.

Luckily, the software on all of these systems is the same standard version of Microsoft Office. Files I create on PCs are readable on the Macs, and vice versa. I came up with two possible solutions to this problem. The first solution is to use a Flash drive as my primary storage device and carry it with me at all times. I'll make periodic backup copies of it at school and at home as needed. This is what I'm doing for now. The second solution is to find an online storage service that I can access from anywhere. Microsoft Mesh is one possible emerging technology, but it is not yet Mac friendly. A disadvantage of this solution is that online file systems can be quite slow. But I know that there is some good software which integrates nicely with both Windows and Mac operating systems. The software simply adds another drive letter to your computer, and that drive automatically goes to the online storage. The only drawback to that is that you need to install additional software onto your computer, but it might be worth looking into.

Do you have any organizational tricks for working from more than one location?

September 1, 2008

Triage in the Classroom

I've been feeling like a paramedic lately. With the large class sizes that I have, a big part of my job is triage:.
Triage is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition so as to treat as many as possible when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately.
When arriving at the scene of a disaster, emergency responders need to quickly assess the condition of each victim and make quick decisions on who should be helped and who should be ignored. Ignoring someone in need is an emotionally difficult thing to do. Emergency responders must put emotions aside and rely on logic when making these decisions.

I'm doing the same thing in my classroom. My Computer Animation class has 35 students in it, and our class periods are only 50 minutes long. I simply do not have the time to answer everyone's questions. In this class, there are about four people in the back of the room with very poor reading comprehension and almost no computer experience. They require a great deal of help from me in order to finish the lessons. I'd say that I spend 50% of the class time helping these four students.

That means that the other 31 students only get 50% of the time for questions. This is problematic for two reasons. First, obviously, it's unfair that I'm spending so much time ignoring them. Many of these 31 students have legitimate questions or are struggling in the class and could really use some attention from the teacher.

The second problem is that even the 50% of the time I'm spending with the four students in the back is really not enough. Even with all of this attention, they're doing poorly in the class.

Triage is a regular part of a teacher's job. When there isn't enough time for us to help all of the students who need it, we must prioritize by evaluating who would benefit the most from the teacher's help. How do you make these decisions?
This article was originally written during my first year teaching experience.